Tuesday, August 12, 2008

GROGNARD's GRIMOIRE: The Price of Magic

This is the first installment of the long-promised new feature of this blog, a twice weekly (every Tuesday and Thursday) helping of some old school content for use in your own adventures or campaigns.

For the premier, I've decided to be utterly self-serving and offer up an idea I'm toying with for my Pulp Fantasy D&D project. As things stand now, I'm working under the assumption that the Cleric will be folded into a broad Magic-User "meta-class," becoming an example of one approach to the wielding of arcane powers. The traditional Magic-User, which is to say, the pointy hatted guy with a long beard, will become the Wizard, an example of another approach to magic. The Wizard's spell list will be like that of the OD&D M-U, while the Cleric (I considered calling him the "Priest," but am not sure I like that) will be that of his OD&D namesake.

Under this scheme, the Wizard's approach is all about the harnessing of power through the force of one's own will. Even when used for good, this is a dark, selfish path that slowly warps and twists the Wizard's body and (often) mind. Consequently, every time a Wizard gains a level, he must roll on the following table to see what, if any, price he must pay for his continued meddling with Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.

1D20 Roll (Any result achieved more than once is ignored, unless the given affliction is broad enough to admit multiple examples):
  1. Wizard's hair turns white or falls out completely
  2. Wizard acquires a pallid and/or waxy complexion
  3. Wizard is wracked with a incurably phlegmatic cough
  4. Wizard acquires a strange obsession
  5. Wizard experiences periodic hallucinations
  6. Wizard develops a limp in one leg
  7. Wizard develops a facial tic
  8. Wizard exhibits sores/boils on his skin
  9. Wizard periodically breaks into fits of uncontrollable laughter
  10. Wizard's nose begins to rot away
  11. Wizard loses the senses of taste and smell
  12. Wizard develops an allergy to a common food, animal, or object
  13. Wizard's lips crack and bleed
  14. Wizard weeps tears of blood
  15. Wizard's eyes either bug out or sink deeper into their sockets
  16. Wizard's arm or hand withers, becoming largely useless
  17. Wizard's finger and toenails grow at a prodigious rate
  18. Wizard's spine twists
  19. Wizard's body is periodically wracked with spasms or seizures
  20. Wizard develops webbing between his fingers and toes
You will note that none of these afflictions has any game mechanics associated with them. Likewise, none of them are debilitating. How they play out and what effects they have on a character are left entirely to the player and his referee. Their entire purpose is to make Wizards, even good ones, appear unnerving and unnatural. These are, after all, the men and women who attempt to impose their will on the cosmos and make it do their bidding; it's only right that, should they achieve any degree of power, they be left scarred by their experiences.

The above list is partially inspired by the effects of Taint listed in the 3e version of Unearthed Arcana, a book I consider to be a very fine one, even if my love for 3e itself is less than enthusiastic.


  1. I like it. As I've understood it, magic in pulp fantasy is very dark and sinister, but powerful for those ambitious or crazy enough to use it. It looks very good for laying out the tone of the game to players right away.

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  3. Going along with possible afflictions, how about something along the lines of Philotomy's "Spell Special Effects"? A wizard who uses "Fireball" too often might start to permanently smell like sulfur. The "Strength" spell could manifest itself at inopportune times, or maybe "Detect Evil" casts itself without the caster's consent and gives false positives?

    Of course, DM's discretion is highly advised if this route is taken as to not completely debilitate wizards and the like.

  4. I like it...I also like verhaden's addition to it.

    It helps get the "this isn't Gandalf or Harry Potter" across in an fairly easy way.

  5. I love it!

    And if I may be so bold as to make a suggestion...

    I have been recently introduced to (and become enthralled with) the writings of Jack Vance - partly motivated by your blog -, and since then I've grown to appreciate D&D's traditional magic system on a whole new level.

    While some people seem intent on tearing down "Vancian" magic - I say we need MORE Vance, not less!

