Cursed with Awesome; Dark Magic and You

Today’s question basically boils down to “Dark magic often seems to act rather like a progressive disease – and in many works even benign magic is dangerous if overused. How does that work and how can it be cured or treated?”

Ok, the original question was framed in terms of My Little Pony; Friendship is Magic – but it’s talking about a very common element of magic in religion, mythology, and fiction, and that makes it a very good question indeed for those designing or running role playing games with magic in them.

As usual, my answer should be taken as the definitive word of god, end all further debate on the topic forever, and you should send me lots of money in exchange for the secret directions to the lost continent of Atlantis where you can learn even more… No? Oh well, it was worth a shot.

Mentioning Twilight’s “little foray into mass mind control” reminds me of a related issue that I saw mentioned a while back.

A lot of the fandom has a big problem with Twilight have tried to make a “reform spell” to use on Discord, pointing out that that’s little more than mind control since what constitutes “being reformed” is going to be relative. That’s not an incorrect point, but it overlooks a salient issue: that a lot of evil magic functions as a sickness.

Admittedly, this isn’t an iron-clad issue, but it does have some supporting points (seen both before and after the episode in question, which was season three’s Keep Calm and Flutter On). Although Luna seemed to fall from grace for personal reasons, her defeat with the Elements of Harmony seemed to immediately cause a shift in her mentality (and she later characterized what happened as being “stripped of Our dark powers”). Likewise, Rarity is “infected” with “dark magic” in season four’s Inspiration Manifestation. And although it’s not explicitly evil magic, both “Midnight Sparkle” and Gloriosa Daisy (from the third and fourth Equestria Girls movies, respectively) suffered from temporary psychosis due to magic overload.

Now, there’s evidence that goes the other way – such as Celestia being not only able to use the same dark magic as King Sombra, but teach it to Twilight (Return of the Crystal Empire – Part 1) – but there’s at least some precedent to say that a “reform spell” should be a viable idea, since a lot of evil magic is presented as being a sort of “disease of the mind.”

Alzrius

Well, that is a classic problem. Whether it’s the use of lovecraftian lore that men were not meant to know (and which drives them mad), greater magics being inherently corrupting, demanding huge prices and self-indulgences for the use of magic because it uses up your lifespan, having to mortgage your soul, or any of a thousand other “prices”, the notion that “you’ve got to pay for what you get” (and likely a certain “sour grapes” feeling that the spell casters special advantages will somehow turn around and bite them in the butt) is a bit part of people’s thinking about magic.

Personally, I think that it largely follows from some very basic principles, even if most people aren’t consciously aware of the logic.

1) “Magic”, whatever the nature of the forces it involves, can cause an incredibly wide array of alterations in reality.

2) Magic-wielders channel at least some part of those forces through themselves.

3) Nothing is 100% efficient.

Ergo… a certain amount of semi-randomized (if very likely still in theme) reality-alteration is going to affect a magic-wielder whenever he or she channels magic.

4) Living things have mechanisms that maintain homoeostasis – a tendency to return to their baseline conditions – to at least some degree.

Ergo… a certain amount of magic use can be tolerated without much risk. Using “small” magics, just like using a little bit of alcohol, sugar, or caffeine, will generally have no noticeable long-term ill effects unless you use something that’s especially “toxic” (that’s why I’d much rather work with iron than with dimethylmercury). You can even build up your effective tolerance by becoming more skilled and thus minimizing the amount of contamination. Exceed your tolerance by using too much magic at any one time, however, and changes may occur that aren’t easily reversed. Even presuming that you don’t accidentally turn your spinal cord to broccoli, or cook your brain, and so get to live, excessive magic use can cause all kinds of physical, mental, or even spiritual disorders. Presumably most mages would rather that did not happen – although “ceasing to care”, and so being willing to accept the consequences, may allow dying mages, or even fairly normal people, to lay unexpectedly powerful curses or produce “final strike” effects.

  • A well-trained magician has a clear mind, focused concentration, a detailed understanding of the spell he or she wants to use, fine control of the necessary energies, plenty of practice, whatever tools (if any) are necessary, access to sufficient magical power, and possibly supplementary stabilizing effects. They will use the gestures, signs, and symbols that help channel their magic safely.

That’s the equivalent of a well-trained chemist using a carefully planned procedure, correctly maintained equipment, a modern laboratory with fans, vents, and electrical power, sufficient pure chemicals, a fume hood, tongs, a hazmat suit, assistants and emergency equipment handy, and having antidotes at the ready.

In either case, as long as proper precautions are taken and the operator doesn’t make any major errors, their exposure should be small enough that the body, mind, or spirits various stabilizing and defensive mechanisms should be able to handle it.

To extend the analogy… just as with chemistry, some types of magic are more toxic, dangerous, or difficult to work with than others, working with waldos is much safer than handling stuff yourself, and farming out as much as possible of the work to other entity entirely (preferably at an “industrial facility”) is the safest of all.

