Posts Tagged ‘magic


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.


Making Vancian Spellcasting Concrete

Over at the Eiglophian Press, G. Benedicto has a noteworthy series of posts about Vancian crunch, which is being discussed over at Finarvyn’s OD&D boards. I fully agree that the way that Vance describes spellcasting is much more evocative and inspirational than its presentation in any old-school ruleset. This, and later quotations in italics, is from his short story “Mazirian the Magician,” published as part of The Dying Earth (1950) – not the sole Vancian source for the concept of prepared spells, but a good and convenient one:

Later, when black night lay across the forest, he would seek through his books for spells to guard him through the unpredictable glades. They would be poignant corrosive spells, of such a nature that one would daunt the brain of an ordinary man and two render him mad. Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells…. Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere.

I think that G. Benedicto’s impulse to “clarify what’s happening in the wizard’s study” is an excellent one, and that it can usefully begin with looking to Vance to help imagine what a magic-user is doing when he or she memorizes spells. However, I take issue with two of his assertions.

Here we see Jack Vance contemplating whether to release one of the many spells filling his brain to capacity, which would cause many-colored stabbing lines to split your blundering body in a thousand places.

First, I disagree that the number of spells a magic-user is able to prepare is one and the same as the number of spells in their spellbook from which they can choose when deciding which to memorize. The OD&D thread shows there are folks who play this way, and not without textual justification. Like any holy text worth its salt, you can find support in the Three Little Brown Books for just about any position you want to take! However, Vance seems clear that magic-users may know many more spells than they can fit in their brain at any one time:

…at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.

Second, I think that the use of the term “crunch” is ill-advised, and not only because some old-schoolers don’t know that this new-school term of art refers to game mechanics that quantify the narrative fluff. However, it’s possible for both crunch and fluff to be completely divorced from gameplay, and in fact it’s a rational economic activity for freelancers who are paid by the word to spend lots of time fluffily describing and crunchily quantifying things that the PCs will never actually interact with during the game.

What I find really inspirational about the Eiglophian post is is the idea that Vancian spellcasting can be made more vivid and compelling by providing more ways for it have a concrete impact on play. In the comments, Booberry suggests two great examples – first the suggestion that, by  increasing magic-users’ focus and mental discipline, potions and elixirs might increase the limit on the spells that they could cram into their brain, and second that the death of a magic-user might cause these spells to come shooting out again! (Some honest-to-goodness crunch is provided for the latter – at 0 HP, the M-U must save vs. spells to avoid all remaining memorized spells firing off at random. There’s no attempt at a pre-ordained blanket quantification of what this would mean ahead of time, which I think is wise.) G. Benedicto also suggests the awesome idea of memory-stealing substances.

Before I suggest some additional ways to give Vancian spellcasting a more concrete presence in play, let’s look at the existing game consequences of the idea.

  1. Memorizing spells takes time, concentration, and access to books. Of Mazirian, Vance tells us that “Midnight found him in his study, poring through leather-bound tomes and untidy portfolios“. Events in the game that disturb the magic-users’ study or deprive him or her to access to books will thus demonstrate the practical limits of Vancian spellcasting.
  2. Because preparation is lengthy and effortful, not every magic-user will have taken the effort to memorize spells on any given day. When Vance’s protagonist tells a Deodand “Answer my questions, and I undertake to feed you much flesh,” it sizes him up and replies “You may in any event, Mazirian. Are you with powerful spells today?” The fact that magic-users and knights both must gird themselves for battle, such that catching them unprepared gives an enormous advantage,  is highly significant to gameplay. (Note that by this analogy the 3E sorcerer, who never uses memorized spells, is as much a missed dramatic opportunity as a martial artist who fights only with his fists; the most awesome moment in many kung-fu movies is the point where the hero’s sword breaks and he continues to kick ass despite what would be a crippling disadvantage for a normal fighter.)
  3. The details of Vancian spellcasting determine when a magic-user is potent. “For all Mazirian’s magic he was helpless. The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain. In any event he could not have uttered the space-twisting syllables with that mindless clutch at his throat.” Being able to shut down a spellcaster with a silence spell demonstrates an aspect of the way magic works.

OK, now I will (finally) suggest some more ways that PCs could interact concretely with the concept of Vancian spellcasting during play. Many of these take their cue from the sense of spells as possessed of independent vitality and agency that comes from another story in The Dying Earth, “Turjan of Miir”:

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violet Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the solitude of the book. Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion.

