Sneak Peek: Magia Nova: Il Novissimo Metodo Didattico delle Arti Magiche

Oh, the joys of writing something purely for D&D. I’ve been working on a word/runic magic system for a while and while I was at it I though I could just spin off one of its subsystems. I also took the occasion to make a book with all the S&W Whitebox spells, but organized by level and not in alphabetical order.
Yeah, I know, de gustibus non disputandum but there is clearly a WRONG and a RIGHT way, and the alphabetical sort is a pain in the ass when you’re trying to allocate slots and need to check spell details across the level. Which is much a much more common scenario compared to, say, check spell details across the spells starting with the letter S. If you need to find a spell by name, an analytical index will do.
Hence Magia Nova! The principle of this new didactic method is a blah blah taxonomic approach blah blah system of mysticism blah blah correspondences blah blah great pedagogy blah blah left hand, right hand blah blah. Ok, enough babble. The whole point is that the Magic User will learn Arts and Elements instead of single spells.

Four are the Arts:

  • Creo for Creation
  • Disfo for Undoing
  • Sento for Perception
  • Cambio for Change and Control
Four are the Elements:
  • Foco for Fire and therefore Magic
  • Aria for Air and therefore Spirit and Perception
  • Aqua for Water and therefore Life
  • Terra for Earth and therefore Matter

The casters start by knowing an Art and an Element and will progressively get better at casting spells and gain more Arts and Elements. In due time they will fully master a specific type of magic, and summon elemental spirits.

This is the spell list as it is now:

Screenshot 2016-04-17 at 17.40.45

Stars and question marks are safely ignored (they are notes for me). Some of those gaps might be filled, and things rejigged, but that’s the gist of it.

You will find a resemblance to Ars Magica by Tweed and Rein-Hagen. The resemblance is indeed there, but.

First, I love Ars Magica. Gangs & Bullshit owe a lot to it. Also Chthonic Codex. But Magia Nova is a different beast. Merely identifying spell groups with 2 words (or two runes, which is exactly the same) is the extent of the copying. They picked Latin, I picked oldy Italian.

I could have picked English. I didn’t for two reasons: the first is that picking premodern Italian makes it peculiar even for Italians, the second is that it’s better to have domain-specific terms for game elements. If your GM says you’re stunned by someone’s display of wealth, they probably do not mean that your character can only move slowly this round. They just used a turn of phrase which happens to use a word that means something different from a metagame perspective: you’re outside of the game and you use words to describe it that do not mean the same to people in the game. For game terms choose words you would otherwise not use to avoid confusion (no, not the spell).

Second: this whole thing started though with a different approach: create a taxonomy, and see how to allocate existing D&D spells to its subdivisions in an interesting way, rather than coming up with a system and creating new spells fitting in it (which is I guess how the Ars Magica spellbook was developed).

There will be a new, alternate Magic User, the spellcasting rules, the spells sorted by level (with some new spells), a handful of new monsters and, possibly, a few magic items. I have no idea when this will be ready, but given most of the spells come straight from the book it won’t take long.

New Font: PG Trampier Runes

David Trampier wrote this comic called Wormy on Dragon Magazine. In one of the issues a wizard opens a portal tracing some runes in the air with a golden stylus.

Gate_flip_sm

I made a font with those runes: PG Tramp Runes. You might want to use them with a runic magic system.

If you want to use it for anything commercial, don’t. I’m working on a better, saner version.

Here’s the mapping.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 12.36.27

Download link: PG Trampier Runes

Mageblade: development notes

So, I had a few days off and I started to flesh out a bit more Mageblade. Mageblade is meant to be some sort of D&D retroclone, except it’s not really cloning anything.

To put it a bit in perspective: I stripped down S&W Whitebox to the point where there’s not even the experience points tables, saving throws or classes left there. At the moment it’s there just to act as framing.

Then I started building. I decided that characters get numerically better at doing their thing using one single scale: the Focus Bonus. For Fighters, it applies to hit rolls. For Casters, more effective spells. For Mageblades, hit rolls with their athame (a bound blade) and saving throws. Here’s the advancement table, which is shared by all classes.

