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Friday, 20 April 2018

The price of magic

What’s it like to have to do a deal with a mafia boss? Most of us will luckily never find out, but from stories we know that the cost of doing business is going to be steep. If you go to the Godfather for a favour it’s because circumstances have left you with no alternative. You’re in a bind. He’ll do something for you that nobody else will, but eventually a time will come when he wants something from you in return – and you’re not going to like it.

Magic ought to be like that. I’m not thinking so much of things like scrying spells, which give the players a few supernatural hints to help move the game along, but the kind of magic that gives a quick ‘n' easy fix to a serious problem. When you use magic like that it should be a last resort, and the players should know there’ll be a price to pay later.

Consider healing magic. Too often it patches you up in moments and it’s like one of those herbal remedies that say on the packet “no side effects”. You know what a medicine with no side effects is? Useless. Anything really miraculous should come at a cost, and that cost should be interesting. Not just a matter of paying over a hundred thousand gold pieces, but the sort of quest or payment that embroils the characters in all sorts of fresh trouble.

In my Krarth campaign (which drew on Russian folklore in the same way that our Ellesland campaigns draw on British folklore) the player-characters were grievously hurt in a skirmish at their prince’s Winter Palace. Things had gone so badly, in fact, that over a decade later we still refer to an evening of catastrophic dice rolls as “nearly as bad as the Winter Palace”. They escaped from their foes into the dark and limitless pine woods. One of the characters, Niyej (played by Oliver Johnson), was less seriously hurt than the others and went in search of magical aid. Following a peasant rumour, he sought out a wise woman called the Mistress of Warts. The notes for that evening’s session ran as follows:

The Mistress of Warts
Somebody must go looking for the wise woman who can cure wounds.
Through light woods, slowly the sun disappears in clouds. Cold.
He emerges on a blustery ploughed meadow, climbs to the crest of the hill where he sees a long, long meadow stretching ahead. Gloomy, windswept, dispiriting landscape. He has to keep trudging up this seemingly unending slope. [I particularly like that it was the existential horror of this gradual but monotonous slope that most unsettled the player.]
He’s been told that he needs to keep on until he sees a line of trees and a pile of rocks marking a path.
Keeps on. It’s just after noon. At last he sees it. The path leads to heavy dark woods that reek of sweet fungi. Finds an old woman in the shadows. Under her cowl, a face all knotted around like a canker on a tree-trunk, just a single eye visible within the erupted skin.
She says he must stay – “with her sister.”
He goes past, to a cave where the sister waits. A girl of great beauty.
If he stays with her, winter sets in but it is warm and steamy in the cave. He occasionally ventures outside to piss in the snowdrifts, then rushes back to the fire and the furs and the girl’s embrace.
In spring, as the ice thaws and the daffodils appear, she says she is pregnant.
Summer – blossom drifts in, rabbits hop around, bees buzz in the trees outside. Thick scent of flowers, warmth of sunlight dancing in the green as her lump grows.
Autumn. Low light slanting through auburn and yellow leaves, mists, fruit rotting on the ground. He returns to find midwives around his woman, steam fills the cave from boiling pots. He hangs around nervously by the entrance, going forward as the baby is born. He sees it lifted by the midwives, catches just one glimpse: a shapeless, cankerous blob with a single eye –
He awakens on the hillside with a wooden mannequin in his hand. It now seems to be around 4 pm on the same day he set out.
He knows how to use the mannequin – dip a pin in someone’s wounds, then prick the corresponding part of the mannequin and the person’s wound will vanish.
Each time this is done, the mannequin grows in size. At first the character might notice when he puts it in his pocket – there was plenty of room before, but now it’s a tight fit. When it has absorbed a total of 100 Hit Points of injury, it comes to life – now a little dwarf – and gives a macabre baby’s cry of “Daddy!” before pursuing the character:

So far so good. But that’s just how I planned it for that first session. Niyej returned with he mannequin, the other characters were restored to health, and the campaign continued. From time to time they took wounds, of course, and each time they used the mannequin it grew bigger.

But now I began to think that having all this culminate in a big fight with the birth mannequin would be pretty dull. That’s just a way of handing the players back all the wounds that had been healed. More importantly, a fight closes that thread of the story off, it doesn’t keep the ball in the air. Instead I needed something that would move the story in a new direction by providing the possibility of conflict. Inspiration struck several sessions later, and this brief write-up should give you some idea of where it led:

Strange magic befell the characters in the Drakken Woods on their way to Port Quag. The sun failed to rise for three days and all except Count Fane became children. Somebody guessed that this was because the rest of them had all used the healing mannequin. A great white bear attacked and they managed to slay it, though most were injured.

