The Laws Of Magic Part VI – Magical Symbols

For those looking to read in order…

Which leaves Symbols.

Like the other laws of magic, Symbols are rooted deep in the human mind. Unlike most of the other “laws of magic” their “power” has some basis in reality, even beyond the fact that words are symbols and form the basis of culture and most abstract thought.

A wise master of symbols might be able to guide a tribe safely across a stretch of wildness where he or she had never been. They could hear the words of the dead. They could reveal the acts of the gods and the secrets of creation. They could erect great castles and mighty works of art. They could see into the past, gain insights into the future, and perform a thousand other mighty deeds, for the power of magical symbols was theirs.

Today that power is actually all too common. We’d call it Reading Trail-sign, or Reading a Book, or Studying Sacred Texts, or Basic Engineering, or Checking Records, or Architecture, or Naturalism / Recording Natural Cycles, or Mathematics, or Statistics, or by any of a thousand other names – but the power of manipulating symbols is undeniable.

Yet back in the ancient days, when the lore of symbols remained unknown to most… when a man or woman could examine a few bits of dried and marked-up hide carried from a distant city and – by some mysterious art – learn of what was going on there, or craft symbols that could be carried by pretty much anyone to summon forth an inquisitor or even the kingdom’s army… what else was an observer to do but call it magic? And it was magic that observably WORKED. It wasn’t subtle influences, it was POWER.

Are those symbols ancient, inherited from a prior civilization, mysterious, impressive-looking, or just really obscure? People tend to value things according to how difficult they were to acquire and how important they look – so all those things obviously make a given symbol more powerful. After all, Runes are basically just an alphabet – but they pop up in all kinds of movies, novels, and other works as having mysterious powers. Would it be anywhere near as interesting to you if they were talking about the letter “B”?

Even today, the notion that writing something gives it power has a deep grip on the human mind. How many times have you heard the phrase “It Is Written”? Simply seeing something in print tends to give it weight and credibility. Thus the original distinction between Slander and Libel. Because writing it down somehow made it worse.

Science fiction is not immune. It is filled with incomprehensible symbols that drive men mad, Basilisk Images that kill when beheld, semantic sciences that manipulate the mind, the arts of the Bene Gesserit, and more. Why is “a picture worth a thousand words”? It is because – for humans – what you HEAR means less than what you SEE. Things sneak, other humans lie, and sounds echo – but SEEING is BELIEVING.

Incantations? Symbols. Mystic Gestures? Symbols. Names? Symbols. Runes, Glyphs, Heiroglyphs, Sigils, Witch-Marks, Emblems, Magic Circles… even most Physical Props, such as Staves (emblems of authority) and Wands (pointing sticks) are all basically Symbols or combinations of Symbols. .

The thing about symbols is that the nonverbal ones tend to be semi-permanent. Magic Circles work until they’re broken. Placing runes on a sword will empower it until they are worn smooth. That giant cross will repel vampires so long as it stands. Everyone KNOWS that’s true. After all… that brand of Servitude well may last for the rest of a slaves life – and will still affect his or her life long after he or she goes free. Don’t we feel that engagement rings and gifts of chocolate and roses mean more than “here’s a simple bit of material goods”?

In the Laws Of Magic… Symbols are raw power, condensed, distilled, and bound. The (more or less interchangeable) symbol/emblem/name of a Power is one of it’s Correspondences. Thanks to basic Sympathy and Correspondence, it to some extent IS the Power, for the name is the thing. By the Doctrine Of Signatures, knowledge and study of it reveals some of the nature and potentials of that power. By Synchronicity when that power is involved in your life, you will see it everywhere. By Karma you draw it’s notice and concern as it draws yours – if you are willing to pay the price. By Personification it allows you to relate to that Power – and by Purification of other influences you may allow that Power to dominate parts of the world.

Even in modern productions – movies, anime, comics, and television programs… the symbols of magic are inlaid in jewelry, woven into cloth, tattooed on the skin, or simply flare into existence as the magic is invoked.

This “law of magic” generally doesn’t need a lot of work to get into a game. Your players will probably never question why powerful tomes of magic are written in strange symbols and ancient tongues, or why translations never work properly, or why mystic jewelry and blades are inscribed with exotic “runes of power”, or why summoning creatures calls for magic circles, or why casting spells often calls for complex gestures, or any of a thousand other details. Pretty much every potential player is fully aware that that is how magic “normally works” – and so the vast majority of games and gaming material adhere to those ideas as well.

If you want it to play a more prominent role in the game, however, there have to be limitations. Otherwise the party mage will simply start putting symbols on everything – and that will drown your setting in a sea of magic, just as it would make a mess out of Buffy The Vampire Slayer if everyone in Sunnydale wore half a dozen crosses and light body armor and carried super-soakers filled with holy water everywhere they went.

