RPG Design – The Magical Worldview

   Felling a tree – especially with primitive equipment – is a dangerous thing. It may splinter, it may fall in the wrong direction, it may snap, the head of the axe may come loose, ropes may break or be whipped about with lethal force, the would-be feller could fall, and even a comparatively minor wound could lead to a lethal infection or throw a blood clot into the heart or brain.

   Today, when a man is injured, or killed, in such an endeavor, we would look for the cause of the failure – improper procedure, a rope poorly fastened, a loose axe head, or any of a hundred other things. We’re pretty confident that – if we do things correctly, and check our equipment carefully – we can do things safely enough.

   That has never been the case before.

   Until very recently, most failures were inexplicable, or at least the result of flaws and causes that could neither be seen nor easily anticipated. Life was wildly chancy and unpredictable. The world was full of things – many of them vital to human survival – which happened for no reason at all. A solid majority of children did not live to adulthood.

   For our tree-feller, there was little that could be done to ensure success save to do the best that he or she could, use the best tools available – and propitiate the gods and spirits, use charms for luck and success, and make sure that there were no major ill-omens or evil influences about.

   It’s never been easy to deal with there not being anything you could do about something. That’s a survival mechanism of course; often there IS something sensible you can do to improve your odds – but, like most survival mechanisms, there’s no good way to shut off that drive to keep looking for ways to improve the odds when you’ve already done everything you can. Thus, prayers, magic, and rituals – not that there was any clear distinction throughout most of history.

   Modern players – no surprise – have a modern worldview. They look for causes and systems, they expect most events to be systematic, and they expect there to be laws.

   Even the foundation games, such as First Edition AD&D, fell into that trap, both on the large scale (mechanistic and readily-repeatable magic), and on the small (disease rules relying on notions like dirt, contagion, and the modern understanding of germs).

   Part of that’s inevitable; it’s hard to build a game system that doesn’t rely on some pretty predictable rules – but it’s easy enough to make your world a lot more magical.

  • Forget about germs. Diseases are caused by evil spirits, or foul miasmas, or offenses against the gods, or by curses. Washing a wound with alcohol is only likely to attract dark spirits – everyone knows that they like such offerings – but reciting the proper charm over a wound will greatly aid its healing.
  • If the proper rituals are not performed, the sun may not return after the winter solstice, but only continue to weaken until some heroes find some other method of restoring it’s strength.
  • The stars do drift and change, to carry messages from the gods to the wise.
  • Most priests and mages are crippled, blind, or otherwise damaged. Nothing magical comes without a price. The same goes for the greater magical devices. They are things of terror and awe, and never to be relied on.

   In a genuinely magical world, there are no laws of nature, no cycles that can be assured without the active support of human ritual and supernatural entities, and no simple mechanical magics. Even the most mundane of tasks should not be undertaken without performing the appropriate rites first – and violations of tradition or disrespect to the supernatural may have horrific consequences.

   The game rules are, necessarily, going to be at least somewhat mechanical. The players need to have a fair idea of what their characters actual capabilities are, or their decisions aren’t going to mean much – but the causes of the events in the world around them need not be so simple. If a thief steals the sacred seal of the earth lord from the high temple, there may be storms, volcanoes, and other natural disasters until it is recovered and returned to it’s place, not because it possesses any “enchantment”, but because the order of the world has been disturbed. Any spellcasters in the world had best show proper respect to the powers they invoke, instead of just treating them as tools.

   Personally, I really don’t usually run truly “magical” worlds. I tend to have underlying laws of nature – and the players usually have a lot of fun figuring out what they are and how to best take advantage of them. Still, that’s just me. If you want to have a truly magical world, it can be a lot of fun – and the quests to restore the proper balance of the world, or to find a way to placate some upset spirit, can be a welcome change from the quests for treasure, power, or magic which so often drive the player characters.

   Just don’t expect the players, or the characters, to actually try to figure out how things work. When most events don’t have rational causes, you really can’t expect much in the way of detective work, analysis, or attempts to build and change things. The characters will try symbolic approaches, go looking for the spirits who are actually behind their misery, bargain with gods, attempt to come up with rituals, and offer sacrifices to spirits. After all, in truly magical worlds, that’s the only sensible approach.

Uncontrolled Substances – Zashin

   Here we have another in the series of exotic substances and compounds suitable for use in any – or at least a wide variety – of role-playing games. After all, drugs and spices are usually almost as valuable as gold and gems – and raise much more interesting dilemmas. Will you trade your treasure, horde it, or use it?

