Thursday, May 23, 2024


How do we deal with players hoarding healing potions? I came up with a solution a few years back, but only barely touched on since it's inception- limited shelf life Tonics. Originally written up in the Dirt Simple Alchemy post, I wanted to revisit the concept after reading the Goblin Punch post here.

You ever like how fantasy games have magic potions made out of like three mushroom caps, a handful of clay dirt, and a bat wing and yet they have this perfect bright red color and usually don't taste like absolute shit? That's part of the magic, actually.

When specific ingredients are mixed together in a cauldron and boiled, stirred with a wand, and readied by a skilled hedge mage or witch: a Tonic is created. The chunks of whatever is within the brew smooth out and disappear into a consistent glowing fluid, which can then be poured into an appropriate flask. It's like fantasy Gatorade. This is also the reason that healing potions (tonics) are all consistent despite being made with different batch sizes and with different qualities of ingredients and the like, it doesn't actually matter how big your cauldron is or the size of your vial, the magic is one "dose" no matter how you slice it. Once you fill a single vial with the brew, the rest of the cauldron turns back into gross dirty soup-water. This also gives a nice and easy way of knowing when the tonic has gone bad- just look at it. If it looks like a bunch of gross shit floating in a beaker, then you know it's gone off and isn't good anymore.

Once a tonic has been created, it has a shelf life of approximately one day, one week for traveling campaigns, or one season for more time-abstracted games. The time setting here is abstracted, but is in essence supposed to be for one session. At the end of the session, any tonics not used go bad and lose their magic. You can't hoard them.

Characters can make tonics if they want to and they have the skills and ingredients. This makes time very valuable when exploring, but spending a bunch of time gathering ingredients and brewing tonics always comes at a cost; random encounters and torchlight dwindling away must be considered against the value of brewing some more useful tonics for future encounters. The dry ingredients used to make tonics are also almost always cheaper and more light-weight then the tonics themselves (but you need a source of water, fire, and something to cook them in- if you lost your cauldron to the rust monster you might have to improvise with the shell of the massive turtle you killed earlier in the dungeon), giving an incentive to pack up tonic ingredients for longer exploration trips- because while you can make as many tonics as you want with time allowing, they will all go away at the end of the session.

You can also buy tonics from shop keepers and herbalists in villages. Because tonics only take about a turn (10 minutes) to make, you could also abstract this and let players buy as many tonics as they want from the local healer before going off into the dungeon. This is part of your preparation phase, without the inherent problem of players being able to hoard healing potions, just buy as many as you think you need. You can also get specific here, tonics don't just heal, they can do any effect really. Tonics can be antidotes, strength potions, "fire" potions that can cast light or make your weapons go inflamed for a damage boost, invisibility, freezing liquid, acid- whatever you want really. The idea here is to provide a use it or lose it tool that isn't as reliable and permanent as a spell or recharging magic item- because they have space and material limitations. You can only carry so many tonics, and they go away after your exploration.

Potions vs Tonics
Tonics are magic potions. The reason I'm calling them Tonics and not Potions is so people don't feel ripped off when they go bad and to separate them from capital P Potions that could act like magic items or treasures with a one time use. You could still call these potions if you really want, I just figured potions as something to hoard was so ingrained in the popular consciousness that a different name would help with this. This way, finding a Potion as a magic treasure can be considered a great find, same as a magic sword or spellbook. I'm imagining a Potion of Healing to be much like a Potion of Youth or a Potion of Gold or something similar- it probably fully heals you, restores all your limbs, removes your trauma and ability score damage, etc. etc.

Tonics in Gameplay
The main idea behind Tonics is to manipulate player psychology and provide an in-universe mechanic for more interesting healing and preparation for tabletop dungeon crawling. No longer is healing a class specific feature, anyone can order a village alchemist to make them some tonics to act as the mistake allowance and shared HP pool for the whole party. Not only this, tonics also discourage certain behaviors (overly risk averse), while encouraging other ones (experimentation and preparation). For example, the players know their special tonics will run out at the end of the session anyway, so why not experiment and see if healing potion is like acid for the undead? Why not pour some fire potion on a mushroom to see if it mutates into an exploding shroom? It also creates a certain amount of time pressure and scarcity inherent to the mechanics. 

Why doesn't everyone have access to magic healing in the fantasy world? That's simple- the resources and knowledge used to make tonics isn't unlimited, and the tonics themselves can't be hoarded. You can't assume every knight or soldier will be able to carry healing potions with them, or that the king has a supply of cure poison under his throne's pillow- you still need healers, magicians, or old wise men to actually work their craft. It creates a less gamified fantasy world and one that feels more believable and lived in, with the conveniences and mechanics that allow the dungeon crawling adventure fantasy to still work.

Of course, this doesn't actually solve some of the problems listed with Arnold's original post. How do you stop people from just bringing in unlimited healing? Well I'd do it by saying that potions are really heavy, being liquid, and also being something you can't really sneak around with since they, you know, glow in the dark and are carried in glass bottles. Plus the expense of buying them. Technically nothing stops you from having hirelings carry them, but nothing stops you from hiring a private army to do your dungeon delving for you- if you have enough resources. Personally, I think most players will be satisfied with just mentally calculating how much healing they think they may need, how many antidotes or resist fire potions or paralysis cures or sleeping draughts or whatever else they think they'll need, invest the gold at the start of a delve, and enjoy using the resources they have prepared for. Of course your players may be a bit too clever for that, in which case, you'll you have to come up with something better. I just wanted to share my version of potion-based-magic that I think works pretty well.

Friday, April 12, 2024

8 Legendary Lockpicks (Magic Thieves Tools)

When it comes to fantasy roleplaying; the "cool" loot is not created equal. You have an absolute ton of magic weapons and armors for the fighters, barbarians, and paladins of the party. On the flipside, you have magic wands and staves, orbs, and the entire concept of spell-scrolls and spellbooks for the magic users; but what about the Rogues? The Thieves or Specialists? Perhaps because they aren't as iconic as the standard fantasy fighter, but don't have that obvious supernatural element that Magicians do. 

It's rare you get magic items for characters like this. Aside from magical leather or light armor, which is already pretty uncommon, maybe a magic cloak or dagger if you're lucky, and rings of invisibility or magic winged sandals (that anyone could theoretically use) you really don't get a lot unless you make them yourself. This blogpost is kind of meant to remedy that.

As for "Thieves Tools", we're going with the modern day D&D description of being a small packet or bundle of metal tools and implements used to disarm traps, pick locks, open up wedged doors, and other tricks of the trade for Roguish characters. This is a type of abstraction I'm fine with. For generic high fantasy adventures, this level of abstraction is about right for me. But if you were doing a more serious resource-management dungeon crawler, keeping track of individual numbers of lockpicks, files, etc. may be a better fit for that kind of campaign. In that case, you'd have to adjust the rules to fit this table, which is more meant to be like a form of "equipment" that Rogues use to do stuff and are semi-permanent items, as long as they aren't stolen or thrown down a ravine or whatever.

Treat each of these items as a standard set of Thieves Tools but Magic, meaning they will be protected from your average run of the mill magic traps or barriers that destroy lockpicks put into them and they can't be destroyed by rust monsters or if you accidentally fall into a slime.

8 Legendary Lockpicks
[1] The Elvish Ivory
(+1 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
This set of tools are of a beautiful pearl white, carved and engraved with tree patterns. They look incredibly delicate, but are as strong as standard iron tools, and can still be used to force open and finesse locks and clasps. Because they aren't made of metal, these tools cannot be effected by magnetic forces and as such can be used to disarm magnetic traps or special locks that would fling away traditional tools.

