Need for Speech: words have power, Hodor, OG and a new word/rune-based magic system

I started watching Game of Thrones recently, and Hodor got me thinking about magic. In some oblique ways.

RPGs are mostly a discussion. Speech and writing, in their tabletop and PBM incarnations, are almost inherent to the form. This happens because there are not enough physical game tokens to allow expression of all the subtleties of what happens in the game world. For a NON RPG, like the DND 3E miniatures game, the need for speech is absent: it’s possible to move tokens and roll dice and point at tokens, and that’s enough to resolve the game.

Note that this has nothing to do with system completeness: it’s possible to have an incomplete system needing arbitration, where the referee resolves combats by moving, changing, adding and subtracting “bits” from the table, not a word spoken.

Speech at this level is about the world. Players make statements about the world and roll dice, which are about the world. The referee adjudicates and reports the results. So, we are playing, and this is the nature of the game: making statements about the world.

There is another level of need for speech, which is the speech that happens in game: characters talk to each other. The player of Hodor has problems with that. I played a speech-impaired character once and it was funny and challenging (the system was Fate though, which was the only negative note, because all players and the GM did a brilliant job).

At any rate, Hodor can’t speak. Hodor can act though. Which would be incredibly interesting if Hodor was in a game of Diplomacy.

Hodor is a bit extreme though. Let’s talk about Robin Law’s OG.

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OG is a gem. In OG you character knows how to use 3-8 words. You can unleash the very full panoplia of your extensive vocabulary when interacting with the Referee, but with other players? Stick to your own 3-8 words! If you know only “small”, “stick” and “you” you can’t say many things that do not insult virility. And that’s kind of cool because it’s a game made fun by its special player interaction.

It would be interesting if RPG magic was the same. Incidentally the first fantasy novel I read was A Wizard of Earthsea by U.K. le Guin, which has a system that is basically UG-Magic-University. You learn words for things, so that you can command them. And humans get baptized, so if you don’t know their real secret name you have to use their “common name”, which is what they use in daily life, or just use “dude”.

So, if you want a flexible rulelight magic system, one that is a bit crazy but completely not playtested, enjoy this one:

You MU begins the game knowing INT/3 names for generic things and 1 mana. When a new level is gained,  one new name is learnt and 1 mana per level is gained. You might want to use a foreign language (French? Italian? Lithuanian? Japanese? Kurdish? Finnish? Tsolyáni?) for the special names to stop your character from using them in play. They become game tokens, so you to avoid messups you want to be specific when referring to them. Or you can trace runes mid-air or pronounce the rune names. Whatever. Words have power.

To cast a spell, tell to the Referee ALL the words you are using this round. For example for Fireball would maybe be “big powerful fire blast there”, while Create Fire would be “fire”. Then, using the 5MORE system or rolling under INT or under CHA or trying to SAVE, roll once for every word you pronounce in the round. Consider every word as a different TASK for 5MORE EXPERT purposes.

You need to succeed at every word check to cast the spell. If you fail a roll, spend 1 mana to convert it to a success. If you elect not to spend the mana, all the words you are speaking in the same round get messed up and are all counted as failures. So yes you can take time casting a spell.

When you are done with words, something happens. The Referee will let you know what happens depending on the words that failed. As a yardstick, consider that a comparable D&D spell should have (2 x level) – 1 words. The referee and players are encouraged to write down combination of words of power, and the referee is encouraged to have the same combination of words have the same effect every time. Players should record combination and effects only if their characters have writing implements.

Now, this seems eminently more powerful than D&D. Surely it’s more flexible, and if you’re lucky it gives you infinite free spells at level 1.

But.

Failures.

Bite.

There are two consequences for failures.

The first one is that the caster gets burnt.

  • For each word failed, the caster can’t use that word for 1d6 turns.
  • For each three words failed, the caster takes 1d6 damage OR the caster can spend one mana OR the caster can get stunned. The caster can choose which as they know how to fend off magic power. Stun duration is 1d6 rounds if chosen once, 1d6 turns if chosen twice, 1d6 hours if chosen 3 times, then days, weeks, months, seasons.
  • For each six words failed, something awful happens. Maybe the caster gets whisked away by a gate for a while, or they develop a horrible mutation. I’ll let your Referee adjudicate.

So if a caster fails seven words, they can’t use any of them for 1d6 turns, takes three times a mixture of 1d6 damage or 1 mana damage or stunned for 1d6 rounds/turns/hours, and something horrible happens.

Plus, there is the second consequence. Magic happens regardless. Referee, consider that magic has a personality. And that words have personalities. And that some words don’t like being used close to each other. Let them play. You might even have the words make reaction rolls against each other and the MU to determine if the play nice. Mispronounced words will most probably misbehave at some level, and the caster might even pronounce other words instead of the failed one.

Note that if a spell targets someone, using a generic name (like “human”) grants an additional save, while using the Secret Name forces the victim to reroll 1 succeeded save.

You can learn new words from other people

Note that you can totally use this system as rune magic too.

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Casters in “Wizards” – the game about the movie

Part of the “Casters In” Series (previously Empire of the Petal throne, Quest of the Ancients, DSA).

