Monthly Archives: November 2016

A draft for a magic system for stories

After quite some time I am finding myself drawn back to writing and one thing I quickly noticed when going over my notes again was that my ideas for magic were really not that interesting. I’ve been reading Elric and Hellboy and played a lot of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and one thing I really like about all of them is how the magical elements in them are windows into a much larger reality of alien weirdness and religion. I also think that the only topics worth writing and reading about are the basic existential questions of what you want, what you should do, and who you ultimately want to be. In a world dominated by immortal spirits that inhabit and empower nature and a single force that is both the source of light and magic, these two fields lend themselves to blending seamlessly together. To decide what you want to do and to be, you need to understand how you are connected to the rest of the world around you. And there really isn’t a lot to explore with a magic system in which sorcerers replace the natural instincts of animals and tendencies of plants and the elements with their own stronger will. It’s easy, practical, and reliable and doesn’t overlap in meaningful ways with philosophy and cosmology. There is nothing mythic about it.

So I went back to the drawing board to take the ideas about what magic can do that I already had and weave them into a more metaphysical framework of spirits and reality. The end result was a magic system with no spells. Elric and Hellboy have no spells where someone waves a hand and says a magic word and a bolt of lightning shots out or someone turns into a chicken. There aren’t spells in Kane or Thief, nor in Indiana Jones, and very few in Conan. Yet they are all full of magic. Slow magic and indirect magic, that often is tied to objects or spirits and doesn’t just jump out from a sorcerer’s mind.

The basic idea for magic is that all things in the world have energy, which is the source for both life and also magic. The most simple form of magic, if it can even be called that, is Alchemy. Everyone can do it if the right ingredients are known and properly used without any special power required. Alchemy is not just the brewing of potions but also the making and wearing of amulets that ward off various spirits simply because they are made of substances that these spirits avoid. Alchemy is the secret knowledge of substances that can be used to do miraculous things. There is no real line between occult alchemy and commonly known herbalism.

Life force and magical energy is in everything and connects everything, making the whole world with all its creatures, spirits, and landscapes into one. Spirits are automatically aware of these infinite connections but people can also learn to sense their presence. Through this awareness they gain moderate abilities of telepathy and precognition and a stronger ability of persuasion and dominance over others. How strong these powers of Perception and Persuasion are depends on the Personal Power of the person. Partly it is confidence, but since all things and beings are connected through their life force “power resides where men believe it resides”. Overpowering an opponent through combat, cunning, or any other display draws some of the opponents power to the victor and he gains even more power if his accomplishments are recognized by many people. But not only people can gain power. Beasts can too, as well as objects. Relics or the weapons of great heroes become powerful themselves and add their power to whoever is wielding them. Both those who lead and those who use magic greatly seek these Items of Power.

While these things and abilities are magical, the highest form of mortal magic is Summoning. Those who practice this high art are known as witches, shamans, and sorcerers. To summon a spirit, a person has to draw its attention through the use of alchemical substances and sacrifices and mentally calling out to it. Often considerable personal power is required to make a spirit come, and even greater power to subjugate it to ones will. Anyone can perform a summoning but the risk is great for those who lack the power and knowledge of alchemy to controll them. Spirits can be made to perform services for the summoner, but they also can do much more than that.

Once summoned, a spirit can grant a summoner its powers through Possession. Anyone lacking sufficient power and experience with spirits can easily fall under the complete control of the spirits they summoned. But those who are experienced and strong enough can control the spirit inside them and use its powers for themselves. The most commonly summoned spirits for possession are minor elementals that allow a summoner to breath fire, survive at the bottom of the sea, or open the ground beneath the feet of their enemies. Experienced summoners can summon such minor elementals in a matter of seconds and then release them again, but it’s always a considerabe risk and an exhausting battle of wills. Beast spirits can be summoned to allow a summoner to change his shape into that of the beast, but this can also be used against enemies who lack sufficient power to control the spirits and become permanent thralls to them, cursed to remain beasts forever.