With that in mind, lets take a look at some sample magical fields.

  • Alchemy is a sub-branch of Vancian or Talismanic Magic that puts some of the danger and tension back in by throwing in the hazards of actual chemistry and adds extra restraints by requiring costly ingredients. Many fictional wizards are alchemist-ritualists, because – while it means that they can do all kinds of things and can provide magical equipment – their powers are slow and call for all sorts of exotic ingredients that their assistants have to go on fetch-quests to get for them.
    • And no, Fullmetal Alchemist style “alchemy” doesn’t really have anything to do with “alchemy” as such. It’s actually a branch of Transformation Magic, with “Equivalent Exchange” – and burning human souls for fuel – thrown in as limiting factors and fridge horror.
  • Beast Mastery? A common and easy branch of hedge magic, if often handy. Influencing and communicating with animals is probably safe enough, borrowing some of their abilities is getting a bit risky – although far less so if you stick to real creatures with nonmagical abilities which can be imitated without bizarre magical changes to your mind and spirit – but when you get to actually transforming yourself or others… that can go very, VERY, wrong all too easily. Ask any lycanthrope who’s gotten stuck, or been overwhelmed by animal instincts.
  • Black Magic? Perhaps black magic calls on powerful demons – and so tends to be inherently destructive and corrupting of the user. Thus Lina Inverse may use it regularly – and be incredibly powerful and destructive – but she’ll probably be more than a little crazy.
  • C’hi “Magic” – channeling your own personal energies – doesn’t usually have very exotic side effects. Unfortunately, it requires great talent and enormous amounts of both physical and mental training to reach high levels of effect – and is VERY prone to relatively mundane side effects like exhaustion, training injuries, overstrain, attracting rivals, and injuring yourself with your own powers. It’s also usually limited to extensions of the user’s natural abilities. Still, on the upside, that makes it a very intuitive form of magic to use. You won’t find yourself entangled in weird occult mysteries when Samurai Jack teaches you to “Jump Good”.
  • Chaos Magic (also often seen as “Art becomes Reality”) seems likely to be particularly problematic; it’s not inherently “black” or “evil” – but it’s obviously going to be nigh-impossible to fully control and thus likely to have all kinds of effects on it’s user – and fatal ones are all too possible. Of course, that means that there may be lots of untapped chaos available to anyone who does use it, making it very powerful. Personally, I’d stay away from chaos magic unless I was basically immortal, not too dependent on a physical brain to think properly, and capable of recovering very quickly from almost anything (like Discord or “Q“). I’d probably still go mad very quickly if I used chaos magic – but at least it would be a fun ride!
  • Conjuration Magic comes in three drastically different flavors – Creation, Manifestation, and Summoning. Simply creating things Ex Nihlo is one of the primal powers. It’s what defines a “creation myth” – and while it generally seems to be much easier with magic than it is with physics, most settings presume that their characters are seriously restricted in scale, in type, and in complexity, in their ability to simply create things. Even worse… creating even tiny traces of random stuff inside yourself is a REALLY bad idea. There are far more ways to create unstable matter, radioactive atoms, unbalanced charges, strangelets, radiation, toxins, and other troublesome things inside yourself than there are to create things that your body can handle. When you have even a little bit of randomized creation magic manifesting in your body the results are almost guaranteed to be very bad.
    • Manifestation – basically whipping up temporary constructs – is far easier and safer; by it’s very nature it’s unlikely to create anything very long-term inside you (not that short-term can’t be bad enough). Constructs, of course, tend to be limited in complexity, are often obvious, and generally don’t last very long – although they can still be very useful.
    • Summoning, of course, actually has little to do with “creating things” and more to do with transportation and, at least in the ever-popular “summon a creature or creatures to assist me” form, either divination or compulsion – but it’s still a very potent form of magic, and one that’s less likely than most to cause serious internal problems. On the other hand… you can all too easily summon the wrong thing entirely, lose control even if you get what you want, turn powerful magical beings into enemies, and otherwise unleash disaster. How many stories revolve around conjurers losing control and raising up – like Charles Dexter Ward – that which they cannot put down?
  • Darkness Magic? Well, classically… it’s powerful and available everywhere, but is very hard to sense well enough to control, makes it tremendously easy to deceive yourself, tends to conceal it’s costs and side effects from its own users, and has all sorts of negative and corrupting overtones. Unless you happen to have massive amounts of light magic running through your system to help keep it under control – or are a genius in handling magic – it’s probably best to leave it alone. There’s a reason why so many genocidal madmen like King Sombra or Eclipso use darkness magic.
  • Dimensional Magic covers gates, dimensional overlays, teleportation, many transport spells, and overlaps into summoning. Sadly, most of the really interesting aspects of dimensional magic are pretty high-powered. On the good side, direct errors are usually limited to simple problems with lost or displaced tissue – mere physical injury. On the other hand, meddling with other dimensions offers you access to a full set of major difficulties with lovecraftian horrors, exposure to otherworldly forces, and letting things that should not be into reality.
