Thursday, April 14, 2016

Principles of Magic II: Procedural Synchronicity (outlines)

Terribly busy right now, but there should always be time to write a post ... All right, there's no denying that Magic in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is going to be a tough nut to crack and the way this is shaping up, it'll be quite the challenge for any DM trying his hand on it, starting with me right now. But that's okay, as I'm up for a challenge like that and I don't know how many people are actually going to play the game as written (or at all, for that matter) when it's done. So I'm setting the bar has high as I dare for now and see where this ends up if not in tears ... this is also a very esoteric post.

If you've read Part 1 of the Principles and my last post regarding Divine Magic, you are in the loop (but I will keep it low with the off hand references ...).

What I'd not like to see at the table

Let's start this one slow. The question I keep asking myself, is, what kind of magic I'd like to see in Lost Songs. Vancian Magic (as in D&D) has it's place and reason, but I even stopped using it in my D&D games, so that's not the way to go. Mana Pool based magic, like Arduin had introduced it, is still one of my all time favorites, but if I'm to use something like that in LSotN, I'd put it somewhere out of the direct influence of the player. Why? Because I think a pseudo historical game can do without this kind of number crunching on such a superficial level ...

Okay, I need to say some more words about this one. Resource management is all fine and dandy, but there is a point where it directly impacts the game at the table and that is when people start talking numbers not as a way to describe a status, but as a means to an end. As part of an calculation, if you will. Something like: "I have 3 hp left and I think I'll be able to handle another hit, those goblins only doing 1d6-2 points of damage ...".

I know it's very much part of the culture and I wouldn't wanna miss it in my D&D games, as I think it's also part of the charm of that specific game (as most of the other words, terms and phrases we love to use in D&D). But I have another idea of how Lost Songs should be communicated at the table, so to say. Just like I described it for holy men/women in that post about divine magic: the players, while describing what they do in the game, should enrich the narrative and support the themes of the setting (here mostly the Dark Ages angle), the system should reflect this.

Talking numbers like described above, doesn't do that.

What I'd like to see

Leading with what doesn't work, I'd like to close with an example of what I actually want in the game. I'd like magic users to be able to see the magic surrounding them manifesting in little things, giving them the chance to influence it to some extent (level of power, obviously). Using those manifestations to their advantages and beyond what other mortals are able to see, will cost energy and may drive a sorcerer crazy. And that's the price for that kind of power.

So what I want in my game are mysterious and powerful wielders of magic with a very weird connection to the world surrounding them, getting worse the deeper they go into the rabbit hole. I want them half crazy, with strange tattoos and fetishes and rites, seeing more than others but are always in danger of getting lost.

I also want the dark witches and wizards from the fairy tales, sitting in their dark towers, the land surrounding them drained of all life. Or the white warlocks and witches, living in harmony with the world or working on that harmony. I want demon pacts and craziness from outer space, but seen through the eyes of someone living 1500 years from today. And old magic from the time of the Roman Empire or before. It's all there in the mix.

The greates wizard of them all: Odin [source]
But magic in Lost Songs is subtle. A curse, a chicken bone with strange scribbles on it or a fire that moves unnaturally, stuff like that. And it's very commonplace, in a way, as those "barbarians" really had a thing for individual trinkets and symbols like that, differing from tribe to tribe. Or that one guy living as a scholar in a Roman city but really dabbles in summoning demons ...

People wouldn't really have an understanding of what was happening and maybe wouldn't even recognize anything out of the ordinary. Not because of stupidity but because it would be commonplace as any other strange thing that might occur. In a way a group of spiky blue demons might be exactly that or just some foreign tribes men. There is no difference. Same goes for magic.

That's why I love the Dark Ages, stuff like that is very much possible and to some degree people are free to formulate/generate their own tribe with their own rituals and customs and magic (or understanding of it). There is a lot of freedom in that.

Procedural Synchronicity (or how it works)

So on the system side on things, it's actually quite easy. Characters have a Wits attribute somewhere between 14 and 18 in the beginning (compare to D&D). If a character decides to go the arcane path, he also gets Aether Points, which very much work like Endurance as they fill the gap between a task result and the difficulty for the task (in this case casting magic). Those points may be gathered in harmony with the surroundings (gathered by meditation) or forced from them (by "sucking" it out of something living, which might leave scars and death as a result).