The name is also not merely for the sake of appearances; these tools are actually made from the bones of a single beautiful elvish woman. Legends say that she was the love of the original master-thief who created them. They have changed hands many times and have become somewhat infamous among the world of high-class criminals for their grace and beauty.

[2] The Woeful Set (+0 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
These cruel tools are hooked with barbs and spikes and are made from a very dark, dense metal. Dried blood has set in the grooves that were cut their intentionally for that purpose. The creator of these believed that prying secrets from a prisoner was no different then clicking the tumblers of a stubborn lock.

These tools double as implements for torture. Whenever you use these to torture someone to extract information from them, you can use your lockpicking skill/bonus in the place of intimidation or whatever other social skill is called. Additionally, the set has a strange set of tongs that look like a pair of hands. If you pull someones tongue out of their mouth, you can force them to confess to the last lie they told. This action requires the individual to be helpless or unable to resist given how finicky it is to grab and pull out a slippery tongue- even with magic tools.

[3] Dolphin's Delight (+1 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
Held in a light gray pouch, supposedly made from dolphin leather. The pouch always feels a little damp on the outside, but is always dry on the inside. It's waterproof and can be used to store various notes or dry goods without worry of them getting soaked and destroyed for underwater adventures. 

When someone new gains ownership of these tools, they have a dream that night of swimming in the ocean with a dolphin, before turning into a dolphin and swimming down into the depths of the ocean. After this dream, the thief has the inexplicable ability to hold their breath for up to two exploration turns (twenty minutes)- more then enough time to pick stubborn underwater locks in sunken ships and drowned temples. Also, you can use a special pearl-encrusted tension tool on the mouth of any sea clam and it'll open up, giving you just enough time to grab its pearl before it closes up again.

[4] Juritovi's Dancing Knives (+1 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
Selection of knives held in a roll, lined with fine fox fur. The knives are all very finely made, with well carved wooden handles, and runes carved onto the flat of each blade. Despite being a collection of knives, they are fine, flexible, and strong enough to be crammed into locks and used as prybars for small locked containers and so on.

While not technically thieves tools, these enchanted knives have been the envy of many thieves. When placed out on a roughly table-sized area, they can be verbally commanded and magically dance, hop, and slide around to their owner's wishes- doing whatever is commanded of them. They can slice up vegetables in preparation for a feast, perform some surgery, or commit genocide on a colony of rats. Despite their strength and apparent ability, the knives are absolutely terrible for combat purposes and would rather hide down their owners pant legs then fling themselves at people and attack.

[5] The Knucklebones (+3 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
This set of very old and beat up tools is remarkable for its long legacy. There are many stories about these thieves tools, especially among pirates. Despite their worn appearance, anyone who has laid hands on them will swear by their usefulness and that they must be magic. The name of this set come from the pair of dice always kept with them, which despite what everyone says, are 100% fair and don't guarantee your fortune if you go out and use them to gamble.

This set of dice has the unusual quality of stealing away the skills of experience of thieves who use them. At first, it greatly enhances your abilities and makes you extremely deft, but slowly those who use them find their fingers getting more and more clumsy and more absent-minded, eventually leading to them misplacing the tools and having them stolen by the next victim. Every time you use these tools, there is a 1 in 20 chance that you lose -1 to your rank, X in 6 chance roll, or an associated saving throw permanently.

[6] The Mouse (+2 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
This "tool" is held in a small cloth pouch that is filled with a few small knick-knacks, some straw, and a very sleepy fat little brown rodent. The rat is an otherwise unassuming common household mouse that is blessed with a strange intelligence. Anyone looking into its eyes can see how it is much more then a common mouse, and given how tame it acts when handled, it is more a pet then a tool.

The Mouse can squeeze itself into various machines, locks, in the spaces between walls and is seemingly able to disarm, open, or otherwise manipulate the machines from within using internal levers and its own body. Nobody knows exactly how this rodent gained this level of intelligence or knowledge, but seems to just "know" how machines work. It can be easily bribed with a few grains of wheat or a small chunk of cheese, and is otherwise very affectionate. The mouse still has the lifespan of a regular mouse, which means after buying it from its previous owner it probably doesn't have much time left. Roll 2d6 to determine how many months the mouse has left until it dies of natural causes.

[7] Sha & Sira (+1 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
This is not one set of thieves tools, but two. One is made from a green jade, the other from a blue lapis-lazuli. The sets are otherwise identical, with matching decorations, dimensions, and level of quality. The two sets are from a far off desert land, and are bundled in silk with white and black bands to hold them all in place each. The tools smell faintly of cinnamon.

Despite being named after two famous lovers in legend; they act less like a pair of lovers and more like squabbling siblings. Every time these tools are used, you must specify which set you are using. If you use Sha, you will also gain +1d6 coins inexplicably from chance or find them wrapped in the pouch. (Note: this is only if you use the picks "legitimately", as in while adventuring, doesn't work if you just keep opening/locking the same door over and over to farm coins). If you use Sira, you regain one hit point after successfully opening a lock OR restores one light-turn (lantern/torch) to whatever light source your party is using with a sudden gentle kindling of the flames. These magic effects are constant and always "on", but the picks get jealous if you favor one benefit over the other.

If you use Sha three times in a row, the next time you use Sira you are infected with a common disease.
If you use Sira three times in a row, the next time you use Sha, you are cursed and get -2 to your next Save vs Death.

If you use one of the pair five in a row without using the other once; all of the picks of the other color crack. This is your warning. If you use the uncracked one again (six times in a row), then the next time you open the silk bundle all of the picks will be destroyed and turned to dust and pebbles out of grief. The picks being cracked does not prevent you from suffering the curse of the spurned picks- just use them both evenly and there won't be any problems.

[8] Stolen Heart (+2 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
Appears as a knitted human heart made from bundled up yarn. All of the tools are pierced through it, with special holes for each, which makes it look like a pincushion when they're all in place. The "heart" here is actually a voodoo doll's heart of a spurned lover, who can feel the lockpicks and metal bits piercing their heart each time you use this. The witch who made these tools is very upfront about this, as she is very spiteful, and encourages you to store your other sharp needles and pokers in the heart as well.

The tools are carved with circles and anointed with special oils, giving them a strange spell. When you press these tools against a magic glyph or rune, you will be able to manipulate it on the page much like it was a lock. With proper skill, the "enchantment" of any item can be unlocked, which transforms the rune or symbol into plain common text that explains what the enchantment is or does, and remains that way for one minute. Essentially, you can use these tools to Read Magic or Identify Item; using your Lockpicking skill in place of an Arcana or Lore check.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

The Descent

I recently watched the stop-motion psychological horror film Mad God. It was pretty cool, though a little too impenetrable for my liking. However, the film itself isn't what I want to talk about today.

The beginning of the film has this great shot of the main character (the Assassin) going down a suspended elevator/diving bell down multiple layers upon layers of underworld- past a giant prison with cannons shooting at him, trees in a dark forest, underground caves with fossils and giant skulls, and gardens of giant statues. As we go down, we get a sense of the immense scale and depth of this place. Something about it really reminded me of a massive dungeon crawl- a megadungeon's possible depth- but with a caveat. Exploring a megadungeon is a slow and laborious process; but the Assassin in the film is moving past layer after layer quickly, almost conveniently. To me the feeling was less of just bypassing all this interesting stuff, but more that these levels or layers of the dungeon had already been conquered before. This gave me an idea for megadungeon exploration in the long, LONG term, and a little narrative trick.

