This post would not have come into existence without Lexi over at A Blasted, Cratered Land.
Some of the following material comes from my new GLOGhack HEIMJING, which I will release before the end of this year. Happy GLOGtober.
What are magic words?
Solidary words strung together that require more effort to use than a more typical GLOG spell. To give some touchstones, here are a couple GLOG spells that require varying amounts of input to adjudicate, taken from the excellent list of 100 Orthodox Spells by Skerples. I'll rate these on a scale from 1-5 in terms of mental spoon cost, from barely noticeable to totally distracting from the main game.
R: [dice]x20‘ cone T: area D: concentration
"Rippling rings of purple light pour from the caster's forehead. All sounds are cancelled within the area of this spell. Creatures are deafened until the spell ends or they leave the spell's area."
This is about as easy to parse as it gets. For a player or GM busy tracking other numbers like exact inventory, this is a mental lacunae amidst coin counting. However, while the immediate effect is simple to resolve, the ongoing area of effect and how it affects interactions requires some brainpower from the GM's and the party, especially in tactical engagements where using this spell may deprive creatures of communication ability. Any spell that has an exact radius of effect also requires a spoon to decide what is and isn't within range.
Initial spoon cost: Players 1, GM 2
Ongoing spoon cost: Players 2 (1), GM 3 (4)
R: 120' T: creature D: 0
"Target creature of [dice] HD or less must Save vs Fear or take a Morale check, or believe that someone close to them has suddenly and tragically died. They will not associate the caster with this death, but intelligent creatures may believe the caster is only informing them to cause them grief."
This requires an analysis of the target creature, which is an unknown quantity, and uses more of the GM's spoons briefly to resolve. It also requires foresight on the player's part - a zombie will not be affected by grief like it would be by deafness. Despite the higher initial uncertainty, the ongoing effect is singular, which usually makes it simpler to rule over time than the Negasonic Ray.
Initial spoon cost: Players 2, GM 3
Ongoing spoon cost: Players 1, GM 2
Now, higher spoon costs aren't bad. Spells need to have a variety of both immediate/ongoing effects as well as different levels of complexity. The issue comes when the spoons are too unevenly weighted. In both examples, the GM has to do more work maintaining both spells.
(Yes, the GM does more work than the players. This is an unspoken rule of D&D.)
Another complaint: players usually have less motivation to track the durations of negative effects. If a party deafens themselves using Negasonic Ray and continues to communicate normally, it is up to the GM to re-enforce the spell as they see fit. This is reflected in the parenthetical spoon costs. Other systems won't necessarily solve this problem, but might alleviate it.
A good rule of thumb for measuring spoon cost is the amount of "uh, ums" that are thrown out while a GM thinks over a spell. More than 4 "err's" and that spell is a tricky one.
One final comment: any GLOG magic system may steal another spoon by stumbling into mishaps or dooms, which may affect other characters. This isn't...bad, really - it just takes longer to resolve the individual spell. If that mishap or doom centers squarely on the wizard, though, it lengthens the time spent waiting for the spell and all associated effects to resolve, which is something to keep in mind when writing spoon-greedy spells. (For Skerples' Sorcerer, this is particularly notorious, but part of the fun with Sorcerers is waiting for them to explode.)
What to do?
I assume you don't enjoy memorizing and ruling on specifically worded 5e spells that frontload spoons through mechanical complexity. Some people like that - power to them! - I always found it more interesting to seek loopholes in the wording or exploit rule conflicts rather than come up with creative ways to apply the rigidly written spell. I also don't like math. Now you know my biases.
So, magic words. A good way to make this less complex and more freeform?
Yes and no. On paper, magic word systems are a designer's dream - simply put down a list, give a couple vague guidelines, and off to the races with you.
The one I wrote was simple: roll 1d20 on a word list, then bash the words together, adding prepositions as necessary to make a unique spell.
Any magic word system quickly runs into another unspoken rule: what any mechanic lacks in written complexity it makes up for in spoon complexity. Interpretation on paper + interpretation at table = spoon total. (Note that increasing written complexity does not decrease spoon complexity past a certain point.)
Magic word systems end up being entirely GM reliant in most cases. Some give players a good amount of power to interpret the effects, but all of them involve a serious negotiation between the player and GM both in fiction and out of fiction that happens aside from the rest of the game.
Now, I enjoy making a narrative out of broadly applied tools, but rebalancing spoon distribution by taking all of them isn't the goal. Any normal action in a game, unless directed to the entire party, shouldn't take up all the GM's attention for long. A minute is too long.
