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.


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.


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!


Mystic Links and Sympathetic Magic Part II

And to continue from Part I

Class-4 Links:

Things the target made come next. A book they wrote (unless, of course, it turns out to be a hoax or the product of a ghost writer. Mass publication versions are generally reduced to Class-2), a home they built, a place – perhaps their study or workshop – that they made theirs over the years or a masterpiece they sculpted. These would not exist without their creator – and so the link is strong and unique. Such a link can be used to find the target, to determine if they are all right or if something is warping them, to transmit a healing effect to them (“puppet healing”) or it could be used to contact their spirit with a séance. Do you get a sense of a craftsman’s personality and presence from their workshop, or “hear” an authors voice in his or her works? Some people would say that that’s just a combination of deduction and imagination. A sympathetic mage knows it to be the lingering touch of the spirit reaching across the links that it has forged.

Psychics looking for lost people, spiritualists conducting seances, people seeking revealing dreams by tucking some memento beneath their pillow, successors tearing down a hated prior rulers monuments and erasing all records of their achievements in the belief that this will somehow harm their predecessor, inexperienced swordsmen hoping that the hand of the master who made their sword will guide their hand in battle… all of them are attempting to exploit mystic links at this level.

This sort of thing tends to be mostly the province of investigators and researchers. Can someone “read between the lines” and extract more information from someone’s diary than it actually contains? Can they sleep in the slain wizards workroom and hear his or her voice offering wisdom from beyond the grave? Can the psychic find the long-hidden treasures hidden in the crypts, or ask an ancient pharaoh’s spirit how he defeated the Lovecraftian Horrors when they last rose to invade four thousand years ago?

Secondarily, however… haunted weapons and spiritual touchstones – items which are linked to a spirit and which allow it to help, hinder, or simply influence the current bearer – are standard elements in fantasy fiction. Thus the television version of Hrothbert of Bainbridge (AKA Harry Dresden’s magical advisor “Bob”) and his bond with his old skull – or the Japanese legends or murdered smiths who haunt the swords they made until their wielders avenge the swordsmith’s murder. Is one of Voldemort’s Horcrux’s from the Harry Potter novels really much more than this with a minor enchantment to embed a few of his hit points in the item?

Pele’s Curse” may be a modern myth rather than an ancient one, but it fits in here. Pele – the Volcano Goddess of the Hawaiian Islands – is said exploit the crafter’s link to send bad luck to anyone who carries off any of the stones she works so hard to create. Presumably she’s at war with whatever god is responsible for Erosion too.

  • A Class-4 (or -5) link also offers the possibility of Possession when a powerful spirit overrides a weaker (or badly conflicted) mind. Such instances can use the rules for Cursed Lycanthropes. A blade linked to a vengeful spirit might be easy to use, but it’s hardly safe.
  • Class-4 Links are usually good for 2d4 major uses and are notable for allowing subtle spiritual influences to pass over them without damaging the link. The actual passage of a spirit, however, is a fairly major event and does damage the link. Even if your murdered father passed on the six-fingered sword he forged to you, and helps you wield it effectively… there will only be so many times that he can directly intervene on the material plane to save you. You can, however, get all the advice-filled dreams that he wants to send you.
  • Blocking the use of Class-4 links without damaging the item in question is tricky, simply because such an effect needs to be applied to the item in question rather than whoever happens to be using it. A level two effect will work for a few moments – long enough, say, to transfer an item to some form of secure containment. A level four effect (such as Exorcise) will work for a full hour (but no longer since there is no spirit in the item to resist the return) and a level five effect for a full day.
  • Breaking a Class-4 link is often surprisingly easy. All you need to do is to rework whatever-it-is. Reforge that sword, or enchant it. Rebuild the house. Expurgate the book and fill in the missing bits with other people’s ideas. Breaking such links without damaging the item is much trickier, and tends to call for sixth level effects.
  • Amplifying a Class-4 Link is relatively straightforward; an effect of level 2+/4+/6+/8+ can transmit 1d3 Prestidigitation Level/Zero Level/First Level/Second Level effects over such a link, but that’s the upper limit. This does, however, count as a single use of the link.

Class-5 Links:

Items that the Target invested themselves – their time, life, and emotions (or, in the case of Relics, their character points) – in come next. Did a man cling to the house he built and live out his days there? Is your link a bundle of old love letters from an intense romance? A personal diary, into which the target poured their hopes, dreams, and most emotional memories? A book they wrote about some passionate interest? The weapon which killed them, their wedding ring, or some other item bound up with a major part of their lives? A Relic they created? Did two people swear Blood Brotherhood and really mean it and live up to it? Of perhaps they are mystic twins? On a larger scale, what about the revered battlefield where some great empire was founded and declared? Such things are powerful links indeed – often enough to allow a spirit residing on the outer planes to manifest or channel power through into the material world without straining the link.

Also in this category we have “Love’s Pain” (The Book Of Vile Darkness) – one of the more infamously bad examples of using link-based magic in d20. All you needed was someone who dearly loved your Target (which could be artificially induced with other spells since there was nothing in the rules about “True” Love), and a way to fix Intelligence Damage (pretty trivial) – and you could remotely annihilate any creature that did not have Immediate-Action or Precognitive access to an Antimagic Field. And it was only level three. This was promptly banned by every sensible game master (or at least I never saw anyone who allowed it as written). These rules will help somewhat – an artificially-induced emotion won’t create a link without time and interaction with the target – but it’s still far too low a level.

I gave a nod to the same idea with the level nine Deathlink spell (Paths of Power II or Complete) – but it had a ten minute casting time, did less damage, required the ritual sacrifice of another being of the same race, allowed spell resistance, and – if the target saved – it knew where the sacrifice was being made and got to see who was attacking him or her. Honestly… you were much better off summoning a creature and using a Baleful Teleport or something to send it to attack someone. Deathlink was more of warning shot, or an announcement that “Hey! You! I AM COMING FOR YOU!”, or perhaps a softening-up attack then it was a real attempt to kill any foe who was worth spending a ninth level spell on.

Eclipse includes Ties Of The Blood among the level ten spells – a ritual effect that calls for “ a material item with psychic or physical link to the target. A favored watch or piece of cloth the target has worn will do, but hair is better, and blood is best”. It lets the caster transmit up to three level four and under spells to the target at any range, and across dimensional barriers, if they’re cast within the next one minute. Especially good ingredients increase the spell level limit to 5, while poor ones reduce it to 3. Higher-level variants can transmit higher-level spells at +2 spell levels per +1 level of the spells transmitted. Importantly, it the spell uses up the material used as a link – so you can’t just keep casting it over and over again.

