Alicorns

“Unicorn horns are highly sought after, since possession of one is a sovereign remedy against all poisons. Alternately, a single horn can be used, by an alchemist, to manufacture 2-12 potions of healing. Unicorn horns sell for 1,500 gold pieces or more on the open market. “AD&D 2e Monstrous Manual

So I’ve been reading Odell Shepard’s The lore of the unicorn — a treatise on unicorn lore, it should be noted, rather than a treatise on unicorns, as Shepard is principally interested in what writers said about them, how they were used as symbols, and the meaning of the symbolism and legends associated with unicorns.  It’s mostly interesting but also dry — it could well have been written in the nineteenth century, and reads like something a country vicar would have compiled in his ample free time … cf. Sabine Baring-Gould.  Still, there is some great stuff, and this post harvests some of the triva from an early chapter.

Historically, in the West, unicorn horns (or alicorns – the term has also been applied, incorrectly, to horned pegasi) were highly sought after treasures.  Filings from an alicorn were valued at ten times that of gold, by weight; a whole alicorn would be worth double that.  As the narwhal tusks which were sold as alicorns can weigh ten kilograms, a whole specimen was a rare treasure to be found only in a king’s treasury or a major cathedral.  By the late 16th century, however, nearly every prince had one or part of one as protection against poisoning, which had become a widely practiced art.  Deadly diseases like plague were considered to be a kind of poisoning, so to the medieval mind, a cure for poisoning was also a cure for diseases.

The anti-poison property of an alicorn was far from unique, however. A mixture of herbs, minerals, and animal parts called “theriaca” was manufactured as a cure-all, and used both as a salve and ingested medicine, but it was very expensive due to the complexity and time taken to create it, and would be roughly as pricey as alicorn powder.  The prince on a budget had many other options when collecting talismans against poison — many of them obtained from animals that were themselves poisonous or thought to be poisonous.

Bezoar stones (concretions of indigestible matter and minerals recovered from the guts of animals) could be dipped into a drink to purify it (bon appetit!)

Cerastes horns (the prominent scales, called “horns,” of the cerastes serpent) were said to weep or sweat in the presence of poison.  They were placed on the dining table in artful arrangements to detect poison.  Legend had it that the walls of Prester John’s palace were made with a concrete including cerastes horns to prevent any poison from ever entering his demesne.  From antiquity, Western scholars held that the cerastes serpent killed its prey by burying itself so that only its poisonous horns were above ground, and passersby who stepped on the horns would die instantly.  “Horned serpents” captured the imagination of Westerners from the time of Herodotus, who described them in his History.

Snake tongues would be hung, in bunches, on the table as well, and they too would weep in the presence of poison.

Glossopetra (the “tongue stone,” actually shark tooth fossils) were used in the same manner as snake tongues, and were thought to be the petrified tongues of snakes. They were also credited with warding off the evil eye.

Toad-stones, supposedly recovered from the bodies of toads, were placed in rings to prevent poisoning.  Surviving examples of these “toadstones” are probably sting-ray teeth.

Griffin’s claw (usually ibex or buffalo horns) was fashioned into a drinking horn, which would purify any beverage of poison.

Venetian glass or crystal was thought to shatter if any poison were poured into it, and was therefore a popular material for goblets and bowls.

Ruby (also called carbuncle) and amethyst, if placed over poisoned food, would make it inedible and thus prevent a poisoning.

A severed vulture’s foot was thought to clutch in the presence of poison, so candle-holders were fashioned with a claw positioned just so that if it closed, it would snuff out the candle.  (In the Middle Ages vultures were believed to be poisonous themselves.)

Terra sigillata was a specially prepared clay from Lemnos, cakes of which were imprinted with a seal depicting Artemis; hence the name.  It was used to make amulets which warded off poison, and as an ingredient in theriaca, or as a medicine in its own right.

Walrus tusks and rhinoceros horns were also believed to have some potency in this regard, yet they were were also used to counterfeit alicorns.  Some accounts say that special chemical treatments were used to give them the characteristic spiral of a true alicorn.  (Certain antelope horns which have a twists or spirals were also imported as alicorns.)

The heyday of the alicorn was in the 14th ro 16th centuries.  Belief in their efficacy decline slowly.  In Italy and France, belief in the alicorn’s power died out in the 1500s; in England, belief lasted into the 1700s.

One possible echo of the belief in alicorns is the practice of keeping stag horns as trophies.  The medieval bestiaries reported that stags ate snakes, and/or that their horns (or the smoke emitted by their burning horns) were fatal to snakes, and for this reason stag horns were hung over doorways to keep out serpents.

Published in: on July 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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Damn you, Blogger

I spent a good three minutes typing up a comment here and as usual, Blogger eats my comment.  Arg.

