Of Arcane and Occult Magics

Friday, December 21st, 2018

Balancing encounters with and the character use of magic with the idea magic is rare, supernatural, and occult–even dangerous to the practitioner–can be difficult in D&D. On the one hand, any solution that seeks to make magic mysterious should not cripple player character spell-casters through randomness, misfortune, and difficulty–the effectiveness and utility of an entire class should not be undercut by making their main class ability a liability that will consistently cause them injury or misfortune–yet it still must draw out the odd and arcane, even worrisome, nature of magic.

One obvious solution is to make magic available to all classes, and remove spell-casting classes completely–making it, instead, a skill that can be learned. This can justify serious side-effects and problematic results by making magic a powerful and always dangerous option, but optional, as it is then the player’s choice whether or not to risk the serious consequences, instead of needing to risk such as a player’s only class-based option. (While one might consider removing per day spell-casting limits instead to balance the issue, this would simply create more opportunities to force the players of spell-casters into deciding between “do what my class does and probably suffer” and “do nothing effective”.)

So we are going to stick to working with the standard D&D classes and rules, and cover five ideas that can help create mystery either separately or together, while avoiding this problem and remaining fun, beginning with the magic item economy.

My main rule of thumb here is: would the Fighter suffer similarly each time they swung their sword? If not, then neither should any other class for doing their class thing. (And my over-riding number one rule: Keep choices fun, not stressful or limiting.)

Magic For Sale

    One common issue with keeping magic strange and arcane in a game is the existence of “ye olde magic shoppe”, as it turns magic from “mystery” to “commodity.” If you treat magic as if it were a mere commodity, it will feel like a mere commodity. Likewise, if you treat magic like strange rarity, it will feel like a strange rarity.

    While it is true that commodities rarely feel like strange rarities, the idea of the occult shop hidden in the seedier parts of a city, offering rare and unusual items of arcane provenance to the curious is a cultural touchstone. In that milieu, it does not distract from the allure of magic’s mysteries. In fact, historically, the idea of items of magical potency being sold to consumers has precedence in the existence of traveling merchants of the strange, and of local hedge witches, both of whom would sell love philters, magical cures, and good luck amulets to needy or desperate peasants. Even the Church would sell reliquaries to the faithful and pilgrims would bring tithes to holy sites in order to be blessed.

    This can be duplicated in game by ruling that magical items sold by simple village wizards, or in occult shops, or by traveling arcanists, are for the most part simple, cantrip-like magics with one or more limits:

    • Usable once only or once within a certain time frame (a day, a week, a month, a year).
    • Provide a situationally limited effect or bonus.
    • No more than a +1 modifier or equivalent 1 point effect.
    • Require significant travel and monetary investment.

    The purveyors of such items may, perhaps, also be somewhat less than honest, or more ignorant than educated, as to the actual functions and abilities of the items they have for sale, and able to give only a general description of the item’s powers–understating, overstating, or at times mis-stating such. Though once the party has purchased any given item (and the party’s spell-caster has had time to study it, or otherwise after they have used it once) this kind of vagueness should be avoided, and its actual powers and limits and so on be known to the players. Vagueness can still be useful in other ways.

    More importantly, no item purchased at any occult shop or through any local hedge witch should be common enough that a quick visit thereto can procure it.

    There should be no racks of healing potions nor spell-scroll factories, given the exorbitant costs of creating even one scroll or potion of basic power (more than two month’s wages for a common laborer, and more than a month’s for even a guildsman…and it is likely it will be sold for much more than was spent in its creation), the limited number of items a spell-caster can enchant at any given time, and alternately the personal costs (the invested lifeforce reflected by the Constitution penalty) of ritual enchantments.

    As far as the sale of items of magical power to such shops, the proprietors will have limited funds, and will purchase only for (at best) half the price they believe they can sell the item for to their clientele, which is almost certainly significantly below the actual worth of the item, dependent upon the local economy and how much the merchant trusts the characters’ word as to its properties and effects. Even other spell-casters, who can verify the properties of offered items, will have limited funds by which to purchase items of magic, and will most times resort to barter.

