Sunday, March 14, 2010

Notes Towards a New Magic System

As I am completing the work on the revised Attribute section, expanding things to include Attribute Checks for all the Attributes and mapping the various Attributes to the Chakras, there were some fiddly bits that came up that I wanted to get sorted out.  These are my rough notes and will probably go through some more modification and mutation before all is said and done.

Taking a cue from Leadbeater's book on Auras, I am drafting out a schematic that details the various basic forms of a sorcerer's or magician's auras.  A sorcerer has dozens of options and styles and modes of auric expression and manipulation including various forms of attack, defense and more.  Glamers and Glamoury are tied-into auras, so are some forms of illusion, protections and other things.  A sorcerer sometimes carries all manner of marks, signs, impressions, tutelary spirits, sigils, figments, and more within their aura, even going so far as to sculpt it or to hang spells within it like veils awaiting some triggering condition to be met.  The Orders teach disciplines that render the aura of a member of one of their august bodies a smooth, well-sealed and very much fortified egg of purest white, darkest indigo, deepest black, or in some cases other colors, sometimes with various emblems or seals of power visible within the aura identifying their authority and affiliation for those with eyes to see.

I have mapped out the correspondences between the basic attributes and the chakras.  This sorted things out and answered a lot of questions that I didn't really know I was asking until I could see it all actually drawn out.  Shortly there will be a simple overview/explanation of the Chakras over at Old school Heretic, followed-up by a more detailed explanation and specific description of how we're adapting the Chakras for Riskail.  The Chakras form an elegant backbone for a unified body of magical and sorcerous arts/sciences/practices/techniques that makes this an essential and foundational piece of the over-all puzzle.
Multiple (often overlapping) Systems of Magic/Sorcery
Sorcerers gain access to a wide variety of skills, techniques and media that they can explore, develop and personalize to their heart's content including a number of symbol-sets, vulgar apparatus, accomplice objects, constructs, exotic substances and more.  Sorcery is by nature open-ended and liberating, so new systems and approaches will be added all the time.  Faddish new approaches to psychism, obscure oneiristry practices uncovered in the course of data-excavations within one of the municipal archives, a showing at one of the more fashionable galleries may impart some arbitrary power upon a lucky few, and so on.

The more staid and discrete members of the various Orders likewise have access to numerous rituals  inherited from their founders, transmitted from their leaders, taught over the course of their training and sometimes derived from exchanges with other Lodges.  There are the common rites, of course, those fundamental rituals devoid of appropriate context and placed in the public domain as though they were no better than the social cantrips or open-source collective property that so many sorcerer's spells become.  But even amongst the Orders, there are those who experiment with the established rituals, revising outmoded or old-fashioned ones or embarking on a major project of developing new rituals, either under Order sanction and approval, or out of context and of a more individual, eccentric manner...which veers awfully close to sorcery and possible scandal or censure, even expulsion from the Order.

The notion of Arcane versus Divine magic, plus the red-headed step-child Psionics is already in the mix from the start.  Two of the Three standard classes presented in Book One: Men & Magic, the magic-user and the Cleric get separate spell-lists.  I'm taking that approach farther and expanding it out to make it more encompassing and more of an umbrella-like over-category, and hopefully more focused as a result. 

If some player wants to explore a specific approach or type of magic, say a spell-point system, or blood-fuelled vampiric spells, or a gestural methodology akin to what Roger Corman presented in The Raven, then I intend to let them at least make the attempt.  If it works out, then it gets added to the corpus of resources for other spell-casters and their character achieves a level of notoriety, fame and success very much in keeping with the already implicit rules for magic-users regading Research on Page 7 of Men & Magic"Research by magical types can be done at any level of experience, but the level of magic involved dictates the possibility of success, as well as the amount of money necessary to invest."  Any level.  I want to encourage magical research as a direct, immediate and intrinsic part of playing a 'magical type,' right off at the start.  If the sub-systems that they try to introduce or develop are totally unbalanced (those mega-cool but deadly and soul-blasting Call of Cthulhu-style spells), or over-powered (some deliberate 'Let's Screw With The DM' homebrewed nonsense), then they will have to work within the overall system and take their chances, but really with the tons of stuff I am already setting out on the table for players, this shouldn't be a problem.  In fact, some old and forgotten magical-type's records and journals regarding their experiments on a specific dismal failure of a spell-system they gave up on long ago might be discovered as part of the looting of a wizard's library, stolen from the Academy's locked repository, or be found in the false-bottom of some old piece of furniture picked up from a local antique shop on a whim.  Broken, flawed or incomplete, these sorts of things could be potentially extremely dangerous, and potentially lucrative to turn over to the right (wrong) parties.  Particularly heinous and soul-shattering spells, some literally quite a bit more intelligent that the people trying to use them could sense an opportunity and make a break for it by taking over the brain of some less-than-stellar pupil and pursue some inscrutible agenda or the resolution of a centuries-old command from its creator.  The idea is to promote creativity, encourage research and reward players making an effort to get involved in the setting, which should lead to more opportunities for adventures, rewards and fun.

