Friday, April 16, 2021

A Coherent yet Still Interesting Narrative Framework to Explain How the Standard D&D Magic System Works: a Love Story

What is magic? 

Magic is the process by which the unreal is wrought upon the real.

How does it work?

The prime material plane is made up of countless minor dimensions all stacked on top of one another like pages in a book. Our reality exists as an overlapping concentration of those dimensions into a singular whole, surrounded by countless peripheral dimensions not quite incorporated into the planar realm. If our plane is considered Reality, than all the surrounding ones exist as Unreality—dimensions that are not within the Real. Magic is what results from when one or more peripheral dimensions are drawn into our reality.

Every spell is a specific event, an occurrence that results from the meeting of the real and unreal. The procedure of casting a spell is an invocation (often temporarily) brings forth unreal dimensions into our reality in a way specified by the spell’s description. A spell's effect is not necessarily the entirety of the event, but merely the most prominent and major result. For instance, Fireball doesn't just produce a fireball, but rather creates a wholly unique phenomenon where resulting fireball is the merely most observable effect. The peripheral results of a spell's manifestation are negligible, at least to most beings in our reality. Often, it is only potent extra-planar entities that are able to register a spell's impact beyond its primary effect. 

What are spell levels?

A spell’s level refers to how many dimensions are drawn into our reality. First level spells pull one dimension, second level spells two, and so on. The most dimensions anyone has ever been able to draw is six (hence why there are no spells above sixth level), though it is conceivable that more can be pulled—and have been in the distant past, which could account for all the weird persistent magical effects we see in dungeons.

What about spell books and scrolls?

Consciousness is the aspect through which we are most connected to the dimensions of unreality. In order to cast a spell, one must organize their mind in such a way to act as a sort of "hook" which can latch on to the unreal and pull it forth into our world. The act of preparing spells from a spell book involves establishing the specific mind-state required to hook another dimension and pull it into our own in a manner that results in the spell being cast.

What is actually laid out in a spell book are simply the passages, sigils, and runes which the mind can focus on in order to induce the mind-state required for a given spell. Every MU has their own personal methods of recording spells in their spell book, so every spell has a unique entry in each book it is recorded in. This is why Read Magic must be used to discern the spells in an unfamiliar spell book. "Memorizing" a spell is merely a shorthand term to describe the process by which a MU develops a hook within their mind, working off of the esoteric guides set down in their spell book. 

Once a spell has been cast, the transdimensional hold is cleared from the MU's head and the unreal dimension slips back into the astral periphery.

A spell scroll is essentially a partially cast spell that must be completed by an MU. The act of creating a spell scroll involves creating a partial dimensional hook that is activated once the scroll is read. The process of activating a scroll often destroys it or renders it inert, because it is the power invested in the scroll itself that is drawing the unreal into our dimension. That is why scrolls are single-use. The process of transcribing a spell from a scroll to a book is actually a rather involved process, because it requires working backwards from a single spell preparation to create a method for which the spell can be prepared by the MU. Hence, there's always a chance of failure when copying a spell. 

How does this account for magic items, potions, magic creatures, etc.?

While the dimensional incursions caused by spells are almost always temporary, not all of them are. Magic items exist as nexus points where multiple unreal dimensions are folded into our reality. The same can be said of magic creatures. 

Extraplanar creatures summoned from other dimensions are somewhat more complicated. Some extraplanar creatures slip into our plane through the spaces of astral void between dimensions, whereas others are drawn into our universe through the same process as magic spells. Some entities exist in both the real and unreal dimensions simultaneously.

What about Clerics? 

Cleric magic works exactly the same way as MU magic, except it's the Cleric's deity that grants them the power to draw unreality. This is why Clerics do not need spell books. 

What's the point of all this?

I have a confession to make: I'm not satisfied with how baseline old-school D&D handles magic. 

I know, I stake my entire reputation on these controversial opinions. Sometimes they need to be said. 

But for some reason, I just can't tear myself away from by-the-book magic. I've explored other options. I've flirted with GLOG magic, fell for Wonder & Wickedness, and had a bizarre stint with a homebrew system that's better left unmentioned (now I know why they call it a heartbreaker). But through it all, I've always come back to the classic system. Despite its imperfections, its lack of coherency or a basis in fantasy fiction, it's still irresistible to me. Maybe the problems that I have with it are really just problems that I see within myself. Hmm. 

So one day I thought to myself "I can make this work. I can make a framework for the standard D&D magic system that makes narrative sense and fits with the 'Weird magic' without having to change anything. I don't have to settle. I can have it all."  


I need a system of magic that ties all the existing gameplay elements into a framework while still maintaining some semblance of esoteric weirdness. I want to avoid the completely flavorless standard assumptions about D&D magic without inventing a whole new system. I am neurotically fixated on having it all make sense—but not like logical sense, more sort of narrative sense—and "be cool." 

The idea behind this magic "system" (really, magic flavor) was to take the assumptions of D&D magic and make them into something coherent. 

These assumptions are...