Given the permanent, or at least semi-permanent, nature of symbol magic, that can be tough to arrange – and you can’t make it ineffectual or no one will want to bother with Symbols in the first place, which defeats the point of trying to make them more prominent. So perhaps you’ll want to apply one or more of the following…

1) Symbols must be empowered again after a relatively brief period of use,, or be periodically purified, or lose their magic to daily wear-and-tear – and while there may be methods to extend their lifespans, or to maintain more of them, such methods are quite limited. Any given magus can support only a limited number of Symbols at a time.

2) Symbols clash with each other. Any given individual can only support a limited number, or perhaps one greater, one intermediate, and one lesser Symbol. Or must bond each symbol to one of their Chakra. Or whatever. Regardless of the exact reason, any given character can only use a few Symbols at a time.

3) Symbols are horribly expensive to craft, calling for rare ingredients and great skill. Characters will only be able to afford a few of them – although this has the unwelcome side effect of causing characters to hoard money and to try to break the game to get more.

4) Symbols must be supported by the will, prayers, or dedication of many people, or by powerful spirits, or whatever. A great city might thus be able to empower a dozen Symbols for it’s greatest champions. A village might support one Symbol for a local hero, Perhaps the Spirits of Light and / or the Righteous Dead can support a few to empower noble paladins and holy men – or perhaps true heroes are supported by the populace they protect while the villains must offer sacrifices to the powers of darkness to get those infernal entities to empower their Symbols.

5) Symbols are empowered in part by personal sacrifice. Perhaps mages are not naturally weak and frail, but supporting the devices they craft makes them so. Perhaps they must accept strange geasa, or give up their shadows, or yield points from their attributes. Whatever they give up… it is difficult or impossible to reclaim without destroying the Symbol.

6) Symbols are empowered by quests, legends, and mighty deeds. As you adventure and accomplish those deeds you will gradually earn the ability to use more Symbols.

7) Symbols draw on a limited pool of power, The more Symbols you bear, the less powerful each of them becomes.

There are other, if usually more complicated, methods of course – but various combinations of limits on based on Symbol creation, duration, number, power, cost, user accomplishments, user commitments, and various forms of expenses should cover most of them.

The Laws Of Magic Part V – Narrative and Naming

For those looking to read in order…

From behind them suddenly, closer than they imagined, they could hear the roar of Humperdinck: “Stop them! Cut them off!” They were, admittedly, startled, but there was no reason for worry: they were on the fastest horses in the kingdom, and the lead was already theirs.

However, this was before Inigo’s wound reopened; and Westley relapsed again; and Fezzik took the wrong turn; and Buttercup’s horse threw a shoe. And the night behind them was filled with the crescendoing sound of pursuit. . . .

-The Princess Bride

Destiny” has come up before, under Synchronicity, where it creates coincidences in accord with mysterious influences and the currents of fate. The tottering Empire which has set itself against the course of history WILL fall before one set of opponents or another. Sooner or later, the dikes or levees will fail and the floods WILL come. Eventually even the most fortunate gambler WILL lose. That’s “Destiny” of a sort – but it’s Actuarial Table Destiny. It will happen sooner or later – but any individual case may come up almost immediately or it may beat the odds for quite some time.

This isn’t that kind of Destiny. Magic sometimes uses the same word for wildly differing ideas – and what we’re talking about here is what might be more properly called Narrative Destiny. It’s not the sum of probabilities and influences on the world; it’s the force which says that the magic ponies WILL defeat the monster of the week because that is how the story goes.

Reality doesn’t have neat beginnings and endings. People rarely really get what they deserve, the causes of events go back perpetually and the consequences go on and on. People spin cages of words to turn what are basically-chaotic series of events into stories; but – in reality – stories don’t exist “in the wild”. They’re just a way for people to organize their perceptions, experiences, and acquired information. Two people can look at the same events and describe them vastly differently, right down to drawing entirely different conclusions from them.

In magic, however, Narrative Destiny is a major force. It’s the power that turns a mixture of randomness, influences, mistakes, and the accumulative effects of hundreds of people and factions pursuing their own goals in a mixture of erroneous and calculated ways, into a grand sweep of history – a coherent narrative with conventions that have the force of natural laws. And while magic can bend those rules, just as it can let you fly in despite of gravity… there is always a price to twisting the course of events away from their well-worn channel. Thus Narrative Destiny leads some people through near-inevitable sequences of events while others subvert its dictates, achieving goals that should have been utterly impossible in despite of the vast forces arrayed against them.