Secret Knowledge

    Tying into the above, while player characters, and especially the players of wizards, know how magic works, the peasantry and non-wizards and even arcane merchants simply do not know the basic rules–they do not know what sorts of spells any given spell-caster might know or what kinds of powers spell-casters in general have, or whether or not the spell-caster is doing something horrible or invasive right now (Are they reading their mind? Are they enchanting or cursing them?), nor understand that spell-casters are limited in how often they can do a specific thing (or, if they do know, know how often).

    The DM should not play common folk as cognizant of the rules of the game where it comes to the users and uses of magic, and treat them instead like old white American congressmen trying to understand the internet and computers, particularly its more technical aspects.

Unease Through Suggestion

    The other side to this coin is that this mechanical knowledge of players about how spell-casting and spells work often strips the mystery from magic in game.

    Many games attempt to correct for this with ill-considered designs that make magic have dangerous and unprecedented (often random) side-effects, but there is a way to handle the concerning and unpredictable nature of magic which does not require defining and codifying, or even implementing, mechanically crippling results and misfires, yet which leave the players feeling the spell-caster’s summonings and sorcery are not quite…safe.

    The DM needs only to hint at potential consequence or odd influence, at unknowable provenance and concerning apportation:

    • The Light spell that causes a headache, just a bit, and the DM suggests it would probably be best to find natural light as soon as possible.
    • The Summon Animal spell whose words make the caster emotionally queasy, and the DM indicates the creature brought forth is something only pretending to be an animal.
    • The Locate Object spell that causes the caster to feel as if they have pointed towards the object and announced its direction three times, as if the moment was repeating.
    • The Invisibility spell that causes a horde of tiny spiders to flee the area, possibly crawling across everything (and everyone) nearby, as the DM wonders aloud what it is the spiders see that frightens them so.
    • The Sleep spell that makes the caster feel momentarily as if asleep themselves, or…
    • …as the spell takes effect, something behind the caster chuckles appreciatively…and hungrily, yet there is nothing there and nothing untoward seems to happen.

    None of these things should actually cause difficulty for the players or cause problems, only suggest concerning, unknown (even non-quantifiable) particulars–creating the feeling of a dangerous, mysterious undercurrent to magic. The results should suggest using magic is like playing with fire, and that no matter how careful the spell-caster, they are tapping into primal forces beyond human ken, but it does so without making magic unreliable or saddling the caster with penalties and dis-incentives.

    If the idea of consistently thinking up unsettling details each time a spell is cast seems exhausting to the DM, they could instead use the interruption of a spell to present these hints of the strange. Thus, as normal, if the caster is distracted or under stress while casting a spell, ritual or otherwise, they must make a concentration check or the spell fails; however, while the circumstance of a successful check means the spell works as intended, the occult basis of magic also reveals itself in some disturbing manner as above.

Dangerous Consequence

    If there are truly never any unintended or horrifying consequences resulting from the use of magic, merely hints to that end, players may eventually cease to feel concerned about the odd glimmers of strangeness. For those who want to add a dangerous edge to magic with the actual possibility of ill-results, but without penalizing the magic-using classes the way most such solutions do, the DM can utilize the same mechanic as above to determine if something untoward, and not merely odd, occurs.

    Use, again, the existing rules for interruption and concentration, but tweak them slightly: the interruption of a spell-caster’s concentration–a single stutter or missed gesture or forgotten glyph–now means the spell causes the intended and desired effects, but also cause an unintended and problematic effect or bear an unforeseen cost, perhaps even allow outside forces to peer into the world…ones that would better have been left ignorant of the wizard and his cosmos.[1]

    However, an interruption is only an opportunity, not an imperative. Disastrous consequences should be a rare occurrence, and when they do arise, should be neither specifically penalizing to the wizard nor disabling. Instead, such arcane accidents should create events of narrative interest, delays, annoyances, interesting minor obstacles, or issues of an odd, unsettling, and bothersome nature that need correction.

