Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Cantrips Ain't Easy + Demon Summoning for Dummies

I've already talked about this concept before, both in the Magic Cards post, which was more based on a way to put magical one-time use spells into a fantasy world, and then in the Freeform Curse generator, which was a bit more folkloric and a way to make a fantasy world feel a bit more "mythological" in its moral landscape. A lot of people include within their fantasy settings the concept of magic being more common- including to the point of most (if not everyone) learning a few basic magic spells (cantrips) in order to help with daily life. The reasoning behind this being that if low level magicians can cast weak magic with relatively little investment; then it makes sense most people would want to learn at least some magic given the extreme utility of some of the weaker spells- even spells like Prestidigitation or Light would have a profound impact on any society, especially one stuck in a anachronistic medieval morass of development.

However, both of these posts above illustrate something I think is interesting; a typical inversion of the fantasy trope of magic being weak for beginners, and strong for experts. Of course, it makes logical sense that magic should operate this way; a master wizard can throw fireballs, while an apprentice can only conjure a candle flame. This is obvious even, a common trope. But it doesn't necessarily have to be the case; and even if it exists for some forms of magic, it doesn't have to be that way for all of them.

Remember; magic doesn't necessarily follow real world skills, nor do all skills directly follow this correlation of low skill = small & simple and big skill = big & complicated. While it makes sense that an amateur carpenter can build a birdhouse but not a human-sized house; I wouldn't trust an amateur surgeon to make a small and delicate incision as opposed to say, amputating a limb. I think the closest analogy to magic when it comes to mundane skills would be demolitions and pyrotechnics. Any idiot can blow the shit out of something, since they just pile on the TNT- but only a master can say launch a human out of a cannon. After all, too little and they won't fly, too much and they'll explode. Controlling arcane power could very well be the same.

This also goes hand in hand with the concept of amateur magic, magic backlash, or unintentional side effects of magic creating various monsters, curses, or negative magic effects in a setting. When old farmer willow asks you to bring his dead crops back and you say the words, you're also going to bring back the skeletons of ancient warriors buried deep beneath the farm as well. They can hear the words under the soil just as well as the dead plants can. The same applies to lighting a candle instead of blowing up half the inn- the portal you open to the elemental plane of fire isn't so easy to shrink to the exact right size- as such, a "cantrip" or minor trick of magic is actually much more difficult to learn and master then a big and powerful spell. Most magic users spend decades of their life perfecting this fine art of control. Amateur wizards blow themselves up all the time, because they don't have this level of control. Cantrips are the sign of a powerful magician; not an amateur.

But moving away from just "magic" in the arcane sense, the stuff that wizard's use, let's focus more on the folkloric style of magic. The above really gave me an idea for magic being a serious problem; not because it's hard, but because it's way too easy for someone to fuck everything up. Like for example- anyone can summon a demon. Naturally, demons like it this way. If it was too difficult or required some high-end rituals and powers to do so; it would be too rare an occurrence. Oh no, demons make it very easy to call them, and for this reason, people often oblige.

"Ritual" magic in most TTRPGs tends to be a high end thing, often reserved for the Wizard or magic using class, due to being good set dressing to powerful and unique magic effects. However, the entire concept of a "ritual" is to be a set of steps and procedures that can be followed time and time again. This is the exact type of magic that is most likely to be spread far and wide, in shadowy alehouse corners and campfire conversations.
"If you sacrifice a living thing- like a chicken or a goat- and invoke the powers of darkness, you can make a demon come to you. They will serve your command or grant you a wish."
"Aren't demons dangerous?"
"Yeah- that's why you draw a circle of chalk at your feet. That means they can't hurt you- at least until you leave the circle..."

Demon Summoning for Dummies
In order to summon a demon, you need only know the steps. Different cultures and races may have their own steps or their very own demons they deal with- but for humans, this is the most common one.

