Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Mad Muddled Magic

Credit Jason Chan

Every spell requires a trickle of power and at least one of the following "ingredients". Depending on how many unique ingredients are included in the spell, it will have the strength of:
    1. Simple tricks, almost easier to do by hand (lighting a pipe)
    2. Basic actions, most anyone could do it (grabbing something from far away)
    3. Modest force, something that would take time and effort (smashing open a door)
    4. Major effect, weird and wonderful (bringing a table to life)
    5. Real magic, something that would be very tricky to do without magic but not impossible (Putting a posse of soldiers to sleep)
    6. True power, nigh impossible to accomplish without hours of work, considerable skill or rare resources (summoning a bolt of lightning)
    7. or more, a major working, something that will be talked of in hushed whispers and attracts the attention of powerful forces

    Common ingredients

    Lashings of power. Common, effective, easy, dangerous. Over-reliance on lashings of power can lead to physical or thaumic injury, loss of magic or sprouting insanity. In addition, any spell that is cast using lashings of power without any focusing elements (see: magic words) will be messy and chaotic.

    Magic words. Syllables of power that translate to "Conjure" or "Fire" or "Death" or "Eggplant". Strung together, they form the basis of most spellcasting. Having extra magic words in a spell doesn't provide more power, but it makes the spell safer and more precise. Using "Summon Fire Creature" with other sources of power will summon a fire elemental under your control, while just using "Fire" will give it complete freedom, and also likely conjure it from your own flesh.

    It takes considerable time and effort to cram a new word into a fleshy sack of meat, at least a full nights strenuous study for a shaky grasp, or an hour a day for a few weeks for full understanding.

    Particular grimoire. Magic words can be found in any number of tomes, scrolls, crystals or sets of standing stones. Rather than going to the effort of memorising them, the original copy can be used just as easily. No additional benefit is provided to a spell if you have already memorised the word in question.

    Wands and implements. Some magic words are bound up in wands, rods, staves, amulets etc. and channeled with rare and bizarre materials. These can't be memorised, but are very easy to use, just swish and flick. If you have memorised the same word (from another source, such as a grimoire) then a wand does count as a seperate ingredient.

    Innate knack. Usually discovered by chance, but can be cultivated. Most magic users will pick a particular magic word, when that magic word is used in a spell, the knack also applies. Only one knack can ever be known by a wizard.

    Part of the whole. Possessing a piece of the target is a direct link for the magic to flow through. Hair, fingernails, a twig from a tree, a handful of dirt from below house of your enemy. More powerful spells may degrade or destroy the piece used, destructive magic almost always requires the loss of the focus.

    Symbol of the target. Likewise, a representation of the target can focus the power of a spell, even if it doesn't contain any source material. Scale-models, dolls, drawings or other artwork can all count towards a spell. Using a symbol and a part of the same target doesn't provide two power sources, however they can be used to reinforce weak links. A crude poppet wouldn't be enough to channel a spell, and a strand of hair would likely burn up quickly. However, combining the hair with the poppet will make an effective power supply.

    Time to spare. Slow your breathing. Remember your training. Empty your mind of distractions. The Art cannot be rushed. If you’re interrupted any time during the casting, lose any benefit of taking time and risk spell collapse.

    Desperation. Sometimes, you have no choice but to throw caution to the winds and burn with power. This deals 1d20 damage, manifesting as spectral wounds, shrivelling flesh, and exploding. You’ll still cast the spell even if you die in the process.

    Helping hand. Having another wizard along makes everything easier (until it doesn’t). They are exposed to any side-effects of the spell and must invest as much power as you do.

    Rare ingredients

    Rare ingredients supply just as much power as common ingredients. However, there are far fewer rules regarding their use, and since spell strength is linked only to diversity, wizards seeking to perform major workings will likely need several of these to achieve it.

    A place of power. Wizard towers are often built on the narrow intersections where leylines meet, often highly impractical and sort-after positions. Some intersections have room for merely a single pole, atop which a wizard might perch. Extremely potent rituals might only receive a benefit from a single place in the world.

    Research materials. Access to a magical laboratory and a library full of notes and artefacts is always useful. Collecting curious and trinkets for the expansion of one's own sanctum is often the impetus for wizardly exploration and dungeon delving.

