Eclipse d20 – Building Occultists

“Occult” means “Hidden”. An Occultist… studies that which is hidden. His or her specialty is lost tomes, unpronounceable names, secret rituals performed under cover of night, lost shrines and crypts, hidden locations, and cultures long-vanished. They’re at their best in “secret supernatural” worlds, That’s hard to maintain in modern settings; camera cell phones alone make “hiding the truth” a lot more complicated and usually call for supercomputers or magic that somehow monitors the entire internet and censors it as well as plentiful memory erasure – but it’s a lot easier in more classical settings.

They also don’t fit in with high magic settings. If magic makes the trains run, or there’s a spellcasting priest in every temple, or there’s an official court wizard who can fly and hurl bolts of lightning, or talented kids can sign up for magic classes… then there isn’t much of a place for lost mystic secrets. Why bother researching a translation for an ancient incantation from the wall of a pyramid when you can go down to a professional spell designer and commission a modern version of the incantation complete with four thousand years worth of technical improvements?

That’s why superhero worlds that include actual Occultists tend to relegate them to their own little mystical underworlds. Mountain-Smashing Woman and Fusionman (the embodiment of the “Solar Phoenix” / C-N-O fusion cycle) don’t generally do crossovers with the gangster-hunting Shadow Weaver and Presbyter John the Exorcist.

A classical occultist doesn’t have much magic of his or her own – and certainly doesn’t have the neatly systematic magic you usually find in role-playing games and a lot of movies and television programs (albeit not all of them). They’re usually extremely knowledgeable, capable of a few personal tricks (including basic divinations and occasional knacks) and of rituals (especially summonings and exorcisms), but most of their powers are “Found” magic. Stuff that they have picked up, and most of which will soon run out when used.

Perhaps for this mission they wield a rare talisman discovered in a fey forest, a genuine Hand Of Glory found in a curiosity shop, an invocation of Anubis (very dangerous and requiring an escalating offering each time it is used), a Dragon’s Fang, a Wand of Thunder cut from a thousand-year oak during a mighty storm during a specific celestial conjunction, three one-use spells granted by some dread power of the netherworld, and a favor owed by an ancient lich.

Now several of those things might be very multipurpose, or good for several uses – but all too soon, their powers will be used up.

Really lucky Occultists may have a device or two that either can be recharged or has a daily / weekly / whatever allotment of uses – things which are likely to become a cornerstone of their activities across their careers – but for the most part everything beyond their minor personal powers is likely to be traded out for each mission. Given their limited occult arsenal, quite a few of them will also carry a blade, crossbow, or gun and wear some basic low-profile armor.

Of course, literary, movie, graphic novel, or television series occultists have a major advantage. They always seem to have stuff that fits the plot. If they’re going up against demons they will have some holy stuff, and it it’s werewolves there will no sign of holy stuff, but there will doubtless be a magical silver blades, warding spells, and shapeshifting-related magics.

Now, that could just mean that they have a LOT of magic and only use the few items that fit the plot – but if you give a player character a large stockpile… they will either find some way to use every bit of it (no matter how obscure part of it is) or they will simply stock up on generically useful magic. If you only let them have a little… they will still stock up on the most generically useful stuff they can for fear of being stuck with an inappropriate stockpile.

  • If they are good at scouting or planning they may be able to stock up on something appropriate, but a lot of groups just don’t do much of that.
  • If the game master gets directly involved in the selection – usually in the role of some god or mystical mentor – he or she can make sure that the selection is nicely relevant. In fact, it can even be turned into clues and foreshadowing. This is likely the best method, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it – but it IS a lot of trouble and can be pretty tricky to pull off if the players head off in some unexpected direction.
  • The easiest method is for the Occultist to use the Occult Skill “Foresight” – using it to pick out appropriate items on the fly.

So lets make some suitable Occult Powers. First up, a few basics:

Psychic Magic (9 CP):

Witchcraft II (Three Basic Abilities) with +2d6 Mana as +6d6 Power, Path of Water/Dismissal, Path of Air/The Sight, and Path of Light/Divination. All Specialized for Reduced Cost / requires interruptable gestures, incantations, and access to various components (a spell component pauch will do), user becomes a magnet for spirits and weird occult events, user is mystically marked by the powers he or she serves and will be preferentially targeted by their enemies (21 CP). Occultists will normally have a Pact of Service and a Vow (-12 CP), for a net cost of (9 CP).