Of course, there are exceptions, like rolling on a death and dismemberment table, or negotiation between the party spokesperson and a dragon, but that creates additional tension because the results of those focused interactions affect other party members. Engaging in a side dialogue bores other players, especially over a normal action like casting a spell.
Be careful that you don't let your enjoyment of problem-solving get in the way of a well-paced game!
What about word magic systems? How are they different?
Let's look at the core mechanic for Lexi's Psion.
"WORD: You are a WORD. To wield your psionic powers, compose a sentence that uses your WORD as the main verb. Roll 1d6 for each word in the sentence. If the total is less than your INT, the sentence occurs, to the letter. If the total is greater, the GM gets to change 1 of the words in the sentence (besides your word) for each die that came up 3 or greater, then the new sentence takes effect. In any case, something will happen. Psionic effects only persist while you are within line of sight. You can only have (INT) words of effects going at any time."
This begins something important: shifting the onus of magical creation and the spoon burden from the GM to the player. It also doesn't mandate GM interaction; smart players with a reasonable Int score can probably fashion a workable sentence without involving them most of the time.
Initial spoon cost: Player 3-5, GM 1-3
Ongoing spoon cost: Player 1-2, GM 1-2
To wit: magic word systems are where you kitbash words together to create unique effects and then negotiate these effects, where word magic systems involve crafting short spell-like phrases that are simple to arbitrate. There is overlap between the two, but a well-designed word magic system will require less GM spoons than a magic word system. (If there are other definitions, please let me know.)
It wouldn't be a Lexi class without a list of quality options, though, so let's examine some of those.
"9. Gourmand. When you eat something, you can choose a WORD it is. That WORD is immutable in your sentences. You can only have (Psion level) of words eaten at any one time."
This is an excellent effect that is entirely on the player to track. It adds complexity without drastically increasing the initial spoon cost for either party.
Seems like all this spoon discussion veils the cold, hard fact that word magic is wrangling words into sentences following specific rules. Like poetry.
Hm, that's a good idea!
"Couplets: You can write two short, simple lines of doggerel in runes. They must rhyme and follow the same meter. If you read the couplet aloud (takes a round), it takes effect."
This is taken from my Calligrapher class. I worried placing all the onus on the player to craft a small poem would be handicapping or distract from the main game, but my Calligrapher seems to be enjoying himself so far! Here are some quality examples:
"O dangling links of iron chain,
break and drop like the summer rain"
"Go forth phantom eyes, fly on in my stead"
Bestow a vision of what lies ahead"
"One falling to heaven below
Drift back up, lighter than fresh snow"
"Oblid is a foolish bastard
I, WingTam, am Dungeon Master"
The last one isn't useable (or is it?), but I appreciate a good turn of verse.
In case you've been counting, each verse is 10 syllables or less. This appears to be a sweet spot. I'd also rule that people who wanted to compose in another language could do so as long as they provided the translation. Putting the couplets in chat is mandatory, but English isn't.
I also restricted the use of Calligrapher abilities to 2 x [templates] per day, so poems face a stiff bottleneck.
Initial cost: Players 3-5, GM 1-2
Ongoing cost: Players 1-2, GM 1-2
What if composing poetry isn't my preferred mode of expression?
Fear not, my sweet readers. Here's the other word magic method that Calligraphers can choose:
"Logograms: You have mastered 2 logograms. If you deduce a similarity between a thing and your logogram and write it down (takes one round), you may steal that similarity, even placing it on another. Stamping is valid."
I can't offer much commentary or spoon estimates on this one because it is untested, but I can say that it's simple to create another variant by having Logograms boost similarities instead of taking them.
While this method may have a higher spoon cost to resolve exactly the effects of stealing something linked to a Logogram (eg: taking 'size' from a giant with the 'Mountain' logogram) I think this will create more tactical scenarios with power transfer. (I apologize for using logogram so much, but 'character' already has a meaning in D&D.)
One of the reasons word magic systems are rare is that they're very hard to concisely write and balance. My advice is to spend less time mechanically delineating restrictions that can be made with common sense and simply write your central concept down. It's true that you'll have to spend more spoons answering questions in play, but GM's can't anticipate player questions anyways. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:
Word Magic Concepts: (1d6)
Micah the Earth Elementalist and Krokka the Butcher. They are half-siblings.
Boris the Veteran and Johnathan the Traveler.
Samsa the Occultist and Gernald the Traveler.
Exhausted from their near escape, the group collapsed under the stifling blanket of the afternoon sun, passing into the realms of sleep, and awoke to stars.
Samsa and Gernald had joined the venture so Boris and Krokka opted to stay behind to recover from their bodily traumas.
