The Next Step for Hermetic Realm Magic

I just had a terribly awesome idea: bring the Hermetic Realm system I assembled last year over from GURPS to Unisystem.

It is terrible because I spent too much time on that project last year. Redoing it for another, marginally different system seems like a poor use of time.

It is awesome because that marginally different system has much easier character creation. New pregenerated characters would be a snap and importing the existing set from GURPS would be even snappier. Also, I generally find Unisystem a hell of lot easier to teach on the fly.

But would it make the magic system any simpler to use? That’s the key point that finally came to me in the last month or so. A free-form magic system based on the Cabal’s Hermetic cosmology has to be really stripped down to work in a four hour convention time slot with a table of total newcomers.

So I find myself debating whether I should stick with GURPS and do the stripdown there, or move on to the relatively fresher ground of Unisystem, import the basics and actually make sure it’s simple this time.

I have to do something because I want to run another Cabal game for Carnage. Would my time be better spent making a more robust, flavorful world and scenario? I think it would. But I continue to think longingly about the simplicity of Unisystem when I ought to be focusing on content.


Yesterday, I opened the Broken Spokes Ten Foot Wiki. The timeline showed me it hadn’t been updated in over a year.1 That’s pretty fricking sad.

All I’ve done is think about it at the back of my mind without really doing anything about it. And I want to run this thing at Carnage.

I’ll get it done, but I need to put the heat on. While also concocting Ghostbusters goodness, running Scions of Time, playing Masks of Nyarlathotep and keeping up with my commitment to myself in maintaining Held Action.

Hm. Looks to be a gamefully geeky summer!

1 About a year and five days.

[Broken Spokes] Keeping Magic Simple, Stupid

I think I may have been looking at this magic system swap-out for Broken Spokes from the wrong angle. At its root, this is about making life easy for me and the players. Rather than learning the complicated interactions GURPS‘ magic colleges, spells and their prerequisites, a realms-based system should be about presenting a significantly shorter list of things to remember, with the decanic modifiers as an add-on that players can benefit from and learn as needed.

With the goal of making this easy for everyone in mind, is it really sensible to go about building a whole new array of realms, or welding something from Mage: the Ascension to the Cabal setting? After all, the spell colleges as written are actually kind of a cornerstone of the cosmology of the Four Realms, in that the decans are wellsprings of form that trickle down to the material world.

Even if I don’t necessarily agree with the divisions of the colleges — Protection and Warning? Really? — it’d certainly be easiest to take them as written. They’re already mapped to the decans for me, after all.

And in the spirit of that apocryphal quote from George Patton, why not just do it? At worst, I don’t like the way they play and then I move on to one of my alternate realm schemes, right?

Addendum: Saturday afternoon, I started putting a reference document together, pulling options together from across the pages of GURPS Thaumatology. It is more than a little dizzying. There’s a fair bit of flipping back and forth through the flexible magic chapter, referencing tables in the appendices — which I am not looking forward to recreating in a word processing document — and being distracted by potential options: “Hm, do I want to add the threshold limitation to this system? That could be fun.” I’m going to stick with keeping it simple for now; spending fatigue points ought to be a sufficient brake on the wackiness.

[Broken Spokes] Dividing Up the Universe for Fun and Magical Profit

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

— attributed to George S. Patton1


One of the components of the Broken Spokes campaign / adventure framework that I have yet to solve to my satisfaction is the magic system. See, I like the flavor of GURPS Cabal‘s decanic magic: the thirty-six decans of the Zodiac, the aethyrs that control them, the color and symbolic correspondences, all that. But I’m not a fan of the rules underneath it, GURPS‘ many and narrowly defined spell lists. It’s a chore making spell-casting characters and either making cheat-sheets for the players, referring to books or trying to keep the details in mind. I’m much more comfortable with the freeform sort of system one finds in Mage: the Ascension.

So GURPS Thaumatology should be my best friend, right? It’s a toolkit book on creating magic systems that has a section on realm-based magic, which is essentially the freeform sphere magic of Mage. That should make ginning up my own system easy.