Occultists are – as is expected for any Witchcraft-based character – fairly impressive to start with. they know (or can find out), all kinds of things, have several useful tricks (depending on which basic Witchcraft abilities they take), and have a fair chance of getting rid of extradimensional pests. What they don’t have is a lot of raw power. They’re mystic investigators, not war-mages.

Ritual Magic (6 CP).

This one is pretty obvious. Rituals – magic circles, strange reagents, suspicious candles, bubbling cauldrons, sacrifices, mystical places and locations, and calling upon outre powers with unpronounceable names – are a major occult tool. Rituals are powerful and versatile, but the ones with worthwhile* effects tend to call for difficult-to-get components, very awkward times and places, and far too much time – which is why you can buy the entire branch of magic so cheap. On the other hand, Occultists tend to be investigators. They don’t stand in the opening gates of hell and do battle with the emerging dark horde; they arrive three days early and get to work on a ritual designed to keep those gates from opening in the first place.

*To adventurers. Minor rituals to bless gardens, keep bugs out of the stored food, keep an eye on babies, call in the livestock, and so on are quick and easy – but adventurers rarely care.

Spirit Magic (6 CP):

Double Enthusiast, Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect (6 Floating CP) / Only for Favors (Cha Mod + 3 version, either two sets of minor favors or one of major favors), can only be changed or renewed in between adventures, must be cleared with the GM (6 CP).

Occultists constantly trade services and favors. They run small errands for various powers – perhaps stopping a land developer from bulldozing an ancient altar, renewing fading ancient seals, supporting causes favored by various powers, and so on. They spend work and time and older occult favors to bring in a continuous supply of new ones. Thus a genuine Occultist can start off each adventure (or major segment thereof) with a selection of mundane and supernatural favors to call on. Of course, the acceptability of any given request is up to the game master – but at least this is a lot quicker than rituals.

Hidden Lore (3 CP):

Access to an Occult Skill (3 CP). Personally, I’d suggest one of:

  • Foresight (allowing the user to make sure that he or she has the RIGHT favors and other preparations):
  • Gadgetry (allowing the user to have a pouch full of prepared alchemical, occult, or other devices according to his or her personal style. What is that Hand Of Glory capable of? Lots of stuff, depending on how you use it), or
  • Secrets (Granting the user truly impressive secret knowledge). Higher level occultists will probably want all three, but there’s only so much you can do at low levels.

That’s really all you need for a basic occultist for a mere 24 CP. That’s a pretty powerful package at low levels, but becomes considerably less impressive at higher levels – and while you can build on it, the lack of focus hurts. Moreover, if you want to stick with the theme… you’ll be taking individual powers, and fairly diverse ones at that, rather than anything coherent. Of course, that’s not necessarily useless – a clever character with a wide variety of minor powers can be quite effective – but you will have a hard time competing in a kick-in-the-door style game when the wizards and clerics start throwing around high-level magic. Of course, you will still have plenty of points left for other abilities.

If you really want to stick to the theme, you’ll want things like:

Spellforging (6 CP):

Improved Superior Power Words, Specialized and Corrupted for Reduced Cost (6 CP) / Cannot be refilled during an adventure, cannot store spells more than one level above what the user could normally cast (Level / 2, Rounded Up), any expensive components must be either supplied or the spell must be taken at a higher level to buy them off, spells are stored in physical talismans.

Occultists can “prepare” a limited number of spells (A total number of spell levels equal to their Constitution) via summoning entities to grant them or constructing them with rituals and storing them in various trinkets. While they can’t have very many such spell-constructs ready at any one time (there are stability issues or something) they can store a reasonable amount of power – but must use it with great caution, since their stock of spells is anything but easy to renew.

Knight Of (Nexus) (6 CP)

The raw forces of elemental magic flow throughout the world, waxing and waning, ebbing and flowing with the years, the seasons, and the stars, forming pools and rivers of power, nodes, ley lines, and the threads of fate, the bonds between places and worlds. But where a name is given… that place is set apart. A knot is tied in the threads of fate. There is identity, a place gains a life and spirit of it’s own. Camelot, Neverland, Gotham… the order of the Name laid over the Chaos of the world.