Advancement Table

Level XP Needed Hit Dice Focus Bonus
1 0 1d 3
2 1,000 2d 3
3 2,000 3d 4
4 4,000 4d 4
5 8,000 5d 4
6 16,000 6d 5
7 30,000 7d 5
8 64,000 8d 5
9 125,000 9d 6
10 250,000 10d 6
11 400,000 11d 6
12 600,000 12d 7

So a level 3 fighter has +4 to the hit roll, and Casters always have +0. While this might seem a bit odd, consider that magic do not gives bonus to hit or to AC, so plate mail and shield is pretty much the non-plus ultra. Said that, there will be magic barriers, giving AC equivalent to armour. This follows my “eschew numeric modifiers” philosophy: I’m trying to do everything without numeric modifiers, except where I use the Focus Bonus.

You might have noticed that there are only 12 levels, but players get to roll 12 hit dice. To avoid tears, HPs are rerolled at every level, and the new amount is kept only if better than the previous. If not, the new HP total increases by 1.

Characters get also skill points, a handful spread from level 1 to level 12. Each class can spend them in specific things: Fighters can get Stances and combine them to make combos (yeah, combos, you read well), Casters and Mageblades learn disciplines and magic schools. Learning requires teachers, and more exotic skills require cooperation if reclusive or exclusive or simply crochety masters.

Mageblades also learn new blademagic, which is some kind of battlemagic channeled through their athame during melee. An example of blademagic is Bane: there are many Banes to be learnt, one per creature type. When a Bane is active, the athame becomes deadly to that creature type and deals extra damage equal to the Focus, so for example if a Mageblade of level 5 activates Undead Bane their athame will deal +4 damage to undead. Other blademagic lets the mageblade attack many enemies, animates the athame, or just deal extra damage.

Hit Points and the merit of abstractions

Someone months ago was trolling me online about how “the OSR does not innovate” and was lamenting that hit points are dumb.

Yeah, hit points are dumb. They are an abstraction and abstractions, as a rule, leak.

The alternative is to assess wounding as things: wounds become first-order concepts and somehow an excess of wounds kills you.

Maybe they kill you because you can take only a limited number of wounds before being incapacitated. And maybe there are various types of wounds, but they have more complex rules on how you can reach the maximum; for example you can take only 4 wounds, but any wound that is more than half of your constitution counts as two wounds. But this approach is simply replacing hit points with different, chunkier hit points, with maybe more interesting interaction. Still hit points.

The other option is to replace hit points with affects (status effects). So, for example, this is an example I just came up with:

  • any wound that is less than 1/4 Con simply gives -2 to hit and AC and +2 to any damage received for 3 rounds. So you can just do full defence for a bit and recover. It’s still a pain to be on the receiving side.
  • any wound that is more than than and less than 2/3 Con gives -2 to hit and +2 to any damage received for 1 week. That’s some interesting damage.
  • any wound that is more than than gives -2 to hit and AC and +2 to any damage received for 1 month, plus save or die.

Or any damage taken causes a roll on the Internal Organs Are Supposed To Be Internal Table table. Or whatever.

This kind of handling has a problem. No, not the Death Spiral. Death Spirals can be fun. The problem is that not only it gives you penalties, but these penalties stack and they increase the cognitive load for the player. Is the purpose to make combat more interesting or to force harder math on players? Granted, it’s slightly harder math, but both it makes for a harder game through modifiers and harder because of the cognitive load. Increasing cognitive load as a mechanical negative consequences in RPGs is not something I’m keen on. I’m only keen on incresing cognitive load if the choices it creates are interesting.

And it’s not just a newbie thing. Image a combat of the PCs against a mage, its fighter pal and 5 ogre flunkies. The NPCs will have a number of stacking affects, and there are 7 of them, and some of those affects will expire, at different times and blargh. You could make it simpler by making all affects lasting at least until the end of the turn or making some bigger and some smaller but then again accounting.

Another option is to use saving throws to avoid dying. But this means that a small wound might kill you, but if it can’t kill you you are immune to small damage unless you use affects and then you are using affects anyway. Mutant & Masterminds IIRC does a smart thing where each wound needs a save, and the first slightly failed save gives you a no-stacking affect that makes subsequent saves harder. But that IIRC wears off.

So I’m happy with hit points for monsters. Stack the damage. No consequences until they run out. Easy to handle. I’m fine with keeping the combat abstract. For players, as always, talk to your players and see if they want to try something, and see what works.

