Thursday, January 1, 2009

Pulpier Magic

A few years ago, I was working on an abortive campaign setting I called "Second Creation." It was a high medieval "pre-apocalyptic" setting, which is to say that it was set about 20 years before what people in the setting widely believed would be the end of the world, according to the dominant interpretation of sacred scriptures. Events in the world seemed to bear out this interpretation, with evil on the rise, corruption rampant -- even within Mother Church -- and ominous signs and portents.

The whole setting was more an exercise in world building than anything else; I wanted to create an unambiguously monotheistic D&D setting, following through the implications of that metaphysics to its logical conclusions. One of the tweaks I made to magic was the notion that no created being, which is to say anyone but Father God, could bring something into existence from nothing. Neither could they create true life. Surprisingly, it didn't take a lot of effort to change D&D's spells into something that could accommodate these notions and the result was something fairly flavorful while still being recognizable as D&D.

In thinking about it recently, I realized that, by adopting the same principles, I could make D&D's magic system something more like the magic seen in pulp fantasy stories. To do that, you just need to get rid of some of the "whiz-bang" effects of magic and/or "rationalize" the way spells work. Take magic missile, for example. Suppose that, instead of conjuring missiles from thin air, the magic-user had to carry with him a supply of arrows or darts (or even daggers) that he tossed in the air as he cast the spell. The spell would still work as before, but it no requires "ammunition" to work. Certainly this makes it less handy than currently, but the addition of an ammo requirement isn't unduly onerous, given that the missiles strike unerringly for a decent amount of damage. The end result of this approach wouldn't change magic greatly, either mechanically or in terms of its effects, but it'd add a thin layer of chrome that'd keep spells grounded in "reality" and prevent them from being treated as super-powers.

Here are a few more ideas I had:
  • Knock: Requires the use of a large blunt instrument, such as a cudgel or staff, which the magic-user then swings to open sealed doors, portals, etc.
  • Light: Needs an existing flame or light source to draw upon in order to operate, but infuses it with magical potency that enables that flame or light to have the same effects as the spell.
  • Shield: Requires a physical shield or shield-like item to function, which it temporally transforms into magical barrier as described in the spell.
Anyone else have some good ideas on how to extend this idea?


  1. Whatcha got there is this thing called material spell components. I think introduced with AD&D. The 1ed PHB is chock full of 'em.

    But (too) many are "Gygaxian" in that they are puns, jokes, include modern anachronisms, homages to Gary's favorite stories, etc. The rest, either I'm not well read enough to get the joke(most likely) or seem to be substances based on the Rules of Magic (not best link but can't find wiki article). They don't inspire, aren't fantastical, just meh and tedious to keep track of. I like your more practical, less medieval alchemy, mundane even ones better.

    Finally, if your looking to rationalize the ways spells work I recommend Ars Magica.

  2. Norman beat me to it, but what you're describing are material components. I thought they were fine, myself, but a lot of people didn't like the record-keeping they could entail.

  3. My biggest gripes are always the clerical spells. Here's some of what I've considered using in the past:

  4. I've used material components since my AD&D days; I think they're nifty. What I want to do here is a little different. It's not just that I want to make spell use dependent on material components that are more straightforward than those in 1e -- though I do -- it's also that I want to limit the use of spells to "rational" circumstances. For example, what if a magic-user couldn't cast lightning bolt unless there were a thunderstorm going on or cast fireball if there wasn't a source of nearby fire he could harness? The idea is to tone down the way many spells just generate effects out of thin air in order to give a greater degree of plausibility to them without making them (very much) less mechanically effective.

  5. I think this sounds like no big deal for most casters, but real high-level types with many, many spells readied might look like they're trying to carry the contents of a Home Depot store around on their person. I mean, you have already have a hypothetical low-level caster who's toting around a shield, a torch or lantern, and "a large blunt instrument."

    I guess a bag of holding would alleviate that a bit.

