Dawn of New Thaumaturgy: Abstract Magic & Concrete Magic, or the Maxilor-Passwall index

This post was originally written for Knock #3, and it’s been amended somewhat. It’s also part of the Dawn of New Thaumaturgy series of posts, which is taking literal years because most of its posts are unfinished drafts.

Classic Dungeons & Dragons is a game with a lot of very abstract rules. Combat is resolved with one attack roll per round, and success deals damage. Finding secret doors takes one turn and succeeds 1-in-6 times. Spells are cast spending their slot and performing the rite. All these mechanics are fairly high level, easy to resolve, and while there might be some modifiers they are very granular and ignore lower-level choices. This is not an oversight, but deliberate: the game is not about combat, or finding that secret door, or casting that spell, but about having an adventure. The rules do not care about any finer detail: choosing to strike the enemy at the legs to slow it down, carefully using a candle to verify if that crack in the wall hides a passage, or harvesting the mistletoe with a golden sickle do not have a direct impact on the outcomes, but are abstracted away.

The issue, though, is that these details are abstracted away: the details to support the narration at the table are absent. One way to solve this is to have more complex game mechanics, but it makes the game experience slower, more cumbersome, and rewards system expertise: I love GURPS, but it’s often too much. Where are we left? An option is to add some narrative flourish, for example how in combat we might say “the bravo swiftly steps to your left to avoid your shield and slashes at your shoulder, 4 damage” rather than just “4 damage from the thug”. Another to zoom in to a puzzle of sorts, like we often do to find secret doors and traps by deliberately poking and pulling things. Both are approaches that help push the game narrative forward and enrich our experience.

For magic, the situation is different. Spells have a greater impact and their slots are scarce, so they already have bigger chances to be momentous. The issue with spells though is that most D&D spells are both abstract and dry as hell: in the Theatre of the Mind, abstraction dries passion, and does not help with meaningful stories.

Concrete Magic: the Passwall-Maxilor index

Does anyone remember Passwall? Straight from fantasy fiction, the spell creates a magic passage in a wall. You can go through it. It’s really helpful to delve deeper, bypass a door, escape a situation, provide tactical opportunities. If the spell ends whoever is left inside the passage is crushed (or spit out, depending on the edition). It’s a good, useful spell that some GM hate because bypassing encounters is “bad”, while I think bypassing problems is great.

The Spell of the Subterranean Gullets (by Brendan S., published in Wonder & Wickedness) is an invocation to the great chthonic god Maxilor. All subterranean cavities, tunnels, and pits are his mouths, throats, and visceral cavities. This spell (or perhaps prayer?) compels Maxilor to open one such opening in stone. At the end of the spell the passage closes; whoever is still there is lost, probably devoured by the god.

The two spells are mechanically the same. They have the same effect on the game world.

Yet, one is barely a sleight of hand involving a wall, while the other is an awesome experience stepping in the moist, holy maws of a greater god, and possibly being eaten alive. The spell achieves this by virtue of being concrete: it starts with an invocation to a god, and the god has a very clear and relevant context (the subterranean gullets). The chance of becoming a tasty morsel provides some emotional colour, and also ties the spell to the Classical tradition of offering buried sacrifices to chthonic gods*.

Just add Concrete Sauce

How do we make magic more concrete? My suggestion is to write concrete spells and use those, or rewrite spells in a more concrete way. That can be a whole lot of work, possibly left only for folks as obsessed as the author (or anyone writing in KNOCK!, I would add. — Eric). The other option is to make blanket changes in how magic works: it’s more effective effort-wise, but might require more finangling later. We are introducing meaningful elements so we can have more opportunities for interesting play.

This segues into another advantage of concrete magic: as we can make more sense of the causes and effects, adjudication in complicated situations becomes a source of shenanigans, the dream fuel of OSR-style emergent play.

Here are a few ways in which you can pour concreteness into your magic. They are mostly inspired by historical European and Mediterranean esoterica, and they do blend into each other, so I strongly recommend to mix them for full potency. Find in these proposals what makes sense in your worlds and brings meaning to the table.

1. Natural Magic: the natural world has intrinsic magic qualities ready to be exploited. For example, a tree stuck by lightning makes excellent wands to cast Lightning bolt: nature (or the god of thunder) chose it for reasons that we do not understand, but we can exploit its cozy relationship with lightning nonetheless. The easy way to make this work is to add more meaningful components – verbal, somatic, material – to spells. Fly is useful, but what if you whooshed through the skies propelled by feathered fans? Web is great, but it would be much better if you needed to draw extra eyes on your face and eat a bag of flies before you can spit out strands of sticky silk from your nose? Tenser’s Transformation turns you into a fighting machine, but what if it required you to don the skin of a ritually slain bear and tear into your flesh with your nails to become a beast? Suggestion is great at convincing people to go away, but it would be even better if it was a funny limerick about that lad from Bonnyridge who jumped off the bridge (of course you’d need to come up for a rhyme that works for your circumstances). Fear is a powerful spell, but what if you cast it shouting, while drumming on cymbals?