I was gonna say:

I like the one-and-only summoned being idea.  I’d connect it to the infernal/celestial being’s true name.  You learn the spell, you learn one true name of a creature, and if you want to summon a different one, you need to find another name to use.  This also would make wizards very reluctant to sell a copy of their spell, as now someone else might be “using” their little extraplanar buddy or “tying up the line” when they want help!  Maybe a swindler will sell you a spell with an invalid or  wrong name.  Maybe a demon named “Insert name here” is terribly overworked and tries to get the party to collect all known copies of the spell with his name in it, for a reward or whatever.  And scrolls with a few true names would be desirable treasures.  (Sure you know “Summon,” but all that doofus you learned it from knew was the name of a celestial muskox and you’d really like to be able to summon up a celestial peacock or whatever.)  Then again a really old scroll might only have the names of now-dead-as-in-killed-on-their-home plane-and-really-really-dead creatures.  You should run with this idea…

Published in: on January 23, 2014 at 1:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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Dreams of magic (Adventures in dreamland part III)

[FWIW WordPress is not good at inserting footnotes, so I'm putting some in brackets.  Apologies in advance for the interruptions they may make.  Like this one.]

So here’s three things that have been rattling around in the attic of my mind — I mean I have never found the time to think too seriously about it, nor to gather much evidence/research, apart from a few links interspersed in this post.  The three things are yoga, magic (should I spell it “magick”? ack!), and lucid dreaming.  Starting with lucid dreaming:

I became interested in lucid dreams about twenty years ago in college (and apparently there has been a resurgence of popular interest in this topic lately).  I’d been having a number of strange dreams, and began keeping a journal of them, and my casual interest in interpreting dreams led me to references to lucid dreaming and the idea that lucid dreaming could be a learned skill, rather than just a random event.  I’d had a lucid dream or two, and began looking into how others cultivate them.  It turns out it is a lot of work and at the time I had too many other interests to pursue it seriously, but I did take some notes that are probably lying around with my other college papers somewhere.  Two interesting things I learned about lucid dreaming were (1) an exercise that is supposed to help make them occur (there are others, but I found this one very simple), and (2) a reason some people seriously work on lucid dreaming.

One exercise used to cultivate lucid dreams is to continually interrupt your waking day, perhaps every fifteen minutes or half hour with an alarm on your digital watch [yes, that dates my source!], and ask yourself: Am I dreaming or awake?  The idea is to make a habit of questioning your state, so that your mind will continue to do so at night in your dreams.

But what would be the purpose of lucid dreaming anyway? If you believe dreams have hidden meanings that your brain (or some higher power like God), is trying to communicate to you, it doesn’t make much sense to interfere with the dream; you should probably just try to be receptive to the message, right? Maybe you could ask follow-up questions of the things or people in your dreams, or intentionally recreate partly-forgotten but significant details, and so on.  So in that case lucid dreaming might be helpful, but it’s not something you’d want or need to do very often.

Another reason to try lucid dreaming would be entertainment — using your dreams to realize fantasies, or just try flying, walking through walls, and other things that might happen in dreams.  I’m not sure if it is true, but I read that your dream experiences could only recreate actual sensations you’ve had in real life, so for example if you try to dream about flying, your sensations in the dream will have to be based on similar feelings you’ve actually had (amusement park rides perhaps or jumping on a trampoline?).  So in principle you couldn’t really use lucid dreaming to have completely new experiences, but perhaps you could recombine past experiences into chimerical new experiences.  It’s pretty hard to imagine that anyone would put in the effort required to learn to dream lucidly when they could use that time to actually have new experiences instead though.

So what else do you have to gain from having a lucid dream?  Some sources mentioned using lucidity to interrupt nightmares or other unpleasant dreams, and that might be important to someone plagued with bad dreams.

But the most interesting take on lucid dreaming was attributed to Tibetan Buddhism.  I’m not sure if this is an unusual esoteric teaching or mainstream to Tibetan Buddhism, but the thinking is: there is a parallel between the phenomenology of recognizing wakefulness vs. dreaming and the phenomenology of recognizing the illusion of individuality vs. the reality of oneness.  In a lucid dream, one might have an experience of  “Aha! This is just a dream!”; in meditation, one might have an experience of “Aha! This is just a life!”  So, becoming aware that one is dreaming (and perhaps seizing control of the dream) would be an experience analogous to enlightenment. The idea is that both Buddhism and dream work place importance on recognizing different states of consciousness; perhaps lucid dreaming would be useful as a sort of spiritual exercise.  In fact there is a tradition called Mi-lam (or Milam yoga, or simply dream yoga) in Tibetan Buddhism that utilizes lucid dreaming as step toward enlightenment.

If we stretch this analogy (perhaps to the breaking point), it gives an interesting take on the ‘siddhis‘ of Tantric Yoga (the alleged supernatural powers attained by enlightened yogis). A lucid dreamer gains control over dream reality; if Tantrism is correct, an enlightened mind gains some control over waking reality.