Not wishing to revisit the surrounding towers so soon, Micah, Johnathan, Samsa, and Gernald waded into the ruffling surf, venturing into the cavernous dome topping the central tower. Inside, a stone sculpture and altar plastered in congealed seaweed with a healthy sprinkling of barnacles. A spiral staircase wound upwards through the ceiling and downwards into full-dark water.
Gernald, knowing the tongue of Carvings, stepped forward and entreated the sculpture to conversation. It responded, promising to answer one question if the group scoured its surface of matter.
The party assented, and Johnathan found a wavy knife nestled with rusty flutes near the altar during the cleaning. Much debate was had over the question, but finally Gernald bowed and asked: "What are the most dangerous things in this place?"
The rosy statue replied: "The one who waits, the one who stings, the one who devours, and the one who grasps. Most importantly - the one who crushes."
While Micah pondered the form of such things, Gernald, Samsa, and Johnathan ascended the spiral staircase and happened upon a huge, tarnished bell. The clapper was surprisingly clean, and radiated power from its inscriptions. Gernald managed to sort out a feeling of humility and routine from the north side and joviality or stirring from the south side.
[DM's Note: This room originally existed at beach level, above the statue room, but I forgot that and retconned the bell to the roof.]
Samsa declared her intent to ring the bell. Johnathan and Gernald quickly retreated. After delicately testing the clapper, Samsa rung the bell, producing two mighty knells but no further noise.
Gernald noted it was 2:00 in the morning.
The bellringers joined Micah and plunged into the inky swell. The next room had walls adorned with stone protrusions, suitable for shelving, despite the lack of shelves. The party noted a large array of objects covered by silt, and recovered some marvellous curios.
Descending further to the next level, the party found an assortment of marble tables, one surrounded with opalescent seats fashioned from giant clams. Their skin tingled as they swam around. Johnathan, while examining a fireplace, was accosted by a dreadful snake skeleton that paralyzed him with one bite!
[DM's Note: I hate paralysis. I find it to be a lazy mechanic that engenders frustration and boredom. Fortunately, the party made their Con saves quite well.]
After a panicked retreat, it became apparent the party could not outpace the creature. Samsa summoned Clippet, Lord of Ducks, who proceeded to swim upwards while carping about the unpleasantness of the situation. The others stood and fought, getting in some mighty blows. Micah briefly held the thing at bay with a stone tentacle, and the creature retreated.
They looked at each other, then, for a brief moment.
In seconds, the skeleton lay in pieces. The group ate briefly.
The party swam into the portal from which the skeleton issued forth, discovering another pile of bones!
…These bones did not attempt to murder them.
After rifling through the pile, the party recovered a handful of coins and left, travelling down the staircase in this lesser tower to a curious room filled with many orbs. After some prodding, the orbs were identified as a multitude of woks, so the party resolved to turn them over. Most yielded forms of wildlife, though one was cemented by an unknown substance to the floor. It was let alone.
Under the largest wok, they discovered a mass of small eels squiggling around an red, faceted object. Accompanying these were four large eels that darted out and began circling the exterior of the room. Some debating resulted, but ultimately the party opted to leave the object alone.
[DM's Note: Originally, this room held nothing but kitchen utensils, but after describing the woks as "orbs", I felt a small measure of guilt at arising hopes and came up with some orb inhabitants.]
Swimming upwards and then down to the next level through the central tower, the group discovered some basalt statues, more tables, and a suspiciously intact, well-carved wooden chair that identified itself as a "hot air detector." After more interrogation by Gernald, the chair revealed itself to be a thought reader, and expressed concern over it's master's location.
"Pray tell, how has my master conducted himself recently? I have not been graced with his presence in some time."
"I have had no occasion to worry over either his hospitality or his behavior."
"Ah, then you must be a special guest, indeed! My master holds very few people in any regard."
Our divers' skin tingled, and suddenly anemones erupted from Johnathan's eye sockets! Somehow, he retained vision through the tips of their tentacles. After some commiseration our divers continued, Johnathan opting to sit in the chair.
[DM's Note: Boris is the only original group member who hasn't been mutated. I wonder why?]
Concentrating, Johnathan scanned the lesser towers adjourning his current location, discovering a muffled clamor in one, silence in another, and finally three intelligences in the last.
He felt a whetted hunger and, horribly, an awareness of his intrusion! One mind, filled with malice, cut itself off from his perception, and the other two quickly moved out of range.
The party moved to retreat upwards through the center staircase, wondering whether they had time to decompress or if they had to risk depth sickness. Such speculation was stifled by the arrival of those intelligences sensed previously.