As magic systems go, this one is pretty fuzzy and it is so by design. Mechanics and rules are not something I am interested in and it’s also a magic that is not intended for magical battles. Witches, shamans, and sorcerers are not people who throw around spells when convenient but are defined by their occult knowledge of the supernatural realm and mostly practice their magic in consulting spirits in hidden seclusion. It’s not what you’d usually come up with for a game, but for stories I find it much more interesting.

5th Edition Sword & Sorcery

With the basic framework for my next Ancient Lands campaign in place and wanting to use the opportunity to give the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons a try, I’ve sat down to think about ways to give the sandbox a proper Sword & Sorcery feel. Here are my general ideas for running a D&D campaign to go adventuring like Conan, Elric, Jirel, and Kane:

Maximum Level

I think that the higher level spells of D&D don’t fit with Sword & Sorcery. There are two options to deal with that. Either cap all PCs and NPCs at 10th level and allow no further progress, or if you want to run a longer campaign with even more powerful PCs remove all the spells from 6th to 9th level from the spell lists. Since many spells can be used to greater effect with higher level slots, spellcasters above 10th level still increase their magic power and of course also the amount of spells per day. (You could also put the cap at 8th/4th level or 12th/6th level if you want the cutoff point higher or lower.)

Giant Animals

Even though they are not terribly common in most stories, few things scream Sword & Sorcery to me like giant reptiles and giant insects. Probably because they are mostly unheared of in other types of fantasy. Huge bears, tigers, and apes are also great and similarly rare in other fantasy. In addition to giant sized normal animals, 5th edition also has ankhegs, behirs, bullets, carrion crawlers, owlbears, remorhazes, and wyverns which are also all very nice fits.

Monstrous Humanoids

There are good number of really bestial humanoids in the monster manual like ettercaps, ghouls, gnolls, harpies, hags, minotaurs, yuan-ti, and also grimlocks. I would mostly rely on these for humanoid opponents instead of the usual goblins and orcs which are still very humanlike in both appearance and behavior.

Dens of Debauchery

I think for Sword & Sorcery the taverns need to have a strong character and be given a good amount of detail that goes beyond “table, beds, barkeeper”. Taverns are were a great amount or even majority of social interactions will take place and are the best location to show off the rowdy life of adventurers and scoundrels. Taverns or the halls of kings and warlords should be presented as loud and crowded and stuff should be happening there. NPCs spying on the party or trying to steal from them or attempt assasinations, and of course the occasional bar fight. Taverns should not feel like the game menu screen.

Carousing and Long Rests

I got this great idea from Beleriphon at the Giant in the Playground Forum: The Dungeon Master’s Guide has an optional table for carousing and waking up the next morning with possibly interesting results. In the spirit of Conan, Fafhrd, and Gray Mouser, carousing is the perfect situation for the characters to level up at the end of an adventure. They are back at their current place and are enjoying the spoils of their exploits. I would even go a step further and make it mandatory for characters to go carousing to gain the benefits of a long rest from a night of sleep. Or a late morning and noon of sleep. Even with a bad headache, the heroes are then back to their full strength.


Sword & Sorcery games are exactly the type of campaign for which Inspiration exists. The DMG recommends aiming at giving each character inspiration once per play session but I think that’s severely underusing it and making the whole mechanic superflous. It only grants advantage on a single roll. That’s really not much. You can give characters inspiration much more than that. And in Sword & Sorcery you should!


When a player does something balls to the wall awesome that is daring and reckless but sounds really cool, give the character inspiration to one of the dice rolls involved in that action. Don’t be stingy. In a Sword & Sorcery campaign you want the players to try crazy cool stuff as often as possible.

Weird Dungeon Architecture

Almost all dungeons I’ve seen in fantasy RPGs feel very much like being either castles, abandoned basements, or military bases with natural cave walls. For Sword & Sorcery this is not enough. Sometimes the adventure does lead the party into a normal castle or a well maintained prison, but most of the time, dungeons in Sword & Sorcery are magical and unnatural places that have only passing resemblance to the normal world outside. Even when they are small they are Mythic Underworlds. In my own campaign, which is a very animistic world with lots of spirits, I actually make the entrances to these dungeons portals into the Spiritworld.

