Thursday, 2 January 2014

Monitors: making magic again

Revised spellmaking

So I've looked at skills again briefly, and finally had a little bit of time to consider spells. Let's see if I can nail down some of those sample spells a little better.

I still see three broad categories of spell. Instantaneous spells will take effect and then end. Concentration spells will continue as long as the wizard can devote some attention to them: they may end when the wizard falls unconscious, or when something else distracts the wizard, such as casting another spell or engaging in combat. Persistent spells will simply continue until their ending conditions are met.

Knocking out or killing a wizard is not usually sufficient to end their spells.

Wizards are unaffected by their own spells except where it suits them. Allies are usually subject to the spell's effects.

The precise area or number of targets affected by a spell is limited by the GM's discretion, and should be moderate to impressive, rather than epic. Similarly, spells provide general guidance as to their effects, and the GM should decide the precise results. These do not need to remain entirely consistent; consistency is less important than both fun and balance, and you can't think of every possible future situation when making a ruling. Magic is weird, after all.

Another rule I'm considering, but not yet sure of, is allowing wizards to expend additional heat points to increase the power of spells, such as the difficulty of rolls to resist their effects.

As a placeholder rule, non-poiks attempting to cast spells must roll Difficult Endurance. If they fail, they suffer a Wound. Regardless of the result, they gain a lingering injury that seems appropriate.

Onslaught of Wrathful Winds

A howling wind erupts around the wizard, rushing in whatever direction they desire. Nearby creatures must battle against the wind (roll Strength) or be slowed, dragged along or hurled off their feet. Small objects are blown around, and dust or other debris may choke and blind (1d4) those affected. This spell may stir or quench fires, drive away gases, ward against flames or sprays of liquid, and so on. It can counter the effects of existing winds, including another instance of this spell.

Roll Will (Difficult) to shield some potential targets from the wind's effects.

This spell can be maintained by concentration. It does not work in confined spaces, nor in a vacuum. At the GM's discretion it may work underwater by evoking a powerful current. It may also travel with the wizard, allowing its use to power a sailing vessel.

Let's consider some specific outcomes. In this case, a GM might let the result of Strength rolls determine whether targets are pushed back (with a close failure) or fall over (with a bad failure). Objects vulnerable to blowing over, like filing cabinets, may make a random roll. Creatures or objects rushing towards the wizard have their progress slowed. If the spell is cast in a sawmill, desert or decaying mansion, it may cause all targets to roll saves against Blinding 1d4, although except in the desert, the available dust is likely to be exhausted after the first round because the wind is blowing it steadily away.

This spell could be easily used to protect a group against a wildfire, the spray of a giant skunk, or fumes from a volcano.

Unchaining of the Wild

Vegetation erupts into furious growth, ensnaring creatures and enveloping structures in an area. Creatures may be trapped by the tangling plants, and objects or mechanisms immobilised. Under appropriate circumstances, the plants may hold together damaged buildings, cushion falls, slow down speeding objects, reduce visibility and so on.

This spell is limited to Medium range. It does not create plants from nothing, and its effect will vary with the quantity and nature of local vegetation. They may exceed the normal limits of growth for their species. Effects on fungi and bizarre extraterrestrial organisms are entirely at the GM's discretion. The wizard has no direct control over the plants but can guide their general growth towards particular ends. The growth is as permanent as any natural growth. Sentient plant creatures may ignore the usual effects of the spell and incur other effects at the GM's discretion.

Breaking free of bonds, like the plants in this spell, is generally a Strength roll. Freeing an object or another person may call for a set number of actions, or allow a roll to do it faster; for example, a successful Tech roll will allow you to free vital components of a device with a single action.

Casting this spell in an area of vicious thornbushes is likely to injure anyone caught in them, perhaps when they make a Strength roll to escape (Armour saves permitted). If local plants produce unusual chemicals or are carnivorous, these traits may be magnified as well.

In general a wizard shouldn't be able to specifically direct the growth of individual plants, but the GM should allow them to (for example) steer a tree towards an interesting window, or encourage vines to bind a fragile bridge rather than sprawling off in another direction. In short, the wizard should be able to use this spell to achieve something, rather than simply making some plants grow.

The disclaimer for sentient plants is really to avoid a situation where the PCs are horribly deforming and mutating a sentient race for their own convenience. It is, however, guidance.