    • Remember, reality is where you keep all your stuff. Don’t destroy it.
  • Divination? Unless the universe really is full of unmentionable secrets that will drive you mad, even fairly advanced divination is going to be relatively safe. Indirectly however… Too Much Information really is a thing. Knowing what people really think of you, and what’s actually in your food, and so on, seems all too likely to turn you into a bitter hermit. Worse, telling people what’s going to happen to them is quite unpopular; thus the stereotype of crazy prophets issuing dark and dire warnings and the fate of Cassandra.
  • Dream Magic? While this has many safe and subtle applications, once you start hauling things in and out of the realms of dream, or try to give something an independent, enduring, existence… well, dreams are never entirely under your control even if you’re a skillful lucid dreamer. High level dream magic tends to be worrisomely independent. The most dangerous practice of all may be summoning a conceptual entity – whether you call it a Loa, a Nexus, or a Spirit – into your own body. While this can obviously grant you considerable power, turning yourself into the avatar of War, or even April Fools Day, is likely to bring a lot of baggage with it.
  • Elemental Magic? Perhaps elemental magic is reasonably safe through the mid-levels (after all, your bodies are made of the elements, and can presumably handle them fairly effectively), but requires a major special talent and perhaps great physical conditioning. At very high levels… you’ll need very special disciplines, or major innate protections, to use it without going more than a little mad. Say “Hello!” to Avatar the Last Airbender and his fellow characters.
    • If elemental magic is more philosophical about what the “elements” mean and cover, you’re headed more into far more subtle “new age” magic territory. That tends to backlash if used to harm other people – perhaps because everyone has a little elemental magic available simply because they have physical elemental bodies, and they tend to unconsciously resist and cause backlash with their own magic if magically attacked. In d20 this might also be taken as a mechanism underlying “Saving Throws”.
  • Gifts? If your magic is just a few built-in innate or granted talents that’s pretty much the equivalent of having a few special-purpose kits or emergency ampules. They won’t be particularly versatile, or have the kind of power a full laboratory or hospital will – but you’ll have access to some reasonably reliable specific effects. Even better, almost anyone can use this kind of magic – if they have the talent for it. There may or may not be a price, but it’s usually fixed. Are you perhaps a Contractor, from Darker then Black or a Garou from a Werewolf game? Here you go!
  • Harmony or Fusion Magic is basically an “all our powers combined!” thing; a group of mages or magical creatures get together, unite their powers, and unleash some effect that’s far beyond any of them as individuals. In fact, it usually gets lots of extra power from some sort of amplification effect or focusing artifact(s) if the group has the right number of members/appropriate powers/are good friends or in love/whatever. This is not necessarily a GOOD thing. If the Seven Dark Sorcerers of the Ebon Tower unite their powers in hatred, that will probably work too. The real trouble with this form of magic is that it’s very very conditional and more than a bit uncontrollable; if something is just a little out of place (like one person trying to use the six elements of harmony)… Goten and Trunks will fail to fuse to form Gotenks, the elements of harmony will not be able to generate the full-powered Rainbow of Light (and may wind up exiling your target rather than curing them), and Psi-Force’s Psihawk construct will be weak and ineffectual, The massed Care-Bear Stare seems to be fairly reliable, but that was because everyone involved was an incurably huggy care bear. After all… if this sort of thing was entirely reliable, why waste your time doing anything else? Secondarily, this tends to leave everyone (all, of course, will be affected equally) involved seriously drained, exhausted, or unconscious – another reason why it’s normally a last resort. If it doesn’t work, you probably won’t even be able to defend yourself any longer.
  • Healing Magic? Let us say that healing magic tends to correct the problems using it causes, but those same corrections limit how much power you can channel into it since it corrects the unnatural mental states needed to channel massive amounts of magic. Thus healing magic is safe to use, and possibly widespread, but very limited. Depending on just how dangerous other magics are, healing magic could be the ONLY reasonably safe magic about. You want to use high-level healing magic despite those limitations? You’re going to have to train the necessary mental states the hard way – meditating, “purifying” yourself, and very likely filling your mind with duties, obligations, and oaths, and so on – rather than relying on raw magical power to burn the necessary pathway through your mind. Thus only dedicated, and often pacifistic, healers wield truly powerful healing magic.