Only, it’s not, as I am too damn picky. Most of the decans correspond one to one with GURPS‘ colleges of magic, which separate spells into categories like Sound, Animal or Technology. I do not necessarily agree with or find useful some of the distinctions those spell colleges make. So I want different categories or realms, but of a number that the decans are still useful to some degree. I’ve got some possibilities in mind, but none of them are fitting just right:

Mage: the Ascension’s Spheres

There are nine of ’em. Drop Prime, because it doesn’t work in the context of GURPS Cabal and split Entropy into Death and Fate, as Mage: the Awakening did and you’ve still got nine. That divides evenly into thirty-six, at least, but that’s also a lot of unoccupied decans. Does that matter? I was never going to use those anyway.

On reflection, I could go from decans to the planets, or maybe astrological houses. GURPS Thaumatology conveniently has correspondences for those too, but Mars and Aries are much less spooky that Harpax and Anoster. I could use the number, but swap in decan names.

Alternately, leave Prime in as the “meta-magic” realm and that makes ten. It’s not mystically resonant, nor does it divide evenly into thirty-six.

On further reflection, including Spirit might be that smart, in that it creates a similar issue I never reconciled in Mage: when most of the universe the mages careen through is made of Spirit, that would be a highly abused sphere, wouldn’t it?

The Gramarye

There’s a magic system for FUDGE called the Gramarye. It has twelve realms, which again I do not entirely agree with, probably because they’re meant to work with a “mythical medieval Europe” and I’m a practical twenty-first century kind of guy. While twelve is a pretty good number, I’m not down with distinguishing Animal from Body, or breaking Illusion — essentially Sense — away from Mind.

Gramarye also has “colleges,” which others might considers verbs or techniques. These are ably covered by the GURPS version of realms being divided into levels that break down how a mage affects things within that realm.

Ars Magica

An oldie but a goodie, Ars Magica is, so far as I know, the prime source, if not progenitor, of the idea of a magic system where areas and types of influence are combined in different ways. Ignoring the techniques, or verbs, there are ten forms, or nouns. Again, I don’t necessarily agree with some of the divisions, even in light of the intent for them to reflect the worldview of the wizards who composed them. In fact, the forms of Ars Magica are awfully similar to the realms of Gramarye. Huh.


In which I take a bit of this, a bit of that. Consider these two lists:

Mage: the Ascension Spheres Gallimaufry Realms
  1. Correspondence
  2. Entropy
  3. Forces
  4. Life
  5. Matter
  6. Mind
  7. Prime
  8. Spirit
  9. Time
  1. Air
  2. Correspondence
  3. Death
  4. Earth
  5. Fate
  6. Fire
  7. Life
  8. Mana
  9. Mind
  10. Time
  11. Water

I started with the nine spheres from Mage, eliminated Spirit, split Entropy into Death and Fate, redistributed the contents of Forces and Matter among the classical four elements, which is in keeping with the cosmology of the Cabal’s universe and renamed Prime to Mana because that’s a Mage thing.

It introduces new corner cases. Where does a tree fall, besides the forest? Life when it’s alive; that’s easy. And when the wood has died? Death? Earth? Neither is terribly satisfying and it can’t fall under Matter because Matter’s gone. And what about light? Is that an aspect of Fire?

Numerically, the gallimaufry is one shy of a happy dozen. What else could go there? Light? Void?


And so finally we come to the possibly apocryphal quote that kicked off this post. I do not have an ideal solution in hand. So I should just pick something and forge ahead. If it doesn’t work, I can review and retool. When everything is made up, it’s all entirely revisable.

In a situation like this, I think it’s best to do something decent, rather than wait for the inspiration to strike that provides something perfect. So my gut instinct is to use the spheres from Mage without faffing around with the gallimaufry approach. They’re familiar, I’m comfortable with the divisions and they’re easy to teach. But it doesn’t seem right.

Do you have a suggestion of another realm-like configuration to consider? I like to think I’m open to new approaches on this.