So this is where the magic comes in.  In the occult revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a great deal of interest in ‘rehabilitating’ occultism as a legitimate pursuit in the age of reason. Indeed one of Aleister Crowley’s magazines, The equinox, used the motto “The method of science, the aim of religion.”  Crowley is fairly infamous as magician/scam artist/seducer (and supposedly much worse), but he retains a certain amount of respectability among occultists as a pioneer in occult scholarship.  I found some of his writing interesting enough to read a fair amount of his stuff in graduate school; it’s fascinating and crazy stuff.  I’m neither spiritual nor gullible enough to take his writings at face value.  But some of his readers see his writings on magic as metaphoric explanations of his mysticism rather than literal claims about supernatural powers. The lines are pretty blurry really even if you take him literally.  I think that he was mostly pulling his readers’ legs, but may have been legitimately interested in mystical experience and enlightenment.

Going back to that little exercise for noticing dreams: there is an oddly parallel exercise recommended in the writings of Crowley.  It is not a perfect parallel, except that it involves interrupting one’s day periodically.  Crowley recommends that occult students use a sort of aversion therapy to overcome bad habits — but cutting one’s forearm every time you catch yourself doing it.  (I think the bad habit he was trying to break the student of was using personal pronouns like “I”, in an attempt to help annihilate personal identity… a very Buddhist goal!)  Anyway it was interesting to me that both exercises, while wildly different in degree (annoyance vs. self-harm) and different in immediate goal (recognizing the dream state, not thinking about oneself as a separate thing), were similar in that both might be aimed at attaining a sort of enlightenment, and both involve periodic rather than really focused attention.

But the most common prescriptions for attaining enlightenment involve deeply focused attention — meditation, yoga, and so on.  Could the ceremonial magic of the Western tradition, as described in various grimoires and masonic rituals, likewise be forms of focusing attention?

In an article in The equinox (v.1, no. 2)  titled “Postcards to probationers,” Aleister Crowley suggests that Western ceremonial magic, and Eastern yoga, are practices which correspond to one another.  He actually uses simple tables to suggest the identity of various elements of each system (listing first the four most widely-recognized methods for each and adding two more esoteric methods for each). I’ve combined the two tables here to focus on the fact that he’s correlating Eastern & Western methods.  I’m not sure to what extent yoga had been ‘seriously’ studied by scientists at the time The equinox was published (I think v.1, no. 2 would be the winter of 1909/1910), but there is certainly a long tradition of casting meditation and yoga as sciences rather than purely spiritual, religious, or occult practices.  I suspect Crowley hoped that some of the legitimacy of Eastern practices could rub off on Western occultism.

(Eastern practice)

(Western practice)

(Aim)

Gnana-Yoga.

The Holy Qabalah.

Union by Knowledge.

Raja-Yoga.

The Sacred Magic.

Union by Will.

Bhakta-Yoga.

The Acts of Worship.

Union by Love.

Hatha-Yoga.

The Ordeals.

Union by Courage.

add Mantra-Yoga.

add The Invocations.

Union through Speech.

Karma-Yoga.

The Acts of Service.

Union through Work.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to add a seventh line for dream work — assuming we take the leap that identifies the ‘goetia’ (the black magic described in Western grimoires) with lucid dreaming.

add Mi-lam yoga

add Goetia (Lucid Dreams)

Union through Dreamwork.

Many goetic texts are cataloged by A.E. Waite in his famous Book of Ceremonial Magic (originally published as The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, and later republished as The Book of Spells, in many editions).  These grimoires often give detailed instructions regarding the proper smells, illumination, and other sensations that will help increase the effectiveness of the rituals, according to occult correspondences; in addition to preparing the mind with specific incantations and visualizations, instructions are provided to pinpoint the best times of day for specific invocations. These are almost always ‘dark hours’ of early morning or late at night, and this has led some (I no longer recall where I first saw this proposed) to speculate that the grimoires are actually providing instructions on lucid dreaming.

Some of the ceremonies even instruct the user to retire to bed before beginning the incantations, but this is unusual.  In any event, it is at least somewhat plausible to interpret the practice of magic as a form of dreamwork.  The fantastic appearances of demons and spirits, the preoccupation with asking where treasures are hidden and when it would be felicitous to remove them, and the preoccupation with having specific (or in some cases generic) people appear to the magician for “venereal experiments”  all make a sort of sense if we understand the ceremonies as preparations conducive to the sort of dream one desires rather than as effective methods of altering reality.  Granted this is a rather impoverished sort of rehabilitation of ‘magic,’ but at least it does not rely on supernatural explanations.

Tibetan Buddhism describes a number of “intermediate worlds” or “bardos”; the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan book of the dead can be read as sort of grimoire that prepares the dying for the dream-like intermediate world experienced during transmigration from one life to the next.  If you read some of the goetic texts, and then the Bardo Thodol, there are certainly some parallels in terms of each providing a sort of field guide for the fantastic — the grimoires describing fantastic demons and angels; the book of the dead describing Buddhist deities.  The imagery of each, though alien to modern sensibilities, would probably be quite meaningful to their audiences, who would understand the language of colors, animals, and other symbolism in them.

A couple of possibly supporting pieces of information I stumbled upon in Rickert’s book At day’s close rekindled this whole line of thought.

