Skill Stunts and Epic Skill Stunts XIV – Perception Skills

This one took ages for some reason, but here it finally is. Given that the various entries in this series so far are kind of scattered, here’s a complete list:

Perception Skills – Listen, Perception, Search, Sense Motive, Spot, Scent, Touch, and so on – are another primordial group. While there’s room for semantic debate as to whether or not that amoeba flowing towards a greater concentration of food molecules is “really” sensing it’s environment or whether some level of analysis is required to qualify to use the word “sensing” instead of “tropism”, you don’t have to move up the complexity scale very much to hit creatures that definitely do perceive things, even if it’s only a basic stimulus-response reaction. .

On the other hand, perception skills are tricky to define stunts for because – for the most part – perception skills simply make you more likely to notice available information. After all, despite all the “new age” attempts to turn quantum mechanics into mysticism, nothing playable operates on a scale small enough for the observer effect to really mean much of anything. Realistic perception skills literally operate entirely inside your head.

Oh well. Whoever said that d20 was “realistic” by non-magical standards?

Sample Stunts For Perception Skills:

  • DC 10 (normally no stunt required):
    • The basic uses of Perception skills are pretty well covered in the rules already. They are, after all, one of the most used sets of skills in the game.
  • DC 15 (May or may not require a stunt):
    • Magic Detection: Even warriors channel magic to make themselves tougher than any mortal has a right to be. Given a minute of meditation and a reasonable skill check, almost any experienced adventurer can detect the presence of magic.
    • Observe Style: By taking one or more rounds to observe an opponents fighting style, you may observe how to take advantage of their habits, blind spots, and weaknesses, gaining a pool of up to Skill Check/5 “points”. If you fight said opponent within the next twenty-four hours, you may spend points from that pool to reduce the penalties for Called Shots against that opponent by 5 per point spent (to a minimum of zero).
    • Rapid Recovery: You may throw off the effects of a sensory attack must faster than normal, reducing the duration of an effect that rendered you temporarily blind, deaf, numb, or similar by 3d6 rounds.
  • DC 20:
    • Find Weakness: You may select a target. For the next twenty-four hours you may ignore any Damage Reduction they may possess.
    • Instant Perception: You gain information equivalent to ten minutes worth of carefully scanning an area, listening to ambient sounds, savoring tastes, smelling an area, or feeling for irregularities in a single round.
    • The Subtle Flaw: You may determine whether or not something is an illusion, bypassing any need to save. At DC 35 this extends to anything you turn the affected sense on for up to one minute per level.
  • DC 25:
    • Combat Awareness: The sound of a blade cutting through the air, the pressure wave of it darting towards you, the glint of it in the corner of your eye… Your preternatural awareness of the world about you lets you more readily evade attacks. Gain a +2 (+3 at DC 40, +4 at DC 60, +5 at DC 75, and +6 at DC 100) to your AC and Reflex Saves for the next (Skill Check) rounds as an immediate action.
    • Detect Scrying: For the next twenty-four hours you will automatically become aware of anyone who is remotely spying upon you.
    • Suspected Presence: The character may note the presence of creatures that are normally immune to detection by the sense in use. At DC 50 he or she may pinpoint their location, attacking and/or using other powers without penalty. This is normally good for the duration of the fight.
  • DC 30:
    • Selective Perception: You may decide that you simply don’t perceive something. This can render you immune to gaze weapons, many hypnotic powers, particular illusions, and various sensory attacks. The user might thus resist being Nauseated by a Stinking Cloud, or ignore a Color Spray.
    • Subconscious Awareness: You may activate this ability before going to sleep, so that, rather than suffering a penalty to your perceptions for being asleep, you gain a +10 competence bonus. If the results of such a check call for wakefulness, the user becomes fully alert whenever the player chooses that they do.
    • Trap Spotting: For the next twenty-four hours you not only gain the equivalent of a Find Traps spell effect, but get an automatic roll to detect any trap a few moments before you would trigger it, regardless of whether or not you are currently checking for them.
  • DC 35:
    • Detect Thoughts: You may hear subvocal mutters, see and read muscle tensions, feel changes in a targets heartbeat, and smell changes in their scent. You may read the surface thoughts of any target within thirty feet, may determine their alignment given a minute of observation, and will always know if they are consciously lying or are attempting to manipulate you or anyone else. You will always understand anything they are trying to communicate, whether to you or to someone else. The effect lasts for (Skill Check) rounds and you may take a round to change targets while it lasts.