Note: These steps are listed in this way so they can easily be disrupted. If a dark presence has formed- casting a Light spell can banish it and disrupt the ritual, so can coming in loudly and screaming into battle, or obviously saving the sacrifice before it or they are killed, etc.

  1. It must be at night, or in a very dark place. Candles are used during rituals so as to not produce too much light.
  2. A living thing is sacrificed and its blood is run over the ground or on an altar.
  3. While the animal or person is bleeding out- the one who killed them must speak aloud and speak the name of a spirit to call them. For the sake of demons, simply saying "I call upon the darkness" is enough to call a random demon.
  4. Everyone must be then be quiet and wait for a dark presence to form and speak.

Once these steps have been completed, a dark presence will appear. This presence will typically be a mass of shadows in the corner, or appear in a mirror or reflective pool of water. The presence is the spiritual form of the demon, which has not yet manifest fully into the living world. However, it can communicate and speak- its voice often carried by the rustle of wind in the trees or a groaning beneath the earth. Typically, the demon will ask what is willed of it- and several things can happen.

If the demon is significantly stronger then the individuals summoning it and it is being bid to do something very difficult, impossible, or against its nature- it will manifest and attack. Use HD or level of the caster x2 vs the demon's HD. If the demon's is still twice as high, it's just going to kill them for the arrogance for disturbing it. If the summoner is standing in a chalk or salt circle, the demon cannot attack them, but will still destroy or attack anyone else nearby out of spite.

If the demon is significantly stronger then the individuals summoning it, and is being bid to do something evil, malicious, or well within its purview of interest- then it will oblige the request. Demons are tricky, and prefer to leave the world a much worse place then they found it. Whatever request was given to them will be twisted and exaggerated to cause as much chaos and misery as possible. Often, demons will make the situation worse in an attempt to get the individuals to call them back again to continue the cycle.

If the demon is roughly equivalent then the individuals trying to summon it- it will listen to the request fairly and fulfill it or decline if it is too difficult. The demon is unlikely to want to get on the summoners bad side, but will absolutely still take advantage of any weakness or opportunity it can sense. This is still the most "fair" demonic interaction.

If the demon is significantly weaker then the individuals summoning it, and is being bid to do something very difficult, impossible, or against its nature- the demon will lie and make excuses, demanding more sacrifices or proclaiming itself to be the lord of hell itself, insulting the summoners and threatening them with their destruction, etc. The demon will lash out via curses or possessing nearby objects to fly, control nearby animals to attack, and so on.

If the demon is significantly weaker then the individuals summoning it, and is being bid to do something evil, malicious, or well within its purview of interest- the demon will be forced to manifest and become the servant & familiar of the person who summoned it. It is still not likely enough to be powerful enough to fulfill the request on its own and will assist the summoner as the "devil on their shoulder".

While the "strength" of the summoners could be literally based on the HD or level of the characters, there's also a greater component of spiritual strength. For example, an anointed priest could call upon a more powerful demon then a layman and have more guaranteed protection given their status. Human nobles with no special skills or powers are also likely considering "greater" then an average outlaw to the demonic forces due to their position in society- but this could just as easily be flipped on its head for calling upon spiritual forces like jaguar demons from the depths of the jungle hells- an entity like that would consider a fellow hunter or outdoorsman a far more equal to itself then a city slicker regardless of their wealth or social connections. Following these mechanics; a Cleric or Paladin should count as a level or two higher when compared to the HD of the demon. In addition, if your game has skills, then every rank or two of Arcana or Demonology should also count as a bonus +1 to your HD when summoning a devil. Your character may be a withered old man but if he has memorized the names and guises of a hundred dark ones you can bet he can command some sick ass demons.

Once a demon has "manifested", it has the appearance and powers of its statblock. Typically demons can do things like travel long distances quickly, transform, turn invisible, cast spells and curses, etc. It will use its abilities to fulfill requests as well as attack any foolish summoners who anger it.

