Posts Tagged ‘magic


In AD&D You’re Always Stepping on 1d100 Woefully Encysted Creatures

cr0m’s recent comment to James’ post about Grand Motholam reminded me of a Gygaxism that I find utterly mind-blowing. He notes, justly, that:

In Vance’s stories, the spells available are much more wondrous, powerful or ridiculous than Sleep, Charm and Magic Missile. You’ve got incantations like the Spell of the Macroid Toe (victim gets a giant toe!), The Spell of Woeful Encystment (victim is in stasis deep beneath the earth), the Spell of the Sequestrous Digit (caster’s hand appears elsewhere, usually poised for groping someone attractive and/or picking their pockets). Is it really memorization/resource management that makes magic boring?

I quibble that The Spell of Woeful Encystment is, in AD&D, a ninth-level spell named Imprisonment. But yes, simply lifting a spell from Vance is boring in its own way. Gygax’s unique genius comes in this added detail:

The reverse (freedom) spell will cause the appearance of the victim at the spot he, she, or it was entombed and sunk in the earth. There is a 10% chance that 1 to 100 other creatures will be freed from imprisonment at the same time if the magic-user does not perfectly get the name and background of the creature to be freed.

Perhaps Maldoor will contribute a calculation of exactly how many creatures have already been encysted, on average, at each and every spot in the Prime Material Plane where you might choose to cast an incompletely-specified freedom spell. I will merely note that what these rules say about the world –  that wizards of the 18th level or higher have been sealing people in small spheres far beneath the earth for so many aeons that now the main problem is losing track of which particular one you’re looking for – that the globe is an over-stuffed filing system for people who rubbed Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter and his buddies the wrong way –  is why session reports of a peyote/crack/LSD binge are indistinguishable from just playing D&D.

For my money, imprisonment is as brilliant a riff on Vance’s themes as any of Gene Wolfe’s, that other acolyte for whom The Dying Earth was the Book of Gold. In The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe tells us that no delver can turn a spadeful of earth that does not contain some artifact of the past, and his viewpoint character Severian so takes it for granted that every mountain there is has been given the Mount Rushmore treatment in some past age that this fact is never directly stated. Which is awesome and all, but is it mundane of me to be even more amazed by the suggestion that, armed with my trusty polyhedrons, I could determine just how many artifacts there are in each spadeful?

EDIT: To avoid the promulgation of error among those who might not read the comments, Eric writes there:

Oh, Tavis! That isn’t Gygax’s genius at all! It’s pure Vance. When we see Cugel the Clever get the spell of forlorn encystment backwards in The Eyes of the Overworld, the ancient earth coughs up dozens of time-lost encystees.

Oops! While I’m doing my penance and re-reading Tales of the Dying Earth (with the fitting Brom cover instead of the out-of-place Berkey one, natch!), y’all can discuss whether this means that the idea of a reversible spell is also a lifted Vancism.


as it was in Grand Motholam

A partial list of game design consequences which arise from Vancian casting:

  1. Refers to Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, never a bad thing.
  2. Introduces a pacing mechanic: oops, time to retreat I’m out of juice.
  3. Introduces suspense: did I pick the right spells?
  4. Allows new ways to measure skillful play based on how well you manage the gamble of spell selection.
  5. Rewards gathering information to make wise spell choices.
  6. Encourages repeated delves to improve casters’ efficiency.
  7. Creates a market for more reliable classes, and thus an adventuring party, to hedge against bad spell selection.
  8. Implies a very mundane (board-gamey?) aesthetic: magic is a commodity like torches, food, and arrows.

Naturally other magic systems might be better at these same goals, or achieve different goals entirely.  But the existing system is pretty far-reaching in its effect on the game.


why’d it have to be snakes?

Best. Cleric. Evar.

What’s up with the Cleric spell list in the Marsh/Cook (and Mentzer) Expert rules?  Were there a whole bunch of snake-themed dudes in the early games way back when?   Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult…

* Neutralize Poison
* Snake Charm

* Sticks to Snakes

* Growth of Animals SNAKES
* Speak with Animal SNAKES


Make Snakes Awesome

  • Cleric Level 3
  • Range 60
  • Duration Permanent
  • By means of this spell a cleric can transform one snake within range into awesomeness – like shooting lasers from its eyes, or having two heads, or regenerating while eating their own tails, or shedding skin to create extra boss magical leather armor, or dripping hallucinogenic addictive venom or whatever dude.  The awesomeness may gain a reaction roll bonus from NPC’s who appreciate greatness and 1970’s Proto-Metal.