Ties Of The Blood is a wonderful way of disposing of treacherous flunkies and other relatively minor annoyances (or perhaps a way to teleport them to you) – but, once again, you’re throwing around epic level magic and hours worth of the time of an epic level spellcaster to launch a few relatively low level effects. It’s certainly impressive to see the flunky you forced to betray the Dark Lord start screaming “No! Master! Please! FORGIVE ME!” before being plane shifted to the abyss to become a demon-plaything when the Dark Lord is still a thousand miles away, but it’s really not a worthwhile combat tactic.

Those limitations are quite intentional. Sympathetic Magic has always been a way for those who are unable to get back at an enemy or influence the outcome of events in any other way to tell themselves that they were actually doing something effective. Actually making it effective though… that’s asking for a thousand minor spellcasters to take down your Dark Emperor. How many present-day politicians would still be around if sympathetic magic actually worked as advertised?

Now, if you want a cantankerous – but not technically undead – spirit haunting a house, such as Captain Daniel Gregg in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), this is the route to go. The spirit can hang around, perform various minor tricks, and complain about annoying adventurers in his house pretty much indefinitely – but trying to do things like call in his ghostly crew will soon exhaust his powers.

  • Class-5 Links are usually good for 2d4+1 major uses and allow major spiritual energies and minor magical ones (prestidigitation effects) to pass over them without damaging the link. While major spirits will still expend a use to pass over, mere mortal ghosts can come through and hang around as long as they please. Anyone possessing a Class-5 link can use it to locate the owner, to determine if he or she is still alive and his or her status, and various other personal details with minor rituals. Similarly, prayers and similar communications pass over such links with no problems.
  • Blocking the use of Class-5 links is difficult. Blocking incoming links requires the use of a level five effect for an hour and a level six effect for a full day. It’s rarely important though; the nature of Class-5 links is such that they’re most often foci for an entity trying to exert its will on or around the linked item. If such attempts are unwelcome, you can simply leave said item behind. Attempting to use such an item to influence the creator is possible – but if you can reasonably get a hold of someone’s most cherished possessions in the first place you can probably deal with them directly.
  • Breaking a Class-5 link is – once again – fairly easy. Destroy the linked item. Breaking such a link without doing that is much harder, calling for a seventh level effect.
  • Amplifying a Class-5 Link is relatively straightforward; an effect of level 3+/5+/7+/9+ can transmit 1d3 Zero Level/First Level/Second/Third Level effects over such a link, but that’s the upper limit. This does, however, count as a single use of the link.

Class-6 Links

Things that were once a true part of the target are next. A brick from a castle wall, fingernail clippings, hairs, blood, or teeth from the target… These are some of the most powerful links commonly available. (Bodily wastes would come in here, but they’ve been rejected by the body and expelled – and so their link is greatly attenuated). Perhaps best of all… a piece of a child’s placenta, carrying it’s DNA. That’s both a part of it’s body and the physical manifestation of the link with its mother that gave it life. Now we are cooking with magic gas. Even a minor mage could use such a link to manipulate the target in all sorts of ways or to tap into their power (as in, for example, The Tales Of Alvin Maker). Classically having access to a detailed horoscope of a target might count on this level – after all, you were laying your hands upon their very destiny – but these days the stars usually aren’t credited with having THAT much influence on people. Class-6 Links are generally good for at least 2D4+2 uses before their power fades – and they can transmit cantrip-level effects without strain up to once an hour, including the variegated results of spells such as Polypurpose Panacea and it’s reverse, with a minor ritual.

Sympathetic Magic at this level is a standard part of many game systems with more subtle magic, such as Shadowrun, Fantasy Wargaming, and World Tree – but generally isn’t easy, requiring either lots of time and resources or special training to use. In d20, this is how a soul binds to the body – explaining the limitations of the Clone spell, the need to have a body part to perform a Resurrection, and why the creature being resurrected will gain some knowledge of who is doing it and why. Using that link to draw a spirit back from the outer planes weakens the link unless greater magics are used – and so the spirit hangs on to the body less well – “losing a level”.

This is also where we find Correspondence Tablesmassive lists of the magical properties of various items, times, astronomical events, and many other items. Each proper correspondence included enhances appropriate magic. Thus, using a WAND made of CHESTNUT with a RUBY tip polished with JUNIPER oil and a shaft inscribed with the norse rune KENAZ (Beacon or Torch) in RED while MARS is ascendant includes seven correspondences to fire – and so will lend considerable extra power to any fire magic that is cast using it. If properly made it will last indefinitely, just like the power of a Coat of Arms or Holy Symbol. (This is the sort of thing that the Ceremonial Magic rules in Continuum II were used to make, but few players are inclined to bother these days. Personally, if someone wanted to work on this sort of thing, I would certainly let them get some boosts out of it. After all, it requires involvement, interest, and at least a few minutes doing research).

Guardian Poppets are the primary answer to “blocking” links. You make a doll that looks like you, you add some of your blood, fingernails, skin scrapings, etc, to its construction, and you perform a small ritual to activate it – and until its link fails or the poppet is destroyed, it will suffer the effects of effects coming in over Class-0 to Class-6 links instead of you. Construct Poppets (use the statistics for a Poppet, a Soul-Bound Doll, or similar construct) can be “fed” additional bits of materials – not only disposing of lost hair and fingernail clippings and such safely but renewing the constructs link. For +300 GP it can be given Immunity to Cantrips. For +500/1500/3000 GP such a construct can also be given the ability to suffer the effects an individually-directed attack – a sword-blow, spell, poison, or whatever – for its master 1/2/3 times per day with the owner choosing when this effect activates. Unfortunately, a Guardian Poppet must be kept on or near the owner’s person to function properly, so they cannot entirely prevent the use of links to locate or scry on the user.

If a setting makes extensive use of mystic links, well, here is an obvious countermeasure – and one that’s pretty cheap and easy to obtain. Pretty much anyone (and any structure or place) of the slightest importance will probably be so protected, meaning that effective use of sympathetic magic will usually have to be subtle and indirect. Secondarily, this is a bit of a nerf for “save or suck” and “save or die” effects. After all… a Poppet generally can’t be struck dead, or suffer the effects of poison, or be level drained. I suppose someone could try to get really clever – using a Baleful Teleport or Maze effect against someone, letting it get diverted to the poppet, and then grabbing the Poppet to use it against it’s owner before the link fades or it gets replaced – but if someone is getting that elaborate, then good for them.

One version of Asahina Ninsei, Emperor of Rokugan, spent years having agents bring him bits of stone from all across his empire – and inlaid them into a great map of the country. Using those links, he gathered up the unused diffuse magical power of the land, the seas, and the sky, focused it – and channeled it out again to the various clans, reserving the ability to adjust how much power each clan received to run their magitech.