Strive for iconic and meaningful: without going in details about sympathetic magic, use mimicry, metaphors, and similes as components. It’s not a lot of effort: it adds a note of colour to spells. It also paves the way for small adventures when gathering components. Do not make simple components hard to find, maybe just inconvenient! (Like head feathers from a dire swan, for example.) However if your wizard wants their spells a bit stronger there are plenty of adventures looking for griffon or phoenix feathers for their fans, or drums made with wolf-skin or tiger-skin or tyrannosaurus-skin.

2. Emanations & Alignment: The influence of stars and planets is an excellent source of magic. These are somehow completely absent in D&D, their role taken by alignments, planes, and gods. True to its heritage of a game created in a strongly aligned world on the brink of mutually assured nuclear annihilation (the 1970s were a fun time), D&D pits the conflicting structures of reality of Law & Chaos and Good & Evil against each other in a struggle neverending.

Let me spell one important thing out: I’m not a fan of alignments as moral compass, and moral relativism is something that many of us take for granted. This is not how the premodern mind works, though. Most of humanity in history knew gods and demons and their powers were real, exactly as we know nuclear missiles and their programmed holocaust to be real. They bow to their gods, as most of our world bowed to one or the other side during the Cold War.

The biggest direct evidence for this is that Dungeons & Dragons is a game with an in-world literal moral compass: the Great Wheel is real, the moral compass pointed by scores of Gods Enthroned. Them, and the myriads of demons, and angels, and chaos frogs dancing for them are all real as the screen you are reading on. Good and Evil and Chaos and Law are, in the game, immanent.

PCs can avoid the struggle, stay Neutral, and have their spell election reduced, or join the struggle and become aligned, therefore gaining access to aligned magic, better suited to eternal war. I believe any other use of alignments in D&D is source of much wailing and gnashing of teeth at your table. I also only use Chaos and Law.

This gives a huge opportunity to ground spells. D&D’s Un/Holy Word is a good example: spelling out the pure truth of divinity is harmful to the uninitiated exposed to it (the differently aligned), certainly too much for their heathen souls, hurting them possibly to the point of death, as clearly shown in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Turning Undead is another very good example, but limited by the history of the first D&D cleric being a vampire-hunter. Turn Undead is an exorcism, and humans through millennia cast exorcism on many, many things beside the living dead: demons, diseases, spirits, ill luck, feral beasts, the evil eye, possibly even invaders, certainly bad intentions. It’s easy to make exorcisms more diverse, more relevant to alignment, and available to aligned casters, or swap them for other rites. The key here is to find the mood or objective of the alignment and have the exorcism/rite work toward that. Also, it would maybe be possible to grant a small boon to those of the same alignment present during the rite, maybe a small bonus, or a bit of healing, or advantage on a roll.

Aligning spells might make them concrete enough, or they might require some minor alteration. A low hanging fruit is clear from the examples above: aligned magic can tell apart friends and foes. As a matter of fact, the caster won’t be able to stop it from doing so, and the issue here is that the friend-or-foe identification is not decided by the wizard, but by the spell. The wizard trades power for agency, becoming stronger but more of a conduit, a tool instrumental to an end, as the stronger-willed spells make decisions for them. And if you think the struggle is only a concern for casters, do not forget that the best D&D magic swords are aligned too, sharp gears of war eager to enroll worthy fighters into the deadly struggle, and take over their agency too.

This kind of approach can also be used with other “factions”: it works perfectly for a struggle between the four elemental-aligned factions (you might have heard of a cartoon stushie involving firebenders). One last thing: unfortunately in vanilla D&D this kind of emanations are oppositional, but they do not need to be! Maybe in your world there is space for a mingling of the opposites that does not result in permanent cosmic war?

You can also ignore all of the above, and add planets and moons: their phases affecting their spells’ effects. While you are at it, introduce star signs and give each character a random, situational, and really quirky modifier.

3. Animism: instead of channeling power to affect reality directly, you beg or summon a god, spirit, or daemon (a servant spirit) to do the job for you; for all intents and purposes these beings all lie in a continuum of increased power and crotchetiness. To start summoning daemons in your games the easy way is simply to get the spell list and associate some (or each!) spell to daemons. The daemon could be summoned either in normal casting time (to get the standard spell effect) or as a longer ritual spell, in case the summoner require the daemon do to something more involved, like teach their arts, give advice, or craft something. If you want a good example, the Ars Goetia in the Little Key of Solomon lists scores of daemons, along with aspects, personalities, competencies, a personality, and a whole lot of knowledge.