    • Greater Illusion: Your keen senses make you aware of the flaws in any illusion you may cast, obviating them. Thanks to this incredible realism, your illusions can inflict nonlethal damage, but only up to the point of unconsciousness. Also, a successful save provides complete protection – and even without disbelief the damage is determined by comparison to a similar spell effect of equal or lesser level to the illusion used (and may allow saves for reduced effect if that spell does), and the damage is limited by the targets expectations and experience – so instant effects are rarely very useful and no effects will work on mindless targets or objects.
    • Social Awareness: You may sense the subtle tells of social relationships. You may determine the relationships between any people you can currently observe and between those present and anyone who is mentioned by name within your hearing.
  • DC 40:
    • Echoes Of The Past: The user may extend his or her relevant sense(s) backwards into time, becoming a witness to events that passed long ago. While such echoes gradually fade, the more important the event, the longer they remain. “What was served for dinner” may only echo for a few weeks or months – but the Fall of a God may echo for tens of thousands of years.
    • Enhanced Sense. The user may extend the relevant sense beyond normal limits – seeing into the Infrared or Ultraviolet, or in the dark, or enhancing it with telescopic or microscopic abilities. He or she might analyze or identify things by scent (or use it as a combat sense), use their sense of touch to simulate tremorsense, feel the tumblers in a combination lock dropping into position, or taste a potions composition and identify it’s effects.
    • Scrying Strike: When you become aware of someone using magic to see, hear, or otherwise perceive you, you may launch an effect or even a physical attack back along that connection – attempting to grab the scryer and drag them to you, launching a spell at them, or otherwise interacting with them as if they were truly present.
  • DC 50:
    • Detect Relevance: You can sense whether items apparent to the sense in question are actually of some importance to the current narrative, thus bypassing all red herrings, irrelevant graffiti, and similar distractions to focus only on those items that are actual clues – becoming aware of anything which is actually relevant in a thirty foot radius.
    • Preternatural Senses: Your senses are so keen that you may – albeit with concentration – select a spot within long range and exercise the relevant skill as if you were there, regardless of intervening obstacles. The effect lasts while you concentrate, up to a maximum of (Skill Check) rounds and can – given 1d4+1 rounds to refocus – be retargeted as needed within range.
    • Return Scrying: If you are being remotely monitored you may use the link yourself, to see and hear whoever or whatever is spying upon you as long as the effect lasts.
  • DC 60:
    • Greater Illusion II: A simple Silent Image spell is so empowered by your precise perception of what it represents that it develops partial reality, duplicating the function of any Shadow spell of up to level three.
    • Narrative Perception: You may check to see whether or not up to (Wis Mod +1, 1 Minimum) Vignettes (from Stealing The Scene) will fit into the current scene and activate any one of them that will. https://ruscumag.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/skills-of-the-shadowed-galaxy-ii-action-skills/
    • Universal Awareness: You may expand your consciousness, becoming aware of things that are not apparent to your normal senses – magical energies, dimensional overlays, gravitational waves, radiation, vibrations in the earth, disturbances in probability, prophecies, destinies, underground tunnels and structures, alignment energies, mineral deposits, and any other aspect of reality you wish to know of. You may ask the game master seven questions about such things within a range of one mile, gaining reasonably detailed answer.
  • DC 75:
    • Greater Illusion III: A simple Minor Image spell is so empowered by your precise perception of what it represents that it develops partial reality, duplicating the function of any Shadow spell of up to level six.
    • Know The Web: You may perceive, amplify, and use the Mystical Links between people, places, and things – and so may use the rules for Mystic Links (Part I and Part II) in whatever way you can take advantage of them.
    • Sensory Equivalence: As long as the user has at least one operating sense, he or she can operate as if all of them are unhindered – for example, seeing in the dark via hearing or while blinded by his or her sense of smell. He or she can feel sound, hear tastes, and see touch if necessary. This enhanced awareness lasts for a full twenty-four hours once activated. The user may voluntarily block individual senses during this time to avoid sense-based attacks.
  • DC 100:
    • Know The Secrets: You (the player) may inspect the character sheet and game statistics of the creature you can directly sense; the character using this ability will intuitively gain all relevant information.
    • Greater Illusion IV: A simple Major Image spell is so empowered by your precise perception of what it represents that it develops partial reality, duplicating the function of any Shadow spell of up to level nine.
    • Solophistic Perception: By refusing to perceive something you may erase it from your personal reality. You might thus fire arrows freely at those foolish floating people who think they are on the upper floors of a castle that you believe does not exist.