    • A Light spell that flickers or strobes painfully, making perception checks impossible.
    • A Magic Missile that shatters a nearby item in an explosion of sparks before it strikes its target.
    • A Charm Person spell that causes the victim (or caster) to speak only in rhyme.
    • The dramatic, supernatural loss of a finger (which does not affect the ability to cast spells).
    • A plague of demonic-sounding whispers whenever the caster is alone at night.
    • Burn scars that slowly spread across the caster’s body (perhaps hinting of some infernal outcome should the scars cover their body entire).
    • The summoning of a harassing imp, which returns whenever that spell is cast, unless the caster thereafter uses a special charm crafted for that spell.
    • A plague of magical sleep that slowly spreads across the countryside, for which a cure must be brewed.

    The actual occurrence of such incidents should determined by fiat–whether the concentration check succeeds by merely 1 point or 15 is irrelevant, the DM simply decides when a good moment is. This helps deal with the usual problems arising from the players’ mechanical knowledge being used to quantify magic. The only common element of their occurrence should be due to the caster’s carelessness or lack of control, as represented by an interruption.

Magical Thinking

    Even though magic is always reliable, even predictable in its main outcomes (a given spell should always cause the desired effect, and not a random result), magic should not be science. Magic must arise from irrational, not rational, causes, and work according to loose principles of similarity and causal relationships, yet with no particular rhyme, reason, or predictability to how those connections and influences manifest.

    To reflect this, the nature of magical law in a campaign world can be generalized with the following ideas:

    • Some things that once touched might remain in contact regardless of separation.
    • Material similarities between two things often connect them.
    • Random words, actions, or items may cause either misfortune or grant protection.
    • Actions that occur simultaneously or in succession might be one another’s cause.
    • A thing that causes an effect may also undo that effect.

    While these laws are all true, and any known connection is always a connection, as generalities they are not always reliably true in all circumstances: some things that seem like they would be connected, are not; a correlation does not always equal a causation; etc. Because magic is not rational.

    As with the other suggestions here, the requirements of these magical laws should not intrude on the effectiveness or ability of a spell-caster to utilize their spells. It should be assumed any player’s spell-caster is aware of and prepared for these circumstances and necessities–the existence and influence of the laws should instead be mentioned as part of the narrative in order to bolster the mystery and strangeness of the magical arts, not to proscribe character actions.

    • The cleric’s blessing or healing spells only work if someone is wearing yellow on their person (therefore everyone in the party wears yellow ribbons or yellow tabards, and the cleric keeps a few extra ribbons or yellow sheets on their person).
    • Certain phrases are known to summon invisible imps that harass, annoy, or cause inconveniences for the speaker, but can be banished by mint leaves hung around the victim’s windows (so everyone has mint leaves hung around their windows).
    • After meditation, the temple priests reveal the gods have said the party’s slain warrior can only be brought back to life by impaling the corpse with the sword that slew them.
    • A creature turned to stone by a wizard’s spell can be made fleshy again by a gorgon’s gaze.

    The effects of these magical laws can effectively be used as background detail, such as specific (true!) peasant superstitions, in service to reminding the players of the odd arcane influences in the world. Perhaps the spell-casters are regularly called upon in their downtime to perform rituals banishing minor spirits, raised by taboo behaviors and hasty words, or to help perform blessing rituals upon field and forge. Such may be, in part, how casters earn their daily wages during the party’s downtime.

By implementing one or more of these suggestions into a campaign, the mysterious nature and dangers of magic can be highlighted with little effort, and the utility and reliability of spell-casting classes in D&D can be preserved.


Note: some examples used in this article are based on anonymous suggestions given on reddit.

[1] In our current game, we have ruled wizard spells always succeed, no saves allowed. An alternative here would be to restore the saving throws, but instead of determining if the spell succeeded, they would determine only if some disturbing additional effect occurred. Some game systems use “skill rolls” to determine if a caster succeeds at casting a spell, but this could be easily adapted as well: a successful roll means the spell is cast without issue, while an unsuccessful roll means that something odd and strange attaches itself to the result.

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