Narrative Destiny runs on cliches, tropes, and proverbs. It’s what enforces the conventions of stories. It’s the source of all those examples you find on TVTropes – and it’s another “force” that sneaks into almost every game pretty much unnoticed simply because most game masters try to have a bit more background and depth to things beyond “A bunch of people got together and started killing things and smashing stuff. They got away with this because they mostly did it out in the anarchic areas until they were so good at it as to be mostly unstoppable. Eventually they got bored because they’d smashed pretty much everything they thought needed smashing. Then we started a new campaign”. Game settings are filled with narrative conventions because they’re products of human minds – and that’s one of the major ways in which human minds organize their worldviews.

In RPG’s the prevalence of this form of magic marks a major division between game styles.

  1. A lot of games take a “realistic” approach; if you want to stick a knife into someone, and you can hide your intentions, sneak up on them, and stab them in the back, you’re more likely to succeed. That’s pragmatic, sensible, and – by most standards – pretty reasonable (if perhaps a little dull). Still, there is something to be said for scheming and trying to cleverly take advantage of every opportunity. It’s not all that exciting, but it can be very satisfying if you don’t mind the players constantly looking for ways to boost their odds instead of getting on with things.
  2. Other games may give you a small bonus for adding a bit more description and/or a small penalty for being boring. So you note the faint breeze which flutters the curtains, the anger which drives the attack, and the moment of focus as the attacker strikes – making the story inherent to the game and letting it influence the setting. Now it’s annoying when people get inconsistent about adding details, but as long as there’s some self-restraint amongst the players, this approach can add a lot of details and atmosphere if you don’t mind having to do a lot of on-the-fly adaption.
  3. In a few, announcing that you’re going to run at your target screaming your battle cry, vault over their head off a convenient rock, somersault in the air, stab them in the back to reverse your spin, and land on your feet will get you a bonus rather than reducing your chance of success. That’s dramatic, and stylish – if not genuinely exciting since there’s no actual gamble involved – but it really annoys the players who have a practical streak and are trying to be clever unless there’s some serious cost involved in bending the world to your will that way.

In terms of Narrative Destiny… the first option mostly ignores it just as the real world does. The fact that you’re a handsome prince trying to rescue your true love has little or nothing to do with your success of failure. That’s up to your skills, abilities, decisions, and chance. The second lets the world bend a bit to accommodate your narrative, but strictly caps how far it can go; you can bend the primary story to incorporate your personal one, but only so far. For the third option, there are few limits: the world bends to drama more than it does to mere physics and the “story” is likely to be whatever the characters say it is.

Honestly, there is no simple way of satisfying everyone here. Most game systems tend towards one of those three options – in part because option one is easiest to write rules for, option two tends to be a bit informal, usually operates on the social level, and is generally seen as “metagamey” (it does work well in rules-lite systems though), and option three really annoys the players who aren’t good at verbal dramatics and want firm rules to work with. Trying to write rules that can accommodate all three styles is possible – it’s the approach I took in Eclipse and there are various articles up about how to build characters who can influence the narrative and/or pull off insane stunts at the cost of not having those character points to spend on other things – but accommodating all those options requires either a really loose system (annoying one set of players) or a very complicated rules system (causing a lot of players to opt for games that aren’t so much work to make characters for).

Personally, I usually go for the complicated rules – even if that means I have to help a lot of the players make their characters – and option two. Letting the players add some details works just fine for me.

The simplest way to add this law of magic to a game more actively (without going entirely overboard) is to give characters some bonuses for citing and adhering to an appropriate literary trope. If the character is cluelessly noble and pure at heart, perhaps it does give them strength. An oath really does let someone surpass normal limits to fulfill it. True Love will cure anything. A blow stricken in vengeance is far more grievous than an apparently-identical blow stuck in doubt. That’s what the Fate Point rules in Runecards were about.

Naming is closely related to Narrative Destiny. After all… that random sword is just a sword, and could be replaced by any of thousands of very similar swords without changing anything much at all. Sure, there may be hundreds of trivial variations, but your game of choices equipment list and mechanics generally do not care about the makers mark, or the pattern of the steel, or whether or not the blade has an engraving of a creature on it, or the color of the pommel. A “short sword” is pretty much a “short sword” – unless, perhaps, a full-blown system of correspondences is in use. But even if one is, those correspondences will still be just a handful of discriptives hung on the basic “short sword” chasse.

Now “Sting” may have been pretty much a short sword or combat knife at base – but it was an elven-blade forged by a Noldor master-smith before the fall of Gondolin. It penetrated the skin of trolls, cut webs easily, and glowed in the presence of certain monsters. It may not have been all that powerful a magical blade – but it became a singular part of it’s bearer’s legend when it was NAMED.