Initiations and Attunements, Mysteries and Cults
Initiatory Rites are not just for the Orders, but can be uncovered amongst various Cliques, Cadres, Coteries, or Movements.  Joining a Scholar's Circle can be as initiatory--and sometimes as magical/sorcerous--as joining a more artistic Movement.  Schools, especially the numerous Invisible Colleges scattered around the Academy in Devukarsha are very initiatic and open only to suitable candidates.  The Ancient Mysteries are still observed and preserved amongst the ancient Lutherans, Jews, Pagans and other traditions that have weathered and survived the horrors and devastation of the Three Wars and their innumerable blasphemies and the corresponding backlash of civil inquisitions and terrible persecutions that drove most organized religion underground for centuries.  The Incarnate Gods of one faith do not automatically become the devils of another faith, but they are still considered a Very Bad Idea.  Outside of the Universal Church's sprawling complex, religion is not just something to avoid discussing in public, it is a deeply private thing, and so long as it remains private, all faiths are equally respected, thus it is illegal to proselytize.  But not all the old temples from before the Three Wars are necessarily deserted or abandoned, and not every faith allowed itself to be collected into the reliquary-like labyrinthine eclessiastical beaucracy of the Universal Church, and there are those who preach in deserted buildings and promulgate the old hatreds, the sickness of spoiled creeds and the seeds of vengeance for perceived wrongs sprout here and there on the fringes of Polite Society, some more obvious than others.  And some more dangerous.

Gestures Both Sacred and Profane
Some approaches to magic/sorcery will use material components and found objects, others will require specific motions, dances, katas or positions to be held in order to cast the spell involved.  There are monastic spell-casters.  Some spells only take a simple gesture, others require a dozen rituals to be performed before they can be even learned let alone attempted.  There are reflex-spells that tie directly into a sorcerer's Dex or Agility and grant them defenses they don't have to consciously cast under duress, but that cast themselves when under attack.  There are spontaneous spells that occur sometimes without anyone casting them, though this is rare outside of the halls of bizarre adepts, insane geniuses and mad wizards.  Improvisational magic is the norm, rather than the exception, amongst the street-sorcerers who include psychogravure, ambient graffiti and found object duels in their repertoires.

Spell Levels, Vancian and Otherwise
The basic spells that I am writing for Riskail are all immediately scalable to the level of the caster in terms of effect.  More advanced or ancient spells can tend to have a mind of their own and thus have correspondingly higher difficulty thresholds which is reflected in the notion that a spell can have a level independent from its caster, which is a core assumption in OD&D that I have never really liked all that much until I went back and re-read some of the source materials surrounding the so-called Vancian mechanics.  As in the above instance, I do like the idea of certain older, more established spells taking on a bit of intelligence, even a personality of their own.  Some spells writhe and twist like living things and have to be subdued, cajoled or persuaded to work for the caster, others have to be imprinted upon the caster's brain--a dangerous and risky undertaking that could lead to possession, burn-out (literally), or even progressive damage (potentially permanent Attribute Damage).  Of course, there are means of mitigating such deleterious effects through training, attunements, initiations, certain items or devices, some restorative elixirs, etc.

Difficulty Thresholds
In order to allow players and eventually other DMs who might like to explore Riskail in the future, or to convert some of Riskail's spells into a format that makes sense for another system, I came up with a strange new (I think) approach to Spell Levels.  The number given for a particular spell, say you pick something that is listed as a Third Level Spell in your source material, that spell would then have as many Difficulty Dice as it has a listed level, in this case 3.  A caster who is casting the spell cold, never having used it previously, needs to beat a roll against 3D6, in this example, to be able to memorize it, understand it, or cast it.  They get to choose the Attribute they want to roll against based on what they want to accomplish, i.e. using INT to memorize, WIS to understand/decipher it, or CHAR to gain the spell's trust and cooperation (see next entry for more on this particular approach), or to be able to express it (another fancier way to say 'cast it.'). 

