Beyond Vancian: Alterations, Dispensations and Essence Corruption

Vancian magic has its place. But it’s not always appropriate, nor it needs to be the only magic system in your setting. Sometimes you want something more flexible, less mundane and more based on fairytale logic. More meaningful choices and deeper consequences.

Chthonic Codex takes the AFG magic system (available in the free AFG preview downloadable here, explained in section 1.2.1, pp 10,11 and already usable with other retroclones) and adds some, urm, bells and whistles of the arcane variety. The results are usable with all of them old school games you love.

Let’s start with the first spell learnt by most casters in AFG, and see what happens to it:

Unveil Arcana

Level: 0. Range: 1’. Casting time: 1 turn. Duration: instantaneous.

The caster uncannily receives insights and visions enabling them to identify and understand one arcanum, an unknown function of the chosen arcane item or phenomenon within rangeIf cast on a grimoire, the caster will be able to identify a chosen spell from the source. The caster can then learn and transcribe it if their levels are compatible. If cast on other items or phenomena, the weakest unknown function or detail of the object or phenomenon will be understood by the Caster first, with more details conveyed on subsequent castings.

Unveil Arcana is, for obvious reasons, cast very often in my campaigns. The characters meditates and has visions and insights about the unveiled arcanum. It would be interesting, far more interesting if the spell was also working with dreams… the concept of Dispensations enters:

Dispensation – the caster has to sleep at least 1d6 hours with their head close to the arcanum to be unveiled. Comfy pillows can be used, but not overly thick.

A dispensation is a condition that, if satisfied, lets the caster cast the spell without spending mana. In retroclones, the dispensed spell can’t be cast more than once a day, even if memorized. So, there you go, casters have a way of casting spells that they haven’t memorized, but it usually involves dealing with spirits, whispering to fishes, gilting doors and other awkward actions like choreographed singing and dancing montages.

The next concept is Alteration. The spell can be cast in more than a single mode. I’d also love to expose you to Metaphorurgy, the discipline of magic dealing with thresholds (both mundane doors and magic portals) which the Gatekeepers hold dear.

Past Passage

Level: 1. Range: touch. Casting time: 1 phase. Duration: 1 turn.

This simple spell folds a door frame over the caster’s time continuum. The door will open on the first threshold the caster went through since last sunset.

Alteration – by smearing 1 hit point wort of blood on the door, the door will open instead on the first threshold the blood went through since last sunset.

Alterations are not only a matter of flexibility, nor they are a new concept. Reversed spells are alterations. What I’ve done is framing the alternate version in a more explicit form. It’s also interesting to note that since in AFG casters can’t cast a given spell more than once per day, a spell with an altered form can’t be used once per form, but only once. In this way they resemble the alternate spells in the AFG handbook.

Why alterations and not having different spells? First, it’s a matter of meaningful choice: if a character could cast 10 different varieties of the same fireball in a day to avoid the limitation, it would run in the face of the core design of the mana system. Second, you’re giving more flexibility to players, which means more choice. And I like choice. Third, because buying a book to read the same spell over and over again with tiny changes really ticks me off and it’s something i do not do.

Now, the darling Essence Corruption. Everybody loves their metamorphoses, and changing is usually fine, but sometimes it doesn’t work. It’s not a problem of magic lingering, but rather a question of wounding and recovery. Some spells do not merely bend reality, sometimes things go wrong and they change the nature of things. This is a spell of the Chthonic Craft, practiced by hermits and stylites of the Hypogea:

Caprine Climb

Level: 1. Range: self. Casting time: 1 phase. Duration: until dawn.

The lower limbs of the caster change into the hind legs of a goat, making the caster look similar to a bocklin from the waist down. The legs bestow on the caster caprine surefootedness, meaning that the now irsute caster will never fail to climb on any natural surface. Apprentices are encouraged not to try this spell on the giant pile of elven skeletons: while the climb is certainly not a problem under the effect of this spell, some of these long-dead elves are extremely cantankerous.

Dispensation – roll for Essence Corruption (weeks).

So, the spell can be cast for free, but if the Essence Corruption save fails the spell wears off but the effects last 1d6 more weeks. Essence Corruption lasts 1d6 time units as specified, the time units being: rounds, turns, hours, days, weeks, months, years, forever. The next time essence corruption is failed for the same spell the time unit will be bumped by one on this scale, the second time by two, and so on, until the magic is gone but the effects are permanent. There are rumours that essence corruption might be liftable, as a curse, but they are only rumours.

Sure, you can change shape into an eagle or a dolphin or a giant bird-demon or a greater asphaltomorph, and you’re good enough to do it without spending mana. But doing so you’re trading a bit of your soul for something else. And it’s not only for metamorphoses: other kinds of magic corrupt your inner spark as well.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Vancian: Alterations, Dispensations and Essence Corruption

  1. I really like this stuff right here. It makes magic seem more… magic.

    I think the Vancian method sometimes feels dry when it comes to evoking that feeling of the arcane. I do wish the major games supported a way to make magic a little slippery, and a little more eldritch.

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