Then the witch who gave birth to the mannequin appeared and asked everybody to bestow some gift (from their own stats) so that her mannequin could have a proper life. Balarog gave looks (his hair promptly fell out) and Makan gave psychic strength, but the others refused. So the witch named those two the mannequin's ‘godfathers’ and gave them gifts, then showed the party the way out of the woods. She kept the mannequin, by now as big as a large marrow. As the characters looked back, she stood holding it and it seemed that it stirred in her arms.

The party boarded a mysterious ship in Port Quag that immediately set sail northwards of its own accord. They would all have frozen to death except that Balarog used his gift from the witch – a paper pavilion that became a house big enough to provide shelter. Makan had the means to create food, but not enough to feed everyone. There were squabbles. Zharl took the wheel and by incredible application of strength he steered the ship towards the coast. Balarog nearly came to blows with Gyse over a cheese. Makan told the Count, who was resting from his injuries sustained fighting the bear. The Count broke up the squabble and pointed out to everyone that sorcery seemed to be affecting their minds.

Zharl remained at the wheel for two days and nights, finally bringing the ship to the coast at Mount Brink. Going ashore, they found a group of tribal savages who worshipped a glacier.

Balarog went exploring and returned with Niyejj and the Regent of Gog. The Regent decided to take everybody into his confidence, telling them that the sceptres of the Magi are used to bless each new prince. However, the sceptre used at the court of Gog is not the original sceptre of the True Magus Gog. Hence it could be argued that the royal line of Gog are imposters. Kaurballagen discovered this twenty-five years ago and rebelled, launching his own quest to find the genuine sceptre so that a ‘true’ royal line could be initiated. The Regent wants to find Kaurballagen's body in the glacier to see if there is any clue as to where the sceptre is. Once he has the sceptre, he can ‘legitimize’ the current Prince of Gog (the ritual of blessing must be done before adulthood). He asked everyone to consider the situation and examine their conscience. Did they truly serve the prince? If so, they should swear allegiance. If not – if they were bothered by the news he had just given them – they should renounce Gog and leave.

Everyone agreed to stay. But then the Regent said they would need supplies for the ascent of Mount Brink and so he instructed them to take food from the tribal savages. ‘The tribe will not have enough to last out the winter,’ he said, ‘therefore kill the elderly now so that they have the mercy of a swift death.’

Makan and Balarog would have done so, but Niyej flew into a rage and said he would not serve so ruthless a cause. Just as it was all getting a bit fraught, a beautiful youth with pale skin and golden hair showed up and pointed out an old lady of the tribe who was trying to hide some food. Niyej became even more irate when this youth, called Manikin, addressed him as ‘Father’.

Makan and Balarog accepted they were the youth's godparents and pleaded with Niyej to take on his responsibilities and give Manikin moral guidance. Niyej refused – ‘He is a creature of darkness, nothing to do with me!’ – and Makan feared that, without a father, Manikin cannot hope to learn right from wrong.

As an interesting footnote, the gist of that plot development was written up in note form as briefly as this:

On the road to Port Quag, they go through a wood where night lasts 72 hours. They all revert to childhood except for Count Fane. They face a terrible threat – a great bear that they will have to fight hard to overcome.

The Loathly Lady then appears and says that all gave blood to the Birth Mannequin but it is now after Niyej because it has no soul. And so they must decide whether to be its godparents and give it a soul.

If all decide (independently) to do so, they relinquish one skill or a stat point which becomes a specialty of the Birth Mannequin.

Which implies that the Mistress of Warts and the beautiful maiden in the cave were one and the same, as some of the players guessed. At any rate, what could have been a “zap and you’re healed” moment in the game turned into an eerie, labyrinthine subplot that went on to generate all kinds of interesting dilemmas and choices for the players. And they knew from then on that magical healing in my campaign was never going to be as easy as knocking back an aspirin.


  1. I imagine this is pretty much how the NHS is going to work after Brexit ;)

    1. I could've used it almost word for word in CYB and not bothered with the Blade Runner ripoff!

    2. Joking aside - I completely agree with you that 'magic must have a cost' - especially if that cost also comes with intriguing additional story hooks. The kind of magic system which inhabits a hinterland between Vance and Lovecraft; where casting a fireball against your foes would only be permissible if the sorcerer was for a Month thereafter the centre of uncontrollable pyrotechnic incidents which start small but could well get out of hand (e.g it would not be wise to go to sleep without completely stamping the camp fire out); or the invisibility spell which renders its user blind for the duration of its potency.

