Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Downtime Activities: Magical Research

The great fun of playing wizards is learning ancient sorceries, concocting abstruse theories, uncovering forgotten tomes, apprenticing yourself to eccentric maniacs, and, of course, putting your mark on a campaign world by contributing spells, quite possibly with your own name in the title. If given the choice, I always prefer to play a wizard, which goes to show that as an academic I don't really play D&D to compensate for what I lack, but to pursue things I already love in new and fantastical forms.

This is a system for doing all of that, for learning spells from other practitioners, concocting new spells, writing scrolls, and authoring terrible grimoires.  It is the latest contribution to my now quite extensive system of downtime activities, which is nearing provisional completion.

The baseline I consulted was the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules on magical research, which are the best retro-gaming rules on these matters I know. Part of the reason I like them is that they encourage "early domain play" with magic-users who can create spells from first level, and who are encouraged to build laboratories and hoard tomes in private libraries. This fits with the general thrust of downtime activities, which, from one point of view, could be seen as introducing "haven" or "domain" turns into early and midlevel play. However, I departed from the LotFP rules in many ways, employing the same system of trackers (Apocalypse World "clocks") as the other downtime systems I have been presenting, and putting my own more resolutely Vancian spin on spell books. While I give credit where credit is due, the plus side is that if you're tired of LotFP for real life reasons, and want to move on, you can use this instead. Just throw the ladder away.

There are no rules here for creating magical items, because magical items are born not made. This post also doesn't cover alchemy, making potions, or growing Mazirian's garden, which seemed like their own topics worthy of a separate treatment. Finally, I have left out clerical and druidic magic for a second post, because this one was long enough.

Writing a Scroll

An ordinary written sentence is a potential meaning that is only actualized through reading, when it is grasped in thought or speech by the reader. But spells share something of the nature of God's mind: for them the distinction between capacity and act, potentiality and actuality, breaks down. For a spell to exist in any form it must already be working magic. We might say that spells are virulent potentialities. Like a coiled spring they may only be contained by countervailing forces. Only years of training enables a mage to hold them within his memory. To embody them temporarily in a worldly substance is no simple task. Not just any materials may house them, but only those of special arcane qualities.

A character may only create a scroll for a spell they are able to cast. In order to scribe a scroll, the caster must spend the gold pieces necessary to procure the materials to be used in the downtime action. This costs 300 GP per downtime roll. The DM will set a tracker for the creation of the scroll with one step per spell level. In order to advance the tracker one step, the player must roll 7+ on 2d6. The player receives a bonus on the roll equal to the difference between the maximum level of spell they can cast and the level of the spell they are transcribing. For example, if a magic-user is able to cast 2nd level spells, then they would receive +1 to rolls to transcribe magic missile (a 1st level spell) onto a scroll. Note that snake eyes is always a failure.

Copying a Scroll

You can't do it. They're too unstable. For magic-users, finding a scroll is not a way of acquiring a new spell to be memorized. 

Learning Spells

To learn a new spell you must have the spell in a book, and the spell must be of a level that you can cast. When the player declares they are learning the spell, they open a tracker with a number of steps equal to the spell's level. For each downtime action spent learning the spell, the player rolls 2d6. On a 7+ the tracker advances one step. The player receives a bonus on the roll equal to the difference between the maximum level of spell they can cast and the level of the spell they are learning. They may also receive an additional bonus if they are instructed by a teacher who already knows the spell, adding to their roll the difference between the spell level their teacher can cast and the one they are trying to learn, up to a maximum of +3. If they roll a snake eyes at any point in the process, they are defeated in their attempt and lose all progress on the tracker. They may not try to learn the spell again until they advance a level.

For example, if a magic-user is able to cast 2nd level spells, then they would receive +1 to rolls to learn shield (a 1st level spell) alone from a book. But suppose they also have a teacher, who both knows shield and is able to cast third level spells, to help them learn from the book. In that case they will receive an additional +2, for a total of +3 (the max). Note that such assistance also counts as a downtime action for the instructing wizard.