The hard part is to actually get the daemon to do your bidding (as games folk, we want to compensate for the increased flexibility). Try a reaction roll every time you make a demand: a positive result means compliance, a negative one snubbing or worse, a neutral one a delay, as the spirit demands something in return. Of course daemons would be more cooperative when it comes to carrying out tasks that please them, and sacrifices and other appeasement might make them more pliable, giving permanent reaction bonuses. You might also threaten them into compliance: in this case roll again, but at the price of a permanent negative modifier. And if the roll is particularly bad the daemon might decide to not go away, and possibly haunt the caster. Banishing it becomes the next adventure goal!

Another approach is to require spiritual intercession: for example to cast elemental spells, you need to ask an elemental spirit. This means bringing with you a live fire to cast Fireball.

* Puppies at crossroads for Hekate, or so they say.

[Dawn of New Thaumaturgy] how to write a new spell selection, part 1: questions?

This post is part of the Dawn of New Thaumaturgy series of posts.

When you build a new campaign in a different game world you should write a completely new spell selection that lets players use magic in novel ways, or else you are still in Greyhawk (or wherever the magic from your game handbook comes from). It’s hard work but it’s also a great payoff. I’ve done the redevelopment a few times, and I hope this small series of posts might help you in similar endeavours.

Magic is one of the big pillars on which fantasy is built, as it does most of the work to make the fantastic behave differently from our world of internal combustion engines, banking, and health & safety guidelines. Different kinds of magic will make the fantastic behave differently: magic goes beyond the physical mundane by using metaphysics, and different magic will go to different fantasy in different ways.

More specifically: spells and magic items in fantasy games are an integral part of the setting, and the main affordance players have on what makes it go beyond the mundane. Players use spells and magic items as tools to exploit and explore the supernatural.

However, when Game Masters develop campaign settings for play or publication for a game already in print, they rarely consider changing magic. Why?

Too many words

Mostly, it’s an awful lot of work. To give some perspective, let’s consider page count. It’s not a perfect metric, and page count certainly does not measure importance in the game, and the measures are rough. Still, page count is a metric for game material that would be re-developed:

  • Rules Cyclopedia, 257 pages: 30 pages for spells, 28 for magic items, 5 pages for Immortals and their mystic quests, 3 pages for multiverse, plus tidbits like rules for energy drains and the like. Roughly 25%
  • D&D 5e, roughly 900 pages: 28 pages of multiverse, 96 pages of magic items, 86 pages of spellcasting and spells, 29 pages for arcane/divine class features. 26%.

For games where recovering lost magic is not a core concern drifting toward obsession, I picked two at random:

  • WHFRP 4e, 350 pages: 26 for religion and belief and cults, 28 for magic. 15%, without counting spellcasters and their feats.
  • House of the Blooded, 430 pages: 17 for sorcery, 24 for the Suaven. 10%

It’s a whole lot of vision, design, and development work.

(note: this might be seen as an indictment of overly long games. There are many perfectly valid small games! However, the latter do not have much material: if you want much varied magic, the size of your text will grow. Unless you use generative systems, which is also entirely doable, but those have other cognitive issues)

Second, it strongly changes the nature of the world. There would be a lot to discuss here but, to keep it concise, I propose a thought experiment: imagine to rotate the magic in the three games above:

  • D&D with House of the Blooded magic and Suaven changes completely: what the game concerns itself with is much different.
  • House of the Blooded with WHFRP magic and gods becomes a completely new kind of nasty, with our nobles doing their usual shenanigans but with a godly struggle behind, and CHAOS.
  • WHFRP with D&D magic gets back to its origins as the non-grim D&D campaign of Pelinore, the setting published on Imagine, the magazine published by TSR UK. All of a sudden you do not have to worry about wizardry & warpstone. Skaven stop being their usual festering nightmare to become the fuzzy cuddly kobolds.

These changes are massive, and that’s precisely the reason why you want to change magic when you change world. There is no need to change magic system (although that would also help) but we do want to change magic so that magic does different things.

So many ways to pet a cat

This is a lot of work, and there are many approaches to it. As games are fun for many reasons, I suggest to approach the work from many angles, possibly all the angles relevant to the game you intend to create.

There are many ways to proceed: I’ll be making light references to D&D game mechanics (like level, and learning spells) for ease of communication, but keep in mind all of these apply to also other games, and to games with no spells per se.

What’s the simplest approach? Babysteps!