Invocation of Primal Nightmares

Utter dread erupts in the mind of nearby creatures, their worst ancestral fears overwhelming them. Those unable to choke down their fear (Will) may freeze, flee, scream or otherwise react appropriately. They roll each following round to recover. While affected, they can still take actions the GM feels are reasonable.

This spell has Short range and is treated as a Blast. Mindless entities are unaffected by this spell. This spell persists until all targets succeed at a Will roll.

This spell immediately makes me cautious. So far, I've been assuming that creatures would tend to have attributes of about 2-5 for civilians, moving up to 8 for professionals and 12 for specialists. On that model, this spell will disable even competent opponents for about two rounds apiece, which potentially makes it far more effective than most weapons. On the other hand, I'm not particularly keen to have three special attributes which are higher than others and work differently, because then they're looking less and less like attributes. Arguably, the usefulness of this spell is limited because it doesn't necessarily stop people attacking you (terrified shooting is a valid response), can raise the alarm and so on, doesn't necessarily last that long, and because you don't actually get that many heat points to spend (in theory). Also, taking this spell will prevent you from taking another one, which is an issue worth noting.

Emerald Sigil of Splendour

The wizard draws a glorious symbol in lines of burning green, drawing the eyes of onlookers and transfixing their minds. Creatures able to see the symbol must roll Will each turn or stand transfixed in admiration.

This spell can be maintained by concentration. Mindless entities are unaffected by this spell.

Covenant with Night

Pure darkness roils through the air, blotting out sight and warmth alike. No light from infra-red to ultraviolet can penetrate it, and creatures within are unable to see at all. Navigation by sound and touch is possible. Other electromagnetic wavelengths, including radio, gamma and X-rays, can penetrate it. The darkness does not cause cooling, but blocks most sources of heat.

This spell affects a moderate area within Medium range. It persists for a few minutes before fading out, and cannot be moved once cast. As a rule of thumb, treat affected creatures as Blinded as well as any sensible consequences for total inability to see.

Very few rules needed here, except the guidance on how to model the effects of total darkness. These will probably appear elsewhere because they're handy in adventuring.

Call the Ashen Beast

Dust and smoke coalesce into a grey, predatory form. The beast is an elemental that defends the wizard, obeying simple commands. When the spell ends, the beast disperses into lifeless dust.

The beast has 2 Wounds, Armour 4, and 6 in Agility, Combat, Endurance, Perception, Stealth, Strength and Will. Any two of these attributes may be increased to 10 at the time of casting. It can't understand complex commands, spy, convey messages or manipulate objects. This spell persists until the beast reaches zero Wounds, or for around six hours.

In this case, we need to specify what the beast's abilities and attributes actually are. It needs to be basically competent, but not anything like as dangerous as a Monitor. I gave it two Wounds so it shouldn't be one-shotted but it's not very tough. The two higher attributes allow the caster to summon a particularly stealthy or ferocious beast for a bit of flavour; they could also roll randomly if they want a bit of excitement.

This is the sort of spell where variable casting cost might be interesting; you could, for example, have the stats set to 1d6 per thermal point expended, each point taking a round to expend, probably with a cap at three or four. This would allow a wizard

New stuff

Echoes of Eternity

Standing close to a person, place or object, the wizard taps into its temporal stream, dredging up echoes of the past.

The wizard gains a single impression of the GM's choice relating to their chosen target, and relevant to their goals. They must be very close or touching to manipulate the target's aura. The impression might be a brief vision, a fragment of speech, the last thing the victim saw, an emotion, the purpose of a machine, the function of a ruined building, a scrap of knowledge or whatever else seems appropriate. If the target is entirely unconnected to the wizard's current goals, they learn something irrelevant. If the spell is cast repeatedly, the GM determines whether any new insight is gained. A target creature does not automatically know they are being examined.

This spell is a bit like speak with dead and some of the WOD spells (such as Time), but I've deliberately limited it so it shouldn't block certain kinds of game like investigations. The spell can be used to help PCs to prepare for a mission, learn interesting background, provide passwords, offer additional clues to a mystery, and so on. It might also be used tactically, for example to get an idea of how well-defended a stronghold is, establish whether an alien creature is dangerous, or gain insight into an antagonist's mindset.

I think the overtness of spellcasting is going to vary by spell rather than anything else. Some are pretty obvious, while in other cases the casting itself might be noticed but there's no obvious external effect.

