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A rune is an arcane symbol inscribed on a creature, surface, or object. Runes exist in groups called families, which are composed of ten runes. No runes ever require a verbal component. Inscribing a rune requires physical contact with the target.
The Runic ArtEdit
Those who seek to understand and master runic power understand that the convergences of the ley lines are not the only important part of this power — the patterns formed by the lines themselves are important as well. These patterns, which resemble letters in a strange alphabet, are called runes. Each rune is a reflection of a pattern of energy lines somewhere in the world. Each such pattern creates a certain magical effect when energy flows in that specific formation, though in its natural occurrence, this effect is much too broad and scattered to have a meaningful impact.
Those who master runes, then, seek to duplicate those patterns in smaller forms; their runes manifest magical power that is arcane in nature, but purely benign and non-corrupting. They are manifestations of Azeroth's own unique flows of power, nothing more.
These secrets represent recent understandings of rune magic — until recently, it was believed that runes were simply symbols of power from ancient days. With the discovery of the ties between the form of runes and the patterns of natural power in the world, it is only a matter of time before more rune families are uncovered, extrapolated from other natural power sites.
Runes are organized into rune patterns, which are not actually separate runes. Instead, each rune pattern is a grand, complex rune that encompasses the individual designs of each rune within that pattern. Thus, the rune for a more complex spell actually includes the pattern of the less complex spell that precedes it in the rune pattern, which itself includes the pattern of the cantrip that begins that pattern. Essentially, each rune pattern is a larger and larger pattern, the center of which is the rune for the simplest rune, which is added to in greater degrees of complexity the higher up the tree one goes. 
Empowering a RuneEdit
Empowering a rune means flooding it with arcane power, and the process is nearly identical to casting a spell. Runes are inert before their creator empowers them. Thus, rune magic is a two-part process: first the caster creates the rune, and then, immediately or some time later, he empowers it. All characters with this ability are called rune-casters (just as all characters able to cast spells are spellcasters). Note that the character empowering a rune does not have to be the same character who created the rune, but he does have to be aware of the rune’s existence and know the rune pattern.
While empowering a rune is akin to casting a spell, the two actions are very different. Where the normal arcane caster channels arcane power and shapes it through the use of gesture, word and material components, the runecaster simply shunts the energy into the pattern formed by the rune, serving as the channel between the energy and the rune.
This process defines the difference between runecasting and arcane spellcasting, and is the reason that the use of runes does not cause arcane corruption. The patterns of traditional arcane spellcasting are not natural — the energy of the world, which emanates from the Well of Eternity, does not flow into those patterns without the dominating will of the arcane caster to bend and spindle it into those shapes. This is an act of supreme hubris; the forcing of the world’s essential power to submit to the desires of the caster is the reason that other kinds of arcane casting cause corruption.
Rune-casting uses patterns that already exist in the world. Since these are naturally occurring patterns created by manifestations of the Well of Eternity’s power in the world, the rune-caster need not force the energy to obey him. It flows willingly into the patterns — these are the patterns that the energy itself created, duplicated on a smaller scale.
Ancient lore groups runes into rune patterns. In reality, each pattern is the two-dimensional depiction of an intricate network of ley lines located somewhere in the world. These patterns are incredibly complex, made up as they are of many lines and curves. Runes are the written representation of the paths that the ley lines follow around and through geographical features in magically powerful sites.
A character learns new runes the same way other characters learn new spells, by paying another runecaster. However, rune-casters who seek out runic sites may meditate on the flows of power to gain new understanding.
The patterns that make up rune patterns are not simply arcane scribblings, each is the two-dimensional representation of a place in the world that some runecaster has had the opportunity to study. By discovering the precise layout of the ley lines in a place of power, the nature of that place can be recreated: The ley lines of a scorching desert rendered into a rune might create effects of burning destruction, while those of a deep swampland might perhaps create runes of rot or decay.
When a rune-caster is present at the site upon which a rune pattern is based, he is considered to be more skilled for the purpose of determining the effects of runes from the native pattern.
Types of RunesEdit
There are three kinds of runes: marks, glyphs and sigils. A mark is inscribed upon a creature, and each mark targets a single creature. A glyph is cast upon an object, and each glyph targets a single object. A sigil is placed upon an object or creature in order to create an effect in an area, with that object or creature at the center. Each sigil has an area that it affects.
Marks are runes inscribed on a creature. The subject must be still, so marks cannot be inscribed on unwilling creatures, however a mark can be inscribed on any helpless creature. Marks generate their effects immediately upon completion. Some inscribes have the ability to delay mark activation or even to make a mark permanent.
Glyphs are runes inscribed on an object. As with marks, a glyph can not be inscribed on an object in the possession of an unwilling creature. Glyphs activate immediately upon completion. Again, some inscribes are able to extend the life of a glyph or even to make one permanent.
Sigils are runes inscribed on a surface that subsequently acts as the rune's trigger. The affected surface is always five-foot by five-foot area, and the first creature to enter the space with a sigil activates it, even if the creature is unaware of the sigil. Sigils last until triggered, dispelled or erased. The inscriber can choose to activate a sigil upon its completion as part of the final inscription process. An activated sigil always generates a thirty-foot-radius burst centered on the rune, affecting all creatures in its area.
