Thursday 28 July 2022

Latin spells in classic D&D video games

Video games based on the rules and world of Dungeons & dragons have been a staple for a long time. Three games released in 2000 to 2002, widely regarded as classics of the genre, draw on the traditional pairing of magic and the Latin language: Baldur’s Gate II (2000), Icewind Dale (2000), and Icewind Dale II (2002). Ancient Romans didn’t accidentally set off fireballs every time they had a conversation. But in these games, when characters cast spells, you hear the verbal component of the spell as an incantation in Latin.

The traditional D&D response to aggression: a fireball in the face. (Baldur’s Gate II: enhanced edition, 2013)

This isn’t typical. The original Baldur’s Gate (1998) and the Neverwinter nights series (2002, 2006) have spoken incantations, but with nonsense syllables, not in Latin. A re-release, Baldur’s Gate: enhanced edition (2012), switches to the Latin incantations of the 2000 sequel. Most other games from that period — Planescape: Torment (1998), Ruins of Myth Drannor (2001), Temple of elemental evil (2003), and more — have no spoken incantations at all. Neither does a new game shoehorned into the older series, Baldur’s Gate III (in early access since 2020).

Fans of the classic games have made attempts to decipher the incantations. Unfortunately a shaky knowledge of Latin, on the part of both the voice actors and the fans, has led to uneven results. This is just a note to give some annotations.

Note. Attempts at transcription/translation: ‘BelgarathMTH’, 2013; ‘Magpie Randoms’, 2017.

First, some links with the actual sounds:

  • Latin incantations in Baldur’s Gate II, Icewind Dale, and Icewind Dale II: YouTube
  • Nonsense syllables in Baldur’s Gate (1998 version): YouTube
  • Nonsense syllables in Neverwinter nights: YouTube
  • Nonsense syllables in Neverwinter nights 2: YouTube

The Latin is inconsistent and a bit sloppy. Different voice actors pronounce words differently. Scio ‘I know’ comes out as either see-oh or ski-oh. Alia ‘other things’ gets stressed randomly on the first syllable (correct) or the second syllable (wrong). Some syllables are muffled by reverb or other sound effects. In one incantation the first word is omitted in some sound files, included in others. In another incantation, the first word isn’t a real Latin word.

A nasty trap for some Frost Giants: a wizard in the process of casting Death Fog, a spell belonging to both the Alteration and Evocation schools. (Icewind Dale: enhanced edition, 2014)

The D&D rule system divides spells into eight ‘schools’ of magic. In the video games, each school has its own incantation, with different voice actors depending on whether the spellcaster is male or female, wizard or cleric.

The incantations can be accessed directly and exported from the game with a tool called Near Infinity. The relevant files are in the game’s WAV directory: CHA-FM01.WAV to CHA_FM08.WAV and CHA_FP01.WAV to CHA_FP08.WAV (FM = ‘female mage’, FP = ‘female priest’); and CHA_MM01.WAV to CHA_MM08.WAV and CHA_MP01.WAV to CHA_MP08.WAV (‘male mage’, ‘male priest’). There are also some additional files with voice only, without magical wooshing noises.

Each incantation consists of three words. They’re not sentences. They have no syntax, and they aren’t meaningful as sentences. It’s better to see them as combinations of ‘power words’, to use D&D terminology: three independent magical utterances. The incantations are as follows:

Spell school Incantation Translation
Abjuration Manus; potentis; paro Hand(s); of someone powerful; I prepare
Conjuration / Summoning [Facio;] voco; ferre I do; I call; to carry
Enchantment / Charm Cupio; virtus; licet I want; merit; it is permitted
Divination Scio; didici; peto I know; I have learnt; I seek
Illusion Veritas; credo; oculus Truth; I believe; eye
Invocation / Evocation Incertus; pulcher; imperium A doubtful man; a beautiful man; authority
Necromancy Vita; mortis; careo Life; of death; I lack
Alteration Praesi; alia; fero [Nonsense word]; other things; I carry

Some of these look like they may be mistranslations of English words. Imperium, in the Evocation incantation, is probably intended to mean ‘power’, but really it means ‘authority, position of command’. A better word to suggest magical energy would have been potestas or vis. And the moral connotations of virtus seem a poor fit for Enchantment spells: perhaps it was intended as a translation of ‘glamour’ or something of the kind

The only ones that could possibly be construed as whole sentences are the incantations for Abjuration spells — something like ‘I prepare powerful hands’ (taking manus and potentis as accusative plural, rather than genitive singular as in the table above) — and for Necromancy — ‘I lack a life of death’ (taking vita as ablative). These don’t make much sense and they’re not good matches for their spell schools. It really is best to interpret all of them as a sequence of three separate ‘power words’.

Summoning a water elemental to fight the BBEG: a Conjuration/Summoning spell. (Icewind Dale: enhanced edition, 2014)

Here are some additional notes on each incantation.

Abjuration. See above on interpreting this as a complete sentence. The sense ‘I prepare powerful hands’ is a bad fit for Abjuration spells, which are about dispelling magical effects or protecting against hostile spells. The fact that the syntax actually works is presumably just a coincidence. In any case, this sense would require both manus and potentis to have a long vowel in their final syllables; and that isn’t how they’re pronounced in the games.