You can just begin writing spells, and stop when you decide you are done. When you run out of spells, write more. You can also start with a handful of low level spells, and let each spellcaster player create a new spell, and establish a consensus regarding power level and effects. Do the same each time they gain a level, or every other level if that’s too much. Over the course of the campaign you have a new grimoire.

This is similar to the process often done to create a total new monster selection: each adventure the GM writes up the creatures that are in the adventure, and in the process of playing the campaign eventually write a bestiary of sorts. This is how the Fiend Folio came to be: collating monsters from Imagine magazine. And of course you can try to run a campaign using only creatures from the Fiend Folio, eschewing other bestiaries (I’ve done it, and it’s weird, and I loved it).

The issue is that you risk having no structure at all to your magic. It’s monster-of-the-week in its approach, and this can be a good or a bad thing. However, many people that write a lot of spells often have this approach. It works. It’s simple. It is very economical in effort, as it’s on-demand. Its’s fine to write a handful of spells every week as you need them.

Top Down or Bottom Up?

(do not report me to the game design police for any top-down vs bottom-up discourse, please)

The piecemeal approach can also be used to start with a bottom-up design, and progressively give it structure as a bigger picture appears and we want to make the whole meaningful. Bottom-up is more exploratory, as we are not sure where we will end up and the end of the design, but the point is to find meaning in the forests by looking at the trees: not in isolation, but as an ecosystem.

The opposite approach is to start top-down: begin with an idea of what you want, decide its structure, and proceed by progressive detailing. For example, we decide that we want 7 disciplines of magic, one discipline for each type of energy emanating from each of the seven magic stars, and each discipline concerning itself with a different type of game mechanic applied to a different section of the game. Then we proceed to establish what kind of effects we want, how the effects interact in the magic ecosystem (for example what protection magic is available for specific noxious magic), and so on up to the point where we “only” have to write, more or less, three spells per level for each discipline.

It’s also possible to combine and alternate the two approaches: maybe decide that there are three types of wizards casting with different mechanics, and the five Creation Gods made the 5 soul crystals radiating the ten songs of creation, then write maybe one or two spells for each, or none if no player is interested. Or maybe design the 6 colleges of magic and their teachings, start writing some spells for a college, which informs design for other colleges’ spells, which refines the college design, etc.

Concerns and Approaches: Many & Conflicting

Games are complicated artifacts, with strong tensions in them. Good games are fun, meaningful, interesting to explore, simple to learn, et cetera. I could be here all day. The idea is to gather all these concerns and express them in the form of questions, and answer them in a sort of dialectical approach to investigate, as a sounding board, with yourself or your development team.

These questions can be answered in any order, and without full commitment: answering other questions will help you tighten the design. Some of these questions might not be answered, maybe because we do not know the answer, or simply because we do not care about giving an answer.

I’m going to start with a few questions that can be easily sorted in distance order, from game-y and social to diegetic and magical.

  • What is the role of the caster player at the table?
  • What is the meaning and role we give to the caster in the game world or story, from our human point of view?
  • What is the role of casters in the game, from a game design and internal game ecology point of view?
  • What do casters do in the fantasy world? if and how do they learn magic, socialize, work, what is their place in society?
  • How does magic work in the fantasy world? how are spells cast? what affects spells?
  • Why is there magic? how does it happen? how does it behave and interact with the rest of the universe? is it unique? coherent?

More questions about Magic itself

Then there are a few more questions about what magic can do and how:

  • what can magic do?
    • what are the game affordances magic makes available?
    • what kind of magic is available?
  • what can magic not do?
    • why is it limited?
      • is magic limited for a game design reason, for example to limit its effects?
      • is magic limited because knowledge is lost? can it be recovered?
      • is magic limited by the metaphysics? or some other condition?
    • is magic waning or waxing?
  • How many different magic praxes are available? (A praxis is a way of doing magic, for example: wizards memorize their spells and unleash them, warlocks receive powers from their patron, clerics turn undead and channel their god power, or whatever it is they do in a specific edition)
    • how do they differ?
    • do different praxes provide access to different magic?
    • why are there different praxes?
      • what’s their distribution?
      • what’s their accessibility?
  • How many different “colours” of magic are available?
    • are they based on different principles and powers?
    • what are their concerns?
    • how are they divided?
      • by culture (eg. there are many necromancy schools to learn necromancy from)
      • by approach
      • by magic energy or phenomena employed
    • can colours be blended? how?
    • how do colours combine with different praxes?

Next posts, we’ll work out an example and see a couple of development templates.

PS: yeah, I know, I haven’t posted in a while. The twitter game design discourse is terrible, and I miss google plus. Game production is proceeding tho! updates soon.

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

This post is part of the Dawn of New Thaumaturgy series.

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.