Today it’s another segment from the Continuum II RPG – and one of the oldest sections at that. The original Ceremonial Magic system goes back about 25 years and – like most of the Continuum II rules – is modular enough to fit into most games. It also tries to reproduce the general feel of actual historical magical practices, and so I suppose I must include a disclaimer: if you attempt to use this section as a guide to actual ceremonial magic, and expect it to work, you probably need to be laughed at a lot more.
Ceremonial Magic taps the inherent energies hidden materials, places, times, astronomical events, symbols, and living or once-living things – the small reserves created by the natural seepage of magical energy through the material plane. Materials, beings, and supernaturally dedicated items accumulate such energies, symbols focus the natural “background” energy flow, and times and astronomical events influence the flow itself.
While such energies are trivial compared to those that can be accumulated by a skillful mage or psychic, or drawn directly from the major sources and channeled, they place no particular personal demands on the operator. There is no need to have the talent to reach out and tap external power sources, to harden yourself against the strain of handling vast energies, or to maintain mental focus and discipline in the face of such internal stresses. All a ceremonial magician needs is a bundle of appropriate supplies, a workspace, a bit of time and relative quiet, a modest amount of magical lore, and the tiny amount of personal power that everyone gets just for existing – all easily within the reach of ordinary people.
Unfortunately, this means that a ceremonial mage generally doesn’t have much actual power to work with – and the complexity of the effects they can channel it into is limited by the necessity of working indirectly. Secondarily, the results which can be obtained through ceremonial magic are limited by the properties of the materials the user draws upon, environmental factors, and the symbolism employed. It is usually best for the operator to have an extensive knowledge of such things before attempting to design a ceremony. Given these difficulties, the general weakness of ceremonial magic, and the complexity of any worthwhile ceremony it is easy to see why such magic is usually restricted to hedge-wizards, wisewomen, and others who lack the talent needed to master significant spells.
There are three major types of ceremonies; arcane, activating, and talismanic.
Arcane Ceremonies have immediate effects, such ceremonial magics are similar to spells, if weaker and more troublesome. This type of ceremony is generally divided into subgroups- warding ceremonies, circle magics, healing charms, etcetera. The most effective ceremonies are defensive, such charms can absorb power from the effects they defend against. Many conventional spellcasters make some use of this type of magic, usually in the form of protective inscriptions when dealing with supernatural beings. The classical “village wise- man or -woman” makes more extensive use of arcane ceremonies, usually specializing in healing, protective, and divinatory effects. Classic examples of arcane ceremonies include seances, norse “seidhr” or divination, healing ceremonies, purification ceremonies, protective circles, sandpainting, fertility charms, and so on.
In general, quick arcane ceremonies – such as drawing a magical circle or reading tarot cards – are limited to power-1 and complexity -3. Full-scale arcane ceremonies are limited to power-2 and complexity-5, although especially potent materials (unicorn’s horn, dragon’s bone, actual magical devices) or working at a power nexus may raise the limit to power-3. Beyond that point there just isn’t any way to properly focus or channel the energy indirectly. If you want to surpass these limits, you’ll just have to develop the ability to control the energies you’re using directly – which takes things into trained spellcasting and full-blown ritual magic. Neither of those are topics for dabblers.
Arcane ceremonies can also be used to try and invoke spirits of various kinds, or even to invite them to possess the user – but offer little or no control over such entities. This is an extremely specialized field, and it is wise to stick to established contracts and entities you have already established working relationships with when attempting such acts.
Activating Ceremonies are designed to activate the magical potentials of your materials or some portion thereof. Such ceremonies result in one-shot magic items, the equivalent of potions or magic powders. Such charms may then be employed on a moments notice by anyone who happens to know what they’re for. Unfortunately, once the magic is activated it slowly drains away whether it is used or not, remaining potent for 2-4 weeks at best. It’s fairly practical to make up a couple you know you’re going to need, but trying to keep a lot “in stock” will only lead to unnecessary expense, expenditure of resources, and loss of time. Examples of such devices include the celtic “tathlum”, holy and unholy water/salts/earth/whatever, attraction charms, and many more. In general, such items are limited to effects of up to power-1 and complexity-3, although especially potent ingredients or working at a power nexus may increase the power limit to 2.
Talismanic Ceremonies create permanent magical devices, if weak ones. Each must be constructed for a specific person and is only useful to that person. Talismans can have multiple functions but any single being can only benefit from three talisman functions at a time; since talismans draw on ambient magic for power, there simply isn’t enough energy available to any single person to power a lot of effects. Talismans have some advantages over more conventional magical devices: they have no magic above the natural background level and so are extremely difficult to detect. They have ne external magical links to block, disrupt, or break, and so generally cannot be cut off from their power sources. Perhaps most importantly, they are relatively cheap and easy to make, and so are widely available. Examples include amerindian “sacred bundles”, Aztec ceremonial masks, necromantic fetishes such as shrunken heads, good luck charms, sacred scriptures and other paper charms, cave paintings designed to influence game, new-age crystal talismans, gris-gris, and hundreds of other devices of folk magic.