  6. I guess I'm not sure what makes magic feel "pulpier" when it's limited to vaguely plausibly grounded effects. The sources I generally turn to have spells that do things like turn a man into a spider, who can subsequently be squished (Conan), summoning a demon to attack an enemy (also Conan), many-colored stabbing lines impaling the victim from every direction (Dying Earth), summon clouds to blot out the sun (Elak of Atlantis), strangle people with cords of smoke (Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser), transport people to nightmarish realms with different laws of physics (Jirel of Joiry) and so forth. I can sort of see how you could tweak magic so that it can't do anything that couldn't be passed off as coincidence, but I don't really get why that would make it more like pulp fantasy, probably because I'm not thinking of the right sources.

  7. "I can sort of see how you could tweak magic so that it can't do anything that couldn't be passed off as coincidence, but I don't really get why that would make it more like pulp fantasy, probably because I'm not thinking of the right sources."

    That actually sounds a lot like the way magic works in Mage: the Ascension, where magic is always constrained by the laws of reality to some degree, and if you start breaking the laws, Bad Stuff Happens.

  8. I like these ideas, especially the magic missile one. Pretty easy to roleplay too and quite dramatic. I'm personally of the opinion that magic in D&D is way too mechanical but have yet to come up with an alternative system; freeform systems are hard to nail down system wise and balance power wise so I would consider pretty much any alternate system and try out the best ones.

  9. Badelaire beat me to the Mage comment, though my ref for it is a hybrid 1st ed. Mage/Ars magica game I played in years ago, that I guess is not canon. re jamused's comment, Nephilim would be worth a look: its spells are often wilful, highly specific and hard to fit to gaming niches, all of which works nicely in the setting.
    I was always bored stiff by material components because of the way the spells in 1e were written, and I fear you've captured that style to a tee, here: it reads like an arbitrary magical effect with a bit of dust attached, whereas actual "low magic" would look more like something you weren't even sure was magical, I suspect all that's needed is a rewrite for style, not a rethink of the mechanics: to start with the mundane action and then reveal the magical tilt.

  10. I'll second the puzzlement of jamused. I can think of some treatments of magic that seem "pulpy" -- but this is not among them. What stories did you have in mind as a basis for this characterization?

  11. I worry that it might end up resulting in too much stuff carried around.

    The MM and Shield explanations sound like general uses of a an animate object or telekinesis type spell. At first level you can animate most things into Magic Missiles (rocks, daggers, arrows). You could animate a real shield into a Shield but maybe you could animate a sword or your own staff into one too accepting that it would only parry.

  12. I really like the sound of this approach: magic becomes an amplification of existing reality, rather than just imposing blunt changes onto it. It would work especially well for historical fantasy settings, I'd think.

    Although... imagine some sort of "alien magic" scenario, where the PC spellcasters using this amplifying-reality system run into monstrous extraplanar or antediluvian sorcerors using a different, more Doctor Strange reality-warping magic. At the very least, that could be nicely scary, though it might require a whole second magic system (or set of spell descriptions?) layered on top of the first.

  13. I like this very much, but I think this comes out closer to historical magic than pulpy magic. It's the kind of stuff you would find cunning men doing in medieval Europe.

    Which makes me ever-so-grateful to you for posting this, becuase I'm just about to start up a fantastical Anglo-Saxon game and I totally forgot about this aspect. It nows dawns on me that Magic Missile is out and Elf-Shot is in.

  14. If the implementation of "low magic" in your campaign helps to set the tone of the campaign, so be it. But I hope you are not suggesting that it should be considered an element of old school styled D&D game play.

  15. But I hope you are not suggesting that it should be considered an element of old school styled D&D game play.

    Not necessarily, although I do think old school games tend to be less "flashy" when it comes to magic.

  16. I think this sounds like no big deal for most casters, but real high-level types with many, many spells readied might look like they're trying to carry the contents of a Home Depot store around on their person.

    That's what hirelings are for! :D

  17. I like it, but it's not very Vancian. When my wizards put their sanity on the line, they're risking it to bind demons from another dimension to do unspeakable things to their enemies. It simply wouldn't be worth the effort of memorising a spell when all it does is toss sharp sticks at people. I could hire an elf for that, and at a much reduced cost to my mental health. It's nice, but it's really just a cantrip, not something a long-dead madman poured into a grimoire when the sun was still yellow and bright.