Item: witches in the early modern era often confessed to attending Sabbats and working their spells late at night, arising from their beds after their husbands were asleep.  On the one hand this is actually kind of disconfirming my theory about magic being dreamwork, since Rickert considered this an example of the sorts of nocturnal activities people got up to between the two “sleeps” each night. [Typically, people slept from about 9 PM to just after midnight, woke for an hour, and slept again until sunrise or just before it; this wakeful hour might be a time for prayer, sex, reading by candlelight, talking, smoking, or just laying awake.]  Even so, I can easily imagine the whole Sabbat being a realistic dream that begins with a dream that one awakens, especially since pre-industrial people were so afraid to go abroad at night.

The other bit is his mention of the Benandanti — a fertility cult that existed in Friuli, Italy, whose members claimed to battle witches in their dreams.  The battles were apparently to save their crops, and the witches fought armed with bundles of fennel as a weapon; the cultists used bundles of sorghum.  Wikipedia expands on this cult, which I’d never heard of before, and mentions similar traditions of demon-battling werewolves, vampire-hunters, and such; I should mention that I have completely neglected to consider shamanism, which of course is another very occult and very dream-interested tradition; even if you want keep things Euro-centric there are plenty of Western shamans, like Hungarian taltos and the Alpine shamans who can join the nocturnal feasts of the Nachtschar (phantoms of the dead who appear in dreams). ["Nachtschar" appears to be translatable as 'night phantoms,' however at least on source identifies the Nachtschar as the shamans Rickert mentions; others identify the Nachtschar as a sort of early modern survival of the legend of the Wild Hunt.  One relatively famous case was of a herdsman who testified against witches at their trial, saying he'd been shown their Sabbat by a guide-angel on a nocturnal ride; of course he found himself tortured and forced to confess that the angel, originally described as wearing white with a red cross, was really a cloven-hoofed devil.]

So my point, insofar as I have one, is just to suggest the possibility that grimoires and scriptures were intended to populate the dream world, rather than the actual world, with demons, deities, and — magicians!  And there is plenty of tradition populating the dream world with adversaries such as werewolves, demons, witches, and the undead.

So, dragging this back to D&D and such, suppose your game world worked this way: wizards have to first become powerful in the dream world, and then can begin to have these powers leak over into the real world.   Perhaps an apprenticeship is spent in drug- or magic- induced coma, dreaming away for months or years, and this accounts for the typically weak and frail bodies of wizards.  And of course the master occasionally shows up in the former apprentice’s dreams, for good or ill.  The time required to re-memorize spells needs to be spent in solid REM sleep (which helps explain the daily allowances of spells in the otherwise Vancian system).

Dare you sleep in a dungeon, perchance to dream … when who knows who or what else is dreaming, or haunting dreams, in that underworld?

Published in: on November 12, 2012 at 11:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Cold iron and the Lords of Darkness

For quite a while I’ve been pretty confused by the term ‘cold iron’ that keeps cropping up in the old AD&D Monster Manual.  Unless there is an explanation squirreled away somewhere in the DMG, ‘cold iron’ is left unexplained. (The demon entry mentions ‘iron weapons’  — nothing about them being “cold iron” — oversight or intentional distinction?)

I assumed from the beginning that it must mean something other than ‘regular  off-the shelf weapons,’ for example, or else why not just say ‘normal weapons’ or ‘metal weapons,’ right?  So my best guess was always that ‘cold iron’ must mean an archaic, non-steel iron, with some impurities but not much carbon.  This would make them softer and more prone to bending and blunting than steel weapons, but a cold iron mace-head would be pretty much as good as a steel mace-head; it would be the bladed weapons that would really suffer from being made of regular iron.

For a while I tried to imagine ‘cold iron’ as some sort of iron that was worked without heating it, but I don’t think that is even possible with iron.  Maybe you can cold forge copper or bronze.  It couldn’t be cast iron either, which is usually alloyed to lower the melting point — so colder but less pure.  Still I picture iron weapons as looking black or grey like cast iron.

Anyway my point is that I recently picked up a battered but usable copy of Lords of darkness, an AD&D supplement that has “Forgotten realms” and “introduced by Ed Greenwood” on it, but which is fairly generic and could be used in any setting.  The book has a short explanation of various materials and tactics for fighting the undead, and a short passage on ‘cold iron’ which explains that this is special iron with no impurities.  There is a brief mention of the tendency of cold iron weapons to break easily, and while there are no mechanics offered for that, I’d say they might break on a natural one on an attack roll (I don’t otherwise use ‘fumbles’ in my current game).

(Checking Wikipedia for this post, I see it suggested that “cold iron” is just an archaism for “iron” since iron is usually cold to the touch.  Nothing special about it at all, just plain old iron.  I’d like to try out a setting where elves are susceptible to iron weapons too, since in folklore the fairy folk are fearful of it and several of Poul Anderson’s fantasy stories and novels use this idea a lot.  I’m not sure if that would work well in my current game but I’ve had events shake up how magic works before so there may be a way to make it happen.)