Epic Stunts for Perception Skills:

These basically come in three major varieties:

1) Expanding the user’s sensory abilities more or less permanently. This can be done by stacking a permanent duration and being impossible to simply dispel onto pretty much any sensory spell at a cost of +12 spell levels – +10 if you make it a personal-only effect.

2) Granting the user minor sensory boosts. For this, simply invest the costs of the “research” into sense-related Siddhisyoga powers.

3) Using fairly normal divinatory, sense-boosting, or illusion spells. In this case, just use standard spells with any desired metamagic(s) applied – but there’s nothing wrong with simply developing “True Seeing” as an “Epic” effect.

Outside of that, there are few epic-level perception effects, simply because they’re generally not needed. Conventional spells can give you incredible powers of perception already – just not for as long.

Besides… perception skills are ridiculously useful already.

Eclipse d20 – Elemental Martial Arts

And for today it’s a selection of dexterity-base martial arts – in this case, some of the exotic specialties of HuSung, the realm of the five elements on Atheria. There, where every child has at least minor inherent elemental powers, the martial arts are both tools of battle and lessons in magic, for they can help discipline unruly elemental powers. In this case, each technique in each of the arts is getting a name, just for that florid feeling.

Or, of course, you can tweak them slightly to use them for characters from other settings. This is Eclipse, and it works either way.

Wuxing Shadow Palm (Dex)

The elemental Ki flows in a dance of creation and destruction, each attack belonging to one or another element. Know that dance, feel the flow of power – and you may both sense attacks and use the opposing elemental echo to block them or strike back. The elegant, twisting, circular footwork and whirling motions of the style seem to trail echoing images behind them, an illusion enhanced by the flowing sleeves of the courtiers robes its students favor. A true master of this unarmed style will never be caught off guard as they are warned by the angry, focused, Ki of an incoming attack.

While no one of the Elemental Birthright of HuSung is ever truly disarmed, there has been treachery enough in the last four or five millennia to inspire the realms envoys, couriers, and legalists to wish to be able to defend themselves against sudden physical attacks – even in situations where they may not carry weapons. This “Soft” style focuses on deflecting and avoiding attacks, buying time for an escape. It’s users often supplement their art with Earth Magic – increasing their defensive abilities, scaling walls, and increasing their strength.

  • Requires: Access to both Combat Reflexes (or point-buy equivalent) and Earth Magic.
  • Basic Techniques: Strike 1(Shadow Palm), Power 2 (Shattering The Trigram), Defense 4 (Ghosting Technique), Attack 2 (Iron Strike), and Synergy/Earth Magic Skill (Stance Of Stone).
  • Advanced/Master Techniques: Prone Combat (Whirling Stone Method), Blind Fight (The Inward Eye), Mind Like Moon (Ki Awareness), and Improved Disarm (Iron Palm Technique).
  • Occult Techniques: Inner Strength II, Ki Block (Thousand Ton Stance), and Vanishing (Earth Meld).

