Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Affairs of Wizards

I am not interested in 5E because it is inextricably linked to the contemporary fantasy aesthetic. This also happens to be the secondary reason why I hated the Hobbit films. I realise I have exiled myself to a barren peninsula of my own eccentricity here but the fact remains that the aesthetic essence of the thing (i.e. its "style") matters far more to me that playability, accessibility or innovation. If 5E pursued a Weird aesthetic and rolled out Ian Miller, Russ Nicholson and John Blanche to illustrate it I'd be sold, no matter what goofy mechanics it might have.

Conversely, Oleg Denysenko, Denis Forkas Kostromitin and Vania Zouraliov could do it. Contemporary Russian illustrators are bloody marvelous.

I know the world shall continue to recede from the ideal I carry in my head. It matters not.

So D&D magic is decidedly not magical. This galls me. There is such potential for intriguing and evocative as well as conducive to the initiation of self-perpetuating action-in-the-game-world stuff in magic but I don't see it used much.

Firstly and importantly, given my long-time obsession with reward mechanics, I believe that neglecting to foreground the accumulation of spells as an important part of the magic-user's progression is missing out on part of the fun of playing that role. If a magic-user has no particular relationship with their spellbook and no motivating desire to go forth and pilfer the spellbooks of others for mystick puissance and abominable mysteries then they are functionally, in terms of relationship to the campaign setting, not so much differentiated from the other character classes.

Of course the universal focus of the bloodstained gold reward system is valuable for tying together the party's major pursuit (plunder) but there is a beauty in individually differentiated class rewards. Magic items offer this to an extent, creating a dynamic where there is an understanding that beyond the typically slow and linear creep up through the levels there will be little bonuses here and there that will create sudden flashes and leaps of extra power, magic swords and wands and rings and the like, which constitute an extra, parallel reward system. In addition to this there is another, similarly underdeveloped reward system composed of more mundane items, purchasables like hirelings and retainers and ships and castles. All are means of augmenting agency within the gameworld and all are awarded by the GM to PCs whose actions have been sufficiently entertainingly ingenious and intrepid.

-As an aside there is another intriguingly under-investigated social-aesthetic dynamic that goes on where the GM invests a portion of their effort and pride and love and care into the setting as an aesthetic object and the players petition with their interest and their care to be allowed to have agency within the gameworld. It is only through being an exceptionally good audience to and collaborators with the performative efforts of the GM that the secrets of the world reveal themselves and it is only through playing along with this fantasy, making at least the appearance of being enthralled by the GM's aesthetic virtuosity that the greatest secrets are uncovered. There is a thing about hospitality and flattery and communal aesthetic experience here that I shan't be pursuing further. Suffice to say: listen well and play along and ye shall be rewarded-

Carcosa has a very interesting and deeply integrated-and-conducive-to-action magic system. I refuse to believe that there was never any intent that the players were never supposed to be sorcerors. While I acknowledge that the rituals involving the raping and murdering of children are too abhorrent for people to enjoy playing out and are actually much more effective as means of defining who the bad guys are and defining what the hitherto evocatively defined as unspeakably blasphemous rites actually consist of, the fact that the magic system and hexcrawl are so interlinked is brilliant. The map is fairly festering with Macguffins. Aside from the obvious unpleasantnesses, playing a sorceror in Carcosa would be cool, you've got places to go and people to see from the get go. Additionally, assuming the antagonists are probably sorcerors, they've got things to do also. Given a little inside knowledge it becomes obvious that the sorceror or his minions are trying to get the Radioactive Purple Crystal from Hex 0121 to the Seething Chasm of Indeterminate Depth in Hex 9982  to summon the Quaking Eidolon of Thrausaath-Glybbe (or whatever) and there you have a clear set of objectives and something to do while sitting around the table with your friends.


