Valdemar D20 – Part I

Today it’s a question about Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar / Velgarth setting – how to build Heraldic Gifts and Companions in Eclipse D20.

The first thing to remember about the Valdemar / Velgarth setting is that – like the vast majority of fantasy novels and novel series settings – it’s a low-magic world.

What’s that you say? Most of the major characters have magical gifts?

Yes. Yes they do. Yet there are large groups that have very little magic. Magical devices are extremely rare, and what magic there is tends to be low powered, at least by d20 gaming terms.

For example, we have Healing Magic / Gifts (Psionic Magic). What can be done with this?

  • Resurrection from a centuries-old fragment of bone? No.
  • Raise the recently dead? No. Gods can do it, but, they generally aren’t protagonists and they don’t hand out this kind of power; it’s a special miracle.
  • Instantly wipe away major wounds? No.
  • Instantly Neutralize Poison? No.
  • Instantly Cure Blindness, Deafness, or Disease? No.

In Velgarth the most powerful healers can accelerate natural healing, slow the progress of poisons while looking for an antidote or treatment, and bolster the bodies resistance to disease. Maybe they can do some equivalent of vaccinations. They can usually compound and administer medicines, although that’s training not magic. In the books, even with healer assistance, recovery from major injuries can require months. Plenty of people suffer long-term crippling effects.

In D20? Any injury you can survive will generally heal completely, and without any complications, scarring, or long-term effects, within a week, even without any help beyond – perhaps – applying some bandages. In d20 terms, the most powerful mystical Healers in Velgarth simply have a reasonable bonus on their heal skill.

There are excellent reasons why most fantasy fiction limits things that way – and it’s not just so that injuries are actually threatening hindrances to the characters (although that is another reason) since it tends to apply to all magic.

It’s because every time you introduce another magical power, you need to keep track of it. You need to consider it’s effects on the setting. You need to out-think all your readers, because if that power could be used to solve a problem that you put in later, then a lot of readers will wonder why it wasn’t so used. After all, if they could think of using it (even at leisure and under no stress) why couldn’t that spellcaster who’d devoted much of his or her life to the study of magic think of it under pressure?

You certainly don’t want to wind up considering the ramifications of a level fifteen d20 Wizards spell load-out, or even a Sorcerers. Sure, you can have major magical events – but they’re going to be the result of divine intervention, or ancient megawizards, or otherwise safely out of reach of the main characters. Just like that continent-spanning magical cataclysm that apparently even the gods cannot just step in and stop and all those magically-spawned species.

In d20 terms… you generally don’t want anyone to have even reasonably reliable access to Raise Dead, Heal, Plane Shift, Polymorph Other, Create Undead (at least not with anything less than MAJOR rituals and fetch-quests), Teleport, easy Scrying, Awaken, Battlefield Spells, Bestowing Curses, Werecreature Transformations, Mass Burrow, Call Avalanche, Call Nightmare, Cloudkill, Commune, Contact Other Plane, Contagious Touch, Control Winds, Dimension Door… The list goes on and on. All of those effects can easily wreck plots and foul up your setting.

What you want is very limited access to a modest selection of level five and six effects via major rituals limited to near-archmagi, well-organized teams of lesser ritualists with access to major sources of power, and to cheaters calling on dark powers and blood magic that the heroes won’t want to use.

  • REALLY powerful grand master mages may have access to a modest selection of level three and four spells – carefully leaving out most of the more problematic effects.
  • Master Mages can have access to a lot of the second level stuff, although any given mage will usually only actually know a limited part of whatever is available. The kind of stuff that generally isn’t all that multipurpose, is effective but not overpowering, and only affects a limited number of targets at a time. That gives them some pretty amazing super powers without making them unmanageable in the story.
  • Journeyman Mages get access to most of the first level stuff – although any given Journeyman will probably only know a dozen or so notable spells.
  • Apprentices get Cantrips – the level zero stuff. In a low-magic setting that’s still pretty impressive. Summon water in the desert? Remain buoyant in a storm? Produce a knife when you’ve been disarmed? Create light in the darkness? Start a fire with wet wood in the freezing cold? Mitigate pain? Stop someone from bleeding to death? All potentially lifesaving,

So now that we know what we’re looking for, it’s on with the details.

