Laws Of Magic Part IV – Purification and Personification

For those looking to read in order…

And now for Part IV – Purification and Animism / Personification

In “real” traditional magic Purification is a vital prerequisite for any major working. After all… since everything is connected, and there are all sorts of influences and correspondences everywhere, the first step in any major working (that’s anything that isn’t purely reliant on your personal power like “psychic” abilities and petty cantrips) pretty much has to be to clear away all of the magical influences that you don’t want getting involved. Otherwise… you’ll be incorporating all kinds of random influences into your magic. So the first step in anything major is to set up a magic circle or ward to keep outside influences out of your working – and the second is to cleanse your ritual area of any influences that are already present. The third, of course, is to specifically invite, summon, or add those influences you do want present. These days this is usually known as Casting The Circle.

Only then do you actually start in on what you want to do. Otherwise you’re risking having your working go wildly out of control and causing god-only-knows-what to happen. Classically, working without purification was risking much more than your mere life.

In legends and literature, purification is mostly a matter of personal purification. After all, having your characters stop to conduct various purification rituals before they do anything every little bit gets boring very, VERY, fast – and even entirely mortal (super-) heroes are generally capable of doing the impossible ten times before breakfast anyway. Why shouldn’t they get away with skipping the dull bits here too?

Conventionally, when it comes to personal purity in legends and literature…

  • “White” wizards are likely to have to refrain from sexual activity and/or most personal emotional relationships, or avoid certain foods, or follow strict rules to avoid “sin”, or take ritual baths (or possibly never bathe so as to avoid dissipating their personal energies), or spend time in a sweat lodge, or dance and chant, or any of a hundred other methods. In most such cases, the potency of their magic relies on how pure they are, although failure chances and such do show up in some cases.
  • “Black” mages tend to offload their need for purity on other people – which is why they’re big on virgin’s blood, child sacrifices, and stealing the power of untainted magical nexi and items. Thus they weaken and corrupt the sources they draw on – which they care little about because they tend to throw them away as they weaken and grab new sources of power. Black Magic thus inherently taints and corrupts both the area around the user and the sources of magic he or she draws upon.
  • Elementalists, “Nature Mages”, or “Priests” tend to just bind themselves to a particular source or type of power (and usually one they have a natural affinity for at that) or two – thus making it relatively easy to remain “pure” by not interacting with other kinds of magic. All those systems of freeform magic that only apply to particular fields probably work like this.

Which is at least one way in which the (rather boring) traditional generic ritualist – who can try to do almost anything at all given sufficient time in which to work – turns into the familiar specialist-in-a-field / “elementalist” / “necromancer” / whatever role-playing-game quick spellcaster who can keep up with the action but has a strictly limited variety and supply of spells.

Purification is even less important in most RPG’s though, simply because in such games most spells are preset, as with Amber’s “Hung” spells, d20’s “Prepared” spells, or World Tree’s “Grafted” spells. When the effects are set down in the game rules, active purification usually falls by the wayside. Why bother when that fireball wand is essentially every bit as “mechanical” as a grenade launcher?

With systems like that… if you needed to purify yourself, you presumably did it while you were getting your spells ready to go. Once a spell is hung, assembled, or grafted, it is pretty much independent of outside influences – just as a grenade will go off regardless of where it is when you pull the pin (at least barring really insane environments such as the surfaces of neutron stars or “antimagic” zones).

Still, there are echoes of the idea in most role-playing games; that’s presumably where cursed items come from – and it’s why half the powers of The Practical Enchanter’s Wards Major are normally selected randomly; the area covered by such a Ward is usually just too big to purify effectively before it’s enchanted.

Games that happen to have a (usually secondary) ritual magic system or adhere to “only blunt weapons for priests (so that they are not rendered impure by the intent to shed blood, like early AD&D) usually already include some nods to the idea of ritual purity – but if you want to emphasize it a bit more, noting that mages must spend some time every day in meditation to cleanse their minds, or spend a day of downtime not casting anything so as to purify the energies of their chakra every so often, or burn the occasional stick of special incense to let it’s smoke carry away malevolent demonic forces, or never speak an impure language, or whatever, as a part of being a spellcaster, will do it. You can even give it a small penalty to ensure that the players make a note to do it. 5% chance of spell failure per week missed to a maximum of – say – 10% per spell level – will be plenty of incentive for your spellcasters to find an hour or so a week for some purification ceremonies.

Personification is basically Animism – the belief that objects, places, creatures, and possibly even abstract concepts, have spirits of their own, are at least somewhat aware of the world, and can act in their own ways. From this point of view there is no sharp distinction between the spiritual and physical aspects of the world – or between mankind and the rest of the universe. Of all the classic laws of magic… it is perhaps the oldest and most universal. The idea is so widely held and inherent to most indigenous peoples that they often do not even have a word in their languages for it – or even for “religion”. It is unquestioned; Animism simply IS.

It’s true origin lies deep in infancy. Even infants as young as three months of age seem to realize that objects continue to exist when they’re out of sight. Soon after that they begin to understand that not much happens around them unless something makes it happen.

So what makes most things happen around an infant? Sometimes it’s wind, but most of the time it’s a creature – occasionally a family pet or other animal, but most of the time… it’s other people. Infants do tend to be kept safe, warm, and tucked away in quiet, stable, places after all.

It’s not much of a jump to the idea that when things happen… it’s probably people of some sort. Even if you can’t see them, bigger and older people do all kinds of marvelous things. They bring you food, they mend broken toys, they bring fire and keep you warm. So things like lightning, wind, the growth of plants, the flight of birds, the movement of celestial objects, and the great eruptions of volcanoes… are probably acts of even bigger and older people. Sure, some spirits (like some people) are relatively simple and are only good at a few things – but others, like the Great Sky Spirit, are vast and complex.

And, as children grow… a rich animistic overlay of gods, nature spirits, haunts, and fancies grows with them, cast over cold reality like a warming blanket. So you asked for what you wanted or needed. And if, in extremis, that failed you and you died… well, you didn’t pass on that experience. And those times when – against all odds – you succeeded, soon passed through storytelling into legend. What further proof could a member of a small tribe ask for?

Older human brains play into that worldview in another way. The brain is a survival mechanism. It looks for patterns, for ways to survive and prosper in the present – and to predict and influence the future. When the patterns are beyond it’s current understanding, and appear impossible to change to suit itself, stress sets in. The brain starts throwing preconceptions, fantasies, and wild ideas into the desperate effort to find a manipulable pattern.

And waiting there, from early childhood, in the minds depths… is Animism. From a time when life was controlled by mighty beings who did mysterious things for no reason that you really understood – but whom could be influenced to fulfill your needs when you made noise. Did you have a stuffed animal as a child that you talked to? Did you hide under the covers to keep the monsters from getting you? Have you sworn at your car or your computer while trying to get it to start? Then congratulations! You are a practicing animistic mage. Most of us are, if only because It’s VERY hard to get rid of the feeling that threatening that annoyingly balky piece of equipment with being thrown away will help somehow.

Animism is so deeply embedded in human cultures and thus gaming magic that it’s barely even noticed. Look at the setting of your game. Are their various gods of nature and natural phenomena? Are there elemental entities or storm spirits? Do magical items respond when commanded? Are there haunted places, sacred groves, spirits of the land, and great totems that control animals? Do older weapons have proper names and perhaps powers due to their growing legend? Can you speak to the spirit of a mountain or a river? There’s a reason why no one questions that sort of thing when it’s put into a setting. Every fantasy setting has some of that sort of thing.

About the only way that “Personification” elaborates on basic Animism is to say that Animistic Spirits tend to react in kind and can be channeled – and that this is an entirely valid way to deal with the unseen world. Are you a noble hero serving the equally-noble Sun God? Then the Sun God will tend to answer your pleas and will support you as you support him. Congratulations; you’re a Paladin. Do you demand that dark forces do your will and strike down your enemies? Then they will demand equally dark deeds and offerings from you in exchange. Do you attempt to gently persuade locks to open even if you don’t have the key? Then the locks may refuse, or gently ask for a few drops of oil in exchange, or try to talk you into going away – but the are most unlikely to demand anything much more burdensome. If you’re polite and reasonable… then so are they.

Purification and Animism can be left unremarked in your games of course – after all, they’re usually a part of the underlying assumptions anyway – but bringing them a little more into view does serve to hint at a vast, underlying, structure to your worlds magic – and in a way that most people are already primed to accept.

Laws Of Magic Part III – Karma

So why worry about classical “laws of magic” anyway? Why not just make up your own laws of magic?

That’s partly because – as many authors have shown – making up a coherent system of alternative physics is quite a lot of trouble. After all, human beings have been fiddling around with this set of rules for thousands of years and – as shown so far – the result still isn’t very coherent. That gets even worse in a game setting, where the players are going to be picking your efforts apart looking for any possible advantage that they can squeeze out of them.

Really, it’s mostly to give your game worlds some depth and make them seem fantastic. While it’s difficult to get away from having some mechanics in your game, it’s a lot more interesting if you can keep a sense of wonder and mystery in it as well. Like a movie, your scenes need a background – even if it’s the linguistic equivalent of a matte painting. And, like it or not, the “laws of magic” are a part of almost everyone’s mental library, are rich with associations, and somehow just seem reasonable. Some part of the human mind just seems to interpret things that way.

Thus slapping a superficial gloss of Correspondences (mostly in item descriptions), Sympathy and Contagion (mostly in spell components), the Doctrine Of Signatures (in the ingredients for potions and scrolls), Magical Circles (in summoning and a few spell names), Naming (mostly in Item Creation), Runes and Occult Symbols (in Glyphs of Warding and Symbol spells), over the fairly basic Vancian Spellcasting of first edition AD&D lent the magic system an underlying feeling of having laws and rules. It hinted that a system which was basically a list of handy game effects for wargames actually had deep mysteries and an occult basis that only the arcane spellcasters truly understood.

It didn’t of course, but that feeling helped make the setting fantastic and full of wonder. It helped make it feel “genuinely magical”.

Sadly, that same gloss of occultism was quite enough to convince quite a few people that AD&D – and many other games – involved actual magic, taught the players genuine occult lore, and led directly to the practice of black magic and Satanism. Those accusations were bad for sales since they upset young gamers parents – and so the natural reaction was denial. You can still see the disclaimers in the front of many older RPG’s – but denial of such “obvious” evil intent was, of course, taken as confirmation of it. The next step was, naturally enough, to strip that gloss away with the next edition. Of course, that also did no good – it was simply taken as confirmation that the authors were trying to hide their “Satanic” intent – but the nonsense gradually died away anyway, just as it usually does (see: Rock and Roll, Harry Potter, etc).

Unfortunately, by that time, the damage was done. Most RPG’s had pretty well purged all of their classical occult flavoring. The College Of Greater Summonings had vanished from Dragonquest, magical references had vanished from AD&D in favor of dry rules descriptions, and Champions included no setting material at all, filling the book with pure game mechanics. Some games held out – but an awful lot gave in.

That left us with playable games that – as a bonus – could be readily used as a basis for computer games. Unfortunately, along the way, they’d lost a lot of the classical fantasy “feel”.

Now I happen to LIKE that feeling of wonder, and having underlying, and somewhat mysterious, rules to how magic “actually” works – which is why the Baba Yaga RPG includes a somewhat snarky “Disclaimer” of it’s own:

Disclaimer: In the classic tradition of RPG’s, Distant Horizons Games notes that magic doesn’t actually work. If you think you can get somewhere with the “occult methods” given in this book – announcing what you want and rolling 3D6 twice – we reserve the right to laugh at you hysterically.

So that’s why these articles are taking a look at some classical “laws of magic”. It’s to help put some of that feeling back into games for those who miss it.

And to get back to that…

The Law Of Karma can be expressed several ways. The Threefold Rule says that what you send out returns to you threefold. Other formulations speak of “backlash”. Still others say that you must laboriously build up magical power before you can accomplish anything. Still others that you must burn your life force, or lifespan, to wield magic. Yet others claim that you are paying with portions of your very soul.

Perhaps the simplest expression is everything has a price.

Most games both embrace and utterly reject this.

