Gesture-Based Nanite Magic

After the apocalypse, when the nanite swarm blankets the world, only a few of the gestures capable of activating its various functions survive, passed down as jealously guarded secrets in mystery cults and esoteric orders. They are not dissimilar to mudras as Mage: the Awakening used the word.

Depending on the mudras one knows, experimentation could be the equivalent of issuing all sorts of system-rending commands, without necessarily knowing if the manipulator has authorized themselves as a super-user yet. The nanite equivalent of rm -rf could be utterly catastrophic, depending on what it considers files and directories.

Linear Sorcerers in Mage’s Traditions

Mage: the Ascension's cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

Mage: the Ascension’s cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

For years, I was never really clear why the revised edition of Mage: the Ascension kept bringing up practitioners of linear magic, which is magic that is not the kind of dynamic will-working that your average mage-type starts off with, but the typical “five dots and five specific powers” of White Wolf’s other games. Sure, it’s inexplicably paradox-free, but it’s limited. You get the five or so powers in a path and that’s it. There’s none of the flexibility of will-working. Some traditions are depicted as holding linear magicians in rather less esteem than their True Magick counterparts. While the Traditions aren’t in a sufficiently plush position on the occult stage to be so snooty about the dynamic-linear divide that they don’t allow those sorcerers membership, it still seems odd that

Then, in a thread discussing the disconnect within Tradition Book: Order of Hermes Revised, I find the comment that makes everything click, “Moreover, many (most?) of the Sleepers who undertake study with real Hermetics will become Hedge Wizards/Sorcerers of varying quality, not unlike the millions of Sleepers who work for/with the Technocracy as engineers, programmers, and the like. Some few will Awaken, but a bunch of allies (consors?) who share your Paradigm enough to not count as “witnesses” are valuable in and of themselves, to say nothing of whatever minor (or not so minor) magic-lite techniques that may be able to enact.”

Aside from the practical advantages listed above, it’s that Traditions and Crafts with a “knowledge is the key to mystical power” paradigm educate everyone the same. All the recruits go through the same education of sympathetic correspondences and Enochian chants. It’s that some of those students awaken, becoming capable of dynamic will-working, while others master the linear arts taught within the curriculum. It’s the difference between Harry and Ron, who slog through Hogwarts as average students, getting better at the required work with practice, and Hermione, who masters everything and turns out to be such a gifted student that she composes her own spells and modifies standard formulae to her needs.

Looking at it that way helps me make a lot more sense of linear sorcerers’ place in the world of Mage.

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.

[Eye of the Qlippothim] Mid-August Progress Update

The Sigillum DEI, from John Dee's Mysteriorum Liber Secundus.

I drove myself to work on Eye of Qlippothim this weekend, mainly sitting down at the computer to continue pulling together the various bits of magic systems from all over GURPS Thaumatology to create a flexible, open-ended alternative to the standard GURPS spell system.

Picking Up the Threads

It’d been a while since I worked with the rules document, so I found myself scratching my head in a few places. “Why did I do that? Is it supposed to be a skill modifier, rather than margin of success?”

Originally the plan was to use margin of success as the determining factor for all of a spell’s parameters: how long it lasts, the area it covers, how far it goes, all that. However, I also want to use the familiarity table for range. Instead of worrying about physical distance, a wizard has to be symbolically close to their intended subject: know them intimately or have a link to them, like a treasured lucky charm or sample of blood. If this system is intended to encourage players to accumulate lots of sympathetic modifiers, which it is, then it seems wise to prompt that upfront. Damage and duration can run off margin of success, because they should be unpredictable. But players should be able to judge with more accuracy whether their spell will hit its target, so I think it’s sensible that range work as a skill modifier, so they can figure right from the get-go what kind of bonuses they need to collect to offset penalties.

Organizing My Thoughts Through Rule Aids

In addition to a document collecting and organizing the various rules bits for this system — for which I still haven’t settled on a name; Decanic Realm magic? Hermetic Realm magic? Hermetic Astrology magic? — I’ve been working on GM screen inserts[1] and a “quick and dirty guide to casting magic” sheet for players. One could argue I am putting the cart before the horse, creating accessories before getting the rules completely sorted out, but I’m finding it helpful.

Not only do I vary the work, so I’m not constantly focusing on making all the disparate rules align, which is my least favorite part of the project, but creating the player aid helps me get the process organized in my head. I realize there are missing steps, or that it makes more sense for figuring familiarity range to go before rolling the dice, and so on.

Ever Onward

Until the rules and players collide in a playtest, I don’t think I can make much more progress on them. That won’t happen until Fall-loha at the earliest. So now I will turn back to character creation — I have a healthy list of concepts brainstormed over the weekend and I have GURPS Cabal to plunder for its own concept list — and developing the plot and non-player characters; the latter’s always a rough spot for me. I’m trying hard this time, I promise!

[1] Incidentally, I decided to do this screen in landscape orientation. Whether I buy the premade screen by Hammerdog Games or build my own out of foamcore, I think I will prefer the lower height, which allows my voice to carry and hides less of the table from view. On the downside, I’ll have to create my own front-side inserts, as there aren’t any genre-suitable landscape screens to repurpose, but that’s not a big deal. I already have some ideas in that direction.

[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.