Scarlet Interdiction

The wizard traces a complex rune that flickers with red fire, flaring into agonising life if anyone is foolish enough to try and pass it.

The wizard can trace this rune on any solid surface with about a square foot of room, but not a creature. Anyone except the wizard approaching within two metres suffers a Wound unless they roll Will to resist the psychic flare of the ward. It can be disabled with an Occult roll within or just outside that range, or by damaging or altering the surface enough to disrupt the rune. Tracing the rune is usually impractical during combat.

Technicalities aside, "creature" includes things like robots, summoned shadow-beings and all that. It doesn't include non-sentient machines. There's a slight issue in that with the current injury system, it's not entirely clear how useful this is outside actual combat (Wounds heal between "scenes"). The idea is that this spell hinders pursuit, since a reasonable GM should have enemies tending to fall back from the rune when injured, rather than force their way past it.

Victory of the Worm

The wizard's touch unleashes writhing temporal energies, speeding decay and ruin until the substance crumbles away.

The spell allows a wizard to inflict damage on an object as if using a weapon. Organic tissue, most metals, stones and plastics are affected by the spell; some non-reactive minerals (especially precious metals) are immune. Liquids can be broken down by the spell, but gases are largely unaffected. A few square feet of matter can be affected in a turn.

The spell can inflict damage like any Melée attack, but affects many creatures and machines immune to other forms of damage. Some remain immune because of their substance. A successful attack inflicts 1d3 Wounds.

This spell looks pretty powerful at first glance, but actually I think not. Given Monitors routinely carry weapons around, being able to damage an object isn't much of a boost. The advantage is that doesn't require equipment, so it can be used with infiltration or when captured. You could use this spell to escape handcuffs, destroy doors and sabotage machinery.

The ability to attack with it is really just a matter of logic. I considered having it not affect living tissue, but then you couldn't use it on plants, which seems a shame because getting through undergrowth or escaping Unchaining of the Wild seem ideal uses for this spell. I didn't want to go with "sentient beings" because it felt awkwardly mechanical. Pragmatically though, you can already inflict a Wound by just punching someone, so letting you do exactly the same with a spell didn't seem a problem. I played around with a few fiddly systems to handle having to touch exposed skin, or gradually rotting through armour, but in the end they felt too clunky. I've avoided having complicated grappling rules so far, but that's what you'd be looking at for a spell where you cling on and gradually wither someone. Simple seemed better.


My magic system is supposed to be side-effecty but reliable. Casting is always succesful providing you have the heat to spare (and if not, you're unconscious and in no shape to cast spells). There will often be unwanted side-effects to magic, but these are not horrific, do not directly endanger the wizard, and should not be large or undesirable enough to deter spellcasting. The idea is really to create atmosphere, rather than any kind of mechanical effect. Whether I can pull this off is another question.

Sticking with the whole d20 thing, I think I'm going to go for rolling on a d20 chart for effects. The rough breakdown will be 1-10 No Effect, 11-17 Trivial Effect, and 18-20 Substantial Effect. These aren't formal categories or anything, I just think that's about the right sort of balance. Depending what kinds of trivial effects I come up with, I might increase the range of those later. Depending how I implement things, I might have specific types of spell modify die rolls to try and get flavoursome effects. For example, if I have a sub-table of "Manifestations" then Call the Ashen Beast might well add to the result roll on that if a side-effect does occur.

What sorts of effects do I want? Let's try some examples, in some rough order of severity.