In magic, names have POWER. A things name is a link to it, a way to draw on it’s power and authority. Have you ever heard the phrase “Stop in the name of the Law!”? What is it that makes that a phrase of power and authority? It’s personifying the “Law!” as an abstract entity of power that lends it’s authority to those who invoke it. “Halt! Police!” just isn’t quite the same somehow.

To give something a name… is to make it unique, to give it importance in the great tapestry of the universe, and so to give it power. As named items are woven into tales and become parts of great events, their power grows. A magician may inscribe a blade with potent runes, it may absorb a part of the power of a mighty foe as it is plunged into their heart, it may be blessed by the queen of the fey… but to some extent they are only giving expression to the power of the deeds that it has participated in.

Names grow. That sword may have started out a casual name such as “Taurin’s Sword” – but if Tuarin becomes a hero, it will soon be “The Blade Of Taurin”. Not too long after that, it might become the “Bane Of Ugarth” (a great troll that it was used to kill). Perhaps one day after that… it will be Straithbeor (“Demon Slayer”, the sword Taurin used to slay many demons during the overthrow of a dark empire), the Bane Of Ugarth, Blade Of The Mighty Taurin, King Of Umbria”. If it gets lost, it might be found again – and once it’s new owner learns it’s history, and shows himself or herself worthy, he or she can draw upon it’s power. If it is broken… reforging it will require a mighty quest, a great deed, or mighty magical ingredients – but once it is done, it will add “The Sword That Was Broken” to it’s name and the reforging will become simply another power-granting component of the weapons ever-growing legend. That’s why the Legendarium skill was written to work that way and why most of the sample Relics in Eclipse II have their own unique histories.

Games vary on this a lot. A very few – Earthdawn, some Arthurian games, and a few more – treat naming as a very big deal indeed. Most others really don’t pay much attention to it. The problem is that named items require their own legends and are generally unique and individual – which means that the game either has to have a specific setting and mountains of source material or the poor game master is going to have to put in an incredible amount of work creating treasures for both the PC’s AND the NPC’s. Thus most games have a list of generic equipment and items that can be readily traded around. Many even have random treasure tables. They may also have a list of unique and powerful artifacts, but it’s up to the game master whether or not to bring such a thing into play and to work it into the plot if he or she does.

Given that inherent problem… This one pretty much has to stay optional. You can set up a subsystem to handle it for those players who want to experiment with it and add some flavor to things (like Create Relic in Eclipse and the Sample Relics in Eclipse II or the aforementioned Legendarium skill), and introduce the occasional unique artifact / plot element – but unless you run a game where magical devices are simply terribly rare, precious, and almost impossible to create, you won’t have time to customize everything.

Laws Of Magic Part IV – Purification and Personification

For those looking to read in order…

And now for Part IV – Purification and Animism / Personification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laws Of Magic Part III – Karma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to get back to that…

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

Perhaps the simplest expression is everything has a price.

Most games both embrace and utterly reject this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eclipse d20 – Standard And Nonstandard Attributes

Today’s question is kind of complicated – and leads us through a bit of “game design through the ages”. So once again, we will have some retrospective going on here with a question inspired by one of the Terminator articles.

The notation of the basic machine solder robot purchasing its ability scores with a point-buy value and then adding in “racial” adjustments got me thinking…

While robots are expected to all have identical ability scores, this is the case for all “monsters” as well. All winter wolves, for example, are going to have Str 20, Dex 13, Con 18, Int 9, Wis 13, Cha 10, unless one is a special case (i.e. has a template, advanced natural Hit Dice, etc.).

Now, that’s a bit of a sop towards ease of game-play; for monsters that are “on-screen” long enough for the PCs to slaughter them, using a standardized array of ability scores is fine. But this still presents an interesting idea; notwithstanding any discretionary ability points that they receive for every 4th Hit Die, as well as size adjustments, these creatures all have standard ability scores of 10 or 11, with the remaining adjustments all being racial in nature.

So for example, if we subtract the discretionary ability point for their 4th Hit Die from, say, Dexterity, and reverse the adjustments from being Large-sized, that means that winter wolves have base ability scores of Str 10, Dex 10, Con 10, Int 11, Wis 11, Cha 10 (using Pathfinder as the standard), with racial adjustments of Str +2, Dex +4, Con +4, Int -2, Wis +2, Cha +0. More notably, this has them buying up their base ability scores with only 2 points…raising their Intelligence and Wisdom each from 10 to 11 before any other adjustments are applied.

