Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Divine Magic in LSotN (a design post, no less ...)

Sometimes it goes like this: you are writing a game and you stop seeing the forest because of all the trees around you. One wrong assumption or an idea you like way to much for your own good and you are lost. But play-testing goes on and at some points you need results so ... you should be honest about things and drain the brain pool at the table. Did that, worked wonders. So here's a post about agile game creation  :)

Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Or holy women or clerics ... Problem was, diversity in faiths aside you'll have traditionally to decide between two possible ways to handle stuff in your games: (1) you get all codified on players and give them specific spells and dogmas and stuff they can form as they need it for their individual faith or (2) you get all free-form on them and allow to create it all alongside to character development.

(Early) D&D would be a good example for (1). All clerics know "Heal" (for instance) and get it at the same level, the rules about alignment and weaponry apply to all clerics the same way and only the fluffy parts are up for debate (basically religious customs and a god's portfolio). Later editions muddied the waters a bit by adding options, but the principle stayed the same: the function is at the core and stays static, freedom is only where the role doesn't interfere with said function (options are the wiggle room here).

(2) is a little harder to find, but if you take a look at Vampire: The Dark Ages, Castle Falkenstein or Basic RolePlaying, you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about here (Talislanta 4th Edition, FATE and GURPS 4th also seem to fulfill those criteria, but I don't know them that much). Basically you communicate with your god(s) through rituals and bargain (of sorts) for the results.

The main difference between the two is function versus narrative, I think. While a cleric in D&D-like games always fills a specific niche and may interpret this to some extend, he won't be bound that way in free-form games, but needs to find out what works and what not without any structure to speak of (so to say). Both have benefits and drawbacks and it highly depends on what game you want to play when deciding what fits best.

Quo Vadis, LSotN?

In this case, what do I want in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs? It's difficult. I have at least to some degree an aspiration towards historical accuracy for that game. But for on: the game playing in what is generally known (and for good reason) as the Dark Ages leaves lots and lots of freedom. No records, lots of bias in any written documentation one could find and very sporadic findings make it impossible to get a full picture of what was going on back then.

We know some of the results (Christianity winning in the long run and many, many little tribes vanishing in the process) and the rest is free for the taking. You want a tribe ruled by women? Did exist somewhere in Switzerland, could have existed in many other places. You want obscure cults worshiping tentacled monstrosities? Not that I know about any that could have existed back then, but go for it. They could be lost without a trace by today!

Basically there are two big playing fields. The first (and maybe easiest) is the rise of Christianity. There had been different groups and all that and it really doesn't have to be as it is understood and practiced nowadays (in fact, it shouldn't!), but the basics are given easy enough and the role such a character fulfills is pretty clear, too (as in, very much at odds with everyone else but the remaining Romans at the moment).

Paganism is the second area and while we are aware of the basic pantheon (Odin, Thor, Hel, Loki and all the rest), we also know that there had been huge variations as far as names and stories are concerned. And it had a huge variety of local petty gods in all shapes and colors and fairies and monsters ... basically a carte blanche for everyone playing a holy man for one of the tribes. 

Pagans running strong in Germany: traditional Krampus Run in Salzburg [source]
There is one constant, though. A constant so strong, that we still have it (to some extent) in our daily lives: the rituals and festivals those old Germanic tribes celebrated are relevant to this day, although under Christian disguise. Take Easter, for instance. It has been celebrated for thousands of years as the first time in a year that the day is longer than the night. Eggs and bunnies had been symbols of fertility and nature coming back to live and so on ...

So while we have some basic understanding what Christians believed in around 1500 years ago, how those believes had been expressed might have been entirely different to what we practice today. And while we have no idea what the Germanic tribes worshiped exactly from tribe to tribe, we have a fair understanding of how they lived through the year and the rites and festivals they had.

It's fascinating, isn't it? The synthesis out of those different believe systems would form our cultural and religious understanding today (more or less). I believe it shows the way how a game system should approach the whole thing and help easing a player into a very different time and age. So far the theory.
You know it ... [source and from Dogma, of course]
Divine Magic in LSotN ...

I want all of that, obviously. But it got really complicated and I didn't see any way out of it until we set down and talked about it. That's why you play-test, folks. I ended up cooking the complicated part down to some DM duty (more on that in a following post about magic) and a very free-form variant for holy men in Lost Songs.

Basically it's about starting a dialogue with the gods. For that a player needs to know what he can do, how he can do it and why he should do it to begin with. Let's start with the "why". Holy men and women had always been the mouthpieces of the gods. They interpreted the will of the gods and asked for support when necessary. To simulate this in the game and allow for some creative leeway for all the various Christian and Pagan religions, I ended up formulating three major rules:

  • Those following the Way of the Wyrd can't use prayers and rituals for themselves.
  • The gods decide how their help manifests (the player has a say when he has a full success, see below).
  • Characters need to have full Endurance before starting a prayer or ritual.

A side effect of that last rule is that characters in general are able to recover their complete Endurance once per level per day if they take a rest of at least half an hour. this will have three important effects in the game: (1) characters will think about what they want from an altruistic perspective and formulate their prayers that way, (2) the gods deciding how their help manifests allows for some very flexible customization and (3) introduces the idea into the game that a character attempting a ritual or prayer needs to be rested, giving the whole concept some gravitas.

This is one example how a system can inform the narrative on a very basic level. By talking about what's necessary, players will describe some plausible character behavior, even for the more creative variants possible in the game.