Cherry Petal Wind Kung Fu (Dex)

As the tornado hurls mere bits of straw through oaken trunks, a master of the Cherry Petal Wind turns mere “leaves” of metal into deadly missiles – often concealing a small arsenal in plain sight as a mail shirt, series of bangles, or badges on a vest. Advanced masters practice breathing exercises to focus their Ki into their “Petals”, greatly increasing their capabilities – including allowing them to strike at spirits and injure creatures resistant to mundane weapons.

This form revolves around the use of the Petal Blade – small hiltless throwing knives – often flung so rapidly that they resemble a swarm of wind-blown petals. Indeed, stronger elemental masters are often able to use their wind powers to fling clouds of petal blades to attack an area. While the style offers few defensive benefits, it is a powerful offensive technique. It’s users sometimes supplement their abilities with minor air spells, greatly increasing their effective range, increasing the number of missiles they can hurl at once, or sending their missiles tumbling through an area to attack several targets at once.

Petal Blades are finger-sized leaf-shaped throwing blades, usually with a hole near the tip through which a thread can be tied – allowing a batch of them to be hung ready for use from a sash or disguised as ornaments. Using Pathfinders weapon design system: Thrown Martial Weapon: Expanded Range Increment (20′ Base, 1), Ammunition (are basically treated like Shuriken, 3), and Improved Damage (1). Net: Martial, 1d4 Piercing, Crit 20/x2, Thrown with a 20′ Range Increment, 1 GP for Two, each weighing 1/8’th of a pound.

  • Requires: Access to Air Magic, Dex 14+.
  • Basic Techniques: Power 2 (Shrieking Hawk Throw), Attack 4 (Winds Eye Technique), Toughness 1 (Breath Control), Synergy/Air Magic Skill (The Wind Dance), Synergy/Tumble (Zephyr Stance), and Synergy/Flight (+4 on Atheria) (Wings Of The Hummingbird).
  • Advanced/Master Techniques: Sneak Attack II (Vital Points Strike), Rapid Shot (Hurricane Fist), Imbuement/Petal Blades (Blossoming Ki Technique).
  • Occult Techniques: Inner Strength II, Wrath (Force) (Wind Blades), and Paralyze (Ki Disruption).

Thousand Leaping Flames Style:

In the hands of a master, the blade of a a Naginata (use Glaive or Halberd statistics, but the choice is permanent once made) twirls and flashes like the flickering flames of a bonfire, lashing out to strike at any enemy who comes too close even as the wielder remains firmly rooted, blocking and deflecting with his or her weapons haft while shifting and swaying only as much as is absolutely necessary to evade incoming attacks.

This polearm form is a favorite of guardians who seek to delay attackers or hold them back; it’s strong defense, multiple tripping options, extended reach, and ability to reach a defensible point in an instant allows the user to hold a position against an advancing enemy quite well. Masters of Fire Magic often simply augment their weapons, but also often boost their reflexes and speed or enchant their weapons to twist like true flames, allowing them to use or ignore their reach (if any) as needed.

  • Requires: Access to Fire Magic and Combat Reflexes.
  • Basic Techniques: Attack 3 (Fire Blade Mastery), Defense 4 (Dazzling Steel Maze), Power 1 (Burning Blade Technique), Synergy/Fire Magic Skill (As Within, So Without), and Synergy/Jump (+6 on Atheria due to use of Tiered Skills) (may use polearm to pole-vault) (Mount The Winds).
  • Advanced/Master Techniques: Improved Trip (Snapping Branch Style), Mighty Blow (Detonating Touch), Reach (Reaching Fire), and Whirlwind Attack (Blazing Glory Stance).
  • Occult Techniques: Inner Strength x2, Iron Skin (Burning Shield), and Vanishing (Flickering Spark Leap).