When a magic-user gains a level, they may learn a single spell they already have in a book for each new spell slot they receive in a single downtime action (no roll required). This represents a breakthrough in their previous attempts to advance, as their mind transforms, suddenly acquiring new infolding spaces to contain a spell with which they have struggled previously in their quiet moments. If they do not possess a spell of the requisite level, then as soon as they acquire one they may learn it in a single downtime action without a roll.

Spell Books

I'm just gonna say it: spell books in AD&D are gross. They have all the charm of little black address books, as though magicians were like: "Hey, gimme a minute I'm just gonna jot this magic phone number down, I might want to call it later." As much as I love Gygax (and I do), there was something taxonomic and utilitarian about the direction his imagination took him at certain points. Here's a Vancian alternative to go with this system that is more flavorful. I was inspired originally, way back when, when I read this post from the glorious Planet Alog blog.

As virulent potencies, spells can't just be written down in a book, they must be permanently arrested like a flash of lightning held in a temporal stasis field. The vessel of their containment must be suitably wondrous, a splendid items in its own right with a bit of magic about it. Within its pages, the spells must be surrounded by a prison architecture worthy of Piranesi, whether they are embedded deep in abstruse theoretical discussions, or sung by the heroes in an epic poem at the consummation of battle, or surrounded by shackles of illumination and incredible artistry. Once brought into the world, such books can be copied by those of lesser skill.

Under this system, accomplished magic-users do not have a spell book, they have many tomes, each a memorable grimoire likely containing a few spells. Wizards worth their salt will know the names of most of the major texts containing spells, and are jealous hunters for tomes possessing spells they lack; some spells exist in many tomes, others in only a few, but the sad truth is that most are lost entirely to this dying earth. It is true that this system makes traveling for magic-users more of an ordeal, and the choices about texts to bring more draconian. But you know what: by the time they are able to cast huge numbers of spells, magic-users are like fragile gods themselves. Trust me, with their floating Ioun Stones, invisible servants, teleportations, and all the rest, they can handle the logistics of mundane book transportation.

Making a New Spell Book

To create a new spell book, containing newly researched spells or those copied from multiple sources, is difficult. The magic-user must commission a master artisan to create a grimoire, which is a splendid artifact. A 1000 GP book may contain 4 spell levels; a 2500 GP book 7 spell levels; and a 5000 GP book 9 spell levels. Upon launching on the project the player must name the book, and describe its wondrous physical form, drawing as usual on the remarkable materials provided, the character of the book's artisan, and the nature of the book itself. The player must describe the theme and nature of the book, including the surrounding material that contains the spells and binds them together. The book's theme must explain how all the spells included fit together in one text; you cannot just slap any old spell alongside any other spell and connect them with some text--such ramshackle bonds could never hold potent sorceries together in one volume. Once completed, the book will become a known item in the campaign world, attracting the interest and envy of other wizards. To make such a book is to leave ones mark on the campaign world forever.

The starting cost is for the production of the book and the surrounding material, but the insertion of spells can only be accomplished by one who has mastered them. As with scrolls, the player opens a tracker for each spell to be included with as many steps as the level of the spell. The magic-user must pay 300 GP in materials and preparation to roll 2d6 as a downtime action. On a 7+ they may advance the tracker for any spell one step, taking as a bonus or penalty the difference between the spell level they can cast and the highest level of spell they are including. Note that the book can be used in an unfinished form as soon as the trackers of some spells have been completed.

Copying a Spell Book

To copy an existing spell book, the magic-user must commission the copy, but they have the option of only paying half as much for a product that it is not a splendid item, and need not be made by a master artisan. The player must describe how the appearance of the book differs from the original, and what (minor) and stylistic alterations set the book apart from its predecessor--if it is not a splendid item, then it must appear as a pale echo of the original. As with the creation of a new spell book, the artisan creates the surrounding matter, but the magic-user must scribe the spells into the book paying 300 GP for each downtime roll. Note that copied spell books cannot contain spells of 7th level or higher. Such potent sorceries are found only in unique and remarkable tomes which are known by name to all powerful wizards.