  • Any notion that practicing harmful magic will ultimately lead the practitioner to ruin has almost completely fallen by the wayside, eliminating the Threefold Rule. That was inevitable from the beginning given that combat – and thus harmful combat magic – is a major component of most RPG’s. On the other hand, many fantasy RPG’s also want to have some clearly defined “dark magic” for the equally clearly-defined bad guys to use. This leads to ideas like “necromantic spells are inherently evil” – which is why d20 took healing and various other spells out of the field. But even then… if you want to be evil, and use “evil magic”, then there really isn’t any special price for it. Being evil just grants you access to some especially unpleasant powers. (A few games include special abilities that are restricted to the “good guys” too, but that’s a lot rarer).
  • Backlash – or “Drain”, or “Fatigue” or many other names – is a reasonably popular mechanic in games, but it’s mostly just a way to keep magic-users from utterly dominating the action. It’s only a cost in the way that burning some calories and a bit of fatigue is the “cost” of rearranging your furniture or digging a hole to plant a tree. RPG’s like Shadowrun, Ysgarth, Tales From The Floating Vagabond, and many more, all embraced various “fatigue” mechanics.
  • AD&D embraced the “you must laboriously gather up motes of magical energy and build them into prepared spells!” idea. That served to give magic a notable price and greatly limited its power as well; an adventuring wizard might have a fair number of spells prepared – but refilling that reserve could take days or, at very high levels, a week or more of doing nothing but prepare spells. While actually on an adventure, a wizard would be lucky to find the time to prepare – say – three first level spells, one second level spell, and one third level spell (two hours of study worth) per day. Casting anything beyond that was burning very limited reserves that you might not be able to refill for a long time. That was why every wizard wanted a wand or two, just as desperately as the fighter wanted a magic sword and magic armor. It was much easier to use a wand in combat than it was to cast a spell, they held enough charges to be used right through most adventures, and they could be recharged at home. Secondarily, AD&D embraced the idea that being a wizard required vast amounts of study and time – which might not be a cost to the player, but certainly was to the character. It even limited your chance to learn particular spells and the total number of spells a mage could ever know.

This make the AD&D magic system fantastic, and put a convincing price on being a mage – but enough of the players found playing a mage as the system was written so difficult that game masters started treating the “maximum number of prepared spells” table as spells-per-day, greatly softened the difficulties of getting them cast successfully, and often entirely ignored the limitations on learning spells – all of which became standard rules in third edition. It was a good effort, but ultimately did not work – even if “can’t wear armor” and “low hit points” are still in play.

  • A very few games – Necromancer, some very early versions of D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and a few more – embraced the “cast from lifespan” idea in one way or another. Casting major spells had direct and terrible prices. Casting too many would kill you or drive you mad – and there were few or no ways to reset the total, which meant that major spells could be grand, and terrible, and very powerful indeed, and still be very rarely used. This works – but it means that you really can’t play a mage, or you will often have nothing to do until a spell MUST be used – and you come a little bit closer to retiring your character. Magic was for insane NPC’s and the occasional player-character dabbler.
  • In quite a lot of current games the only “cost” is an opportunity cost. If you want to be good at magic (or psionics, or your reality-tweaking option of choice), then you’re going to have to put a lot of your character-development resources (money, levels, time, whatever) into it – and thus won’t be able to put those resources into being good at other things. Now that’s a perfectly functional and realistic game mechanic. In fact it’s so functional that it’s near-universal; I’ve only seen a few games – such as Nobilis, Ars Magica, and Mage – where mystics simply get handed an additional resource pool to allot to magical benefits, and all of those games are firmly centered on supernatural characters (often to the point where nothing else is actually playable). Unfortunately, outside of those few games (where there is little or no reason NOT to be a “Noble” or a Mage) that approach puts “Magic!” on the exact same level as “Swordsmanship!” and only a little above “Blacksmith!”. You become a really good mage in exactly the same way that you become a really good maker of wine.

Some games make that work. As an example, TORG stresses the player-based cardplay so much that character abilities make little difference. Thus an elderly Shakespearean Actor found that his dramatic and oratorical skills were every bit as effective both in and out of battle as the talents of the werewolf-gunfighter, the mad-scientist robot and his built-in manufacturing systems, the ninja computer hacker, the archmage, or the psionic adept giant otter. In fact, they were better since he’d focused all his resources on them; it was his impossible oratory that got him hailed across a galaxy as the True Emperor and brought stability and prosperity to millions of worlds. The cyborg fox might have destroyed twelve futuristic grav-tanks with a pistol in a single action, but none of the rest of them ever did anything on a galactic scale – unless, perhaps, you count the Otter creating the unkillable Godzilla Virus Artificial Intelligence and unleashing it into the Cyberpapacy’s Matrix.

The thing is though, that most games make giving out pools of special bonuses to particular types of characters work by either giving out such pools to every kind of character or by – like TORG – making the character abilities mostly subordinate to the players skills.

There really isn’t an optimum solution to this one. You don’t really want to limit the players too much or tell them that their characters can’t start studying magic unless they take four years off to get the equivalent of an engineering degree in it. After all, in large part they’re playing to take a break from realities limitations. About all you can do is to complicate the character’s lives – and most of that sort of thing tends to be setting or system specific.

  • Perhaps mages need special foci to use their powers – something much more complex and difficult to replace than a “spell component pouch”. Chivalry and Sorcery did this. Such things are fairly readily replaceable given a little time, but you’ll need to keep track of them and make spares.
  • Perhaps magic is a limited resource, and you have to compete for it. Did you have to eliminate a few rival apprentices and take their sources of power to become an adventuring mage? Or do you have to maintain a cult-like array of followers who labor to build the pool of power you draw upon.
  • Perhaps powerful magic corrupts the environment, or allows monsters to enter the world, or drains the life from villagers.
  • Perhaps you need to give up your social life, practice monastic self-discipline, or renounce eating meat to maintain your powers.
  • Perhaps you need to perform strange rituals at specific times, offer your blood, know that your firstborn child will be a tool of some magical being, or be forever unable to sing or hear music or find true love.
  • Perhaps using magic leaves obvious and unnatural signs – horns, or strange eyes, or a “witches mark”, ruining your social life and making you a target of suspicion. Or perhaps it’s just extremely conspicuous in some fashion.
  • Perhaps using magic is alienating, drains your emotions, or demands the sacrifice of treasured memories, leaving the user increasingly distant from normal humanity – or perhaps it inherently drives people away from the user or even drives them to betray him or her.
  • Perhaps magic undermines the foundations of reality or is banned by the gods or simply attracts misfortune, or monsters, or hunters. NPC’s will only use it with great caution, player characters who use it will find themselves regularly attacked and obliged to go on various adventures because bizarre problems keep popping up around them.
  • Perhaps magic damages your health, leaving you with a cough, or a tendency to catch minor illnesses, or causes other inconvenient and annoying problems with little game effect. Are you deaf in one ear, farsighted or nearsighted, or prone to fits?
  • Perhaps using magic requires accepting various Taboos (things you must not do, however weird and pointless) or Oaths (things you must do) to maintain your powers.
  • Perhaps magic requires a careful balance of some sort. Perhaps each time you cast your mighty fireballs, you need to help out a village or some such.
  • Perhaps magical energy only builds up gradually; on the first round of combat you can only cast first level spells – and a battle must go on for nine rounds to allow the casting of a ninth level spell. Out of combat? Perhaps it takes a minute per spell level.
  • Perhaps accessing a new level of magic involves rituals or trials. Concluding a pact with some mighty entity – or perhaps a classic sequence of trials, such as recognizing the limits of your power, seeking out magical tutelage, going forth on a quest, exercising self-discipline, and sacrificing something precious to you.

The point, of course, is not to make things hard on the player. It’s to ensure that – in the setting – becoming a magic-user is not simply another choice like learning a martial art. It is something with deep and mysterious implications that will have a major impact on your characters life, not a decision to be made lightly.

Laws Of Magic Part II – Synchronicity, Sympathy, Contagion, and The Doctrine Of Signatures.

For Part I (Background and Correspondences) look HERE.

Synchronicity says that “there is no such thing as “coincidence”“. Did the questioner draw The Moon as the card that would stand for them in the Tarot Reading? That Meant Something.

Like most laws of magic… this is kind of problematic in the real world. I cooked a turkey not so long ago, and between the time I put it in the oven and the time I took it out literally thousands of people died. Does that mean that I killed them with the dark power of my cookery? Of course it doesn’t. Better than a hundred people die every minute these days and those thousands of deaths were pure coincidence. Humans just have a tendency to remember it better when two events of interest or importance turn up close together (the root of “where were you when famous event X happened questions) – so they commonly see causation and relationship where none exists.

In Classic Fantasy it is Synchronicity – often in the guise of “Fate” or “Destiny” or “The Will Of The Gods” – that drives the plot. It’s why people die at convenient times, why it is a kind traveler who stumbles across the infant heir rather than a pack of wolves, why adventurers always arrive in the nick of time, why seers and madmen utter true prophecies, and why consulting Tarot Cards or the I-Ching (or the flight of birds, or the shapes formed by hot wax dripping into water, or the shape of a sacrificial animals liver or some such) can actually reveal glimpses of the future. There isn’t really any good reason why a great comet passing should signal some equally great event, or why the ancient prophecy should be translated just as the characters need that information – but that’s how it almost always works in classic fantasy.

Of course, when it comes to the “reality” of a game setting… Synchronicity rules the universe for a very simple reason; game masters have strictly limited time and a lot to cover. That means that if they take the time to describe something it is almost certainly relevant. Better game masters will throw in some red herrings and items that are potential lead-ins to new adventures or optional side-quests from time to time, but only a very few of the most hard-core “sandbox” game masters will simply let characters go wherever they please instead of trying to keep them involved with the material they actually have ready. Like it or not, most game masters aren’t really that good at improvising and find it quite impossible to keep track of everything if they start having to answer off-the-wall questions about areas they haven’t prepared notes on yet. There’s a reason why Chekov’s Gun (and it’s Brick Joke and McGuffin variants) are major tropes.

And so the player characters are the ones to witness the murder, hear the victims final words (no matter how they try to stop him or her from dying), get accused of said murder when the guards arrive a few moments later, and stumble across all the necessary clues and plot coupons as they flee the guards to hunt down the actual murderer and prove their innocence. RPG plots always involve heaping helpings of coincidence, and a bit of railroading, because otherwise a group of player characters can be counted upon to start off investigating a mystery in Pennsylvania in 1929, set off for Chicago to talk to Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone, and somehow wind up helping defend Beijing against Genghis Khan in 1214 – insisting all the while that they are hot on the trail of the Jersey Devil and without ever actually reaching Chicago or explaining what they wanted with Capone in the first place.

In active play in most game systems, Synchronicity lies at the heart of divination and destiny – and it often lies at the heart of every act of magic. There isn’t any good reason why singing a particular song while keeping time with a rod of alder wood and wearing a vest with a particular set of symbols sewn on it should summon a charging rhinoceros to strike whatever the spell caster is pointing at. It just happens. And if it happens reliably, despite the lack of any apparent reason why it should… then you have a powerful spell.

In one setting…

The first “wizard” was a peasant farmer who was singing a nonsense-song while waving his arms to scare some birds away from his crops while wearing a cheap copper ring with hid zodiac symbol on it (and a few other details) – and the result was summoning am obedient swarm of ghostly troops for a time. He happened to be a keen observer, and he managed to recall just what he’d been doing – and after several tries… he did it again. After a few months of practice he could do it fairly reliably.

By the time he died many years later… he was rich, powerful, and influential – and he’d managed to unearth two more (if far lesser) spells (“cantrips”) from among the lands other practitioners of folk magic.

Today, almost a thousand years later… the light-haired Wizards of his line command seven of the twenty-two major spells that are rumored to exist, and perhaps half again that many of the forty-three known minor cantrips. (Sadly, two of the major spells will not work for people with dark hair and one only works for females). In other lands other families and traditions exist – each devoting long years of study to mastering the intricacies of those few spells they know and jealously guarding their arcane secrets.

