Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Wild Magic

My running last weekend incorporated what was, for the party, their first direct experience in the application of non-Vancian magic ... magic that did not function according to spells and which did not have any limitations on power or multiplicity of use.  This I kid the gentle reader not - I am speaking of the use of magic in my world that a 1st level magic user can use as effectively as a 20th level magic user.

That seems adverse to the principles of D&D.  But of course it is nothing like the reader might imagine, since we tend to perceive magic as a power we wield.  The Vancian system incorporates the technological function of magic quite well; each spell is like a tool, designed to perform a specific function.  Just as a light bulb produces a flood of light, so too does a light spell.

But not all magic is so cut and dry.  As I have called it in the past, 'wild magic' is something else.  Think of it as magic that, once initiated, has a mind of its own.  There's no telling how it might ultimately manifest ... it could be a positive force affecting the characters, or a negative force.  But once set in motion, it is potentially greater than all the powers of every mage in the world combined.

We're very familiar with wild magic.  We think of it as a joke, as something laughable, treating it and its practitioners as charlatans or fools ... and for good reason.  But D&D does not obey the rules of the real world, and what is a joke in reality can become something else entirely.

A year ago I published a set of guidelines for player sages, and on that post I included the following table, which I shall reprint here for convenience:

This is the sage table for Illusionists.  My player realized that she was entitled to an additional specialty under her  chosen field, which was Power.  The specialty she already possessed was Artifacts.  And running down the list, she noted the four wild magic options and asked what each of them were ... and so began to realize that she had the power to do more than cast spells.  I'll describe the four options as they were during the campaign.

The first question was about dweomercraft.  Dweomercraft is not a magic spell, but an invocation process by which creatures are gated in from other planes of existence, or by which creatures are gated out from this plane (there are varying definitions, but this is the one that I employ).  As a wild magic it suffers most from being rather inexact in what is pulled in, and inexact in to where things are pushed out.  It should be understood that dweomercraft does not include personal travel - there's no certainty, once the process is initiated, where one's clients end up, nor what might come poking through the gate once its opened.  While usually everything goes according to plan, chaos dictates that, now and then, the unexpected happens ...

Then, metaphysics.  I suggested that, without the player having a firm grounding in the principles of metaphysics, it's not a good choice.  But I explained it's application to D&D by using the standard of Douglas Adams' babel fish:
Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that many thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument runs something like this. "I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "For proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."
"But" says man, "The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It proves you exist and so therefore you don't. QED."
"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
"My, that was easy," says man, and goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.
Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys. But this did not stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme for his best selling book, "Well that about wraps it up for God."

Exactly the sort of thing you don't want to mess with as a player if you don't know what you're doing.

The next question was about numerology, or the process of divination through numbers.  I recalled a circumstance during our campaign a few months ago where the monk, in avoiding being hit by a ballista shot while in a precarious position, had to first make save vs. paralyzation (to avoid the bolt, which would have certainly knocked him from the tower) and then make their strength check (to avoid a 30' fall, which would have done no damage to the monk, but would have been inconvenient).  This occurred twice. The first time, the monk rolled an 16 on a d20 against paralyzation, then an 8 on a d20 against his strength, handily avoiding the situation.  Three rounds later, a second ballista firing from another tower forced him to make the same two checks.  And he rolled a 16 against paralyzation and an 8 against his strength.

And everyone went, "Whoa, that's weird!" ... but a numerologist would have been within their rights to turn to me at that moment, roll against their knowledge and demand to know what the numbers meant.  Whereupon I, according to the contractual agreement I've made with myself regarding these wild magic influences in my campaign, would have to:  a) produce a reason that fit the circumstances; b) give the player knowledge that couldn't otherwise be known; and c) magically change the circumstances of the campaign in order to account for those numbers being rolled.  In effect, I could invent at that moment a creature taking part in the events whose aim was to preserve the monk, who could now be identified and seen by the present numerologist (who could decipher the creature's necessary location by geometrical logic), and who I had not previously ever intended to be part of the campaign.