The Descent
Each floor of the dungeon is kind of like its own separate place. Of course, dungeon floors can be restocked with monsters and encounters over time- but these give very little reward compared to the treasures found. Once looted, treasure does not simply materialize out of thin air- so you have to crawl ever deeper to get more loot. What this also means is on repeat visits, you will have to travel through still dangerous and restocked floors to get to the deepest and more lucrative parts of the dungeon- meaning leaving and returning without full bags and without expended resources is inefficient and potentially deadly.

But as you explore deeper, this problems gets worse and worse, until the trip down can become as draining on your resources as the actual dangers of the deepest floors. Unless you're cheating the journey down, even a fully cleared dungeon floor still has a few still active traps, hazards, or random encounters which could slow down or expend your party's resources. How do you manage this?

Simple- you carve a big hole, and you build a shortcut.

The Elevator
Most fantasy dungeon crawling games assume a roughly medieval level of technology- where such a construction project is much less feasible. It's not totally unheard of; large pulleys and construction cranes, both animal and man powered, were a thing in those times- simply expensive and not surviving well into the future. I don't claim to be a historical expert on this subject, but it certainly seems doable. Regardless of how realistic it is, for the purposes of gameplay and the fantasy vibe, we can assume a non-magical descending platform can be built at the site of the dungeon.

In order to build this elevator, the party must first secure the top and then hire experts and workers to build it. The total cost of the elevator is equal to the total treasure found on the deepest floor the elevator can descend to + 2. Meaning if you want to build a shortcut to floor 4, then you'd need about all the treasure you can get on floor 6. In typical oldschool megadungeon fashion- each floor of the dungeon has enough treasure to level up a party of the same level once, and exp doubles each level. Roughly speaking, you'd need all the treasure on floor 6, or half the treasure on floor 7, to build an elevator to floor 4. It's expensive, but the cost of building the elevator still counts for the purposes of XP- if we're using gold per xp for treasure recovered. This means the entire party can chip in.

On repeat visits to the dungeon; you can use this elevator instead. The cost of the elevator is much higher then you would assume because of the cost of excavating the material, keeping it clear from monsters of the lowest depths, hiring the skilled (and trusthworthy) operators who won't drop you into the chasm at lethal speeds, and so on. And the other catch? You can't go back up with the elevator, it only goes down. As such, you can't actually use this to carry back all of your treasure you found, but you can shortcut some of the resource sinks of the upper floors. This also becomes somewhat unnecessary when you consider the Jayquaying of the dungeon, with other paths in besides the main entrance or shortcuts to deeper levels, but having a very reliable entrance that you can't be attacked in or taken from you would still be worth the heavy gold investment building one of these would take.

Whenever you travel down the elevator, you will see a cut through each floor of the dungeon. Unless you're autistic enough to mark an exact vertical slice of the dungeon in 3d space and determine exactly what rooms and passages the elevator would travel down through, I would just state a general look for each floor you pass through and use that. If the crypts and catacombs were level 1, then the first floor you pass by you'd see bones and tombstones poking out, some almost seeming to try and reach the elevator occupants. Floor two was the spider's nest, so webs and desiccated bodies are visible down the elevator shaft here. Floor three was the mushroom forest, so thick spores fill the shaft as you go down further and further. While veteran party members will remember each floor, conquering them one at a time, new party members will get to see a snapshot at the dungeon's history and the painstaking effort it took to map and slowly explore each level of the dungeon. Essentially, you would describe the most notable features of each floor as a sort of treat and reward to show how far you've come, before the platform reaches and deeper floor. While it does bypass a lot of the trouble of the upper floors, the gold cost calculated based on floor depth means you can't go right back to the richest part of the dungeons with each visit, and would still need to do some local navigation before getting back to where you were- it's simply much more efficient then walking down from the top floors all the way down again.

Side note- I also really like the idea of the elevator being able to go back up, but only at the exact weight designed for the party on the descent. This means the party can make a hasty faster retreat up the elevator if they can't survive the upper floors, but they can't bring any treasure. Unless a few of them didn't make it...

Sunday, February 25, 2024

(Rant) Spell Categorization Complaints + The Seven Schools of Magic

I hate the schools of magic most games / settings choose for themselves. The only real reason is pedantry. I was thinking about making my own and came to a conclusion. Let's nitpick these.

Dungeons & Dragons
The schools of D&D Magic (depending on edition, world, writer, etc.) can be roughly boiled down to these;

  • Abjuration
  • Conjuration
  • Divination
  • Enchantment
  • Evocation
  • Illusion
  • Necromancy
  • Transmutation

Already, we are seeing a problem. We have this extremely nice naming scheme; abjurATION, conjurATION, divinATION, and then we get to Enchantment, Illusion, Necromancy... what the hell is this. Where's the nice naming scheme? If every type of magic or spell has its own unique naming scheme, that would be one thing, but this half measure is just infuriating. Every spell school should either end in a "-mancy" or "-urgy" or "-ation"; the title essentially being the action or verb that the magical school does or can do. "Conjuration" creates things, "Transmutation" changes things into other forms, and so on.

Secondly, the name-to-effects connection of the schools is also, in my opinion, lacking. It is difficult to directly tell what a Wizard can do or is good at based on these schools or their knowledge of them alone. Now from an in-universe perspective, it is fine- each school is named and codified based on what they do or their general group of effects that the spells of that school accomplish. The issue for me is I want the spell school to not only fit within this world-space of understandable effects, but ALSO grant some kind of worldbuilding or character-defining effects that each school could have. For example, if you were traveling in a fantasy world and heard tales of a "Mighty Conjurer" living out in a cave somewhere- you could probably assume that Wizard or Witch would be quite capable of summoning powerful creatures to attack you if you dared enter, or would perhaps be impossible to catch since they could just teleport away. Such concepts feel valuable in a game system-to-worldbuilding space; creating more texture and possible avenues for gameplay- except it doesn't work for every school. What exactly would a Transmuter be good at? Would they be good at escape or entry- given levitation or being able to open locked doors with magic? Would they be more combat focused- capable of buffing allies and cursing enemies with various spells? Are they more helpful support characters; able to transform various items into other useful items- all of these could fit under the umbrella, making it almost too broad in certain categories, but too specific in others. You can't just take the spell school's name at face value- as one could extrapolate "Magic that changes/alters stuff" could do basically fucking anything. Oh it can make you tougher- like Abjuration? Oh it can make objects that are stationery move- like Evocation's creation or control of energy? Could one extrapolate this to say that it can make people do what you want by "altering their minds"? No- this is covered by other magic schools- but you can see how trying to apply this with logic starts to get a little out of control given its vagueness.

It also would allow different Magic-User type characters to differentiate themselves in the party more; though largely unnecessary, as I don't think anyone has an issue differentiating different Wizard characters given the inherent differences in how they amass and prepare spells, or even their preference for spells if both have the same spell list, compared to say a Fighter or Rogue type class which would be almost totally identically if they shared a similar level; only have equipment, stats, or feats to really differentiate them.