It should also be noted that these mechanics, while known to you, are not necessarily known to the people of the setting. Only the ritual steps, and even those may be incomplete or rife with misinformation. As such, demonolgists and sorcerers can summon demons much more reliably and safely by calling upon demons who fit what they need for a given curse or summoning and that they can control. It's also pretty much designed to cause as much chaos as possible for weaker beings who use this ritual; which is the point. The more desperate and lowly something is, the more demonic forces can take advantage of it for their own ends. This also leads directly to fun story moments; bandits accidentally summoning an demonic prince of hell and getting gutted, or a powerful necromancer now having an annoying imp following them because they wanted to "gain more knowledge" and the idiotic thing just keeps stealing books for him and piling them on his bedsheets every night.

You might also ask, "why the hell would anyone summon a demon in the first place?!" and that's a good question. There are actually a lot of reasons why. I dislike settings or cosmologies that have "deals with the devil" being a literal component of the world or setting- not only is it incredibly cliche at this point, but it doesn't make logical sense. Selling you soul to the devil is not always literal thing, it's a metaphor meaning doing evil or violating your own moral compass to accomplish something or take advantage of someone. Demons don't need you to hand over your soul to get one over on you, just summoning one and sacrificing a living thing and also fulfilling whatever crass or selfish desire or petty plan for revenge is enough to damn you anyway.

There are also a lot of situations where one would be desperate enough to summon a demon. Here's twenty examples.

Desperate Demonology Table - Roll 1d20
[1] Group of bandits are held up in a fort. They're under siege by the local lord's forces and are running out of food. They take the last scrawny chicken from the courtyard's coop and perform a ritual to try and negotiate a way out of here.

[2] An older prostitute in a city has lost much of her beauty over the last few years- and will soon not be able to attract enough clients to make her living. Instead of become destitute, she nabs an orphan off the street and is getting ready to sacrifice him in exchange for returning her youth.

[3] Someone in your family is going blind. The local healers cannot help, and the evil-racist church refuses due to their status as a mixed breed person. You decide to spite the church since they won't help you anyway- and slit the throat of a goat to see if darker forces can heal the ailment.

[4] Group of musicians performing at a local fair were stopped by a young and arrogant nobleman's son. He ordered all their instruments broken and laughed at them. Because of their status as lowly travellers, and the young son being out of reach for the law- the musicians circled their wagons and are now performing a ritual to get revenge on the arrogant noble.

[5] Pirates stuck at sea within a dead zone- no wind or currents. Totally unable to move for multiple days, they will surely die unless they do something. They pick the youngest cabin boy and move to have him drowned in the ocean at midnight to call upon the devils of the deep to let their ship sail again.

[6] Proactive village elders, disillusioned by their years or peace and prosperity under the local nature spirits who have protected them, are concerned about recent pillaging and bandit attacks. In order to protect their village; they perform a sacrifice of a pig to their local shrine- not realizing they've called something else this time; pretending to be the deity they've relied on for so long.

[7] Lazy, ignorant farmer's back is acting up again. He's not gonna take it this year. Takes his old horse out back with a knife and wants to sacrifice a demon of sloth to harvest and mill his grain for him.

[8] Kids at an orphanage have an extremely cruel and strict mistress who they can't stand anymore. They find an alleycat and decide to sacrifice it to call upon a demon to rid themselves of their mistress once and for all. Bonus points if the party stumbles onto the ritual and the kids falsely assume they are the demon sent to take care of the problem before the real demon shows up. Yes this is literally just copying the Skyrim quest, I still think it's pretty good.

[9] Blacksmith's son ran away from home, went missing, presumed dead and eaten by something in the mountain. The blacksmith is a patient and faithful man; but can't stand the loss anymore and decides to sacrifice an animal and call a demon to find or bring their son back. The blacksmith is aiming for a very powerful demon to accomplish this goal, and (correctly) believes he can control it by twisting its nose with his tongs. But he also (incorrectly) assumes the demon can actually bring his son back, and not just a revived soulless husk.