Spell Loyalty
In respect to the more Vancian-style spells that have some sort of independent volition, intelligence, even personalities of their own, the existing table in Men & Magic, page 11, for Hirelings/Loyalty based upon Charisma could be adapted to handle the rather unique aspects of negotiation, rapport and loyalty required beyond their simple acquisition before they can be attempted to be used.

For Example:
I like making this process a direct extension of the function of an established attribute, in this case Charisma.  This is an example of where the OD&D rules-set actually did make a specific attribute grant specific abilities that were actually useful, or at least were intended to be useful, in the game.  By adapting the existing mechanic for handling Hirelings, we get a clean and simple mechanism for handling the more Vancian-style spells that are more akin to pseudo-creatures than items.  I also rather like the notion of having to gain the loyalty of a particular spell, or possibly blowing it and alienating a particular spell forever by rushing things or being ill-prepared, etc.  It punishes dunder-headed hubris and encourages/rewards putting your ducks in a row, such as gaining CHAR-boosting spells/items, researching possible ways to improve ones chances at making a favorable impression on the particular spell perhaps through divination, communing with entities on other planes, discussing the matter with experts and adepts, getting help, etc., etc.

Of course this would get mind-numbingly tedious if it were to be used for each and every spell, which I am most assuredly NOT suggesting or implying.  I'm merely pointing out a possible way to handle the more unqiue, interesting variant spells that are floating around out there in specific texts, journals, scrolls, etc. that are particularly well-suited to this sort of approach.  If they are going to take this level of effort to acquire and get to use them, the spells had better be worth it.  I can think of a few that will do nicely.

Public Domain Spells
There are spells that anyone can pick up easily, cheaply and often-times for free.  These are the most basic and elementary spells such as the Social Cantrips, the all-but-ubiquitous Preliminary Grimoire, certain aspects of the Vulgar Apparatus, and so on.  Anyone, from any walk of life and of any class can attempt to cast these spells and have a reasonable chance at getting some sort of result, though one's attributes do have a major influence over what is more or less likely to work for each person.

Attribute Challenges
Every spell has a particular attribute that it works in synergy with, and a low score in that attribute will diminish one's capacity to work with that spell, likewise an extraordinarily high score will result is a correspondingly better chance of getting a result and often yield much improved outcomes as well.  A very basic idea much akin to the notion that a higher Dex score can grant a PC a +1 bonus with missile weapons, only taken to serve all attributes and on into the spell-use mechanics as well. 

I am working out a method of tying as much as possible back to the Attributes so that really basic attribute-challenges can handle a lot of the sorts of things that skills, feats, etc. were originally tacked-on in order to deal with.  By reducing things down as much as possible to a streamlined Attribute-driven base and narrowing skills down into class-enhancing features, things flow better, players are in more control over their destinies, and choices matter a lot more.  It's almost a paradox, but by giving players a system that is strongly tied into their character's attributes, you can better model the sorts of stuff like a certain barbarian straining his mighty thews to overthrow a throne from its base, a gentleman-adventurer groping his way through the blackest pits below the Meta-Sultan's harem, some uppity albino princess riding roughshod over the amassed armies of her would-be suitors on her barely domesticated war-roach, or whatever.  Instead of a dozen different Improved This or That feats, or endless skill lists that make Classic Traveller look anemic, a lot of that stuff can be resolved down to a simple attribute challenge instead.  And since attributes are tied back into chakras, it dovetails right into the whole magic/psionics system(s) cleanly, seemlessly arises directly out of the attributes in fact, instead of being yet another bolted-on monstrosity.  I very much want to expand on the root principle inherent to OD&D that a player can try anything, their character may fail, but they should at least be able to make the attempt.