These horrid creatures, equal parts spider and human, engaged the party in mortal combat. Micah bent the walls to prevent ingress, but the things advanced, using the tight spaces against the party, pinning some to the ground.
After several tense rounds of combat and some lucky dodges, the party managed to escape largely unharmed, bringing the creatures down with relentless spears. Johnathan, however, was knocked unconscious, necessitating a proper retreat.
[DM's Note: These creatures had a "save vs Death" ability, which I also dislike. I've amended it to permanent ability score damage on a failed save, not that it matters now.]
For the second time in four hours, our divers stumbled out of the star-speckled surf with an unconscious member.
Feedback: Sawn-Off's combat system is beginning to grate on me. Players autohit enemies, but get not only DR from armor but also the option to roll Defense (roll 1d20, add relevant ability score, try to get 20+) to dodge an attack. Granted, DR/Defense only work against one attack each, but enemies have neither DR nor Defense options, making combat trivial, if time-consuming against tougher foes. Very few enemies have multiple attacks.
I have some ideas to fix this, and I'll hopefully report back with some progress. Find out next time!
System: Sawn-Off (an upcoming GLOGhack by Lexi). We're playtesting it: the full version has not been released yet.
Lexi - wrote Sawn-Off and many other good things.
Nick - recently released a neat 0.9 of a system called Nothing Ventured.
(L) Micah: An Elementalist specializing in earth. Half-sibling of Krokka.
(L) Krokka: A Butcher well-versed in making meat.
(L) Mercenary: A hireling.
(N) Boris: A well-scarred Veteran.
(N) Johnathan: A Traveler quite handy with a shovel.
(N) Robert: another mercenary hireling.
Content warning: body horror. All good? Righto.
Our intrepid band has been hired to recover an ancient tome from a submerged dungeon that once hosted a potent sorcerer-king renowned for blending creatures through generous application of mutagens.
After wading into the surf, our heroes took one look at the shadowed, dripping portal facing them and opted to dive in search of a...less foreboding entrance. Weighing themselves down, they landed upon half-ruined stairs and descended into an old, silted room that crowned one of the two smaller towers still intact.
Despite the multiplicity of crags and barnacles dotting the floor, nothing of value was found, and the party ventured down a exterior stairway to the other secondary tower.
As Robert's flare began to illuminate the darkened room beyond, tragedy! As his armored foot landed upon the penultimate step, a ripple of light spread outwards, revealing strange runes, and Robert was engulfed in a swarm of bubbles. When they cleared not seconds later, his blistered, pinkish corpse sank gently towards the bottom of the steps, while the flare began to float upwards.
[DM's Note: The trap at the bottom of this staircase activates whenever an object of significant size enters it. There is no indication that it needs time to reset, so I gave it a small reset duration, but was probably too generous letting the group loot Robert's corpse and then pass through the trapped area. I corrected this assumption at the party's cost later.]
Boris quickly snatched the flare and then prodded Robert's corpse, finding it uncomfortably warm. He then grabbed Robert's spear, ignoring the cooked flesh rubbing off the boiled fingers, and the others followed him into the next room.
This room proved to be more fascinating than the last: a huge coral of unknown provenance occupied one side, coruscating in a rainbow of colors. Beneath the coral, an array of verdigris-ridden pipes reaching from the floor to the ceiling.
The coral's illumination reacted to Boris and Micah, so Mercenary chipped off a fist-sized chunk to keep. Fortunately, the liberated coral retained its luminosity. The party sifted through the muck, finding a hermetically sealed jar of dried eels. Their first flare sputtered out.
They resolved to move upwards, reasoning that the pipes had to originate from somewhere. As they ascended a set of interior stairs, the flare cast thready light upon a curious scene: jellyfish of all hues crowding around a glowing green pillar with pipes branching from its base. Some jellies drifted towards the unfamiliar light, and combat was joined.
Initially, the party's armor and defense served them well. A jelly soon settled over Mercenary's head, causing their face to blacken and pucker. In seconds, Mercenary's struggles ceased. Our heroes ascertained they would not win this fight with shovels or spears alone.
Boris, drawing upon his arcane tattoo, cast Air Wall, stranding some smaller jellyfish inside two thick slabs of air as the very water drew apart. However, as he did so, the remaining jellies rotated in unison and moved towards him in glowing, purposeful streams. Boris suffered further injuries from larger jellies, and Micah resolved to aid their ally.
Micah called upon the swirling silt underfoot, impelling it to rise up in a turbulent cloud between the two Air Walls Boris had conjured. Immediately, the jellies reoriented towards them, but the walls held those flickering, poisonous creatures at bay.