So, in this conception, magic spells are unlocked from the mysterious cosmos by the performance of particular rites. This gives the initiate access to the arcane mysteries which may then be inscribed in their grimoire and "memorised" daily, as normal. The written version is essentially enchanted, it functions as a magical scroll and may be destructively invoked in a similar manner, over and above its normal spellbook function. Once a spell is thus lost from the grimoire it is necessary to go through the whole process of ritual to regain the spell. Spells stolen from other magic-users may (after unlocking with Read Magic) be "burnt" as scrolls, additionally all written versions of spells of necessity contain the instructions for performance of the rite that unlocks the mystery.

The individual spells in the magic user spell list are divided between a number of different factions in the setting (with a considerable degree of overlap). Each jealously guards its secrets and the rites that allow their revelation. It is only possible to achieve the ability to cast every spell by begging, borrowing or stealing from a number of different sources.

Finally, language is the key to unlocking the knowledge, many languages within the setting have an association with a particular set of mysteries, knowing the language means knowing the mysteries. The languages and their associated magical disciplines are as follows;

Five Paths of Lesser Sorcery

1. Elder Druideacht - Language of Birds
2. Bastard Alchemy- Alchemists' Cant
3. Lowlander Spae-craft - Meagre Tongue (i.e. "Common")
4. Mantic Disciplines of the Old Imperium - Diviners' Cipher
5. Heathenish Witchery - Heathen Tongue
Exempli Gratia: Elder Druideacht

The degraded rites of Low Druidry are relicts of the blasphemies of the north. The fell Druideacht of the northern heathens bound together their tribes in ties of blood and law and sacrifice. Theirs was an elder pact with the powers of the wicked earth personified in primordial gods of field and fen and unquiet ancestors craving sacrifice from the darkness beyond.

There are six first level spells in the druidry spell list, a beginning initiate will have already performed three of the rites but will know the rites to access the others

-The Willing Sacrifice (Charm Person) A pristine entity (white calf with red ears,  blind foal, seven-day-old kid born in the new moon's dark)  is bathed in milk and crowned with a wreath of mistletoe cut with a silver sickle. Songs are sung over it of Ancient Law. Eating of its heart will reveal the mystery

-Ordeal of the Hodimadod (Detect Magic) At one of the known junctions of cosmic alignment between nexi of the embodiment of ancient lore (henges, raths, cromlech-graves, sacred groves and pools) the initiate must spend the night alone in a circle of seven knives and ritualistically strangle themselves seven times with a rope of their own hair that they swoon and fall. In the half-world between oblivion and wakefulness the mystery will be glimpsed.

-Walk Untouchable (Protection from Evil) All sprinkled with gold dust, glimmering naked and drunk on tainted mead, the initiate must enter the opened tomb of a hallowed ancestor and lay together upon the slab, eat of its fingernails and hair and plead and beg the answer to the riddles of death and life .

- Assimilation of Ink (Read Languages) From the mingled blood of a dozen initiates and the gall of a blasted oak and the venom of a murtherous humbledrum an ink must be brewed and the flayed skin of an ancient scholar adorned with the ciphered runes and the hundred forms of ogam and all the abecedaries of the Old Imperium and glyphs and ancient scripts forgotten by time. This skin must be slowly eaten and the initiate stricken with the poison for seven nights.  On the eighth day the initiate rises with ink in their veins.

- Vigil of the Grey Horizon (Sleep) The initiate undergoes mystical incubation wrapped in the flayed hide of a walrus, nettle-crowned and covered in bone-soot. The initiate must hold wakeful vigil for seven nights upon a shore between earth and restless ocean until oblivion beckons in the voice of a gull. In that voice can be heard the mystery.

-Blinding the Cipher  (Read Magic) Skyclad and fasted upon the dawn of Midsummer's Day the initiate must gaze into the rising sun until the world goes out of their eyes . Thereafter, they are led into a grove where ogam-staves and runestones and grimoires of mystick writings are kept and made to look upon them as their sight returns. In the dim light of returning vision the secret will glimmer among the glyphs.

et cetera

As the character progresses through the levels it will become necessary to collude with other magicians to perform the rites necessary to unlock new forms of magical power. The different paths will have entirely different ways of gaining access to essentially the same spell - spae-wives  will brew philtres of love to gain the ability to charm (instead of eating the heart of an innocent sacrifice) and other paths will pursue other means. In addition to this there is always the possibility that some kind of fraternisation with elves might be possible (though unwise).