Now, those initial points (and the presumed racial adjustments) can be toggled slightly depending on where you presume that discretionary ability point went in their final array of ability scores, but the overall point remains. Winter wolves, like most monsters (and monstrous NPCs that aren’t built using PC-standard races) don’t use much of a point buy. In fact, even the basic NPC ability score array of 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8 comes to an overall value of 3 points…one more than the winter wolves in the above paragraph received!

My question, in this case, is what would it cost under the Eclipse rules (if anything) to allow for such monsters to buy up their basic ability scores similar to how PCs do, before applying racial ability modifiers and discretionary ability points from every 4th Hit Die? For NPCs that might not matter too much (since they’re still on-screen for the purpose of being killed), save for a possible CR adjustment, but what if I had one as a companion creature? If I’ve taken Leadership with the Beast-lord modifier, and I want a winter wolf as one of my followers, what sort of ability would it cost to allow them to buy up their basic ability scores with a 25-point buy, for example, to buy ability scores of Str 14, Dex 14, Con 14, Int 13, Wis 14, Cha 12.

After adding back in the modifiers for being Large-size (Str +8, Dex -2, Con +4), the racial modifiers (Str +2, Dex +4, Con +4, Int -2, Wis +2, Cha +0), and putting the discretionary ability point into Intelligence, that would give a final ability score array of Str 24, Dex 16, Con 22, Int 12, Wis 16, Cha 12. That’s better than your average winter wolf, but not quite as good as putting the advanced creature simple template on them, which is only +1 CR. What would it cost for them to buy the ability to have their ability scores constructed this way in Eclipse? Presumably some sort of Immunity (where the amount of resistance purchased allowed for higher point-buy expenditures in purchasing base ability scores)? Or would it be something else instead?

-Alzrius

Well, the general assumption there is that things that are basically constructs – Robots, Golems, Skeletons, and so on – actually are fairly standardized in roughly the same way that ball-point pens are standardized; the design is about as good and cheap as it’s going to get. There are special upgrades that can be applied (and possibly shortfalls that can be accepted), but a basically fixed cost gets you basically fixed results.

Actual in-setting living creatures – at least in theory – should show the usual bell-curve variations for their type. However, since the games attribute scale is set up to represent creatures on the human scale, a lot of this variation is lost. Sure, the worlds strongest wren may be several times as mighty as the weakest – but the rules, quite sensibly, cram all that variation down into “strength one”, simply because it makes no difference at all in play whether the a given wren can lift .3 or 1.5 ounces, just as it doesn’t actually matter how many swallows it might take to carry a coconut to England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Similarly, there are doubtless stronger and weaker Tyrannosaurs, but that’s arbitrarily adjusted by the game master to suit his or her objectives, not according to their bio-mechanics – and it’s not like it’s going to matter much; no more-or-less human being is going to win against one in a biting or eating contest – which is pretty much a Tyrannosaurs sole role in the game. Given the rate of character turnover in earlier systems it wasn’t like good or bad attributes were a particularly long-term thing anyway.

So looking at the general population of playable character types, they (explicitly so in earlier editions) are generally presumed to take up tasks they’re suited for. Big strong types do things which call for strength, while frail, weak, but dexterous people do tasks that call for dexterity but not a lot of strength or endurance, and so on. Such were the results of rules that basically assumed a naturalistic world and a 3D6 roll for each attribute. Did you roll terribly? There was a rule allowing the discarding of characters (presumably to a career as a village idiot) if they failed to qualify for any character class – but the only real assumption what that completely hopeless types simply did not go adventuring or, if they did, they generally died so quickly that they weren’t worth worrying about.

In early editions, given regular character turnover… parties might well try to recruit that strong-and-healthy young farmer to be their next fighter, or that dexterous street kid to be their new thief. They would chip in to equip them, shelter them until they caught up a bit, and add them to their adventuring company. Individual adventurers weren’t all that important. The company WAS, and characters had a good reason for loyalty to it – it was their family, it had taken them in, and trained, them, and equipped them. Sometimes it had raised them. Henchmen were valuable, people with potential (apparent high attributes or useful skills) were well worth cultivating, and associates often turned into new PC’s. “Ascended Extras” was pretty much the normal order of things. Your party was high enough level to be able to afford a Wizard? You looked around at sages, and apprentices near graduation, and orphaned kids of mages who knew a few cantrips and had potential, dumped a bag of wizard-style goodies that no one else had any use for on them, and shepherded them through a few sessions until their level (thanks to the doubling experience point costs) started catching up with everyone else. Sure, that might just be backstory for a new character – but that kind of thing was usually worth something in-game.

