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.


D&D’s best kept secret: Magic Users can cast all spells

Gary lied to us. Gary kept the secret well hidden.

Tradition is a lie. Behold the magician, and notice how his hands point both Up and Down. White and Black magic. Right Hand and Left Hand Path have to coexist in the Magic User. Restricting oneself is imbecile. Knowledge must be ultimate. Nothing must be hidden. Nothing must be Forbidden.

MUs unlock the secrets of creation, walk on the Sword across the Abyss, destroy their former selves and discover the names of G-D and know the path to the Godhead.

Magic Users can cast all spells. And can wear armours. That “can’t wear armour” in every D&D handbooks is just part of the biggest cover-up in the gaming industry.

The Left Hand Path spells both require a superhuman hubrys and cause an otherwise impossible sensitivity to metal, neither of which is conductive to clad oneself in iron.

The Right Hand Path only requires intimate knowledge and correct pronunciation of the Names of G-D. Iron has no power to stop invokation. Iron bears the Magician across the Abyss. Iron does not stop G-D from hearing. While Clerics don’t understand the nature of G-D, but can just beg and grovel for the tiniest speckle of their power, Magicians demand and are satisfied.

The Left Hand Path is the weakness of their flesh.

The Right Hand Path is the power of G-D.

Comments here.

Pergamino Barocco – Alternative Binding

The Pergamini Barocchi have been printed. If all goes well I should be able to ship the first batch next week.

Tonight I found some binding leatherette and, well, I wanted to know if the Pergamino would do well with an alternative binding. So instead of the two split hardcovers I’d make a normal book case and attach one of the end of the concertina to it, leaving the other free.

Thing is, leatherette hates me. With a passion. It’s a stubborn hateful piece of scorn and I can’t seem to glue it even with a plasma torch.

But tonight, kind reader, tonight the leatherette was conquered.

Here are some pictures.

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Pressing the cover.

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100% vegan-compatible, non renewable leatherette. Might add some kind of clasp or tie like this braided one.2013-05-16 23.28.58

Contents seem to be accessible.
2013-05-16 23.29.11MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. By the way, this copy is not really for sale as it has some minor imperfections I’m not really happy with. Small imperfections. On the other hand I ran out of dark brown leatherette and have only some reddish left, and I REALLY LIKE THE BROWN ONE. But if you do really like it too we can have a chat.

Mind you, none of them will be 100% straight and without kinks because I’m just an hobbyist.

If you have bought a Pergamino already: if you prefer this binding, let me know and I’ll happily oblige.

If you have inquired about a Pergamino: you’re part of the waiting list. Email me because IT’S BOOKBINDING TIME. This means some kind of transfer of money or food or something so that me and Roger can feel motivated to do more and better.

If you have not bought a Pergamino and want one: at the moment I have what can be termed a surplus of scrolls. But it’s not really a surplus because there’s a waiting list. I’m not sure I’m going to print many more because, well, It’s really expensive to make.

So, yeah. My email is as per use tsojcanth at gmail. The webstore is here.

Adventure Fantasy Game Spellcasting: how I (re)learnt to love undeads, but not that way, and considerations

Spellcasting in Adventure Fantasy Game differs quite a bit from your run-of-the-mill OSR game, and from other systems too. The closest is Roger’s, and that’s because we had a long chat about them back in the day. How is it different from traditional D&D spellcasting?

First, there’s no split between divine and arcane magic. I’m not sure of the reasons that led Gygax to split spell lists, but i suspect none of them are good. Moreover, the concept of clerics getting more spells with levels instead of by increasing the standing in front of their gods is a bit fishy. It seems as if there were no gods but instead the spells came from the cleric inner powers… exactly like magic-users. This change did not break the game.

Second, it’s mana based, but each spell can be cast only once a day. This allows each spell to costs one mana point, simplifying the system a lot, while making actually harder to play casters. Difficulty is moved from “what should I memorize today?” and “is this the right moment to cast Sleep?” to a broader “I have no idea if I should cast now and what”, simply because every spell is a unique life-saving snowflake. It’s possible to cast a given spell a second time using items called fetishes: grab a fetish, spend one mana, a specific spell goes off. A fetish can be used once a day. There are also Mana Vessels which store a mana point; full vessels can power spells up to a given level and need to be recharged by a caster. Also, very importantly, each caster has access to all his spells all the time, so even very narrow-use spells see play instead of laying forgotten and unmemorized in musty tomes. This means that even bad spells are used a lot: Giving the Gift of Life, a level 0 spell that heals 1d6 hits at the cost the same amount of temporal hits to the caster, is seen by casters’s players as a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic kick in the groin.