  • Illusion is a popular branch of magic, partially because it seems unlikely to have any long-term side effects beyond (perhaps), a bit of confusion (a very few really high-powered illusionists may have gotten “lost in their own illusions”, but this is a very rare idea), because it allows amazing exercises of creativity at rather low power levels, and because – while it can be used in many different ways – the actual effects are generally very limited. Even better, your mage-character can display his vast powers, triumph over a major opponent – and then have the situation be completely reversed by some minor side-character announcing “Hey! It’s just an illusion!”. Still… becoming a manipulative a-hole prankster through perfectly normal psychological effects is definitely still on the table – and one opponent with some sort of truesight can effectively put you out of action.
  • Light or Solar Magic? It’s wonderful stuff. Purifying, truth-revealing, demon-banishing, radiant – and wrathful, intolerant, and demanding. The light requires purity, it burns away imperfection, It demands that it’s wielders serve it, and it serves them only insofar as they are worthy. If you wish to wield the great powers of the light… be prepared to sacrifice much of your humanity and to act only when your example is not enough to let those you protect grow and find their own answers. Check out The Dark Is Rising series, or talk to Celestia (and ask why she’s so generally useless).
  • Lovecraftian Magic tells us that there are other planes of existence, and cosmic beings, and strange forces, and elder alien races, and more out there, and that there are ways available to contact and use those things – and that human beings are insignificant primitives with minds so weak that merely catching a glimpse of the universes greater truths will shatter them utterly. They may occasionally use a bit of true power – but they will merely be meddling with things they do not truly understand by rote. Lovecraftian Magic is generally horribly powerful, prone to failure for completely unknown reasons, drives it’s user’s mad, and – since it doesn’t operate in any way that humans can understand – comes in the form of highly specific formula, that have fixed effects and side effects and prices which cannot be modified. Overall the only reasons to meddle with lovecraftian magic are ignorance, if nothing else will work, or if you are crazy to start with.
  • Magical Music is more of a style than a particular type of effect unless it’s limited to “mental programming” – in which case it will be near impossible to use it without exposing yourself and any nearby allies to the same effects. While this type of effect is obviously useful – you can turn enemies into friends, control behavior, induce emotions, and teach skills near-instantly, among many other effects – it has the fairly obvious problem of having to consciously learn and practice effects which are contained in music – which means letting major parts of them into your mind over and over again. Have you been doing a lot of mind control? You’re likely to be a mass of compulsive behaviors. Been spreading friendship, love, and joy? Welcome to cloud-cookoo land! Been spreading fear and panic? Enjoy being a resident of paranoia central! And that is why magical music is generally simply a style of magic use with a preference for the more subtle effects, rather than being used as a type of magic in itself.
  • Nature Magic? Another exceedingly broad field, and another potentially deadly one. Nature isn’t NICE and it tends to break free of control all too readily. Much of what little bit of nature is involved with any given other species wants it dead. Predators, poisons, defense mechanisms… The entire natural world is based on survival. Cooperation is a strategy – but “don’t be eaten” and “get what you need to live” is always at the base. And even a minor change to a few microorganisms can cause some pretty horrible things to happen. It isn’t going to be fun to be you when your intestinal flora starts consuming your guts or some such.
  • Necromancy was originally just “Divination through the Dead” – which meant that you tried to get advice from ghosts, who presumably had at least a good viewpoint, some detachment, and possibly could spot spiritual influences on things or talk to other spirits. Getting advice from a deceased parent in a dream, or messing about with a Ouija board, both fall under “necromancy”, even if the dream is completely inadvertent. These days it often is taken to imply psychopathic behavior, raising horrific undead monsters to menace the world, wielding horrible necrotic energies, and various other antisocial feats. Given that inflicting death, long-term disabilities, and unhealing injuries are all major components of necromantic magics, it’s all too easy to see why using necromantic magic is horribly risky – and why it’s very difficult to near-impossible to treat the side effects when it goes wrong.
    • OK, there are simply too many examples of this to even pick a few… Go ahead, go to TV Tropes and pick a dozen or so of your favorites.
  • Psychic Powers? While these resemble C’hi “Magic” in many ways, and share their same general weakness compared to many other fields of magic, channeling high levels of mind-affecting magic through your mind tends to result in irrationality and madness all too soon. Using telepathy can let other minds affect yours, telekinesis is prone to action-reaction errors and kinetic feedback, and so on. On the upside… most of the resulting mental problems tend to be fairly transient.
  • Ritual Magic is a wonderful toy. It’s powerful, and probably won’t drive you mad since the power is mostly being channeled externally (Hooray for Waldos!) – but that greatly reduces your fine control, making it prone to going wrong, external side effects, and unwanted consequences. Worse, since you’re working indirectly, you have to build up your effects very slowly – carefully checking each elaborate ritual step. Only the wealthy and powerful will have the resources needed to study more than a few simple rituals, the time to perform them, or the ability to gather the components needed for major ritual magic. That’s why, in the world of magic, major rituals are often the equivalent of nuclear weapons and why ritualists are so often nobles, politicians, or mercenary scholars – a magical elite which rules the helpless peasantry while quarreling with each other.