  1. Memorizing the same spell more than once may cause the copies to fight in your brain. In the White Sandbox thus far I’ve discouraged this without further explanation, but on reflection I think it’s coolest to give players a choice between the reward of being able to end multiple fights with sleep and the risk of horrible Vancian consequences that are known but unlikely. At first glance it makes sense to have these arise while the spell is being memorized, but that tends to happen outside the focus of play. Players will be unhappy if dire consequences mean Blastum is found dead over his spellbooks before the day’s adventure even begins, while DMs will be dissatisfied if milder effects mean the adventurers just spend another day drinking in the tavern while their magic-user gets her mind untangled. I think it’s better if the ill effects come about at the time that one of the duplicate spells is cast. Perhaps there’s a chance that they have become stuck together and all come out at once when you utter the syllables hoping to release one of them, with unintended and likely adverse effects.
  2. Upon reading a magic scroll, the spell it contains floods into your brain and fills up all available space. If you have multiple empty spell slots, you inadvertently run the risks of memorizing duplicate spells. A lesser version would target only a single spell level, while a more versatile spell could put versions of itself into whatever level slots are open. An especially virulent version would replace the spells already memorized, either by causing you to forget them or by firing them all off randomly! This is a good way for DMs to have fun watching magic-users find creative applications for a spell too dangerous or whimsical for them to ever consider memorizing under other circumstances.
  3. A cursed scroll contains a previously undiscovered spell, the effects of which are tempting enough to entice magic-users to copy it into their own spellbook. This spell is unusually eager to flood into the magic-user’s brain, taking a tenth the normal time to memorize. It does indeed perform as promised when it is cast, but it becomes voraciously jealous when it is passed over in favor of other spells. Each time the magic-user prepares spells from that book and does not memorize the spell from the cursed scroll, over the course of the following day it copies its own runes over those of one other randomly selected spell in the book. Most likely, this is not discovered until the magic-user attempts to prepare one of the over-written spells.
  4. An arrow toxin causes magic-users to lose the discipline necessary to resist the pressure of the spells stuffed into their brain. For the next 1d4 rounds, they must  speak the syllables to cast one of their spells (of their choice or randomly determined, depending on the horribleness of the toxin), groaning with relief as each one is released from its confinement.
  5. Entering certain anti-magic fields causes some or all of a magic-user’s spells to escape from their confinement in his or her brain. This is not immediately apparent due to the suppression of the anti-magic field. When the effects of the field are removed, the result may be as if all the spells had been cast at once, or the spells may gain some independent existence of their own, such as the excellent concept of the living spell Keith Baker created for the Eberron campaign setting in D&D 3.5.
  6. A magical substrate such as an enchanted blank is so receptive a home for spells that on each round a magic-user views the page, he or she must make a saving throw to avoid having a randomly chosen memorized spell escape and take up residence in the new substrate. This could be a useful item for a magic-user who wished to simultaneously disable enemy spellcasters and enrich his or her own spellbook.
  7. A symbol or creature is so abhorrent to arcane principles that a magic-user in the presence of this provocation must make a saving throw each round to resist the demands of his or her memorized spells to be hurled at the offender. A magic-resistant character might want to paint such a symbol on a shield and draw fire away from more vulnerable members of the party (aka aggro, as K. Bailey’s comment here leads me to believe they’re calling it in these new-fangled graphical MUDs).

The Evolution of hold person

In a previous post I used hold person as an example of a spell that changed dramatically from OD&D to later versions.  The original version of hold person, as described in Men & Magic, was a very powerful charm spell that allowed the caster to compel action from his victims.

This fits in with the early pulp-influences and atmosphere of OD&D – the evil wizard or priest casting a spell and then ordering someone to drop their weapons, walk to the altar, and sacrifice the captive, say, or turn on their comrades in battle, or open the cursed book of Graalk, or open the gate of the besieged city, or…

In later versions of D&D (starting with Holmes) hold person causes paralysis, offering less opportunity for mischief on the part of an inventive caster, a drastic change in the nature of the spell.  I wondered what prompted the change.

So I was excited to see this comment in the Grognardia interview of Len Lakofka that illuminates some of how the change in nature of the spell came about: it seems as actually used in play, hold person required a system shock roll from those it affected.  Mr. Lakofka explains:

In the original AD&D manuscript… Gary had said that if a person was held (via hold person) he/she had to make a system shock roll! I said to Gary that this would become a “Little Finger of Death.” Certainly many NPCs as well as a few characters would have a Constitution score of 14 or lower. A system shock would kill quite a few folks. Since hold person is a 2nd-level cleric spell and 3rd-level magic-user spell, those spell casters needed very little experience to gain access to the prayer/spell. A gaggle of four 3rd-level clerics all throwing hold person at once on the same person would have a very high chance of not only holding him but killing him/her as well. I talked Gary out of it.

Awesome!  Now if we could only hear from someone on how the original magic-missile spell was used (with or without a to-hit roll?) the Mule’s curiosity would be satisfied.

For a bit.


Encouraging Spell Research

In old-school D&D, a magic-user’s ability to gain new spells differs based not only on which edition you’re playing, but on the DM’s whim. For instance, Holmes Basic allows you to learn new spells from scrolls and other magic-users, but it gives the DM carte blanche to decide what spells you’ll run across. One DM might provide stacks of scrolls and armies of friendly mentors, while another’s game may have no scrolls or mentors at all! Moldvay Basic is even stricter; not only does it restrict magic-user spell acquisition to leveling up and spell research, but even then it explicitly allows the DM to decide what spells you start with. He may let you choose a powerhouse spell like Sleep as your starting spell, or he may stick you with Hold Portal or Shield.

Spell research is available as an option by which you can individualize your magic-user’s spell selection, but it’s also very difficult to pull off. Not only is it expensive and risky, but it takes the magic-user out of play for weeks at a time, a severe penalty for a class that’s already slow to level up.

To encourage spell research rather than discourage it, I’m experimenting with some changes to the Moldvay rules:

1) Since we’re using Carousing rules (in which PCs gain experience points from frivolous expenditures of gold), I’ve ruled that gold spent on research counts as carousing, and thus is a good way to cash in your gold for XP, especially if it bypasses the usual caps on how much gold you can spend in one go.

2) I’m greatly reducing the time required to research new spells. Two weeks for a first level spell will take a magic-user PC out of play for several sessions, and it only gets worse from there! Halving that is a good start, and I’ll halve it again when researching a spell that’s similar to one that the magic-user already knows; this should encourage themed spell research akin to the suite of Bigby’s Hand spells.

3) Attempting to learn a spell from a teacher, captured spellbook or scroll will have a chance of failure, and failing to learn the spell precludes another attempt until the magic-user gains a level. Researching a variant of the spell in question should prove a viable alternative to waiting to level up.

How these rules will work in practice is anybody’s guess. If the party’s magic-users continue to die off at their customarily swift rate, it may never come up…

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2021

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