This magic system has no theory, no consistency, and no logic to it whatsoever – but it’s very, VERY, classical. You can do anything at all if you can just find the secret spell that does it and it isn’t too hard to perform – but there’s really no way to “research” a new spell; it’s either out there to be found or it isn’t. You could spend multiple lifetimes doing random things, and even if something magical happened… there’s no guarantee that you will be able to figure out how to get it to happen again. The critical elements that made it work might note even have to have to anything to do with you at all. New spells are fabulous rarities.

Given that there is no underlying logic to synchronicity at all, it’s hard to work it into active play outside of purely arbitrary requirements for various acts of magic and divination – but it tends to rule the plot. Still, if you want to let the players get their hands on plot-based powers… the most classic way is to use one form or another of Whimsy Cards (or my own Runecards) to allow the players to twist the plot a bit. Alternatively, you can use Tarot Cards (although that will call for a lot of interpretation) or something like the free Scion Legend Cards. In Eclipse, you can use the Narrative Powers Template or just invest a few points in abilities like True Prophecy or Destiny Magic (scroll down).

Sympathy and Contagion do get some play in older games (and the occasional current “old school” game). They’re simpler, easier to explain, easy to portray, and far more immediate in application – if just about as arbitrary if you really start analyzing things. They’re covered in some detail in the Mystic Links and Sympathetic Magic Articles (Part I and Part II) and are used by the Võlur. Unfortunately – also as covered in those articles in detail – these rules of magic really aren’t that compatible with adventuring. Performing lengthy rituals that have subtle effects on targets a long ways away doesn’t make for exciting adventures.

Similarity or “Signatures” are another simple idea – that something’s appearance indicates its hidden powers. Gold shines like the Sun, so it must have solar powers. It endures for centuries untarnished, so putting gold in your food should let you live longer. A plant with fronds like fingers must be good medicine for your hands – or possibly useful for animating disembodied hands. Eating tiger penis soup (or several other similar dishes or – for that matter – phallus impudicus mushrooms) must enhance male potency (that notion – like anything that promises more or better sex – remains quite popular today, in part thanks to the placebo effect).

In reality, the doctrine of signatures is pretty easily disproven. There are a lot of very poisonous mushrooms that look a great deal like edible and nourishing ones. If “Signatures” really meant anything… then the results of eating both should be much the same – but surviving victims of the Amanita Ocreata mushroom would beg to differ.

Even games are often more sophisticated than this, and used less naive notions. For example, bat guano contains a lot of potassium nitrate, which is used to make gunpowder – so it was “reasonable” to infer that “explosions of fire” must be a part of it’s hidden properties given that neither sulfur nor charcoal were all that explosive by themselves. Ergo you could use a bit of guano as a component for your Fireball spell. You could substitute other things – but the results were unpredictable and varied from game to game, since no one wanted to compile a list of possible modifications for a thousand different components (a prospect which contributed to the general dropping of notes about how differing components might modify spells in later editions).

On the other hand, signatures – and the reputed properties of various substances, both real and mythic – are important in magical herbalism, in selecting components for spells, and are vital in alchemy and the brewing of various potions. Dragons blood may be pretty much like any other large animals blood biologically, but gamers are generally interested in it’s magical properties, not in its compatibility for transfusions.

Only a few games every really got into this kind of list though. Rolemaster – notorious for its exhaustive lists of everything – covered a lot of plants and herbs, as did the supplements from Bard Games; both their original Alchemists book and the combined “Arcanum” book covered long lists of plants, minerals, metals, alchemical preparations, and specialized spell lists, all of it more or less first edition AD&D compatible. Unfortunately, later editions of most games tended to just throw random oddities into various sourcebooks and adventures, leaving sorting out the resulting incoherent mess of special cases to the internet and to the rare players and game masters who actually cared. Bastion’s 95-page “Alchemy & Herbalists” book was about the last gasp of serious lists of the magical properties of herbs and materials. Sure, Pathfinder produced a 30 pages worth of material for their Alchemy Companion – but much of the space is devoted to fireworks, character feats, and minor magical items.

The modern gaming version of the Doctrine of Signatures no longer relies on physical sensory impressions that go right past most of the intended audience. After all, most of the current game masters and players alike have no idea of what various plants, fungi, and minerals look, smell, or feel like. Secondarily, the idea of allowing characters to acquire even very minor “treasures” by simply taking a walk in the woods and looking for plants with special properties is mostly out of fashion. Thus the current version relies instead on the descriptions in various books of monsters. Players may not be clear on what a basilisk looks like, but they know exactly what it does – and nobody will argue much with the idea that its blood is poisonous, its scales extremely tough, and its eyes capable of empowering magics related to petrification or transformation if that’s what the game master says. Thus a part of the “treasure” for defeating it may be harvested directly from it’s corpse. After all, in a world of magic, harvesting magical components from a monster is no more exotic than historical whalers hunting whales for their meat, fat, and bones.

While there’s a certain amount of squick involved in – say – chopping up that intelligent dragon that you just killed for it’s teeth, hide, and other useful bits I’m sure that some people will pay very high prices indeed for Dragon Penis Soup – and money tends to get most adventurers over ethical compunctions very quickly indeed.

Whether fortunately or unfortunately, however, you can’t just require parts from exotic monsters for basic magic. After all, if you did, that would mean that player-character spellcasters might well never get to cast any spells – and so the Doctrine of Signatures gets relegated to a ghetto of rarely-used “power components” and optional subsystems. After all, the player characters will rarely HAVE a Cockatrice Feather (or whatever) – and so there’s little or no point in spending a lot of space talking about just what one is good for. Personally, I usually let this sort of thing go on the fly. If someone wants to gather up parts of monsters and use them for magical purposes… why not? They can try things and see what happens.

Laws Of Magic Part I – Correspondences

Once upon a time in first edition AD&D a Fireball filled so many thousands of cubic feet. If you set it off in a space that was too small, or the middle of a nest of tunnels or some such… the blast would fill it’s allotted space, even if that made the “ball” into a long line or it it blew back into your face and killed you. Similarly, lightning bolts could bounce back on the caster if you weren’t careful about where you set them off. Summoned elementals could go out of control and attack the summoner. There were fairly elaborate descriptions of where the energy that powered magic came from, how it was gathered, the time spent to bind it into each individual spell (fifteen minutes times the spell level for each spell so prepared – normally to a maximum of 32 levels of spells per day if you weren’t adventuring), and how tricky it was to use it properly. If you got interrupted, or fouled things up, it didn’t work. You could only learn so many spells, and would often find yourself permanently unable to learn the ones you wanted.

It was a time when making potions and scrolls required fairly high level and exotic ingredients – and if you didn’t have those ingredients, you couldn’t make that potion or a scroll. Making more powerful magic items involved arbitrary quests, and creating permanent enchantments cost a constitution point as enchanters gave up a portion of their life force to empower them. When Gods only granted spells appropriate to their portfolios, chose what spells they granted their priests, and sometimes withheld spells or other clerical benefits if said priests weren’t doing a good job of serving their gods.

For example, making a scroll of Protection From Petrification required giant squid ink, a basilisk eye, three cockatrice feathers, medusa snake venom, (specific) powdered gems, holy water, and pumpkin seeds. Lesser scrolls were usually easier, but they certainly weren’t things that you just churned out.

And there was a reason for all that. It was because classical fantasy adhered to many classical notions about how magic worked.

Classical fantasy said that gods and other magical entities paid attention and demanded that their servants and priests offer sacrifices, adhere to rigid codes of behavior, and actually serve them in exchange for the power they were given – and that various entities only offered powers related to their various portfolios. The Winter King would not – and COULD NOT – help you throw fire.

Classical fantasy said that learning to use magic without a supernatural patron was a difficult and dangerous thing, requiring years of study. It involved strange arts and the classical laws of magic – correspondences, synchronicity, sympathy, contagion, similarity or “signatures”, karma, purification, personification, destiny, and naming, magical circles, runes and occult symbols, and more. Would-be mages had massive lists of stuff to memorize in character – while even the player had quite a lot to keep track of. The Dungeon Master’s Guide showed glyphs for various Glyphs Of Warding (and noted that experienced players might remember their names from prior play, and so bypass them!) and several forms of protective inscriptions, including magic circles, pentagrams, and thaumaturgic triangles – and noted that when you summoned something the game master might require you to show them that you were using the right one!

Having an actual magic-user in your party was a luxury that called for a fairly high level party, a very experienced player, and a good deal of actual study and preparation.

And the first law of magic to take a look at is Correspondence.

Correspondence is built on the belief that every time, place, object, and symbol has some amount of magical power – and that that power is attuned to various purposes.

For simplified example, Fire is active, hot, dry, and emits light.

  • It’s season is summer.
  • Its Day is Sunday.
  • Its Time is noon.
  • Its Incenses are cinnamon, frankincense, and dragon’s blood.
  • Its Signs are Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius.
  • Its Animals are bees, lions, dragons, serpents, foxes, scorpions, and squirrels.
  • Its Alchemical Symbol is a point-up triangle.
  • Its Celestial Objects are Mars and the Sun.
  • Its Colors are white, red, and orange.
  • Its Sense is sight.
  • Its Trees are Alder, Chestnut, Cinnamon, and Rowan.
  • It Manifests in the sun, stars, and volcanoes.
  • Its Gods are Agni, Brigit, Durga, Freya, Horus, Pele, Ra, and Vulcan.
  • Its Tools are wands, lamps, and blades.
  • Its Stones are bloodstone, carnelian, fire opal, red jasper, ruby, tiger’s eye, and anything from a volcano.
  • Its Metals are gold, steel, and brass.
  • Its Herbs include allspice, basil, coffee, juniper, onion, peppers, thistle, and tobacco.
  • Its Fragrances include clove, patchouli, and chamomile.
  • Its Direction is south.
  • Its Spirits are salamanders and firedrakes.
  • It is associated with youth, war, courage, animal life, and sex.
  • It is linked with stringed instruments.
  • Its magic is suited to spells involving light, energy, love, health, and transformation.

And that list is far from complete. Those categories should have more items and there are lots more categories.

Every correspondence you involved in your magical action – or, to some extent, in mundane activities – added a little bit of power. Thus a red-haired spellcaster who’d been born during the summer, on Sunday, at noon, had four built-in correspondences for fire magic – and so would show a natural talent for it (and a likely deficit in Water Magic). He or she could get another boost from using an Steel (Metal) Athame (Blade) forged with the aid of a Salamander (Spirit), blessed by a priest of Agni (God), with a Bloodstone pommel (Stone), hilted with wood from a chestnut tree (Tree) and engraved with the constellation of Aries (Sign) – adding seven additional correspondences from a rather powerful magical tool. It would also help if he or she was smoking or had recently had sex, either of which would make an even dozen correspondences (you might not want thirteen; that has some unhelpful correspondences).

A charmsmith might gift a fighter with an amulet incorporating as many correspondences to the arts of war as possible, knowing that carrying those influences with him would help to bring him or her victory. Making magical devices that aided the user in various ways… basically involved a lot of ritual purification to help keep unwanted correspondences from getting entangled in your creation and putting together as many ingredients from your list as possible. Admittedly, such items were fairly subtle – but an item with the proper correspondences was a lot easier to enchant with active powers as well.

A diviner might use tarot cards, or throw runesticks, or use any of hundreds of other methods, in the belief that – thanks to the innate correspondences of their tools – the results will reflect the forces currently at work in a situation, providing hints as to what the future will hold. Better tools – such as tarot cards – will be constructed to incorporate as many symbols and correspondences as possible, so they are as well attuned to the universe as possible – and usually can also serve as spellcasting tools (which is where card-based casting comes from).

While this sort of thing is still fairly popular – notions of astrology, birth-stones, spirit animals, tarot cards, rune-stones, the I-Ching, and such are all over the place – few people are really aware that giving someone a little birthstone pendant, made of the “appropriate” metal and bearing various traditional symbols (knots, zodiac symbols, animals, etc) is really an act of magic meant to strengthen the recipients personal talents and improve their lives.

Correspondences are simultaneously the least and most organized bit of magical thinking. The most because Correspondences tend to come in massive categorized and sorted lists (there are entire books devoted to such lists). The least because the magical associations of times, items, places,, and materials are completely arbitrary; each culture has developed it’s own ideas on the topic. Still, the theory says that the more correspondences you manage to tie into an appropriate magical working, the more potent it became – for each contributes power.