   Zashin normally exists as a thin gas, so tenuous that it passes easily through normal matter, although it does respond – weakly – to gravitation. On most worlds, it is found in small quantities near the planetary core and, occasionally, riding the lines of force in the magnetosphere. Gathering it is quite a task, usually requiring specialized magnetic traps, psionics, or magic. It’s existence might have been missed entirely, save for some curious investigations of why “visions” seemed to be so common near the magnetic poles. It is believed that Zashin actually incorporates interdimensional particles, while rotate through many other dimensions whether those are hidden aspects of reality or entirely separate realms – while existing primarily on the mental level in any single one.

   Zashin is usually released into the sinuses (into whatever body cavity or opening comes closest to the brain in non-humanoids or near wherever the mind is located in immaterial beings). As it begins interacting with the mental fields of the mind, it acts as a carrier – extending the user’s mind into other realms of existence entirely. The effects are usually quite transitory unless the user either takes measures to keep the particles from dissipating or has a very high mental energy level, which will help keep them temporarily bound.

   While so bound, Zashin essentially operates as a carrier – providing the user’s mind with access to normally-inaccessible levels of reality. Unfortunately, the utility of such an effect is limited to the effects of dosage level three unless the user already possesses psychic abilities; otherwise he or she will likely interact with other dimensions and realms only by accident. The effects of the dosage levels are, of course, cumulative – and the effects of higher dosage levels will fade through the lower dosage levels as the Zashin dissipates.

   Dosage Levels

  1. Even a trace dosage of Zashin can expose the “user” to fragments of other-dimensional mental activity – intercepting stray thoughts and images from other realms. Unfortunately, this tends to manifest as completely random visions, voices, and weird impulses – all essentially random, and all being filtered through the user’s mental matrix of familiar images, languages, and memories – often resulting in complete gibberish. Still, artists, researchers, and visionaries occasionally use Zashin at this level for inspiration – either intentionally or by staying near natural sources.
  2. At this level, Zashin allows the user’s mind to brush against alien minds more completely – gaining the occasional complete idea, substantial thoughts and bits of literature, or odd memory. In more concrete terms, those using Zashin at this dosage can acquire strange skills and lore (allowing the players to buy such things without having to come up with other excuses). Such contacts are, however, still rare and intermittent.
  3. Zashin generally isn’t naturally available at this dosage level – but it can be concentrated to this point fairly readily artificially. At this point, the user’s mind will be extended into other dimensions in a metastable state. While this extension will collapse when the Zashin starts to dissipate, until that happens the user is extremely difficult to attack or probe mentally, since a good deal of his or her mind will be located in other dimensions. In addition, the alien mental contacts typical of a level two dose will be augmented as well, becoming more complete and stable while the effect lasts. This can be quite distracting, but otherwise doesn’t change the results particularly.
  4. At this level the user can reliably contact sympathetic minds in other realms – conversing, sharing ideas and advice, and gathering strange insights. Unfortunately, the user’s roster of “friends” is still essentially random and their viewpoints can be extremely alien. They can be quite helpful at times – and at other times are merely a distraction. It’s always difficult to know which it will be in any particular situation. Unfortunately, given the expense and difficulty in acquiring Zashin at this concentration, only those with special resources in the first place can afford to explore this avenue of advice.
  5. Doses of Zashin this concentrated are almost impossible to come by – but throw the user’s mind wide open to sympathetic minds in other realms (or at least to something which the user’s mind tends to interpret as such). The user will experience entire other alien lives (or at least acquire memories which seem to represent such an experience) during the few moments such a high level dose is typically effective. Some reports have indicated a subjective duration of many years, leading to speculation that the dimensional aspects of Zashin may include a temporal aspect as well.
  6. Doses of Zashin this concentrated are generally things of legend, but – if one should be available – it allows the user’s mind to shunt energy between dimensions or aspects of reality. Such forces are invariably ones that can be manipulated mentally – but they’re still things that do not belong in the user’s reality at all. The effects are extremely unpredictable, even if the user is lucky enough to absorb some information related to handling the energy in question as the Zanshin takes effect. User’s are rarely that lucky.
  7. While a true “overdose” of Zashin really isn’t possible – given that it has no physical effects and only short-term mental ones – at this point the user’s mind will be so dimensionally scattered that actually focusing on a particular dimension will be impossible, even for non-psychics. This fugue state rarely lasts for long, but is pretty incapacitating while it does.

   Side Effects: Zashin’s side effects are – at least normally – purely psychological. Many people find themselves unable to handle exposure to other dimensions and alien mentalities. Odd quirks and minor insanities are all too common in users, while not a few go entirely mad or find their own personalities being overwhelmed by alien memories or experiences. A few instances of infection by “psychic parasites” have been reported – and a dose at level six or higher might have almost any imaginable effect, either on a temporary or permanent basis.