Researching a New Magic-User Spell

Magicians of any ambition hunger to pull from the depths of secret knowledge unknown sorceries. Some few dispassionate seekers of knowledge simply thrill at discovery; most intermingle this elevated aspiration with a desire to be recognized as great wizards who leave a legacy for posterity; others are drawn by the lure of power and fear, for those daring enough to bring new sorceries into the world are rightly to be feared.

To research a new spell, the sorcerer must first commission a new spell book to house it. The player must write up a spell description in the style of the rules employed in the campaign. The DM will decide if the spell is over (or under) powered for its level, and will suggest emendations required to make the spell viable. Note that a character cannot create a spell they would not be able to cast. The player will then open a tracker on the spell qual to 2 plus the spell level. 

The magic-user may thenceforward pay 300 GP for a downtime roll on research. The player may take as a bonus the difference between the maximum level of spell they can cast and the level of spell they are researching. The tracker advances on a 7+. Once the tracker is complete, the creator of the spell counts as having learned the spell, and it is inscribed with no further cost or downtime rolls in the spell book that houses it. It  may henceforth be memorized. But such research comes with significant peril, for should the player roll snake eyes, then a magical  disaster occurs. They must roll on the table below adding the level of the spell to the roll. At this point all progress on the tracker is lost, and the player, if they survive, must begin again.

Note that the table that follows would be more flavorful if it was more specific. I recommend coming up with a different table for each different school of spell that exists in your game. Or simply lift any of the many DCC corruption tables, or magical catastrophe random tables floating around on the internet, for this purpose.

Magical Disaster (1d8 + Spell level)