I also just hate the D&D spell schools mostly for being a bit misleading as well. "Enchantment" sounds like an interesting school- something akin to weak magic spells emulating some of our favorite pop-culture Wizardry; like the Sorcerer's Apprentice from Fantasia, or any number of the small useful "Charm" spells from Harry Potter. But no; Enchantment spells almost exclusively focus on mind-affecting and social spells- things like Sleep and Charm are Enchantment. This actually almost feels like the opposite of the above paragraph, where the designers of these schools tied themselves to the etymology of the word "Enchant" to the title of a possible character archetype or creature to encounter- being Enchanter. An Enchanter being able to control and manipulate people's minds is a very powerful and scary fantasy archetype- especially played up in recent years due to what has been a more "realistic" reaction to mind control and other forms of mental-manipulation magic as being pure horror or extremely morally questionable, if not downright always off the table. Your & my opinions on this are totally irrelevant on this topic I should mention- it is simply an observation. However, it doesn't fit that other schools of magic feel much more "invented" in their categories- Necromancy possibly being the worst, since it has nothing at all to do with divination of the dead (other then speak with dead) and instead relates to souls, life energy, and raising the dead as minions or other "death themed" spells. This further muddles the waters as Necromancy could mean a powerful offensive caster with various drain life abilities, summoning/raising minions, budget healing magic, powerful buffs in the form of undead transformations, and so on and so on- making Necromancy feel like it fits more in an Elemental magic system as the "Death" element over in this more acamedic, non-elemental, effects/use focused system like what we are discussing- which is more focused on the arcane, scholastic, non-spiritual forms of magic seen in D&D, Dying Earth, Elder Scrolls-ian style pop culture Wizardry.

Another more minor issue I want to add here? The implied dynamic of the setting- at least in regards of healing or holy magic being its own separate "thing" from the list here. It's not a huge deal since it's covered by Clerics and important for the resource management side of the game. But I kind-of want to have healing magic be its own category for what I'm going for here. More on this later.

Finally- we have the redundancy. We'll get more to this later, but the redundancy of this list is probably among the worst of various spell-schools I have seen. The fact we have both "Enchantment" and "Illusion" on the same fucking list, both mind/social/perception effecting spells is a sin. Now it's important to state that I COMPLETELY understand why this is the way it is. Illusionist and Illusion-Magic are very thematically different then Enchanters and Enchantment. However, I just don't like there being two-too similar spells like this with similar cases. Even in practice they aren't that similar, but the concepts are thematically muddled enough that I don't like the crossover.

Harry Potter
This one will be brief. I don't really hate the spell schools in the HP universe due to them being, in their own words, "vague and ill-defined", but I want to touch on them momentarily.

  • Transfiguration
  • Charm
  • Jinx
  • Hex
  • Curse
  • Counter-Spell
  • Healing Spell

These spell schools are almost entirely focused on the use of a spell, over its effect or elemental bearing. Obviously, having three different schools for three levels of just "offensive spell" going from annoying to harmful to dangerous is right out- but I respect the attempt to try and fit them all in there. You can't just so easily fit them all into one category either; just calling it "Dark Magic" or something would simplify the system too much. Perhaps we could simplify the categories down to just "Dark Magic" and "Light Magic" to make it simple- with a third "Gray Magic" or perhaps unaligned spells being for purely transformative or utility-based effects on changing objects or the world. Maybe take a page out of Final Fantasy with Red Mages being a jack-of-all-trades kind of caster- thus Red/Blue/Color Magic would related to the various non-good and non-evil type of spells. This, however, transforms the system too much.

I honestly don't mind this system for two reasons. The first being that Wizards in the HP universe are more "full formed" in terms of magical abilities- they don't just cast spells but ALSO brew potions and ALSO ride brooms and ALSO do psychic combat and ALSO have other magic powers too; spells are just a small portion of the full kit, which means that specialization are far more specific then something as broad as a "type of spell". The second, and perhaps even more specific reason, is that I absolutely LOVE Charm spells as a rule. I love the idea of commodify and gamifying the mystical secondary abilities or lifestyles of various magic people in fantasy media; the self cleaning dishes, the magic clocks that wind themselves up, the unrolling chests that store way more stuff in them then they should, the little magical bubbles and lights coming from various trinkets and potions on the shelf to make a "full" magic user experience from the aesthetic and description alone. Sadly- only useful in game terms, tabletop or otherwise, for flavor- being mostly beyond flattening down into rules and pressing all the fun out of it. I just figured I should mention it; because what other blogpost am I going to be able to write this up for?

Yes, the video game. The Diablo clone for kids where you have a cat or dog that goes back to town and sells shit for you. I wanted to mention this one because, exactly as above, it's very short and simple. It also includes Charms. My weird obsession with magic "charms", or being a Wizard in a fantasy world who specializes in "Charms" magic, extended to this game where "Charms" was almost entirely based around summoning. But let's go over it all the same.

  • Attack Spells
  • Defense Spells
  • Charm Spells

I actually really like this system. In the game, magic effects you wouldn't think are typecast into each category based on how its used and general playstyle. For example, Attack Spells cover both direct offensive attacks AND curses or debuffs inflicted on enemies. You can cast fire or lightning from Attack Spells but so too can you cast slow or weakness. (As a side note; I find such concepts odd- as you'd think a character specializing in Attack Spells would want to use damaging spells. This pretty much invalidates the concept of playing a curse-heavy mage that kills foes with weapons or summons- but given the realtively low investment in each school to use its spells, with most scaling being either damage (useful) or duration (almost pointless) then I suppose it makes sense). Defensive Magic also includes healing, buffs, and general defense- especially in regards to the elements. Finally, Charm magic as stated above is almost totally used for summons- with higher levels giving you stronger creatures, longer-lasting creatures, and higher numbers of creatures depending on the spell itself. Interestingly, Charms stays true to its name as being a useful category of utility magic as with very little investment you can get the "Identify" spell, acting as a Scroll of Identify with unlimited uses, no inventory space taken up, and a low mana cost. Charms also encompasses the few other utility spells the game has; like identifying items or opening up a town portal, so it gets some points.

Given my strange penchant for playing games in the most obtuse way possible- such as wanting to play a Warrior who uses magic to weaken foes instead of just putting all my points into strength, or playing a Melee fighter character who doesn't use armor and relies on magic or evasion; this system doesn't work very well save for Charms, which does make you feel like a cool Summoner and magic-item master.

However, it doesn't fit the arcane fantasy magical universe sort of vibe I'm going for; the D&D list is better despite its faults; yet the FATE system is perfect for the medium it is going for- a simple dungeon crawling video game. Still, it strains my immersion a little too much for a more "fully realized" setting- maybe a world where magic is incredibly new, only capable of being used in a single specific dungeon or place- with the three colors or flavors of magic seeming to be the three general categories of spell people can specialize or get better in. Still, I thought it was interesting enough to mention.

The Quest
This is little-known Indie Game I got on Steam during a previous sale. I actually quite like this game; it feels very much like a scaled down version of something like Daggerfall or Morrowind- an open world with several quests and viable character playstyles. Also, not realizing it, but the game was originally made for mobile and has a TON of expansions not even ported to PC. The artstyle is probably my favorite part, having some very nice hand-drawn graphics, but the gameplay got a bit repetitive. Why am I mentioned it here? Because it has a big list of skills with many types of magic. How does this game split up its magic spells into schools?

  • Attack Magic
  • Environment Magic
  • Healing Magic
  • Mind Magic
  • Protection Magic
  • Undead Magic

Yeah, no. Fuck you. Next.

Elemental Systems
Instead of listing a single game, TTRPG, or source for this- I'm just going to go off on Elemental Systems entirely. I've talked about this one a lot.

Not every Elemental System is the same, so I can't give a universal list. Obviously pretty much all of them are going to have the big four of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air- unless it's a Chinese inspired elemental system instead with Wood and Metal making the list. I think elemental magic spell/differentiation systems are very strong thematically for obvious reasons. I think my idealized system would be something like;

  • Fire
  • Water
  • Earth
  • Air
  • Life (Creation)
  • Death (Destruction)
  • (Arcane/Void/Purple/Other?)