1 I can’t find an authoritative source showing Patton wrote or said that, just “witty quotes” sites like attributing it to him. There are enough variations in wording that it makes me wonder if it’s one of those nuggets of wisdom that just floats around the sphere of human knowledge.

Looking Forward to GURPS Horror

In the designer’s notes of GURPS Horror, Third Edition, author Kenneth Hite concludes with ” . . . I think that I successfully updated what I’ve always thought of as ‘my first GURPS book’ for the new era of GURPS, and added some stuff that whoever writes GURPS Horror, Fourth Edition in ten years will keep around. Enjoy it until then, and pleasant screams.” Conveniently, Hite wrote the fourth edition of the book as well. Seems probable he retained one or two things for this latest printing.

The GURPS line developer Sean Punch keeps a blog over at Livejournal. I keep an eye on it for the “this week in GURPS” updates. Aside from sly hints about unannounced releases, he updates the status of higher profile projects. In the most recent post, for instance, GURPS Horror is now waiting on the art.

It seems like this book has been in the pipeline forever now, although it’s probably only been two years or so. The received wisdom is that rule and mechanics-heavy books sell better than the sort focused on setting and genre content, so while I can understand why certain projects get priority over others, like GURPS Low-Tech.

Of course, it’s always just my luck that the specific supplements I want to buy get lodged in the pipeline. The same thing happened with Eden Studios back when their output still measured in multiple books per year. They’d crank out the All Flesh Must Be Eaten supplements when all I wanted was The Book of Hod and The Book of Geburah — the former made it out; the latter languishes in the Hell of All But Done.

At any rate, GURPS Horror slogs ahead. I’m particularly looking forward to the PDF companion Worlds of Horror, which I guess contains the updated mini-settings from the third edition of the book. Of those, I think The Madness Dossier is the one I really, really want to read; you know, that thing I cribbed content from for Broken Spokes last summer. And I really, really hope there’s more content in this one, because the original version was so amazing — and amazingly brief on examples.

Are there any more fans of The Madness Dossier out there? Speak up! (And I really would like to get back to filling out that TenFootWiki I began as a campaign source document too.)

[Broken Spokes] Walpurgisnacht

Note: because we meet to play Broken Spokes on Thursday nights and what has come to be Actual Play Friday on Held Action immediately follows, these session reports are going to lag about a week behind. Whatever you’re reading about on Friday, we’ve already moved on to some other huge calamity requiring resolution.

This week was the first session of really real, actual factual role-playing for this campaign, after wrapping up character creation the week before. I was nervous, because I’d been scrabbling to expand my initial story seed for some time, mostly unsuccessfully. For whatever reason, I was having difficulty spinning out twists and complications to make things more interesting. As it turned out, what I had was enough.

The theme of the night was adaptation and modification. Right off the bat, Laban reminded me that last time we briefly discussed the prospects of turning the campaign calendar back to the pulp adventure era of the 1920s and 30s. The idea appealed to me because not only is it a fine era for high adventure and it rules out technological wrinkles like cell phones and the information wellspring of the internet, but the time period’s perfectly in sync with riffing on modernization versus traditional rural life and other Lovecraftian elements.

Continue reading

[Broken Spokes] Character Creation Redux

Last week, I thought we were going to dive into kicking off Broken Spokes. In actuality, we spent most of the evening finishing off character creation, primarily equipment and the players tweaking the bits of their characters about which they’d had second thoughts between the first creation session and now.

As it turns out, they were both concerned about their characters’ gear. That’s a fair point, but one I tend to gloss over as a GM because equipment lists put me to sleep. I’d rather just assume they have everything they would reasonably have and leave it at that. Not so with these two guys.