Anyway if you should stumble across this supplement, it is worth looking over.  The scenarios look all right (two are by Paul Jaquays!), although there is certain amount of railroading in one I read. There are also nice discussions of undead, including a number of alternatives to energy drain and the ghost’s 10 year aging effect. The proposed solutions to these perennial “problems” shed some light on the state of the game when it was published.

Some of the interesting tidbits are suggestions for the effects of various anti-undead folk remedies like knocking on wood (useless), mirrors (only good vs. vampires), and salt (useful against a lot of the undead).  There is even a chart listing how various means affect all the undead from the Monster Manual, Monster Manual II, and Fiend Folio!  The whole thing is pretty cool as a source book on using the undead.

Published in: on July 14, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (17)  
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Fantasy Wargaming, cover to cover (XXI)

So, we finally see the table that explains the social classes* and backgrounds that may become various mage types, the methods each type uses to accumulate mana and make preparations for sorcery & divination, and the modes of divination they use, and their base bonuses/penalties to use various types of spells. I am too tired to replicate this info in detail but if you’ve been following up to now you know the types:

  • peasant mage aka Cunning Man/Wise Woman;
  • Wizard;
  • Witch;
  • High Sorcerer/Runic Sorcerer;
  • Cabalist.

Back in the day I missed the part about Runic sorcerers being Dark Ages only and High sorcerers being later eras. Oddly, Cabalists are required to be Jewish (not too surprising) or Muslim(!). I take it Muslim Cabalists are really practicing some Islamic esoterica but similar in all respects to Cabalists. Muslim and Jewish are both “bogeys” you might roll on the Bogey table; I think it’s reasonable to allow players to choose those backgrounds too though, if they want.

Anyway any mage may also become a Witch by joining a coven (and damning their souls). Peasant mages may become Wizards, and Wizards may become Sorcerers, if they can get to the required Social Class and Magic level (4th). “Multiclassed” Witches keep the better factors of their two classes, while other changes of class presumably just use the new factors, even if some are inferior.
The magic section concludes with a run down of magical XP. XP is gained by casting spells, magical preparations (=for accumulating mana), resisting spells and counter-magic (BMC(2)), divination, and detecting influences.

Doling out magical XP would require a lot of record keeping.  Like adventuring XP, it is mainly based on keeping track of chances of success and failure, and you get 100-%chance of success (or more simply, XP=chance of failure). XP is also gained by accumulating and spending mana, which again is going to need a lot of record keeping. This is probably on the order of Rolemaster, but still a little complex for my liking.  I’d probably come up with a much simpler method, like GM fiat.

*Earlier I posted that the Social Class was required of the character, but in fact it is the the character’s father’s SC that is required.

Published in: on August 16, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (6)  
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Fantasy Wargaming cover to cover (XX)

Passive magic
This is chiefly divination (gathering information), and for this type of magic, Intelligence is actually as important as Faith. The overall mana costs are lower too, so beginning mages will probably do more divination than sorcery. Two main kinds of divination are possible. The first kind relies on the system of correspondences more than personal power, and involves sophisticated techniques like astrology and tarot cards. Only High Sorcerers and Cabalists use this kind. This kind uses very little mana but takes a lot of time. The other kind concentrates the mage’s power into some focus to see into the Ethereal plane. The focus might be a crystal ball, a pool of ink, the entrails of an sacrificed creature, etc. Wizards, Witches, and Peasant mages use this kind. This kind of divination uses more mana but is also much faster. Standing in between these two is the Runic (dark ages) sorcerer, who uses divinatory “runic rods” as a focus, but these are also designed to take advantage of correspondences. These runic rods also help in active magic, unlike the other diniatory devices.
In fact, it is also possible to gather information in at least two more ways — dreams/visions and certain religious ceremonies, but those use different mechanics.

Divination uses a modified version of the BMC(1) calculations, where the difficulty/complexity of the question, and the Intelligence of the mage, factor in. This allows the question to be asked, but does not determine the answer. The nature of the question determines how it will be answered. The text encourages questions about future events to be interpreted as regular informational questions, when possible (One example presented is “Will so-and-so give me V.D.?” which should be interpreted as a “detect disease” type of question. No, really; that’s the example.) If the question can’t be re-interpreted, the GM is advised to roll, with 1-60 = yes, 61-100 = no! The GM is reminded the “stars” always have an out should this be wrong, since the future is never certain.
Other questions are answered according to their complexity as described on a chart (the two kinds of divination have different DDs and mana costs for different questions), and zodiacal controllers/diminshers affect this too.

In additon, characters with a Faith of 12+ may have prophetic dreams/visions, and characters with high Intelligence may interpret these dreams and visions. The chances of having a dream can be increased by taking preparations (using the normal methods of mana accumulation) and then spending mana. Interpretations may yield anything from a major secret of the adventure or an NPC to a wild lie, depending on how well the interpreter rolls. It is also mentioned that dreams cost 1-3 mana or 1-2 Endurance points, but there is no explanation as to how to choose. I suspect the Endurance cost is taken if there is not mana available, and one might extrapolate that other mana costs might be payable in Endurance in an emergency.