Spellcasting in wizards uses two scores: spirit (some kind of magic energy) and Magic (which is a willpower-based skill).

Wizards is the game about the movie with the same name. It has some interesting mechanics. And Nazis. It feels positively Carcosan.

sorry, no source :(

sorry, no source 😦

At any rate: players are supposed to make their own spells, and there are a handful in the book.

To cast the spell the magic user must roll under magic with a d20 and:

  • if the result is under the difference between magic and the spell difficulty, the caster loses spirit equal to the die roll.
  • if the result is above that, but under magic, the caster loses spirit equal to the spell cost.
  • if the result is above that but under double the magic skill, the spell fails and the caster spends 1 spirit point.
  • if above twice the magic skill, the caster loses spirit equal to the cost of the spell.
  • on a critical failure, there’s an optional fumble. No table, but “fumbled fireball leads to pants on fire” is the example in the book. Which is appropriate and awesome.

It’s also possible to practice and get more experience in a given spell at a cost of a fifth of raising the magic skill.

Casting spell on other people requires, in addition, a contest of Spirit: the same roll for the magic check is used for the caster, and is compared to the amount of spirit the caster had before casting the spell, while the target rolls 1d20 against their spirit. Spirit is fully regained in 30 hours, but sleeping counts as double time, so 18 hours of wake and 6 hours of sleep are enough.

As additional weird thing, it’s possible to try an Evocation just pumping magic: a spirit roll is made, and if successful the caster spends spirit points equal to the d20 and SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS. If the caster fails, they spend points equal to the failure margin and SOMETHING AWFUL HAPPENS.

Why I like Wizards’s magic:

  • if you’re good at a spell, you can cast it cheap
  • mana points used as both “raw power” and “energy left”. The more you cast the least effective your spells become.
  • that whole Evocation “just dump mana” mechanic is simple yet amazing.

Casters in Das Schwarze Auge

Third episode of my “Casters In…” serie. Previous episodes about Empire of the Petal Throne and Quest of the Ancients.

The king of the hill of the German RPG scene is Das Schwarze Auge. Translated to English as “The Dark Eye”. This commentary on the magic system is based on my memories of the Italian translation of the first edition, both basic and advanced rules.

The review of DSA starts with the effectiveness of mages in combat, and a small commentary on the game mechanics is needed.

Each PC starts from 35 to 20 HP. The mage starts with 20, plus 30 mana (Astral Points in the Italian translation), while the Elf (race as class? yes) has 25 and 25. At each level a character raises a stat by one and either HP or mana by 1d6. Simplifying combat, every character might deal something like 1d6+3 on each hit (once every two or three round accounting for parries), but armour reduces damage. Mages can only wear padded armour (damage reduction 1) while RD 3 is common for adventurers.

Now, every magic user and elf knows a spell that deals 3d6+level, ignoring armour, and costs the same amount of mana. Consequences are left as an exercise for the reader. Back to the rest of the magic system now.

Elves and Mages are the spellcasters of the basic rules. They share a spell list of about half a dozen spells, with mages being able to cast about as many more. All spells in the handbook are known and usable from level one, except the ones found later. The caster pays the mana cost (2/round for a spell that grants protection 2, 15 or so for polymorph other, 1/HP for healing) and the spell goes off. This means that a caster can cast quite a lot, but not incredibly much less than higher-level casters. Some spells have a save, but the mechanics are mostly spell-specific. Sleep is a bit OP against weak opponents, as tradition. 😉

This is a pretty vanilla mana magic system. But the cool thing about DSA is the mage’s staff.

The staff is a normal quarterstaff. Except it’s indestructible. This is a big deal as it’s possible to break weapons on a successful parry.

At any rate, before every adventure, the mage can try to cast an Enchantment on the staff. It costs some mana, so the magic user starts the adventure with less than the maximum amount of mana, but the effects are brilliant. If failed, the MU can try again before the next adventure. Enchantments can be cast from level 2 onwards:

First enchantment: all spell costs are reduced by -2 mana per spell. This means that it’s possible to heal 2 hit points per round for free. In the next editions this was changed so that the spell cost must be at least one, which still allows to cast a number of healing spells that head 3HP for 1 mana. 3HP is not a small amount.

Second enchantment: the mage can set his staff on fire, as a neverending torch.

Third enchantment: the staff can be transformed in a 10 metres rope, controllable by the mage.

Fourth enchantment: the staff can be transformed in a flaming sword that deals 1d6 + mage level damage. The problem is that the mage can lose control of the sword: at that point the staff will try to destroy the group and then selfdestruct.

Fifth enchantment: the staff can become a nearly undetectable salamander controlled by the mage, and the mage can transfer his spirit in the salamander and perceive the world through its senses.

Staff enchantments and being able to cast a lot of different spells are what’s cool about DSA magic. In three words: “TOYS, TOYS, TOYS”.

