Monday, October 24, 2011

Open-Handed Design and the Stormbringer Hack

All sorcery in old school Stormbringer, is "third-party sorcery." Unlike in most fantasy games where magic flows directly from the caster tapping whatever it is that makes it flash, boom, rah, in that old BRP warhorse all magic--even that of items--comes from the summoning and/or binding of otherwordly agents (elementals, demons, beast lords, gods, etc.) rather than from the sorcerer directly.

By any measure it's a fun and satisfying system. I enjoy its unique and highly flavorful feel and it manages to pack a good number of quirky, granular bits (such as the distinctions between the varied types of demons) around fairly easy-to-grasp mechanics. It also models well how most sorcery works in the Elric books.

When pawing though those books again recently, though, I found there a number of scattered cases where sorcerers are in fact seeming to use directly-channeled magic. Not being a hardcore simulationist (a literalist?) this in itself wouldn't elicit a hoot from me—faithful literary emulation is a lost and foolish cause in any roleplaying game worth playing, really--but I've been toying around with wanting to add a limited range of lower-powered magic into the Stormbringer/Domain Game II hack madness for a good solid week now.

So come the third mention of anomalous spellcasting--Earl Saxif D'Aan in this case giving our favorite pale angster a quick mindscan—all I could see instead of text was a big green light slowly flashing tinker, tinker, tinker.

In keeping with the open-handed design philosophy I was yammering on about the other day, I'm going to “let it all hang” and post the kind of brainstorm checklist of goals I typically hash through before throwing out the variant system itself. (Feel free to skip the section if this is too “meta” for your tastes.)

What I Want:
1. A simple and easy magic system with a small amount of starting options, but expandable with player-driven spell research.

2. Should match enough old school contours to be familiar without just being a direct and dull D&D rehash. It also needs to match the sorcery ranks and level progression of the hack (and can thus play right back into the D&D-based domain-play rules).

3. A system with a relatively easy entry requirements by characters than the all-powerful sorcerer of SB (in which a character had to have a combined INT and POW of 32 with a minimum of 16 INT—and then gave out very high powered abilities). The intention is to flatten out the distinction between sorcerers and the non-spellcasting 99%--without ditching too much of the beautiful lack of balance in character types the game is famous for.

4. While the attribute rung is lower, we also still want to keep the relatively low-magic feel of the original (as opposed to say Runequest where nearly all sentient creatures have access to battle magic). So we build in some limitations: training time and requirements one hand and a one-time sacrifice of POW a la the rune magic of RQ.

5. We want something that models the limited direct magic of the Elric books (and other dark S&S in the genre). Most of these powers seem to be of a divination or psionic-like sort. The psychically-based magic of the Petal Throne would seem to fit this so we'll adapt some similarly-themed spells to fit around this.

“Wizardry” Variant Magic for Stormbringer
  • All characters with a combined POW and INT of 28 are allowed to cast this kind of magic.
  • Players may choose to have characters who qualify be pre-trained in “wizardry”. Add three years (without skill increases) to their age.
  • Characters who qualify through game play must be trained in the arcane arts before they can begin to employ magic. Training must happen under the tutelage of a third rank wizard or over and is 30 months minus INT in length.
  • To gain spells the character must: 1. permanently sacrifice on a one-time the specified amount of POW; 2. qualify to use the spell's rank (same rank per level as sorcerer); and 3. have access to appropriate and/or artifacts at the GM's discretion.
  • Spells can only be used twice before needing to be recharged with eight hours of rest and meditation.
  • Spells cannot be cast or maintained if the wizard is wearing armor bulkier than leather.
  • Players are encouraged to design spells of their own at the GM's discretion.

Spell Examples:
1st Rank Spells
Produce one small globe of light (40 foot radiance) for 1 hour per level of caster.
Control of Body
Total control over body (breath, heart beat, grip etc) for 10 minutes per level of the caster.
Can see through walls and other obstructions up to 50 feet from caster for 10 minutes times the caster's level.
Objects within site-distance of the caster may be moved up to 50 feet. Object can weigh no more than one ounce per level of the caster.
Cure Wounds
Cure 1d6 hit points damage. Also stops fatal major or critical wounds from bleeding out.
Comprehend Language
Can read/write/speak any language for 5 minutes duration per caster level.

Editor's Note: It might not be clear in the post this system would be a second, lower variety of magic that bolster rather than supplant the main system's third-party sorcery.]


  1. a small amount of starting options, but expandable with player-driven spell research.

    I like the idea of a magic system that starts with a small number of D&D-ish spells (quantifiable, predictable, categorizable, quasi-scientific spells, like "Darkness 15' radius") and then gradually became more impressionistic and creative at higher levels (e.g. the elemental "bending" magic of the TV series "Avatar: The Last Airbender"). I imagine that if there were wizardry in the real world, it would probably be like this -- the sorcerer's apprentice would only know a few stock cantrips (canned tricks), but a Master Magician could improvise with the hidden secrets of the Dark Forces like John Coltrane.

    flatten out the distinction between sorcerers and the non-spellcasting 99%

    I also have a personal preference for flattening that distinction. Without compromising the archetypal distinctions between character classes, I think there's room for limited, bumbling magic use amongst non-magicians. Just as the D&D magic-user can, in a pinch, still fight even if he's not a fighter, the poor fighter might be allowed to at least take a stab at firing a wand or performing a ritual (with massive penalties and unpreditable results, of course). Think of the white hats in Buffy.

    Since the SB magic system is, as you say, "third-party sorcery," it would make even more sense to allow non-magicians at least a bumbling attempt at summoning/binding an elemental.

    P.S. To me, the term "open-handed" denotes "generous, liberal." A more appropriate term might be "open source" design:(

  2. I don't really game but wanted to show you my Halloween costume. I'm Spooky.

    Hope things are good with you, Cake. Things are not too shabby on this end of the world. Cold here today but also sunny.

    Nice combo.

    Cheers and Oggie Boogie to you.