On a personal scale… perhaps a mage can use a bit of powdered dragon eggshell to draw on the power of the dragon that hatched from it, lending great strength to his or her spells – although it would probably be wise to make a deal with the dragon before trying this.

  • Blocking the use of Class-6 links is difficult. Blocking incoming links requires the use of a level six effect for an hour and a level seven effect for a full day. Of course, given the effectiveness of Guardian Poppets, there’s usually no point in doing so.
  • Breaking a Class-6 link is actually relatively easy; since they can transmit worthwhile effects and are usually simply bits of tissue. A fourth effect spell will do 3d4 damage (generally more than enough) to up to one item with a Class-6 link per level. A second level effect will do the same to any one such item.
  • Amplifying a Class-6 Link is relatively straightforward; an effect of level 2+/4+/6+/8+ can transmit 1d4 Zero Level/First Level/Second/Third Level effects over such a link, but that’s the upper limit. This does, however, count as a single use of the link.

Class-7 Links

A living parent or child of the target is perhaps the potent link of all, combining very high levels of contagion, sympathy, and correspondence in one convenient emotion-laden package. Of course, such links work both ways – and using them is often pretty unethical. A Class-7 link can transmit first level effects up to once per hour and second level effects up to once per day without strain with a minor ritual – but whatever effects are used will affect both parties involved. Given that kids are rarely capable of surviving the kind of things that a worthwhile target can, this still isn’t a lot of use in inflicting damage without boosting the link substantially. Things like “Charm” or “Suggestion” are a much better bet. On the helpful side, however, leaving your kids with some priests while you go off to fight in a crusade may well get you some monitoring and remote help in emergencies.

Perhaps the most classic example here is sacrificing your firstborn – turning your child over to some monstrous being in payment for it using the link you have so provided to channel power to you. Of course, such links are incredibly dangerous – for if and when you die, that same link will let that being claim your soul as well. There is a reason why this is considered one of the most insane and depraved branches of black magic.

Karnel Thorn – a remarkably unpleasant mage – was noted for using spells involving mystic links. Perhaps his most infamous was the ninth level Porcine Polymorphism. It propagated over blood links, targeting an additional 3d6 individuals wherever they might be – first affecting children, then parents, then siblings, and then more distant relatives, affecting whoever the first target liked best in a group if it couldn’t get them all. It was, of course, permanent unless someone used very potent magic to remove it and forced it’s victims to act like pigs as their minds slowly degraded.

He also had a “Butcher Pig” spell.

Of course, he was a first edition character, but it’s the principle that matters.

  • The only other in-game distinction between a Class-6 and a Class-7 Link (besides benefits noted in specific spells, such as Deathlink) is that using a Class-7 Link will bypass the effects of a Guardian Poppet. The link is well enough tuned to recognize the real target.

Unclassed Links:

Finally, we active magical links – open channels set up to transmit magical energy – and what is arguably the ultimate link (if they actually exist in a given setting) – a creatures True Name. An expression of their essence, their destiny, and their history. In magical terms knowing a creature’s True Name is basically having a firm grip on one of it’s more vital internal organs. It’s not a link so much as it is being able to reach out and touch them at whim. It’s the old “The name is the thing” routine. Thus changing how your pronounced the “true name” of a thing can control or transform it.

At least in fiction and legend true names are used to summon, control, and banish various magical entities, are the vulnerable points of wizards, and grant the user many powers over what he or she names. Of course, if you don’t know the name you need… you are simply out of luck.

A True Name or active magical link has few inherent limitations – but most magical links are carefully limited by their creators while the effects of True Names depend on the setting – and True Names are notoriously difficult to acquire. In some settings only the Goddesses of Destiny, Motherhood, and Naming will know any individuals true name, for they and they alone whispered it in the fastnesses of their hearts when they were born. In others they are known initially only to those who meditate and seek within themselves to find them – and sharing them with another is perhaps the ultimate mark of trust. In other places, of course, it’s simply whatever you were named as a child – but if True Names actually mean very much in a setting, personal True Names are going to be well-hidden secrets.

Eclipse defaults to a watered-down version where knowing some things True Name simply gives you some bonuses when dealing with it, but that’s likely to vary with the setting. For example, Legends Of High Fantasy includes Quilopothic Magic (the magic of breaking the universe) with one of it’s arts being Namebreaking – magic involving using, bestowing, or altering True Names. As it says there…

Using Namebreaking on yourself is especially perilous; such changes well up from within rather than being imposed from without, and so tend to change the user’s memories, personality, and “real” physical structure. If a Sorcerer uses Namebreaking to give herself thick fur to survive being lost in the arctic, she’s likely to get claws, memories of being a native, and a predatory personality to go with it. She might be able to change back IF she remembers who she is – but will have to mentally reconstruct her old appearance. A simple “dispel” effect will not work; the old version is gone, the new one is what is currently “real”. In general, Namebreaking spells are a level or so higher than equivalent spells from other disciplines, but become one level easier if you know the true name of your target. All Namebreaking effects are necessarily single target.

  • I can’t really provide rules for Unclassed Links, since they’re set up in a variety of ways (usually Mystic Link in Eclipse, but there are other ways) and the nature of “True Names” is going to vary with each game and game master. Anyone tinkering with such things will just have to experiment and see what happens.

Sympathetic Magic through the editions in Dungeons and Dragons gets… complicated.

First Editions spell components often used classical magical concepts. Saltpeter was extracted from guano and was used to make gunpowder – ergo, with enough magical skill, you could use a bit of bat guano to create a massive explosion without all the bother of actually making a keg of gunpowder. A tiny “tin can telephone” could be used to send messages. Pearls could be dissolved to gain knowledge – “Pearls of Wisdom”. The game included explanations of where magical energy came from and how it was handled. Wizards did mysterious things with strange paraphernalia to produce effects that mundane characters did not understand. Thus the more complex spells had long casting times and were easily interrupted. A bucket of water, or being shoved, would ruin the mightiest spell – and they took long enough to cast that many of the enemy would have a chance to try something like that.

A lot of those details were dropped from Second Edition. The information on how magic was supposed to “work” turned into pure game mechanics. The ritualistic verbal and somatic components turned into ways to restrain spellcasters a bit and the physical components split into flavor text and expensive stuff that kept powerful spells from being used too often. The idea that varying the components would produce strange changes in the spell vanished too. Soon enough, nobody thought of spells as complex, delicate procedures involving delicately manipulating weird materials any more – which paved the way for the introduction of “concentration” and “standard action” spells.

Third Edition still listed some of the flavor text components – in part, I suspect, because older players expected them – but removed their mechanical impact with spell component pouches and/or “eschew materials”. No longer would spellcasters have to be carefully protected if they wanted to cast substantial spells – and no longer did wizards need to worry about backblast from setting off a Fireball in a confined place, or bouncing lightning bolts, or similar problems.

