“You unfurl the parchment and find it is covered with delicate elven script. But beneath that script, you see another layer of faded, almost impossible to read script. And another even below that. This palimpsest has been used many times.”
Once upon a time in D&D, every conceivable innocent object had a monstrous counterpart that would surprise hapless adventurers and eat them. Treasure chests, furniture, floors, walls, cloaks, pants, weapons, and scraps of paper. That’s right. Enter the palimpsest.
Palimpsest is a real word and it is not some mythical spirit that inhabitants ancient tomes and devours the reader. It was actually a way for writers in medieval times to conserve parchment. Because parchment was expensive and tough to make.
Unlike paper – which is made of pulped plant matter – parchment is made of animal skin. You took the skin, cleaned it up nice, limed it, stretched it on a frame, scraped it clean, and let dry. Ta-dah! A flat, reasonably flexible writing surface. Parchment could be made from most any mammal skin and the practice is why we call diplomas “sheepskins.” If you make parchment out of calf skin, you get vellum. That’s right. Once upon a time, vellum was the veal of the publishing world.
Thing is, parchment was way more durable than paper. So, if you wrote something you didn’t need anymore, you could scrape it clean, remove a few layers, and have a fresh sheet of parchment. Well, sort of fresh. The ink got pretty deep in there, so the old writing sometimes remained visible. To make it easier to write over, folks often turned the parchment sideways. So, you’d have these sheets of parchment with nice, thick, readable writing. And crisscrossing that, you’d have the ghost of faded former writing.
Often, a palimpsest was created to save on parchment costs and to dispose of obsolete or unnecessary text. A sort of ancient recycling. But sometimes, such as following the fall of the Roman Empire, palimpsests were purposely made to destroy old texts considered heretical or dangerous.
So, palimpsests are pieces of parchment with multiple texts written in faded layers on them. They are written on dried, strectched animal skins called parchment, unless they are made of calf skin. Then it is called vellum. Of course, paper, made of wood plant pulp doesn’t handle the scraping process as well. And neither does papyrus, which is just paper made specifically from a plant called papyrus. And by the way, individual sheets of vellum, parchment, papyrus, or paper are called leaves, which is why we call binder paper loose leaf paper.
So, what do you do with this in your game? All sorts of things. Apart from knowing the difference between parchment, papyrus, vellum, and paper which finally explains those price tables in the AD&D 2E Player’s Handbook, you can probably imagine all of the fun possibilities involving scrolls and books with hidden texts written underneath the main text. What happens, for example, if a spellbook or spell scroll gets used as a palimpsest? Does the paper retain the magic even if the writing is so faded as to be impossible to read? If you destroy all of the writings about a deity, can you destroy the knowledge of that deity? Did the Raven Queen’s true name end up buried under layers of other text in some recycled book of nursery rhymes? Is there a magic spell that can make it easy to read the faded, forgotten writing on multi-layered palimpsests? Don’t make me do all the work here!