The first detail is the magic system from the Vows and Honor trilogy. It involved…

  • Mind-Magic – personal psionic powers that were generally inborn. Noted as being used in Valdemar, up north.
  • Life-Energy Based Magic, which was later divided up into Personal Energy Magic (used by Apprentices and up), Ambient Magic (used by Journeymen and up), Ley Line Magic (used by Masters and up, dangerous if you weren’t talented enough to use it), and Node Magic (Used by Adepts, fatal if you weren’t talented enough to use it). Most user’s were limited by their (mostly fixed) level of Mage-Gift / Natural Talent / Ability to Sense Magical Energy and by their level of Training.
    • Blood Magic was a variant that wasn’t so limited. It didn’t even call for Mage-Gift, since you knew that – when something died – a big burst of power would be there to harvest and use. Of course, since things die all the time, contributing their energies to the ambient level – which flowed into ley-lines and nodes – all Journeymen and up used some level of blood magic. Personally I always wanted to see a blood-mage healer, who lived by a slaughterhouse and said “What? That’s the way my powers run! Why shouldn’t I use the life energy released by the slaughtered cattle as well as eating them? They’re dying anyway!”.
  • Otherplanar Magic involved exchanging favors with the creatures of the four Elemental Planes, the “Ethereal Plane” (roughly equivalent to d20’s “Positive Energy Plane”; it’s creatures – fey like things and possibly the “Tribal Totems” that were brought up later – could not be compelled or bound, but would trade), and the Abyssal Plane (roughly equivalent to d20’s Negative Energy Plane, the home of demons and abyssal elementals. They could be compelled to serve with raw willpower or bribed with evil acts and blood sacrifices).
  • Low Magic, which apparently used the “natural” magical properties of herbs and such. It seemed that “High Magic Constructs” were especially vulnerable to such countermeasures because it showed one character that Scholars were very useful to have around.
  • Priestly Magic was basically “any of the above” with a religious theme or asking the gods for minor miracles – which were fairly commonly granted. The gods tended to respond if you were in their service or desired to enter it and what you asked for was sensible and reasonable, even if they sometimes demanded a price for it.
  • There were also adept-duels over adept status (how this worked was never really explained).

The vast majority of that was quietly dropped quite quickly. There are a few mentions of elementals and demons later on, and not-quite-divine Tribal Totems granting some powers got mentioned, but that system had too many undesired real-world “occult” associations and was far too complicated to keep up with. We never even really got to see what kinds of magic otherworldly creatures might provide outside of assisting in combat against other such creatures.

If you want to include otherplanar magic in your version of Velgarth, you’ll probably want a version of the Shamanic Magic package:

  • Path of the Dragon / Shaping (Specialized: only as a prerequisite, 3 CP)
  • Path of the Dragon/ Pulse and Heart of the Dragon: The user may make pacts with, and call upon the services of four of the seven different types of Elemental Spirits, channeling their powers into the physical world. Pulse of the Dragon brings in one spell level worth of magical energy per round, while Heart of the Dragon allows it to be shaped into level one effects. Corrupted: The user must call on the six types of elemental spirits for magic other than Spirit Sight and Spirit Contact effects. Each type of spirit may only be called on for a total of (Cha Mod + Level/2) spell levels worth of magic before the user must rebuild his or her “pool” of “favors”. Fortunately, if the user fails to manage a spell for some reason, it doesn’t use up any of his pool of favors. Specialized: The user may only renew such “pools” slowly. The user regains [Cha Mod + Level/2] points per day through minor rituals and respect for their spiritual patrons. They user may also regain [Cha Mod] points by:
    • Fulfilling a special request from the Spirits. For example, fire spirits might want the user to arrange a fireworks display, while water spirits might want a spring cleaned out and purified. The user may simply ask the GM each day about possible tasks; there will usually be two or three available, but there’s no guarantee that any of them will be even remotely practical.
    • Enacting a ritual in honor of some type of spirits. You might sit out in a storm meditating on it’s power for a night in honor of the air spirits, burn rare woods, incense, and oils in honor of the fire spirits, or conduct a religious ceremony in honor of outer-planar spirits.
    • Promising to undertake a later mission for the appropriate group of spirits. It’s wise to take a few rounds to find out what they’re going to want you to do, but sometimes people are just desperate.
    • Talking the spirits into it. This requires 1d4 hours of quiet meditation and a DC 18 Diplomacy or Knowledge/Religion check and can only be done once per day.
  • In any case, the saving throw DC’s against such effects are based on the user’s Charisma and they overcome magic resistance with a roll of (1d20 + caster level + Cha Mod). Exorcisms (“Turning”) are L2, creating minor supplies costs 1 SL/2 GP and is permanent, and counterspells are always specifically tuned, requiring a spell of only (target spell level – 2).

This has a base cost of 24 CP, 8 CP after being Specialized and Corrupted to reduce the cost. As the character goes up in level he or she can spend another 8 CP to turn the Specialization from “Halved Cost” to “Doubled Effect” and call on the spirits for second level spells – and still later, another 8 CP to turn the Corrupted modifier from “Reduced Cost” to “1.5x Effect” and get third level spells. Unfortunately, that’s as far as you can go with this on Velgarth.

I usually say that…

  • Air spirits deal with Intelligence, Movement, Thought, and Divination.
  • Animal (Totem) spirits deal with Shapeshifting, Enhancements, Senses, and Adaption.
  • Positive Energy spirits deal with Charisma, Purification, Truth, and Life.
  • Negative Energy spirits deal with Strength, Negation, Death, and Compulsion.
  • Earth spirits deal with Constitution, Plants, Healing, Binding, and Stasis.
  • Fire spirits deal with Dexterity, Light, Energy, and Transformation.
  • Water spirits deal with Wisdom, Animals, Absorption, and Emotion.