No longer had spellcasters spent years studying secret lore, learning lists of magical components and exotic procedures to use them. Now anyone could just decide to take a level in wizard this time.

Classical Contagion and Sympathy are extremely evocative, they (fairly obviously) fit in with traditional notions of magic, and they make a certain amount of “sense” to most people. In fact… an awful lot of people still think that way.

  • Have you encountered someone who, when someone tries to explain something technical to them using a simplified, symbolic, analogy – tries to poke holes in the analogy instead of considering the point? They’re attacking a simplified, symbolic, representation of something and believing that doing so has some real effect. They’re attempting to use sympathetic magic – and will usually believe that they’ve been successful.
  • Have you seen someone try to “disprove” an argument or statement by attacking the person making it in the belief that – if they can just associate the source with ideas that they are sure are wrong – it will somehow invalidate the point? As if associating two separate ideas will somehow make them be linked with each other? That’s the principle of Contagion.
  • How many people have little compulsive rituals that they perform because they feel that – if they do not – something will inevitably go wrong? They’re performing a ritual spell to ward off misfortune.

Magical Thinking is the normal state of affairs for much of humanity. Second Edition dropped most of the “how magic works” stuff in favor of pure game mechanics because entirely too many people thought that the magical references were real, and meaningful – and “satanic”.

Still, even in first edition… classical magic was never a major element of the game.

That’s for good reason.

Unfortunately, the major features of Magic using Sympathy and Contagion are not especially game friendly. It takes a lot of time and components to use, the player has to come up with a ritual, other characters generally have nothing to do while said ritual is being performed, and such rituals work from quite a long ways away.

So your target stayed at an inn last night. You show up for dinner, put your horse in the stables, and swipe a few hairs from your targets carriage-horses while you’re at it. You make some horse-dolls and prepare your rituals – one to scry on the horses, one to throw them into an utter panic, and one to cover your magical traces so no one can identify you after you retreat. The next day… your targets horses run away in the mountains, sending themselves, the carriage, and the target over a cliff – and you vanish, leaving none the wiser.

That’s interesting, and a classic bit of fantasy, and makes a good setup for the adventure of hunting down the evil cult or something – but by itself it isn’t going to make much of an adventure is it? Neither will using sympathetic magic to make it rain, or keep rats out of the granary. There is a reason why “Scry and Die” is so generally ill-regarded. “Blast from Afar” is even WORSE – as shown by “Love’s Pain”.

Adventures are about dealing with the dragon up close and personal – not about phoning it up and talking it into a trade or hypnotizing it from afar to compel it to move or give you a part of its horde. They’re about breaking the siege in battle or sneaking out to strike at the enemy leaders, not about conducting a ritual in a nice safe chamber and making the besiegers stores of food rot so that they have to go home.

Each edition has included a scattering of spells and powers that use (or at least refer to) the concepts of sympathetic magic – enough to be evocative and vaguely imply the use of mysterious powers of magic – but not enough to cause difficulties with the game.

That’s why Ritual Magic – in both the Legends Of High Fantasy and the Eclipse versions – is set up to generate quests and adventures in its own right, with actually performing the ritual being something of an afterthought, rather than trying to have it BE the adventure.

Now, the Legends of High Fantasy ritual system does include the following set of DC modifiers for “range”:

  • Target Present (-), Line of Sight (+5), Contagion Link (A portion of target/deeply personal possession, +10), Sympathetic Link (Pictures, items touched by target, +15), Descriptive Link (“The one who stole the sacred bloom”, +20), Extradimensional Target (Additional +5), Transtemporal Target (Extra +5/Postcognitive Effects, +10/Precognitive, and +15 /Actual Effects)

So it is possible to try the “blast from afar” approach – but that ritual system calls for GM-specified ritual components that the group must go out adventuring to obtain. User’s can’t simply bypass the need to adventure, they simply get to substitute a series of fetch-quests that they CAN manage for a confrontation that they may not be able to handle,

At least in Eclipse, the strongest readily available Sympathetic Magic build is the Witch – mostly because a Witches powers are usually pretty low level and won’t necessarily disrupt the setting. Thus a Witch can take:

Sympathetic Link. A master of this discipline may ignore the range limitations of Witchcraft (and possibly of other spells) as long as he or she possesses an appropriate material link to the target or is working through a familiar within range of the target. Hair, nail clippings, dried bloodstains, or family heirlooms are all common links, though for inanimate targets a small piece of their structure will do. Poor links, such as mere scrapings of blood or an old, forgotten piece of clothing grant the target a +5 bonus on their saving throw. A link may only be used 1d4+1 times before the sympathy is exhausted. Exceptionally good links, such as a piece of a childs placenta or fresh blood, are good for 2d4+2 uses and increase the DC of resisting by 3.

That can be pretty effective if you’re clever or the game master is permissive, but it takes a lot of work to break the setting with it.

I’m still not entirely happy with this one. As noted earlier, it wanders a lot, and – while it includes a lot of evocative ideas – doesn’t really include all that many hard rules because Sympathetic Magic simply doesn’t work that well in the game as a major element. Ah well. At least it’s covered.

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.


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.


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
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,

Prophecies Of The Eclipse

And here we have an offline question…

Eclipse puts “True Prophet” under Deep Sleep – presumably because it’s associated with meditation and trances – but how does prophecy work in the game?

Now that’s a good question, because prophecy is always a bit tricky. To see why, we’ll need to take a look at what prophecy is. After all, it’s more than just making predictions. No one regards “the sun will rise tomorrow” as a prophecy. While that’s not quite a sure thing on the cosmic scale, on a human scale, it pretty much is. Predicting that the sun will not rise might be prophecy though – but it’s far more likely to simply be irrational. “Try it, you’ll like it” is far more likely to come true, but I don’t think anyone would count it as a prophecy either. So what IS prophecy?

Some definitions simply use “prophecy” to mean “inspired advice”.

But if some geologists and volcanologists are inspired by their instruments and training to tell you that “Based on these readings and our best model of there is an almost 80% chance of an eruption occurring within the next three days”, their prediction is useful, important, and may inspire urgent emergency action – but it’s a prediction, not a prophecy.

Now, if we throw in “inspired by a supernatural source” that’s a bit more like it. That’s where diviners, astrologers, and similar sorts come in and where statisticians and actuarial experts get out.

And this will mostly work for predictions along the lines of “In three days a great tidal wave will hit the city and many will die!”. After all, given enough knowledge about the current situation, many future natural events are increasingly predictable as the scale increases. This sort of “prophecy” is more along the lines of “expert advice offered by someone with access to special sources of information” – and so can still fail; if someone influential enough believes the prophecy and evacuates the city… the tidal wave will still strike and there will be massive damages – but few if any will die.