    3. Or Excalibur, where poor old Merlin really pays a high price for the things the Pendragons ask him to do. (It's way past time I watched that again.)

  2. Indeed, great film ! Though I would never use the words “poor old” in conjunction with Merlin; you know the whole ‘crystal cave’ thing was just an elaborate alibi so he didn’t get the blame when Camelot fell ; )

    1. If it were Odin we were talking about, I'd entirely buy it, John.

  3. Great post. I’ve always been fascinated by bleak nature of Krarth. When I first read book 6 as a child I could never imagine my players wanting to go there.

    I try to include magic at a cost in my current Dragon Warriors game whenever the subject comes up. It leads to much more satisfying outcomes than I-cast-fireball-all-the-gnolls-die...

    1. A lot of campaigns don't allow very powerful magic, but we'll include it so long as it comes at a cost. By that I usually mean an emotional cost, such as when we resurrected Joe Lynch in our Elleslandic mercenaries campaign. That turned out to be a careful-what-you-wish-for experience:

      It's hard to design rules for it, but I chafe at leaving things up to the whim of the GM. Currently we're playing Gregor Vuga's Sagas of the Icelanders and (although PbtA systems do leave a lot of hand-wavy stuff to be defined in play) that feels like it could deliver quite effective magic rules. The irony is that I'm running Sagas as historical -- there is no magic.

    2. “There is no magic” ... but presumably the characters think that there is ?

    3. Some of them do. It helps that in most of the sagas magic is subtle and ambiguous. That's excluding the ones with undead in, obviously.

  4. Whilst not every spell comes with a price, I like to include a three-fold curse, where possible, on either the caster or recipient of spell that, in some way, shortcuts the game.

    For example, a healing spell will instantly restore the health of the recipient but they will be unable to heal any further wounds naturally until three times the duration it would take the wound healed by magic to heal naturally. Each subsequent receipt of magical healing within this time would triple this duration. A character that relies too heavily on magical healing may never heal naturally again - then what will he do when the supply of magical healing is cut off?

    1. I like it. Nice to have a general rule that can be applied to all sorts of situations. How would a killing spell affect the caster?

    2. Lee, do explain this to the players or let them figure it out for themselves?

      I only ask because one of my current players has acquired a sudden disaffinity for horses and although convinced it is some sort of curse is struggling to pinpoint the source. It seems more interesting (to me, ymmv) to make his character figure it out, maybe quest a little for it but in the case you describe maybe the effect better stated up front. This is the price, will you pay it?

    3. I also track an additional characteristic in my games, Taint, which is a measure of how much a characters is corrupted by sorcery. The flashier and more overt the spell effect, the more Taint it causes, which encourages sorcerers to be more subtle (most spells cause no Taint at all)

      As for how much players know about the threefold curse, I have some general guidelines about causing or healing damage, and some spell effects have specific curses but I don't slavishly apply the curse to all spells cast, just those that shortcut some hardship, which itself typically informs what the curse should be (not that the player necessarily knows what this will be at the time of casting or receiving the spell - nor might I, it might be something I think up later and use the spell as the reason to weave it into the narrative). What I don't tend to do (and might start, having read this blog post!) is create narrative sub-plots because of the curses.

  5. When is Bloodsword 5 - Walls of Spyte - being released?

    1. When I get time to edit it. The problem is that the flowchart is broken in many places and there are numbers that were just left as "XXX" in the text, so I guess nobody bothered to proof-read it. To get it into publishable state would take a few weeks for the editing part, and then there's the typesetting and the scanning of artwork, etc. Somebody suggested I should run a Kickstarter to fund it, but the Catch-22 there is that running a Kickstarter is a month's work too. So really it will have to wait until I have a spare month or two.

      On the plus side, you're not missing much:

    2. Hmmm... Blogspot stripped out the fake HTML code with which I surrounded that post...

      It should have said:


    3. Actually if anyone is really keen to play Bloodsword book 5, I'm pretty sure there are pirated PDFs out there and you can use Lulu (see link in the sidebar) to print up a personal copy. By preference I'd completely rewrite the thing so that the style, tone, themes and plot connected better with the other four books. But now we really are talking about a big old Kickstarter, and I doubt if there are enough Bloodsword fans out there to make that work.

  6. You have a new fan! My 10 year old daughter loves Bloodsword! And the Sword of Life books.
    That was the age I started playing Bloodsword in 1989 too.

    1. That's so marvellous to hear. When I hear about books I've written giving pleasure to kids -- and a whole new generation at that! -- it really is the biggest reward any writer could hope for.