This grants the full spectrum of possible elemental configurations without getting into annoying redundancies and ultra-specific use cases of spells. The text in paranthesis indicates alternate names or possibly interpretations of these elements. As stated above, I think elemental systems are VERY strong thematically. You could easily imagine a character specializing in one or more elements- a Fire Wizard having all sorts of useful offensive powers, or an Air-Bender being good at travel and evasion. Life Magic can also be strongly coded as holy or good-guy magic; being able to heal wounds or damage the undead, as well as summoning animals or plants ala nature or drudic magic found in other games or universe. Death magic is also nice; once again it follows the same problems as with "Necromancy" but I feel its more appropriate given the elemental and thematic width of each school of magic in this system.

However, once again, elemental systems suffer from two main problems. The first is the rather limited lack of scope outside of elements. Now- a CREATIVE DM or writer could adapt to this easily; increasing the scope of each magic school to encompass or build out to various other things that aren't simply the element. For example; you may find elemental systems limiting because you can't do things like fate or luck related curses or spells if you had a full elemental system of just the four main elements; but this could be subverted and combined into the other schools. Fire grants luck at the cost of burning you later as a cost. Fire can not only create and conjure fire, but also give people boiling hot fevers or increasing their passion by putting their hearts ablaze- the thematic connections between the possible uses or targets of magic in the world and the elements themselves become a part of the magic, and in a way work better then a more academic or "nonelemental' spell-school system, as the elements themselves are made mystic and all-encompassing. The above system is also great as it basically shits inspiration and worldbuilding resources for writing plots, characters, or mystic underpinnings of the universe. Places of great natural importance are tied to one or more elements, granting mystic powers to those who reach them on a pilgrimage of sorcery. Elemental Wizards have personalities fitting their elements. Each elemental magic can be cancelled or weakened by the presence of their opposite- Air magic being incredibly weak underground and Fire magic being weak in the rain and so on. This is pretty much perfect for a fantasy world- but once again isn't exactly what I'm looking for in trying to make a sort of non-elemental, non-spiritual based magic system for spell categorization.

Also talked about on this blog at least a few times, the Dominions series is a group of high-fantasy strategy video games where you play as a Pretender-God trying to kill all the others and ascend to glory. The game has a very thematically strong magic system of various elemental and sorcerous paths. While it is somewhat specific to its setting, it is broad enough to be widely applicable to multiple fantasy settings and I have stolen these elements/paths for my own games before.

  • Fire
  • Air
  • Water
  • Earth
  • Astral
  • Death
  • Nature
  • Blood

This system I really like; as it encompasses the mythology and magical underpinnings of an Elemental magic system BUT also covering everything else you may need- not only magic in terms of what characters could do but also the setting or cosmology itself. You can also imagine what each mage who specializes in each type of magic might look like- Nature mages being witches and druids. Blood mages being evil cultists and summoners. Death mages get to be necromancers- Astral mages being the theurges or soothesayers- controllers of fate and the stars- also tied strongly to themes of having the "fifth element" or element above the other elements in some way. Even more appropriate given Astral Magic's use in communions. Not unheard of outside of Dominions; but extremely fun and setting defining once it is introduced. Crosspath magic allows for yet more versatility and explains many things and how this relatively simple and small list of Paths could be used to encompass almost any magical effect you can think of- the game even has a nice in-game and universe categorization of Magic User based on their paths; with the first four paths of the basic elements being what Wizards use, and the latter four paths being what Sorcerors use.

It's also important to note that Dominions doesn't have quite the same scope or scale as the other games or universes on this list; most are focused on single characters (such as a TTRPG character or video game protagonist), where as Dominions is much more focused on mass combat and grand enchantments- meaning that Dominions Mages are very powerful and appropriately so.

...Of course that was all true, until the Illwinter development team introduced Glamour as a new magic path and fucked all this up! The newest Dominions game just came out as of the time of this writing- creating an Illusion, dream, and mind-based school of magic. While I haven't actually played with it yet to see how it works or how fun it is- I simply detest this inclusion into the above list of magic schools. While it wasn't perfect before, Illusion was moreso a subcategory of magic that fit into other schools- like how most Illusion spells were Air Magic related. I actually really liked this, as it created connections and concepts in setting that any nation with access to Air-Magic had the capacity to cast various illusion and trickery spells- and indeed most of the nations who did have high level Air Magic had the capacity for it. I mean, if any school of magic should be split up, it should have been water- thematically speaking at least. Because water was basically the number one most important school of magic for all underwater nations (go figure) AND because it was also used for all cold or ice related magic spells as well; leading to the strange in-setting weirdness of the Nifelheim Ice-Giants also being really good at invading water provinces and casting whirlpool spells. Makes sense in terms of the path, less in universe and less in gameplay. Personally, I would have preferred illusion magic remain a sub-category- just letting the various Elvish nations having unique spells related to it- much like how Man had a very unique set of spells relating to Nature magic- spell songs- allowing for cheap and safe communions at the cost of their power and casting speed. Perfect for a bunch of half-fae wise women descended from the Tir'na'nog, less so for the druids or wild beastmen blood sorcerers- hence why it was specific to that nation. Oh well. I've never even won a multiplayer game of Dominions, so what do I know?

Ars Magica
Another huge inspiration. Ars Magica straddles the line between elemental & arcane distinctions for spell schools, in this game called "Arts", but has the knock-on effect of working really well for my purposes here. I feel as though I don't need to list all of the forms in their latin names, but just know there are ten of them comprising everything from the classic elements, to the human form, to magic itself. But how those forms are used is by the techniques, meaning how they are manipulated.

  • Creo (Create, Restore, Repair, Replenish, etc.)
  • Intellego (Understand, See, Divination, etc.)
  • Muto (Transform, Change)
  • Perdo (Destroy, Lessen, Weaken)
  • Rego (Control, Move)

The useful thing here is, by simply taking this list of techniques and removing the forms, we now have a general purpose list of magic spell schools or verbs we could use to serve as our spell schools! However, it isn't perfect for me for two reasons. One, the latin names, while fitting for a medievalish historical setting, don't exactly fit for a fantasy world and two, in regards to the spell effects or categories fit within each; some of them are ill-defined or extremely narrow in application. Rego is a good example, seeming almost useless for certain forms (just look at the example spells for Rego Imaginem), where as other techniques (Creo) are so broad they basically encompass anything you can do with the magical arts. With that being said- it's a really good list and will serve as the backbone for my magic schools I'll share in a bit- that and one other less obscure property.

Elder Scrolls
Here's the other big one. Besides D&D, Elder Scrolls has one of the strongest spell-school categorizations out there. Once again- it is quite fitting for its own genre and what it's trying to do- but there have been lots of bumps in the road. This is further complicated by the fact that each game in the series changes, removes, or moves around the various spells and effects from school to school! For this, we'll go with Oblivion/Morrowinds schools.

  • Conjuration
  • Illusion
  • Destruction
  • Restoration
  • Alteration
  • Mysticism

These Schools are also pretty evocative. I especially like the implementation of "Restoration" as an actual school of magic- a very fitting word and usage for magical healing. I especially like it over "healing magic" or "life magic" because it fits not only healing but also restoring other attributes and curing diseases without it being as broad as "Creo" from above. My only issue is the term being used as "Restoration" but this spell school also includes increasing, empowering, buffing, etc. various attributes or stats as well, which is not implied by the name. (Also, in Oblivion, Restoration is where the drain attribute spells go, and not even in the criminally underused Mysticism. What the fuck were they thinking?) I don't think this is that bad of a trade off of clarity since the school would be too focused otherwise, but it is still a slight imperfection.

