Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Spells

The term "spell" refers to a magical formula, whether written or mental, that enables a spellcaster to alter reality in accordance with the parameters of that formula. In its written form, a spell is expressed by a complex, non-representational cipher that is completely unintelligible to anyone whose mind has not been prepared to do so. Such preparation is a significant part of a spellcaster's apprenticeship, with years spent in exercises intended to open the mind to the non-physical "impressions" of spells. These impressions are the mental form of a spell and translating them between their written and mental forms is another important part of a spellcatser's apprenticeship.

Though commonly spoken of as existing in the "memory" of the spellcaster before they are activated, this isn't quite accurate. Rather, a spell exists in the mind as an "image" or "symbol" that corresponds to a known effect in the real world. Becoming a spellcaster is, in part, learning the ability to associate these symbols with specific effects and do so in such a way as to bring them about outside the mind. This process is difficult and mentally taxing and, initially, most spellcasters are unable to retain a small number of minor symbols in their minds at once. It is only with time and experience that they expand their minds sufficiently to be able to retain more -- and more potent -- symbols.

The discovery of the correspondences between these mental symbols and non-mental effects occurred in the distant past, likely in the time of the mysterious Ancients. So obscure are these correspondences that, even after untold millennia of research, the number of spells has not expanded much beyond the 100 or so spells that are taught in magical academies today. This has led some to suggest that all possible correspondences have already been discovered, an opinion some sages scoff at, for both history and legend speak of spells whose effects are unlike any seen in the present era.

7 comments:

  1. You've mentioned before that magic spells are capped at level 6 in Dwimmermount (IIRC); does that mean that higher level spells never existed, or was their knowledge lost in the past with the fall of the Thulian Empire?

    Security word: "hobbity." The Tolkien estate will now come after Blogger.

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  2. My current picture of spells is that they are pieces of Chaos brought into the real world and the spell binds the chaos, gives it form and function. When the spell is spoken that bundle of chaos is released to enact the spell and then gone, back to Chaos. To me that justifies the one-shot 'Vancian' style magic.
    Also, the spells whisper to each other in the M-Us mind. Words that cannot be understood by mortal man. A little roleplaying syrup to justify wizards going off their rockers and building dungeons for adventurers to explore.

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  3. "a spell exists in the mind as an "image" or "symbol" that corresponds to a known effect in the real world"

    I like the idea that magic has to somehow be held in a wizard's mind (or even a scroll) as an arcane symbol or sigil. I've been kicking around the idea that writing ("spell"-ing) is itself intrinsically dangerous.

    Clerics can copy holy texts without fear, but otherwise the written word (for whatever reason) risks the invocation of Chaos (or worse, the summoning of a demon).

    Wizards are people whose minds are disciplined and trained well enough to mitigate the danger of the written word by reducing it to a symbol in their mind (or on paper) that can be unleashed as they desire. Hence the spell Read Magic doesn't make a wizard magically literate, it makes him temporarily (and only relatively) safe.

    For common people, there is no such mitigation of this danger, so if they need to communicate visually, they use mundane symbols or drawings. This not only lends itself to a world full of misunderstanding and rumor, it means that even where people encourage the active spread of knowledge, it's greatly slowed by imprecision. Imagine, for example, a blueprint or map with no letters or numbers being passed from person to person.

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  4. This is the best Dwimmermount letter yet. A really nice "meta" approach to D&D magic. Just wondering, James, is this an idea that's been brewing for much of your gaming career, or just some details that seemed appropriate as you were filling out the campaign (not that there'd be anything wrong with that...)?

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  5. does that mean that higher level spells never existed, or was their knowledge lost in the past with the fall of the Thulian Empire?

    It's a bit more complex than either option, but I won't say anything here, since my players read this blog :) Suffice it to say that there are more spells above and beyond those commonly known, but how and why they work has yet to be revealed in the campaign, since it's never come up in play (yet).

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  6. Just wondering, James, is this an idea that's been brewing for much of your gaming career, or just some details that seemed appropriate as you were filling out the campaign (not that there'd be anything wrong with that...)?

    It's mostly the latter, although some aspects of it have been in my brain (no pun intended) for a long time. I was also influenced somewhat by the way magic works in Tékumel and in Vance's Dying Earth stories, but the biggest impetus to this explanation is on-the-fly thinking as the Dwimmermount campaign evolved.

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  7. In my to-finish-planning S&W fantasy campaign, the reason because MUs forget and must re-learn their spells is because each spell is a complex, fractal formula-like mandala, fusing symbols and images in a idea-like object that tends to fade from the user's memory with time (like keeping EVERY detail of a painting or photograph).

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