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Gamers' Grimoire

Sympathetic Mechanics

by Anituel
Mar 17,2005


Sympathetic Mechanics

I've mentioned sympathetic magic in both of my previous articles, so maybe its time to give it some more direct attention. To rehash, sympathetic magic is any magic which relies upon a similarity or connection between two things. Hair, blood or nail clippings are the cliches, though we also find more abstract connections. High John the Conqueror root, for example, resembles a human hand which could be taken literally (as a representative of somebody's hand), or symbolically as a representation of an individual's freedom and power of action (the hand being a common symbol of a human's ability to act in a given situation).

So, Mr. Wizard, how can I use it in my games?
Well, beyond any purely dramatic uses, which have already been covered pretty well through the lenses of two different 'systems' of magic, you can create a system of rules and mechanics for your campaign detailing exactly how sympathetic magic works in your world. This is a surprisingly difficult thing to do, as sympathetic magic requires a lot more attention to detail than more standard 'zap-pow-bang' magic found in most fantasy settings. Let's start out simple, then.

Spell Components
A lot of fantasy and horror games have magic systems which require material components to cast them. A few typical examples include a specially enchanted staff, a crystal ball or a lump of sulfur for a lightening bolt, scrying or fireball spell (respectively). The basic idea is pretty obvious from these examples. The lightening bolt spell is shot out of an angular staff or a staff with a metal lightening rod through the center; the crystal ball serves as a focal point for the magician's clairvoyant ability; the sulfur provides a symbol of 'infernal power' to give rise to an otherworldly ball of fire.

This is sympathetic magic in a particularly flashy form; an interesting way to insert it into your game, or to make it more interesting if you already use such a system, is to insist on personalizing it. Each wizard, then, has his own unique style which, while still being wizardry, requires him to use different symbols for each spell than other wizards. One wizard might use a lightening rod staff for his lightening bolt spell, for example, while another might toss a handful of iron filings in the general direction of the target.

Ritual Sympathetic Magic
Of course, if your fantasy game is 'low fantasy', or you're playing a more subtle horror game in which you require a magic system with a bit less instant gratification, simply requiring spell components might not be enough. This is where adding elements of ceremony to spellcasting can be useful.

A beautiful, simple example of this idea can be found in Palladium Books games, and is especially emphasized in their horror game Beyond the Supernatural (which will soon see a new edition!). In these games, the basic spell system is left intact, but a few additional rules are added in. For example, there are 15 'spell levels' in the Palladium system; a magician may learn spells of any level, but the higher the level the more 'magical energy' (P.P.E., or potential psychic energy, serve as 'magic points' in Palladium's Multiversal system) they require to cast; when used as rituals, however, spells take longer to cast, the higher they are in level. This reflects the amount of concentration it requires to cast the spell and, more appropriate to our present topic, how complex the components necessary for the ritual are likely to be. Of course, the specifics are always up to you, as the GM, and not to any rulebook.

This can be a good way of doing things, though. It still leaves the possibility of fireballs and lightening bolts open, if the GM so chooses, but makes them much more difficult and require much more strategy in their implementation. Additionally, to add to the sympathetic 'flavor', perhaps any spell which targets another person requires a photo of them, a scrap of their clothing, a drop of their blood, and so on, making it much easier to just attack them in person rather than sending an explosive ball at them from a distance. Magic, then, takes on a more passive role in the game world, acting more as a source of information (divination spells), enhanced healing and minor aid (blessing spells and so on).

True Sympathy
Of course, if you truly want a 'realistic' sympathetic magic system based on the folklore of the real world, you'll have to put in a lot more work, not only in designing your mechanics, but especially in your descriptions and campaign planning. It may sound like a lot of effort, but the dramatic pay-off for a low-magic world can be big.

The first step is to figure out exactly how strict you're going to be with ritual components. Do the player characters actually require a clipping of the target's hair, or will a strong mental image of them do? Does a certain spell absolutely require that mandragora root to represent the target, or will a carved wooden figure serve the same purpose? Ultimately, it's up to you, but remember that the more strict you are with this, the less useful magic will become in the game world. If all you want is for the PCs to be able to gain a slight edge from magic, this is fine, but if magic is to have a bigger impact on gameplay, you'll want to loosen the strings just a bit.

Now that we have a basic idea of how the PCs can do magic, how does the magic happen? In most games, of course, the spell 'goes off' as soon as the PC completes it or, in the case of wards and magical traps, as soon as an intruder does something to trigger them. While, in my experience, real-world magic does things like this sometimes, the vast majority of the time it actually can take a little while to manifest and, when it does, it does so in such a way as to look natural or coincidental. A clever take on this was White Wolf's Mage: The Ascension game, in which the players had to think-up 'coincidental' ways of making their magic manifest or risk incurring the backlash of 'over-stretching' the universe like a really huge rubber band. This works great in Mage because the game isn't meant to be terribly realistic, so it allows for very flashy magic, but discourages it except in the most extreme of emergencies. In reality, we rarely get to choose how our magic manifests and exactly when (though we can set guidelines).

Probably the most difficult aspect of this whole thing is that the GM will have to find ways of making magic appear coincidental in the context of the world. In most realistic game worlds, for example, it would truly stretch the bounds of believability if the 'bulletproof' ritual the PC performed earlier caused birds, stones and all manner of other quickly moving critters and objects to get in the way of incoming bullets. What the ritual could do, however, is give the PC bonuses to avoid a situation in which bullets would be flying his way to begin with. The bonus might not manifest at all until it becomes necessary.

Example: As mentioned above, Jimmy the Voodoo Priest performs a ritual to make himself 'bulletproof', leaving out any particulars as to how this should come about. Later on, Jimmy and his friends encounter a member of a local Voodoo underworld secret society; they all know quite well that if they piss-off this bloke, they're in for a fire-fight. The GM decides that this is the appropriate time to bring Jimmy's spell into play, and allows Jimmy a bonus to his Charisma, social interaction skill or other appropriate character ability or dice roll, thus avoiding bullets!

It requires a bit of memory, and a bit of creative 'fudging' on the part of the GM, but the effects can be surprising for the PCs and, sometimes, the NPCs too.

This all just sounds WAY too safe for your horror or grim fantasy game, doesn't it? Oh, little Jimmy the Voodoo Wuss got a happy little Charisma bonus and avoided all those mean ol' bullets! Good for him! Well, there's yet another dramatic tool the GM can bring to bear if you don't like the the idea of the players building-up little bonuses and edges for their characters. I like to call this the Djinn Principle.

Remember in your elementary school science class how you learned that water always takes the path of least resistance? Well, magic can work this way, too. And 'least resistance' doesn't always mean 'best for the spellcaster' either! How about another example:

Example: The PC groups is REALLY strapped for money; their next paranormal investigation is all the way out in Hel, Polland, and they don't exactly have the spare cash lying around to fly to Hel, get a hotel room, pay for food, bribe the airlines to let them bring their bizarre gizmos on the plane, plus have enough emergency funds for a hospital trip or two and some replacement parts for their Hyper-Spectral-Power-Ghost-Meter-Tron-O-Matic 6000. So, they do a ritual for the $500 they think they'll need to get between now and then. Poor Jimmy gets into a car accident two weeks later; fortunately, he's not hurt, but his old beat-up station wagon is trash. Insurance awards him the Blue Book price on his '75 Wagon Supreme: $500.

See? Not all rainbows and smiles all the time, is it? Why did it happen that way? Well, it's not like anybody owed them a buttload of money, and they all had to quit their regular jobs to do full-time paranormal investigation, so they really don't have any channels through which money could come to them without severely bending reality. Thus, taking the 'path of least resistance', the magic caused a car accident which got them $500 in cash, in exchange for Jimmy's Voodoomobile.

Hopefully, I've given you some good ideas on how to incorporate sympathetic magic into your roleplaying games. Until next time!

May you live in interesting times, Anituel Non-Fiction
The Golden Bough by James Frazier
Earth Power by Scott Cunningham
Chaos & Sorcery by Nick Hall
Voodoo & Hoodoo by Jim Haskins

Storm Front by Jim Butcher
Moonchild by Aleister Crowley

Mood Music
Grand Magus by Grand Magus

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