The current problem, of course, arises from the fact that characteristics for adventurers are now generated using special systems (whether point or dice based) that place them far ahead of the general population (who are stuck with generic attribute arrays that say “everyone is pretty much average in everything”) – making “good attributes” a special power that you get because you’re an adventurer or selected-by-destiny “important NPC”, and adventurers and important NPC’s are cool. That’s… pretty weird when you think about what it says about the population demographics. How early can you detect this incredible special power? Are young adventurers sought after and picked up by temples, and governments, and other special-interest groups to be raised and trained to suit their own purposes? At least it would explain why so many of them have no families or other backgrounds to worry about and where they got all that specialized training.

Is there a lower level of this amazing power? After all, if the player characters and most important NPC’s are built using (say…) Pathfinder 25-Point Buy, are functionaries, henchmen, and companions built using 15 Points? Do they take special “sidekick courses”?

Perhaps it’s Nymic Magic? When your name comes to the attention of the Narrative Gods, you suddenly get improved attributes and go from “faceless extra” to “individualized NPC”? That says weird things about the setting, but it is fairly consistent with how the game is usually played.

Now, according to the 3.5 SRD under “Monsters As Races”…

Ability Scores for Monster PCs

While a monsters statistics give the ability scores for a typical creature of a certain kind, any “monster” creature that becomes an adventurer is definitely not typical. Therefore, when creating a PC from a creature, check to see if the creature’s entry has any ability scores of 10 or higher. If so, for each score, subtract 10 (if the score is even) or 11 (if the score is odd) to get the creature’s modifier for that ability based on its race or kind. Generate the character’s ability scores as normal, then add the racial ability modifiers to get their ability scores.

Note: Some monsters have base ability scores other than 10 and 11. If alternate scores were used this will be indicated in the monster entry. Also, some monsters that make good PCs have their racial ability modifiers and other traits already listed in their monster entry.

For ability scores lower than 10, the procedure is different. First, determine the character’s ability scores, and compare that number to the monster’s average ability score, using either the table below that applies to Intelligence or the table that applies to the other five ability scores.

The separate table for Intelligence ensures that no PC ends up with an Intelligence score lower than 3. This is important, because creatures with an Intelligence score lower than 3 are not playable characters. Creatures with any ability score lower than 1 are also not playable.

Which nicely covers monster player characters. It doesn’t say anything at all about NPC’s and Companions though.

Pathfinder has a section on generating NPC’s, including ability scores. It gives “Heroic NPC’s” an array of 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, and 15 – equating to a standard 15-point buy. “Basic NPC’s” get scores of 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13 at a cost of 3 points – far inferior to almost any player character. Of course, the scores of basic NPC’s basically never matter anyway.

This, of course, means that the heroic NPC array is BETTER than what a low fantasy PC can buy, equal to what a standard fantasy character gets, lags a high fantasy PC (20 points) somewhat and lags an epic fantasy character (25 points) quite a bit. There’s no provision for adjusting things for other various methods of generating PC attributes, but it looks like the intent is that “heroic” NPC’s (basically anyone important) use the same system as player-characters since Pathfinder tends to push the point-buy attribute system.

Eclipse, of course, tends to assume that everyone and everything is following the same rules – (although I, personally, have an old-school fondness for rolled attributes). Sadly, this does lead to a bit of a clash with the demographic assumption that “10-11 is average” when it comes to ability scores since most generation methods give a higher average than that – thus setting most games in Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”.

You can fix this – for example, if you are giving your players 20 points to buy attributes with using the Pathfinder system you can say that “NPC’s roll 1d6: 1) -20 Points, 2) -15 Points, 3) -10 Points, 4) 10 Points, 5) 15 Points, and 6) 20 points. Thus a (-20) point NPC might have 7/7/7/7/8/8 for his or her attributes. You now have average attributes much closer to 10 (not quite since the attribute point costs are nonlinear) in the population and are simply assuming that only the people with good attributes make it to first level in “adventuring” classes – and that experts and such normally don’t go adventuring. That’s basically a modern version of the “discard characters with terrible attributes” rule , but there’s nothing wrong with that. The actual population will skew a bit towards higher attributes (just as the classical average was actually 10.5) simply because early mortality will be a bit higher in the low-attribute groups, but that (and the bias due to the asymmetrical attribute point costs) doesn’t really matter much.

So as for the actual question part…

“What would it cost in Eclipse to allow followers, henchmen, companions, et al, to generate their attributes as player characters do?”

The quick answer is “nothing”, since that’s the baseline assumption of most editions – if only because, much of the time, it doesn’t matter and no one cares.