Next up: the mage “classes” in more detail. Yes, you’d think they’d be described in character creation but that’s how FW rolls. You need to read the whole book to play.

Published in: on August 15, 2010 at 10:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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Fantasy Wargaming, cover to cover (XIX)

The next section gives more detailed instructions for assigning the “Degree of Difficulty” (DD) for spells (and these will also apply to appeals for miracles in the religion rules).
The general types of spells covered are:

  • curing/disease&death;
  • illusion;
  • protection from magic;
  • absolute commands (which may be directed at living, Ethereal, or undead creatures);
  • elemental matters (instead of conjuring and commanding an elemental, a mage may just work sorcery using the four elements);
  • complex matter (using combinations of the four elements, such as metals and living matter);
  • transmutation (there are no specialist “alchemists” in FW but sorcerers do study alchemy).

There is also a list of 36 “miscellaneous spells,” some of which obviously fall into the above categories, but most of which are less clear-cut and in general all of them are similar to “D&D” spells (Evil eye, Lightning bolt, Weapon/armor enhancements, Stoppage of time, etc.)   These give some details of the effects they produce and the DD for each type of caster (Witches are better at Evil eye, while Cabalists are better at Stopping time, etc., according to the the adjustments for each caster type listed on the table given later in the rules).  In general, Cabalists are the strongest casters–most spells are relatively lower DD for them while the Cunning man/Wise woman is worse, although each has its strengths.
The factors determining DD are what you’d expect (area affected, duration, complexity, and so on, plus of course the astrological correspondences), and I think that in practice you’d also keep a record of the spells your character casts, so that in effect each mage will create their own spell list.

Published in: on August 14, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (6)  
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Fantasy Wargaming, cover to cover (XVIII)

Continuing the section on active magic!

Preparations for sorcery and the accumulation of mana

Although there’s already been some discussion of what you can do with mana, it is only now that we find out how to get the stuff. The five methods in FW are:

  1. incantation/ululation,
  2. shamanistic dancing/frenzy/etc.,
  3. deep meditation and study,
  4. fasting (including sexual abstinence), and
  5. sacrifices.

The first four all take some time and have limits on how long they can be performed, and each also provides bonuses to BMC(1) as preparation. They are also associated with specific types of mages. Witches use the frenzied dance, Cabalists use study and meditation, etc.

Sacrifices can be done by anyone, but they count as sins for Christians (we’ll see the sin rules later under religion!). An animal yields d6 mana (the later Norse religion rules specify definite amounts for various animal types) while human sacrifice yields d6+6! The mage must also consume some part of the sacrifice, such as the brain, heart, liver, etc.

Limits on mana: Most characters can have no more than 16 times their magic level (ML) in mana; Ethereal and Faery spirits can accumulate 32 x ML. Later on their are rules concerning the self-conjuration of spirits that can allow mortals to accumulate 32 x ML mana too.

If you’re like me, you were disappointed to see that the magical diagrams in the AD&D DMG were never really given much explanation. FW gives mechanics for the various types of “pentacles” one might draw, for use in defense against sorcery (BMC(2) bonuses) and against conjured beings.  The simplest pentacle (a mere circle) gives just a +1, while a triangle inscribed in the circle gives a +2 and a five or six pointed star inscribed in the circle gives a +3.  Short & sweet.

Conjuration
Another sort of active magic is calling Ethereal beings to the Earthly plane, normally to control, bind, and/or compel them. Any higher or lower power, the spirit of any living or dead being, and elementals can all be summoned; but living or dead things in their earthly form, beings whose body & spirit are united (Faeries and self-conjured mages), and zodiacal forces cannot be summoned.

The mechanics involve first establishing a link (BMC(1) again), then the issue of a command (BMC(3)). Normally a defense (pentacle) is prepared first. The text then mentions some reasons one might conjure a spirit, such as to have it cast a spell, give information, teach skills or spells to the caster, bind them as servants or into magic items (binding them into dead bodies creates undead servants!) and so on. There is also a cautionary tale from actual play about summoning a demon and asking it to create light, which it did by igniting the whole room & destroying the conjurer, as a warning that demons are unreliable. Summoning angels and demons are sins for Christians, as is self-conjuration, which is described next. The types of conjuration described are:

