Dawn of New Thaumaturgy: a few disordered thoughts on writing magic, starting from a detour on magic swords

I recently added a new player to my group. He never played RPGs. He joined my Mageblade group, was amazed that he could do spider-wizardry, and had his pc’s eyes explode because reckless overcasting led to a magic catastrophe. Then he completely wiped a band of thieves with a lucky venom cloud. Good times.

Magic is terrible and powerful and awesome. The player was surprised by the magic possibilities, tempted, hurt, humbled, and then singlehandedly finished the threat to the group. How does this happen? Why? How can it be made better?

I’m writing this thing because a while ago someone asked if it was possible to swap the D&D spell list with a completely different one: I’ve done it several times with several spell lists, and I’d like to share why and how to do it.

I’m not sure this is going to be directly helpful to anyone doing the same, but I guess it can be helpful for other tasks too, like writing one single spell. This is going to be presented as a list of unstructured arguments in several posts, for various reasons. Such as:

  1. I’m not sure what the shape of the argument is when seen in its entirety yet. My approach is quite holistic and winding. Sorry.
  2. The concerns span usability, game design, meaningfulness, and world building. These things do not go hand in hand.
  3. Magic, in game like in real life, is much different for different people. The same goes for religion, and magic and religion are for all intents and purposes, as far as this writing is concerned, two names for the same type of practice. I’ll try to be as encompassing as I can, despite taking sides.

Let’s start with the first question: why do we need new magic, and what’s wrong with the spells in the handbook?

We do not need new magic. And there’s nothing wrong with the spells in the handbook. The game can be perfectly fun without expanding its magic, like it can be fun without expanding the monster list, the race list, the class list, and the magic item list. These are the discrete elements that we can scatter in our fantastic worlds, very unique like snowflakes.

Also, very similar like snowflakes. Snowflakes are similar because ice crystals form with specific angles, and similarly D&D campaign are similar because character growth has specific rules. Obtaining experience and treasure make characters stronger, because they grow in skill and in means, with a matching increased impact on the game world. If we use the same mundane and magic item tables, chances are there will be similarities.

Access to more magic is key part of both those new skills and new means. The game setting of Dungeons & Dragons becomes more and more supernatural as the game progresses, the players exploring more and more of the mythical underworld (or whatever it is that PCs physically and metaphorically go through in your campaign).

Let’s start from the Fighter, by having a quick detour in the LBB. Fighters are strong and resistant and overcome mundane opponents in mundane means. As they grow in skill, they become more resistant and more lethal. However, as lethal as they can be, they still are mundane and can’t harm enchanted beings.

Enemies that can’t be harmed are awesome. As in, literally, terror inducing. Because we mundanes have no way of defending ourselves from them.

For those, fighters need a magic weapon.

Crucially, magic weapons, and especially magic swords, are the most common permanent magic item in the LBB. Magic swords can only be used by fighters, and magic swords are pretty much the best magic weapon in the game: beyond giving the capacity to hit magic beings, they often give extra powers, like detection of invisible or magic, or even more, which are incredibly useful and not easy to come by (at least they require casters to spend precious spell slots).

Magic swords also have the habit of having intelligence and big personalities and taking sides in the Eternal Struggle between Law and Chaos. They can also possess their fighter, and shift from being an empowering tool for the fighter into a master for the fighter, their body and limbs mere tool for the Sword.

This might seem like a douche move. However, these swords are quite the equivalent of having a Faustian deal with the devil: great power comes at a great cost. Sure, they lead you to gems, and let you vanquish vampires, but what do the Swords ask in return?

And the Faustian deal usually generates buckets of solid, engaging drama at the table: for example the sword can force a noncompliant fighter into giving itself away to a fighter more worthy of the sword mission, and more compliant. If you want to keep the sword, you need to make the sword want to keep you.

So when you find an intelligent magic sword in a dragon trove ask yourself what kind of reckless sucidal action the sword must have forced on the fighter wielding it. The sword is in the dragon hoard because either it forced the fighter into fighting the dragon, or it let the fighter believe it could.

Magic swords use their fighters to leave a trail of death until they lead their own fighter to death. Then they lay unused in a hoard until their new owner is killed by a fighter. And the trail of death can start again. And again. And again. And again, until the timeless magic sword, and its unquenchable bloodthirst, is no more.