Honestly, correspondences are far too complicated for most game systems. Even first edition AD&D, which involved a LOT of classic fantasy elements, shied away from any attempt to make direct use of Correspondences – although you can see traces of the idea in the descriptions of the various magic items (especially the wands) and in the information on creating magical items.

Other early game systems also dabbled a bit. Chivalry and Sorcery used parts of the system in enchanting the tools a spellcaster required, Dragonquest used Birth Aspects that could modify attempts to do pretty much anything, but only when they applied. A system or two used “Star Signs” which could provide all kinds of modifiers – a notion which would work nicely in d20 since applying a “star sign template” to your character is flavorful and should be relatively quick and easy.

Only one game system that I’m aware of – Fantasy Wargaming – used a correspondence table as a central element of it’s magic system. Unfortunately, Fantasy Wargaming is generally regarded as unplayable. (It’s actually not all that bad, but the organization of the book is terrible, it takes a long time to design and cast a spell, and it – as expected for the era – uses a lot of wargame ideas that limit your control of your character rather than RPG ideas).

Continuum II uses correspondences as a central part of the Ceremonial Magic system – but that is a subsystem that occasional characters dabbled in during downtime, rather than something that was expected to be used while adventuring. A player who wanted to invest some time and effort researching correspondences and coming up with ceremonies could give their party some handy (if fairly minor) bonuses to use during adventures – but a party could get along just fine without such things. On the other hand… it gave things a nicely mystical feel, which was usually well worth the trouble. That system’s basically compatible with d20, so it could be used easily enough, In Eclipse it’s just a Specialized version of the Ritual Magic ability.

Thus correspondences – while a major and extremely thoroughly documented part of classical magic – only play a small role in classical fantasy and in the role-playing games based on it. They’re simply too arbitrary and too much trouble to include more than a few nods to in anything but an optional system. .

The sign of Aries is associated with March 21’st to April 19’th, Fire, Iron, Geranium, Gorse, Rosemary, Marjoram, Sage, Tiger Lily, Thistle and Wild Rose, Holly and Chestnut, Iron, Bloodstone, Ruby, Red Jasper, and Garnet, Scarlet or Pink, Mars, Tuesday, Four o’clock to Five o’clock, Spring, The Emperor Tarot Card, the Ram, Owl, or Bull, the Magpie, Owl, and Robin, the Head, she scent of Pine or Geraniums, Athena, Shiva, and Minerva – and it goes on.

Debatable Evils – Negative Energy And Undeath

And for today it’s another question!

I’ve recently encountered some media that have put forward an interesting idea with regards to undead beings. Specifically, the idea that it’s possible for there to be undead creatures that were never alive to begin with, essentially beginning their existence – whether summoned magically or created “naturally” – in an undead state.

While none of those media get particularly deep into the mechanics of how exactly that’s possible, the idea doesn’t seem so implausible that it cannot be countenanced. That is, if new beings can come into being while alive, why not do so at the opposite end of the metaphysical spectrum? That, or they could be animated by spirits associated with death, necromancy, etc. Coming up with an explanation that sounds plausible, at least on its face, isn’t too hard.

My question is, what mechanical alterations (to the existing rules regarding undeath) would that idea have if implemented under the d20 game rules? At the very least, it seems like spells associated with creating/summoning such undead wouldn’t necessarily have the [Evil] descriptor.

-Alzrius

Well, it’s important to remember that biology and metabolism really aren’t important in d20. That’s why d20 uses Hit Points instead of detailed wound systems, and why elementals – lumps of rock, or plasma, or swirls of air with no metabolisms or biology – are creatures with hit points. Undead basically have [Hit Points] – a negative value of hit points that they treat as a positive one because they’re things of negative energy.

Inanimate objects can have metabolisms, and biology – but in d20 terms they are objects, or perhaps organic machines, not truly living things. That’s why a Deathwatch spell doesn’t give you a report on every broken blade of grass in a field and why I can’t cast Cure Light Wounds on a mostly-eaten watermelon to heal it and let me eat it again. That’s also why Remove Disease (presuming that diseases are caused by micro-organisms) is a Conjuration (Healing) effect and not Necromancy (Death).

  • Positive Energy drives growth, life, mobility, and creation. It is a force of light, change, and evolution that drives an increase in complexity in the face of entropy. Thus children are filled with positive energy while the extremely elderly, who have mostly exhausted their stores of possibility and can barely cling to life, have little left.
  • Negative Energy weakens, kills, paralyzes, and annihilates. It is a force of darkness, cold, and entropy. That’s why undead are destroyed at zero hit points; they can no longer resist the side effects of the negative energy within them. It’s also why they generally do not grow or gain levels and why most undead feed on the living – their corpses gaining an unnatural mobility through theft.

Neither positive or negative energy is a moral agency in itself. In d20, that role is reserved for the energies of the outer planes, which make “good” and “evil” into absolute, measurable, and detectable, forces. There isn’t any moral relativism and there’s no point in arguing about whether or not an act is good or evil. Just use your Phylactery Of Faithfulness (a mere 1000 GP!) and you will KNOW.

In the real world clearing some forest is good for some types of creatures, bad for others, and will have ongoing effects, both knowable and unknowable, on the environment, the world, and the human population, that will not finish playing out until far in the future. Is doing so a “Good” or “Evil” act? The answer depends on your personal priorities and beliefs and on how many consequences of what kind you are aware of to consider. Would your decision change if you somehow knew that it would unleash a horde of plague-carrying rats and kill millions?

In d20, if you are tilting the alignment energy balance of the material plane towards Good, then you are committing a Good act. If you are tilting the alignment energy balance of the world towards Evil, you are committing an Evil act. If you’re doing neither to any noticeable degree… then the act is neither good not evil.

Are those babies of a species that is strongly inclined towards evil? Then slaughtering them all is a good act even if they are neutral at the moment. Adopting and raising one is evil. Adopting and raising a child of a species that is strongly inclined towards good is good. Adopting and raising a child of a species without strong inclinations? That could be good or evil depending on how you raise it. Running a slaughterhouse and massacring hundreds of true neutral creatures every day? That’s neither good nor evil.

The trouble with the d20 rules on Alignment is that no one ever actually sat down and tried to work out what the axioms of good and evil WERE (why would they? The only real point was a set of quick labels to sort out targets and people to protect). “Good” is loosely defined as a grab bag of behavioral traits that promote group welfare in a social species (“Good implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others”) while “Evil” is loosely defined as behaviors that disrupt social groups (“Evil implies hurting, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some evil deity or master.”).

According to the 3.5 Players Handbook (and supposedly in Pathfinder due to a lack of new rulings and back-compatibility) “channeling positive energy is a good act and channeling negative energy is evil” (Page 160).

Why is that?

Well… the Prime Material Plane is supposed to be made up of a mixture of the elemental forces of the inner planes – Fire, Air, Earth, Water, Positive Energy, and Negative Energy. But unless someone is importing or exporting such forces, what’s there is there. Like it or not, channeling substantial amounts of negative energy in from the negative energy plane – whether in the continuing tap that allows undead to exist or in bursts – drains energy from the material plane. It reduces the universe for all time to come. Adding positive energy doesn’t “make up for it”, since otherwise that energy could have gone into expanding and adding possibilities to the universe.

And there’s the connection; importing negative energy from the negative material plane reduces the total energy of the prime material plane, draining the possibilities of the future and denying existence to creatures that would otherwise have been born and lived. Throughout the eons to come… it is a never-ending crime, and so is an Evil act.

Importing positive energy from the positive material plane forever adds to the possibilities of the universe. It is a never-ending boon to all life yet to come, and so is a good act. And no matter what your reason for using Channeling is… that long-term Good or Evil is going to outweigh the immediate effects.

So why aren’t all spells involving positive energy “good” and all of the ones involving negative energy “evil”? That’s something of a game convenience so as to allow evil Clerics to heal – but what’s the in-game explanation?

Well, looking at the lists…

  • Conjuration is used to bring in materials from other planes. Ergo, effects involving positive and negative energy that aren’t Conjurations must rely on gathering positive or negative energy from ambient sources – or simply generating both positive and negative energy at the same time from a zero state – rather than on importing it. Thus many spells (Disrupt Undead, Touch Of Fatigue, Chill Touch, Ghoul Touch, Stricken Heart, Defoliate, Deathwine, Gloomblind Bolts, Blood Crow Strike (which, interestingly, creates identical amounts of fire and negative energy), Enervation, Vampiric Shadow Shield, Smite Abomination, Waves Of Fatigue, Waves of Exhaustion, Orb Of The Void, and even Energy Drain) may involve positive or negative energy but they aren’t Conjuration effects – they’re Necromancy. And the basic definition of Necromancy is that “Necromancy spells manipulate the power of death, unlife, and the life force”. Ergo they use and manipulate, but do not summon, such energies – and thus are not inherently evil.
  • Next up on the list of spells involving positive and negative energy we have the curative and anti-curative spells, such as Cure/Inflict Wounds, Vigor, Delay Poison, Energetic Healing, Healthful Rest, Cleanse, Heal/Harm, Life Shield, Symbol Of Healing, Revenance, Revivify, Remove Radioactivity, Resurgent Transformation, Pillar Of Life, Repair Undead, and Heal / Harm.

These spells are a bit weird. Most of the Curative spells are Conjuration (Healing) – which makes some sense – but the corresponding negative-energy vesions tend to be Necromancy, and neither version is (Good) or (Evil). Why aren’t the equal-and-opposite spells Conjuration (Infliction) rather than Necromancy? Or why aren’t the Curative spells Necromancy? After all, in first and second editions curative spells were reversible and were all Necromancy. (No one seems to be entirely sure why it was changed except that someone working on the project felt that “Necromancy” should be inherently nasty and that “Good People” shouldn’t use it. Of course, you couldn’t take Healing away from anyone, or the setting broke). There’s the argument that you are conjuring new flesh and blood to fix a wound, but then why can’t I fix that watermelon? And why do Air Elementals get healed this way? Worse, in Fourth Edition healing spells tend to be Daily Use Utility Prayers and in Fifth Edition curative spells are Evocation. Given that, it’s kind of obvious that the school assignment is pretty much arbitrary – especially since those are mostly Divine Spells, and “school” doesn’t matter much to Clerics.

So to justify this in game terms…

  • Perhaps these spells are simply “taking out a loan”? Some of them are strictly temporary, while the excess positive energy of the actual healing effects might either leak back or simply take the place of the positive side of the usual flow of power through living and unliving things over time. That would leave no net gain or loss of energy on the material plane, and thus no reason for them to be “Good” or “Evil”.
  • It could mean that those spells involve the old idea of Backlash. They’re neutral because their effects are automatically balanced out. Perhaps when one creature is Healed another one somewhere else suffers equal and opposite Harm. Or perhaps the power is drawn from the patient or healer in some form. Does being magically healed magically age you a few hours or days depending on the level of injury? Who would notice? It’s not like characters come with a life expectancy meter and how often does “death by old age” come up for Adventurers anyway?
  • It could also mean that these spells are simply misclassified, and actually are necromancy spells – which could be taken to mean that there are limits to how much healing is available, or mean that healing does not work well in dark dungeons full of pooled negative energy (where little or no ambient positive energy is available), or some such. That would have the (very welcome) side effect of restoring some slightly longer-term meaning to losing hit points after the first few levels (after which Healing Belts, Wands of Lesser Vigor, and similar tricks mean starting every encounter with your full hit points).

 

  • The final major group of spells – Bless / Curse Water, Sanctify Corpse, Veil Of Heaven / Positive Energy, Empower Holy Water, Light of Iomedae, Consecrate / Desecrate, Khain’s Army, Animate Dead, Hallow / Unhallow, and Create Undead – DO carry the “Good” or “Evil” descriptor. And notably… they all definitely do import excess positive or negative energy, and so make permanent, ongoing, changes in the energy balance of the material plane.
  • The last few relevant spells – things like Life Channel, Undeath Inversion, Blood Of The Martyr, and Fire Of Judgement – all have to do with either shifting positive or negative energy around or changing how they interact. They’re rightfully neither good nor evil.

Now the point of all this is to take a look at how positive and negative energy work and what they mean in terms of the setting so that we can see what MAKES casting certain spells or the use of Channeling inherently good or evil.