  • Shamanic Magic? Well, if shamanic magic requires taking mind-altering drugs and powerful shamanic magic demands taking massive doses of hallucinogens… then sane and powerful shamans are going to be few and far between and shamanic magic is likely to be considered a dark or forbidden art. That doesn’t make it evil – but no sane society is going to encourage the practice of an art which gives people the ability to warp reality while either making them high or driving them insane or both.
  • Silly Magic is closely related to gift magic, and is usually extremely limited in application and fairly weak – but is almost free of downsides other than having invested the time and effort to learn to use it “effectively” in the first place. Still, if you can just find an application, silly magic can quickly turn into lethal joke magic. “Medusa? Not a problem! With my Hairdressing Powers I shall bind up most of her snakes into a tight bun, and turn the rest into a set of bangs which both partially blinds her and conceals her face! Attack in safety my friends!”. Personally, my favorite form of “Silly Magic” is Hearthcrafting – household magics. Just the thing for when you want to adventure in comfort!
  • Theurgy is one of the names for calling upon spirits to do things for you. At least at low-levels this is safe enough as long as you’ve paid in advance, but the more powerful the spirit the greater the demands – and heaven help you if you have to go into debt. At higher power levels it’s best to build a relationship with a particular spirit or group thereof – allowing them to do most of the power-handling for you while you (unfortunately) are pretty much at their beck and call. Fortunately, truly major spirits tend to have enough people calling on them to rarely need you in particular. It still greatly limits your flexibility though, since the “Krakatoa the Volcanic One” isn’t really likely to grant that wide a variety of powers. On the other hand, since the spirits are doing the work, the user is at little hazard from his or her own powers.
    • In early gaming this tended to be a big thing; clerical types worked for their gods, had to pay attention to their dictates and restraints, and only got magic that fit with their god. For good or ill however… power creep set in, quite a lot of players disliked their being limitations on their magical fantasies, and having the cleric sent on “missions from god” that didn’t fit into anyone else’s story annoyed the other players – so these days mainstream games usually only have cosmetic traces of this sort of thing left.
  • Transformation (or sometimes Lunar) Magic is one of the four primordial powers of the universe – Creation, Preservation, Transformation, and Destruction – which basically cover everything. As such, it is potentially immensely powerful, almost endlessly versatile (at least if you’re at all clever), and incredibly dangerous. Not surprisingly, it’s closely related to Chaos Magic and has very similar problems. When you’re using a force that could do almost anything based on very minor details – the textbook definition of modern “chaos theory” – almost anything could go wrong.
  • Vancian – or TalismanicMagic involves slowly gathering power, binding it into a formula with specific effects stored in words, or talismans, or powders, runes, or whatever (most artificing falls into this category as well), and releasing it when needed. While this is awfully limiting in some ways, it also bypasses most of the usual implied costs; since you’re basically “building” your “spells” very slowly and carefully out of small pieces you are never having to channel enough power to really hurt yourself. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a loony, but being a Vancian or Talismanic mage probably isn’t going to be the cause.
    • This one is highly favored in games because it means that mages have a limited stockpile of magic that takes time and (interruptible) effort to get back, the size of their stockpile can be easily limited, the specific nature of their formulas limits the variety of effects that can be produced, it makes for an easily tracked fire-and-forget system, and you can increase their power in several ways – increasing the limits of their stockpile, increasing the power of their “spells”, making their magic easier to regain, or increasing their supply of formula. It even forces mages to limit their magic use, and to plan ahead and consider how to get the most mileage out of their limited daily supply. That ties up resource management, a spell-selection minigame, a reason for intelligence gathering and planning, lets magic be more powerful than mundane methods because it can only be used a limited number of times, sets of specific effects that the game master can plan around, and all kinds of other advantages.
      • It also makes playing such a spellcaster extremely complicated and means that the characters power and effectiveness will vary from “nearly useless” to “oh my GOD” depending on player skill – but whether those are features or bugs is open to debate.
  • Wards and Shields – sometimes known as Abjuration Magic – is about the safest available form after healing magic. That doesn’t mean that it can’t go wrong – but the most likely problems are exhaustion, backlash damage from people breaking your defenses, and “protecting” yourself from things you need. This form of magic is always at a disadvantage though, simply because you can damage things in a lot of ways and don’t need a lot of control to do so, while protecting things requires covering a wide range of possibilities and excellent fine control.