Classic Greece and the D&D Cleric Problem

mattei_athena_louvre_ma530_n2

IIRC, celibacy was not the norm for the clergy back then unless they served the awesome badass up here

D&D clerics perform exorcisms and turn undead. That’s very D&D, as in it’s part of it’s implied setting. Other settings’ clerics should have different powers, or else what you’re really playing is your setting mixed with Blackmoor.

An easy way to do this is to replace Turn Undead with granted powers.

If you want a “Classic Greece/Swords & Sandals” approach, let clerics use spears and replace Turn Undead with the following powers, depending on the god. A priest of a given god can use their god’s granted power once a day, twice at level 3, thrice at level 6:

    • Zeus’s Lightning: lightning can be called from the sky, dealing 1d6 damage on an opponent.
    • Hera’s Revenge: if the cleric is wounded, the same amount of damage is dealt to the attacker. This power can be used instantly and during the opponent’s turn.
    • Aphrodite’s Looks: charm person.
    • Poseidon’s Spawn: a small horrible monster (2HD, ATK bite 1d6) appears and fights the enemies of the priest.
    • Athena’s Wit: the priest can spend a minute coming up with a plan that can either automatically win initiative or gain surprise.
    • Demeter’s Care: cure light wounds.
    • Apollo’s Scrying: augury.
    • Artemis’s Aim: the cleric can use a bow. One arrow shot hits automatically.
    • Hephaestus’s Forge: for the rest of the combat the party’s weapons become so sharp all opponents have ac 9 [10].
    • Ares’s Hand: after the cleric hits, the damage dealt can be doubled.
    • Hermes’s Speed: the priest can outrun a group of opponents.
    • Dionysus’s Wine: dance. If the subject is attacked they will stop dancing.
    • Hades’s Shroud: invisibility self for 6 rounds.
    • Hekate’s Keys: knock or animate dead (1 hd per caster level, maximum 2 hd per caster level controlled) or trivial knowledge (the cleric knows something useful about a topic) or find the direction (the character, in a crossroad or fork in the path or dungeon room or whatever can find what’s the right way toward a chosen destination) or poison use or light or look I have a dog (the cleric has a pet dog of 1 hd more than their level, if it dies the new pup will start at level 0 and grow appropriately at a rate of 1 level a month until it reaches cleric level +1).

Right, I cheated for Hekate. Just pick a power. Hekate’s portfolio seems to be pretty much more or less everything you ever wanted. Quoting the wikipedia:

She was variously associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, dogs, light, the moon, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, ghosts, necromancy, and sorcery

More in general, this was actually not an uncommon thing. Religion in ancient Greece was not homogeneous, and gods were worshipped in many different aspects and with different rites. Also, the split between Chthonic and Olympic was not as clear-cut as we imagine it, and many European intellectuals from the Renaissance to the 19th century and the Romantics spent a lot of effort to fit the square peg of Hellenic worship practice into the round hole of a Christian perspective, including a split of “Olympians good/Chthonic and Titans evil” and much other bullshit.

Magic in Whitebox20 and other playtest results

Playtesting kicks ass. I’m so happy about this last session with the Original Tilean Murderhoboes. Much progress led to a much more solid game experience.

 

whitebox20New Casting Rules

W20 has a bunch of different magic rules because I like to keep my magic mechanics as varied as possible, from the very simple Bene Gesserit-like Voice (roll on the skill to basically cast “command” or “dominate” on someone, depending on the success level) to Wonder & Wickedness RAW, to the new thing we playtested tonight (which is built on top of W&W). It works this way:

Casters start with 3 spells,+3 if they take the apprentice background. These spells can be picked from all the schools. Caster also can benefit from skills: Channel (based on Heart) and the skill of the school they’re trying to cast (all based on Wit for now).

To cast the spell the caster spends 1 round and must roll:

  • first, a skill roll on the School ability; there is an ability for each school, so a caster rolls on Elementalism to cast Stonespeak. Some schools have penalties from -2 to -6 for reasons, such as wearing armour, holding stuff on fire, being underground and so on. If the roll fails the spell is botched.
  • roll on Channel to power the spell. If the roll passes, the spell is cast successfully. If the roll is failed, the caster can try to channel again next round (and then the round after, etc).

Casters can spend a fate point, even after failing either roll, turns automatically the spell into a success. Non-casters can only spend fate points to reroll the skill rolls.