And what the game seems to imply… is that using ambient negative energy, or generating it by producing equal amounts of positive and negative energy, is morally neutral. On the other hand, pulling negative energy from the Negative Material Plane into the rest of the universe – whether in a burst or in a slow trickle – is inherently evil.

Stronger creatures powered by ambient negative energy will need some way to harvest it – perhaps haunting places where it collects (the classic graveyard haunts), or cultivating and draining it from others (for example, the Sirens from My Little Pony). This could even be benign, at least to start with. After all, stealing negative energy from a normal creature could theoretically leave it happier and healthier. Of course, when that’s no longer enough available naturally, and the creature must start to cultivate negative energy to feed… then things will start to get bad.

In theory you could also get spontaneous negative energy creatures arising anywhere where a lot of negative energy has built up – but the nature of negative energy is destructive. You won’t get evolved complexity, built up over time (that’s why even intelligent undead tend to go madder and madder over the centuries). Something else will have to provide a framework for your creature to form around and a spark to bring it to (un-)life – but if the old manor has built up a pool of negative energy, is filled with psychic traces of hatred and disharmony, and someone murders the old man who owned the place during a burglary… then you have power, purpose, and spark.

That does give us an opening though; in this view Animate Dead draws a burst of negative energy into the world to create weak undead powered by ambient energy and Create Undead gives them a continuous link – but you could (at least in theory) use a higher-level spell to gather ambient negative energy and use it to create Animate Dead style undead powered by ambient negative energy without it being actively evil – at least as far as the process goes. You’d still bear at least some responsibility for anything they got up to later though – and THAT is almost certain to go badly eventually. Similarly, you could use ambient negative energy to manifest undead constructs, allowing you to use “summon undead” without the [Evil] descriptor as Pathfinder does – but that also goes a long way towards explaining why those spells are so ineffectual for their levels.

As for what you could animate or what might animate spontaneously… you’re creating a creature with no pattern to follow using forces which are inherently difficult to control and shape. That means that complex creatures and minds are likely going to be out of reach. Destructive oozes, simpler aberrations, and constructs are a good starting point. You just make them evil instead of neutral and throw “undead” qualities on top of whatever they started with. Make them vulnerable to positive energy and let negative energy heal them and you’re mostly ready to go. For a few possibilities… consider the Ragewind (3.5 MMII), Raggamoffyn (3.5 MMII), Hangman Golem (3.5, MMIII), Cadaver Collector (3.5 MMIII), Necrophidius (3.0 Fiend Folio), Attic Whisperer (Pathfinder), Corpse Candle (Pathfinder), Byakhee (Pathfinder), and Jealous Structure (Pathfinder Curse). For items on the blog… I’d recommend the Dark Tales series (The Hunt, The Grove, The Well, The House, and The Ship). I’d also recommend the Occult monster-enhancing packages.

Anything with an active link to the Negative Material Plane (like virtually all of the more powerful undead) however…. will be a walking blight on the world, actively draining the energy of the universe to survive. It may not consider itself anything but hungry – but by the objective standards of d20 such creatures are inherently evil and utterly hostile no matter how they limit themselves or justify their feeding.

And for another reader response and answer…

Personally, the issue I see is that most undead seem to act as either constructs like skeletons and liches that just happen to use living remains as the raw materials or are some sort of a contagious plague like vampires or zombies. As such they all seem to be defined with regards to a former “living” state. Thus I find it hard to visualize some method of generating undead corpses without some source of corpses to begin with that required it being alive at some point. Which isn’t to say you couldn’t animate a mass of calcium and synthetic protein into a zombie, but I don’t think that is the idea you were going with.

Instead, I would look at the idea of negative energy life forms as a mirror to positive energy lifeforms. A lot of material seems to assume that all living things have some sort of link to the Positive Energy Plane that provides the animating/organizing force independent of the creature’s metabolism. While never entirely clear, the positive energy a creature can pull through into the material plane is limited and that is what is the bottleneck for things like healing, lifespan, and growth. To further boost those in response to disease, injury, or aging, external sources are required in the form of medicinal herbs, healing spells, and lifeforce infusions.

With that said, I would argue that lifeforms that use a link to the Negative Energy Plane as an energy sink would be possible. Instead of pulling energy in to heal injuries, it could instead sacrifice mass-energy to the sink to generate power for healing instead.

While in many ways indistinguishable from normal life forms, this could have a number of interesting side effects: poor (or even addictive) response to normal healing, a tendency to lose mass over time, a body temperature a little below ambient, healing ability being proportional to mass (i.e. being fatter), slower growth rates, much higher need to eat/drink to maintain mass and health, higher tolerance to heat, and lower tolerance to cold.

Thus I can imagine life forms running around the material plane vacuuming up loose bits of mass-energy to consume, growth, and multiply across the landscape. Attempts by these creatures to eat normal life forms or vice versa could go poorly as the resulting (brief) collision between positive and negative energy taps lead to explosive results. Which could then lead to entire areas being dominated by one form of life or the other depending on which gained a hold first. Perhaps this could be the mechanism behind those absurdly vibrant underground ecologies and why people aren’t roasted alive due to the geothermal heat.

This could then lead to all sorts of fun little issues like you can’t eat the local flora/fauna without some significant preparation work, extremely potent medicines made from plants of the other type that are a pain to gather, and really nasty monsters that start off huge and can continue fighting for long periods of time simply by sacrificing mass for regeneration until it is too small and then flees whereupon it may return larger than ever when you least suspect it.

Not that this is a set of mechanical alterations like you asked, but perhaps this is food for thought to help brainstorm some more ideas, adventures, and horrifying experiments.

-Spellweaver81

This is actually a lot like the physics of Continuum II – where energy flowed from Hyperspace into normal space and from normal space into subspace. Physical creatures could exist in any of the three – and energy creatures could exist across the interfaces. The most common energy beings were “Demons” (linking Normal Space and Subspace, and so almost universally deadly predators, feeding on each other and on any energy they could get) and “Manitou” (linking Hyperspace and Normal Space. Their problem was controlling the flow of energy). A very few life forms had both Hyperspace and Subspace links, but while that provided immense abilities to both generate and dissipate energy, coupling it was wildly unstable; a “God” needed stabilizing feedback to avoid exploding or dissipating.

  • Undead” combined a Demonic aspect and a Physical Body in Normal Space. They needed constant energy inputs to resist the drain of Subspace.
  • Faerie combined a Manitou aspect and a (Living) Physical Body in Normal Space. They dissipated excess energy as a variety of powers.
  • Elementals occurred when a Manitou anchored itself into nonliving mass. They ranged from tiny things to the planetary core elemental.
  • Totem Spirits were anchored through the Empyrean (mental) Plane into a group of living things.
  • And so on.

Overall there were five major orders of life, dozens of types of symbiotic hybrids, and a lot of tinkering, Thus the characters occasionally did things like analyzing the metabolism and biology of dragons, or the genetics underlying the different power-expressions that led to storm, fire, ice, and primal giants. After all… once they knew how something worked, they could figure out how to manipulate it to be more to their liking.

Alas, however, d20 and Pathfinder don’t really go into that kind of detail. There are reasons for that. They have many writers, so maintaining any kind of consistent physics is near-impossible to start with and (worse) going into that kind of detail would mean that the game master would need to study a lot of physics before running the game. Pathfinder’s writers in particular are very reluctant to introduce any new mechanics (preferring to refluff old ones, which is how they wound up with Psychic Spells and with Grit, Ki, and several other kinds of points which all work the same way while supposedly representing wildly different processes) for fear of the kind of unexpected rules interactions / exploits that so plague 3.5. That, in fact, was a part of the reason for Eclipse; you can use it to build exotic mechanics (such as the Nymic Mage), while maintaining a basic consistency.

So this won’t really work. D20 tells us that the Negative Energy Plane is full of undead (who, if they had negative metabolisms, should respond to being there like positive energy creatures do on the Positive Material Plane – although they’d probably disintegrate instead of exploding), that negative energy creatures cannot grow or reproduce except by infecting or consuming positive energy creatures, that negative energy creatures cannot gain levels save by stealing positive energy from truly living creatures, and that negative energy is inherently entropic and entirely destructive. Negative energy creatures can amalgamate with each other – but that’s merging, not growth. Thus a negative energy creature will always have to have a structure provided for it somehow.

I think the closest things to this in d20 are the half-undead templates from Dragon Magazine. Of course, there’s no reason why you couldn’t have a half-undead ecosystem going.

And I hope that helps!

Eclipse And the Sha’ir

And for today it’s another question…

How would you build a sha’ir (from the Al-Qadim setting) with the Eclipse rules? The class had a 3rd Edition conversion (in Dragon magazine, reprinted in the Dragon Compendium), but that version made some small-but-significant changes to how the class functioned.

-Alzrius

Ah, sha’ir spellcasting! Any spell you want, at any time, with no books or memorization! All you have to do is send your minor Genie Familiar – your “Gen” – out to fetch them!

It has been a long time since anyone asked about sha’ir – and I must admit that that is for fairly good reason. As written in second edition…

  • They can only have one spell ready at a time.
  • They lose that spell it in thirty minutes if they don’t cast it (not long enough to scribe it, so they can’t be a source of scrolls or spell formula).
  • They can only ask for “Common Spells” (Level one or two and normally available in the setting) or spells which they’ve seen used. (How did you decide what spells a new sha’ir might have witnessed before starting play? Wasn’t it at least POSSIBLE that you’d seen a magic show, or witnessed a duel, or seen their great-uncle the retired adventurer use a few spells, or something? There never was an answer for that).
  • They need to supply the spell components for their spells, which can seriously hinder the use of some of them.
  • They will often find that they can’t get spells at all, since their gens don’t like to be disturbed at night, and take vacations, and so on.
  • They don’t always get the spells they want, since their gens don’t always succeed at finding them. The base chance of success is [50% + (5 x shair Level) – (10 x Spell Level)]%. For special modifiers we have: +10% for Common Spells, -30% for Divine Spells (plus a 10% chance per level of the spell of suffering minor divine retribution when you cast it), -30% for spells that weren’t on the list for the setting, and a cumulative -10% for each prior failure looking for a particular spell in a day. And even at best, the chance is capped at 90%.
  • It takes (1d6 + Spell Level (+1d10 on a “00″)) minutes (arcane spells of Level/2 rounded up or less that are normally available in the setting), tens of minutes (arcane spells of higher level that are still normally available in the setting), or hours (divine spells or arcane spells that are not normally available in the setting), to have a gen fetch a spell.
  • If you lose your gen, you can’t do any spellcasting until you get a new one – and each new gen is less loyal and slower (+1 time increment) about getting spells than the one before.

Sure, your first level sha’ir may be able to get a fifth level arcane or second level clerical spell that he or she has seen used, but the chance to get it is only 5% – and trying requires (1d6+5) x 10 minutes for the arcane spell and (1d6+2) HOURS for the clerical spell. Worse, with the failure penalty, they’d only get one try per day. If it was a foreign or clerical spell… they’d need to be at least level nine to get that 5% chance.

A ninth level sha’ir looking for Wall Of Stone? 1d6+5 Minutes, 45% chance of success – and a 22% chance that they would not be able to get it today at all. Of course, if they were lucky they might get it six or seven times – albeit at 1d6+5 minutes each time.

So what were the writers thinking?

This actually gave a sha’ir a lot more spells per day than a standard magic-user. It took a magic-user (or cleric) fifteen minutes per level of the spell to memorize one spell. If you spent four hours memorizing spells each day, your daily magical budget was sixteen spell levels – perhaps a fourth level spell, a third level spell, three second level spells, and three first level spells. If you cast more than that you were draining reserves that might take days out of action for you to rebuild – which was why a wand or even a few scrolls were such good treasures. Had you gotten a hold of a Wand Of Frost (100 charges, Ice/Sleet Storm or Wall Of Ice for 1 Charge, 6d6 Cone of Cold (treating 1’s as 2’s) for 2 Charges, rechargable)? It might well become your magic-users go-to weapon for most of his or her adventuring career – just about as vital as the paladin’s holy sword (should he or she be so lucky!).