Because the power of rune magic is dependent upon the pattern of the rune itself, the one thing that all rune effects have in common is the necessity for the rune to physically exist in order for the magic to take effect. Every rune can be used in one of three ways: as a spontaneous rune, as a scribed rune, and as a permanent rune.
Spontaneous runes are created when the rune-caster doesn’t have the time to properly scribe a rune on a surface (in combat, for instance). All rune-casters keep small pieces of wood or stone upon which they scribe the runes they know. These small plaques cost almost nothing to create, and most rune-casters create them in their spare time, storing them with their material components. When casting a rune, the rune-caster touches one of these runestones or runesticks to the target and channels the power through the rune. The rune fades from the runestone and appears on the target, appearing to be burned onto non-living objects or etched in glowing lines onto the flesh of creatures. While the quickest form of rune-making possible, spontaneous runes are also the most fragile. Casting a spontaneous rune, unlike other runes, is only a one-step process: Placing the rune on the target and empowering it occur at the same time.
Scribed runes represent the preferred method of creating runes. Using a set of special paints, the runecaster can create a lasting rune. Because the rune exists upon the subject, none of the spell’s energy need be wasted in creating the rune, as is done with spontaneous runes. The benefit of a scribed rune is that it is more difficult to destroy and dispel than a spontaneous rune, and the range is usually longer. Placing a scribed rune upon the body of a creature requires that the creature be willing or helpless, while placing such a rune upon an object requires that the rune-caster handles the object. Scribed runes last for number of days depending on the skill of the caster, or until empowered. After the rune’s empowerment ends, the rune fades away.
Permanent runes are runes that, once created, are nearly impossible to destroy, for their magic is such that even with the passage of time, the rune remains. Living flesh must be tattooed with the marks (though some orc runemasters are said to practice a form of ritual branding). Most nonliving material is etched with a ritual stylus or set of special chisels. The rune-caster must also place a small part of his own spirit into the rune. The benefit of a permanent rune is that it is more difficult to destroy than a spontaneous rune. Thus, when the magic empowering the rune fades (i.e., its duration expires), the rune still exists on the target, and the runecaster can empower it again. Placing a permanent rune upon the body of a creature requires that the creature be willing or helpless, while placing such a rune upon an object requires that the rune-caster handles the object.
Perhaps the primary downfall of rune-casting lies in the fact that it is unsubtle. Objects, places and people marked with runes are obvious, for the runes are sprawling, complex patterns that appear to be inked, etched, tattooed or seared into the surface of the thing they affect. A rune may be concealed beneath something (such as clothing for runes upon creatures, or behind a tapestry for a rune etched into a wall), but if the rune is currently generating a magical effect, it gives itself away, for it glows with arcane energy.
When runes generate magical effects, they glow. The color depends upon the caster and the rune, but is often gold or silver. These runes are obviously magic and active. If the rune is concealed, a better look allows a creature to notice the glow or see the effects of the rune in the air around the target. An empowered rune sometimes creates a strange rippling effect, like heat off of stone in the middle of a desert. A detect magic spell reveals the presence of an empowered rune, though it does not reveal what specific effect is in place. It does grant a glimpse at the pattern of energy it forms, however, so that those who use detect magic may gain an idea of a rune’s pattern is.
Because the scribed pattern of the rune provides the pattern for the power to flow, destroying a rune can destroy the magic it creates. However, it is the nature of such patterns to be self-preserving. so they are hard to destroy because the patterns are natural, and energy is easily pulled into them. As a result, the runes themselves are difficult to destroy.
A rune has a hardness, and a toughness equal to the runes power. A rune catches attacks in arcane streams of power, so attacking a rune deals no damage to the object or person upon which it is placed, unless the attack deals enough damage to destroy the rune (in which case the rune’s bearer takes the excess damage).
Spontaneous runes are easily destroyed in the fashion of other magic, through the use of dispel magic and similar spells. Additionally, destroying the rune itself dispels the effect.
Scribed and permanent runes are more difficult to destroy. The inks used to create them provide no great resistance until they are empowered, but once the rune is empowered, the inks regenerate for as long as the empowerment lasts. Additionally, in order to use a dispel magic or a similar ability on a scribed or permanent rune, the rune must be greatly damaged. A dispelling effect that is more powerful than the rune can dispel it without this restriction. If the rune’s magic is dispelled in such a fashion, the rune is destroyed.
In an interview about Dark Factions with Luke Johnson he said that dark inscribers use runes to channel necromantic and/or demonic magic. It is likely that lore about the dark channeling of runes will be explained in Dark Factions.
Runes in Warcraft IIEditThis section concerns content exclusive to Warcraft II.
The casting of ancient and powerful Runes enables the Ogre-Mage to lay an abstruse trap for those hapless enough to enter into it. When these Runes explode, they cause massive damage to anyone standing over them as well as all those in adjacent areas. Those who are diligent and watchful will catch a glimpse of the Rune as they approach it. The chaotic forces that make up this enchantment can not discern between ally or enemy and will kill a friend as surely as a foe. Heed these warnings well, as even staying near these Runes can be hazardous - for when the dwoemer dissolves, they explode as if their magiks had been triggered.
Runes in Wrath of the Lich KingEditThis section concerns content exclusive to Wrath of the Lich King.
Runes is featured in the second WoW expansion, in the death knights rune system, in the new profession Inscription, the Vrykul practice a runic magic that even the most experienced wizards find unfamiliar, and the iron dwarves that will be etched with runes of power on their metallic skin.