Good luck with that. Magic swords are much more resilient than the countless arms that bear them. Beside dragonfire and powerful magic, they have little to fear.

D&D Magic Swords are awesome as the creatures they can harm. As in, they inspire terror. Not only when facing them, but also when wielding them.

Because, mostly, what fighters do to fight the supernatural is wielding supernaturally angry steel that has a proven history of leading previous bearers to death.

Note how this is canon (actually requiring very little interpretation compared to the rest of the LBB, blessed be Gary’s cotton socks) and how it dances all across the invisible line between fluff and crunch. Thing is, if fluff and crunch are not melded, then the crunch can’t let the game behave in a way consistent with the fluff.

Personally, I think the distinction is artificial, and exists only where the game rules do not support the desired outcome (or fiction/story/milieu/atmosphere/genre). And probably this is the hard part of this whole endeavour: have a game with wholeness, self-consistence, and meaning. If the game challenges are awesome, make you organically scared, make you in awe, then stuff is ok.

Compared to most of the rest of the magic in the LBB, Magic Swords are definitely the most interesting from a dramatic, and human, perspective. Magic Swords are a relentless, uncaring, awesome tool for us mundanes to defeat the otherwise undefeatable awesome.

The rest of the magic in the original game, except a handful of magic items, is bland. It manages to defeat the undefeatable awesome in a very bland way.

We can do better than that.

Next time, we might explore the following topics:

Wizards are kind of lame, but also awesome.

Adventure design: casters can detect invisible, evil, and lies, and they should.

Abjuration 101: wards and banishing.

Why We All Love Maxilor, aka The “Passwall – Spell of the Subterranean Cavities” Continuum of Awesomeness.

What it takes to make magic items.

Advertisements

The Asymmetric Magic of Frostgrave

I’ve been playing some Frostgrave (it’s pretty dope) and I tried to plot a graph with the school alignments. I expected something regular, like these:

MTG-Guild-Faction-Colour-Pie-Chart-MagicKtreewnames

But what I found was a bit stranger.

Aligned schools are linked by a black line. Orange links opposed schools:

img_20180129_133235-211098085.jpg

the orange link between the top and bottom is a squiggle only because the drawing needs to be on a plane. Think of it as a straight line. 

You can easily note a bunch of question marks in the bottom right: there are two schools left – Necromants and Summoners – and two alignments left. They are left unmarked because the resulting graph is either inconsistent or asymmetrical. We can proceed in two ways:

Respect the symmetry of the oppositions: Necromancer at the bottom, Sigilist at the bottom right. But penciling in the alliances, the graph looks like this, which is not symmetrical, really.

media-20180129

What if we respect the symmetry of the alliances, and wiggle the graph a bit? Summoner at the bottom, Necromancer at the bottom right. Ally Necromancers up with Chronomancers, and Summoners up with Elementalists, and all is good. Except Thaumaturgists at the top are not opposed to Summoners at the bottom, and Necromancers are not opposed to Sigilists. It looks like this, with a minor rearrangement:

media-20180129-1

the bottom EN should read EL for Elementarists, the Witch-Necromancer alignment has been moved out of the way to reduce the clutter

There’s also two more options. The first one is not anthropocentric, and somewhat not romantic: the because of aesthetics, we try to assume that the underpinning of the world are symmetrical, because we value symmetry, and if it’s not symmetrical it’s not beautiful and therefore not true (or at least that’s how we are prone to feel). Needless to say, I’m not a fan of this option. Also, from a user interaction perspective, symmetric systems are more memorable and easy to learn.

The second option is that the book is lying. Maybe Sigilism is opposed to Necromancy, and Thaumaturgy is opposed to Summoning, and all symmetries are preserved. I understand that the author J. McCullough might get annoyed at this suggestion, but I’d like to point out that of the eight Thaumaturgy spells, three especially target demons or are effective against controlled creatures, and none target the undead specifically, and the three other schools have little “countering” spells.

It might seem weird, but there’s a chance I might be onto something here. Wizards do their best to keep their secrets, so maybe that’s the case here?

At any rate: Frostgrave is great fun, the rules are great, melee is swingy, you get to summon demons and throw fireballs, and the scenarios are fun. The supplements are also supergreat (all of them).

