The Dark Ages and Their Magics In Eclipse

In the early years of the sixteenth century, to combat the rising tide of religious unorthodoxy, the Pope gave Cardinal Ximenez of Spain leave to move without let or hindrance throughout the land, in a reign of violence, terror, and torture that makes a smashing film. This was the Spanish Inquisition!

-Monty Python, the “Spanish Inquisiton” sketch.

“Dark Ages” – whether the period in Europe after the fall of Rome, the period in Greece and the Aegean after the end of the bronze age, or the period after any of the great watershed empires collapsed – aren’t really defined by “the collapse of civilization” as we currently understand it. After all, for most of the population, life kept on pretty much as it usually had. Engineering – about the only human activity besides increasing the population that HAS shown a reasonably consistent sort of “progress” through history – usually continued to advance. The most recent “dark ages” saw the invention of moveable type, the wheeled plow, the blast furnace, the tidal mill, the hourglass, distillation, eyeglasses, carnivals, universities, quarantines… there were innovations in many, MANY, fields and a certain glorification of “figuring things out on your own”. There were “barbarian” invasions, true – but that had always been the case.

There really isn’t any consistent agreement about their definition, or whether or not they really exist outside of being “a period we don’t have a lot of records from”, and certainly not about what characterized them. Ergo, what I’m going to use my own definition, as tailored for interesting gaming.

A “Dark Age” is characterized by an substantial, fairly long-term, reduction in large-scale organization, transport, and trade. This often follows a series of stresses – “barbarian” invasions, environmental problems, etc – that current social structures prove unable to handle, but that is not required.

In a “Dark Age” imported resources become very scarce, cities shrink, networks of personal loyalties take over from more abstract governmental systems, news from distant locations becomes even less reliable than usual, record keeping is local and few backups are made, and settlements became less cosmopolitan, and hence more provincial, suspicious of outsiders (who are often seen as dangerous), and subject to local superstitions. Centralized authorities, whether secular or religious, lose much of their influence, leading to various secession’s, schisms. and monetary difficulties. Actual money (or whatever the old system of wealth distribution was) is mostly a thing of the remaining cities and what few major traders are still operating – leaving most villages on the barter system.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless centralized control of an irrigation system is necessary to support the existing population. Large-scale empires can be pretty oppressive, and there are substantial advantages to smaller, local, social systems. With a reasonable environment (or a little bit of household magic) there may well continue to be plenty of food, reasonably good health, and quite a bit of leisure time. Even in the real world, medieval peasants got a lot of holy days off work.

However, in game terms, such a “dark age” is extremely convenient. The local authorities are virtually non-existent, the peasantry is protected from rapacious player characters by not really having anything worth taking, the citizenry is too suspicious to be much help, and any “higher authorities” will take a week to reach and more weeks to respond. The Player Characters are pretty much IT. Theirs is the responsibility, theirs the treasure, and theirs the lonely deaths.

Better, in even moderately fantastic settings, where monsters, undead, demons, devils, and dark powers put in regular appearances and evil cults are a serious menace (but where there isn’t much actual magic about), the level of suspicion, fear, and isolationism portrayed in most “Dark Ages” fiction is pretty throughly justified.

In a Dark Ages setting there are no spellcasters. The only supernatural powers around are

  • Charms and Talismans. These are empowered by the holiness of Saints, the evil of Demons, or – sometimes – by nature spirits, such as the Fey or most (non-demonic) foreign “Gods”. Talismans are generally touched by such beings directly, but Charms may be empowered by the bones of the saints, by pilgrimages, or the prayers of exceptionally holy hermits.
  • Shapeshifting, An eldritch and unnatural power, most commonly granted by nature spirits and foreign “gods” (such as Thor, a storm spirit). Druids, Bearsarks, Ulfhednar, Werecreatures… all employ animalistic powers, and all risk madness and entrapment by those powers. No Christian source grants such powers since they deny the truth of the body.
  • Mystic Artist: The power to inspire is the foundation of the Christian faiths, whether in the words of its holy men, the examples of it’s saints, or the designs of its great cathedrals. All uplift and empower mortals to exceed their natural limits. It is this power – and the ability to affect great multitudes – that has made the Christian Faith the dominant faith of Europe.
  • Sympathetic Magic (Mana and Reality Editing) is a slow and primitive form of magic – but is so commonly practiced that few would consider it magic at all. Most of its practitioners have little or no power of course – but there are always a few around who can get it to rain by sprinkling water on the garden or ease a childbirth by pulling a crude doll out of a bag.
  • Ritual (or “High”) Magic attempts to command spirits through true names, bargains, contracts, bribery, and invoking greater supernatural authorities. It takes a long time, esoteric ingredients, intensive study, and careful attention to detail – and still often goes wrong. It also often offends the spirits invoked or those authorities. Spirits can empower Power Words however.
  • Prophecy (Deep Sleep, Cosmic Awareness, True Prophecy): While the art of greater prophecy is extremely rare, visions, voices, and meaningful dreams are all reasonably common. Still, no one chooses to become a Prophet of any sort, it is something that simply happens, whether you like it or not.
  • Natural Magic (Witchcraft). The magic of the natural world empowers alchemists, bombardiers, fortune-tellers, illusionists, firestarters, and more – but the natural world is also the prison of the Fallen, and so a Natural Mage walks always on the edge of the abyss, and it is all too easy to fall to the wiles of demons and become a blight upon the land.

From foreign lands come tales of Occult Martial Arts abilities, of Spirit Weapons forged from the user’s very soul, of Shaman asking favors of spirits, and of Mindspeech – but those arts, if they exist at all, are unknown in Europe. It is possible that some distant traveler will know of them, but it would require special permission from the game master.

Worse… all of those powers are rather highly limited. 36 CP is the usual upper limit, many of the greater abilities are unavailable, and very few mortals will reach that level of power.

2 Responses

  1. I’d probably say that you’d have to be extra careful about keeping mana with reality editing thematic since you can cobble together a decent approximation of a traditional spellcaster on budget.
    And obviously, a little witchcraft goes a long way when other magic is basically unavailable due to the impracticality of it all.
    I don’t think that say, mystic architecture is nesscarily appropriate for a dark ages campaign. Honestly, since this sort of thing is probably trying for really low magic, I’d want to make a set of package deals that had a set of specific corruptions or specializations, with a few with a list of white listed sub-options, since there’s something really specific this sort of campaign wants out of magic.

    • Quite true – which is why the first example (The Priest) pretty much lists all the available upgrades for Mystic Artist. (Well, I suppose I’d let someone use “bonus uses” in place of 6 CP worth of advanced stuff). Thus Reality Editing is mostly going to be useful for “nudging” natural effects. Witchcraft… there will be several groups using it. For example, in the setting it’s the basis for Firearms – a dangerous and possibly unholy art. A firearms master won’t be able to use it for anything else though.

      Mystic Architecture is – of course – mostly limited to giving Cathedrals a few inspiring effects. Lots of magic, but none of it very powerful.

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