  1. ---------. 
  2. The spell in its current incarnation proves too unstable to capture. You know in your heart that you have failed. Luckily, your notes can be salvaged as a one time scroll of the spell being researched. 
  3. You are stymied working one night on the spell and weep in rage. Overtaken by a black sleep, you dream that you have--at long last--finished the spell! When your eyes open at the touch of the honeyed fingers of dawn you are filled with a profound peace at the memory of your dreamed success. You return to your notes with renewed confidence, only to discover that they are blank and the spell now exists only in your memory as a one time memorized spell. Start the next session with the spell memorized.
  4. As you try to inscribe some part of the spell onto parchment, the magic vanishes from all your notes with a sizzle. Back to the drawing board!
  5. You have a near catastrophe as the spell inflicts a wound on the skin of reality, and like thick black blood welling welling up, the unwelcome waves of the vibrating orbs press forward urgently through the cracked flesh. You are able to contain the disaster, beating back the waves long enough to cauterize the wound--but only by exhausting your mind. Until the next downtime, you lose one spell slot of your highest level.
  6. Something is wrong. You feel the heavy presence of the spell in your mind, but you cannot get at it. It has taken on a life as a parasite, reaching its feathered tendrils deep into the recesses of your mind, making itself very comfortable. It is uncastable but occupies a spell slots of the relevant level. Perhaps some kind of thaumaturgical chirurgy could help?
  7. Your thoughts dwell more and more obsessively on the spell. By the time you realize something has gone wrong it's too late. The spell has colonized your mind. It is now the only spell you are able to memorize! (You may memorize it multiple times, but spell slots of other levels must go unfilled.) The only way for you to free yourself from this obsession is by completing research for this spell and inscribing it in a book. 
  8. The spell leaps from the pages of your notes to hang in the air as a disorganized luminous sigil for one beautiful moment before it is cast on you with inimical intent (if applicable)!
  9. As 7, but if the effect of the spell is a negative effect with a duration (e.g. sleep, charm, light, etc), its effect is permanent until remove curse is cast by a cleric of higher level than than you. If the spell does damage, triple it. 
  10. Working on the spell, visions flood your mind in a revelation of shapes and forms like abstract art for hours on end. Rightly or wrongly, you believe with a strange confidence that the visions have come from a cosmic entity. Once per session for the next 1d10 sessions, you are subject to an illusory vision at inopportune times. These visions seem like they are trying to communicate something of vital importance.
  11. Your ministrations produce an unwelcome vibration in the fourth sphere. The harmonics are too much for your vulgar material to contain. Roll on this table now as your flesh is changed forever
  12. Your research tears open a rent in reality in your study that leads elsewhere. To see where and what might come through, roll here. This portal opening remains for 3d6 days, allowing entities during this time to travel freely either way.
  13. The spell has invoked chaos upsetting the ecology of some distant world. You have earned the enmity of beings from that distant orb. Terrible huntsmen now pursue you, crossing through the astral plane to your world. The DM should prepare a rival adventuring party of slayers. At the start of each session, the DM should roll 1d20. The huntsmen will find the magic user during this session at the most dramatic possible moment on a 1.  
  14. Unquenchable black flames pour forth from the faulty broken sigils you have crafted. Silent and stuttering they cover your body and spread in a strange conflagration to your workspace, and then beyond in a half mile radius, withering and aging everything they touch. Anyone touched must save vs death. If they survive, they permanently age 10d6 years from the temporal flames. Inanimate objects are likewise aged.
  15. It starts with little things. When you speak there is an echo of the words in reverse. Your milk curdles and the wine is vinegar when it touches your lips. You can glimpse him in the mirror, behind you, the visage of your father (or mother, younger brother...), but decrepit and lascivious. Your ruined spell has served as conduit for a demon who will torment you until you agree to do its bidding. If you refuse it will take what you love most and deliver it to your most hated enemy. 
  16. The disaster happens swiftly. You think you have it under control. But you are wrong. Soon it is standing before you: a terrible reflection of you that you cast like a shadow (or does it cast you?) in another dimension. It looks identical to you, and has all of your powers. It can do everything you can do, and if you do not slay it this instant, this inimical entity will escape and sew endless havoc in your form, trying to undermine and usurp your station. 
  17. For your terrible transgression, tampering with the deepest layers of reality, the original guardians--chthonic angels who dwell in the foundations--have snatched from the face of the earth, casting you into the Emerald Fane beyond space and time. All wizards of 5th level or higher know in an instant with dread what has happened to you. Even to utter your name is dangerous now. 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Daydreaming with Karlman

In this post, I want to talk about my favorite podcast, Judd Karlman's Daydreaming About Dragons. Karlman is the creator of the Dictionary of Mu, a super evocative setting book for the Sorcerer RPG. He's also one of the hosts of a very early RPG podcast called Sons of Kryos, which I've only started listening to. You can check it out on Youtube.

In Daydreaming About Dragons, Karlman spins out a topic freeform. The episodes are very short, generally reflecting on one thing that happened in a game, or one topic, e.g. "setting research", "the power of names", "ecology of the undead". The effect of his generous demeanor and his meditative tone, combined with his garrulous faux rambling is entrancing. Karlman often has something interesting to say, but my favorite episodes are ones where he spins out a fragment of a setting by riffing on a theme or illustrating his techniques in the moment. His imagination is wild, and to see it in action is a pleasure. Over time one gets a sense of his whole approach to gaming, which is probably the most valuable thing of all. Another thing I like about the podcast is that Karlman plays both retro and story games. As someone who is interested in that liminal space,  but is more on the retro-gaming side, I find his approach congenial.

It's about 50 (short) episodes in by now. If you haven't given it a listen, I can tell you where to get started. The order of episodes is a little chaotic on some platforms (Apple Podcasts, I'm looking at you!), since Karlman has "reply shows" that are not numbered, where he replies to listeners who have called in (using Anchor) between episodes. You should listen first to Episode 3. If you like what you hear, next listen to Episode 6.