Sometimes a mere mortal bonds with that power, coaxes it into expression, becomes a voice and embodiment of ancient powers. And for a time, there shall be greatness.

  • Mystic Link with Communications and Power Link, Specialized and Corrupted for Reduced Cost / links you to a specific, relatively small, location, does not interact with any further mystic links you may buy rather than stacking as Mystic Link upgrades usually do, communications only occurs in GM-specified visions and vague feelings, user must spend a good deal of time at the linked location, preferably being a resident of the place, user is obligated to defend the location (3 CP).
  • Leadership with Exotic Followers, Specialized and Corrupted / only one follower (a Ward Major at one-third your level / hit dice), follower (obviously) never accompanies you anywhere (3 CP).

With this, an Occultist awakens the spirit of a place that he or she has bonded with – giving that place an occult significance and defenses of its own in the form of a Ward Major and becoming a representative and guardian of that place, able to tap into whatever personal powers the Ward bestows remotely. Indeed, that power can be shared; other Knights will need only the first (3 CP) link to gain those powers as well – at least as long as they’re suited to the task.

Magical Knack (6 CP):

Shaping, Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect (L1 Effects) / Only for effects related to a very specific, narrow, field, requires some freedom to gesture and/or incant, only to duplicate a very limited list of first level spells unless further augmented.

This offers unlimited access to a series of specific tricks. Someone with a Fire Knack might be able to always have a lit cigarette, cause a match or lighter to flare up into a brilliant light whenever he or she wants (Blinding Flash or Light), be able to flick them at targets and set them on fire (as per Produce Flame), be able to exhale great clouds of smoke (Obscuring Mist), turn a cigarette into a wave of flame (Burning Hands), set fiery symbols burning on the ground or in the air, and perhaps a few more tricks – but that’s pretty much it. Another user might have a knack with Visual Illusions (perhaps Disguise Self, Silent Image, Blend, Shadow Trap, and Vanish), or Wind Magic, or Monster Summoning, or Alchemical Effects.

A few Occultists will expand on this – taking 1d6 Mana with Spell Enhancement, Rite of Chi, and +4 Bonus Uses on Rite of Chi, all Specialized and Corrupted for Reduced Cost (+6 CP) / only for use with a specific Magical Knack, Mana may only be regained given a few moments to rest. This will allow him or her to use a bigger Knack effect a few times in any given fight – perhaps upgrading that burning cigarette into a full-scale Fireball, or even throwing one down to produce a Wall of Fire.

Honestly, between that and the (pretty much) required secondary abilities – Adept II, various investigative and knowledge skills, more Occult Skills, a nice high Will Save, a little Luck, enough hit points to take a few hits from eldritch horrors, some Contacts, and the usual character-building basics, you should be able to fill up a number of levels quite handily.

Beyond that… take a Spirit Fetch companion, or learn some additional Witchcraft, or take more Occult Skills, or pick up some of the Lesser Paths (Part I and Part II) – or just be a Rogue or Ranger type who dabbles. There is nothing wrong with that, and it will generally be a lot easier for the game master to deal with than a high-level full spellcaster. After all, despite characters like John Constantine, a classical occultist is someone who’s learned a lot of lore and a little magic, and who likely has a few toys – but who relies on investigation, preparation, and cunning not by preference, but because they simply do not have a lot of raw power to work with.

2 Responses

  1. Yeah – though faithfully building someone like Constantine would probably involve the sort of megadose of narrative powers that can be similarly awkward to run to more complete casting abilities.

    • Oh well, as is standard for comic book characters, and ESPECIALLY for mystics… the characters vary wildly with the needs of the plot, ranging from cleverness and a few minor tricks through literally being able to ride the plot (as Constantine did when teaching Timothy Hunter) and on to reconstructing a destroyed universe with a new supreme being (often themselves!) in charge. The same way that Doctor Strange has uses a dozen or so entirely different systems of magic over the years – sometimes changing due to events, and sometimes without any explanation at all.

      Thus the problem with building Raven; you kind of have to pick a version first.

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