The long answer, is – since attribute generation varies from game to game in the first place and may or may not vary between PC’s and NPC’s – that there’s no good way to price it effectively except by finding a way to Specialize or Corrupt your Companion or Leadership ability for Increased Effect (your companion or allies get higher base attributes) or by simply building it from scratch.

Personally, I’d go with “Must spend a lot of time and effort locating and recruiting Companions or Followers with PC-level attributes to get them”. So rather than accepting just any schlub who happens by, you’re picky and wind up with higher quality.

To just buy it directly… a Feat is obviously not enough if there is a substantial difference (and why couldn’t PC’s take it to raise their attribute point allotment?), and the +1 CR “Advanced” template (+4 to each attribute) really doesn’t work. After all, if +1 CR is a fair valuation, and +1 CR equates to +1 effective level (debatable, since Pathfinder doesn’t have those…), and we are allowed to stack templates., would – say – a 10’th level fighter with +20 to each attribute be better than a standard 15’th level fighter? After all, +10 to Attacks and Damage, +10 AC, +10 on Saves, +10 HP/Level, +10 SP/Level, +10 to all Skills… those are some very nice bonuses.

How about a 20’th level Wizard with +40 to each attribute versus a 30’th level Wizard? That throws in a huge pile of extra spells as well as doubling up on all those benefits. It would be rough at low levels – but you can’t generate such a character at a low level anyway.

Ergo, your second best approach in Eclipse is just to brute-force it. Throw on some attribute boosts in a template to get the attributes to where you want them and pay for adding the template to cover whatever it costs.

And I hope that helps!

Eclipse, D20, And Hereditary Templates

And for today it’s another question – in this case referring back to the Epic Survival Stunt of “Dynastic Founder” (Level 18, DC 82: All of your descendants for three generations will inherit a +2 ECL Template of your choice. The effect will start to fade thereafter unless they use magic to choose matches who will maintain the bloodline, but occasional throwbacks will occur for many centuries to come) – along with Channeling / Planar Bonds Path / Inner Light/Darkness / Legacy and Dominion / The Way of Valor / Epic Heroism, (both in Eclipse) and the Legacy spell (Paths of Power), among others which do things to your descendants.

That makes me wonder what exactly makes a template inheritable… Ordinary races are obviously inheritable, but I’m unsure if pseudo-races like the ‘action hero’ or ‘storm lord’ templates are.

As an expansion on that, the ‘Dynastic Founder’ ability seems to do nothing unless you have a lot of kids, assuming there isn’t any special interaction with the child rearing psuedo-leadership ability, since you could simply assign your children a +2 ECL template and say that it’s an inherited mystical trait that you picked up, possibly making it inheritable, and making so there is no difference in the first generation.

A few of those spells I check in the basic ‘paths of power’ document using control-f, and I wasn’t able to find them.

-Jirachi

Well, quickest note first, the spells referenced can be found in the rest of the Paths Of Power sequence – either Monstrous Paths or The Complete Paths Of Power (print). As for the rest…

The inheritability of Templates is a bit tricky, if only because “having kids” is not normally a major consideration in d20 games – and thus neither WOTC nor Paizo have ever really covered it very well.

  • In 3.0 (Savage Species) there was a rule for inheritable templates – half-elementals and such – that was pretty simple. It stated that such templates were passed on undiminished. You could have any number of “half-whatever” templates stacked onto your character, limited only by what the game master said the ECL of the characters was going to be.

Of course, that led to obvious absurdities. Dragons breed with any living, corporeal, creature. Go back a mere six hundred years, and your family tree (at least presuming that you are of Northern European descent or have ancestors from anywhere along the silk road) will include pretty much everyone in Europe who had kids. Is your setting a few thousand years old? Then under this rule, everyone in your world will have the half-dragon template ten times (because each primary type of dragon is an independent template) as well as pretty much every other remotely compatible half-(whatever) template out there.

This pretty obviously doesn’t work, however convenient it was for character-optimizers who wanted to stack six different templates so as to construct an all-powerful (and generally quite unplayable) character

  • The 3.5 SRD updated that with a single line: “A templated creature can represent a freak of nature, the individual creation of a single experiment, or the first generation of offspring from parents of different species. (Note that d20’s use of the word “species” obviously has nothing to do with biology: in biology, creatures of two different species normally cannot interbreed).

“First generation”. That’s actually extremely restrictive. If a Dragon and a Demon had a kid, you could create a dragon with a half-fiend template (or possibly a fiend with a half-dragon template if the game master thought that there was such a thing as a young fiend), but if the dragon with a half-fiend template had kids… they were standard dragons or half-dragons of the other parents type. You could give them a Fiendish Bloodline (bloodlines were introduced later and were never more than semi-official to begin with) if you wished – but that was it.