The ideal situation for a sha’ir was 1) Party scouts out area, 2) Party waits until the sha’ir has managed to get a hold of a spell that will be really useful (or vital!) to whatever plan they come up with, 3) Party moves in, sha’ir casts his or her spell, and immediately sends his gen out after another spell – probably something low level – that he or she thinks will be useful. 4) If the sha’ir is lucky, he or she may get another low-level spell to use during the initial fighting. If not, it will most likely be ready for the next problem if the party keeps moving. Otherwise… the sha’ir will have to rely on scrolls and magic items, just like the standard magic-user (who will probably have used a fair chunk of their sixteen level daily spell budget already).

Did the surviving orcs set a fire for cover, fall back, barricade the corridor, and turtle up? That gave the sha’ir plenty of time to get a hold of another spell.

The trouble was, that the way the game was actually played often greatly favored the standard magic user, who knew just what he or she had available and had it available RIGHT NOW. It was very common to just treat the “maximum number of spells prepared” chart as “spells per day” (which it was never meant to be), and that meant that spells were thrown around in every fight instead of being saved for special situations. Similarly, it was easy to ignore the limits on how many spells a magic-user could learn, to ignore how easy it was to disrupt spells (and how long they took to cast), to skip past much of the difficulty of acquiring spells, to simply kick in the door instead of carefully scouting and planning, and to press the attack rather than risking giving the enemy time to prepare (even if that left you with no time to prepare yourself). After all… no one BUT the sha’ir really needed time to prepare once the adventure was underway.

Of course, when the party was stuck, and needed a specific high-powered effect to proceed… they could sit back for a while and let the sha’ir try to solve their problem. They needed to teleport to another continent? A first level sha’ir could try to do that if (and it was a pretty big IF) he or she had ever seen that spell in action – but it would take an average of twenty days to actually do it. Adventurers usually wanted to get things done faster than that, so that sort of thing was never a particularly popular option in actual play.

In a lot of ways the sha’ir was the first “per encounter” spellcaster – albeit with a side-order of ritualist. Unfortunately, in a game of resource management, that made them far too weak (one or maybe two spells) when it was time to blow resources in a tough situation, often useless in sudden emergencies, and far too powerful during downtime. After all, a high-level sha’ir could – in theory – throw a LOT of spells. At level twenty they had a 90% shot at sixth level spells in (1d6+6) minutes (call it an average of ten), and so might well be able to throw an average of fifty-four sixth level spells in a day (ten eight hour days worth of spell preparation for a standard magic user!) – even if they WOULD have to change what they were asking for fairly regularly.

That gave them plenty of out-of-combat use of spells like

  • L1) Comprehend Languages, Mending, Mount, and Read Magic.
  • L2) Continual Light, Locate Object, Rope Trick, and Whispering Wind.
  • L3) Clairvoyance, Clauraudience, Explosive Runes, Find Water, Invisibility 10′ Radius (which lasted until you attacked), Item (currently “shrink item”), Non-Detection, Phantom Steed, and Sepia Snake Sigil.
  • L4) Detect Scrying, Enchanted Weapon, Hallucinatory Terrain, Magic Mirror, Remove Curse, Wizard Eye, Fire Trap, and Dig.
  • L5) Animate Dead, Dream, Fabricate, False Vision, Sending, Teleport, Stone Shape, and Airy Water.
  • L6) Contingency, Enchant An Item, Geas, Guards and Wards, Legend Lore, Permanent Illusion, Move Earth, Stone To Flesh, Part Water, Transmute, Control Weather, and Invisible Stalker.
  • L7) Mass Invisibility, Sequester, Teleport Without Error, and Vision.
  • L8) Antipathy-Sympathy, Clone, Permanency, Polymorph Any Object, Symbol, and Glasteel.

Sadly, since they did have to keep swapping what they were asking for regularly, what they had at any given moment would be more or less random – and so they didn’t actually get to cast those spells nearly that often. And if that twentieth level sha’ir asked for a ninth level spell… there was only a 60% chance of getting it and it took at least (1d6+9) minutes to even try.

Then third edition turned a lot of “the way it’s usually played” items into hard rules. Now the “maximum number of spells prepared” chart was indeed spells per day, it only took an hour to prepare all of them, spell formula were easily purchased, concentration checks often let you cast a spell even if you were interrupted, and turn-based combat meant that spells were cast much more quickly – so opponents no longer got many chances to interrupt (and thus a mage no longer had to be carefully defended by other characters to cast any major spells), most spell components were assumed to be available in your spell component pouch, and you were no longer limited in the number of spells you could learn.

And now the sha’ir was blatantly inferior to a normal wizard in everything but out-of-combat utility – which wasn’t a big thing in most games. Out-of-combat utility spells tended to be taken along in wands and scrolls just in case you needed them.

Fourth Edition could have revived the concept, but while Fourth Edition embraced the “per encounter” system, it wasn’t big on scouting, delays, or wildly flexible abilities that could seriously disrupt those encounters. Fifth Edition… well, it could still shift course, but it doesn’t seem to be headed towards the sha’ir’s “can try for anything” style at the moment.

So there are several ways to look at this. We can either copy what the Sha’ir actually did or we can give them an ability set that works like they were probably intended to work as updated for 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder.

For the “what they actually did version” we’ll want…

The Sha’ir (96 CP if bought gradually or can be taken as a +3 ECL Template for “Born” Sha’ir).

  • Skill Specialties in Knowledge/Arcana, Spellcraft, and Knowledge/The Planes, Corrupted / all the same: “Genies and their Works” (2 CP).
  • Power Words, Specialized and Corrupted for increased effect: User can only store one spell at a time although it may be of up to level nine, user must “cast” it normally (complete with Arcane Spell Failure) and must provide any components for it, only to store spells transferred from the user’s Companion, spells are always cast at the user’s level (6 CP).
  • Major Favors (Geniekind) with +4 Bonus Uses (12 CP). Among many other possible favors, sha’ir can ask the desert Janni for guidance and hospitality, ask the greater spirits to provide transportation to and from the Elemental Planes (they normally throw in about a months protection from the local planar effects as a bonus), or even ask for an audience with a great lord of Geniekind. Genies do tend to want return favors later on of course and won’t grant wishes without a compensating service, even as a favor.
  • Immunity / Elemental Attacks (Very Common, Severe, Minor, 10 CP). Provides 12 points of resistance or – if resistance is not relevant – +4 to either AC or the relevant save as needed to protect against a particular elemental effect. This will allow the user to survive on the elemental planes for some time. (Note that their gen familiar increases this to Major Resistance (30 points of Resistance or a +6 bonus) against the element their familiar represents).
  • Major Privilege (6 CP): Geniekin. Genies consider sha’ir to be relatives, treating them fairly and with some goodwill. Moreover, sha’ir can use items made for Genies (a form of “Device Use”, but basically free since no such items normally exist). Finally, a sha’ir can recruit a Genie (Janni, Djinni, Efreeti, Marid, or Shaitan) as an ally provided that it’s ECL is no more than two higher than his or hers. Such an ally will want at least a half share of treasure, counts as a party member for experience point computations, will not grant wishes without proper payment (25,000 GP), and has it’s own motives. While it is there to help the sha’ir, it will not do suicidal things or fulfill unreasonable requests. If it’s more powerful than the party, it will tend to regard itself as being a babysitter at best. Furthermore, Genies aren’t very sociable with mortals. Asking a Genie to run a minor errand in town may lead to all sorts of problems. Only one Genie will accompany a Sha’ir at any given time; they aren’t very sociable with each other either.
    • Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that an enemy Genie will refrain from fighting – but it will probably offer to recruit the Sha’ir before the fight starts.
  • Genie Summoning:
    • Inherent Spell / Dismiss Genie with +4 Bonus Uses (L3, requiring user level 5, as Dismissal, but Genies Only. A Dismissed Genie cannot return for a year and a day) (12 CP).
      • The original sha’ir could use “Genie Traps”, but there were long term penalties for trapping Genies (even if you didn’t demand wishes). To avoid that mess I’m giving them an option to call Genies to help out, but not to grant wishes. Similarly, a Genie Prison has become “Banished for a year”, which is close enough in most games.
    • Summon Genie I: L4, requiring user level 7, as per Summon Monster, but 1 Janni or 1d3 Mephits. (3* CP).
    • Summon Genie II: L5, requiring user level 9, as per Summon Monster, but 1 Djinni or 1d3 Janni or 1d4+1 Mephits. Note that summoned Genies – regardless of type – cannot grant wishes. (3* CP)
    • Summon Genie III: L6, requiring user level 11, as per Summon Monster but 1 Efreeti or Shaitan or 1d3 Djinni or 1d4+1 Janni. Note that summoned Genies – regardless of type – cannot grant wishes. (3* CP)
    • Summon Genie IV: L7, requiring user level 13, as per Summon Monster but 1 Marid, 1d3 Efreeti or Shatan, or 1d4+1 Djinni. Note that summoned Genies –  regardless of type – cannot grant wishes. (6* CP).
      • *All the Genie Summoning spells are Specialized; once one is used, that particular spell cannot be used again for seven days. In addition, using them requires a Genie Seal – an palm-sized disc of precious metal set with small gems and inscribed with intricate elemental and magical sigils. It has a minimum value of 100 GP x the Highest Level of spell it can be used as a focus for – thus a minimum of 300 GP for Dismiss Genie up to 700 GP for Summon Genie IV. Summoned Genies will, however, remain for an extra round if the item is worth 2000+ GP or enchanted (it counts as an Amulet, and so uses the throat slot).
  • Basic Magical Lore: +1 Level of Wizard Spellcasting with no Base Caster Level, Specialized and Corrupted / only to let them understand the basics and use magical items (4 CP)
  • Empowerment, Corrupted for Increased Effect (user may add charges as well as substituting his or her power for them) / only works with Wands and Staves (6 CP).
    • Empowerment Pool: 4d6 (14) Mana, Specialized / only for use with Empowerment (2 Mana = 1 Charge) (9 CP).
    • Rite of Chi with +3 Bonus Uses, Corrupted for Increased Effect (automatically gets 14 points) and Specialized for Reduced Cost / only works overnight, only to refill the Empowerment Pool (5 CP).
      • Most sha’ir should be able to get a hold of a wand or two fairly quickly. After all, given a week they can charge up a mostly-depleted one – a very valuable service.
  • Mephit Companion (Familiar) with the +2 ECL Sha’ir Gen Template, Specialized / Demands occasional quests on behalf of geniekind under penalty of no spells, is difficult or impossible to contact while it is resting (8-10 hours per day), must be paid 10 GP/Level/Month, insists on being treated as an honored ally. If mistreated, a sha’ir gen takes two to three times longer to get spells, may take off for a month, or may demand a fee of up to 1000 GP/Level to return to work (9 CP).

Classical Sha’ir Gen Template:

  • Spellforging:
    • Immunity / the normal limitations of Ritual Magic. Spellforging Rituals are quite quick, immune to most external modifiers, and require little or nothing in the way of components (Common, Major, Epic, 27 CP). Note that, as a natural-law immunity, this can be expected to have a pretty major impact on the game.
    • Immunity / Interaction With Reality (Very Common, Severe, Great, Specialized / Only works while the gen is conducting it’s rituals or resting, 18 CP). Only very high-level effects, such as Wish, can interfere with a gen’s “search for a spell”. Gens normally find spells, rest, and take time off, on the elemental planes – with no defined mechanism for finding them and at no risk. This covers that.
    • Ritual Magic, Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect / only to duplicate spell effects, the spell effects produced are always transient and unstable; they cannot be stored for more than half an hour, cannot be used to make items, and cannot be inscribed into spell books. Components have no effect on the ritual check, only produces effects duplicating spells which must be either released or stored immediately, failed rituals have no consequences (6 CP).
      • Check: 1d20 + Level versus DC ( 10 + 2 x Spell Level, +6 for Exotic or Clerical Spells, +2 per unsuccessful try in a day). Spellcraft lets you recognize all standard spells – so Familiarity with any given spell is pretty much a non-issue.
      • Requires: (1d6+Spell Level) Minutes (for Arcane Spells of up to half your level, Tens of Minutes for Arcane Spells of higher level than that, and Hours for Divine Spells.
        • Given the existence of Ur-Priests, and the Magic domain, and dual-progression casters, and so on… I’m dropping the idea of divine retribution for daring to duplicate a divine spell effect. There’s no longer any firm division anyway.
  • Power Words, Specialized and Corrupted for increased effect: User can only store one spell at a time although it may be of up to level nine, only to store the results of it’s own rituals, only to transfer them to a companion (master) with a similar power (6 CP).
  • Immunity/having to give up it’s own hit points to be a Familiar (Uncommon, Severe, Major, 6 CP). Just add it’s hit points as a familiar to its own hit points.
  • Speaks the Genietongue (whatever that may be in a given setting) 1 CP.