Episode 3 is titled "Everything is Worldbuilding", by which Karlman means: everything is worldbuilding if you approach it in the right spirit. A corollary of this, dear to my heart, is that you can do all the worldbuilding you need without info dumps or walls of lore text, simply by making things players care about interesting and evocative aspects of the world. His main example in this episode is schools of magic and spell lists. Spell lists raise metaphysical and cosmological questions about the nature of magic and reality, and Gygax handled this by imposing his typical obsessive principles of order by repurposing grandiose synonyms for the sake of taxonomy, dividing the spell list into categories of evocation, abjuration, enchantment, etc.

Karlman's idea by contrast is to use the historical source of the spells as the principle for carving up the list. Karlman says at one point that he wants finding spells to be like finding arrowheads on an ancient battlefield and wondering, "What happened here?" In other words, they should point to history and draw players into the past conflicts of the setting by evoking wonder. Here are his spell types: (1) Hidden Caches of the Mage Wars, (2) Gifts from the Fey Queen ("when the fairy realms were in Spring, her laughter was like rain--she just threw off gifts, but now the fey realm is in Autumn"), (3) Fiendland's Relics (the spell books of ancient order of knights who worshipped devils), (4) Black Market Hobgoblin Cantrips (military camp spells, like boot polishing and potato peeling), (5) The Old Queen's Druidic Tomes, and (6) Gnomish Family Country Illusions.

Just from the titles of the spell types you learn something about the world, the factions, and powers and potentates, and historical conflicts. If I were playing a magic-user in this game I would instantly be hooked. Can you imagine how much fun it would be when you find that first Fiendland spell book, and learn about the infernal knight who had it, and about his devil liege?

Episode 6 is about setting research. I'm not going to expound on it much, although it's my favorite episode, so you can experience it for yourself. I'll just say that in it Kalrman spins out two glorious settings in this episode, one from a single sentence, "The world is made of ash and blood," and the second from a single idea, "There is a city called Rose that was colonized by sorcerer kings." In the one case he starts with the magic system, and the other with the pantheon. His idea is that what you need to do in worldbuilding is not exhaustive research or interminable cataloging of "setting information", but rather you should find little evocative nuggets, which he calls "your apple pie". You can spin out this little evocative ideas into a badass setting through daydreaming and riffing on a single theme.

This rang true for me, because it's basically how I came up with Zyan. I had one post where there was a single entry on a random table I had written for my home game about what appears in a tear in reality leading to other worlds. This single entry said that the portal opens on an inverted alien jungle that hangs from the bottom of a flying city in the dreamlands. When I turned this into a campaign premise, I had just one other evocative idea (my apple pie): that a door to this city of the dreamlands had opened a century ago, and that everyone knew about it through the fairy tales told to frighten children. So I daydreamed about this city of the dreamlands seen through the lens of children's fear. Naturally, I hit upon the idea that everyone in the city wears a mask, and that they use puppets to punish people for being naughty. I then asked myself questions like: what kind of a pantheon would they have in a place where ordinary life was a masked carnivale? What would the law be like in a place where there was punishment by puppet? Is there a puppet deity? So Zyan was born.

So anyway, check out the podcast if you want. It's cool. I got myself a honking Blue Yeti microphone that looks like a prop from a Call of Cthulhu larp. So maybe I'll start a podcast myself one of these days. Who knows?

Friday, April 3, 2020

Downtime Activities: Spiritual Exercises

A young Jedi descends into an evil hollow to learn about his dark side. A paladin has broken a vow of her order, and wishes to regain her purity by embarking on a quest. A priest devotes himself to the study of a perilous branch of the holy law to draw new miracles from his faith. A monk has come upon a place of the ancients and wishes to meditate there to understand its nature.This is an open-ended system for engaging in spiritual exercises like this. It is part of a system of downtime actions, the other members of which are available here. The idea is that when in a safe place--a home base, a haven, secure camp, etc.--between adventures, a character may perform up to one downtime action, whatever else they do.