On the other hand, we hear a lot of statements along the lines of “The stars incline, but do not compel” because advice – no matter what inspiration people claim for it – often goes wrong. Even something as simple and short-term as “your date will go well!” (which is somewhat self-fulfilling since it may give you more confidence and cut back on your nerves) can easily be badly wrong if you fall down the stairs or something. Predicting a vaguely defined outcome well within the range of reasonable expectations isn’t going to impress anyone as a prophecy.

We can also exclude things like Nostradamus’s quatrains. Something that is so vague that dozens of different events can be interpreted as “fulfilling it” after the fact is not a prophecy – especially when people studying them point to many different events as being what was “predicted”.

Conditional warnings were big in the Old Testament, but they don’t always qualify either. “If you don’t cut back on smoking three packs a day your COPD is going to continue to get worse” is fairly ironclad as a prediction no matter if it’s inspired by medical information, by annoyance with a stubborn relative, or by a ghost – but no one is going to call it a prophecy even if it IS fairly specific.

It isn’t really prophecy unless the predicted future is very unlikely to occur naturally. So “you’re going to get fat”, or even “if you don’t cut back on the donuts you will get fat!” are not prophecies.

Now, “If you don’t cut back on the donuts fire will descend from the sky and incinerate your bloated carcass!” might be prophecy – but if you make such predictions about ten thousand people, and are wrong about nine thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-nine of them but then a burning plane falls on someone you spoke to… that’s coincidence, not prophecy.

Prophecy not only has to predict something very unlikely, but it has to be RIGHT.

So that gets us a definition.

True Prophecy is the reliable prediction of reasonably long-term future events which are very unlikely to come to pass but do so anyway in clear fulfillment of the prophecy. There may be some wiggle-room of the ironic “Oh. So THAT’S what it meant” variety, but the result must be clearly recognizable or it’s not prophecy.

Prophecies are not warnings, or guideposts, or ways to reduce the impact of untoward events (although they may serve as such for those why pay attention to them). Prophecies are demonstrations of raw supernatural power, just like a royal proclamation followed by sending in the army to make it happen is a demonstration of raw political and military power. The distinction is that prophecies are enforced by the action of nigh-irresistible hidden magical forces that mortals may attempt to defy, but will inevitably lose to, usually just making whatever-it-is worse.

Free will, randomness, and other factors make true prophecy the exclusive domain of major supernatural entities who have both the near-omniscient knowledge and vast power required to force such events to happen.

Prophecies are – and should be – terrifying. The major prophecies of the Old Testament were not mere predictions, or advice, or warnings (although such “minor prophecies” were common enough). They were claims that men, kings, armies, nations, the forces of nature, and other gods and powers were less than a speck of dust before a hurricane before the will of the LORD who made these things to be.

If a city is prophesied to fall, it WILL fall – no matter how small the attacking force, or how well protected it is. You may be able to delay it, to evacuate most of the population, and to save many of its treasures thanks to that warning, but the prophecy itself WILL come to pass.

That’s a big part of what makes it a prophecy.

Since Eclipse is intended to let you build anything, it provides access to both the lesser and the major forms of prophecy – albeit limited to allow for opposing divine intervention since most settings don’t have an activist supreme deity and requiring approval from the game master. Even small-scale True Prophecies can still twist destiny though.

  • Warnings of Major Events are straightforward; ask the game master if you can make any prophecies about upcoming major events – but be aware that once you pronounce such a prophecy, the event is fixed, and nothing can be done to stop it. That doesn’t mean that you can’t mitigate the impact or at least prepare for it though.
  • Vague pronouncements of Doom – or Blessings – are usually simple as long as you’re targeting NPC’s. Unless the game master is going to have some NPC assassinated, or turn out to be the long-lost heir to the throne or some such, giving them vague destinies (“Happiness and Long Life!” or “Accursed Shall Be All Your Days!”) is generally simple. Even things like “you shall die at your son’s hands!” are usually workable. After all, if your extremely elderly and your somewhat elderly son slips while trying to help you out of your rocking chair, you still died at the hands of your son. Similarly, a Fairy Godmother’s blessing – 0r curse – is pretty much a Prophecy.

The trouble with targeting player characters with such pronouncements is that they can take away a good bit of the characters freedom – potentially making the game unplayable. If someone is blessed with a “long life”, and the city he or she lives in is due to be swallowed by an ocean of fire… Destiny may shove them out of town regardless of their wishes. Alien slavers may snatch a lot of people who won’t be missed at the last second. Perhaps they will be transformed into a near-mindless magma elemental. The prophecy WILL come true, but even though the required vagueness leaves a lot of wiggle-room that may require overruling the player.

There’s a further discussion of Destiny Magic over HERE – but for player characters it is best to stick with vague, short-term, stuff like “we shall have good fortune in our upcoming battle!”. That gets you some bonuses without asking the game master to twist the scene towards a specific ending, which is far more dangerous. Fortunately, since the game master has to approve True Prophecies… this is easy to enforce.

Trying to force a specific outcome with Prophecy is a lot like dealing with a Literal – and possibly a Jerkass – Genie. Are you ever REALLY going to be that desperate?

  • At least in Eclipse you can use prophecy to fish for information. – if the game master tells you that you COULD make a prediction about gaining wealth by plundering the treasures of some long-forgotten tomb then at least you know that the place has treasure in it to steal – but you are risking giving the game master ideas there.
  • Finally, of course, we have the “Do this or SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES!” form of prophecy – the either/or option. Really, this amounts to “Hey game master! Do you have any upcoming quests for us?” – followed closely by an attempt to exploit any such prophecy to gain extra backing. After all… if there is a True Prophecy that “The Dark Gate must be sealed before the winter solstice or monsters will come forth to ravage the world!” then the heroes going off to try and seal the Dark Gate are likely to get plenty of support. When the fate of the world is at stake, who is going to begrudge them a few healing potions and other bits of gear?

And that should cover most of the ways to use the basic version of the True Prophecy ability. Fundamentally, it’s a very powerful option – but it’s also tricky and dangerous to use. Of course, that’s part of the fun.

And I hope that helps!

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.

Linear Fighter, Assistant Wizard

For today, we have a retrospective question about just when “wizards got so overpowered!”.

For the quick answer, is 3.0. For the long answer…

Originally, back in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (First and Second Edition), if you played the game as written… spellcasting didn’t really dominate the game. Over more than a decade of play with several different groups it soon became pretty obvious that Fighters did. Paladins, Rangers and Monks were all good – but the entry requirements kept them rare. Thieves helped with scouting and traps and taking out bosses with carefully set up backstabbing, but the main drive against the enemy was always the fighters.