  • Self-conjuration. I’m not an occultist, but I am pretty well read, and this concept is probably the only one in FW that I can point to that does not have an obvious analog in real world beliefs. I think it follows very logically from everything else the system establishes about the Ethereal plane and spirits, but still it is a little jarring. Maybe I just need to do some research. Anyway, self-conjuration is the binding of one’s own spirit to one’s body. It is a serious sin, and very difficult, but it has many advantages: you no longer need to do BMC(1) — links are automatic because you are partly in the Ethereal plane; your spirit cannot be conjured by others (conjuring a person’s spirit can force it to reveal your secrets!); you can vanish for an hour at time into the Ethereal plane; you gain 2 magic levels; and you can accumulate twice as much mana (32 per level). Oh, and there is a chance the operation will cause the character to go temporarily or permanently insane.
  • Conjuring the spirits of living beings. Instead of summoning your own spirit, you might summon another person or creature’s spirit to gain information about the Earthly form, or to bind to yourself (this is how witches gain familiars — the animal’s spirit is bound to the witch).
  • Necromancy, including communing with the spirits of the dead or binding them to bodies as the undead.
  • Elementals. You can summon part of the elementals either for normal divinatory purposes or to use their powers in sorcery (for example summon a fire elemental to throw fireballs)
  • Possession. Demons can also use the same process to possess human bodies.

This illustrates just how awesome the magic system of FW really is. Demonic possession, familiars, necromancy, and more all fit into the theory of the Ethereal plane and commands.

Next up, passive magic.

Published in: on August 12, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Fantasy Wargaming, cover to cover (XVII)

The next section of the rules cover “Active” magic (sorcery and altering the structure of the universe, as opposed to “Passive” magic like divination).

There are three basic steps to cover when casting a spell:

  1. Establishing an ethereal link to the target
  2. Target attempts to resist the link
  3. Casting the spell(s) or absolute command(s) through the link

Step (2) is only taken when the target is very sensitive to the Ethereal plane (Faith of 12+ or a Magic or Religious level of 2+). Each of these steps is referred to as a “Basis Magic Calculation,” and in shorthand as BMC(1), BMC(2), and BMC(3).

BMC(1): Establishing the link will allow the caster to cast up to three spells, or issue up to seven “Absolute Commands” (which are one word commands like the AD&D “Command” spell, but with much broader application) on the target, but they must all occur within 30 minutes, or before any other circumstance changes at the GM’s discretion. The link can cut across fairly vast distances, as it goes through the Otherworld of the Ethereal Plane, and distance is relative. One ambiguity is how one establishes a link for spells or commands that affect multiple targets. Because the spell system is so open to on-the-fly custom spells, a mage might well try to cast a spell that causes many targets to be hit (a fire ball, say). Also, the target may not really be specifiable beforehand, as with magical traps, illusions, and so on, so the GM will have to improvise, either setting a generic set of factors for unknown/multiple targets, or else making the link to a place rather than a person, or even dispensing with the link in such cases.

BMC(2): Sensitive creatures will “feel” the link (as an Ethereal “touch”) and may either use their own powers (magic) to resist, or ask for divine (or diabolic) help. Spell casters can attempt a counterspell (which falls under the Absolute Command rubric). Others can make an “Appeal” which is covered later in the Religion rules. If a link is successfully resisted, the caster and target (or his/her Higher/Lower Power) both expend some mana but the target is unaffected by the spell.

BMC(3): The command. All spells can be generically understood in the rubric of making some Command. As usual, various factors are added and the sum used to determine the column we roll on. Here it is explained that

  • there may be multiple targets (but as I mentioned this not reconciled with the BMC(1) procedure)
  • the mage can have other mages assist him, and may pledge extra mana to increase the chances of success

The Link established in BMC(1) also cost mana (1/2 the DD of the spell or command). This is somewhat problematic as several spells or commands could be cast with that link, so we always played that the DD of the first spell was what we used to determine the mana cost.

There are a bunch of additional rules here that add flavor to the spell casting rules. For example:

  • Mages can “master” specific spells by casting them three times in a row in a six hour period
  • the “true name” of a person or spirit aids in casting against them, just as in folkllore
  • spells (“commands”) can be inscribed and made permanent, either for the spell’s effects on creatures (amulets, etc.) or to make magic items or traps. Such traps spend the caster’s mana when triggered. This raises the question of what happens if an inscribed command is triggered when the mage’s mana is already depleted. I’d assume it just fails but certain rules later imply, indirectly, that Endurance points might be spent if mana is unavailable
  • the mana cost of the spell is the Degree of Difficulty (DD) plus any extra mana pledged plus 1/2 the Magic Level (ML) of unwilling targets
  • a two-page table of physical correspondences, with very detailed information (which metals, colors, body parts, animals, etc. etc. are influenced by which star sign), is given, and this system of correspondences is really very important to create the proper feel of medieval occultism.

The system of correspondences is like a crash-course in occultism, and if I ran this game I’d probably require the player to learn it well enough to point out any benefits he may get from positive influences (“I use my Libra wand, the red yew one with copper fittings, and that star sign influences dogs and peace, so I Command the dog to stop attacking at +2!”). Indeed the text describes this table as “The system of invisible levers by which the physical universe is run.” I love that description. These correspondences are used in BMC(1) (establishing the link), in creating magical items (both magic devices to aid spell casting and divination, and magic items in the D&D sense of magic swords etc.), and in divination. The 12 zodiac signs are “Ethereal influences” that affect everything, even the Higher & Lower powers, and the GM is encouraged to have them affect places in his world. Rules for this are provided in this section, including rules for letting characters detect these influences. So an entire location might be under the influence of say Pisces, enhancing water magic and diminishing fire magic.