In other words, I, too, would be ruled by the die.  But being wild magic, it wouldn't have to be that particular explanation ... it could be any explanation that worked and fit the facts, though anything I might dream up would without question challenge and change the balance of what was going on.

I wonder if the gentle reader can understand how strange or powerful this is.

Having this knowledge, the player was able to identify how astrology, the last wild magic on the list, would work ... and the reader should be able to as well.  I run the real world, so planetary positions for any year and date can be calculated for any position on my world, just as they are by astrologers working the chumps right now - the only difference being that in D&D, astrology is REAL.  Meaning that if you are destined somehow by Venus being in your third house, I'm forced to consider that reality in my DMing.  Which can get tricky.

At this point, my player postulated that there was a missing option from the list - and having heard of it, I was forced to add it's presence ... that being Tarot.

Now, a Tarot reading works just the same as any other divination, and I willingly accepted that this would be the Illusionist's choice for a specialty - particularly since the player had a set of Tarot cards with her at the time.  So she immediately did a reading upon the party's intentions (which was to search the world for a particular magic item, the horseshoes of the zephyr, for the paladin's warhorse).  And so I allowed the cards to determine the direction the party should choose to go, and the shape of the adventure, using the Tarot deciphering book that the player also happens to keep with her.

And this worked out fairly well - or, at least, will work out well once I nail down the properties of Tarot that I wish to adhere to.

The principal problem was that the book she carried was not particularly suitable for the purpose to which it was being applied.  This book had as its focus - not surprisingly - relationships.  So I've been doing some research for the past few days for something better.

But Tarot, like astrology, is an unctious mess.  Every card has fifty five-hundred interpretations, none of which exactly agree with each other, and all of which ultimately struggle to be as obsequiously vague as possible.  That's so that the charlatans can read tarot and can't be pinned down.  But that's no value to me ... I need each card to be a bit more precise than the charlatan's scam for dummies, if the idea is to work at all.

This has brought me to understand that most everything we know about Tarot and all its decipherings was invented - as all such magic invention - in the late 19th century.  Not the cards, mind you, only the interpretations ... which are, therefore, recent bullshit reckonings, helping to explain the wide variation.  Still, most sources I could find agreed that the occultist Arthur Edward Waite was the principal fixer of both symbolism and interpretation of modern day Tarot.

But still, it is all divination and no substance.  So, if I am going to allow the player to incorporate Tarot into my campaign as a source of wild magic, I still have to build some guidelines about how it will work.

Thus, I've begun building a table which any DM could use, if they chose to follow this particular path.  Remember, it assumes that once the card is pulled, the structure and motivations of the NPCs and elements of the world are altered and changed, just the same way a die roll determines if a creature misses or hits.

I haven't by any means finished, so this is only a taste.  Nevertheless, it includes all 14 of the Minor Arcana Suit of Wands.  Now, it will help to remember that wands are ruled by fire, which is one of the base four elements and a plane of existence in D&D, and which has long possessed the magical power of destruction.  So in each case below, the answer to the question, 'What Should The DM Do,' has been based upon creating events of destruction and conflagration in order to change the world to conform to the decision to draw the card.  Note that a negative element, much like The Monkey's Paw, is inherent in the table's suggestive format:

The reversed interpretations are not given, but they will be included with time.

Lastly, I probably don't need to point out the similar relationship between the above and the Deck of Many Things, which uses the Tarot Deck as its template and which is much more heavy handed in its results.  Most of the cards above only take effect if the player then takes action upon drawing the card ... if no action is taken, nothing special occurs.  For example, the King of Wands talks of increasing enemies or increasing allies ... but a third option might include, "Do nothing, leave town, perceive no effect."

It is dreadfully important that, for wild magic to have the characteristics that it ought to possess, the party cannot be aware of 'A = B' at any time.  Done well and carefully, the death of a particular individual, or news that arrives, or a flood which destroys half a town, might never actually be related by the players to the card they drew ... and that connection should NEVER be made by the DM.

Give me feedback - I have another 64 of these cards to write up, forward and reversed interpretations, and 14 reversed for the wands also.  I will be busy.