  • All spells work the same every time they are cast.
  • Spells have a hierarchical system of levels, and spell slots work in the same way.
  • But not all magic exists within this hierarchy, as demonstrated by magic items, artifacts, and magic dungeon features.
  • There is no "latent" or "background" magic. Going off of the assumptions put forth by Anti-Magic Shell and other anti-magic effects, magic is not a universal constant but instead something that only manifests under certain conditions.
  • Spells must be memorized but are forgotten immediately after use.
  • Spells written out in books and scrolls must be deciphered through magical means. 

No more than one or two of any of these assumptions exist anywhere in the fantasy fiction on which D&D was based. Yes, Jack Vance invented the concept of spell memorization and slots and stuff and we love him for it, but anyone who's read the Dying Earth saga will tell you that D&D's magic is a far cry from whatever it was Rhialto could do. 

This leads to an interesting conclusion: D&D magic broke new ground, creating an entirely separate milieu from anything that came before it. 

A lot of people, especially in the OSR, say that magic is something that ought to be stranger, more chaotic, dangerous, and unknowable They fix magic by implementing variable effect tables, mishap systems, alternate casting mechanics, and so on. Or they don't fix it at all, and just imply that magic is zany and occult while every spell in the system works the same way every time it's cast. 

There's nothing wrong with grabbing that DIY spirit by the horns and using it to build a bunch of supplemental and alternative materials for casting, but there’s a lot that can be said for the magic system as it exists in the book (the book being B/X and it’s counterparts). 

D&D magic was made from a game-forward design perspective: the spells all have discrete effects that often solve, or at least address, common issues that players face while playing the game. Light resolves the issue of illumination. Knock resolves the issue of locked doors. The spells all do things that players might find immediately useful.

A lot of OSR/post-OSR/OSR-like/artpunk/Old-school-inspired DIY/rules-lite/SWORDDREAM/neoclassic D&D/heartbreaker homebrew/Etc. designers go in the exact opposite direction. Rise Up Comus' Sorcery is a Sword Without a Hilt is perfectly emblematic of this sort of mentality: all the spells are explicitly designed to be weird tools that have no direct solution to any of the immediate problems adventurers contend with, and there are many bizarre catastrophes that can befall a poor spell caster. And it's great! I think Mr. Comus did a terrific job with the spells and the system. But despite being ostensibly OSRish, it's a far cry from what the original spells in the original games were like. 

This clearly just points to the fact that everyone already knows, which is that the OSR and its electron cloud of offshoots are all distinct from what "classic D&D" was like.  

Instead of trying to make new mechanics to fit the nebulous, fantasy-fiction system of magic, why not create a system based on the then-novel mechanics and concepts laid down by Gygax and co.? What can we find when we fill in the gaps and create a narrative framework within which the entire D&D magic can function coherently?

Much of the work people have done to make strange, chaotic, interpretive magic mechanics is fantastic. But sometimes, you just have to dance with the one that brought ya. Love takes effort. Love takes work. But if you find the right one, it's worth it all and more. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Mosquito Men

They are mostly known as Quistids, and they are exactly as wretched as you would expect. They stand around four and a half feet tall and have fuzzy mosquito heads. Their arms are gangly, and they have tiny needle-like fingers. Their clothes are dusty and out of style, but sported with a clueless confidence that elicits endless frustration in others. Their wings hang from their back like tattered scarves, always blowing in the wind and annoying those around them. 

Their probosces are often kept curled and carefully tucked under their chin. It’s been said that in some hidden alleyways you can find little speakeasies where they congregate with one another away from the rest of the world. Yes they drink blood, but it's not blood from the living—and what about you, huh? You eat meat, but does that mean you’d take a bite out of a live cow?

Quistids get a perverse satisfaction from correcting others. They put on an elaborate show of “hiding” their embarrassing proclivities, only to get overbearingly defensive at the slightest comment. Their words buzz with self-satisfied indignation.

Quistids have a preternatural ability to annoy others. Unbeknownst to most everyone (Quistids included), they feed on frustration. It doesn’t nourish them like blood, but it sustains their spirit. The more annoyance draw from others others, the stronger and more defined their ego becomes.

When isolated from others, Quistids are mindless and violent with little more intelligence than an actual mosquito. They have been known to assault travelers without provocation, swooping down from the sky on their fibrous wings and baring their long proboscis like a saber. 

Naturally, most Quistids live in cities where a denser population means more frustration to feed on. They live in the noisy parts of town, in buildings that always smell a little funny, where the windows are always drafty and the roofs leak when it rains.


Despite their proclivities, Quistids are fairly benign. Many are more or less integrated into their community, while others prefer to keep to themselves. But occasionally, something goes wrong.

Some Quistids become aware of their nature and how the frustration in others feeds them. Often times they just take this information in stride and don't think too much of it, but certain Quistids desire to exploit it and learn to amplify their aura of frustration and further feed their ego.

