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.

Chthonic Codex: Progress, Spelunking Ferrets and Scapegoats

My three-weeks-long trip through Europe (Glasgow-London-Paris-Lausanne-Milan-Hamburg-Berlin-Glasgow) is now finished and I’m back at work.

There’s been progress with Academia Apocripha and Mystery & Mystagogues and Secret Santicore Mobile but since I spent two of the three weeks with an on and off sinusitis progress is less then expected. Sadly the Mystagogue of the Bridge of Bones was not available, so i spent a few days being completely useless but eating like a pro.

Anyway, school design and writeups are at a good point, more schools and more spells have been added. The count at the moment is 8 or 9 schools: the Great Schools of Necromancers, Chimerists, Fire Dervishes, Gatekeepers, Stargazers, plus the Great Workshop, the so-called School of the Unseen (which might be a yet-unobserved school of illusion, a school posing to be a lie pretending to be a school in hiding or might not even exist at all), the Chthonic Craft practised by Hypogean Ascetics, and possibly the lost School of Pharmacy (why lost? good question). Each school comes with 13 new spells, except Necromancy and Pharmacy which have the full panoply of AFG necromancy and physiurgy (that’s healing for you) because these spells are kind of needed anyway.

If I have time I might even “schoolify” all the AFG magic disciplines, bringing the number of schools to, erm, between 11 and 14 depending on how I feel about having these Moon Hunter weirdos and the arcanaluddite Troll Spellsmiths. And human sacrifices for demon-god-worshippers and their Goetia spells. Even if I don’t schoolify them all, we are talking of about 150 spells, half of them new, the other half from AFG, plus special a few game mechanics specific for every school, like the Elixirs from the School of Necromancy.

And there’s gonna be also other stuff. I expect the PDF for CC:AA to be ready in January, and CC:M&M in February. Bookbinding and box-making to happen in March, shipping as they come ready.

Joesky Tax: Spelunking Ferrets and Scapegoats

There are some weird treasures in the boxed set. I’m not sure if they will end up in CC:AA or CC:M&M but they can probably be more at home in the latter. Anyway, here’s a couple:

Spelunking Ferrets are specially trained LVL 1 ferrets. They are unnaturally quiet and letargic and usually do not move much at all. This changes when they are thrown at an opponent: they will attack and, after hitting, they’ll latch in and bury in the victim dealing damage every turn. They can also be inserted in a willing subject, usually through the mouth, but they are also happy with other body cavities, or even with creating new body cavities. There they will dig, extract and devour any external body like internal moulds and oozes, uncontrolled growths, eggs, half-digested godlings, resident squids and extra souls. In the process the ferret will deal 2d6 damage to the suffering patient, and then probably die of indigestion.

Scapegoats are goats kept in sacks. When someone is to be blamed or about to suffer a curse or a mortal wound, the goat will instead suffer the consequences. The scapegoat can also be given away to someone to temporarily avert their wrath. Bagging goats is a very dangerous fine art practiced only by the most adept Savants, but it’s said that it’s common knowledge between Hypogean Hermits. What’s certain is that the mysteric ritual involves naked chanting the Stodgy Selenic Song under the open sky and must be completed before dawn, and that a captured goat is required. The goat will not survive more than a week in the bag, a month if properly watered.