There are rules for other “active” magical operations, besides spells and commands. First, as I just mentioned, is Creating Magical Devices. These help in creating links and casting specific sorts of spells, as well as other effects. The examples given include:

  • Wands, staves, etc. (used for establishing links)
  • Amulets (for protection, helping in BMC(2))
  • Single Spell Devices (tailored to aid casting a particular spell)
  • Magical swords, shields, keys, etc. (which add factors to nonmagical operations like combat, opening locks, etc.) This last sort can add no more than +1 to magical operations, being functional items. Magic wands and staves are assumed to be too small or light to use as walking sticks, or anything else useful apart from being magic aids. But funtional items can add up to +4 to their nonmagical purposes (to strike, damage, etc.)

No list of example items are given, because in principle anything is possible, but I think that is sort of a cop out. It would have been nice to see some examples. My own Norse magic items, which I presented here some time back, reflects this complete lack of guidance as to what a magical item might do. I hope I’d do better now!

Lastly some notes on magic items are given to explain that magic items remain linked to their creators. Thus stolen magic items may resist their thieves. Mages may however bind magic items they find or acquire with a command spell (“Obey!”). It is also noted that all magic items have actual spirits bound in them.  In fact, if the creator of an item weakens (1/2 Endurance or less due to wounds, starvation, etc.), the spirit may attempt to escape,  and the spirits always escape if the item is broken, so there is no simple reforging of broken magic swords!

Next time, preparations for sorcery, the accumulation of mana, and conjuration!

Published in: on August 11, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Fantasy Wargaming, cover to cover (VII)

More chapter II! If you can’t tell, this is pretty much my favorite chapter of the book. But it’s also got a hall of a lot to digest. This should be the last post devoted to it though.

The next section is titled “Myth: the bard’s tale,” and it begins with a jab at “other games” that “copped out” and used pulp fiction to inspire its monsters. The wrongheadedness here makes me a little uncomfortable — after all, whether or not you want to use the gonzo approach of D&D and Tunnels & Trolls, you have to recognize the staggering importance of their innovations as the first RPGs. Of course these games were only a few years old when this was written so perhaps their significance was harder to see then. Anyway FW will use only “real” mythological creatures, but more on that in a later chapter.

The intent of FW is to recreate medieval epics, romances, & legends, and so this section attempts to explain the mythic spaces of the dark ages and high middle ages, in terms of the

  • landscape (geographic features)
  • magic (forms of enchantment common to the setting)
  • monsters
  • heroes
  • imagery (themes, images, & objects)
  • patterns of adventure (typical story lines etc.)

This makes the section very interesting from a world-building perspective, as these are the sorts of things that really important to a setting for gaming purposes.

The dark ages part covers the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic worlds, each in a reasonable amount of depth but a DM should still do some more research, such as reading some of the literature of the periods. For the Anglo-Saxon period, Beowulf is the main reference; for the Norse, there are many, many sagas and romances; and for the Celtic era, there is also a relative wealth of Irish and Welsh sources. The authors admit that they had a lot of trouble fitting the bizarre and alien features of Celtic myth into their system, but they feel it is very doable and offer a lot of ideas. The “patterns of adventure” details for each period have some good ideas for plots and storylines you may want to explore.

The other period that FW attempts to simulate is the “High Middle Ages,” the period of about the 11th to 15th centuries. This section looks at the tropes of medieval romances, mentioning the three major bodies of literature surrounding Arthur, Alexander the Great*, and Charlemagne. Unfortunately, the authors cop out a bit here, deciding to ignore the Alexandrian romances (because they are set in the wrong time and place for FW) and the Carolingian romances (because Charlemagne and his paladins have too varied a literature to summarize!!!). Still, Arthurian lore is covered as three distinct settings, the historical, the Welsh, and the Chivalric legends.

Next Faery is covered in some more detail, emphasizing that it is a sort of no-man’s land in every sense. It is neither divine nor diabolic, not wholly of earth or ethereal plane, and most importantly not human. An important feature of Faery is the decline it undergoes across the whole period, including a diminution of fairies and elves themselves, from the Tolkien-sized Sidhe of Celtic lore to the puny fairies of the end of the High Middle Ages, to our “flower-sized” Victorian fairies. This is (very cleverly, IMO) to be understood in FW in terms of the “Unified field theory” — as belief in the realm of Faery wanes, so does its very existence. The smaller and smaller forms the residents take over time is explained in terms of the economy of mana — a small form costs less mana to maintain.

Lastly, Saints and miracles are discussed, because after all there is a quite a bit of fantasy in the hagiographies (saints’ biographies) of the middle ages. These too are explained in FW terms.

*Yeah, Alexander the Great. Although he was an ancient, a vast body of legends regarding his eastern adventures arose in the middle ages.

Published in: on August 1, 2010 at 3:03 pm  Comments (3)  
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