And that was about right. In a very large proportion of legends, myths, and fantasy stories… wizards were either enemies or they were assistants to the heroic warriors who were the real stars. They had many interesting powers, and their spells might turn the tide at a dramatic moment, enable visits to strange locations of adventure, and trick overwhelming foes – but they were still secondary. Swords, bows, secondary weapons, and (sometimes) martial arts still did the main work.

But wait! Magic-Users had all those incredibly powerful spells! Almost as many as Wizards and Sorcerers do in 3.5 or Pathfinder!

Yes, they did. And they had segmented casting times at ten segments to the round and usually at least one segment per spell level. It was often more; looking back at my first edition books, many first level spells required three or four segments. Hold Person, at level two, required five segments – in a system where you determined initiative with opposing d6 rolls and any interruption ruined the spell. There were no “concentration” checks, saving throws were fixed numbers, spellcasters couldn’t evade attacks while casting, only got to know a limited number of spells, often couldn’t learn spells they wanted, some of them couldn’t use armor at all, and might take many days of rest and study (or prayer) to prepare all their spells.

Thus the Dungeon Masters Guide told us

Because spell casting will be so difficult, most magic-users and clerics will opt to use magical devices whenever possible in melee, if they are wise.

For that matter… it took a lot longer to go up in level. For example… killing an Orc was worth an average of 14.5 XP. Getting to level three as a Magic User required 4501 XP. That meant that your party of four needed to kill off 1242 orcs to reach level three through combat experience if no one died (if someone died the doubling experience point tables let a new character catch up very quickly, which was good because older edition characters died a lot). Even with experience for treasure… a party usually only gained 3-6 levels per year of play – 50-odd sessions.

So what would those spellcasting limitations look like if you imported them into a current d20 game? Well, at least in Eclipse, such “Old School” magic levels are blatantly Specialized and Corrupted for one-third cost (or possibly even double-specialized given the number and severity of limitations here).

Basic Spellcasting Limitations:

Casting Spells takes more time. If the base casting time is:

  • One Standard Action the spell requires three initiative counts per spell level including metamagic other than “Quicken”).
  • One Full Round the spell requires sixty initiative counts.
  • More Than One Round the spell requires ten times as long to cast.
  • A Free Action the spell requires one initiative count.
  • A Swift or Immediate Action the spell requires two initiative counts.
  • Scrolls require the normal casting time, and are subject to the same limitations as direct casting. Wands and Rods only require three counts to activate, while Staves require six. Unfortunately, the save DC for wands, rods, and staves is only 14.
  • If such an action would not be completed before “0”, the countdown continues into the next round.

There is no such thing as a concentration check. Any damage or distraction that would normally call for a concentration check causes your spell to fail automatically, and be lost.

Spellcasting does not invoke attacks of opportunity, but the spellcaster cannot apply Dodge or Dexterity bonuses to his or her AC while spellcasting without losing the spell.

You may only prepare spells after a period of uninterrupted rest or meditation.

  • 1’st and 2’nd level spells require four hours.
  • 3’rd and 4’th level spells require six hours.
  • 5’th and 6’th level spells require eight hours.
  • 7’th and 8’th level spells require ten hours.
  • 9’th level spells require twelve hours.

It takes fifteen minutes per level of the spell per spell to prepare a spell. Thus preparing a third-level spell requires forty-five minutes. If you then go on to prepare a fifth level spell, that’s an hour and fifteen minutes – for a total of two hours to prepare two spells.

You cannot spend more than eight hours preparing spells before you will need to rest again to prepare more.

There is no such thing as spontaneous spellcasting. All spells must be prepared.

The spell charts are not “spells per day”. The spell chars show the maximum number of spells a spellcaster may have prepared. A powerful spellcaster may need many days to prepare all of his or her spells.

This means that a spellcasters daily “spell budget” is basically sixteen to thirty-two levels of spells. At the low end that might be four first, three second, and two third level spells. It would take a seventh level magic user five hours to memorize his or her selection of 4/3/2/1 (twenty spell levels in total) spells after at least six hours of uninterrupted rest. A ninth level magic user with the capacity to store 4/4/3/2/1 spells needs eight hours of rest and eight and a quarter hours to prepare spells – and if he or she tried to cast them in a fight, a fair chunk of those would probably be disrupted and lost.

The DC of saving against a spell is fixed at 16. Yes, this means that high-level targets will almost always make their saving throws.

Counterspelling is possible, but usually pointless. If you have time to hold an action for a counterspell, why aren’t you tossing off a quick Magic Missile or something and stopping your opponent from casting a spell in the first place?

Additional Arcane Caster Limitations Include:

  • Arcane Casters may only learn (Int/2) spells of each level they can cast. Read Magic is automatically one of them. They normally begin with another three first level spells – one offensive, one defensive, and one utility, selected at random.
  • Arcane Casters must record the spells they gain access to along with the results of a roll of (1d20 + Spell Level). If that is under their current intelligence, they can comprehend the spell and may choose to add it to their spells known.
    • For an example, Tim the Intelligence 14 Magic User has gotten ahold of scrolls or spell formulas for Color Spray (19), Burning Hands (3), Glitterdust (15), Pyrotechnics (12), Fireball (9), and Fly (16). With a maximum spell list of seven spells of each level he can cast, he may opt to learn Burning Hands, Pyrotechnics, and Fireball. If he gets his Int up to 15 he could opt to learn Glitterdust, and at 16 he could opt to learn Fly. Sadly, Color Spray is likely to remain far out of reach at any level where it might be useful – unless Tim saves a first level slot and opts to research (say) Tim’s Scintillating Butterflies, which is a different spell with the same basic effect. Note that, if you successfully research a spell you still roll – but the maximum result is equal to your current intelligence.
  • Arcane Casters only automatically gain one spell formula from among those they could potentially cast each level (although they may seek out or buy more if the game master allows it or they capture a spellbook or something). They may check (and record) their spell comprehension for desired spells until they find one that they can currently comprehend to add to their spellbooks. They may add a spell that they cannot currently cast to their books if they so desire, but usually have no reason to do so.
    • For example, Tim has made level seven, and wants a fourth level spell – in his case he wants Wall of Fire. Unfortunately, the check results in a roll of 23 – far beyond his intelligence! He doesn’t pick that one. Dimension Door turns up a 15. That’s tempting – next level he’ll get his Int up to 15 and be able to use it – but why not choose it next level? Next up, his third choice of Lesser Globe Of Invulnerability comes up a “7” – and so Lesser Globe Of Invulnerability goes into his book and onto his list of learned spells.
  • Arcane Casters will find that any armor or shield that would normally produce a 5% or more chance of arcane spell failure causes automatic arcane spell failure.
  • As a note, spellbooks do NOT have plot immunity. They may be stolen, destroyed by area-effect spells and attacks, and so on. It is VERY WISE to use backup spell books and traveling spell books!