So now we have a set of mechanisms for how magic leads to insanity, corruption, or various other disorders – and that means that there are options for treatment.

You have a mild case of magical overload? You’re getting more erratic, or coughing constantly and not feeling well, or are having strange thoughts, or urges to do odd and distasteful things, or are feeling cut off from other people? Cutting back on your use of magic will help. Various sorts of therapy may be enough to let you recover without more drastic intervention. Of course, if you don’t get treatment, your mental and physical condition is likely to get steadily worse Mr Raistlin!

You’ve gotten afflicted with a creeping psychopathic corruption that makes you want to enslave and torture people – and it’s darkness-magic based so that it blinds you to the fact that anything is wrong? That is going to be hard to fix; darkness magic will conceal itself and make the problem hard to target properly, there may not be much of your mind, spirit, and/or body left to work with if it’s gotten too far, and you probably won’t want it fixed at the moment. Even worse… darkness magic makes it all too easy to lie to yourself. Even if someone manages to cure you, the temptation to use more darkness magic to blot out your new load of overwhelming guilt will be hard to resist – and it will only take one little slip to start down the slippery slope again without even knowing it. Even the most compassionate opponents may see the wisdom of eliminating you, rather than taking the risk that whatever is left of you will once again become a blight on the lives of innocent people.

Especially if they – or you, Mr Sombra – have been around the loop before.

You’ve let an out-of-control conceptual entity become dominant over you Princess Luna? Once it gets booted out, you should return to something approaching normal – but in the meantime it has it’s own power and all of yours to play with. Getting it out is not going to be easy. It may even call for a full-scale Deus Ex Machina manifestation of Harmony Magic to do it – and you’d better hope that you have the right number of characters with the right selection of attitudes and abilities to power that harmonic manifestation or it won’t work properly.

Your overuse of necrotic magic is causing your flesh to wither, your eyes to turn yellow and red, and your aging to advance unnaturally? Major healing effects might help some – but the necrotic energy saturating your body is likely to make you highly resistant to that sort of thing. If you aren’t so far gone already that undeath or possessing a new body are the only (partial) solutions you’ll need to quit using your powers and work on purging yourself until healing effects WILL work. And… you knew that already and aren’t really listening, are you Emperor Palpatine? Never mind… I’ll up your painkiller dosage and do try to get SOME sleep won’t you?

You’ve been habitually using Chaos Magic to do EVERYTHING for thousands of years? Why aren’t you dead? Oh… immortal. Not even really needing a body except as a focus. Well… a stabilizing spell may work for a little bit, but I’m afraid that you’d be well past the point of death if you were mortal. Still, perhaps the constantly-renewing Magic of Friendship can keep you marginally sane as long as you have friends.

You’re still likely to be an unreliable, practical-joking, irrational loon though Mr Discord.

Now there are lots of other ways to handle magic in a setting – but I like this one because it starts with basic assumptions that most people will agree with, is simple and logical enough to be easily explained, fits in with a lot of standard literary tropes and ideas about magic, and is flexible enough to offer cover a lot of variations. It’s obviously not perfect – but given the lack of functioning magic in reality we don’t really need perfection in a theory, we just need something that we can build stories and games around.

And I hope that answers the question sufficiently!

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12 Responses

  1. I thought you’d have some fun with that particular question, though I wasn’t expecting such holistic coverage of the underlying idea. Bravo!

    • And it was indeed entertaining! (And, of course, generalizing makes the material as broadly-usable as possible). I’m glad you found it interesting as well!

  2. So… I assume mixing Psychic Power with Lovecraftian Magic (channeling the energies of the latter through your own mind) is not as good of an idea as it initially sounds?

    What would… possible side effects be of doing that? I assumed madness, and created the character accordingly (though I did that via Insane and Eldritch rather than a corruption), but are there other things to watch out for?

    • Well, this particular article is more of an examination of how to make sense out of a bunch of classical magical tropes and how they might work in a given setting than it is a set of rules – so if you want these ideas to apply to a given setting using Eclipse either the game master will have to require appropriate corruptions and specializations on the use of magic or players will have to build them in voluntarily.

      In either case, the idea is probably to take magic from being the ultimate game-dominating factor to something that is relatively cheap (allowing many characters to dabble in it effectively) yet is still restricted enough to limit it’s use.

      Now, at least by these tropes, Lovecraftian Magic is all about forces, concepts, and secrets that will shatter any more-or-less human mind if allowed to take root in it. It’s hard to get away from that and still have “Lovecraftian Magic”, since that’s pretty much it’s definition.

      Psychic Power, again by these tropes, is about focusing and channeling your personal power through your mind to create effects.

      Ergo, to mix the two… you’d be incorporating sanity-blasting stuff with yourself, and then focusing it in your mind.

      At it’s simplest, this is an obvious route to destroying your own mind, and probably to destroying, severely damaging, or infecting (it IS knowledge after all) the minds of anyone else in the area, in your outpouring of sanity-blasting power en route to becoming a raving madman, a drooling vegetable, or a corpse.

      Of course, later investigators finding the wizard dead with an expression of utter horror and madness (clutching some horrible eldritch tome or artifact is optional) or just vanished, with most the witnesses horribly dead and the few survivors broken babbling madmen, is pretty much THE standard outcome for a confrontation with a Lovecraftian Wizard, so it’s kind of nice to see it justified.

      Mechanically, of course, you can just buy returning (albeit probably as an eldritch and unplayable horror), or an immunity to the sanity-blasting effects (which will, sadly, also probably leave your mindset alien enough to make the character unplayable), or you can do the equivalent of hiding it behind a curtain – using something like the Bokor build (with very little control) to let some eldritch abomination work through you while your mind goes into a self-protective shutdown in hopes that – if and when you wake up – you will still be in your home dimension, in possession of your soul, with no alien parasites riding along, the world undevoured, no great increase in your unspeakable knowledge, and with a fairly functional and undistorted mind and body.