[10] Clever merchant has his grip on every local townshed and tradesman, gaining half his money through bonds and loans he's given without lifting a finger himself. Excessively greedy- the merchant buys a slave girl to sacrifice to summon a demon. Not for a favor, but to get some insider tips from his own kind.

[11] The local priest is preparing a sacrifice of an all white lamb to summon a powerful demon. The reason? To beat the shit out of him and get back the souls of some of his flock, who recently died in a plague, before they could be well enough to give their final confessions and cleanse themselves of sin.

[12] Insane wildwoman kills people in the woods and whispers dark names she learned as a child when she fell into a cave for three whole days and went insane and nearly died. The catch is every demon she summons is instead set loose- she doesn't ask any favors of them, merely creates them and moves on- reveling in spreading out the great darkness she once knew. 

[13] Dumbass wizard apprentice at wizard collage wants to summon a demon to punish fellow classmates for insulting and bullying him. The demons are very resentful as he doesn't allow them to kill his classmates- merely pranks and humiliates them before dispelling the demons before they can have any real fun. With his knowledge he can summon up to three demons before he conjures up something WAY too big for him to handle.

[14] The Storm King can create tornadoes and zephyrs at his will; such is his brightright of the divine desert royal bloodline. But in recent years, this gift has been fading in each successor to the throne until him, barely able to conjure a dust devil. Fearing his future son will not have this power at all and will become dethroned as a result; the king orders a dozen palace servants sacrificed in a bloody ritual to call upon all the hells for a worthy mate. The succubus he summons up will be the mother of the antichrist.

[15] Scholar, obsessed with completing his works on ancient history, wants to call up spirits of the dead to get first hand accounts of his lore. Sadly, demons catch wind of his bloodletting divination tricks and whisper to him in his sleep to sacrifice a life, his old messenger owl, so they have a gateway into our world.

[16] Cruel and paranoid warlord who managed to conquer four cities now obsessed with his three lieutenants, each in charge of another city, who may betray him at any moment and try to unite to rise up against him. He kills a captive soldier and summons a demon to spy on them and rely information; but with each day his paranoia only grows as the demons feed him lie after lie.

[17] Beggars in the city grate are usually content with their lot; but one night when the snow and rain got too much for them, they decided to take shelter in a storm drain. Their, they found dark writings on the wall and, putting their heads together to make out what they mean, they could only piece together the steps of a ritual to "grant happiness", but not actually what that means. They've tied the tails of seven rats together, and will crush them all with a great mallet tonight- summoning something far worse.

[18] Constantly ill and bedridden young lady, obsessed with romance novels and living in her own fantasy world. Needing a friend more then ever, she kills one of her songbirds and drizzles a ritual circle on her bedside table- hoping to get a "friendly" imp familiar as a companion.

[19] Temple priestess of the heathen "foreigner" religion is an expert at summoning up devils and creatures from other worlds from her many daily sacrifices and captives from slaver parties. However, one week from now is the equinox where she will have her heart removed to please the God of the sun and return the light back to the world. Until then, she is trying hard to secretly gain power over the many devils and demons the temple summons to fight her way out.

[20] Horrible, wealthy old man desires a young and beautiful bride- but she continually refuses his advances. One night, he pays local thugs to capture her and bring her back to his mansion- but not for what you think. He's going to kill her, summon a demon with her sacrifice, and demand the demon drag her soul straight to hell for slighting him.


  1. Excellent post and loving the thoughtfulness here. I think a regional list of possible extra steps could be fun too. My mind is running with ideas already, maybe elves would call upon The Forest, instead of Darkness. Also entry 11 is pretty funny.

    Anyway, it's been a long time since you last posted the rules you use. Last I could find was the Manse '18 with an update to the sage in 2019? I'm wondering how similar these are you what you use these days, I know mine have changed dramatically since then!

  2. I thought number 20 was going to go the Bluebeard route. Complete with foolishly mistaking his newest bride's Curiosity for a Sin while ignoring that his own Pride in "outsmarting" The Devil is actually the crown jewel of the souls to be Damned.