Talismans can have effects of up to power-1 and complexity-3. Since their power depends on ambient magic, neither using unusually potent ingredients nor working at a power nexus will help increase the available power – but actually using a talisman in an area with an unusually high ambient magic level may enhance its effects.
In general, ceremonies are complex and somewhat unpredictable things, unlike spells, any ceremony requires a success roll to determine if, and how well, the operator pulled it off. The characteristic used depends on the operators style; secular ceremonies usually require intellect checks, while religious themes usually require wisdom checks – but there are always exceptions; summoning ceremonies usually require charisma checks. The base difficulty is equal to the complexity of the desired effect if an immediate effect is desired. Attempting to store an effect for later increases the complexity by one. Attempting to create multiple effects increased the complexity by the number of effects attempted. Attempting to create an ongoing permanent effect or talisman increases the complexity by two. Penalties for rushing, injuries, and other bad conditions apply as usual. Bonuses for assistants, references – and doing a good job on describing the ceremony – also apply.
For those in search of greater realism, a wide variety of sources can be consulted concerning the magical properties of particular materials, places, times, items, and symbols.
As for a couple of sample ceremonies:
Curing ordinary diseases is a relatively reliable and widely-used effect, although the number of variations is immense. This particular “Sweat Lodge” ceremony can fairly be taken as representative of the general theme. Variants are common among village healers, wisewomen, and such. It is of moderate complexity but at least does not call for anything too exotic.
The ceremony should take place in the afternoon and early evening, in a field by a clear running stream. It calls for several rocks from the streambed, a tightly closed shelter, a supply of well-seasoned oak for a fire, three pounds of sandlewood or other fumigant, red ochre, a bunch of fern, and a quantity of a local restorative, such as ginsing, plum sap, or peppermint.
The operator should cleanse and close a ceremonial circle around the shelter using water from the stream sprinkled with the fern and inscribe the symbols of guardians appropriate to his or her beliefs at the cardinal points, invoking each as he or she does so. Once the circle is prepared, the operator should fumigate the shelter by burning the sandlewood in it and heat the rocks from the stream in the fire. While the rocks are heating, he or she should draw the symbols of the (local) god of healing on the body of the patient with the red ochre. Infuse the ginsing (or substitute) in water from the stream and pour the water over the heated stones. The patient should remain inside until the water has been poured seven times. Break the circle and bathe the patient in the stream. At this point the patient should be cured – presuming that he or she had the strength to go through the entire ceremony.
This particular ceremony calls for power-1 and complexity-4, and thus usually requires a 4d6 roll against the operators appropriate attribute.
Protective charm-bundles are a relatively common form of talisman, and come in a wide variety of styles and types. This particular version is designed for an adventurous youth.
The ceremony is best performed during the autumn season. It should be performed in an open field in the hills, preferably someplace with at least one oak tree growing nearby. It requires a leather pouch made of bullhide, sewing equipment, an iron scriber set with a ruby, red ochre, cypress, rosemary, and vanilla oils, yarrow, garlic, and amaranth, a piece of white cloth, an earthenware mortar and pestle, a small copper box, a jade ring, a bears tooth, and three drops of the recipients blood.
To perform the ceremony, mix the protective herbs (yarrow, garlic, and amaranth) with the first drop of the recipients blood, grind them to a powder at noon in the mortar, and dry the resulting mixture in the sun. The powder should then be wrapped in the linen, stored in the copper box, and carried by the prospective recipient for at least three days before it is needed to complete the ceremony. The oils and the second drop of the recipients blood should be mixed in an hornbeam bowl stirred with rod carved from oak. The bears tooth should be left in the mixture overnight before the mixture is used.
On the night of the ceremony, bless your workspace, lay out the materials and dedicate them to the gods (giving preference to any local gods of youth, protection, and heroes) in the name of the recipient the bundle is designed to protect. Mix the red ochre with part of the oil to form a paste. Use the paste and the iron scriber to incise the runes of the Wild, the Warrior, and the Shield upon the pouch. Polish the pouch with the remaining oil and allow it to sink into the leather. Meditate upon the pouch, the ring, and the box of herbs until the moon reaches its culmination then place them within the pouch. Have the recipient prick his finger upon the bears tooth and place the tooth, with the third drop of his blood upon it into the pouch. Sew the pouch closed permanently, finishing the last stitches with the dawning of a new day and present it to its recipient.
The resulting talisman should be a small pouch – suitable for wearing around the neck or secured to a belt – which will provide it’s bearer with (1) Protection from the effects of the environment, as if the user was sensibly dressed for the season., (2) Protection from injury; the first two points of damage is subtracted from each attack on the bearer – albeit to a minimum of zero, and (3) the ability to locate wholesome food and drink in the wilderness.
This particular ceremony calls for power-1 and complexity-3 (the highest among the effects), but is also combining three effects (+3) and creating a permanent item (+2), and thus usually requires an 8d6 roll against the operators appropriate attribute. Most characters will need some substantial bonuses – such as an enhancing effect, assistants, and either a memorized ceremony or references – to pull this off, even if the game master knocks off a die for a good description of the ceremony.
Ceremonies are a long, complicated, messy business.