Additional Divine Caster Limitations Include:

  • Divine spellcasters may only pray for a limited list (Wis/2) of spells of each level they can cast. “Consecrate Holy Symbol” (L1) is always one of them.
  • Divine spellcasters may only select spells for their list that are appropriate to their god. For a quick example, Odin does not grant Sanctuary and Poseidon does not grant Flame Strike. If the game master has the time, and wishes to make the effort, gods may also offer access to unique spells related to their particular specialties.
  • Divine spellcasters gain spells beyond level three from spiritual servants of their god and gain spells of level seven or above directly from their god at the discretion of those entities. They may be denied spells, granted spells other than what they prayed for, be assigned missions or quests, or be asked to attone for misdeeds at the whim of those entities.
  • Divine spellcasters who change gods must prove themselves worthy followers of their new god with mighty oaths, quests, and deeds in the service of their new god. If they attempt to leave the service of their new god, those same oaths will utterly destroy them.
  • As a rule, Clerics will be asked to spend time preaching, to refuse missions that their god does not approve of and to undertake ones that he or she does approve of without further reward, to use weapons and armor only as approved of by their god, to build and maintain temples, and so on.

Spellcasters operating under those restrictions will be roughly back to where they were in first and second edition; they may have some useful noncombat effects that they may use for special circumstances and they will have a very limited range of combat spells and game-changing effects that they can cast once in a while during fights IF a bunch of other characters protect them while they do it. Their spells, however, often will not work against high-end opponents, who can be counted on to make their saving throws. Magic will become, once again, a very limited special resource, to be husbanded carefully and deployed with planning – or in extreme emergencies.

Of course, in Eclipse, all this reduces the cost of your magic levels to the point where you can easily afford to add some weapons skills, a better BAB, a few more hit points, and other bennies – resulting in the modern equivalent of an old-style multi-classed character without any major complications or sacrifices.

Looking at all this also helps explain why so many players made Elven Fighter/Magic-Users in first and second edition days despite the 7/11 level limitation. After all… level eleven was well past the point where you could prepare all your spells each day. Were you on a long adventure? You’d have just as many spells each day as a higher-level human mage. They’d be weaker spells (at least in some cases), but YOU could wear armor. Not only did you have a better chance of getting your spells cast because you were harder to hit, but you weren’t an obvious target like that unarmored guy. If you started from level one, a human magic-user wouldn’t really have much of a magical edge on you for nearly two hundred sessions. Even better, the high-end magical gear worked for you just as well as it did for a higher-level wizard – reducing the gap even more. I, personally, played a maxed-out elven fighter/magic-user for a couple of years in a game that went up past level eighteen (for the human wizard, characters with easier advancement tables had higher levels) and it worked just fine. I even got some better items than the higher-level mage because they were used more often, and so did more good for the party, in the hands of someone who didn’t have so many other high-level spell options. And best of all… you could reasonably play your fighter/magic-user through the fifty-odd lower-level sessions before adding a human wizard to the party became really viable.

Underlying The Rules Part VI: Discussion and Development

And for today it’s an answer to a question again…

So I’ve recently been reading Dave Arneson’s True Genius, and it’s really been making me think of Eclipse. The first essay in particular, regarding how Original D&D utilized a melding of open system and closed system designs to establish a new paradigm of game design (and play) that went beyond what either could accomplish alone – and how this was largely lost with the release of AD&D and its rejection of the open system principles therein in favor of standardization – is an excellent summary of why I love what Eclipse has done with regards to (as I see it) trying to reintroduce those principles back into Third Edition (at least somewhat) via the mutability of game rules (a la corruption and specialization for abilities, world templates, a stronger focus on modularity with what’s used and what’s not, etc.).

In that light, this article takes on a new dimension, as it honestly looks like KrackoThunder is trying to leverage the closed system principles of Third Edition (e.g. the immutability of the “implied setting,” the invariability of the rules, and their extrapolation with regard to “how things work”) to achieve the results that you’d get from an open system, wherein those things are defined as part of the act of creating the setting (or, at a slightly higher level, using the rules as ur-tools to effectively build a game – along with a setting – unto itself) and so more easily allow for that level of alteration with regards to players tinkering with what is and is not allowable within the scope of the game.

Of course, as you noted here, that doesn’t really work; it’s like trying to “rob the bank” in Monopoly. Of course, the same is true in reverse as well, which is why I roll my eyes whenever I see someone unironically utilizing Eclipse to make what you called an “atrocity build.”


Breakthroughs are often very simple insights; the genius lies in picking out something that no one else saw.

Test your hypothesis. Only survivors breed. “Particles” are waves. Motion is relative.

Those are the key insights that led the the scientific method, to the theory of evolution, to quantum mechanics, and to relativity in three words each. Each explained things – why philosophical theorizing rarely led directly to practical advances, why animals and illnesses were so well adapted to their environments, why electrons didn’t spiral into nuclei, how Maxwell’s equations could work when things were moving.

Exploring the consequences of those simple ideas is still underway – in some cases after many centuries.

Personally, I’ve always seen the stroke of genius fundamental to role-playing games as a bit of psychological insight; Adult “Let’s Pretend” needs rules. And while that phrasing does evoke safewords and agreed-on limits rather than RPG’s… that’s fair enough, since that’s where the notion appeared first – even if that’s arguably an independent line of development.

But when it comes to games and “let’s pretend”… Unlike kids adults won’t be happy with Robbie the Dinosaur, Spaceman Spiff, the Wicked Witch of the East, and Megatron.

  • Adults are competitive; they don’t like to be overshadowed – and so every role needs to be unique and important. They need some rules on creating tolerably “balanced” characters and some expectations on what kinds of characters are appropriate.
  • Adults have firm opinions. Since they won’t give in easily they need rules to resolve what happens when they don’t agree on an outcome.
  • Adults want “fair” rewards and consequences for their decisions. They need a rules system for that or they’ll always suspect bias.
  • Adults want details – a more complicated plot with surprise twists and turns. They need a game master.

All of that flows from “Adults need rules”. They aren’t going to be happy with the vague “everyone imagines their own thing” that little kids are. For them… it’s not much fun without acknowledgement by others and a certain level of participation. That’s why a player who’s sulking, or busy reading a book, or getting drunk instead of playing is such a downer in a group.

And the practitioners of this new hobby looked upon it, and it was pretty good – but, unlike the works of a divine creator, it was equally obvious that it could be BETTER.

But, the hobbyists being human, and each having their own personal inner description of the perfect game, they didn’t quite agree on what would improve it.