There’s probably a huge range of options to do that which someone could write a book about. (Note to self.)

Uncertain Outer Planes

Even though Planescape is great and could be seen as Sword & Sorcery in its own quirky way, I think the standard outer planes of D&D don’t really work with a more mainstream kind of Sword & Sorcery, particularly the good planes. Everything from Pandemonium to Gehenna could work really well, but being able to open a gate and walk among the gods and angels in Elysium and Celestia just doesn’t fit a Sword & Sorcery game.
One approach that I could see working quite well would be to have Heaven and the Hells to be very different in nature and not be analogous and matching opposites of each other. Heaven can be an unknown place unreachable by mortal magic while the hells are open to visitors and demons very willing to answer mortals and listen to their offers of bargains. Or if you want to go down that route, there could be no Heaven, only numerous Hells.
In my campaign the only two other planes are the Spiritworld (Feywild) and the Void (Astral), which can not be visited but is the home of demons.

Few Magic Items

Sword & Sorcery heroes rarely carry more than one or two magical items with them and often don’t have any enchanted weapons or armor at all. If they have something it’s usually protective items that directly counter specific abilities of magical creatures. And alchemy. Lots of alchemy. If you want to give players a good amount of magical help in a Sword & Sorcery campaign, go nuts with potions.

Quick and Dirty Fishtank

A fishtank is very much like a sandbox, but instead of large map with numerous dungeon at the center it’s all about a cast of interesting NPCs and competing factions for the players to clash with. In a way, this is more challenging for a GM as a dungeon with a vague origin and original purpose is muc easier done than a handful of NPCs with interesting goals and motivations. And you still have to build lairs and strongholds for them anyway.

While working on my own plans for a new fishtank campaign this winter, I noticed that I’ve actually taken a very convenient shortcut. Following the great advice of “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”, the entire main framework of my fishtank is simply the old D&D adventures Against the Cult of the Reptile God and The Elfwhisper and the excellent storyline of the Bloody Baron from The Witchet 3 all set in the same town.

All three adventures are pretty linear designs, but at the core they really are starting situations with a problem that the players are supposed to fix somehow. The D&D adventures expect the players to go to the lair and kill everything, but the videogame at least offers a good range of different linear paths to chose from. (Which only shows how bad even most better published adventures are. This is the one aspects in which videogames can not come close to the potential of RPGs.) There are really quite a lot of adventures for D&D and Pathfinder that have some really cool setups at the start. Even with a typical dull Pathfinder railroad, the initial setup is often very much salvageable and usually the best part of the adventure.

If you want to set up a small fishtank, simply grab three or two adventures that you think look cool and take the NPCs with their goals and motivations and the dungeon floorplans and put them all down on the same map. And all the heavy lifting i basically done with that. To make things a bit more interesting and complex, think a bit about how those important NPCs might know each other and how their plans might put them into conflict. Maybe add some embellishments here and there, create a handful of new NPCs and minor dungeons, and you get a decent fishtank pretty quickly.

5th Edition Spell Lists for the Ancient Lands

This is a continuation from my last post on houserules on D&D 5th Edition for the Ancient Lands setting. It’s something of a draft as I am still not completely happy with it, particularly the witch spell list being much longer than the shaman spell list. But I think overall this is pretty much what I’ll be going with to give the game a try in my setting.

Ranger Spells

The ranger spells are largely based on the standard ranger spell list but I removed a number of spells that seemed to flashy to me.

1st level

Animal Friendship
Cure Wounds
Detect Magic
Detect Poison and Disease
Fog Cloud
Hunter’s Mark
Speak with Animals

2nd level

Animal Messenger
Beast Sense
Lesser Restoration
Pass without Trace
Protection from Poison
Spike Growth

3rd level

Conjure Animals
Plant Growth
Protection from Energy
Speak with Plants
Water Breathing
Water Walk
Wind Wall

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