    Sacrifice. Blood (your own or others), flesh (likewise) and sanity (ditto), any or all as the rite decrees. Not all spells will accept sacrifices as source of power, research will be required before performing the ritual.

    A deal. Plenty of entities will offer magic words or raw power in exchange for favours and service. Be warned, such boons can be withdrawn in an instant.

    Astronomical conditions. Certain spells benefit from particular astral alignment and precise cosmic events. An average spell might have optimal circumstances in 1d100 weeks, while major interstices that would contribute to the mightiest of spells could be 1d100 months away or more.

    Specimen to study. Whether trying to conjure, modify or destroy a particular being, having a sample on-hand is always useful. Likewise, supernatural creatures may have particular magical powers that could be learned via dissection (consider the supernatural creature known as “a wizard”).

    Rhyme, song or story. Nobody knows quite why the fundamental forces of magic respond positively to couplets, poems, music, death-chants, hymns and occasionally, atonal humming. It just does. Sometimes.

    Reagents and potions. The most well-known ritual component is diamond dust used in returning life to fallen allies, though many others exist (anyone that tells you to spend a specific amount of gold is conning you). Some potions are known to boost magical abilities, but these are almost invariably toxic mixtures of unicorn blood and mercury.

    Heartbreak, madness, permanent injury. Sometimes, when a mother loses a child, a man loses an arm, or a mind breaks under the torture of life, the magical strands of the universe bind with their soul and give them unlooked-for powers. Whether to wreck terrible vengeance, to balance the scales, or to present a poisoned chalice, nobody quite knows. Attempts to actively court the attentions via drastic destruction of life and limb and mind have never quite worked out as anybody involved would hope.

    Something else. The nature of magic is to be inscrutable, finicky, ever-changing and temperamental, even in the hands of experienced practitioners. Sometimes reliable sources of power will falter or surge violently, and a new method will need to be discovered. The powers of the universe will be shackled, one way or another.


    Crastar Drubstith the Insane is trying to blow up the world, starting with an active volcano. He knows the magic word "Fire", has a knack relating to the magic word "Fire", has the Charred Wand of Pyromancer Graskal (which embodies the magic word "Fire", surprise surprise), and is performing at noon on the summer solstice. This would be four unique sources of power, enough to maybe cause a small eruption. Crastar isn't impressed, and tries again using lashings of power, desperation, and plunging his bare hands directly into molten lava to connect with the flow below. This brings the total to seven, deals Crastar 1d20 damage, which doesn't matter in the end as the volcano fully erupts. The resident fire god is quite surprised, to be perfectly honest.

    DM Guidelines

    The list displayed here intentionally spreads control over magic between the DM and the players. The DM should decide how common "a trickle of power" is. Is it only wizards that can tap into the flow of energy? Can every peasant perform miraculous feats, if only they knew how? Can all adventurers activate magic items this way? Is it used up by casting spells, or does it remain afterwards? Likewise, being able to muster "lashings of power" is also up to the DM. 

    On the other end of the spectrum, wizards can decide how they seek to acquire power: do they gather a repository of magic words and artefacts, or do they narrow their focus on a single avenue of magic (such as Crastar here). Hunting down lost grimoires or wizardly tools, building magical libraries atop leylines, or just making a deal with the biggest demon around, the opportunities are many, and varied, and dangerous. And of course, if all else fails, a wizard can engage in Desperation and blow their heads off. The most important freedom a PC possesses is the freedom to die trying!


    1. True names. Yours to increase your focus, the target's to strengthen the link, or one of a greater being to draw power from.

      Gestures. These always require time, precision and both hands free. Stronger spells need more complex movements, until you are performing ritualistic dances and mystic martial arts kata.

    2. Would you call for a roll with this magic system? I'm thinking of something like a DCC hybrid, with d20+(# of ingredients) >= 10+(strength of working per player request), and a table of mishaps/wild magic/corruptions in case the roll fails.

      1. I haven't put much thought into any kind of dice resolution. Lashing of power and desperation might open up the magic user to mishaps and corruptions, but that's on a case-by-case basis.