  1. You sure you don't want to move to St. Louis? At some point I may well move to Clearwater, BC, but that's not really any more convenient in terms of best-effort transportation. This is awesome.

  2. You are an RPGing mad scientist. Really impressive stuff. I feel like I need to let it set in a bit before I offer informed feedback.

  3. I was always curious about Ronin Arts Tarot Magic release, but never did pick it up. Might be worth a gander.
    Tarot Magic

  4. I do like what you are doing so far, but I think you could benefit from reading some alternate interpretations.

    Waite designed his deck to guide divination. Because the cards must apply to literally every conceivable circumstance, they must therefore paint broad strokes. It is up to the reader to determine how exactly the concept of 'renewal' (for instance) might apply to the question 'how will things turn out if I accept this new job offer?'.

    Consider using the Thoth tarot instead; that deck is only partially meant as a divination aid. It is also designed to align to the Kabbalistic conception of the planes, as a meditation aid, and to align with numerology and other forms of correspondance (such as color). This provides many more concrete hooks to work with vs. the very subjective Waite deck. The standard interpretations (one word or a short phrase) are essentially the same amongst all decks, so it is the additional layers of meaning and purpose that should guide the choice of deck.

    Either way, the basic function of tarot is to convince the user to trust their intuition and thereby access information not present in or not credited by the conscious mind. The undisciplined are easily deluded by their desires. Some would say that the major arcana represent universal archetypes which would be similar to deities, though with almost no interest in mortal affairs. Others would say that each of the suits along with the majors represents a story, an archetypal pattern that can be recognized in everyday life. Still others use the cards themselves as the focus for either self-induced trance or for some magical effort (where the card is used something like a gel cell in stage lighting). There are so very many possibilities for implementing this, and there's nothing to say you have to use one type of meaning every time. Perhaps it is easier to use the pattern meaning for a particular card this time it comes up, and perhaps it is easier to use a numerological meaning the next time. Also, as you pointed out, most readings answer a specific question about an action. The reading normally gives the result if the action is taken. If the action is not taken, then the reading does not apply. Questions about the general situation or about past events or about the nature of other people tend to be more subjective. It leaves a lot of room to the DM.

    I have a thoth deck buried in a closet; if you can't find a copy locally or online, let me know. I think the OTO makes the artwork and interpretations available online somewhere, though. Alternatives would be a book such as 'The Golden Dawn', Israel Regardie, and interesting reading for other reasons.

  5. Something else to consider is that your sage table includes numerology, astrology, and now tarot, but does not address symbology aside from those fields.

    Symbology at its root is the study of symbols and their meanings, of course. The study of numbers in a magical context then becomes numerology. Same with the study of astronomy; in a magical context it becomes astrology. The study of alphabets then becomes runecraft (or numerology again for languages like Hebrew). The study of non-language symbols such as heraldry does not seem to have its own field, but would be required study in any course on spellcraft in general and especially for any ritualized magic like summonings (except for cultures with pictographic languages like hieroglyphics or Mayan/Chinese style alphabets, where this would be considered runecraft).

    I don't know if you would apply the idea of spellcraft as a field of study, but it would have bearing on the interpretation of divinations and on the creation or deciphering of spells. Based on your example usage of numerology, there would be no need for a separate field of omens or divinations as that is treated as a vehicle or expression of the field. However, runecraft was considered a legitimate study at the time and covers an area not already included in the table. It also taps into several cultures, most notably the Norse, the Celts, and the Anglo-Saxons. Hungarian and Turkic rune systems also existed, among others. Beyond what we think of as runes today, alphabets with meaning (like Greek) can be used in the same fashion.

  6. So what would happen if you get cards with conflicting meanings? For example the Queen, Knight, and Page of Wands at the same time? Take your time but you have to act on it, act now, and ignore other things that are going on, sound like they could be confusing at best.

  7. Actually replace the Knight of Wands with the Ace of Swords. They have similar meanings and it's fairly unlikely that you'll get three Wands at the same time.


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