Every one of the 5 elements (fire/earth/air/aether/water) has an expression with numbers between 1 (bad/easy) to 20 (powerful/difficult). Attempting to cast something will involve one or all of those elements and every element used will add it's number to the difficulty (base difficulty is 20). And that's basically it: players rolls 1d20 + Wits vs. a difficulty. If the result is below the difficulty, Aether Points are reduced. If there are not enough Aether Points, Wits is reduced. And if you loose too much Wits, you'll damage that ability permanently, which reflects the ever growing madness in you ...

Anyway, I got a system. It's not that different to the rest of the game, so I know it works. Actual magic is getting somewhat problematic, though, as I still don't know what should or could be cast. Sort of (see above). This is where synchronicity comes into play. According to Wikipedia Carl Jung coined the word "synchronicity" to describe "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." In other words, when events that coincide and seem meaningful but are without any causal connection.
This is gameable! [source]

Or at least seem* unconnected and that's where it all comes together: the "magical connection" normal people don't see and those dabbling in the arcane arts are somehow tuned into, is the very same thing that causes synchronicity. Learning to understand (or abuse) it makes a powerful sorcerer. What we have here is a narrative device for the DM to puzzle the players and give his world some depth.

To compare it with D&D (since most of you reading this should be familiar with it): instead of giving the player a list of spells, it's the DM that gets parts of those spells and describes them to the players as they manifest in their surroundings. And that's what the players are going to use (if they are clever).

Back to the 5 elements ...

So let's talk numbers. The numbers are mainly on the DM's side. First we need a general overview of what's going on. Some of you might remember this (updated version, though):

Those are all the elements, how they interact, what dice are used to measure their strength, what they could mean and how all the rest is connected to it (center/10/exchange). 10 (the center) can describe a character's level (0-10), a group's level or an area code.

But we need a little bit more than that to make it, so I made a sheet for the DM to keep track of those numbers:

A DM rolls all the dice once in the beginning of a campaign and keeps track of all the changes and events that occur. Additional information here is the area code, the number of meddlers in that area (cause), the season (they knew only two back then) and an idea what high or low numbers could mean.

With the beginning set of numbers you have a general idea what's going on. If those numbers interact somehow, you know even more. Doubles, triples, quadruples, any kind of numbers play is game here and they get stronger, even interact with each other, when they are connected. Maximum numbers are also powerful and if they get in harmony with the area code they are in order ...

But the only important thing to remember for now is that 1s are bad, any combination of 1s is even worse and if you got five 1s in a row, you got a cataclysm at your hands. It's where monkeys start throwing shit. Big time. To make that happen, we need those numbers to change.

And back to synchronicity again

Every time a character rolls dice to cast some magic and the result doesn't meet the difficulty, he uses his reserves. If they are not enough to gather the energy needed for a spell, the environment is triggered and a re-roll is in order for those elements used for the spell. If one of them is a 1, the new number goes into the next tier and so on until either the 1s are resolved (that's something holy men and women could do) or all 4 tiers are filled with 1s (which results in a very specific cataclysm regarding that element only).

To simulate any number of casters in the area, you basically determine a number by rolling 1d3-1 for wilderness and 1d4-1 for populated areas, 1d6-1 for cities (and so on). Then the DM checks every day with a d8 versus the number. If the result is the "cause" number or less, it's the number of spells cast on that day. If it's above, nothing is cast that day (unless the character does it).

To simulate if anything changes, the DM rolls the 5 dice again and sees if anything triggers with the original numbers. If somehow the same numbers come up, it means that the triggering element changes (basically a conflict between oracle dice). In the long run, characters will feel when other casters in the area are at work, but will also be recognized if they are careless!
Little example: Say our oracle dice are for now (1(Tier: 4)/5/2/11/4). The 1 in fire is already bad and gives destructive forces an edge. The first fire tier being 4 makes it correspond with water, which might get problematic as soon as water as an element is used. I had such a case in our last game. A npc was in a coma and one player wanted him to snap out of it (with a ritual in this case, but that's just an aside). He needed to use 2 elements to make it work (we'd decided on water and air). The ritual worked and the npc came back to consciousness, but fire had it's way and he woke up with a white strand of hair between all the black hair on his head. And that's an event right there.
Still, that's not it. With the numbers and an idea how they might work, we get also an idea how they could manifest. Air and water could be clouds in the sky forming patterns. Everything destroyed could be related to fire, lots of nature could be earth and water and so on. Is an element weak or in harmony? What could a 1 mean? A drought for water, maybe already into several tiers of 1s? How would it manifest in other cases? The beauty of it is that you are free as a DM to decide what flies and what not. To some extent and always according to where the characters are right now.