Shining Waters Kenjitsu:

Life is movement. The pumping lungs, the flowing blood, the beating heart. Stillness brings death. Where an enemy strikes, flow away. Where an enemy blocks, flow around. Where an enemy seeks to restrain or guide, if one route is blocked, a thousand others lie open. Where you need advance, draw your enemies into your whirlpool and none shall stand. Ride the currents of battle, whether to victory or retreat, there is no use in attempting to contest the tide. The softest strikes will erode the most obdurate defense. Let your spirit flow through your blade, for where it is vulnerable, the spirit is not. To emulate flowing water is a path to victory.

This art focuses on any one of the (several) “oriental” variants of the Bastard Sword, and is actually fairly straightforward and well-rounded as such styles go – providing some defense, an extremely strong offense (focusing on taking enemies down as quickly and efficiently as possible), and a few special tricks – in this case the ability to resist having the weapon sundered or disarmed and a limited ability to launch ranged strikes. Masters of water magic often use it to add qualities such as Toxic or Corrosive to their weapons or to allow them to lash out at greater ranges – or to simply create a blade of ice to use in emergencies.

  • Requires: Access to Water Magic and Occult Sense / Danger.
  • Basic Techniques: Attack 4 (Tsunami Strike), Defense 3 (Read The Currents), Power 1 (Tidal Bore Technique), Synergy/Water Magic Skill (Pulse Of The Seas), and Synergy/Tumble (Flowing Waters).
  • Advanced/Master Techniques: Quick Draw (Darting Blade Technique), Reach (Cresting Wave Strike), Unity Of Steel* (Slowing Soul Infusion), and Whirlwind Attack (Whirlpool Strike).
  • Occult Techniques: Inner Strength x2, Ki Focus (+4 Sacred Bonus to BAB) (Raging Storm Rising), and One Finger (Ice Lance).

*Unity Of Steel: Immunity/the distinction between weapons and the user (Common, Minor, Major, 6 CP). For practitioners of this school their weapons are truly extensions of themselves; attempts to sunder or disarm them are simply treated as normal attacks against them and any touch-based powers or similar enhancements which they may possess operate through their blades.

Unity Of Divine Wind

It is not mere strength or skill that brings victory, for what use are either if you are unwilling to stand against a foe? It is the martial spirit that wins battles. Many a duel has been decided by the clash of wills well before any blow is struck. The will to stand against your foes is your greatest weapon, When it is developed and expressed… you may lay low your foes with the divine wind of your spirit alone.

Students of the Divine Wind begin their studies with the composite longbow – but advanced students will learn to transcend it, forging their spiritual armament of will and magic. While this inward focus somewhat reduces the effectiveness of the style in simple physical combat, skilled users of spirit magic can easily add properties such as Bane, or Holy/Unholy, or other special functions to their spiritual weapons, enhance their own durability, and make their arrows effective against various spirits.

  • Requires: Access to Spirit Magic, Wisdom 14+
  • Basic Techniques: Power 2 (Will to Victory), Toughness 4 (QiGong), Synergy/Spirit Magic Skill (The Inward Way), Synergy/ Heal (+4 on Atheria due to use of Tiered Skills) (Acupuncture), Synergy/Intimidate (+4 on Atheria due to use of Tiered Skills) (Will of the Warrior), and Synergy/Knowledge; Religion (Spiritual Awareness),
  • Advanced/Master Techniques: Spirit Weapon I (may create a “bow” of spiritual energy) (Yin of the Moon) and II (may also create arrows of spiritual energy, and cause them to inflict either stun or lethal damage) (Yang Focus), Imbuement (“Unarmed” version applied to the spirit weapon) (Purified Intent), and Battlecry (The Lions Roar).
  • Occult Techniques: Inner Strength x2, Resist Pain (Meditations On Eternity) and Wrath (Holy or Unholy, depending on the practitioner) (Vessel of the Divine).

As often happens with advanced styles some of these stretch the definition of a “martial art” a bit – but in a setting where the equivalent of a Rabbi wields vast magical powers instead of learned advice… stretching a martial art into the realms of myth is actually pretty normal.

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.