When the magic’s out: Overcast HOWTO

When all spells are spent, when all mana is gone, wizards are a bit in a meh situation. While it’s cool that you want to let the magic go out because of careful strategy, I think giving risky opportunities to players is also good.

So the idea is that casters and wizards can overcast. I’ve been using these rules for Mageblade! but you can adapt them easily. I swear the Game Police won’t come after you. I suggest you try this with a lot of limitations first, and then try to relax the limitations a bit and see what works.  If the player keeps on overcasting too much for your tastes, just require extra rolls, or add limitations.

This is what works for us: you need to find what works for you.

Overcast HOWTO

  1. The caster, first, must choose the spell to be overcast. You can limit the spell to only spells the caster has not cast today yet, or to spells the caster had memorized, or only for granted powers, or only for patron spells, or for devotions, or domain spells. Try to find out what you feel is right for your game.
  2. The caster must then roll to cast the spell right:
    • for knowledge-based casters, like MUs, wizards and MB Caster, find if they can control the spell rolling under intelligence. If the roll is failed, the caster botches: lets out a magic blast (3d6 damage in 10′, save for half), or a catastrophe from W&W, or use one of those GURPS magic critical failures tables.
    • for introspection-based casters, like mageblades, clerics, and even sorcerers (do not forget that sorcerers can’t read, or else they would be wizards), find if they can find clarity rolling a wisdom check. If the roll is failed, the spell simply does nothing, but the spell can’t be overcast for a while. Maybe until penance is done. Maybe until sleep. Maybe until drugs are taken. Or maybe one hour of meditation is enough.
  3. The caster must then roll to find the power to cast:
    • for casters that are fueled by their belief in gods or power-granting patrons (like the clerics, mageblades, paladins and casters devout to a god, DCC casters with patrons), roll under charisma. On a failure, the Power that Be is displeased with the lack of self-reliance of the requester, so not only does nothing, but you won’t be able to cast for a while. Cue sacrifices, fasting, pilgrimage, etc.
    • for casters that provide their own mana, like MUs, wizards, and MB casters or Mageblades that are not godbotherers, find if they manage to gather the power without consequences rolling under charisma. On a failure, the power is still harnessed but the caster is zonked out, collapsed for 1d6 turns. Healing spells do not really fix this much.

Option: Recovery with Surgery & Chemistry

While a zonked out character will be out cold for a while, you can have a surgeon do an emergency procedure involving a healing potion and some horrible surgery you you not want to know. It takes one round, one healing potion and one surgery/healing roll. If the roll is successful, the caster recovers the round after the surgery.

Mageblade, Mageshade, Shadeblade: not half-classes, nor hybrids

Fighter, Caster, Rogue and Mageblade. The four Mageblade classes are patterned on the usual four-classes model: the fighter is tough, the rogue cheats in mundane ways (backstabbing and picking locks and climbing, for example), the caster cheats in extramundane ways (the guard dogs fell asleep) and the mageblade is an extramundane cheating tough (I’m going to fight you and also do magic stuff, like the D&D cleric does).

However, while traditionally similar classes are implemented by having more competencies with a reduced capacity, sometimes decorated with extra bits (bardic music, I look at you right now), both the D&D cleric and the Mage/blade/shade triplet are actually about something else entirely. In addition to being able to fight, the cleric, due to the forced split of right hand and left hand path magic in D&D, can cure and turn undead in ways wizards can’t. And the Mageblade, while not able to cast spells, can rely on devotions, plus be clad in iron and use banes and blademagic in combat.

Most importantly, the Fighter, the Mageblade, the Rogue and the Caster play in different ways by design:

  • fighters can wiggle combat math in reliable ways (armour and stances) indefinitely.
  • casters have great effects in a lot of different ways with spells (each school grants access to many spells), but both each spell can be used once, and the mana to cast them is limited
  • rogues learn and then master a lot of extra skills thus increasing their scope, and can use their roguish luck to push any roll, even multiple times.
  • mageblades learn a very limited amount of devotions and blademagic: each is a single “effect”, but as long as there’s mana, each can be used many times.

This makes Mageblades very different from Casters, and not in a quantitative way: casters know a lot of spells, but each is a snowflake, while mageblades know little magic, but can use it repeatedly.

