Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hedge Magick

I seem to remember the idea of cantrips being tossed around on other blogs recently. I've been thinking along those lines myself lately. What I want to do is give low-level magic users (or Hermits or Cunning Men/Wise Women or whatever I am going to call them) something to do at those times when they've used their paltry quota of magic or are saving their detect magic spell for the crucial moment when it is really going to count. Also, and this is important to me, I'd like to introduce some way of emulating the grubby eccentrics that were the wizards and witches of the middle ages (or of the Dung Age conception thereof). These people performed, presided over, or guided various ritualistic actions that had ambiguous or negligible outcomes. In these situations the appearance of performing an action to achieve some degree of control over some aspect of a chaotic universe was important.

In a game situation I think this kind of minor magick could be reflected as allowing the magic-user character to influence the outcome of a roll, granting a +1 bonus. This is not a game-breaking power, but I think it needs to be balanced with some mechanism. The mechanisms that could be utilised to ballance this power are time and cost, each Hedge Magick cantrip takes 1 turn and costs 10gp (maybe 5) in magical ingredients. If the ritual granting Tostig the Ruffian a +1 to his strength check as he attempts to topple the idol takes one turn rather than one round, or if the necessary materials sacrificed to propitiate the spirits to grant a +1 bonus to a search for secret doors cost ten gold pieces then the players have incentives to not overuse these minor powers.

I am not yet sure how this would work out in play, the threat of poverty and extra wandering monster checks may not be suffieciently prohibitive to prevent the party's Hedge Wizard from consulting the bones, burning mystical incense, drawing magical designs etc. before each and every action that is attempted. The time constraint will have the effect of making it impossible to use hedge magick in battle, but potentially a charms could be worked beforehand to influence the outcome of a couple of rolls.

The cantrips are further restricted by only being active for one turn after completion of casting (or maybe 1 turn per level of caster).

Rolls that can be influenced include;

-A specific saving throw e.g. a charm against poison
-An specific ability check
-A reaction roll
-An initiative roll
-An attack or damage roll (a weapon could be enchanted)
-A search for secret doors roll
-An open doors roll
-Armour Class, a special case, equivalent to a -1 penalty to opponents attack roll.

The fluff component of this could take the form of;

-Incantation/mumbling/screeching of magical words
-Trance-like meditation/concentration (caster may be asleep)
-Burning of foul-smelling incense/candles/sacred herbs
-Imbibing of sacramental entheogens
-incising/drawing/painting strange magical designs/runes/glyphs on the subject
-Anointing of subject with unpleasant ointments/unguents
-Consumption of unappetising objects/substances
-Strange and unsettling dances with singing and/or the ringing of bells/chimes or the rattling of rattles.
-Consultation of the liver/spleen of an animal/person
-Repetitive and interminable casting of the bones/runestones

et cetera

Any combination of the above would be appropriate. I think a random table would be in order but it's too late here now and I have to get up early.

I think this has the potential of being flavoursome and frequently of little help which is very suitable. The greater magicks that constitute the wizard's spellbook should be rare and special - beyond the experience of the rude peasants who might occasionally call upon charms of dubious efficacy from the local madman.

This whole concept relies, to a certain extent, upon the low-level nature of the campaign. I am capping human characters at level 7 and Demihumans at about level 4 or 5. Magic-users do not have the heights of awe-inspiring power to look forward to so they need to be compensated with some extra options at low level.


  1. Something that would be very important to me as a player in a "Dung Age" game would be this kind of uncertainty. If there were a die roll for it, if it was not predictable, that's good. I like the random table idea.

    It would be nice if there was a physical cost for such magic, not just a need to spend gold pieces (like you need a mandrake root for this, but beware it deadly shriek when you pulled it up). Maybe a temporary loss of saving throw, or STR/CON or something. So you could find a secret door but lose your poison resistance for a while. Random weird effect.

    I'm drawn to the idea that magic-users (wizard or cleric) are all slightly mad, either babbling eccentrics or fire-eyed ascetics. The chance of insanity is a great way to limit magic use, as Call of Cthulhu taught us.

  2. Excellent ideas there Dave. Unpredictability is key to making magick weird. I am concerned about making things too complicated. As it stands this is a very simple mechanic to allow magic-users to manipulate fate in a limited way, thereby making them slightly more useful at low-levels.

    However, weird stuff is cool and random tables are very cool. I like the idea that the cantrip to grant you swiftness in combat might just give you a large pustulent carbuncle on your nose, temporarily decreasing your charisma by one point.

    This is precisely the sort of bumbling nincompoopery I like in my games, reminiscent of "Wild Magic". Perhaps I will make up some tables to reflect it.

  3. CrusssDaddy says:

    Maybe a minor curse could result from a magical fumble, with the chance of a fumble increasing the more times per day the caster tries to invoke a cantrip? Temporary effects of hysterical blindness, a lame leg, tongue disappears, followed by growling dogs, noisome stench that prevents entry into towns, could all result from a backfire.

    Requires extra bookkeeping, but delivers flavor & complications that go beyond simple +/- modifiers.

  4. Yes, that's good. Stenches and dogs are, of course, right up my alley. I've considered a bunch of different mechanics to add flavour to this but I really don't want to create more complexity. I want things to remain very light.

    I considered making part of the cost being an automatic wandering monster check, rather than the time constraint leading to more time in the dungeon thus increasing the likelihood of encountering a wandering monster due to time. However, p'raps something like a wandering monster table could be utilised for magical anomalies. Flaky scabrousness, brimstone stench, hair standing on end, unquenchable thirst and the like could appear on a table akin to a wandering monster table on the roll of 1 on a d6 when magick (p'raps not only hedge magick) is cast.