Third, everybody can cast level 0 spells, provided they can somehow get one measly mana.Rolling a high Spirit is an option, grabbing a full mana vessel is another. The concept is that your level-zero auntie did really cast spells and sung those zombies back to the grave and could read any language. Your non-caster PC might not know spells yet, but fetishes are moderately common and teaching rules are kindly provided. Now, finding an equally kind teacher is a completely different topic. 🙂

Fourth, every single caster seems to be a little necromancer that could. Possibly because players love pets in RPGs. Possibly because necromancer want to be fiddling with corpses. Possibly because the equivalents of “charm undead”, “animate but not control a skeleton” and “animate a skeleton” can be respectively cast by a caster of level 0, 1 and 2. The first two can be of course combined (but the control spell costs 1 mana a day to upkeep), while the last one costs 50 coins in components. This does not stop low level casters from keeping a few skeletons around “just in case”. This, of course, might bother the peasants and burgers. Which is one of the reasons why casters live out in the sticks. It’s also a useful way of recycling discarded armour. This early undead proliferation is interesting because it directly impacts on the setting: low level mages will exhume corpses from graveyards and will have a small group of fanatical undead goons protecting them, if they can find the money. Some of you will cringe at the thought of game balance suffering from this: don’t. The Original Tilean Murderhoboes are masters at breaking everything, but this did not break the game. Instead, ponder the implication of low-level necromancy on your campaign world.

Fifth, it’s not just the system, it’s a whole different spell ecology. All the 80+ spells are new, the first purely offensive spell is cast at level 2, and there are a grand total of 8 damaging spells in the whole manual. There’s no Sleep spell. Hell Gate, the closest thing to Fireball, opens a gate to hell spouting raging flames, possibly gating in uncontrollable demons. Casters in AFG are not there to dish tons of damage but to do what mere mortals cannot: bend reality with words.

Comments and discussions here

Cover Art for Chthonic Codex (or at least probably, I’m confused)

Cover art is required to be awesome but sometimes it’s so awesome it’s annoying as you’d like to use it again and again but since it’s tied to a particular product you really can’t use it more than once or else people get confused. Unless you want to confuse potential buyers, just don’t.

Why opening with such a confusing paragraph?

Because I’m confused.

Because I acquired “Creation of a Better Human” by Claire Maclean, pictured below. And I love it to bits. I worked with Claire already for AFG, where she did a darn good job with idols and characters.


And I want CoaBH to be a cover for a book on wizards that might never be completed. Said book (let’s call it Project G) might or might not end up being merged with the Chthonic Codex as they are really close in spirit and setting, if not in at-the-table-target-user: the Codex  is aimed at GMs, while Project P at people that want spellcasters to be awesome-r.

But the Codex is an in-game book as well, mostly written in-character by the Grand Sorcerer of the Fire Valley Deleterios XIII for the benefit of other Savants of the Fire Valley and he was exactly the kind of person that would write and collate an omnibus version of Fire Valley related arcana.

So, there you go. I decided. Project G will fold in the Chthonic Codex.

Comments on Google Plus here.

Pergamino Barocco: Not your usual spell RPG supplement

In the life of a small-small-small-small-press RPG publisher there are times when substance and content is the only thing that matters. Some other times, instead, it’s mostly about style. Then there are some lucky combinations where both need to be turned up to 11.

RPG supplements about spells and magic are usually awfully plain lists of descriptions of spells, all crammed up in as few pages as possible and seemingly written in the driest way possible.

Enters the Pergamino Barocco

And here is where Roger and I break the mold. Because you always wanted your spells to be in a book that looks like a spellbook, feels like a spellbook and illustrated with arcane imagery. Maybe handbound. Like in the picture below, showing Roger’s copy.

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The Pergamino Barocco contains a panoply of arcane knowledge ready to be used in your old school fantasy game. Each spell (designed and written by Roger) occupies at least a page and is illustrated with a period woodcut.

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And it’s not going to be a stitched book, but a folded scroll. So not only you can page through it as a normal book, but you can also display any number of pages you want at the same time,  potentially all of them at the same time, as shown below [*]. This also makes possible for multiple magic-users to peruse the book at the same time should they agree to share its secrets.

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I will bind all copies (click for some examples of my bound books), individually and carefully, by hand. The cost is not exactly defined but it will be around 15£ + s/h (free shipping to the UK).

You can choose your Pergamino to be bound in your choice of the following materials: maroon buckram (washable and resistant, same quality of Roger’s copy but maroon), purple bookcloth (nice feeling, more delicate book-grade cloth) or black japanese silk (three copies only, price around 25£ due to the sheer cost of book-grade silk). And will come with a gold-yellow ribbon, because all books need at least a bookmark. [**]

The print run is going to be extremely limited. First come, first serve basis. Custom orders are naturally possible. Preorder here.

[*]: my garden-variety gnome Gnaro is in the picture to provide some scale. I honestly can’t remember how it ended up in the picture in general, and there in particular.

[**]: Roger’s copy does not have one, in case you wonder.

[New Spell] Little Star from the Sky – from the Chthonic Codex

Little Star from the Sky

Level 6 [12 in AFG]

Range: 1 mile.

Radius: 100′

The caster will bring down on a target within range a little start from the sky. If the caster owns a tiny star the spell can throw that instead. The star will enter the atmosphere on a ballistic trajectory, hit the target unerringly and explode for 8d6 impact & star-cradle-level-fusion-powered radioactivity damage, no save. The radioactive explosion will damage everything within the radius of the spell, scattering debris and dealing 8d6 damage. Damage can be halved if both a death ray and magic save are successful, reduced to 3/4 if only one is successful.

Making stars fall can anger gods, especially if the caster does not own the star and casts it more than once a year or in the same calendar day in different years.