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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Hexcraft - Running Coincidental Magic that's Truly Coincidental

by Dan Pond
December 7, 2001  

The Problem

In modern settings, being able to conceal magic beneath a veil of coincidence, the appearance of chance, is a survival skill. However, most games mistake subtlety for coincidence, letting magi get away with anything so long as nobody sees sparkly lights and ghostly apparitions. That's a shame because true coincidence can add a lot of flavor and entertainment value to magic. It can also make spellcasting less predictable and, therefore, more dangerous. Most of the time, that's just the way I like it.

From dictionary.com:

co'in'ci'dence (k-ns-dns, -dns) n.

  1. The state or fact of occupying the same relative position or area in space.
  2. A sequence of events that although accidental seems to have been planned or arranged.

The first definition isn't really germane to the topic at hand, but I included it for the sake of completeness. On the other hand, the second definition makes some interesting points. First, a coincidence is a series of events, not a single spell effect. Second, these effects should look planned or arranged at first glance, but must be explainable as accidents after the fact. The key is not so much in making spell effects subtle or hidden, but in building them out of numerous and seemingly unconnected events. When causality can be traced back to those events, there's no reason to suspect magic.

The Solution: Hexcraft

Hexcraft is a spellcasting technique that creates true coincidences by sending magic back in time and pulling together disconnected events to approximate the spell's effect. These small alterations come together as time approaches the point when the spell is cast. That's when the disjointed threads come together as if by design to give the magus what they want, based on the spell's normal effect. Nothing "magical" ever really happens; the caster just seems remarkably lucky.

All this power over time and fate brings with it increased risk and one important limitation. The risk comes from the control that a hexmage must give up; their magic may weave together events that affect people or things the caster didn't want, in ways they never intended. A fireball spell could cause a gasoline tanker to flip over a block away, killing innocent bystanders as well as the magus' enemies. A divination spell might cause a hexmage's anonymous nemesis to appear on the nightly news... because he just won the lottery. History is a complex tapestry and one can't expect to yank on the threads without distorting the picture.

Reality is a deterministic mask worn by a probabilistic universe; the need to keep that mask in place imposes a harsh limitation on hexcraft. Simply put, hexcraft cannot be used to alter anything the caster knows to be true. For example, a magus with a gunshot wound cannot cause it to heal, even though they can send their magic back in time to well before the shooting happened. That would violate causality. [Insert standard ranting about paradox and the space-time continuum here.] Instead, they'll have to settle for the help of a paramedic who happens by on her way home from work, or a syringe of morphine dropped by a passed out whino on the corner. Keeping things non-magical is the whole point, after all, and there are few things less magical than bending causality to one's will.

Gimmicks & Game Mechanics

As mentioned above, hexcraft isn't a magical discipline in and of itself; it's a technique for casting spells from other disciplines. It can be combined with any other kind of spellcasting, whether it be the harnessing of astral energies, the trading of favors with spirits, the manipulation of complex symbols, or whatever. It's irrelevant. The easiest way to work this in a game is to make hexcraft its own skill, independent of any existing magic systems. (In a Mage game, you could also work it in as a 1-2 point Time sphere effect, if I'm getting the terminology right.) What hexcraft looks like in-character is up to you, but it could be anything from a few extra lines of incantation, to a quick prayer to the loa of the crossroads, or just an exertion of will.

Mechanically, casting a spell via hexcraft is a two-step process. First, the player needs to make whatever check they normally make to cast a spell. This check should be based on the effect the magus intends to create and has nothing at all to do with hexcraft. If that check is successful, then the player can make their hexcraft skill check to channel their magic backwards through time. (If spellcasting automatically succeeds in your game, so be it.)

If the hexcraft check succeeds, events conspire to approximate the effects of the original spell. Everything's fine and dandy, like sour candy. If the hexcraft check fails, however, things get more interesting. You have two options, depending on how dangerous you want magic and/or hexcraft to be in your game. The safe option is to make the original spell go off as if hexcraft hadn't been used at all. In many settings, that will be bad enough. The more vile option (which fills my black GM's heart with glee, by the way) is that a failed hexcraft check results in the adverse effects mentioned above: unwanted side effects and/or unintended collateral targets. If you're using the safe option, this would still work fine as a critical failure, botch, or whatever.

To enhance the sense of coincidence, GMs can lay the ground work for common / likely spells before they get cast. For example, any time the PCs are close to getting in a fire fight, it's a pretty safe bet that players will soon be casting spells to protect themselves from bullets, if they can. A wily GM could have the NPCs cleaning their guns when the PCs enter the room. If the expected spell gets cast, the NPCs are left with half their guns field stripped and the other half so in need of maintenance that their firing mechanisms jam, their sights are misaligned, etc. If done correctly, tricks like this can really drive home the benefits of using hexcraft: to outside observers, it looks like the thugs' inability to shoot the magus has a perfectly reasonable explanation. Don't ya love circular logic?

Clarity by Way of Examples

I know this is kind of a weird idea, so I'll toss out a few hypothetical examples to illustrate how hexcraft works in-character and in-game:

1. One-Eyed Jack wants to bind Harry "Touch of Death" Callahan with a spell that creates a cage of magical energy. With a successful hexcraft check, the spell causes one of Harry's neighbors to see him performing a ritual sacrifice in his garage. The neighbor calls the police, who show up the next day and, though the ritual has been cleaned up, manage spot a ziplock bag of weed on Harry's bookshelf. The cops arrest Harry for possession and lock him in a mundane, but no less effective, cage. Of course, the neighbor's phone call took place two days before Jack cast his spell, so Harry is safely confined shortly after Jack finishes his last incantation.

2. The Queen of Pentacles is on the run from a bookie's legbreaker named Lance McHardpecks. She knows a spell for throwing bolts of force, but that's a bit too flashy for the bustling city street outside the bookie's bar. With a successful hexcraft check, she alters the spell to cause a bike courier to run into Lance, knocking him into the street... and into the path of a city bus. If she had failed her hexcraft check, the bike courier, the bus passengers, and anyone else on the street might also get injured in the resulting crash.

3. Villainous the Vile has a group of troublesome player-characters on his back. He's about to come face-to-face with them for the first time and wants to enchant them with a glamour. Since he wants to keep his magic powers a secret, he casts the spell via hexcraft. When they meet, it turns out he's exactly a female PC's type, bares a striking resemblance to the recently deceased brother of another PC, and has a collection of rare books that sparks the interest of the last PC. It's the beginning of some beautifully treacherous friendships. (If the GM can use background material that has already been established, like the death of the brother or the bookworm's field of expertise, all the better.)

A Note on Bringing Knives to Gunfights

Making the use of hexcraft to deflect bullets a common practice can provide a convenient excuse for heroes who want to use martial arts and/or melee weapons in a modern setting. Let's face it: guns pretty much outclass the competition any day of the week. And yet, action heroes in Hong Kong style movies are often seen eschewing them in favor of blades and fists. Hexcraft can turn aside bullets pretty easily, since there's a lot that can go wrong between the pull of a trigger and the impact of a bullet. The causality of sword blows and flying kicks are more concrete and, therefore, harder to alter via hexcraft. In this scenario, bringing knives to a gunfight is actually the smart tactical decision!

Next Time: Running elemental magic with an edge!

All Worldz: A Game of Interdimensional Civilization by ImEG Games

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond