Friday, December 14, 2018

Bone Throwing (occult practice)

Pandred, a reader and former player in the online Juvenis campaign (hoping for a return) asked that I work on the Occult study, a specialty of mages and illusionists. I've done some work on the initial page, which in turn links to this content:

Bone Throwing

A form of occultism by which wild magic is comprehended through the casting of bones or various objects. For players with little experience in this practice but with sufficient knowledge in the occult, the bones are typically represented by dice. A more dedicated player may, if wished, employ a more authentic collection of throwing bones ~ though players should be warned that the actual practice of bone throwing is not to be taken lightly. For the role-playing dilettante, a simple set of dice are recommended.

The player is asked to obtain six unique six-sided dice without numbers, called story cubes or story dice. Desirably these dice would contain images that were appropriate for the time period. of the role-playing game (nothing anachronistic). Every image on every die should be unique, a total of 36 images. To this should be added an ordinary six-sided die, preferably with pips and not numbers. It is important to understand that none of these seven dice should be thrown for any purpose other than rolling bones.

Of the six picture dice, one should be designated as “the self,” the die that specifically defines your game character. Obviously, the die should be chosen with this purpose in mind. Each of the other five story dice must also be assigned a meaning. These meanings can be personal, but unless the player has much experience with bone throwing, it is recommended that these five meanings should be health, wealth, relationships, magic and morality (evil vs. good, wrong vs. right).

The numbered die may then be used varyingly, as a 50/50 to designate male or female, few or many, friend or foe, yes or no and so on; or it may be used as a measure of 1 to 6 to describe importance, danger, chance of success and so on.

Much of the reading beyond this is an art form. The player must interpret the throws based on the meanings of the dice, how they fall, where they touch, the distance or lack thereof between the pieces, what falls nearest to the bone thrower and what falls furthest away. The dice must be thrown with two hands and then effectively a story is made from the results. The story must be explained and accepted as reasonable by the witnesses of the bone thrower.

Authentic Sets

If the bone thrower wants to perform a more authentic means of bone throwing, a collection of objects such as small rocks, bits of driftwood, smoothed pieces of glass, crystals, carved wood figures or whatever feels right should be collected. Each item must have a genuine memory of location and meaning for when it was acquired, the emotional state it conveys and a comprehension for how the object falls, else a reading is not practical.
For instance, if a bit of petrified wood is included in your collection, that you gained as a child when on a journey to Arizona with your family, the wood will have a distinct shape and ways in which it will come to rest: “facing” away from you, towards you, laying on its back, pointing at another object, pointing at nothing, etcetera, as you interpret it. In this aspect it is your mother, in that your father; its relationships to other things are memories, conflicts, unresolved issues and so on. Bone reading can be extraordinarily esoteric and profoundly personal.

Ten or fifteen “bones” with these connections can make for an intricate reading, one that would be highly difficult for the non-bone thrower to see, since the pieces would be familiar to the reader alone. Still, as long as the lay of the bones can be defended by the player, this form of authentic bone throwing can be accepted into the game.


As ever, the reading made by the bone thrower causes events to come into being; an ill omen occurs, an expected relationship creates a compatible non-player character, enemies or friends turn up to threaten or sustain the party, while events spontaneously occur in keeping with the reading. This can be a difficult process for the DM, who must be as flexible as the readings themselves.

Some players will attempt to manipulate the results by interpreting every reading as “good luck” or some promise of benefit or success. The DM must be cautious, designating certain pictures or patterns as clearly bad, whatever the player may say. For example, if the die symbolic of the self lands far from any other die in the throw, the player should not be encouraged to see that as “proof” of anything except the obvious meaning that the character does not benefit from the span of distance. Likewise, if the character’s self die lands close to wealth, but far from health, that too speaks to a particular kind of interpretation. Beware of players who will try to massage the interpretation as a means of controlling the results.

For this reason, bone throwing can be particularly troublesome as an occultist knowledge. Remember that it is often to the game’s benefit that the results be good; it does not mean that benefits will simply fall into the player’s lap. The DM is still entitled to create obstacles and require risks, though an occultist will have some warning of those risks.

Post Script,

I'll add a few words that are not on the wiki. Obviously, I don't believe in bone throwing or reading ... however, the practice has been around for centuries and has its interesting angles, just as all religion does. I feel the value of the practice here in the game is that it gives the player a different means of influencing their environment, adding dimension to the game and opportunities for insight. I have no doubts that it would be tricky to DM ... this more than the other practices I've proposed, because much of this is very subjective. But it is still group story telling; the other players should be encouraged to give their own take on the thrown bones, whether dice or objects, as this adds a puzzle-solving dimension where there is no definite "answer" ~ only an interpretive innovation that encourages thinking and discussion. I always appreciate these things.

For the lazy player, however, one that does not wish to invest in the dice or hazard the difficulty of getting a result that isn't clearly written out, I would recommend not taking the occult as a study and viewing the slow accumulation of occult points as a sideline of going up levels as mere trivial interest. There's nothing in the above that says the players must roll bones; the choice is left entirely in the players hands. No rule exists that says a player who knows how to throw bones must employ that skill. The best rules are those that do not require participation.

See also Astrology.


Ozymandias said...


I'm working on a warlock class, a sort of Queen Bavmorda (Willow) or Thulsa Doom (Conan) type of character. A charismatic cult leader, capable of summoning and binding powerful entities to his service ~ and risking loss of self and sanity in the process.

I see your wild magic and occult rules as one of the class' major development paths. The ability to reshape reality by studying signs and prophecies.

Very much looking forward to seeing the Tarot rules again.

JB said...

Wow, Alexis. You're actually ceding some of the DM's traditional "narrative control" to the players with this little system...though a player is forced to "work for it" more than in other games (he giveth with one hand...).

I dig it, though it feels a compared to your usual style. Yes, I know that you are a lot less staid than most AD&Ders when it comes to updating the game (incorporating computers, micro-managing combat time, adding sage abilities, keeping a detailed wiki, etc.), but this bone-throwing seems a little beyond the pale. I'd be interested to hear how it goes over in with your old social skill-card system (that I helped ruin) it seems a little too ripe for abuse. Neat, though.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Um ... "actually"?

As you point out, I've introduced many concepts that move the power over the game into the players' hands. I do it with rules ~ whereas most "pretend" that its done through role-play.

Yes, there's a chance this is in the realm of the conflict cards; but bold moves produce bold results. When we played the tarot draws in my offline game, the release of wild magic proved terrifying for the party, not because it brought dire consequences for the party, but because it challenged their precepts of how the world worked. This sort of manipulation "rips the mask off reality," since it can result in spontaneous events surrounding the party: revolution, war, floods, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together ... mass hysteria. The system doesn't allow the control of wild magic. That's the limitation.

Pandred said...

That's the good stuff there!

Tampering in forces beyond your control, going mad with power ad either becoming a stoic prophet or being undone by your meddling.

Exactly the sort of content I hoped for.

Ozymandias said...

Curious: do you have anything about interpreting dreams?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't think I'd want to get into devising player character dreams ...