Now for the "what". There are 4 different types of rituals:

  1. Prayer/Chant (request to one god, praising the gods for their support)
  2. Ritual Dance (ritual play to praise the gods on specific occasions)
  3. Ritual Sacrifice (usually asking for a bigger favor, sacrifice depends on magnitude)
  4. Ritual Bout (most excessive variant for some really big favor, but very expensive)

It's the mostly same for every religion, so it'll fit nicely with everything the players could throw a DM's way. You want a war song to give your buddies a bonus during battles? That's Prayer/Chant right there. A Ritual Dance through the night to heal a badly wounded friend is possible or go one higher with a sacrifice (if you have the resources). And the bout is when you want to go all-in, like the night before the group tackles that dragon ...

Picture of a Teutonic Ritual Sacrifice [source]
In general a player should be able to use this in any way he deems fit and if done right and successfully, the gods will listen and interfere. And that leads to the "how".

Basically the player decides what his character wishes to happen and how he will communicate it to the gods. The DM tells him a difficulty to roll over. Next the player rolls 1d20 and adds the ability Wyrd to the result. It's an open roll, so Endurance (the games currency for that kind of thing) can be used to bridge a gap between the result of the roll and the difficulty.

A natural 1 on the d20 will insult the gods and they won't listen when you are lacking the Endurance to reach the difficulty. If you made it, but used Endurance to achieve it, the gods will help but the DM decides how and if you made the roll without needing any Endurance or a natural 20, the player decides how his request is answered (DM still having the final say, of course).

And that's it. The more difficult/expensive the ritual, the lower the difficulty, so sometimes a prayer just won't do or sacrificing the virgin would be overkill. The oracle dice (linked above) help formulating that difficulty and might change towards chaos or harmony because of what is done, but that's totally at the DMs discretion (and will be discussed in the next post about magic).

On higher levels the Way of the Wyrd will allow for wonders to happen. At that stage the gods really start taking an interest into a character and act on his behalf almost without him requesting it. This is also where those characters start doing incredible things and enough material for yet another post.

It's a kind of magic

If a character wants to do anything else, like shape-shifting into a werewolf or setting his enemies on fire, he needs to learn magic instead. But Lost Songs is quite flexible like that and if a player wants to, he'll be able to do both and some more. Magic is a very different animal, where the caster draws energy from his surroundings, either by forcing it or by collecting it as it comes to him and both ways could lead to madness ...

But that's something discussed in the next post where I resume talking about the principles of magic as I already did in February and linked above with the word "complicated" :) There has been some progress, too, lately and the system starts coming together quite nicely (for what I try to do, anyway). It's some bookkeeping for the DM, but players will be very free with what they do.

I'll close this with a teaser of a work sheet for the DM:
This is where the magic happens ...
Thanks for reading all that! Comments, thoughts and ideas are , as always, very welcome. This is still  grounded deep in D&D :)


  1. 1st impressions -I like it - the 3 rules, the use of Endurance, the fact that the Gods are confined to a spell list, the 4 rituals, the DM work sheet for magic. Abstract yet procedural (which seems to be the OSR meme in '16), good stuff !

    1. Thanks, Sean! The game grows every time I look away for a second and it's getting harder to keep track of all the moving pieces. But it is getting somewhere :)

  2. The role of cleric in d&d has largely been healer and rebuker of undead and devils. Are you going to keep that here or is the role of healer going to fall to the local witch or something?

    1. Yeah, that had been the reason for some lengthy discussions at the table. I hope you don't mind me going a bit into detail (can't help it). The cleric has a specific position in groups playing with class-based systems like D&D. In leaving this behind there is a danger of making arcane and divine magic too similar. So similar, in fact, that the difference gets lost and it doesn't matter what you play. At least those where the opinions at the table. What you describe makes a good part of that difference. From what I could learn about these things regarding the perception of magic in the Dark Ages, I'd say it's a rather stressed division to begin with. To a huge degree those things had been seen as one and the same, if with different procedures. But I think it's necessary for the game to carry that distinction to allow easy access to the whole concept, so those roles will be in there. Turning undead and demons is done with a prayer and only influenced by the oracle dice (as far as the difficulty is concerned), so there are actually several ways to influence the outcome of such prayers (like with manipulating the oracle dice in your favor or opposed rolls). By not codifying it like D&D does, it gets a little bit more intense and involved as a process (I hope). Healing works very much with the same ideas. You don't get to heal stuff on the fly, but you will be able to heal serious wounds and support or even accelerate the healing process in several ways as a holy man/woman. The 3 rules formulated above were what we came up with to make that distinction between arcane and divine magic work.

      Wonders (on higher levels) should be able to do so much more later in the game. I think D&D is still in there somehow, but buried way deeper in the system and with some flexibility, as you can realize a full class by advancing one aspect as complete as possible or diversify as you think fits the character. So you could end up with the classic set up at the table or something way more different (the two groups I have for play-testing right now chose those two different approaches). I'm still thinking about giving magic users the ability to heal wounds faster, but at a price ... We'll see about that :)

  3. Man I have to take a few minutes to really digest this post.

    1. Soooo .. what do you think? Too much?

  4. After reading it more thoroughly I am now totally psyched to play a wandering hermit priest of some long forgotten earth goddess, carrying a caged bird set for sacrafice. It reads like it would be a blast to play.

    1. Thanks for taking the time, Mark! And what you describe is definitely something I'd encourage. I hope we'll get the opportunity some time this year. As soon as magic is in a presentable form (already started writing the post ...) and somewhat tested, I'm going to offer a little play test online adventure and would be very happy to have you, of course :)