Atheria Eclipse d20 Update

Currently the Atheria game is running online, with a few changes from the original tabletop game – most notably the use of Skill Tiers, the availability of some exotic Templates such as the Host Of Parath shown below, the banning of a few powers that are difficult to run in play-by-post, and (as usual) plenty of exotic spells. Today it’s time for a few of them that get used in the next over-complicated character.

Skill Tiers:

Skills on Atheria are somewhat cheaper than on most worlds, since they’re divided into tiers depending on their complexity and usefulness in the setting.

  • Tier-One Skills are quite often useful and are generally quite widely applicable. They include Diplomacy (Cha), Disable Device (Int)*, Hide (Dex), Martial Arts (Varies), Movement Skills (Land/Tumble (Dex)*, Air/Fly (Dex), and Water/Swim (Str)), Move Silently (Dex), Profession/Occult (Wis)*, Search (Int), Sense/Spot (Wis), Sleight of Hand (Dex)*, Spellcraft (Int)*, and Survival (Wis). On Atheria all Knowledge Skills (Int) are Tier One – partly because they’re important in general and partly because they include the knowledge of related magical rituals. Tier-One skills cost full price.
  • Tier Two Skills are occasionally useful or relatively narrow, but are replaceable by special abilities or relatively low-level spells. They include Appraise (Int) Balance (Dex), Bluff (Chr), Climb (Str), Concentration (Con), Control Shape (Wis), Craft/Exotic (Int)*, Escape Artist (Dex), Gather Information (Cha), Handle Animal (Cha)*, Heal (Wis), Intimidate (Cha), Open Lock (Dex)*, Perform (Specify) (Cha), Profession/Complex (Wis)*, Psicraft (Int)*, Ride (Dex), Sense/Listen (Wis), Sense Motive (Wis), Speak Language (Int), and Use Magic Device (Cha)*.Tier Two skills are available for half cost. They can usually be Corrupted, but not Specialized without special permission.
  • Tier Three Skills are either rarely useful due to their narrowness or lack of applicability or can be easily replaced by a first-level spell such as Comprehend Languages. They include Autohypnosis (Wis)*, Burrow (Wis)*, Craft/Mundane (Int), Decipher Script (Int)*, Disguise (Cha), Forgery (Int), Jump (Str), Profession (Simple), Sense/Touch (Wis), Use Psionic Device (Cha)*, and Use Rope (Dex). They are available for one-third cost. As a rule, they cannot be Specialized or Corrupted further without special permission.
    • Skills marked with an “*” cannot be used unskilled.

Skill Modifiers:

  • Skill-enhancing Feats multiply their bonus by the Tier of the skill they’re applied to. Thus a character with “Skill Focus: Forgery” would be a master forger, gaining a +9 bonus on his or her Forgery checks. Virtually no one without a similar focus on spotting forgeries would be able to detect his or her work – and the feat is actually worth taking in an intrigue-heavy game.
  • Declaring Raises: A character may voluntarily raise the base DC by +5, +10, or +15 in advance – whether or not the GM has revealed it – to gain a superior/remarkable/astounding result. Unfortunately, failing to reach the modified DC negates the entire attempt. Raises may also be used to allow two skills that require move, standard, or full-round actions to be used at the same time – if, say, a character wishes to pick a lock while using sleight of hand to make it look like he’s fumbling with the key, and thus keep the six guards from getting overly suspicious.
  • Descriptions: Sensible, or really dramatic, descriptions of your skill checks are worth a bonus on the roll. Using your brain SHOULD help, and so should making the game more interesting.

Host Of Parath (32 CP / +1 ECL Acquired Template).

