Some excerpts from the c. 1981 D&D Basic Set (Moldvay) and Expert Set (Cook/Marsh):
Magic-users and elves may use one spell at first level. Unlike clerics, magic-users and elves must select the spells to be used from those spells they know. These spells are stored in large spell books. As magic-users and elves gain levels of experience, the number of spells they may use also increases.
p. B17 (the description of the Read Magic spell)
By casting this spell, magical words or runes on an item or scroll may be read. Without this spell unfamiliar magic cannot be read or understood, even by a magic-user. However, once a scroll or runes are looked at with a read magic spell, the magic-user becomes able to understand and read that item later without the spell. A magic-user’s or elf’s spell book is written so that only the owner may read them without using this spell.
Magic-users may add more spells to their spell books through spell research.
Magic-users and elves must be taught their new spells. Most player character magic-users and elves are assumed to be members of the local Magic-Users Guild or apprenticed to a higher level NPC. When player characters gain a level of experience, they will return to their masters and be out of play for one “game-week” while they are learning their new spells. Either the player or the DM may choose any new spells.
(I’m just going to say “mage” rather than “magic-users and elves”.)
So, there are three ways that mages gain new spells.
- Taught spells by another character
- Spell research
- Scrolls and spell books
Although, it is not explicit that mages can learn new spells from scrolls. Spells on scrolls can be used simply by reading them aloud instead of casting them in the usual way. There is nothing that says spells in spell books can be used this way. So the way spells are written on scrolls and the way they are written in spell books might be different.
Neither is it explicit that mages can learn new spells from a spell book, but it is reasonable to infer that, with Read Magic, this would be possible.
So, Read Magic allows a mage to use spell scrolls and possibly to learn new spells from spell books they find. A mage could, however, get by fine without Read Magic because it isn’t needed for learning spells from their master or guild or for spell research.
In my Skylands campaign, however, there aren’t high-level master mages available to teach spells to the PCs. There may not be any mage who can cast second level spells. They won’t be getting any spells “automatically” when gaining a level. I will let them learn spells from scrolls and spell books, and I saw this as the primary way that mages would acquire new spells. (I’m also letting them pick two spells at first level and roll for up to two more.)
If the players understood all this when picking their spells, I think they would’ve all picked Read Magic. (Maybe not, but I’m pretty sure none of them choose to not take it as a challenge.)
So, I think I’m going to give all mages and elves Read Magic. The one player who chose or rolled it will get to choose/roll another spell.
Later editions of the game did this: Every first level mage got Read Magic. But, if every mage gets Read Magic at first level, what’s the point in having the spell around at all? I could answer that, but I’m not convinced the answer justifies the spell’s existence.
Still, I’m not ready to go that far...yet.