There are also more caster classes: the game mechanics are the same (sans enchantments), but the spell list vary:

  • the wood elves (not sure about their original name, in Italian they were translated as “halflings”, but they are wood elves) cast some D&D druid spells.
  • the druids cast incredibly creepy voodoo spells (dolls? dolls!) and curses and soul-stealing shenanigans. They need an athame made of volcanic glass. Humans can change class and become druids.
  • initiates (cleric) have a common short list, plus three spells for each god. They need to pass an “invocation check” to cast spells. DSA gods are pretty awesome and shenanigan-prone.

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Casters in Quest of the Ancients

Second episode of my “Casters In…” serie.

Quest of the Ancients is an old D&D clone. It’s close enough to be fully compatible yet distinct enough to be it’s own thing.

For example, there’s a split between stamina (hit points), which are depleted first, and body points (equal to Constitution IIRC), but armour reduces body damage. And there are a bucket of classes. And the classes… well, take a look at the Cossack:

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And, more poignant, the Sorcerer:

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What’s the deal with these Spell Slots?

They can be spent, every day, to either:

  • to memorize a spell of a given level
  • to cast a spell of a given level

So a level 2 sorcerer can:

  • memorize a spell, cast it thrice
  • memorize three spells, cast any once per day
  • memorize two spells, cast any twice per day, including the same spell twice

This is cool as it allows more choices to players, if that’s what floats their boats.

Spells also have some other rules: a spell takes effect in the initiative order of its level, all fingers spells cast as if they were level 1.

it’s possible to cast in melee only spells that do not require dexterity (somatic components in AD&D parlance).

If a caster takes stamina damage, they must roll an intelligence check to avoid wasting the spell. For body damage, a luck check (a save) with a penalty equal to the body points lost.

QotA also has instantaneous spells. it’s possible to cast one such spell per initiative phase if otherwise non busy.

One last word on spell selection: there are many weird, interesting spells. Witches throw explosive jack’o’lanterns, druids throw corn cobs and make them explode with the Popcorn spell, sages can use candles as flaming swords by extending the flame.

And necromancers… let me tell you only a couple of level 1 spells, just to showcase how our ideas of game balance are very tied to the tradition we belong to:

  • healing: heals 4d6 stamina or 2d6 body
  • create skeleton: the spell raises 1 skeleton + 1 for two levels, permanently. No component cost.

Casters in Empire of the Petal Throne

First episode of my “Casters In…” serie.

Empire of the Petal Throne has a really interesting magic system. I got myself a copy years ago but, well, I felt intimidated by the very rich background so I never ran it. I know it’s not something I should worry about, people wrote about this EoPT-self-policing phenomenon, and I’m fully aware myself of how one should always ignore the game police.

Anyway, back to the magic system: warriors, priests and magic users classes all have a list of skills. At character generation you can pick an amount between two out of the first three and five out of the first seven, depending on a dice roll. At each new level the character gains a new skill, starting from the lowest in the list.

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While for fighters the skills essentially  seem to unlock weapon proficiency (which leaves me wonder how CL and MU can use weapons without training, maybe warriors fight as MU when fighting untrained?), Priests’ and MU’s list are populated with a mixture of mundane skills (astrology, know 2 modern languages) and spells.
Most of these spells are usable once a day, and there’s a level-based chance of the spell not firing off.
The cleric list is essentially vanilla D&D, and Revivify is the twelfth skill on the list. Magic users have mostly a mixture of divination and necromancy, with at the eleventh slot “The Grey Hand”, a touch-range finger-of-death, SAVE OR DIE NO SAVE ALLOWED, IT’S WRITTEN IN THE HANDBOOK, and a -10% to resurrection survival, and even then the character is disabled for a week, because high level MU have a big “fuck you” tattooed on their grey hand.

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And then there are the bonus spells. At every new level the character rolls on this swanky table to find how how many spells of which level they learn. As you can see there are only three levels, and there’s a small chance of having a level three spell at level four: the spell is chosen from a list shared by MUs and priests, and there are 18 spells of level one and two and 23 of level 3 (including a host of magic walls). Level one spells vary from “disbelieve and dispel” for illusions to “Madness”, a SAVE OR PERMANENT CONFUSION. Level three spells are things like “Invulnerability” to unenchanted metal and chlen-hide weapons, “The Silver Halo of Soul Stealing” and “Doomkill”, an SAVE-OR-DIE spell with a 240 feet area of effect. Doomkill is cool because DOOMKILL FUCK YEAH and because there’s a chance of overshooting or undershooting, and on a 2 on 2d6 the spell is cast so short the MU is caught on the area of effect. WHAT.

What to bring home from all of this?
First, characters have fewer spells than in D&D, but usually can use each of them at least daily. This is better for starting characters, as it makes chargen waaay shorter, and more spells per day is hardly a bad thing.
Then, there’s no memorization, or picking spells from a long list, which sometimes irk some players. It certainly irks me.
The bonus spells help differentiate between casters, and their random allowance, while sometimes frustrating, shows that magic is a finicky path indeed. The failure chance does that too.
Lastly, this makes spellcasters way easier on players new to RPGs. You get to choose one or two skills to be delayed a level or two, and that’s it. No tree of feats, no long list of spells and very long decisions to take. Also, these spells have cool names and do cool stuff, and the default “magic user as necromancer” seriously appeals to me.