Arbitrary Powers: Caveat Emptor The forth-coming set of Rallu stories and vignettes get into this territory, and it is part and parcel of the Museums, Galleries, Salons and dissemination of sorcerous skills and abilities that really plays a major role in Riskail.  Arbitrary Powers are exactly what the name implies. They are strange abilities gained by way of attunements, initiations, mutations brought on by exposure to talismanic art exhibitions, the gifts of entities both bound and autonomous who are either momentarily aligned with or contractually bonded to the recipient in a pact.  The Ichthymatons of Trilb are a simple and fairly well-known example of this sort of thing.  The creation of a talismanic portrait in utmost secrecy, away from all other prying eyes, and using some of the most demanding (and not a little dangerous) techniques for combining one's own essence, soul and body with the exotic and ritually hand-crafted materials required is an arduous and costly rite of passage for many sorcerers who then gain the benefits of being bound to an object that acts as an external receptacle for the accumulated marks, scars, and effects of aging, debauchery, and casual violence.  A practice seen as a short-cut by most, and a poor return on the investment by those who haved learned the hard way what happens if their portrait is damaged or falls in the hands of an enemy.  (See Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray for the best-known example of how this fundamantal occult concept has been adapted into fiction.  You can find the Free Project Gutenberg e-Text of this classic HERE.)

Making a pilgrimage to one of the more notorious planar layers such a Shakrom or Dujeed and enacting a particular ritual in those sorts of places, under specific (hopefully) auspicious circumstances (be sure to check the astrology or visit the Interplanar Orrery first), can sometimes grant those with the courage and means to attempt such things great benefits, strange powers, peculiar gifts.  The half-fabled fountains in Jidrang (which is found on few, if any maps) are said to possess the power to restore the souls of those who have made a terrible mistake in their choice of methods for achieving longevity as the fountains are believed to wash away most forms of vampirism.  There are shrines erected by the monastic robots of various encrypted orders where some pilgrims go in order to attune themselves to the Resonant Spaces contained within or to link into a particular configuration of  ley-line junctions or nodes.  One might consider risking everything and transgressing the borders of various sites of sorcerous power such as the White Ziggurat in Devukarsha or the lines and grooves cut directly into the Etched Plateau or the Carved Mesas where the strange witchfire aurorae flicker in the twilight.

One need not do commerce with demons, daemons or one of the Twelve Devils, but they can, if they so wish.  All things have a price, even as all men and all women have theirs.  Seeking after un-earned rewards and the pursuit of over-weening ambition which outstrips good sense or morality are common-place and make for good business for the various Powers who cater to such trade. And there are plenty of beings out there who love a good trade, like the Ochemru, amongst many, many others.  There are the Mechile or their rivals the Apostates of Dilemmu who will negotiate the acquisition of various forms of cybernetic enhancement, most of which is hardened and well-suited to the needs of a sorcerer.  The Grafters can get you any body part you can design or describe--for a price.  The Maxlaang will offer you a fresh set of iron-gray eyes in order to seal your soul away and keep it safe from those who would attack it or try to possess it.  In the Open Market of the oneirically inclined, to the strange impromptu bazaars that spring up around caravans from far-away places, or even unto the secret invitation-only auctions of rare sorcerous artifacts, there are many, many deals to be made, treasure to haggle over, and opportunities to buy--or sell--just about anything if one but takes the time to look, to ask questions (discretely, of course), and to spend a few coins here and there.

Contracts, Pacts, Bonds
One of the founding principles of Polite Society is that a person's word is their bond.  Literally.  Honor, integrity and keeping one's word is no small matter.  It is the cornerstone of all civilized interaction and it influences magic and sorcery deeply and unmistakably.  The bond between a master and their familiar is both private and inviolate, being of an almost sacred intimacy.  Pacts reflect the metaphysical truth that all choices have repercussions, all decisions lead into consequences.  The contracts of sorcerers and their Patrons are founded on oaths that are ultimately and inextricably caught-up in the very essence of each party acting in good faith by doing their utmost to live up to their word. 

There will also be a very quick and easy (optional) Astrology system that forms the basis of a system of correspondences that can be used to help flesh-out spell effects, determine personality quirks, and unlock strange secrets...

Speaking of which, I think this is enough for now.


  1. Some serious grist for the mill here.

    Particularly like the idea of spells being influenced by reaction modifiers, it would be a nice touch for the kind of pacts with entities used by Elric...

  2. Those are fun, aren't they? We often get a hundred types of weapons and the same boring spells that go boom or are worthless. I want more fun spells, cantankerous spells with personality and some oomph at least as good as what the other classes get with their weapons, armor and so on.

    Less boring, more fun, plenty of explosions. That's my goal.


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