Acquired templates (with the exception of disease templates) were never inherited – although, if they changed a characters “Species” (say to “Vampire”), a kid might get a half-vampire inherited template.

A lot of game masters didn’t bother enforcing that – but it does seem to be what the rules say.

There are some other “Inherited” templates though, so we’ll need to look at those too. Looking through a handy 3.5 Template Index…

  1. Denizen and Inherited “Underground Creature” Templates are a quick way to represent plane- or location- specific species that are otherwise broadly similar to standard creatures. You don’t really stack or acquire them, it’s just that Fire Spiders, Fire Dogs, and Fire Lions are made of fire and all share some obvious characteristics – and that creating a “Template” is a lot shorter than writing a modified block for every monster.
  2. Lycanthropy is its own unique case, in that it’s always an acquired template – but it can infect a child before birth, and they’ll be better adjusted to it. It only affects Humanoids and Giants though, so if you throw in a template that changes that it presumably ceases to apply. In any case, this falls under the “specific exceptions in individual descriptions” rule.
  3. Spellwarped (MMIII) is inherited – but it’s another “artificial species” template – rather like the (semi-official) Environmental Racial Variants from Unearthed Arcana. It, notably, can be added to any corporeal aberration, animal, dragon, fey, giant, humanoid, magical beast, monstrous humanoid, plant, or vermin – leaving out the most common player character races. I’d guess that the children of two spellwarped creatures are also spellwarped, but the template doesn’t actually say. Given that it automatically drives the character insane about all we can say is that it’s a very poor choice for a player character.
  4. There are some “special breeding” templates for animals, but they really don’t seem relevant.

So that’s where it stands in 3.5: half-(whatever) templates are acquired from having two dissimilar parents and you get acquired templates from special events, but (with the sole apparent applicable exception being Lycanthropy), templates are not passed on to grandchildren. You could be born a half-something lycanthrope, but that’s about it. Of course, you may then acquire as many templates as you can manage, but now we’re in “talk with the game master” territory.

  • Pathfinder, of course, “discarded” the widely disliked ECL system – but never has worked out a good way to deal with player characters with templates or playing with a mixed party of monsters and normal player-character races. Thus Pathfinder Society simply disallows it, while the official “rules” say to treat CR as character level (fudging as needed since they admit that this is a spot where the rules are unreliable), and let them gain extra levels equal to 1/2 their CR on the way to level twenty since Challenge Rating doesn’t scale well – which is just a backdoor way of shoving both ECL (since CR is not necessarily based on the number of hit dice) and ECL buyoff / reduction back into the game without actually saying so. Thus Pathfinder’s solution to player characters with templates is basically “just say no”. Given that this does not actually answer the question of “how to handle them”, we’re pretty much stuck with the 3.5 version.

So, since Pathfinder never updated that rule, the general rule is that Inherited Templates (with the major exception of lycanthropy) only occur when the two parents are different “species” (A and B) and always come in the form of a “half-(A) template applied to base species (B). (I usually go with the mother determining the base species, but that’s just me).

  • Eclipse, of course, just lets you buy powers – with the only real change between a “level” and a “template level” being that the template level provides 32 CP instead of 24, but doesn’t include a free (d4 hit die + Con Mod) hit points or (Int Mod) skill points. It also lets you build up “species” abilities, so it doesn’t normally have a problem with ECL’s, ECL buyoff / reduction, playing characters with templates, or acquiring templates. Do you want to play a Half-Celestial at level one? Just start buying the powers and you’re a half-celestial, even if you haven’t fully developed your abilities as one yet. Since Eclipse generally doesn’t need to make a distinction, the point is usually moot.

The fun part of the various dynastic spells and effects is that they make a certain amount of power inheritable. In some cases you can simply grant your kids a template whether or not you have it (Dominion makes this possible), in others your kids and their descendants can get a certain amount of free power for generations to come. It doesn’t, however, cost any of the kids character points. Your descendants become an important and powerful people family because you have granted them importance and power right from early childhood.

I suppose you could thereby make a backstory claiming that your character is one of the one-in-ten-million kids who got a free template from their grandfather the mighty mage or something – but that’s no more or less valid than a character who wants to inherit 50,000 GP worth of magic items and a pet dragon because of his or her backstory. The game master may allow it, but if so he or she is probably going to be giving everyone some astounding freebie and the Template is just the one you happened to get.

And I hope that helps!

Debatable Evils – Negative Energy And Undeath

And for today it’s another question!

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

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

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

-Alzrius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is that?

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

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

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

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

Well, looking at the lists…

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

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

So to justify this in game terms…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for another reader response and answer…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Spellweaver81

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I hope that helps!