Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gnosis, Logos and Esoterica (Magic Users, "Mage Guilds" in Older D&D)

I've never been much of a fan of the default setting for OD&D. This is about what society looks like when the putative OD&D Magic-Users are separated from their generative cultural context. 


This has my take on the mechanics of older D&D Magic-Users sans the influence of Gandalf/Tolkien. YMMV. Freed of being book-bound Merlins-in-training, Magic-Users live in self-sufficient communes, live as naturalists, religious hermits or wandering hawkers of strange artifacts, live as academics, researchers, artists, politicians, lunatics and brothers and sisters of religious orders. They are competent melee combatants, certainly not as dangerous as a Fighter but certainly more dangerous in a melee than the local 0-levels in the Town Watch. They can farm or manage farms, they can hunt, trap, tend gardens, teach, run an estate, advise the local ruler, rule.

For all this normalcy, there are plenty of stories of Magic-Users who simply dissapear, or bury themselves alive, or turn themselves to brain-dead crystal sculptures. Short of adventuring, casting mishaps and other occupational hazards, suicide by transmutation is the likliest end facing a Magic-User; many choose to leave behind their old life, body, memories and intelligence and live isntead as a mate or companion to their once-Familiar. The local villagers or townsfolk can no doubt point you to two crows, cats, robins, iguana or the like, one much more intelligent than the other, the Familiar having retained some uncanny cleverness.

Magic-User's minds are Dungeon-haunted and each new spell memorized crinkles and folds the Magic-User's brain. The more complex a spell, the more brain damage caused by its memorization; the Magic-User forgets the face of a parent, a childhood song, the name of a friend, has difficult walking, develops palsies, cannot speak without a slur, has a useless eye. Eventually, the Magic-User's cerebral cortex is swiss cheese, precisely plotting a three-dimensional map of the Dungeon whose song first touched the Magic-User's mind and opened it to chaos. 

Treasure hunters will pay enormous sums for information leading to the capture of the brain of a powerful Magic-User. They will pay even more for the brain itself

Dungeons are also virulent, so messing about with a Magic-User's brain can leave you Dungeon-touched yourself, longing for more and more ruined brains, a brain addict's desires becoming so particular and attenuated that only snorting a powdered Mummy or Demi-Lich brain will ease the compulsion. 

For some, exposure to wizard brains has made them Magic-Users in their own right; the worst brain addicts are all Magic-Users. A Magic-User that consumes the brain of another Magic-User immediately knows 1-3 spells that dead Magic-User had memorized.

Most Magic-User choose to live communally, among others of their kind who can monitor them for signs of decline, many dedicate their lives to protecting the works of the Children of the Sun, and to stamping out and uprooting Dungeons wherever they take root while others give themselves over entirely to obsessions and compulsions, chief among them the creation of their magnum opus, their spellbook. Really, a Magic-User will throw herself into anything that can distract her from the pull of Dungeon-Song that seems ever-present, waiting in the back of her mind like a fluttering corner of slowly peeling wallpaper.  

Communities of Magic-Users tend to all be touched by the same Dungeon-song and accordingly have similar interests.

Fear the Magic-User that whispers nonsense into sewer grates, the Magic-User who longs for nothing more than to put their ear to the dirt and bury their head, the Magic-User who disappears at odd hours with digging implements or who spends too much time with the Dungeon-born peoples.


Magic-Users "write" their "spellbooks" as variations of the same Dungeon-Song that first opened their mind to chaos. These are almost never words and formula in books and are sometimes called compositions, collages, zoos, assemblages, sculptures, gardens, poems, songs, menageries, collections or chapters. They may take any number of forms, may be entirely olfactory, may be written in a spectrum of light invisible to the human eye, or rely entirely on the use of some other stranger sense organ. These pieces take a lifetime or longer to complete, with many ancient Magic-Users collapsing at the foot of the spellbook they've spent decades to craft. A lich is often just a Magic-User whose devotion to their art has become so monomonaical that they cannot let it go, Magic-Users for whom their art can never be complete.

Spells are often collected, modified or invented not for their own sake but for the ultimate aesthetic they may help to affect in a Magic-User's spellbook and there are a multitude of examples of Magic-Users or communities of Magic-Users who have dedicated centuries to finding the perfect expression of a single spell of even the first complexity. These vanity spells are often (much, much) more complex and more intricate than they need be and their collection and use is often not profitable for a wandering Magic-User.

The Spell-Garden of the Uttermost Resplendent Magi of the Order of the Infinite Tusk, containing the spells Charm Person, Sleep, Wizard Lock, ESP, Fire Ball, Lightning Bolt, Confusion, Dimension Door, Wall of Fire, Wizard Eye, Cloudkill, Telekinesis, Pass-Wall, Contact Higher Plane, Hold Monster and Move Earth


Throughout the map, in cities, in towns, underneath cities & towns, in wizard's towers, caves and in remote hunting lodges or country estates are like-minded Magic-Users who study the blank spaces between hieroglyphic scripts, the worm-chewed holes in ancient historiographical tapestries, the infinite coils of mandala and the liminal void between each photon with lenses ground on demon hooves (barring that, a Tiefling hoof will do just fine). 

There is a hermit-wizard on X_____ Mountain who studies giant bees, lives in their hive, carries on an amorous relationship with their queen, sells rich, dark honey by the gallon in town. His treaties on giant insects are highly prized by natural scientist, though the pages often stick together.

There are three Magic-Users who run with the elk of the B_____ Forest. You can see them some nights in the distance, standing naked and backlit against the sky or moon, their antlers enormous, strangely gesticulating hands, softly rubbing velvety fingers in invocation of the primal spirit they are certain resides within each of their own chests. 

There is a small school in the town of G_______ where they keep the secrets of all portals and doors, including the first and last door.

Similar associations, institutions, gatherings and organizations populate and penetrate the landscape. Most are small, have no more than ten members, and are organized around a single, esoteric precept or highly idiosyncratic ideal followed to obsessive excess (becoming elk, speaking the language of grasses, growing pinecones from one's arms). The Society of the Limned Eye, the Sisterhood of Brother Thorn, the Schola Magma, the Cult of the Purple Tongue, the Miskatonic College of Tentacularium (complete with underwater carillon) .


Wizarding organizations tend to know, practice, teach and perhaps even make available to a paying outsider a certain number of spells. They'll probably teach you any of their spells if you are willing to pay and show enough enthusiasm for their particular brand of magic (carousing tables!), but of those spells, only a certain number will be practical for adventuring purposes. Any spell taught in this manner will have a random component requirement. 

Smaller organizations usually only know about 1-2 spells from each of the first five complexities that are sufficiently portable and performable to be of worth to the adventuring Magic-User. They might know a ritual of sixth complexity (4 in 6 chance).

Larger Institutions can know as many as 4 portable spells from each of the first five complexities and will know as many as two rituals of the sixth.

rollrequired component
1must be shouted at top volume
2requires dance (spend all casting time dancing)
3requires the recitation of an aporia
4must be sung (spend all casting time singing)
5requires something to be broken during casting
6requires expensive ingredients (10gp x complexity of spell), which are left burnt, twisted, tarnished, foul smelling and the sight of which will ever after cause inexplicable nausea
7requires total darkness or daylight or moonlight
8verbal component must instead be written
9must be cast with eyes shut, makes aiming problematic
10must be cast while causing damage (can be very minor) to one's own body
11requires two of the above (re-roll twice)
12requires participation from one other (roll once to determine requirement)

pictures:  Thomas Ott, unknown, Kris Kuksi

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.