However; the names, once again, are flawed. Same issue as D&D, though to a lesser extent. And we have a traitor in our midst. "Destruction" fits the naming scheme, but is extremely divorced to the actual effect or "magical tool" used by the spells within this school. It does destroy things; but by conjuring elemental forces. Earlier games in the series (Morrowind) did a better job of this, since some Destruction spells could also do simpler things like damaging attributes or equipment- but I dislike this vagueness. To me, a "Destruction" school would be focused totally on magic effects that just damage things- not elemental blasts or manipulation of energy. Mysticism is of course right out- but I think if you had a list of magic schools and had just ONE that violated the naming/type conventions, Mysticism would be the best choice for that. It's the "other" school, with weird and freaky powers and meta-magic that other schools of magic don't have. Also- if ANY school on this list should be able to trap Souls, Mysticism would fit. It's sad it was axed for Skyrim but, in a way, I've grown to like it. I feel that using Conjuration for the spell was less interesting then making Soul-Trapping its own mechanic- relying on rare weapons or maybe forcing the player to kill a target with a magic staff (actually giving them a reason to use them?) to trap souls- but not giving players a way to farm souls would probably be bad form and not helpful to the gameplay experience. It makes sense to stick it here if you don't have Mysticism. But to the negatives again- we run into Illusion magic here a second time- somehow even worse given it directly changes targets minds for a large number of the spells instead of just actually creating illusions. Better for a video game where type and effects are combined- worse for a fantasy world's wizarding etymology.

Now- Alteration. I know I complained about "Transmutation" for D&D spells up above for being too broad and ill-fitting, but I actually think Alteration works much better for the School of Transmutation. While there is no "Alterationist" mage you can use in the same way "Transmuter" rolls off the tongue, the school of Alteration just fits better for that sort of all-encompassing "changing" things magic that fits the school. In the games, Alteration is basically the catch-all school for weird utility and helpful effects not directly used in combat; besides Mage Armor; most of it is doing things like unlocking locks, walking on water, flight, and so on.

Finally- Illusion. Illusion actually works great in this system; due to the relative low power level of TES mages compared to other media and due to the fact, in the context of a video game, Illusions can comfortably encompass everything you can do to manipulate NPCs- make them calm or fight each other, make them not notice you, improve disposition. Skyrim also grants some new interesting effects, like the "Muffle" spell that just reduces sound- fitting for mage-thieves. It also bafflingly includes Clairvoyance into Illusion, which is obviously a cut effect for Mysticism. While I quite like it from a mechanics perspective- it honestly doesn't fit the name. Most of the effects of "Illusion" are just directly mind-effecting magic- Enchantment works better as a name here. But once again, both names break our naming convention. We're getting close though.

Homebrew- Seven Schools of Magic
When the ancient mages first decided to categorize magic into various schools- the more scholastic and less religious methodology of magical convention was born. Divorced from the concept of the natural forces and elements of the world- these schools became the general grouping of magical skills of which different mages often specialize or study in their pursuits. There were seven distinct schools, which are-

  1. Alteration
  2. Conjuration
  3. Restoration
  4. Evocation
  5. Divination
  6. Abjuration
  7. Domination

These schools are based on the techniques of Ars Magica divided into a few more schools to provide more specificity and round out the list. Creo is split into Conjuration, Restoration, and Evocation as its application is too broad in a more traditional fantasy game with specific wizard schools. Conjuration makes new things or summons creatures, restoration heals or replenishes, and evocation conjures up energy or power in specific- ie; blaster magic.

Abjuration is another special note. Abjuration in D&D terms is mostly defensive spells and anti-magic- and while it certainly can do this here- Abjuration is being more used as a general term and as a replacement school for the Perdo effects. Abjuration lessens, weakens, rebukes, cancels, snuffs out, or otherwise reviles in all cases. It is everything Destruction does except summoning up elemental blasts, which is Evocation instead. Alteration lets you turn invisible and makes things lighter so they can float or fly- Evocation can maybe let you fly but only if you're summoning wind and you have a kite like you're Aang or whatever.

Finally- the most original school here is Domination. Domination is a perfect fit for our Necromancy, Mind-Control, Enchantment, and otherwise bad-guy school of magic. It's name both fits our naming convention, has a negative and evil connotation, and describes exactly what the school does. Domination is how a Wizard bends lesser minds, controls emotions, animates objects, or creates curses and unbreakable vows and things of that nature.

And yes, that's right, there is no Illusion magic. I know, I know. For some, that's a dealbreaker. Fair enough- but we all know Illusion magic sucks anyway. Most "illusions" could just be fit under Conjuration (for false images and sounds) or Alteration (for glamours) if you really needed to come down to it. Domination could already be used to control minds or bodies- meaning we have little need for the extra school. I get it's a staple of fantasy and all- but Illusion magic sucks anyway.

Monday, February 19, 2024

12 Random Doo-Dads from the wall of a Spaceship

I always hate how cool Sci-Fi art, video game levels, assets, etc. always skip over the granular detail of the worlds they live in. With Faster-Then-Light travel and highly advanced spaceships, the art and description of these always seem to show this extremely detailed and textureful spaceship interiors, with lots of buttons, screens, weird pipes, and other do-hickeys hanging and built into the walls of your highly advanced spacecraft. But they never actually go into detail of what they do, or even more rarely do you ever get a chance to interact with them. I love these little gribbles, but what are you supposed to say if a player or reader randomly wants to interact with one of them? What will they find?

Roll on this list to find out! Conveniently; if you don't like psychic stuff in your sci-fi, you can just roll a d10 instead.

12 Spaceship Wall Doo-Dads
Moisture Condensers. Black tubes feed your breath and shed skin oils back into the ship's recycler for water and nitrogen content. Everyone knows where the organic mass for your food replicator comes from, you still don't talk about it.

[2] Wall Capacitor. Usually a slightly raised panel with a bunch of buttons on it. Critical ship systems require a constant and uninterrupted flow of power; these act as extra energy batteries all across the ship. You can press the buttons to cut off or redirect the power held in this unit to somewhere else, especially useful for emergency situations.

[3] Gravity Shocks. These are shock absorbers, which look like long metal tubes or sticks along the side of a ship. Filled with compressive rubber cubes or discs. Whenever the ship hits a powerful g-force or gravity distortion, these absorb most of the shock so it doesn't crush the crew or anything else inside the ship. You can get away with a lot less of these then most people have, but it makes the ride more "turbulent". 

[4] Ship Patch Slot. Very thin door or material strip is pulled aside to reveal a tall but thin hole leading much deeper into the hull then you'd think. Only wide enough to put a hand inside. Within are several long, very thin plastic sheets used to patch small holes in the ship- the sheet is placed over the breach and a simple utility laser or low-powered energy weapon can melt the plastic to the wall to make it stick. Used until you can get real repair back in a stardock.

[5] Life Support Unit. Station dedicated to life support systems; oxygen and an appropriate temperature radiate from these to the rest of the room or area in the ship. Thermostat style controls including all breathable gasses, humidity levels, and PH balance. Ship Captains are notoriously strict about other people messing with THEIR preferred life-support settings. "I don't care how much methane your species needs to breathe, do you have any idea how much that's going to increase the fuel cost!?"

[6] Manual Lightswitch. Controls all the little LEDs that go up and down the hallways and flash red when the emergency systems are on. Sounds really dumb but people are used to hundreds of years of automatic doors and the AI dimming and changing the lights for them whenever they enter or leave so this seems like a really primitive, hands-on kind of failsafe.