Snakes to Ladders

  • Cleric Spell Level 2
  • Range 30′
  • Duration 2 turns
  • This spell turns any snake, serpent, eel, worm, or other scaly tubular poisoned critter, like a purple worm, into a ladder with fanged hooks to grab on to walls, 10′ long per hit die.  If the snake has more hit dice than the caster, whoever climbs the ladder must save vs. poison or be pricked by the poisonous fangs.

Turn Into Crazy Snake-Man

  • Cleric Spell Level 4
  • Range 0
  • Duration 6 turns
  • This spell turns the cleric into a crazy snake-man.  The cleric cannot speak in crazy snake-man form, cannot wear clothes and has no hands, but can slither around and pass through holes too small for a Halfling to crawl through.  The cleric’s bite becomes deadly poison and he or she has Armor Class 6.  If the crazy snake-man successfully bites a victim, he or she may coil around that victim to automatically do 2d4 points of damage the next round–but this is only possible if the cleric was wearing an extra nifty little hat thingy at the time when the spell was cast (see picture, above).

Fantasy Fiction: Rhialto the Marvellous

By reason of special factors (which lie beyond the scope of this present exposition), the magicians of the day were a various lot; gathered in colloquy, they seemed an assembly of rare and wonderful birds, each most mindful of his own plumage. While, on the whole, lacking the flamboyant magnificence of Grand Motholam, they were no less capricious and self-willed, and only after a number of unhappy incidents were they persuaded to regulate themselves by a code of conduct.

—Jack Vance, “Rhialto the Marvellous”

Jack Vance is best known among D&D players for the magic system that bears his name. In his Dying Earth stories, magicians wrestle potent spells from ancient librams into their brains. Fans of Vance’s work attend more to his imagination, his wit, his flair for sardonic dialogue and his spare, elastic prose. The three stories compiled as Rhialto the Marvellous give us a full dose of both categories; the book is chock full of earthy, damaged magicians frittering their lives away beneath a dying sun.

Vance’s stories certainly entertain on a sensory level. He sketches portraits of bizarre landscapes with only a few words, many of them obscure, archaic or freshly minted. But while his mastery of language is a great strength, it’s his grasp of character and theme that give his stories backbone. Behind their fanciful names and mannered diction, his characters are authentically selfish, venal and eccentric, and their sparring is both engaging and to the point.

“… What of the clevenger?”

“Pay it no heed. Do not approach the cage. Remember, its talk of both virgins and wealth is illusory; I doubt if it knows the meaning of either term.”

“Just so, sir.”

The three stories in the collection share a theme; the characters are the vapid descendants of greater generations, and they squander both their talents and their inheritance on inane plots and frivolous pursuits. Vance grew up during the Great Depression and struggled to be involved in the Second World War; the last story in the collection, “Morreion,” was written at the close of the Vietnam War, while the others were written during the “me years” of the ‘80s. Regarding the stories in that context, it’s easy to read the critiques of American society embedded in the text: feminism and gender theory; corruption of the rule of law; the predicament of veterans when the public chooses to forget about the war. Scratch the surface and there’s strong stuff underneath.

Aside from the magic—which is, itself, curious and entertaining stuff—and the tales’ thematic weight , I strongly recommend these stories to old-schoolers for the characters. They are the platonic ideal of OD&D PCs: self-absorbed, cowardly, greedy, and dreamily unconcerned with morality and ideology except when such matters impinge on their activities, yet strangely compelling by dint of their surface qualities: wit, eccentricity, verve and panache. If only all of our adventurers were so engaging!


arnold and the allosaur

I’ve been bad about blogging – I’ve got little to say these days – but let me tell you about my character… (And solicit your own tales of bravery!)

Last night, while exploring the Caverns of Thracia, my 4th level Magic-User Arnold Littleworth stared down an allosaurus which had just devoured our platinum robotic liger.

Like this but made of Platinum

Rest In Peace, Loki

(Yes, we have had a platinum robotic liger.  This is not the focus of the story.)

Two things are noteworthy about this encounter:

  1. The rest of the party all ran away in terror.  I won’t kid you, I wanted to run as well.  But to the true hero, glory matters more than life itself.
  2. I cast a spell I researched: Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation basically allows you to mingle with monsters until the boss shows up.  Thanks to some sloppy drafting on my part, it worked perfectly in this situation.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in the OSR that a Magic-User has researched a brand-new spell and cast it in play. (Though I’d be happy to be proven wrong.)