The difference with the fighter is also not simply a “lesser” fighter: fighters fight better and harder for a longer time, and mageblades (even pumping mana in combat) can’t match them, but fighters can’t do blademagic either. Fighters especially do not have Banes, which are blademagic specific to Mageblade orders that lets them do double damage against a specific type of enemy, so for example Exorcists have Bane: Undead. Mageblades also have their athame, which is their magic sword/wand, from character generation.

They play differently. And have different roles. They also feel different in a way that is not clearly the somewhat milquetoast “wider but lesser”. They definitely are not hybrid classes the way they are normally intended.

Furthermore, there’s two more such classes in this little game: Mageshade (name courtesy of Eric Nieudan) and the Shadeblade. They technically do not exist fully yet, but this is the direction the development will take:

  • Mageshades could have a small number of magick rites to do mundane stuff, powered by mana and reusable. While rogues can do many things unreliably but can use their luck, mageshades can spend mana to “make it work”. As perk (all classes have one), some shadow/night/oblivion-related ability (like shadowstep or sleep or forgetfulness). Not sure what the Focus should do for mageshades yet.
  • Shadeblades similarly can start by mixing the scopes of the fighter and the rogue and come off in some completely different shape. So some skills, plus for example how to mingle the spending of rogue’s luck and the steadiness of fighters into something similar to both but different?
    • A first example, definitely underdeveloped and untested, is to have shadeblades do silly over the top wuxia moves, so that if they miss they can spend one mana to hit instead, or then they are hit spend mana to parry or dodge and jump away.
    • An alternative is maybe to have the shadeblade have a fresh pool of rogue’s luck every combat, but only limited to combat rolls?
    • Or maybe a mix of the two, electing to spend luck in the combat get a combat reroll, or to spend it for the whole day in order to succeed at dodging or hitting without rolling.

 

So, you want to become an indie publisher

So, you want to become a indie publisher, and you wrote me for advice.

Err. Yes. You won’t like my advice. It’s not much, so not to waste too much of your time.

I’m terrible at publishing.

My best advice is to not do what Paolo does and do what Kevin Crawford does. He does it much better, and  the first issue of his free magazine has a guide on Kickstarting stuff.

For the basic of the business, contact your local small business office, and most importantly pay your taxes. The last thing you want is a letter from a tax authority. The second last is IP infringement. Do not ever try your luck at either. Ever. Get good law and tax advice instead. Also, absolutely do pay people if you agreed that you would pay them.

For printing, go POD. It will also take care of shipping. Doing otherwise is incredibly time consuming and risky. Unless you do silly volumes, forget about printing stuff yourself.

For trademarks, make a logotype that works. I believe the Eye of God (I did not give it that name, it had it for centuries before I was born) and the Lost Pages name do more for traction that anything I’ve ever written.

For publishing. I publish only stuff I love. I should publish instead stuff that goes well with my other games. Or with other games.

Love does not make you follow good business practices. Love makes you mad.

I do this because I’m in love, and would not recommend it. I got incredibly lucky falling in love with the work of Roger, Brendan, Chris, Eric, Patrick, Mike. And also with the other people I’m working with. No names because jinx.

I have no other good advice except, if you do it for fun, don’t, because it’s not fun.

Incredibly thrilling, boring, hard work, yes. Fun, not.

I do it my way because I’m stubborn as a goat and failing again and again does not break my will. Doing it as I do means falling in love with the most uncaring partner you can find, dark triad level bullshit. You will cry. You will be up at night. You will regret doing it. You will cry.

Publishing won’t hug you or kiss you to sleep nor sent you wistful, panging, moving love letters. End of story.

Extra content: related advice! This is useless because you are not me, so treat it as a cautionary tale instead.

If you want to make books like I do, you have to seriously love paper. Learn bookbinding, printmaking, layout by studying them and fail them by making stuff that is harder than what you can do. Repeat the study-fail until you are satisfied with your form. It won’t last long. Develop an aesthetic, and then appease it until you want to develop a new aesthetic. Redo the layout for a book five times until it feels right. Pick at most one strange font, use it sparingly and do the rest with reliable workhorse fonts.

When you complete something, put it out. Even if it’s free. Even if it sucks. Especially if it sucks.

If you want to write what I do, I recommend chucking out from your mind all fantasy written after Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata. Instead, read other stuff. Read religion. Read magic. Read politics. Read metalworking, horticulture, travel books, history, art, cooking, design, computer science, military architecture, illicit book trade.