When a Quistid turns malicious, the simple annoyances they cause hardens into bitterness and rage. A whole neighborhood could fall under the influence of a single malicious Quistid. The people become cold and withdrawn, fights start easily and often turn violent, and things just generally become more shitty and unpleasant all around. The Quistid grows more and more potent, until their bloated ego bursts through the seams of their psyche and begins to manifest in the physical world. The malicious Quistid’s body warps into something else entirely, twisting to reflect a gross combination of their idealized self-image and the harrowing rancor of their spirit. The psychic emanations cause their surroundings to alter as well—things get cold, tarnished, sticky, and moist; piles of trash and refuse manifest in the corners; everything smells of mold and water damage. The whole environment becomes almost consciously inhospitable. 

Affected vermin become fat, fleshy menaces. They develop sphincter-like mouths from which flick hungering probosces, and faceted eye clusters sprout on their backs. Humans, too, can be affected: they get overtaken by inarticulate, feverish rage, picking at scabs with swollen fingers or beating each other until their knuckles turn blue.

How to use Quistids

Throw them in your city encounter tables. It helps if they are engaged with a group that the PCs will likely butt heads with, so have your crime bosses and urban cultists use them as henchmen. Let them show up at inopportune moments, when the PCs are embroiled in something else and really can’t spare the time to deal with mosquito men. Make sure that the players get adequately frustrated whenever they show up.

Eventually, somewhere in the city, a Quistid is on the verge of turning malicious. 

As things start to get worse, other Quistids start to get nervous. They’ve been tolerated well enough up until now, but the more self-aware ones know that one malicious Quistid is enough to get the whole population be ousted from the city. Or worse. 

The city needs a savior from the malicious Quistid. And the Quistids need someone who can deal with the issue before they all get blamed. If circumstances get bad enough for the Quistids, more and more will become malicious. 

So the Quistids come to the PCs and ask them for help. The players should be pissed off at them by this point, but obviously the right thing to do is to help them, so you get a nice and simple moral quandary.

If the PCs choose to help, they track down the malicious Quistid, make their way through the horrid environment, and put a stop to the monster. Maybe they kill it, maybe they show it the power of friendship. It's up to them.

If the PCs fail, the malicious Quistid would eventually get killed by a group of upstart adventurers/mercenaries that the city hired. The group wins acclaim, and begins to lead the efforts in hunting down other Quistids and executing/imprisoning them before they turn malicious. The group rises in prominence, until eventually it is shockingly revealed that they are not who they seem, have some sort of ulterior motive, etc., etc.

If the issue gets resolved, everyone is happy. The Quistids are eternally grateful to the PCs and the city is able to keep its hands clean. But... what caused the Quistid turn malicious in the first place? Could it just have been by chance? Or did something, or someone, give them the means to turn bad? Was it all just a distraction to cover some deeper conspiracy??


HD: 1-1 AC: 7 [12] Att: 1 x proboscis (1d6) or by weapon.

Move: 120’ (40’), 60’ (20’) flying.  Saves as a 1st-level thief.

Morale: 6 No. Appearing: 1d6

Treasure: 1-in-10 chance a Quistid is carrying a valuable piece of jewelry or gemstone worth 1d100x10 sp, otherwise they carry nothing but garbage. Lairs have d6-d4 (minimum zero, obviously) pieces treasure. 

Limited Flight. Quistids can’t fly for more than one minute at a time, and are unable to attack or act on the round they begin flying. 

Pester. Quistids can attempt two attack rolls instead of one. If both succeed, the Quistid prevents their target from attacking for one round, or takes something the target is carrying in their hands, or does something else similarly frustrating. If either or both rolls fail, nothing happens. 

Malicious Quistid

HD: 6 AC: 6 [13] Att: 2 x claw (1d6), 1 x proboscis (1d8 + blood sucking)

Move: 90’ (30’) Saves as 4th-level thief.

Morale: 8 No. Appearing: 1

Treasure: As a normal Quistid. Additionally, in the process of turning malicious, a Quistid’s eyes become hate-filled rubies worth 2,000 sp each. The rubies burn with an inner light for 1d6 days after they are extracted, during which time whoever carries one on their person gets a +2 bonus to attack rolls but suffers a -2 penalty to reaction rolls, including reaction rolls made while in a group with others. The rubies may be more valuable to chaotic wizards and cultists while they are glowing.

Blood sucking. Regenerates half the damage dealt with their proboscis, rounded down. 

Incensing aura. While in the presence of a malicious Quistid, all failed rolls may result in some additional penalty as determined by the DM. For instance, failing a roll to accurately throw a flask of oil results in all the oil leaking out of the flask and on to the attacker. 

Summon creatures. Takes one round. Summons grotesque creatures from the surrounding area to come and fight for the malicious Quistid. 1d8 1 HP creatures (rat-sized), 1d6 1/2 HD creatures (dog-sized), 1d4 1HD converted humans (unarmed and unarmored), or one 20x20 insect swarm (13 hp, automatically deals 2 damage to armored/4 damage to unarmored creatures in swarm area, only damaged by fire, extreme cold, etc.). All summoned creatures have a moral of 12.

Image credits go to this guy.