I have one player in particular who likes spiritual exercises. Here are two real examples from play. His earlier character was a heretical priest of Nepthylys, who at a certain point wanted to found his own pantheistic splinter sect by fashioning a holy eidolon of a perfect being. His more recent character, a former NPC with a mystical bent, encountered the (undead) shade of a brilliant former painter, who could not rest until he finished the self-portrait of himself that had thwarted him in life. The character wanted to meditate with the artist and provide spiritual counsel to overcome the block that had stymied him for more than a century. I think more players would do things like this if they were given a scaffolding that let them imagine it as a possibility. This is the system I wish I had had when he made those proposals to me.

A character of any class may pursue a spiritual exercise. To do so, the player must specify their goal. T'his will be the result if the spiritual exercise is successful. It can be vague, i.e. "receive guidance from my deity in this hour of need", "come to better understand my origin", or quite specific, "I wish to acquire the following mechanical benefit." They must also say through what spiritual exercise their character will be pursuing this goal. The goal and method of pursuit must be spiritual or mystical in a broad sense, although they need not be narrowly religious.

The dungeon master will first decide if the goal is feasible and the proposals makes sense given the character and the situation, informing the player if the goal is unachievable, or if it seems somehow implausible. There are obvious ways this could get out of control, for example by allowing a character to pray for a miracle that would mimic a very powerful spell far outside the reach of the character, like restoring the dead to life or healing the lame--especially if the character is not even a spell-caster to begin with! This downtime action thus requires a sensible DM and player, and  trust to work, so that the DM has the space (and confidence) to redirect proposals that are inappropriate. (As always, the dungeon master should try to be "yes and", offering possible feasible substitutes where the player strikes the DM as overreaching.)

Once a goal has been settled on, the dungeon master will next decide how big the tracker is that must be completed to achieve the goal using the guidelines below, telling the player how many steps it will take to complete their spiritual exercise. Only then will the player will then decide whether they wish to proceed. To advance the tracker, the player rolls 2d6, adding their wisdom modifier to the roll. On a 10+ the tracker advances one step. On a 7-9 the tracker advances one step, but the DM should introduce a complication. A complication may be a blockage in the spiritual exercise that requires some action to address, or the DM can ask the player to propose an inconvenient vow, or some disadvantageous condition during the next session. 

Here are some rules of thumb and examples for the size of trackers:

1 step: a result that is purely color, or a mechanically minor or ephemeral spiritual goal.  Example: a paladin prays to the Saint of her order to give her mastery over her fear when facing the spirits of the night, demonic beings that infest a broken tower to which her party plans to return next session. If successfully completed, this spiritual exercise allows her to re-roll a failed saving throw vs. fear against this specific foe for 1 session.

3 steps: a slight campaign goal, or a mechanically basic advantage. I would use this number of ticks for the player character spiritually counseling the artistically blocked shade; by meditating and advising a major NPC in a dungeon, the character can help them overcome their artistic block, and so release them to achieve final rest. (Were the NPC a throwaway or merely a bit of color then I would make the clock 1 tick.)

5 steps: a minor campaign goal, or mechanically moderate advantage. Example: a fighter with an alignment opposed to a magical sword wishes to struggle with the blade on the spiritual plane where it dwells. A successful completion of the spiritual exercise means that each will change their nature so as to become compatible with the other.

10 steps: a medium campaign goal, or mechanically significant advantage. Having proven his worthiness through service to the forest, the Old Man of the Wood, an ancient Ent, offers a gift in return. The druid proposes a spiritual exercise, asking him to instruct the druid in the secret language of bees. Upon successful completion of the spiritual exercise, the character may speak with bees at will and they will be favorably disposed towards him, considering him a true friend of their kind. (Note that to propose a 10 step spiritual exercise or higher, given that it grants a permanent power, there must be a strong reason in the game world why this makes sense, as for example, like the offer from the Old Man of the forest.)

20 steps: an epic campaign goal. A psionic character has learned through play that the ancestors of all with his gifts were invaders from the stars. He attempts to use his powers to access the shared genetic memory of his inhuman ancestors. If successful, he will learn the location and the method to open the generation vessel in which his ancestors arrived eons ago--the ultimate super secret dungeon of the campaign world for which every adventurer worth their salt is searching!