  • A chorus of voices whisper to the wizard.
  • Visions of a strange landscape flash before the wizard's eyes.
  • The acrid taste of bile fills the wizard's throat as the strange syllables of the spell are spoken.
  • Frost forms on nearby surfaces and a skin of ice over liquids.
  • Strange lines etch themselves into the wizard's skin, fading slowly over the coming days. They may carry some meaning or be simply disturbing.
  • The wizard feels watched, as though ancient and inscrutable eyes were drawn to them in the casting. (the GM might make a side-plot out of this)
  • A sinister and unearthly laugh echoes around the room.
  • A heady and somehow dangerous scent fills the air, sending senses reeling and leaving a lingering clue to the wizard's presence.
  • Metal objects resonate eerily to some unheard harmonic of the spell. Determine the volume of the resonance randomly.
  • Something seems to squirm and boil into life in the shadows, darting out of sight before you can focus on it. (the GM might use this minor entity or ignore it)
  • In their mind, the wizard can feel the heartbeat of every nearby creature. This ability is both useful and distracting; apply a +2/-2 modifier as appropriate. The ability fades after a short while.
  • Winds from some alien gulf wash over the wizard, sending dust dancing uncannily into strange and near-intelligible patterns.
  • Leaves wither and crackle, or burst into new and unexpected life.
  • A flash of witchfire traces wild patterns across the floor, leaving behind scorched trails.
  • A swarm of insects gathers around the focus of the spell, whirling and humming.
  • Intangible glittering motes twinkle into existence and float through the air, casting a faint and unearthly light. (these might give away the wizard's presence, provide light in a dark room, distract or alarm NPCs)
  • Ghostly figures and structures fade into view, intangible but haunting. (these might provide a distraction or cover)
  • Skirling spirits whirl and dance through the air around the wizard. (the GM might have these interact with nearby objects, distract creatures, attract attention or even pose a mild threat)
  • The spell does not fade away, but lingers on regardless of the wizard's wishes. Its effects continue for an additional 1d3 rounds, but otherwise remains in the wizard's control. (The GM determines whether this effect makes any sense in context).
  • The spell breaks free of the wizard's control. It fulfils the wizard's initial purpose, but has additional effects as determined by the GM. A summoned creature may be more self-willed than usual, but retains an amiable attitude to the wizard unless provoked; it cannot be dismissed. A concentration spell may linger for 1d3 additional rounds. The effects may be beneficial, problematic or neutral but should not be actively harmful, and should make sense in terms of the original spell.

Broadly speaking I've got effects that creep out the wizard; effects that are noticeable to other characters; effects that might have minor consequences for the wizard; effects that leave evidence and may distract characters; effects that might have notable consequences; and effects that twist the original purpose of the spell.

It's fairly easy to come up with the lower-tier ones (nosebleeds, smells, cosmetic changes, thoughts, emotions) but the more significant the effect, the more thought is required. I may need to brainstorm this one. Suggestions are welcome!

I am tempted to have one where the wizard is locked into the spell and unable to do anything until they break free, but not quite sure if that's still on the fun side of the line. What are your thoughts on this?

I'm also considering changing the way spells work so that instead of rolling to resist their effects (with low resist rate) the wizard has to roll to succeed (with generally higher resist rate). One to think about as there are issues of finding sensible stats to use, and of one stat ending up dominant.


  1. I'm inclined to agree with you on Victory of the Worm - it's easy to reflexively assume that something is "too powerful" when it actually does something that something else in the game does perfectly well already.

    I'm a bit more concerned about the spells that impede their targets, since I thought (I might be misremembering) that a key point of Monitors was to make soft attacks less binary.

  2. Strictly speaking: yes.

    As you may remember, I ended up opting for the Blind Die scheme for ordinary soft attacks (at least in alpha) because it was an option that didn’t seem completely awful. The balance between binariness and system crunch is quite a problem, and the less binary you try to make soft attacks, the more burden it creates in terms of tracking.

    Basically I didn’t feel like it was practical to use variable magnitude on soft attacks given the relatively low-crunch system I was aiming for. When we’re looking at people having three Wounds and occasionally rolling armour saves, it seems inappropriate to be imposing highly granular penalties for blindness or whatever. The thing is, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of options for non-binariness other than duration.

    The only difference I see between the Blind Die and the spells (I’m assuming we’re talking about Emerald Sigil and Primal Nightmares here?) is the magnitude of the effect, in that these are still a bit save-or-suck. Fair enough. Primal Nightmares is nasty but doesn’t stop you acting, it just affects the kind of actions that seem reasonable, and will wear off relatively quickly. It could be altered to implement fear differently, but I’d rather avoid forcing a specific reaction on targets (like fleeing) or simply imposing a numerical penalty. Suggestions welcome.

    Emerald Sigil I seem to have forgotten to rebuild so I’ll hold my hands up on that one. One point is I intended for the caster to be locked down by it as well, but the concentration rules don’t actually do that as currently written. It’s a per-turn effect so not quite as bad as it seems, and it does affect all creatures, not just enemies. It could impose some kind of distraction instead, something like roll two dice and pick the worst, or lose one action per turn out of distraction. Again, suggestions welcome.