BOTCH: when a spell is botched and the fate point is not spent to turn the spell into an automatic success, the round after the caster must roll a channel roll. If they fail, the spell fizzles harmlessly and all is well. But if the channeling goes well, the caster pumped enough mojo into a badwrong spell, and the following happens:

  • The caster can’t use the spell again until dawn.
  • 50% chance of a Catastrophe! Roll on the appropriate Catastrophe table
  • …and then the caster takes temporary damage equal to the result of the Channel roll.

These are the outcomes:

  • non-casters can cast too. I’m not sure if they want to, but it’s an option. It’s interesting because without a high channel skill there’s less chance of failing horribly.
  • a caster with no skills can just spend fate points and cast away, exactly like in mana-based W&W.
  • casters can decide to focus and spend their skills in casting to cast more spells.
  • there’s a tradeoff in casting without fate left. You’re playing with fire that can explode in your face and potentially kill the whole party.
  • even if the caster has fate left, they can cast and botch, but convert the botch to a success by spending fate. Or, if they pass the first roll, they can fail the channel roll, so they might take several rounds to cast a spell for free.
  • that whole “retry channeling next round” makes great suspense and is hella cool in fiction too.

It’s possible to channel shields too. If the channeling is successful the shield lasts 1 round.

New Melee Rules: Defence & Shields

Shields give +2 to defence rolls. Shields had no rules before tonight. Playtest went ok. I might change it to +3 or +4.

Another important change: in melee characters get an attack roll and a defence roll every round, which used to be the Fighter perk. The Fighter perk becomes: “+1 melee, a successful attack roll can only be blocked if the defence roll is at least as much as the attack roll”.

So, for example, if the fighter attacks successfully with a 9 the defender must succeed a defence roll with a 9 or more to defend successfully.

The positive outcome is many-fold:

  1. if you are not a fighter you totally have a chance blocking non-fighters, but fighters will be harder to block.
  2. more blocking curbs lethality, which was a tad too high even for me.
  3. fighters and their really high melee scores don’t make an impassable wall… if you are a fighter too.
  4. the “decide to attack OR block” role sucked because it slowed combat and yes it gave a decision but it was not interesting. Uninteresting decisions suck.

New Fate Point rules

Characters stat with zero fate points, +1 if Hearth is 11 or more, +1 if they have the caster class, +1 if they have the Fool background, +1 for each extra level.

In general, any character can spend a fate point to pass a save even after failing, or reroll a d20.

Casters can spend a fate point to cast a spell successfully even if they failed a roll.

Mystic Knights can spend a fate point to pick a result on an attack or defence roll before rolling the die.

It’s not possible under any circumstance to use a fate point to automatically succeed in any roll where the character is taking Risk.

Backgrounds, Whitebox20 and the Multiclass Problem

I’ll try to keep the post short and to the point. I’ll fail. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for the best part of 20 years, and here are my thoughts and what I’m doing about it in W20 and AFG.

I’m really keen on characters being able to do varied things, so I very like things like multiclassing. Except multiclassing in D&D comes with a whole lot of nags and caveats and feels like a hack. Newer editions have some problems as they use level pick and mix shop, which really pleases me but pisses off a lot of people because “it’s totally broken and the way you have fun is wrong”. It’s also what I used before the d20 system was a thing, and more recently in AFG, where a significant number of characters end up having a couple of classes (out of three in the book).

But that leads to front loading, a big bump of skill increase at the beginning of a class, and less later. I don’t like it, but not because of balance (I’m not bothered), but I’d like to have a less irregular progression.

For AFG the choice was to not have the massive bump: all characters can cast level zero spells and use all weapons. Fighters hit better and get extra hits, casters get more mana and better spellpower, practitioners get more skills, and it’s possible to cast spells in armour if the fighter level is comparable to the level of the spell cast.

W20 has Backgrounds. You pick a background at character generation, giving you some benefits. You then add the first level, which gives more benefits, and then a class/career/lens. Some W20 playbooks will have some limits on background and class combination, so for example something like OD&D will only allow Dwarf and Human backgrounds to get Cleric levels, and when you get cleric levels you can only get cleric levels. Some other playbooks will allow to pick a class or career at each level, or every three levels, maybe without double-dipping, maybe with a career tree. So you can pick fighter (to survive in combat), then duelist (for dual-wielding), then Fop (because well you might want to get some posh dandy skills) then… well, you get it. Or you start as apprentice wizard or hedge mage or mystic, then become wizard, or conjurer, or seer, or High Hierophant of the Mystery of the Bridge of Bones (caveat: the previous hierophant must retire first).