  • Inevitably there were a lot of things that the original, simple, pioneering, rules did not cover – and so there was pressure for more rules, more tables, and more systems. They had a point. When there were no clear rules on a topic disagreements soon broke out.
    • Of course, more rules complicated everything. The people who wanted to play casually didn’t like that.
  • There was the push for more coherent and simpler rules. They had a point. All those tables and different systems for resolving various tasks were complicated and messy to deal with.
    • Of course, that meant that a lot of factors that affected specific tasks didn’t get included. The simulationists didn’t like that.
  • There were players who wanted pure role-playing and who didn’t like being restrained by rules at all – and wanted more options if there had to be rules. They had a point. More options meant more interesting and distinctive characters.
    • Of course, that complicated the rules in proportion to the number of options added. The people running the games didn’t like that.
  • There were the wargamers, who wanted to just relabel tanks, infantry platoons, and artillery units as “Knights”, “Men At Arms”, and “Wizards” and so on. They had a point. They were experts at turning limited sets of rules interactions into exciting scenarios.
    • Of course, the people who wanted more “realistic:, normal-human-scale characters didn’t like that.
  • The competitive players wanted clear methods of “winning” and – since that really didn’t work in a social game – at least wanted a way to keep score, whether that was accumulated gold, experience, reaching “name” levels, or access to better toys.
    • Of course, the people who liked to try new characters all the time didn’t like that.
  • The world-builders wanted a coherent underlying description of the way things worked so that they could explore the worlds and social systems that would result from such things, instead of just presuming a vaguely-medieval world.
    • Of course, the people who wanted to search the rules for exploits that were being overruled in the name of “the way the setting works” didn’t like that.
  • The deep-immersion players wanted death to be the result of heroic sacrifice, or a dramatic climax, or something. Wounds, disabilities illnesses… what fun were they?
    • Of course, the people who liked really big weapons and “realistic” battles didn’t like that.

And so compromises were made. Gaming groups filled with house rules, each group worked under different assumptions, and gaming fragmented.

And there were many other, albeit mostly more specific, fault lines and opposing forces for each.

And the publishers looked upon their sales figures, and this was bad.

To try and fix things there was compromise on the writers and publishers side. It was weighted towards new rules of course, simply because the publishers needed to keep selling stuff – but for quite some time gestures could be made towards almost everyone’s priorities because early game systems weren’t very sophisticated.

And so.,,

  • There were more rules, but there were attempts to keep a lot of them unobtrusive, on the game masters side, optional, or limited to particular situations.
  • There were premade characters, and quick-generation options, and ways to try to get people playing as quickly as possible.
  • There were attempts to streamline and unify the mechanics with things like single-mechanic skill systems instead of a mess of specific formulas and tables.
  • Compiled lists of special modifiers were (not unreasonably) pushed over to the game master to just assign some modifiers.
  • Options were added.
  • Characters did get to be the equivalent of military units (and superheroes and possibly even gods) later on, but they started off weak.
  • All sorts of character milestones were set up.
  • Character advancement was greatly accelerated, and the gap between old and new characters was (sometimes, since this annoyed the people with old characters) reduced.
  • The rules attempted to imply dangerous combat, deadly wounds, and long-term consequences – but were rewritten to make actual consequences vanishingly rare.
  • Some coherent information on “the way things worked” was added – but it was always a side-bar thing since the marketing department wanted every customer to buy everything.
  • Exploits were plugged, but mostly in obscure errata that only the people who were really annoyed by the exploits bothered to find.

That didn’t all happen in every game of course. Some games – those designed after the first rush – started off with some of it in place. Champions / Hero System, for example, started off with a well-chosen bell-curve generic resolution system, lots of options, and military-unit characters, but is still struggling with complexity, a lack of character milestones, “the way things work”, and various exploits. Rifts – thanks to creator decisions – has never really updated much of anything past the first few “different from AD&D” reforms. Basic Dungeons and Dragons went the minimalist route – and soon ran into the nothing much left to publish” barrier.

Eclipse, of course, is a compromise just like everything else – and, not too surprisingly, leans towards my biases.

  • Complexity? I can easily deal with that. Bring on the complexity!
  • Casual play? Grab a pre-build (although I’ve put out a lot of those for various settings). I’m not giving up my options!
  • Coherence? Well, using d20 as a base took care of THAT. If anything it had gone too far – and thus my support for a 3d6 skill mechanic. Roll 3d6 instead of 1d20 sometimes seems reasonable enough to me.
  • Modifiers? I can think of thousands for everything. This is hopeless, so the game master will have to handle it.
  • Realistic characters? A bit at first – but I can be a realistic person every day. I want my larger-than-life impossible feats of heroism!
  • Disparity between old and new characters? Eclipse offers several ways to play with the power curve. For this… new characters can be made powerful, but very focused – becoming more versatile as their association with older characters drags them along to higher levels more rapidly fast enough to add new abilities as they finish exploring old ones.
  • Deadly combat? I tend to prefer role-playing, so defenses are fairly cheap and plentiful – if sometimes (such as Action Hero/Stunts) limited use to ensure that there’s some longer-term cost to losing.

Perhaps most importantly… Eclipse restricts itself to pure mechanics, with little to no “setting” material – but directly tells the game master to restrict, modify, or ban any options that do not fit into his or her setting. In Eclipse, “The way things work” explicitly overrides “but the rules say”.

Not surprisingly, Eclipse appeals most to those with similar biases – although there is a substantial secondary appeal of “everything you need to make an optimized or exotic character is in the basic book”.

When it comes to KrackoThunder, I could be wrong, but I suspect that he or she sees the games as fairly adversarial things in which the game master has arbitrary power and it’s up to the players to try to “win” by coming up with rules-combinations that trump various game master ploys (or, occasionally, each other). Thus the questions about making your minions absolutely loyal, making spells totally unbreakable, using Channeling (Conversion) to gain limitless use of Wish or Miracle, laying mega-powerfed curses, and so on.

Unfortunately, from that point of view, suggesting that the setting and the social requirements of the game override rules, exploits, and gambits like the classic “introducing gunpowder” routine amounts to arbitrarily declaring that the players are not allowed to win and that there is no point in playing.

Still, while a few games (and MMORPGs) are run that way, tabletop RPG’s were never really designed to be adversarial at all – and “winning” generally consists of having a good time, being creative, and winding up with good stories rather than dominating clashes of rules. To the best of my knowledge, only World Of Synnibar has attempted to put in a rule which says that if anyone can identify a spot where the game master failed to follow the rules exactly as written during a session then the entire session is null and void.

I hope that KrakoThunder and his or her friends are having a good time with their games – but given that all the stuff I write ultimately comes with the caveat “See how your game master thinks this works in the setting” I just don’t see how I can contribute. to an adversarial game. Writing a few books doesn’t give me magical powers of overriding local game masters.

Still, I hope this little retrospective has been interesting!