Not only has Arnold, also known as Zolobachai of the Nine Visions, traveled between two different campaigns, and been immortalized in print (entirely due to Tavis’s greatness) – but he is also Using Magic like a fiend.

What crazy, foolhardy tales of derring-do has your character been up to?  For me, this is the third or fourth time Arnold has risked crazy death:

  • Arnold – no weapons, no “good” spells – brained a Lizard Man with his frying pan in his first adventure, purely to save Colin Tree-Slayer’s life.
  • Arnold – again, no weapons or “good” spells – toppled a mind-controlling statue in order to save the party
  • Arnold swindled an 11th level Wizard into eating Giant Eagle dung, in order to lift a curse on his comrade, Sir Argus the Rat-Knight
  • The whole thing with the allosaur, yadda yadda old news

So although Maldoor is smarter, and Forager is more ingenious, and John is more noble, and Ookla is more sensible, and Chrystos is funnier–I think Arnold is hands-down the bravest and most gutsy.

Like this, but alive and smelly

Yes, I Defeated You (by just barely surviving)

I’d be happy to read tales of courage in the comments!


How to Keep your Vancian Spells Happy

Over at the OD&D boards, jcstephens wrote: “What if spells were ‘alive’, in the same way as magic swords? Maybe there’d be several different versions, with Egos and alignments and goals. Possibly, they might even have rivalries and grudges.”

As a hopefully useful by-product of my addiction to the surreality of random dice rolls, I present the following table for determining the goals of a magic-user’s spells:

  1. Spell wants a spellbook all to itself. If this already true, it wants the spellbook illuminated, re-bound, gilded, etc. at a cost of 1d6 x spell level x 10 gp.
  2. Spell feels its current position in your brain & your possessions is insecure, and demands to be scribed onto a scroll that is given to a M-U who leads a less dangerous lifestyle.
  3. Spell falls in love with another randomly determined spell in the M-U’s repertoire. It will only be scribed into a spellbook or scroll that also contains its beloved, and will only be memorized when its beloved is also memorized.
  4. Spell hates another spell and will not co-exist with it in a spellbook, scroll, or M-U’s brain.
  5. Spell wants its M-U to go on a quest: spells cast on a target want to be cast on a particular kind of target (roll as if for a wandering monster), illusion spells want to view the reality of some obscure thing they can emulate, etc.
  6. Spell chooses a new, fancier name for itself and will refuse to be cast, memorized, or scribed for 1d6 days following any incidence of being referred to by its older and less grandiose name.

If I were to use these in a game, I’d probably roll for a spells’ goal at the point where it was acquired, and likely wouldn’t do so for every spell (maybe roll 3d6 for the spell’s drive, and worry about its goals only if the total equals or exceeds the magic-user’s wisdom).

I’d provide a stick to make the consequences of failing to cater to your spells’ whims (like introducing your favorite set of magical fumble rules, or increasing the likelihood of fumbles if you’re already using them), but balance it out with a carrot. This might be the nature of the spell itself – perhaps only the most useful and desirable spells have goals – or it might be giving ordinary spells an advantage, like a penalty to the saving throw against a spell that’s fulfilled in its desires.


Spellbooks Without Spells: A Vancian Variant

In a recent post, Tavis discusses Vancian magic, both in terms of Jack Vance’s original work and its translation into the familiar Vancian spellcasting found in D&D. I’ve done some tinkering with the magic system in my Red Box campaign. I hope that you, gentle reader, find something useful in this implementation that you can take away for your own game.


I: A Magic-User’s Own Idiom

In this setting, magic is idiosyncratic. One’s spells must take into account all the elements of one’s magical nature: one’s true name, the astrological signs ascendant at one’s birth, the peculiar alchemical affinities of one’s own blood, the entities that one’s magical lineage has pacted with, etc. Thus, no two magic-users employ the same version of a given spell.

To use computer programming as a metaphor, view each spell as a program and each magic-user as an operating system. Unlike the real world, no two of these operating systems are identical! Whenever one magic-user wishes to learn a spell from another, he must revise the spell so that it works on his “operating system”—his personal magical idiom. Still, it’s easier than researching a new spell from scratch.

II: Initiations and Pacts

This magic-user is performing an initiatory rite to add a new spell to his repertoire.