Conjuration/Summoning. The first word facio is partially or completely omitted in mage sound files. In Baldur’s Gate II it is completely omitted by female mages, and partially omitted by male mages; in Icewind Dale it is completely omitted by all mages. Clerics pronounce the word in full in both games. The second word is pronounced by female spellcasters as vaco, which would mean ‘I am empty’ and is certainly not the intended meaning. Ferre ‘to carry’ is the infinitival form of fero ‘I carry’, which also appears in the Alteration incantation.

Enchantment/Charm. The intended meaning of virtus isn’t obvious: neither ‘moral merit’ nor ‘proficiency’ (the usual meanings) are a good fit for Enchantment spells; see above. Licet receives a variety of pronunciations: sometimes with a hard c, sometimes a soft c; the i is sometimes as in fight, sometimes as in fit. Both pronunciations of c, /k/ and /tʃ/, are legitimate for different varieties of Latin. The same is true of didici, in the Divination incantation below.

Divination. Scio is variously pronounced see-oh or ski-oh. Didici ‘I have learnt’ is unique among these incantations as the only past tense verb form. On the pronunciation of the c, see on ‘Enchantment/Charm’ above.

Illusion. The third word can easily be misheard as oculos (accusative plural form) in some sound files.

Invocation/Evocation. In authentic Latin the first two words are gendered adjectives, which imply a male entity (‘a doubtful man, a beautiful man’. This is probably not intended. It is easy to mishear the last syllable of the noun imperium, making it a verb, imperio ‘I command’; but the final -um is clear enough. See above on the inappropriate sense of imperium.

Necromancy. Mortis (genitive singular ‘of death’) is pronounced mortes in some cleric incantations (‘deaths’, plural). Careo may be a mistranscription: it may have been intended as a non-Latin variation on caries ‘rot, decay’ or cariosus ‘rotten’, which would be a much better fit for Necromancy spells. Then again, some voice files clearly pronounce the word with a stressed e. Stressed e must be careo ‘I lack’; unstressed i suggests a non-Latin variation on caries ‘decay’.

Alteration. In all versions the first word is praesi, which isn’t a real Latin word. It was presumably intended as a form of praeses ‘protector, guard’, which is what some Alteration spells do (Stoneskin in Baldur’s Gate; Wraithform; etc.). Alia ‘other things’, representing spell effects like shape-changing, is sometimes mispronounced with the second syllable stressed; the correct stress is on the first syllable (AH-lee-ah).


  1. Do they tend to use the abominable Anglo-American pronunciation of Latin or do they "speak proper"?

    1. It isn't any particular pronunciation style -- some of the actors have some elements in common with one (e.g. pronouncing licet as 'LIE-ket'), others with the other, others have bits of church Latin (c pronounced as /tsh/). None of them are consistent enough to be specific.

  2. The early editions of AD&D didn't give the texts of the verbal component of spells. (I don't know if the more recent editions do.)

    Using Latin for spell casting is likely a trope picked up from Harry Potter, which came out in 1997/1998. I have no idea if Rowling borrowed that idea or came up with it independently.

    1. Necroposting (vita, mortis, etc...) but...

      I don't think it's likely that Rowling had anything to do with it. While the cod-Latin in Harry Potter certainly caught on later in pop culture as the books gained popularity amongst young children, I feel like the release dates of BG1 and the first Harry Potter book are close enough together that it's unlikely either influenced the other. Also, other TTRPGs (like Ars Magica, first published in 1987, which makes extensive in-game use of Latin for magical terms) have used Latin as a gloss for magical languages.

    2. I think you must be right: I don't recall Harry Potter hitting it big among adults until the third book (1999).

      I wonder how far the trope of magic spells in Latin can be pushed. Like, ultimately you could say it goes back to mediaeval alchemical works written in Latin, but there must be more proximate models in popular culture. It's nice that Ars Magica pushes it back to 1987, but surely it must be older than that! I'm sure there's a history to be written here.

      Some notes in passing:

      Lovecraft doesn't have spells, and non-English lines are in some eldritch unknown language, but a couple of his mystic tomes adopt the trope of mediaeval alchemical treatises with Greco-Latin titles: the Necronomicon (Greek), De Vermis Mysteriis (Latin).

      Among classic Disney films, Cinderella (1950) uses nonsense words; The Sword in the Stone (1963) has Merlin's spells as nonsense words, but they're nonsense words that sound kinda like Latin, and he refers at one point to magic as 'that Latin business'. The famous spell in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) is nonsense words, but the words' endings are standard Latin inflections.

      On TV, Bewitched (1964-1972) has most spells in English, but some are nonsense syllables with Latin-ish endings, as in Disney; there is one isolated example with actual Latin words (though they make no sense), and a handful with faux German and/or Yiddish (partial lists here and here).

      One striking trope in Bewitched is that spells very often consist of three 'power words', as in the BG/IWD games: 'Refinus, delinus, selinus!' 'Stigum, stagnum, sticks!', etc. I can see it being one of the ingredients feeding into the Black Isle/Bioware games.

      TVTropes has a relevant page, but it's far from thorough. There seems to be a boom in quasi-Latin incantations since the 1990s.

      I'd be interested to read a book about this!

    3. Incidentally if it's of any interest I previously did a couple of other pieces on Latin in popular culture: in the CRPG Final Fantasy VII, and in the film Constantine.