This system was dropped before it showed what the author thought was appropriate, so you’ll have to either go with my ideas or come up with something. There’s no canon to go on.

Divine Powers aren’t worth discussing, simply because they are literal miracles, are in no way under the protagonists control, and bail the characters out of impossible jams however the plot demands. Characters don’t USE them, they get used BY them.

Partially under this category we have the Heraldic Companions – magical spirit-horses that choose the Heralds of Valdemar, boost their powers, and provide both transportation and companionship throughout the series.

So what do we know about Companions?

Well, they’re horses. Intelligent, constantly bleached-white, horses with pretty hooves, some special powers, and memories of prior lives – but physically they’re basically horses. As for those special powers…

  • They draw on magical energy to be far more enduring and heal more quickly than normal horses. Of course, everything in d20 is more enduring and heals more quickly than any normal creature. Maybe they’ve got the Tireless ability (6 CP / 1 Feat), or they could just have higher-than-normal Constitution scores.
  • They’re mostly reincarnated ex-Heralds or fragments of divine powers. They understand various languages and have various skills from their prior lives, even if they can’t speak or use most of them with hooves. Some books say that they have the Gift of Tongues, and can understand things spoken in any language – still without being able to talk to humans. They don’t admit this though. We’re told in early books that many of them can’t communicate with their Heralds at all except when first bonding with them or through the use of a deep trance – but in later books the notion that they have trouble communicating becomes less and less prominent, and they start mentally communicating with anyone when they need to. That’s not too surprising since writing mute characters is a horrible nuisance.
  • They can inflict laser-guided amnesia on their Heralds and possibly on others to keep their true origins, their semi-divine-messenger status, and other bits of troublesome or socially-distorting information secret. Why? Because it would ruin the setting if the people in it ever started to put all the clues together and making the primary characters all selectively stupid on the details about the most important things in their lives makes for lousy storytelling.
  • Some Companions have claimed to have known from the beginning what partnering with a given individual would lead to. On the other hand, Heralds and companions often seem to die in stupid and readily-avoidable ways. Others have to do a lot of hunting for their partners. This may be a comforting lie told to Heralds, or it might be a special power of individual Companions, but it certainly isn’t a general ability.
  • They travel more quickly than horses. Mostly they’re just fast and enduring, a very few seem to use a short-range teleportation effect to speed up even more. On the other hand even those few never seem to be able to just bypass hazards or simply teleport to where they need to be even if it’s quite nearby. They don’t even dodge attacks with a Blink effect. Their “teleporting” is only for faster out-of-combat overland movement. In d20 terms this is just a boost to movement. It can’t be too big a one either; Valdemar is not really that huge, and allowing Companions to cross it in a day or twos easy run (Say twice the speed of a horse, kept up for twenty hours since they are effectively tireless… five hundred miles a day would be quite possible) messes up the stories quite a lot. You could cross a CONTINENT in a week that way, much less a rather small and isolated kingdom.
  • They normally live as long as their Herald does – although none of them in the books have partnered up with anything but humans. Would they live as long as an Elf? Who knows?
  • Some (Most? All?) of them can feed energy to their Heralds. This may explain why a Heralds Gifts tend to get stronger after they are chosen by a Companion. On the other hand… most Gifts are fairly minor things. Sure, you can point at Lavan Firestorm – but his greatest achievement was losing control and spewing enough fire around in a (highly flammable) pine forested mountain pass to start a big forest fire, killing both himself and the enemies who were trying to get through. So… Fireballs and maybe a few Walls Of Fire? It should be no surprise that we’re back at level three and four effects again.
  • They have some way of picking good Herald-prospects – decent people with at least a little psionic potential who will be of use to Valdemar. It can turn out badly though, so this is hardly infallible. It could even be a disadvantage; “bound to destiny” is very, VERY, much a thing in the setting. Trying to implement that in a game where a bunch of unpredictable players are doing things instead of a single author? That won’t work so well.
  • The bond with their Herald is so vital to them that they will die if they must repudiate their Herald or he or she dies. This is loosened up a bit for Grove-Born Companions, but then they seem to be direct divine emissaries anyway. Those are kind of expected to break the rules.
  • They may be somewhat magic resistant.
  • They’re generally a bit better all around than a normal horse. In d20 terms, that’s probably slightly boosted physical attributes.
  • They may have individual mental powers, but most of whatever they had as a Herald does not seem to automatically carry over.

And… that’s about it. And while they HELP their Herald, they’re freewilled and independent. You don’t get them with a Feat or as a class feature. They picked you – and that isn’t exactly an unmixed blessing.

You have been selected by a Companion to be a Herald Of Valdemar! You will be supported by the crown and nobody will care how randy you are, but you will have no free time and will almost certainly die young doing something stupidly heroic! Really experienced Heralds are very rare!

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