Now some backgrounds here (thanks Scrap for the equipment). Note that the class names above match some of the backgrounds below. Ignore the misdirection.

Pick one background at character creation:

  1. SCAVENGER: Sacks, long hooked pole, protective gear (light armour), shovel (1H). +2 stealth, +2 appraise (it’s a bit rough)
  2. HUNTER: dried meats, snares, animal calls, animal scents, spear (1H) + 20 arrows. +4 hunting
  3. SOLDIER: bag, chain mail (medium armour), spear (1H) or bow+20 arrows, shield, knife, 1d6 scars. +3 hit points
  4. REFUGEE: exotic cultural item (scrolls, tablet, icon), exotic luxury good (incense or amber or drugs worth 1d6 x 1d6 x 1d6 x 1d6c), concealed jewellery, staff(2H). 3 languages, or +4 to any one skill.
  5. PEASANT: a farm animal (horse or cow or 1d6 goats or 3d6 chicken), trade commodity (1d6x10c), lard, jug of hooch, pitchfork or billhook (2h). +4 farmer (includes things like handling farm animals, some woodwork, barnraising)
  6. PETTY THIEF: bad drugs or jug of hooch, stolen valuable (2d6 x 10c), lockpicks, club (1H), leather jack (light armour). +2 stealth, +2 mechanics
  7. DILETTANTE: jewellery (3d6 x 10c), weird drugs, upnosed reading material, clock, really foppish clothes, fine rapier (1H). +1 to posh twit, +1 chitchat, +2 to a kinda useless skill of choice.
  8. EXPLORER: lantern, lead, “treasure” map, crowbar, climbing gear, compass, staff (2h). +2 climbing, +2 endurance.
  9. MYSTIC: implements of sacrifice, spirit cleansing incense, chalk, fireworks, blankets, walking staff.
  10. FOOL: a small white dog, a vagabond staff w/cloth, a nice hat. +1 fate point, but is a magnet of weirdness, so all weird things at random happen to the character, but not specifically bad things.
  11. EXORCIST: holy symbols, blessed water, scrips of banishing, iron rod (1h). +4 exorcism: an exorcism takes 1 round and, if successful, deals 1d6 damage +1/level to all spirits and undead within 30′. It also drains 1 mana from the exorcist: if the exorcist is out of mana they must roll under Heart or collapse for 1d6 turns.
  12. LEECH: doctor’s bag, pot (to boil gauzes), beaky mask, big cloak, sword (1h). +4 medicine (medicine is not for first aid)
  13. BARBER/DENTIST/SURGEON: razor (1H), leather strap, towels, scalpels, pliers, gauzes, jug of high-grade hooch. +4 barber/surgeon (this is for first aid and surgery)
  14. SEER: pillow, incense, narcotics, dagger (1H). Once per week can have a vision on a topic, either during sleep or while high.
  15. WITCH: dowsing rod, talisman, black cat, knife (1h). +4 pharmacy
  16. APPRENTICE WIZARD: 6 blank scrolls, 1 magic item (either cursed or temporary like a potion). Spellbook with 3 spells
  17. DWARF: plate armour (heavy), pickaxe (2H), bag with pebbles from back home and 1 tiny gold nugget (10c). Can smell gold.
  18. GOAT: horns, can eat everything, shouts like a human, +8 climbing.

Then pick a skill at +4 for each 4 points in Wit. Skills at character generation can’t be at more than +4. If you have a skill at +2 you can bring it to +4 and get another skill at +2.

Then, pick a class. If your Referee is a nice person, pick an extra class every 3 or 5 extra levels. If your referee is not a nice person, they will let you pick a class at level 2:

FIGHTER: +1 melee. Can both attack and block each round.

ARCHER or ARQUEBUSIER: +1 missile. Double rate of fire with a bow or gun.

CASTER: can cast more complicated spells.

SPECIALIST: a skill gets +4, up to +8.

JACK OF ALL TRADES: +2 more skills at +4