In a lot of ways, it was helpful and educational to follow them through the gear load-out process, picking up tidbits like:

  • GURPS Lite lacks automatic fire rules. We had to do some detective work with Basic Set: Characters, since I had neglected to bring Campaigns, thinking that the combat rules in Lite were all I needed for the evening. (This turns out to be a standing point of contention about the fourth edition of GURPS Lite, I found while browsing the discussion forum at Steve Jackson Games’ website.)
  • Ammunition matters. This week I’m bringing GURPS High-Tech so Laban can have his choice of things to propel at qlippothic horrors at high velocities.
  • For some folks, it’s not enough to say “You have everything a person like your character could reasonably be expected to have, on their person or back at home.” It’s enough for me, but I am learning to respect others’ desire for fully detailed inventories of pockets, backpacks, vehicle storage compartments and basements. I exaggerate for humor, but really, Wayne’s cat burglar has to keep all that stuff somewhere.

Broken Spokes Finally Leaves the Station

I am trepidatious. Tomorrow evening we are scheduled to start this Broken Spokes campaign that we initially made characters for . . . well, at least three months ago. Embarrassing as it sounds, it’s been three solid months of missed opportunities.

The core problem is there’s only one feasible night of the week for the three of us to meet, due to requirements of family and work. If anything with overriding priority — and there are many; role-playing’s a fun way to spend some time, not serious business — happens, then we can’t meet for that week. Then the cycle begins again the next Sunday evening: “So, are you free for gaming this week?”

That said, we’re finally on track to play this week. I have to admit, it’s been so long, I’m not really sure what to do for a starting adventure. Most of the time I’ve spent thinking about Broken Spokes between conception and now went to big picture world-building — or mashing, in this case — and mucking with the Ten Foot Wiki approach. I have some nuggets of ideas of where I want to begin — particularly since I plan to use the opening sessions of this campaign as a testbed for one of my Carnage adventures — but they require thought and work.

To that end, I’m blocking out Wednesday evening for writing time. I shall go to Muddy Waters, where there’s no wireless access to distract me, get a glass of something tasty and bang away at an Open Office document. Ten Foot Wiki’s fun for world-building, but when it comes to adventures, I’m going back to my traditional bullet point format. I have a much easier time formatting, inserting new thoughts and reorganizing a simple word processor document than I do a wiki, in which it can be so easy to lose information.

Broken Spokes

Maybe it’s just the people with whom I play, but it’s been a real struggle to get this Cabal game going. It’s been at least a month and a half since we made characters. The cast consists of a half-demon with raven aspects and a burglar bonded with some kind of astral entity from the Vault of Lost Things. Due to various family and work commitments, we haven’t been able to get together since March, at least. It’s been more than a little frustrating, in all honesty.

The good news is it gave me plenty of time to think about the background for this campaign and how I want to blend Cabal with the Madness Dossier mini-setting from GURPS Horror in a campaign framework named Broken Spokes. To that end, I decided to use Uncle Bear’s Ten Foot Wiki as my documentation tool. I’ll get into the details of that in a future post, but for now suffice to say it’s changed how I write and I haven’t yet decided if I like this way better than sitting down with a fresh notebook page or a plain word processor file.

The wiki model certainly makes it easy to leap from topic to topic. Whenever a proper noun comes up, I put it in double brackets, which turns it into a link. That link either leads to a piece of information I’ve already written, or it’s the means by which I create the information. This is great because it supports stream of consciousness creation. The drawback, which I only realized this weekend when I thought about the characters the players created, is it makes it really easy to get away from what’s important.

Background information is well and good, but it never has the same level of importance to players as it does to the person who wrote it. The thing I want to do differently with Broken Spokes, which I pretty spectacularly failed to achieve in the past even when I tried, as in Mage: The Suppressed Transmission and Paragons of Freedom, is actually use the hooks the players give me. It’s an obstacle I have yet to beat. I hope that if I do it right this time, GMing will feel less like inventing a new adventure each week and more like just rolling with what the players want to do, because they’re interested and emotionally invested in something they created themselves, rather than being presented with an obscured, but already full canvas by a self-satisfied GM.

I’ve got some good hooks, too. The half-demon is ripe with potential as a plausibly deniable agent for the infernal hierarchy — just the existence of which gave me a startling number of ideas for how they fit into the cosmology of Cabal. And the cat burglar’s Vault of Lost Things, well, I can’t get into that right now, but it’s a very exciting concept to play with in conjunction with material pulled from Madness Dossier. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.