Two large jellyfish forced their way through the air wall, and were left punctured, colorless, and drifting.
Johnathan, notably, acquitted himself well with his shovel, but gently loosed the spear from Mercenary's belt for the future.
[DM Note: Boris, thanks to his armor's DR, managed to make it out of the fight with 0 HP. Lucky duck! The fight itself went relatively well thanks to Sawn-Off's autohit rules, even though I kept forgetting individual initiatives. A hit from each jelly that dealt damage (eg: got past DR or evaded a Defense action) triggered a Con save versus poison, which everybody somehow made. It helped that the most assaulted characters had 17 Con.]
While Krokka butchered some jellyfish as potential food, Boris took his second trophy, gaining the ability to Identify Magic from the jellies' mindless attraction to arcane puissance. The party ate to restore their fortitude (an odd endeavor underwater) and Micah expressed interest in traveling through the pipes to deeper floors.
Towards that end, Micah struck the green pillar once! twice! and the glass column, already cracked with time, shattered. Many things happened in quick succession afterwards.
Firstly, a wave of roiling green liquid, heavier than water, flowed out of the pillar, and all parties present in the room felt their skin tingle as the emerald light washed over them. Then, the lump of rainbow coral Micah possessed shone with a clarion alabaster light, and burst outwards in a frenzy of branching growth!
Our heroes, wisely, began to flee the room, but the proliferating coral ensnared Krokka and Boris. Micah turned towards their sister and screamed silently as their eyes popped. Seconds later, a bubbling pain erupted in their forearms, and new folds of skin disclosed fresh orbs. Frantically swinging their arms, bejeweled with eyes, Micah advanced towards Krokka.
Boris, summoning his strength, burst free of the grasping coral, and stalked towards the stairs pausing not for his compatriots. Johnathan, already fleeing down the steps, looked backwards at the silhouetted figures then pressed onwards as the coral closed in.
With Micah's help, Krokka broke free, but spasmed in pain as the tingling sensation sunk into her bones. Small, fluted holes popped open where the bone cleaved most close to her skin, and small antlike creatures crawled out, swarming over her limbs and then retreating to her marrow.
So burdened, the siblings helped each other down the steps, avoiding the encroaching coral. They joined Boris and Johnathan in staring wildly around the room below.
[DM's Note: The pillar contains a potent mutagen referenced later in the dungeon. There are, however, no guidelines for what happens if the pillar is broken, so I improvised. Each round the party remained within the philodendronian light, they had to roll a Save vs Con to avoid mutation and a Save vs Dex to avoid the coral. This was not quick, but it was dramatic. The rainbow coral has a range of possible effects when exposed to magic items, and that specific chunk Micah bore decided to grow.]
As the party debated their options, the tower trembled, and a flagstone plummeted from the ceiling above, trailing greenish silt. A thick coral protrusion forced itself through the hole.
The large fan of rainbow coral against the far wall began to oscillate wildly, with some parts spalling off the main body, others withering and blackening, and yet others beginning to grow outwards.
The party had four options.
~ finis ~
[DM Note: The secret door from room 7 to room 6 is noted in room 6's description, but not room 7's. This was a minor aggravation.]
It was a quite excellent session. I was surprised at how quickly the party resolved to begin interacting with objects, but I should have choreographed the risks better. Micah planned to travel through the pipes deeper into the dungeon, which would theoretically be quite possible were it not for the, er, mutagen.
Feedback on Sawn-Off: There were some edge cases that needed to be clarified (establishing what exactly a Veteran's trophy does at first level, deciding if initiative needed to be rerolled each round) but the core rules are quite breathable and lovely! I greatly enjoyed the freedom afforded to improvise aided by some small, handy tables.
One critique: combat quickly fell into a routine of "well, even if I'm not getting targeted, I should Defend". While the existence of other actions is clearly outlined, players fell into the habit of pressing familiar buttons. I perhaps aided this behavior by prompting them to describe all the actions they wanted to take, and I'll check myself in the future.
IF YOU ARE A CURRENT OR FUTURE PLAYER DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER.
So, the main mutagen has been released, and the coral is feeding off it like a weed in moist soil. I envision it eventually working its way through the pipes and into the entire facility in an attempt to absorb every last scrap. This means that eventually, all pipes will burst, flooding whatever's managed to remain dry. My players are now on a timer to recover the book, and I'll choreograph the creaking pipes.
The tower that housed the mutagen will also be completely overgrown with coral and collapsed by the time they get back.
Such magical power must go somewhere. Deep inside the winding carbonate chambers, empowered polyps write and twist, agonized in the throes of mutation. What beings will emerge? Find out next time!
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