    Really, I prefer subtle, psionic-y magic, but I don't think Vancian casting is the way to handle that. Either it's sanity-shattering, Things Man Was Not Meant To Know magic, in which case, yes, go Vance (whoohoo), or it's not, and people will just be disappointed when their characters braved the unknown to unearth terrible secrets, when they could have just read a guide on party tricks and accomplish the same results.

    An idea: transmutation spells require something with the desired properties or a part of the desired target to work. For instance, to be able to climb sheer surfaces, the designated target has to eat a live spider (or lick lichen from a wall, or whatever else seems appropriate). A spell to turn an enemy inside out requires a waterskin filled with bodily fluids of the target, which is turned inside out during casting. It should all be stuff you can't get at Ye Olde Spelle Componente Shoppe, but stuff a player can find or acquire on-site if he's resourceful enough.

  18. What stories did you have in mind as a basis for this characterization?

    None in particular. In retrospect, my adjective was poorly chosen. What I meant by it was that, in pulp stories, you rarely get wizards who just cast spells on the fly in the course of a combat. Instead, magic is a more ritualized thing (generally), with lots of accouterments, preparation, and so forth. My purpose in proposing this was to try and transpose a similar mindset to D&D's fire-and-forget magic. So it's not "pulpy" except in the sense that it helps keep spells from becoming super powers which, for me anyway, is the antithesis of the way magic ought to be portrayed.

  19. For what it's worth, the magic system in later editions (4th+?) of King Arthur Pendragon has seemed to me a good starting point for many literary evocations.

  20. (In previous editions of KAP, there was no "magic system"; the Referee handled Witches and Demons and Things That Uncannily Go Bump on a Knight on a case-by-case basis.)

  21. If you want to make it more "pulpy" but keep the spell components reasonable, you might want to consider ways to make the spell components multi-use. I don't mean re-usable, at least not in all cases, I mean various spells sharing the same or similar components.

    A mage will either have to specialize in similar effects or similar components, or else become a hardware store. Mage clothes might follow "styles" designed to make particularly useful spell groupings. Thus, when you see a mage with a robe cut thus and a bandolier, and he pulls yellow powder out of the top right pocket and a rock from the voluminous top left, you know that he is an earth mage and about to cast something that requires sulfur-- perhaps guyser or volcano?

    This allows for scenarios where the source of a common component gets hijacked, leaving your heroes to have to investigate and either reconquer or bargain with the controller of the source.

    Hmm. I see three short stories there....

    Oh, another possibility is using as components common things that the other party members might carry, but might not want to part with...

    word verification - togibbys

    As in Togibby's Terrrible Transformation...

  22. Or a Bag of Holding!

  23. Okay James, I'll bite, here are a few ideas (off the top of my head) using some first level M.U. spells from S&W:

    Charm Person - Vial of perfume, a piece of jewelry, etc. Side effect: 1 in 6 chance that at lower levels the charm will actually become a Macguffin for which the target will pine a la Gollum and The One Ring.

    Detect Magic - Forked twig to be used as a diving rod, an ampoule of quicksilver that bubbles when magic is detected, a top spun on on the palm of hand continues to do so in midair when the hand is withdrawn. Other objects can be enchanted to behave in a similar fashion at higher levels.

    Read Languages - Piece of glass (any old shard will do) the translation will appear. Only the caster can read the translation (i.e. the glass itself isn't enchanted).

    Read Magic - Not as pedestrian as Read Languages, the magic user needs a silk blindfold in order to read magic writings. Works kinda like an x-ray in that user will not see/read anything else except what is magical. Pure silk, which is hard to come by, yields the best translation. Blends tend to muddy the waters.

    Sleep - sand, duh!

    As with anything, (cooking, home or auto repair) the better the ingredients (more pure) the less likely the spell is to have complications. Cheap wizards better be ready to deal with a few backfires. :)