Of the thousand fragments of Parath Beastlord, it is believed that fewer than four score reached Atheria. Hundreds of others fell to the Dralithar and obliteration, many fled elsewhere amongst the Thousand Scales of the Dragon, and many were lost to the Dragon itself. Most of the lesser fragments that reached Atheria have slumbered across the ages, but now that the gates of Atheria have begun to open once more, those fragments are awakening – and some are linked both to the Barbarians and to the energies of the Dragon. And so, occasionally, some barbarian child will find themselves linked to Parath and developing this template. Unfortunately, all the powers of this template are Corrupted / the user also bears some of Parath’s predatory arrogance, will tend to feel that nothing can go wrong with his or her plans, feels entitled to power and luxury, and only respects the strong. Things that hunt the divine will be drawn to him or her.

  • Heritage Of The Divine: +4 to any two attributes (16 CP), +2 to any one attribute (4 CP). If desired, these may be expended on the the Blood Of The Dragon. Parath is scattered and fallen, but remains one of the Ancient Gods and a conduit of power beyond mortality. Even a minuscule fragment of that might is of note to mortals. (In her case, these points have indeed been spent on the Blood Of The Dragon). In settings that are not using the half-price attribute rule, halve these bonuses.
  • The Acceptance Of Sacrifice: Siddhisyoga, Specialized for Increased Effect and Corrupted for Reduced Cost / The user must actually have access to, and full control of, the item or being that he or she wishes to acquire and then must ritually bind it to the divine essence within himself or herself. Once this is done, he or she can bring it forth or dismiss it at will as a free action – but damaged items and injured creatures must be repaired or healed normally (although any creatures that have been acquired may work on it). If an item is destroyed – or a creature slain – it must be replaced instead (4 CP). That which is offered to Parath is offered to those who host him – and becomes one of their attributes if they offer it to themselves. (While Siddhisyoga is normally disallowed on Atheria since you can’t buy magic item functions with gold anyway, this limited variant is restricted to mundane items and creatures that you acquire). .
  • Life Enduring: Immunity / The Physical Effects Of Aging (Uncommon, Major, Trivial, 1 CP). Parath’s hosts do not readily weaken due to old age and live very long, healthy, lives unless otherwise slain.
  • Nobility Of The Beasts: Innate Enchantment: Speak with Animals (SRD, 2000 GP), Surefoot (SC, +10 Enhancement Bonus to Balance, Climb, Jump, and Tumble, do not lose your Dexterity bonus to AC when balancing or climbing, 2000 GP), Personal-Only Immortal Vigor (Practical Enchanter, +12 + 2 x Con Mod HP, 1400 GP), Personal-Only Endure Elements (1400 GP), and Personal Only Cure Minor Wounds (only triggers once per round if below 1 HP x.7 = 490 GP) (5 CP). Immunity/The XP cost of the Innate Enchantments in this package (Uncommon, Minor, Trivial, 1 CP). Parath’s dominion over the beasts lies fallow, but traces of it and of the vitality of an immortal echo still within the blood of his hosts.

Shadow Guise

  • Illusion (Shadow)
  • Level: Bard 4, Sorcerer/Wizard 4
  • Components: V, S
  • Casting Time: One Swift Action
  • Range: Personal or Touch
  • Target: You or Creature Touched (Maximum of Large Size)
  • Duration: One minute per caster level.
  • Saving Throw: Will Negates (Mostly Harmless)
  • Spell Resistance: Yes.

Shadow Guise infuses the targets flesh with the stuff of shadow. During it’s duration the user can reshape his or her flesh as a free action with limits equivalent to those of the Disguise Self spell – although both touch and sound are included as the user’s now slightly-less-than-real flesh is truly reshaped. Thanks to the subtle shifting of the user’s flesh to respond to his or her will and its tendency to reshape itself to avoid damage from attacks the user also gains a +4 Alchemical Bonus to his or her Dexterity and Natural Armor. Sadly, however, the user will also suffer a -2 penalty to saves against light-based effects.

Secondarily, if given a moment to prepare. the user can perform various parlor tricks – opening a small hole to drop a small object through his or her hand, “stabbing” themselves without injury, escaping handcuffs with a bit of selective squeezing and bending, scratching the small of his or her own back, displaying an apparent wound, acting as a contortionist, accommodating an exotic sexual partner, and so on.

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.