      That isn’t really very likely of course – we ARE talking about Lovecraftian Magic here – but it may be your best shot.

      Now, presuming you’re making an NPC (or perhaps a character for a strange, and likely fairly short, game), being a raving madman influenced by alien powers with incomprehensible motives as you wield abominable sorceries is not necessarily a problem – and mid to high-level d20 characters are far more durable than normal humans, so surviving the use of such forces for a reasonable length of time isn’t really a problem either. Ergo I’d watch out for acquiring (and having to pay for) disgusting templates, becoming an accidental gateway for cosmic horrors to infest the world, attracting the notice of various elder races, becoming an infectious blight upon your family, friends, and associates, and feeling the urge to record your blasphemous and sanity-blasting insights in journals and books, scratches on walls, and disquieting artworks so as to pass them on to unsuspecting victims in later ages.

      • Thanks for the insight :D

        Hmm… Well, my character already pays for a +4 ECL Template due to Eldritch Corruption (which isn’t too horrible, as it lacks severe combat abilities and mostly has a few Divinations at hand).

        An accidental gateway is something I could see happen. My characters familiar is one of these (really powerful, but impossible to control aside from very loose guidelines and as such useless for combat, espionage, skills… It’s only real purpose is allowing for power-preparation, with the character being a prepared psionic manifester, as rare as that is).

        Various elder races though… Are there any in particular you have in mind? The only confrontation the party had with a elder race, if they count as such, would be a one-in-one-million chance-encounter with some Mi-Go, but they were pretty friendly towards us… Which, in hindsight, might be a sign that something’s wrong…

        As for being a infectious blight, I think my character managed pretty well. One of the team thinks she’s going crazy due to eldritch minds contacting her, but that appears to be a misinformation after she found out what my character is and what it does. Then again, the DM does have a private session shortly after the normal sessions with that character in particular, so maybe it’s a sign of something actually weird happening?

        Finally, the artworks… Do you have an idea how to correctly do that? My familiar does have mystic artist and can change which group of skills it applies to 3/month, but getting it to hold still so it can aid me in crafting things is hard. I made a magic item for the player I mentioned before without mystic artist and am planning to create a few sentient magic items whose special purpose is related to protecting things like my familiar, but I’m not sure if that in itself makes the finders of such items a “victim”.

        About that, what would (or rather, could) happen if I get my familiar to sit still long enough to help me craft a weapon? Is that basically the same as creating a sculpture or is there something one should be wary about?

      • I was mostly thinking of the classics – the Deep Ones, the Elder Things, the Flying Polyps, the Men of Leng, the Mi-Go, The Yithians, Shoggoths, Moon-Beasts, Gnophkehs, Minions of Yig, the Tcho-Tcho, the Voormis, Night-Guants, Star Vampires, and the various “things from outside” that the Outer Gods spawn – the Children of Shub-Nigguruth, the invisible horrors that Yog-Sothoth leaves to gestate in the unlucky women that are offered to him, and so on.

        Of course… we also have Undertale’s Flowey, Ghostbuster’s Gozer, Slenderman, Mass Effect’s Reapers, the kabbalistic creatures of the Dark Sephiroth, the Deadites, the Beldam of Coraline, the Ancient Ones from The Cabin In The Woods, Zalgo, The Dark Overlords from Howard the Duck, and all the other modern variations.

        Which it is really doesn’t matter a lot though. The real problem is that such a character has gotten involved with forces that he or she can never really understand – and the incomprehensible entities (those will vary with the setting) who do understand and/or embody something of those forces are likely to take the opportunity to do some meddling.

        And you will quite likely never understand what they are doing or why they are doing it even if the game master gives them some reasonably comprehensible motive to make them easier for him or her to play.

        Perhaps most commonly they will want to be summoned – whether to eat the world, to pick up the box of chocolates which will give them ultimate power in their home realm, or to visit a cousin (possibly warping the world in all kinds of strange ways) along the way) makes little difference. Less commonly they may want to set up a transport hub in your coffee pot and bring an endless succession of alien visitors to your kitchen. Or perhaps they wish to wage war upon Asparagus, to prevent the billion-year later rise of the fearsome Asparagus Emissaries long after humanity is extinct.

        Or perhaps they wish to yertalize all the turtles while making yaks invoke mystic rituals through tap dance. Who knows?

        For artworks… if it’s involuntary and does the character no good (Oh wow! Three centuries from now you will inspire the rise of a new dark lord! That might somehow matter if the game was going to go for that long!) you may not even need to buy anything; it’s not a power or ability if it doesn’t really do anything within the game. If it attracts extra trouble, it might even count as the Accursed disadvantage (rather like owning a Tardis or some of the nastier Artifacts). If it’s a side effect of an actual useful power, it’s probably a part of a Specialization or Corruption.