Originally a Sha’ir could expend money, time, and other resources using rituals to upgrade his or her Gen. To do this in Eclipse, simply invest a few more points in your Companion to improve it. Innate Enchantment is always good, but there are lots of other ways.

I’m not actually sure if this template – or sinking enough levels into the project to avoid taking it as a template – is worthwhile. It could be extremely useful in some games, and utterly useless in other games, all depending on playstyle – and I’ve got no way of knowing what that will be.

For a modern Sha’ir?

Well, if we’re going to think about an updated version we’re going to have to think about what role the sha’ir was intended to fill – and it looks to me like the intent of the sha’ir was as a patch to the magic-user.

  • If a magic-user lost his or her spell books, they might well be semi-permanently crippled. Ergo, sha’ir had no spell books. If a gen was lost, it slowed things up slightly, but was hardly crippling. On the plot level… you could block access to a gen, or simply decree that they were on vacation, and so had an easy way to take away the mages powers temporarily – unlike removing their spell books.
  • Magic-Users were often frustrated at being unable to obtain a favorite spell. If they rolled badly, they could NEVER add a particular spell to their spellbooks unless they somehow managed to raise their intelligence, which (in early editions) was a rare, game-master-only, thing. No more of that!
  •  Magic-Users had a bad tendency to “Go Nova!” and burn through many days worth of spells at once – and then the players griped about not having anything to do save toss daggers. Ergo, a shair only got one or two spells per situation but never ran out – and automatically encouraged scouting and planning to boot.
  • Magic Users had a strong tendency to ignore much of the spell list. They learned and prepared only the “best” and most versatile spells. A sha’ir, however, would often find that their first few choices for a given situation were unavailable – and so would find themselves sorting through the spell list for the perfect spell for a given situation.
  • Magic-Users were pretty much never found undertaking weird quests or doing strange stuff. No matter how flavorful it might be Why should they? The rules didn’t call for it. But sha’ir… sha’ir got little tasks from the Genies all the time and sometimes got major quests from them. Their magic required some character interaction and occasional prices.
    • Secondarily, as a party patch… if the Cleric was down a normal magic-user couldn’t do a thing about it. A Ssa’ir could try to fill the gap – albeit very poorly and at a heavy price.

The trouble with all that is that most of those problems no longer exist. For a modernized sha’ir you want them to have more spells in (much faster) combat but a lot less out of combat, be able to recognize any spell with Spellcraft, but not know about them to ask for them, to have wide but unreliable access to spells, but not to keep halting the game while sorting out what they get. This is pretty awkward since those are kind of self-contradictory.

The 3.5 / Pathfinder Sha’ir:

  • Sha’ir channel all kinds of spells. Thus they need an unrestricted Base Caster Level, at 6 CP/Level, for a total of 120 CP.
  • Favors (Geniekind), Specialized for Increased Effect (Effects become available next round and may be “held” for up to three minutes) / Can only be used to obtain spell-like effects which may include metamagic but which the user must supply the caster level and components for. Minor Favors suffice for levels spells of level three or less, Major Favors for spells of Level six or less, and Enormous Favors for spells of level nine or less. Unfortunately, Genies are elemental beings; they may have trouble providing high level priestly magic and with whatever other spells the GM feels are inappropriate to their powers (IE: Whatever effects he or she does not wish to deal with – usually the most “broken” spells). Unfortunately, since these are spell-like effects rather than spells, they cannot be used with the standard crafting feats in the creation of magical items or be transcribed into spell books (although they can be used to recharge Pathfinder-style Staves). Save DC’s are based on either Intelligence or Charisma, at the option of the sha’ir, although the choice is permanent once made.
    • Three Minor Favors, Corrupted for Reduced Cost / once per “encounter” (6 CP).
    • Three Major Favors, Corrupted for Reduced Cost / once per “encounter” (12 CP).
    • Three Enormous Favors, Corrupted for Reduced Cost / once per “encounter” (18 CP).
      • As “per encounter” abilities these provide our Sha’irs primary magical firepower – at least one big, and potentially two lesser, spells per major scene.
    • Three Minor Favors, Corrupted for Reduced Cost / once per hour maximum (6 CP).
    • Three Major Favors, Corrupted for Reduced Cost / once per hour maximum (12 CP).
    • Three Enormous Favors, Corrupted for Reduced Cost / once per hour maximum (18 CP).
      • As “Daily” powers these favors can be used out of combat, or – in the case of a “boss fight” or emergency – tapped into within a fight for extra magic. Perhaps fortunately, however, a Sha’ir cannot expend all of his or her resources during any single battle. This also prevents our sha’ir from endlessly casting spells like “Shrink Item” during downtime. 
  • Immunity / Having to repay favors at full “value” (Very Common, Minor, Epic, 36 CP). Genies don’t really value spell effects all THAT much. After all, they are beings of magic explicitly capable of granting mortal desires. When operating from their own planes, channeling through enough elemental power to grant some sha’irs request for a “fireball” doesn’t count for much. This does not mean that they won’t want occasional services, payments, or favors – but that’s on occasional thing, despite the fact that a sha’ir will be calling on them pretty much every day.
  • Immunity / Elemental Attacks (10 CP): As above.
  • Major Privilege / Geniekin (6 CP): As above.
  • Genie Summoning (27 CP): As above.
  • Mystic Companion (CR 3 Mephit) with a +2 ECL Template (+1 ECL to buying down it’s CR for purposes of being a companion, +32 CP), Specialized / is difficult or impossible to contact while it is resting (8-10 hours per day), must be paid 10 GP/Level/Month, insists on being treated as an honored ally. If mistreated it may take off for a month or demand a present to return to work) (6 CP).
  • Basic Magical Lore (4 CP): As above.
  • Empowerment, Corrupted for Reduced Cost / only works with Wands and Staves (4 CP).
    • This version of the sha’ir cannot recharge wands and staves outside of the usual methods for Pathfinder staves, but can still preserve their charges to some degree.
  • Empowerment Pool: 4d6 (14) Mana, Specialized / only for use with Empowerment (2 Mana = 1 Charge) (9 CP).
  • Rite of Chi with +3 Bonus Uses, Corrupted for Increased Effect (automatically gets 14 points) and Specialized for Reduced Cost / only works overnight, only to refill the Empowerment Pool (5 CP).
  • Speaks Genietongue (1 CP).

That comes to a total of 300 GP – 15 CP per level through level twenty. Of course, the package includes a fair number of things that wizards buy separately.

Modern Sha’ir Gen Template:

  • Shapeshift with +4 Bonus Uses, Specialized / essentially cosmetic, no game-statistic modifications (6 CP). Gen commonly take on the form of androgynous children, good-looking young men or women, or small (winged) animals, but this makes no real difference in their abilities. (Looking like Barbara Eden is optional).
  • Speaks the Genietongue (whatever that may be in a given setting) 1 CP.
  • Gains +1 SP in Knowledge / Mortals (1 CP). Gen don’t understand mortals very well, but they do have a few clues.
  • Innate Enchantment (Belt Of Many Pockets, 11,000 GP), Specialized and Corrupted / can only hold the gen itself and its personal items (4 CP).
  • Innate Enchantment: Six Unlimited-Use Spell-Completion Cantrips at Caster Level One (3000 GP), Force Shield (2000 GP) (6 CP).
  • Blessing, Specialized for Increased Effect (Cantrips are cast at the users Base Caster Level) and Corrupted for Reduced Cost / only to let its master use some of its Innate Enchantments (the Belt Of Many Pockets and it’s Spell-Completion Cantrips) and Spell-Like Abilities while it’s in it’s in the “pocket” (4 CP).
  • Two Bonus Feats (12 CP).

A gen can “turn to smoke” and tuck itself safely away in one of its masters pockets, a bottle, or some similar sanctuary its master carries. While it is there, its master may employ it’s Cantrips and even it’s Spell-Like Abilities. It’s important to note that this Gen is not a Familiar – it’s a mystic companion, similar to a Paladin’s celestial mount. If you want it to have some of a familiars abilities, it will have to purchase them with its bonus points from being a companion.

So:

The Sha’ir: 20d6 Hit Dice (Fast Learner, Specialized in Hit Dice, 6 CP), +24 Saves (Good Will Saves, 72 CP), +10 BAB (60 CP), Sha’ir Magic (300 CP), Proficient with All Simple Weapons (3 CP), +46 Skill Points and Adept I and II (58 CP) = 499 CP out of 504 CP, so there’s enough left over for a bonus feat – possibly Ritual Magic if you want to maintain the “can occasionally pull off major wonders” aspect of things. “Create Artifact” might be better if you want to make yourself an older-edition style wand or two though.

If you wish, you can add something like “Duties”, and add an additional 40 CP worth of abilities – perhaps some bonus feats or the Ranger or Paladin spellcasting chart (perhaps focusing on Illusions or some such) to take advantage of those unrestricted base caster levels and to have some magic independent of Geniekind.

Now, in general, I recommend a buy-as-you-go approach – but this is also a good point to illustrate breaking up your new “class” into a level progression by simply slapping it’s abilities into a table so that it looks reasonable. That’s a bit sloppy – if you sat down and calculated the prices some levels would be overpriced and some would be underpriced – but it’s not like the base classes aren’t that way anyway and the game still functions just fine.

 

Char Level / BCL BAB Saves Daily Favors  Special Abilities
For Ref Wi Mi Ma En
1 0 +0 +2 1 0 0 Encounter Favor (Mi), Basic Lore, Gen Familiar, Bonus Feat.
2 1 +0 +3 1 0 0 Elemental Immunity (Trivial)
3 1 +1 +3 1 0 0 Genietongue, Empowerment 1/Day
4 2 +1 +4 1 0 0 Geniekin
5 2 +1 +4 2 0 0 Dismiss Genie 1/Day, Empowerment
2/Day
6 3 +2 +5 2 1 0 Summon Genie I 1/Week
7 3 +2 +5 2 1 0 Encounter Favor (Ma),
8 4 +2 +6 2 1 0 Elemental Immunity (Minor),
Empowerment 3/Day
9 4 +3 +6 3 1 0 Summon Genie II 1/Week
10 5 +3 +7 3 1 0 Dismiss Genie 2/Day
11 5 +3 +7 3 1 0 Empowerment 4/Day
12 6 +4 +8 3 2 0 Summon Genie III 1/Week
13 6 +4 +8 3 2 1 Encounter Favor (En)
14 7 +4 +9 3 2 1 Dismiss Genie 3/Day
15 7 +5 +9 3 2 1 Summon Genie IV 1/Week
16 8 +5 +10 3 2 2 Empowerment 5/Day
17 8 +5 +10 3 3 2 Dismiss Genie 4/Day
18 9 +6 +11 3 3 2 Empowerment 6/Day
19 9 +6 +11 3 3 3 Dismiss Genie 5/Day
20 10 +6 +12 3 3 3 Empowerment 7/Day

And there we have the sha’ir. They’re actually substantially more powerful than a wizard for the first few levels, during which even one modest per-encounter spell plus the abilities bestowed by their Mephit’s will easily outshine a wizard’s few spells – but the power balance will shift back the other way at higher levels, After all, a 12’th level sha’ir will get two spells per encounter (one of levels 1-3 and one of levels 4-6) and has five extra spells per day to draw on (three of levels 1-3 and two of levels 4-6) out of combat or in emergencies. Say four encounters? that’s 13 spells. Admittedly, they will probably be well-chosen spells fitted to the exact situation – but it’s still only 13 spells in a day. They are close to being unmatched in flexibility however,

Eclipse d20 and the Classical Illusionist

Alzrius has put up a very nice little Eclipse Package Deal for making Illusions a bit more effective in d20 games – and it’s reminded me of the old days. Back in first edition when a pure “Illusionist” was a viable – and fairly important! – class. I had a lot of fun with illusions back then.