  1. Three words: Dungeon. Crawl. Classics.

    You are not alone, and the corner of the world you inhabit is as vibrant now as it has ever been.

  2. I live on that peninsula too, my friend. Fantasy should not be familiar and quantifiable, where you chart out the properties of 18 different kinds of gnome over a double trilogy. I don't even think it's old-school versus new-school, though the scale of those charts got bigger as the editions progressed. This was always the problem with D&D --- we'd all read the Monster Manual and the spell lists in the Player's Handbook and knew whether we were looking at a clay golem or a caryatid column and what to do about it.

    I think that if everything is new every time --- to the point where only the DM ever really knows what's going on, and the players are just scrambling to handle the uncertainties that face them --- that's just fine. It's more than fine.

    I like your weirded-out magic. One idea I've had for a quick weird-out is to import magic systems and magic-using character classes from other D&D-like games, so spellcasters encounter entirely different schools of magic like encountering aliens landing for the first time. Then if inclined they can struggle to gain spells/skills/whatever for themselves.

    1. The weirdest thing about magic is that it is real, real at least in the sense of having been and continuing to be an anthropological, cultural, human-behavioural phenomenon. My approach is usually to never read any fantasy ever (save Tolkien) and burrow instead through the subject matter that exist behind it all for things to steal. So that's where I'd like to import things from.

      I think the thing I have always been chasing is that feeling of cracking open the book for the first time and smelling the pages and having everything be new and fresh. I am not sure I have the neurochemistry I did when I was eleven but I like to think there would be some way to spark that thrill. I don't think more beholders and illithids can get me there.

    2. Amen. For the past several years I've gone looking for that feeling in pre-Tolkien fantasy, and I've found it here and there. Yeah, it'll never imprint like when you're 12, but you can still have pleasure from it.

      Myth and folklore is definitely great for cherry-picking magic items and spells. A year or two ago I tried a nonfiction book about the bits of Norse religious practice that are known --- to my surprise there was enough to really use. Next up is myths from Iran.

  3. Your opinions on magic directly impacted my opinions on magic.
    Between you and LotFP I'm all set for some horrible and evocative spell stuff, my players tend to act with suspicion and fear now upon coming across something blatantly magical in aspect.

    The Elves went down really well with some late edition refugees, too.

    1. You know, it has occurred to me that magic is essentially a form of transgressive performance art designed to coerce the universe to your will. Of course it's going to be fucked up, it's 'orrible qualities are a function of the most iconoclastic parts of our imagination.

  4. I thought this was a great post so I added a link to it in my Best Reads of the Week! series. I hope you don't mind!

  5. Quite coinciently I started re-reading Brian Bates "Way of Wyrd" - his fictionalised reconstruction of pagan Anglosaxon opens with ritual magic as performance art (you can read it for free here: )

    My concern with running this as game, is that it would lead to magic user characters dominating play - their need to get a dog to pull mandrake roots at midnight on a full moon as part of their training regime, might be fun for a one off, but is of little interest to the fighter or thief in the party who essentially become secondary character in the MUs story. Fine if everyone gets a turn in the spotlight, but it departs from the group dynamics of mutual murder-hoboism.

    Spot on the aesthetics of 5e being mainstream and uninteresting.

    1. Sure, if fighters and thieves are not already entangled in their own kinds of strangeness.

    2. You could go the Ars Magica route - everyone has two characters, one wizard and one "specialist" (ranger, thief, etc). An adventuring party contains one or two wizards and a bunch of specialists (plus assorted NPC hirelings). Wizards require a lot of downtime (all that research), so if Bob played his wizard during the Adventure of the Mandrake Root, next adventure said wizard will be busy in his lab and Bob plays his cleric character instead (allowing someone else to be The Wizard for an adventure).

  6. Is there room on your peninsula for a few others?