Tweaking magic

Last time was a grab-bag of ideas, but the main one that drove me to post was the idea of Devotions. I like the idea of (myths and game settings that feature) human-like gods, with moods and whimsy, and the idea that human cultic practices arose from a need to keep the local divinities properly coddled and appeased.

This post is a complement to that. I’ve been thinking about ways to spice up traditional non-divine magic use. What I came up with isn’t an entire alternate system as such, more a modification or house rule or alternate perspective that can be layered on top of Vancian, point-based, and probably other systems without any serious conflicts. In my mind, this gives the sort of variety that the designers of D&D 3.x / Pathfinder were aiming for with their profusion of spellcasting classes. It overlaps to a degree with the Use Magic Device skill as well.

The idea is that while the underlying magical effects remain largely the same, the methods used to generate each one defend on the tools and methodology, or more abstractly the medium. Here’s a list of examples along with some thoughts about how they would balance against each other in play.

1. Casting by rote. This is the system’s default style. It’s moderately quick, requires a moderate expenditure of energy (whether in the form of a spell slot, mana points, fatigue taken on, etc.), and offers a high level of control over the results with just a baseline requirement for preparation and resource investment. Rote casting can only be used by people with relatively extensive training in order to control all the little variables; anybody without the necessary level of expertise must find an aid of some sort (as detailed below).

2. Casting by ritual. This is the poor man’s version of rote, requiring a relatively complicated or time- or resource-consuming setup. Rituals might demand multiple people acting on concert to meet all the requirements, or have strange and specific elements — can only be performed in the dark of the moon when the pole star is clearly visible in the night sky; can only be performed on a mountain peak within an hour of a lightning strike; the final step can only be completed by a one-armed man who has never shed a tear. Ritual probably takes less training than rote to pull off, if only because it tends to move at a more sedate pace and the practitioners can consult instructions during the process.

3. Casting by reading. Ritual for dummies, or perhaps just a natural consequence of a world where words inherently hold magical power. Someone needs to write down the magic words in a scroll or book, on a clay tablet, etc., and anybody who can read the script used can simply read the spell aloud for the magic to take effect. The reader will probably need no particular magical talent or training, and depending on how benign the spell is may not need to invest any energy or other resources of their own. I see this method as being somewhat faster and less-involved than ritual, once the text is in hand, but the reader probably has very little control over the results — the majority of the costs, and the majority of the control, go to the text’s creator. Texts like this are often used up when used.

4. Casting by device. This is the category for your magic wands, mirrors, seven-league boots, and other magical tools. Like texts, devices will have a limited set of uses, and parameters that are set during creation rather than controlled by the user. The trade-off is that they are even simpler to use than texts (while some secret, like a command word or similar trick may be necessary, they don’t require literacy) and, again, probably need no energy or resource investment after creation.

5. Casting by familiar. This is Prospero and Ariel, or Faust and his demons. The supposed magic-user is not using the magic personally as much as they are asking some magic being to help them out. The relationship between magician and familiar may be one-way or two-; harmful, benign or mutually beneficial; it may be based on friendship, slavery, continual minor transactions, some past debt that needs to be repaid, or a future price to be extracted when the time is right. Each individual act of magic costs little or nothing to the user… but how much time it takes, how much say they have in the details, and how much they will have paid by the end will vary depending on their relationship with the being. There may be a formal pact involved, and the familiar will almost always have limits on what deeds it can or is willing to perform.

6. Casting by gnosis. Or casting by sheer force of will, if you will. The caster relies on nothing but a passionate outburst of their innate energies, or an intuitive understanding of how the forces of the cosmos align, to perform magic. This will probably be the most draining method, because it uses no props or crutches to make the job easier. It will also be one of the most demanding — that kind of passion can only come at moments of extreme emotion; that level of intuition can only come after long years of study and experience, or at least once-in-a-generation levels of talent. There may be terrible costs involved, usually from the strain, but the amount of power and often of precise control over that power are greater than for any other method.

For example, say you want to get some pants. You might just cast Summon Pants by the normal method. You might call your friends and dance around a pile of lint for the Trouser Ritual. You might read the Pants Calling Song from a book, or just strike Der Hosengong until pants come out. You might ask the black cat that lives with you to bring you some pants, and wake the next morning to find them by your front door (shredded and with bits of dead animal inside, of course). Or perhaps you blaze with an eldritch light and, when everyone can see again, you are clad in proper britches. (Amazingly enough, spellcheck refuses to acknowledge “eldritch” and suggested “britches” as a replacement.) After that, the details will depend on the system, the genre, the needs of the moment.

That’s all for now, but there’s more cooking somewhere back in there. I know I left the “Four Realms” system somewhat in the lurch lo these many moons ago, but recent reading has rather inspired me to dream up what I can only call a “wildly mutated original D&D clone.” Emphasis on “mutated.”

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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