    So I suggest:

    * More extravagant names! Who needs "magic missile" when you can have "The Unerring Gilded Projectile"? Or "sleep" in lieu of "Zagyg's Expeditious Somnifacient"?

    * A spell failure mechanic. Even Vance's dependable sorcery is a fickle force, with spells going awry in the most bizarre manners.

    This would also tie in nicely with other pulp fantasy influences, e.g. Howard's crazed sorcerers struggling to control over summoned entities.

  6. Wow very nice. Love it. Can't wait to see what you do to the "priest".

  7. I may be starting a project to eliminate the Cleric class from my OD&D campaign, moving some of the Cleric spells to the Magic-User list. Spell-casting Priests would be Magic-Users with individualized cult spell lists, and militant types would be Fighting Men, Paladins, or Berserkers.

    Like you, I very much like the idea of Magic-Users and Priests being somewhat creepy, and have never been terribly comfortable with Clerics-as-medieval-Hospitallers.

  8. Another name for the priests:"hierophant" (from ancient Greece and the Tarot deck).

    I've never seen a good toolbox supplement for handling religion in games: if the category is left unmarked it always ends up being Christianity* with the serial numbers filed off, or Hollywood Aztec sacrifice for the bad guys. This is too bad, since the whole discipline of Anthropology pre 1950 or so was focused on the very different practices of other peoples - there's no shortage of material, from spirit possession to zen koans.

    * this is especially clear when you start looking for job descriptions: the differences between priest, pastor, monk and bishop are all loud and clear, but where's the khodja, the dervish, the lama or the bissu?

  9. Now you set me thinking about a philosophical issue: is the point of a pulp fantasy to recreate pulp fantasy tropes? If the treatment of religion is not subtle in the sources, do you run with that?
    Maybe my previous comment is irrelevant, and the point is to enjoy some good clean colonialist stereotyping, while poking fun, with Conan, at heroic conventions.

  10. Can't wait to see what you do to the "priest".

    I'll be talking about the Cleric in my second Grognard's Grimore tomorrow (August 14).

  11. never been terribly comfortable with Clerics-as-medieval-Hospitallers.

    My beef with them is that they're mostly redundant if you also have paladins, which I plan to.

  12. is the point of a pulp fantasy to recreate pulp fantasy tropes? If the treatment of religion is not subtle in the sources, do you run with that?

    Well, yes. I have zero interest in deconstructing or critiquing pulp fantasy's approach to such things. I'll occasionally tone down certain things if I'm personally uncomfortable with them (which is rare), but the goal here is to go for a full bore pulp fantasy version of D&D.

  13. I have zero interest in deconstructing or critiquing pulp fantasy's approach
    That's fair enough - especially since I suspect that if you try to deconstruct pulp fantasy you end up destroying it. The question I was fumbling towards is whether there's any point really fleshing out "other" religions or races in such a setting, and whether it's appropriate to try to spice the gameworld's cultures up with an understanding of real world religions. Doing so suggests taking on a bit of a disinterested scholar's attitude about religions, which may be simply inappropriate in idiom. Your wizard's blight here suggests that the universe contains a strong ethical code, which wizards violate. Should that extend to religions, with one or more "approved" gods on one (the players') side and unspeakable demons and rituals for the bad guys? In that case, I guess familiar (1930s) cultural tropes are in and research can only get in the way. Which is a perfectly valid approach, albeit one that would make me very conscious of occupying a genre if I were playing.

  14. Your wizard's blight here suggests that the universe contains a strong ethical code, which wizards violate.

    I'm not sure it's an ethical code per se, so much as another example of the notions that a) there are some things man was not meant to know and b) the ends never justify the means. The concept of "black magic" is of comparatively recent vintage; for most of its history, the West has seen all magic as inherently disordered -- whether in its ends, its means, or both. Pulp fantasy is heir to that older tradition and I would argue that, once magic makes the transition into being viewed simply as another "technology," neither good nor evil in itself, you can see a dividing line between older and newer fantasy.