The power for spells comes from extra-planar sources: gods, demons, elementals, fairies, timeless arcane intelligences, etc. It is not enough to know the words and gestures of a spell. One must also perform an initiation into the mysteries of the spell, forging a pact with an extra-planar entity to power the incantation.

Such initiations are complex rites. The magic-user must draw intricate diagrams with pastes made from crushed gems, burn exotic woods and incense, don ritual garments sewn with gold and silver thread, and so forth. Whereas most of the time involved in performing spell research goes to devising the spell itself, procuring the components for the initiatory rite takes up most of the money. (When one acquires a “free” spell upon leveling up, this may be justified by one’s mentor or another friendly magic-user supplying the components needed to perform the initiation.)

Sometimes these rites are unsuccessful. They might not be devised properly or executed correctly. Hence the possibility of failure—even catastrophic failure—in spell research.

III: The Spells Themselves

Unlike the magics used by Rhialto the Marvellous, Iucounu the Laughing Magician and their fellow thaumaturges in Vance’s work, these spells have no volition; one does not struggle with them lest they wriggle out of one’s mind and into the world. But they are not simply “memorized,” either.

A spell is a matrix of magical forces that exists within the magic-user’s mind. In a sense, it is a single-use magic item, and it obeys similar principles in play. An enterprising magic-user might even find ways to strip away an opponent’s prepared spells, although it will take something more impressive than a mere dispel magic to do so.

For a good example, look at how spells are “hung” by Merlin of Chaos in Roger Zelazny’s second Amber quintet. “Then I spoke the spell, slowly and clearly, leaving out the four key words I had chosen to omit. … The spell hung before me like a crippled butterfly of sound and color, trapped within the synesthetic web of my personal vision of the Logrus, to come again when I summoned it, to be released when I spoke the four omitted words.”

IV: Spell Scrolls

A magical scroll is not simply a bit of writing. It is essentially identical to a prepared spell, except that instead of keeping the spell matrix inside her own mind, the magic-user binds the matrix to a roll of parchment. Now, instead of reciting the trigger words from memory, the magic-user reads them off the scroll—or gives the scroll to another magic-user, who can do the same.

V: Spell Valences

One does not simply cram spells into one’s head willy-nilly. They must be fitted together into lattices. As magic-users grow more powerful, they can accommodate increasingly larger configurations of spells.

Much like electron shells in an atom, each lattice contains a fixed number of spells of each level. Thus, a conjurer may encompass no more than two first-level spells and a second-level spell; the first-level spells may not be replaced by a second-level spell nor vice versa. Scholarly magic-users may refer to the nodes of the lattice as “valences,” a term shamelessly stolen from Sepulchrave’s Tales of Wyre.

These spell valences are of a fixed order of power and complexity. Thus, there are no “third-and-a-half level” spells.

VI: Spellbooks

A page from a wizard's compendium.

Magic-users don’t generally have “spellbooks” in the sense we think of in D&D, with each page filled in with the specifics of a given spell. Instead, they have compendiums of magic: occult encyclopedias full of information, diagrams and formulae regarding alchemy, astrology, necromancy, theurgy, and all of the other recognized schools of sorcery. When preparing a spell, one pores through one’s compendium for the specific elements of the spell—the appropriate diagrams and formulae—and impresses the magical matrix of the spell upon one’s mind.

Some magic-users do take the time (one day per spell level) to transcribe the exact formulae involved in their spells, thus creating a “spellbook” much like the typical AD&D spellbook. Such spellbooks are often used by magic-users when traveling or adventuring, or to loan out when trading spells. Not every wizard the party defeats will have one, however, and if a PC magic-user steals or borrows one from an NPC, he must still research the spell to translate it into his own magical idiom and perform the necessary initiation.

A spellbook that only contains a few spells is much smaller than a full occult compendium, as it contains only a few specific formulae. Beyond a certain point, however, a spellbook becomes larger than a compendium, as a given occult chart or diagram may be repeated a dozen times for use in a dozen different spells. Thus, magic-users with large repertoires may not wish to rely on spellbooks!

One may attempt to prepare a spell from memory if one has neither compendium nor spellbook at hand. This is very dangerous! If one constructs the spell matrix with even one incorrect glyph or syllable, the spell will go awry. If one is lucky, it will simply fizzle when cast; worse, it may come out warped, backfire on the caster, or even provide an opening for an extra-planar entity to enter the world.

Past Adventures of the Mule

June 2019
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