Stable elements would mean re-occurring themes. Say Aether, Air, Earth and Water are somehow connected and Aether is maxed out (12). This could mean that some very intelligent birds (knowledge, nature, air) do some shenanigans on a regular basis for the characters to observe. If something changes, the pattern changes. Say that 12 ens up changing to a one, following the narrative that could end with the bird falling prey to some cat ...

So it's mainly another narrative tool at the DMs disposal. Dreams are another good way to tell characters about changes or other casters in the area. By deciding with the flow of the narrative, making fixed points as you come across them, you use some very easy tool and end up with a very complex pattern for the players to chew on.

What's left?

A lot, actually. But I was aiming for showing the machinations at work in Lost Songs first and foremost. And it's already long again. As I wrote in the beginning, it's a bit demanding towards the DM. For the player, not so much. Actually he describes what he's doing and rolls a d20. The rest is consequences. As it should be, in my opinion.

The rest is still pretty vague. How will players gather spells? I'm still advocating individual spell lists here and players should be encouraged to ritualize and re-cast spells with lower difficulties (for instance). But it needs testing. What I could see so far, is, that playing with the numbers can be fun and even if I just go with instinct and random decisions, I still end up with something usable.

Needless to say that all of this supports true sandbox play.

I will play a bit with this. Don't expect any definite results soon, but online play-testing will happen as soon as I'm sure I can make all of that happen for random strangers on the internet ;-) Maybe around June ...

Enough for now. If you have any questions or suggestions or comments other than how long that post turned out to be and without going beyond "vague", no less, you are more than welcome to share your thoughts. Thanks for reading. I hope Lost Songs still keeps a few of you interested! I promise this is getting somewhere.

And for all those making it down here, a nice and weird pic from the public domain:

Maids on unicorns! Goblins riding turtles! Has a goatman, too! What's not to like?!
*If you've checked the Wikipedia article linked above, you know by now some of the criticism aims directly at the fact that calling something synchronicity because the connection isn't seen, doesn't mean that there can't be any. I've read about attempts to connect the whole idea  with quantum physics and Daoism, so it's not that big a leap to call it "magic", actually. Same difference.


  1. I have to admit that you kinda lost me with the handling of the elements, but I liked this part and how it can cut into your wits if you don't have enough Aether: "And that's basically it: players rolls 1d20 + Wits vs. a difficulty. If the result is below the difficulty, Aether Points are reduced. If there are not enough Aether Points, Wits is reduced. And if you loose too much Wits, you'll damage that ability permanently, which reflects the ever growing madness in you ..."

    1. But that's where the magic happens, JD! No, you are right. I should have closed with another example at that point. So, say, we take the little example above to get some water boiling. This would be quite easy (a difficulty of 24, if the target is reasonable) and the element in question would be fire. But it'd come with a price because of the 1 (maybe it'd leave marks on the pot or there'd be lots of fog). But best would be to use this with water (because: double), so maybe the character gets an opportunity to cast a whip of cooking water (water is flexibility, the fire gets it burning). The difficulty would be 28 (again, for an easy target, but because it's a double, the range could be higher) and the 1 could actually be beneficial (since you are out for doing harm).

      As far as manifestations are concerned, I'd think about that strong fire/water bond some more. Maybe it's foggy most of the time? Aether and earth are also pretty strong and air is weak/easy to use. Maybe I'd describe lots of things that would move in a wind, but don't right now (wind isn't here, but waiting) ... I'd have to think about it some more. Lots will be dictated by circumstances and some by player decisions

      For now I'd discuss it on a case by case basis and it'll need more testing. But that's why the heavy lifting is with the DM for now. I'm pretty sure something will come up and turn out to be useful. Something always does :)