Read and play a lot of games and learn what makes you click.

Learn that what makes you click is not what makes other people click.

Struggle forever between the two: art is baking your cake, but sharing the cake is obviously a bigger pleasure.Cake is delicious.

After you do this,  you will find that you did not forget the fantasy. Not all of it, at least. For example I forgot Tolkien, and a bunch of other stuff. What’s left, is there to stay, and will be your bedrock. In my case it’s Calvino and Pratchett and Borges and Benni and Dunsany and the Arabian Nights and the history of Caliph Vathek. I got lucky, as it could have been Tolkien.

a joint message (with goat)

Hi everyone—it’s Paolo and Zak,
We want to keep this short, to avoid miscommunication.
First thing to say is that we are talking again after many years and that’s good, we said what we had to say to each other.
Paolo apologized to Zak for not bringing up issues he had with him sooner, more directly and before blocking him.
Zak apologized to Paolo for immediately categorizing him as a troll who could not ever be reached by reason when this happened, which made addressing the issue later harder.
What we have to say to all of you is that the best way to deal with conflict is to talk, in private, to the person who you have a conflict with.  It took us years of acrimony to even begin, but it was resolved in a matter of days.
If this is hard? Then try to get someone to help you talk to them. Sometimes a friend can say what you have to say for you, even if you are scared.
What doesn’t help is anyone involved or not involved talking to big groups on social media about it, including vaguebooking and complaining about “drama”—that makes the whole problem worse, because that can easily degenerate into pecking parties and shaming. Social media complaints should be the last resort of someone who has no friends in common with whoever they are in conflict with who can act as safe intermediaries—or someone you have total ideological mismatch with, like a Nazi. The two of us are not in either of those situations with each other and if you are reading this you probably aren’t either.
This advice goes for all of our friends who have gotten upset about any of this lately. Gossiping about it or them doesn’t help, but building networks of people who understand each other and understand each others’ good faith does.
We also want to thank the people whose reaction to seeing we had a conflict was to immediately contact us privately and help us resolve it.
Thanks!
Have a goat 🙂
2846636d8b479164c92451c0672e2ede-1.jpg
PS: Anyone who wants to talk, Zak’s email is zakzsmith AT hawtmayle and Paolo is paolo awt lostpages co uk

Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos and Wonder & Wickedness – putting Cthulhu butter in my Sorcery jam

At my table I do this thing where players can pretty much ask me to use any spell from any source and, after some deliberation and twiddling, I let them.

Enters the Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos. The 7e CoC magic rules are interesting but do not map directly on Wonder & Wickedness, and I want a way to handle them directly with not much problems.

The porting of course implies that your game is old school, with its specific ways. So a lot of premises are different, and we need different outcomes. The approach is as it follows:
Do not use sanity costs. Everyone knows magic is real, and that faeries do in fact live in the hedges between the oat fields and the orchard.

Each spell uses only slot, or one mana point. If a spell allows overspending, each extra slot or mana point accounts for 5 MP, and they can come from ambrosia, mana tar, magic vessels or power stones. When mana runs out, take 1 damage for each MP the spell costs. So, yes, you can cast a lot.

POW costs reduce wisdom: each 5 whole points reduces wisdom by 1 for a month. Leftovers are ignored at the end of the adventure. Likewise, use the adjusted wisdom + unspent spells or mana when you need to roll a contest using POW, and the victim can instead elect to make a roll using their save instead of wisdom. In Mageblade! use wisdom plus the Caster focus instead of using the unspent mana.

Mageblade! casters have two ways: they can either learn the Jevnacack Praxis and cast as above, or they must use overcasting. This means that if they pass all the overcasting rolls the spell does not cost that first point of mana, and if they fail the rolls they can spend one mana point to reroll any roll. And of course they can run out of mana while doing that, which makes for some terrible news, as they either take damage from the cost of the spell or suck up the consequences of the failed overcasting rolls.

I also recommend letting anyone cast those spells, even if they have no mana. The first time a spell is cast by a non-caster, make an intelligence roll to see if it’s been learnt. Then use the overcasting rules as above, but the damage in hit point is paid in advance, and if one of the rolls fails the cost is either paid again or the spell fails.