[7] Charging Cabinet. Gentle, "hands off" method of recharging various atomic batteries and small appliances. Replacing the fuel cell on whatever gadget or tool you have is much faster, but you can use these cabinets as a way to store and also charge up whatever object. Charges about 1% of the items' battery per day, so really slow, but these mean whenever you bring out some ancient gadget or special tool it won't be out of energy from just sitting in a closet somewhere for multiple years.

[8] Hologram Anchor. Filled with mirrored discs and little pendulums to know which way is up- really important piece of equipment to stabilize and act as a reference point for any holograms or visual projections you beam inside the ship. If you don't have one of these the holograms will just be like clipping through the floor and their voices will sound like they're coming from the wrong room because the computer doesn't know where to put them otherwise.

[9] Binding Crank. Most ships use a semi-flexible membrane lattice and rubberized supports to let the vessel have some sway and ability to bend so it is not to brittle. These cranks let you tighten or loosen these supports. Despite clearing being made to be used by the crew- the torque required to turn one of these is so ridiculous that you basically can only get a robot to do it.

[10] Computer Junk-Data Sinks. Thin plastic bars with built in handles shoved into consoles along the wall; these are where routine computer check-sums, unrecoverable RAM, quarantined viruses and glitches are all stored. Often neglected because of how little it effects the overall ship AI's performance and because cleaning them is easy; you just run water on them in the sink. Everyone who got to the future by cryogenic freezing is extremely confused.

[11] Psychic Decoy. Electronic devices that look a bit like a clump of tinfoil. They emit false delta and theta brain signals to make it hard to track how many people are inside the ship and what they are thinking about. However, any psychic worth their crystal are going to notice a bunch of comatose people stacked up along the walls of the ship many times over any reasonable ship of that size would have. It was a bit of a fad back in the day, any old beater or "hand me down" spaceship is probably going to have a bunch of these.

[12] Anomaly Sensor. Looks like a plastic medal hanging on a lanyard. Experienced ship captains hoard these things and hang them everywhere like magic talismans. This is because these sensors have the almost miraculous ability to detect when things are just slightly "off" from normal, letting out a shrill electric beep and flashing a small light with its color based on the danger level- green for benign, yellow for caution, and red for danger. From time distortions, memory-voids, invisible energy viruses infecting your systems, or space madness- all things a computer or robot can't help you with. Nobody really knows how they work, but if you break one open and study its core you'll find a tiny amount of human neural tissue locked inside its circuits.

Friday, January 19, 2024

(Rant) Illusion Magic Sucks

Let's be honest, illusion magic sucks. In pretty much every game or franchise. Normally, tabletop games have an advantage over video games in the realm of creativity and player-agency, but with Illusion magic I feel the exception. At the very least, in a video game, you can see the outcome of casting an illusion spell. Watching the AI glitch out and jankily attack other entities in the world from your Rage spell, The decoy that every enemy suddenly turns to attacks, the 50% increased damage taken by the mirror image- hinting it is too squishy to be the real opponent. Both player facing and NPC-facing- Illusion spells are a rare but welcome inclusion, as they are the only real way to trick or interact with hostile NPCs beyond bartering or speech systems inherit to games that have them.

However, Illusion magic in tabletop games suck. I don't think I've ever played a full campaign with an Illusionist in the party, or played one myself. Don't get me wrong, some illusion spells are cool. The classic mirror image or blur spell, invisibility, silence (especially if Silence upon a spell caster is a literal Silence, so they can't even scream out for help? So cool.) But the entire category of Illusion spells or magic? The entire School of Illusion magic? It's so bad.

Typically when people talk about Illusion magic, they mean one of two things. In the more video-gamified sphere, it would probably be any spell that disguises, changes, or magically alters the appearance of a character and/or effecting the minds of characters in a game in some way for an effect. The other classic example being Sleep or Charm- but once again- these aren't actually Illusion spells- at least not in D&D. So instead, Illusions are relegated to fake phenomena. Things like holograms (images without weight or substance), fake sounds, or glamours that disguise. Some more enterprising games do with faking entire sensations- painful false wounds that scale all over the body or illusionry walls of flame that require a morale check to jump through. These uses of the spell all share the same common issue- it's always a trick. That's the point of illusions. The issue here is that they aren't interesting. Once you've beat on Illusion, you've beat them all. The illusion is always the same; a Will check, a Wisdom roll, a round to concentrate to will the illusion away; it's painfully boring. An actual wall of flame is interesting. You can toast marshmallows on it, or dose yourself in water to take less damage to jump through, or try to make a bridge over it made of something that won't burn, or any other number of things that a real obstacle would need to overcome. Illusions don't have that benefit. They are simply a trick- you describe what the players see, and then they figure out its fake.

Codifing and making types of illusions into spells is also terrible. Illusions, being fake things, also have some of the weakest and least well-defined spell rules. Usually, you can just make an illusion of anything with an illusion spell, with some arbitrary restriction (it can't make noise, it can only be so big, etc.) making it honestly less creative then other spells that might breed ingenuity with their limitation. Be honest with yourself; when has anyone ever used an illusion other then for intimidation, or pretend to be someone to get past a locked door with one of those little slides that the guards can peek through? I can't think of almost any. There are some creative exceptions to this of course- a line of illusory customers to make your business seem booming and scaring away your rivals- only to be undone when they discover none of them moving after a long period of time. This is part of the fun of tabletop games, and while Illusion magic can do that, it's a one trick pony. It ONLY does that, and nothing else.

The other problem with Illusion is it is down to DM fiat on how effective it is. If an NPC believes something is real or fake is based on out-of-character knowledge. How common is Illusion magic in the world? If the NPCs take whatever they see at 100% face value, then Illusion magic is too strong, as you could summon a wounded orc outside the camp and they'll open the gates for you every time. If you make enemies too smart, too skeptical, then it does literally nothing. I only see it as a way to start arguments at the table; "You know, people in this world KNOW that illusions exist, right? Nobody is going to believe your ragtag team of level 5 dudes can summon a dragon if we don't give them all their stuff." Then comes the counter- "b-but I've specalized my character to cast illusion magic! That's not fair". This comes the second part- in a fantasy world- who the FUCK wants to be an Illusionist? It sounds cool on paper, but it's terrible in principle. Nothing an illusionist does has any weight- nobody would take them seriously. Once again, nobody would actually seek out an Illusionist for anything. Maybe to hide a castle or trick an enemy- but once again- that's something a mundane, non-magical group of Rogues and thieves can do and would arguably be more interesting. The only "good" Illusionist would be one who disguises themself as any other Wizard and pretends to cast other spells, only tricking people into thinking they are powerful in some other way when they are not. It feels like you're taking extra steps to get the same result. If tricking someone should be easy- it lacks value.

It's also a big problem with scope and power-balance-dynamics in a campaign or world. If Illusion magic is so strong that it can create living illusions that can interact with a world, or do things like trick you into thinking you're leaving an area but really just walking in a circle over and over- then it's way too powerful. (Not even getting into spells like "Shadow Conjuration" which make "Quasi-Real" illusions- at this point it's basically just a budget Conjuration spell.) Essentially equal to mind control, another form of magic that's equally as game-world breaking in its potential power- both for the players and for the DM's own worldbuilding and campaign design. If you can cast a spell to make anyone stab their brother thinking it's a monster- everyone would be investing all their resources into countering and stopping that kind of magic- making it a moot point. If you don't allow illusions to be flexible or have some minor interactivity- then they're too weak. You could counter any illusion by just carrying around a bag of stones and throwing them at it- if the rock doesn't bounce off or hurt them, it's fake. The entire concept of a "Disbelieve" action is just so terrible. I hate this concept. If you're going to prove something isn't real, you need to do it through something that interfaces with the game world. It's the same problem with perception checks- it's a binary yes or no with the DM largely determining how bad it really is to succeed or fail. If you set up a programmed illusion to make a spooky noise or create the image of a monster to scare people from looting your cave away- it will either work or it won't. They'll either run away and never try to enter, or figure out it's fake and ignore it- no real counterplay other then a random chance or check on a character sheet.