        As for a mystic artist weapon… presuming that it’s easily transported, activating it’s effects would count as a use of the mystic artist ability – although making it intelligent and giving it some uses of Mystic Artist to activate ITSELF could be made to work.

        Come to think of it, that’s an easy way to make weapons such as Soulcutter from Saberhagen’s Books of Swords series. Thank you for the suggestion!

  3. After thinking about it… Could it be that both Black Magic and White Magic require specific sets of belief to work to their fullest? It seems to me like the biggest difference is that Black Magic allows itself be used and in return molds the user to become more adept at using it while White Magic simply refuses to work for those that don’t worship it’s ideals period.

    • That is pretty much the classic meme there – “Black Magic gives you what you want, always answers within the limits of your ability to channel it, and always exacts it’s price. White Magic answers only when the wielder and cause are worthy, asks no price, and is not limited by the user’s abilities – but only gives you what you need”.

      Or so Kevin claimed anyway – and when it came to Kevin (a reality-warper who lived in a universe built of tropes) things tended to work the way that he thought that they should, at least for him. His claims may or may not apply elsewhere.

      Tropes are usually more on the world-building end (“this is how I think magic should work; if you can’t go with that, don’t build a magic-using character”), and normally come before the mechanics. They can be very useful simply because they’re cliches, and easily understood – which makes them a handy shortcut for making your setting familiar to the players. Saying “using dark magic gradually corrodes your health and sanity, while white magic requires purity and self-sacrifice” sets up a lot of things – although not, perhaps, as many as “It’s a wild west game” does.

  4. This gives me a few interesting ideas. I have been thinking of a world where every race was naturally attached to a type of magic. This actually makes a good way to spot if a race is in the safe to be around category of good races like humans, elves, dwarves, and all the other classic good races. If you assumed that all races were naturally connected to two forms of magic and that good races were ones that generally have complementary combinations while the socially outcast races have obvious problems with their combination, the world would naturally cause the tensions that are weird in many other settings like why there are no good orc tribes who abandoned the old ways to live peacefully. There is also a third case of races that have pairs that make each other worse, but those do not last long enough to be considered more than mutations, but maybe those are also important.

    So that would give us something like humans with adaption magic and restoration. A combination like this could be really handy and work well together as bad adaptions can be reversed and it is easier to adapt to using restoration magic that naturally is hard to learn as it restores you to not knowing how to use it. These guys are in all environments because they can adapt to it in several ways, but keep from mutating into other races by restoring themselves. They are the only species that can reliably breed with most of the others since they adapt to that and are way more likely to survive complications that are random.

    elves would likely use light and nature. Light would allow for more types of elves as long as they did not get a bad combination. It also leads to the arrogant elder race syndrome that elves are the poster child for. I am not sure what effects those would have, but nature seems likely to help stop some of the worst problems of light and light will help keep nature from poisoning them as long as they are worthy. Half elves would be common since the magics work well together even if none of the combinations of restoration, adaption, nature, and light are all that great.

    dwarves could have warding and earth magic. This leaves them stubborn as mules, but prone to making complex things and being very hardy. Warding allows most of the problems of earth magic to be protected against and earth magic will keep things going as they are blunting some of the annoying stoppages that warding causes. Half human half dwarves would be rather rare as combining restoration and warding is just asking for children that never grow up, and similar problems. Adaption and earth is also bad since it seems like a fast way to get diskworld dwarves. warding and adaption is likely to result in something weird as well.

    maybe orcs have beast mastery and shamanism for a very spiritual people that tend to be too crazy and unable to be civilized, but not so dangerous that they cannot be left alone most of the time. They will occasionally have a great chief who does something stupid with this combination and now a hoard of orcs are going to war, but this is likely to be rare on its own.

    Dark elves have darkness magic and nature. They are dangerous, hard to find to exterminate and tend to get horribly corrupted by their power. The combination of nature magic and darkness might be a little lethal, but both are good for survival and do not seem like they would be all that bad for the user.

    • I had been considering an idea somewhat similar to that for my second draft of the Apex Campaign Setting. In that “alternate Earth” setting, multiple species of the homo genus made it to full sapience and as part of that they each gained access a pair of supernatural abilities (i.e. elemental magic and necromancy or psionics and ritual magic) that form a complex web of rock-paper-scissors against each other. I really need to get around to finish writing that thing up someday.

      • What I saw of it did look like fun, even if it did seem to leave one species very much dominant at the moment.

    • Well, that would certainly provide a good basis for the “races are just this way” assumption. That may or may not be “realistic” (given that the resolution of the nature-versus-nurture debate will have to await cheap ancestor simulations and a full exploration of the possible range of functional human societies) – but it avoids the horribly boring “all the races are generic people with a few physical modifiers” problem.

      I’m not sure if classical earth magic is all that connected to technology, but it’s certainly connected to metalworking and such, which is quite close enough.

      Overall, I’d say a very good idea you have there!

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