Of course, D&D games were very different then. These days the game often revolves around fighting, loot from fighting gets spent on buying magic items to make you more likely to win more fights, treasure-free random encounters are almost a thing of the past, and most encounters are “Balanced”. You usually don’t WANT to evade encounters now unless you’re trying to sneak past the guards or something.

Back in the old days you might well encounter creatures far beyond your ability to handle, killing things brought in a little XP, but stealing treasure brought in a LOT, and you couldn’t spend loot to make yourself more powerful (after all, just getting it had done THAT). Loot got spent on things like building castles or mansions, buying land, funding charities, paying troops, educating your kids, and living a life of indulgence and luxury – and so adventuring parties often wanted to avoid encounters in favor of stealing that loot.

And even a first level Illusionist could REALLY help with that. An illusion of an open door (and empty room) covering a closed one, or a bramble-thicket covering where the characters were hiding, or some such could let that dragon, or group of ogres, or other powerful creature go right on by. This sort of thing was very limited – at fifteen minutes per spell level to memorize EACH spell it could take a high-level mage a week to fill up his or her spell slots – so they couldn’t use many illusions per day and would need to be carefully guarded while they cast them to keep from having them disrupted and spoiled – but Illusionists were VERY useful.

When it came to a fight, it was hard to tell what spell someone was casting and illusions could actually defeat opponents – and that made them very much worth supporting. You might toss out that flask of self-igniting oil and start chanting – producing real flames, real smoke, real heat, and possibly even a few real burns – to help convince your targets of the “reality” of the illusory fire elemental, wall of fire, or swiftly-spreading blaze that you then “conjured” from it.

When it came to designing 3.0 however, the problem was that illusions were EXTREMELY “swingy”. Did the Illusionist “collapse the cavern roof” over a group of opponents? If they failed to disbelieve, or save… the entire group might be rendered unconscious and easy prey. On the other hand, if they saved, all you’d done was hide them from the rest of the party until they charged – and once the cries of “It’s an illusion!” started up, your illusionist lost a lot of effectiveness and didn’t have that much to fall back on. He or she simply had to hide behind the fighters and wait for the next encounter.

Just as bad… one game master might note the lack of dust in the air and sound of impact (at least with the first level Phantasmal Forces spell) and thus have the victims automatically attempt to disbelieve, while another might not think of that or feel that – what with the exigencies of battle to keep track of – they probably wouldn’t notice in time, and so would have only a few attempt to disbelieve.

Still, “Swingy” was much less of a problem back then because – if an encounter was going badly – it was quite normal to break it off and run away. Illusions could be really helpful there too. If you could just get out of sight for a few moments, a well-chosen illusion gave you a pretty good chance to evade any pursuit.

So lets say we want some of that old functionality back, over and above Alzrius’s very handy package.

First up…

  • We want out illusions to be able to knock people out, but never to do any more than that.
  • We want them to be interesting and interactive. A rain of boulders is one thing, but an illusory “Fireball” is basically just a flash of bright light. How would they even know what it’s supposed to be?
  • We want to avoid “I Win!” buttons. Damage is one thing, but simply taking opponents out of the fight is not very interesting.

So purchase Shadowmaster, Corrupted for Increased Effect (gives a bit of reality to a limited set of illusion spells that normally have none at all – Trifling Image, Silent Image, Minor Image, Major Image, Hallucinatory Terrain, Persistent Image, Permanent Image, and Programmed Image) and Specialized for Reduced Cost / only applies to those eight spells or variants thereof, only inflicts nonlethal damage and minor related effects, cannot inflict further damage after the victims go unconscious, disbelief and a successful save provides complete protection, even without disbelief the damage is determined by comparison to a similar spell effect of equal or lesser level to the illusion used and may allow saves for reduced effect, and the damage is limited by the targets expectations and experience – and so instant effects are rarely very effective and no effects will work on mindless targets or objects (3 CP).

Using this ability…

  • A Silent Image spell COULD be used to “collapse the ceiling”, but the (nonlethal) damage is not going to exceed the 1d4/Level (5d4 Maximum) that you could get with “Hail Of Stone” – and trying to affect a larger area is likely to bring that down to 2d6.
  • A Minor Image spell could be used to simulate a Fireball, but the actual results are likely to be a blinding flash and a momentary feeling of heat – likely resulting in victims taking two or three d6 of damage and being briefly dazzled. Turning the room into a “raging inferno” will probably be more effective, since that can be maintained over several rounds, even if it will only be 2d6 per round.
  • Using a Major Image to “bring down the ceiling” might well get you up to Fireball damage – but a reflex save to “dodge the boulders” will apply to halve that damage, even if they fail to disbelieve.

That makes illusions versatile and somewhat effective attacks – but certainly not overwhelmingly powerful ones.

  • To fit the theme, I’m going to make Light and Darkness effects reversible. In Pathfinder you can do that with the Eclipsed Spell (+0) Metamagic. In Eclipse, you’ll want the Elemental Manipulation Metamagical Theorm, Specialized and Corrupted / only applicable to spells that affect the level of illumination, only to apply the +0 “change the elemental effect” modifier to switch between versions that provide light and versions that make it darker (2 CP).
  • And we’ll want Specialist (Illusion Spells), Corrupted / only for Trifling Image, Silent Image, Minor Image, and Major Image. The first casting of each of these spells in a day does not count against the user’s available spell slots (2 CP).

So how should we build the actual spellcasting? Taking a look at the original Illusionist Spell List we have…

  • L0) None. This was before L0 spells were introduced.
  • L1) Audible Glamour, Change Self, Color Spray, Dancing Lights, Darkness, Detect Illusion, Detect Invisibility, Gaze Reflection, Hypnotism, Light, Phantasmal Force, Wall Of Fog.
  • L2) Blindness, Blur, Deafness, Detect Magic, Fog Cloud, Hypnotic Pattern, Improved Phantasmal Force, Invisibility, Magic Mouth, Mirror Image, Misdirection, Ventriloquism.
  • L3) Continual Darkness, Continual Light, Dispel Illusion, Fear, Hallucinatory Terrain, Illusory Script, Invisibility 10′ Radius, Non-Detection, Paralyzation, Rope Trick, Spectral Force, and Suggestion.
  • L4) Confusion, Dispel Exhaustion, Emotion, Improved Invisibility, Massomorph, Minor Creation, Phantasmal Killer, Shadow Monsters.
  • L5) Chaos, Demi-Shadow Monsters, Major Creation, Maze, Projected Image, Shadow Door, Shadow Magic, Summon Shadow.
  • L6) Conjure Animals, Demi-Shadow Magic, Mass Suggestion, Permanent Illusion, Programmed Illusion, Shades, True Sight, Veil.
  • L7) Alter Reality, Astral Spell, Prismatic Spray, Prismatic Wall, Vision, First Level Magic User Spells (you could take several of them in one seventh level spell slot).

Most of this was actually folded into the Bard list in 3.0, but an Illusionist was a subtype of Wizard, so we’ll take…

  • Wizard Spellcasting (Spontaneous Variant), Specialized for Reduced Cost / only for the following list of “Illusionist” (mostly Bardic) spells, maxes out at level seven spells (7 CP per level).
    • L0: Dancing Lights, Decrypt, Detect Magic, Encrypt, Ghost Sound, Light, Signal, Trifling Image
    • L1): Color Spray, Disguise Self, Dispel Illusion (as per Dispel Magic, but Illusions only), Hideous Laughter, Hypnotism, Magic Mouth, Silent Image, and Ventriloquism.
    • L2): Blindness/Deafness, Blur, Hypnotic Pattern, Invisibility, Minor Image, Mirror Image, Rope Trick, Suggestion.
    • L3: Confusion, Daylight, Fear, Invisibility Sphere, Major Image, Mass Invigorate, Nondetection, Secret Page.
    • L4: Greater Invisibility, Hallucinatory Terrain, Minor Creation, Mirror Image (Greater), Phantasmal Killer, Shadow Conjuration, Shadow Jaunt, Weave Emotion* (Greater Invocation, creates any emotion-influencing effect of up to L3).
    • L5: Chains Of Light, Major Creation, Mislead, Persistent Image, Plane Shift, Shadow Evocation,
      Shadow Walk, Suggestion (Mass).
    • L6: Dirge Of The Victorious Knights, Maze, Permanent Image, Programmed Image, Project Image, True Seeing, Veil, Wizardly Pretense (prepare any five first level wizard spells, although these cannot be transferred to others or put into scrolls).
    • L7: False Vision (Greater), Invisibility (Mass), Limited Wish, Prismatic Spray, Prismatic Wall, Shadow Conjuration (Greater), Shadow Necromancy (Greater), Shadow Terrain.

Sample emotion-influencing effects of L3 include Crushing Despair, Fear, Good Hope, Heroism (one hour per level), Malicious Spite, Rage, Overwhelming Grief, Smug Narcissism, and Terrible Remorse.

Finally, we’ll want to be able to run more than one illusion at a time – so we’ll want…

  • Persistent Illusions: Streamline x 2, Metamagical Theorem/Stabilize, both Specialized and Corrupted /only to give Silent Image, Hypnotic Pattern, Minor Image, and Major Image durations of one minute per caster level past concentration and extend Veil to 2 hours per caster level with no concentration (6 CP).

So our first-level Illusionist trades out Wizard Spellcasting (14 CP) and a Familiar (or Arcane Bond) (6 CP) for Illusionist Spellcasting (7 CP), Damaging Illusions (3 CP), Reversible Light and Darkness (2 CP), Bonus Illusions (Specialist I, 2 CP), and Persistent Illusions (6 CP). That’s an even trade, so they can otherwise be built like any other Wizard – which fits nicely. Since their spellcasting will continue at only 7 CP per level, they can either continue to spend the extra CP on further improvements to their illusions or they can invest in other abilities.

If they want some other boosts to their illusory talents they may want to consider…

  • Ability Focus (Illusion Spells): Increase the DC of saving against the user’s illusions by +2 (6 CP). For another +6 CP you may increase the bonus to +4.
  • Augmented Magic (+1 Caster Level on Illusion Spells) (3 CP).
  • Augmented Bonus: Adds (Cha Mod) to (Int Mod) when calculating the DC of saves against their spells, Specialized/only for spells from the Illusion school (3 CP). Charismatic and persuasive Illusionists have quite an edge.
  • Improved Specialist (Illusion Spells), Corrupted / only for Hallucinatory Terrain, Persistent Image, and Permanent Image. The first casting of each of these spells in a day does not count against the user’s available spell slots (2 CP)
  • Occult Sense / Detect Illusions (including invisibility), Corrupted / this ability must be actively used to function (4 CP).
  • Power Words (6+ CP) will let them keep some very fast spells ready to go.
  • Shadowmaster (6 CP) will increase the reality of Shadow Conjuration, Shadow Evocation, Shadow Conjuration (Greater), Shadow Necromancy (Greater), and Shadow Terrain when the character gets them.
  • Shaping, Specialized for Increased Effect and Corrupted for Reduced Cost / can only produce effects on the user’s list of known cantrips but can produce those cantrips, user must be free to gesture and speak (4 CP) will give them unlimited use of their cantrip slots.
  • Visions, bought as Inherent Spell, Specialized for Increased Effect (Contact Other Plane) and Corrupted for Reduced Cost (4 CP) / Requires an occult laboratory and a variety of special props, plus Luck, Specialized and Corrupted / only for the check to avoid a reduction in Intelligence and Charisma (2 CP). (The original Illusionist got the “Visions” spell, which was pretty cruddy. This is, in fact, much better – even if it does cost a little more than a spell slot).

This version of the Illusionist has several major boosts over the original, but they’re mostly built into the current d20 game system. For example, they get concentration checks instead of any interruption automatically ruining their spellcasting and they get individual turns and standard-action spellcasting rather than having to deal with enemies with simultaneous actions getting to ruin their spells. Both of those are very big advantages indeed – but they’re a normal part of d20 spellcasting these days.

And now I want to play one again. Oh well, maybe one of these days.