However, with all that said, that doesn't mean Illusions can't have a place in fantasy or your fantasy games. Illusions can be extremely cool. But once again, it's specific to how it works and its iteration, not necessarily a player-facing power or feature. Glamors that hide characters true forms are classic, as are mirrors showing the worst side of you in its reflection. But once again, these feel like they should be less like spells and more like aspects or parts of a world that could potentially be created- very rare magic items that can steal people's voices or masks that change your own face while you wear them are cool. One could apply this logic to any magical phenomena, but Illusion is especially enhanced by this touch because it becomes a secondary element to magic. Not a spell or school of magic, but a side activity, almost like Alchemy or something similar- a specialized skill that exists in the world as rare craft- something that few would admit to knowing or trading in. Consider this; would you rather pretend to summon a dragon with an illusion spell that creates one, or dress up your PCs in a multi-person costume and hoist them up with a winch? The fun of tricking people is in the trick; not in ticking off a box on your spell slots. 

Now to be fair- having a suite of different small magical tools used to trick people does make it much easier, and fantasy settings have the benefit of having more "tricks" then real life illusionists do. Not needing to hire a bunch of random townspeople to dress up and just being to create illusions of them is a valid and believable use of "problem solving" with magic as part of any Sorcerer's toolkit. If anything, this post was just to justify why I don't care for Illusion spells and don't really like writing or including them in my games or on this blog. Just an opinion.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Mundaun's monsters are really cool

I play a lot of random, shitty little indie games you've never heard of. Don't take that first sentence too literally; I actually think of most of them are quite good. I'm fond of small projects made with a lot of heart- anything unique and interesting. One such game I played last year was Mundaun, which I heard about and thought (incorrectly) it was a survival horror game in the same style as Darkwood or Nightmare of Decay, some other small indie survival horrors- but Mundaun is quite a bit different. Not necessarily in a bad way either- and it gave me a decent bit of inspiration. The following article contains spoilers.

Mundaun is set in a very isolated region of the Alps- representing a very genuine and faithful recreation of a very small and isolated culture. The entire game uses pencil-drawn textures, and all of the in-game narration is done in the region's obscure dialect with English subtitles. It's more of a "Folkloric" type of horror, with the monsters and threats of the game being very specific to the game world itself. This is probably the best part of the game; and what inspired the creation of this blogpost.

Now to preface this; I should mention that I am obviously not a member of this culture or community this game is based off of- I think it's extremely idyllic and feels very genuine, but I am not one of them. The reason why I preface it like this is because of a concept that came out to me when playing the game; which is that the monsters and enemies of the game feel like something the people in this region of the world may have actually believed in in some way or another- a mixture of folklore and common-sense sort of stuff. I don't know if this is actually true; but it gave me a deeper appreciation for both the game's monsters and, more importantly, the concept of a "monster" in and of itself. I think the real value of the game to me was the refreshing and greater clarity over the concept of how folklore, something intrinsically based on TTRPG and fantasy-fiction writing, creates the secondary or fictional universe which we immerse ourselves in when we play games. In other words, Mundaun's monsters felt to the player and world of the game the same way werewolves, vampires, and goblins must have felt to the medieval European people that we base our fantasy fiction games on; something present and, while not insurmountable if you know what you're doing, still a danger and a threat.

In Mundaun, there are only really 3-4 monsters you encounter through the game, plus the final boss or encounter. The first are the hay monsters, slow with ranged attacks, but common and high in numbers. The second are the bee-keeper monsters, attacking you with a swarm of bees if you get too close. The third are the soldiers who can shoot you if you enter their illuminated area, the fourth are the snow beasts, who summon avalanches of snow and are more of a puzzle to avoid- considering you can't kill them in any way. Finally is the devil himself, who is more of an end-game boss in a few scripted sequences, which you can only deal with by the magic/holy lantern you get early in the game and whose importance is only revealed after piecing together a puzzle.

Now its important to remember that you don't encounter more then one type of monster at once at any point in the game. Monsters can come in groups but are usually fought solo, and you don't get anything for defeating a monster other then breathing space. It is much better to avoid them. I played this game incorrectly the first time, falsely thinking it was a survival horror game, trying to run over every hay-man with the Muvel truck to try and save up on ammo- but it's not really that kind of game. After taking the game at face value and playing it the way it was intended, these monsters really stuck out at me.

Why? Because of the thematic weaknesses and resources used to defeat them. Each monster can be fought or avoided by the player- but the method you fight each is somewhat specific to each monster. Because of their skills, location in the game world, or just general position of the player-character at the time when you fight them, you'll have different tools. What makes this so good is the realization of what is going on. The monsters are related to the life and folklore of the people who live in the region.

How do you deal with hay? You stick it with a fork or burn it- same as you deal with the hay men.
How do you deal with bees? Blow smoke at them, or put on a bee-suit.
How do you deal with enemy soldiers? Shoot them with your gun.
How do you deal with the Devil? Well- you can't directly. You'll need magic- or a little help from someone upstairs.

The monsters in Mundaun are not video game or RPG enemies to be defeated or surmounted, but a part of life, each with its own understood time and place, method, and level of danger. By the above metrics; it would seem that the snow beast is the strongest monster of all- the iconic monster of the game that can't be hurt by any weapons. Does that means cosmological the snow beast is stronger then the devil? Not really- it's a force of nature. It's the avalanche. You avoid it by staying out of the way. They even illustrate this by putting a gun and ammo at a vantage point above a snow beast and, upon shooting it, it simply gets mad and charges at you since bullets don't do anything. Why would a gun do anything against the dangers of a mountain?

You become immersed in and appreciative towards the culture and people portrayed in the game. By doing so- you understand that these monsters are not made up fantasy creatures as a bundle of stats and abilities but a reflection in part by the culture that made them. This, I think, is helpful in understanding fantasy world creatures and how people deal with or interpret them. We in the modern day are so far removed from this mythology and the cultural context that spawned it that we simply associate the monsters and their counters as being made up- silver counters werewolves because it's silver. Not because silver is a metal with many properties associated with purity, showing if food is spoiled, being used in medicine, and so on- the opposite of the danger and corruption/madness associated with someone becoming a wolf. Once again- even this isn't significant to a modern person- where as a medieval person would attribute a wolf to being a real threat, not some animal that's in constant danger of going extinct.

While it goes beyond the scale of this blogpost- I wanted to briefly mention the potential in using this style of monster and story-telling to enhance and improve TTRPGs and immersion in a fantasy settings. The idea of taking the real world thing, situation, or common fear and applying it to fantasy monsters as though they are projections are exaggerated/empowered versions of those fears and situations- even though no real world culture has to fear giant were-rats in the sewers, a fantasy culture might. And how does a fantasy culture deal with rat men? Well- they'd probably use wizards and fighters with armor and weapons- but what if instead a were-rat could be repelled by a regular sized mouse trap? It can't possibly hurt it, but it scares it and drives it away- the exact same way someone would deal with a regular rat.