Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Magic of the Wilderlands

A continuation from my last post, I wanted to investigate the sort of fairy-tale magic you find in The Hobbit. I wrote my thesis about magic in The Lord of the Rings, and found that I was interested in what we could extrapolate just from the text of the first book.

What Do We Mean By Magic?

For this is what your folk would call magic. I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. 

In old-school D&D, you could assume that the world would conform to understandable Newtonian principles and scientific rationalism except when magic crops up. Players interacted with magic only in two ways: (1) spells and (2) magic items. Both were nullified by something like an anti-magic field. (These terms might get a little muddied in later editions of D&D: in 4E, someone blasting a fireball might just be their class's normal attack.)

In a setting like the Wilderland, the world sans spells or artifacts doesn't necessarily behave like our world. Animals speak their own languages. Entire forests are enchanted, to say nothing of its inhabitants. Is a troll turning to stone magical or natural? The terms seem confused and overlapping. 

This is what I mean when I say Wilderland is fantastic, even if it is "low magic." Sure, Gandalf casts about as many spells as a 1st level magic-user playing Red Box, but Bilbo's world absolutely stinks of folklore. It's a satisfying space for an RPG setting to inhabit. Things seem mysterious, magical, and unique, but never modern, formulaic, or scientific. 

But how do we emulate that? First, let's investigate what gameable elements of "magic" exist in the text. 

Items of Enchantment

“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered?"

I can't tell you how bored I was of magic items having played a level 1 to level 20 Pathfinder game. The Monty Hall was baked into the system! If you didn't have a magic item in each of your "slots," it felt like you were playing the game wrong. Each character twinkled like a Christmas tree, and looked about as ridiculous in my mind's eye as a WoW toon with a mismatched set. Somehow, Wilderland's magic items avoid this feeling entirely. 

From weapons like Sting to Gollum's funny (krazy! kooky!) ring of invisibility, magic items are at once frequent but also interesting. This is because Wilderland has a feeling of deep lore, and each magic item is a clue to this lore. They are keys to history. 

I think it is also important to lump items of surpassing skill into this group. Was the archenstone magical? That is, did it confer magical abilities to its bearer? Since the text does not say so, I assume not. At the same time, it has a feeling of magic about it. Similarly, techniques like writing in moon-letters might not be explicitly sorcerous, but are so close to magic that it should be indistinguishable. 

Here is a list of enchanted items in the text:

  • The Old Took's magical cuff links, which fastened themselves and did not accidentally come undone
  • Gandalf's staff, which glows with blue light (note that this text calls his staff "magical" explicitly, in contrast to Gandalf using the staff as a target for his light spell in Fellowship)
  • The troll's wallet, which could speak up if burgled
  • Gollum's ring, which turns its wearer invisible, except for a shadow in broad daylight
  • Glamdring, a magical sword that shone with a blue flame near goblins and could cut through chains with ease when "happy" -- seems to get happy when killing goblins
  • Orcrist, a magical sword that glowed blue near goblins or when danger was near
  • The Elf King's magic doors, which opened and shut at the command of the elves
  • Bard's black arrow, which always flew true and was always able to be recovered 
  • The dragon's hoard, which was "enchanted" and made those who looked upon it desire it
  • Magic harps, which preserved their tune and integrity through the years
  • The hidden door to the Lonely Mountain, which appeared as stone and could not be opened except by key
  • Moon-letters, which only appear in a particular phase of the moon, or a particular season
  • Coat of mithril mail, which was sturdy as steel but light as cloth
To remain interesting, items of enchantment need to check the following boxes:
  • Be active. An item that gives a flat bonus is going to be factored into the character sheet and forgotten. An item that gives you a new way to approach problems is going to be remembered. An item that requires a certain activation is going to be remembered (be it magic word or immersion in troll blood). 
  • Tied to lore. An item with a name and a history give a sense of setting. People remember if they are wielding Glamdring the Foe-hammer, but forget a "+1 sword." Items that come from a character's class/lineage/race/enemy will be especially interesting to them. 
  • Be evocative. Enchanted items should feel appropriate to the Wilderland setting. This is the most finicky point because not everybody might have the same opinion about what is appropriate or cool. However, if the item would be at home in a European fairy tale, it's my sense that it would be appropriate for this sort of game. 

Using Items of Enchantment
The main characters (Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin) each get one or two items of enchantment in the journey. I posit that accumulating enchanted items are rewards of leveling up. They are every bit as defining as a new class feature. 

A rule: Instead of gaining a new class level, you can claim an enchanted item. The GM will put it in the hoard of a recently vanquished foe or have a mentor NPC grant it to you. Use the "just in time" identification rules from the last post. 

Objection!: Wait, so the GM can't put magic items hidden in the game as treasure? You only get items from leveling up? What if it would make sense that the goblin had stolen the dwarf king's magic axe, and the players take the risk to get it back? They have to spend a level to get it? 

Well, no. The GM can still sprinkle enchanted items in the world. He can also sprinkle "Gain 1 level instantly" potions, too. They should be roughly as powerful and roughly as frequent. Objection overruled! 

Objection!: Items are different than class features. You can lose items, but you can't lose class features. How are they equivalent? 

Well, actually! A piece of advice I've taken to heart from Arnold K is that you can attack every part of the character sheet. A belt of alignment shift can attack your alignment. A witch's curse can attack your race or gender. A vampire's kiss can attack your character's motivations. An axe of mutation can attack your character's appearance or, yes, even your class features. 

Items being lost or stolen should come up about as frequently as you feel comfortable using these other techniques to enact character change. And, like most things, these setbacks can be overcome. Curses can be cured, items lost can be reclaimed again. Objection overruled!


The dwarves of yore made mighty spells
While hammers fell like ringing bells

The term "spell" doesn't come up a lot in The Hobbit. Let's look at each instance the term is used:
  • We know dwarves made spells while forging from the song
  • The dwarves cast "a great many spells" of safe keeping over the trolls' treasure, which they buried
  • The elves cast a spell of sleep on the dwarves after having been bothered by them three times
  • The dwarves tried to remember spells of opening to use on the secret door into the mountain (to no avail)
  • Smaug apparently possessed a power referred to as the "dragon spell," a power which tries to compel Bilbo to reveal himself as a thief
Okay. So "spell" can accommodate apparently a "safe keeping ritual," creating enchanted items, guessing at command words for a magic door, and displays of power from both elves and dragons. 

If the elven and draconic displays of power can be considered spells, you can probably also consider the following as spells: 
  • Elves creating and snuffing out the light of their forest feast 
  • Beorn skinchanging into a bear
  • Gandalf's lightning blasts 
  • Gandalf changing the color of smoke rings
  • Gandalf lighting pine cones with magical fire
Using Spells
What a great many variety of things spells can be. From a gaming perspective, spells seem all over the map--and there's no talk in the text about a drawback or limiting factor.

I propose that a Wilderlands game use a three-part system to define spells: cantrips, enchantments, and runes. 

This system is inspired by Beyond the Wall. Beyond the Wall is probably  my favorite OSR game because it has such a perfectly evocative folklore feeling. It's a great example of rules inspiring a particular type of game experience. 


Then Gandalf’s smoke-ring would go green and come back to hover over the wizard’s head. He had a cloud of them about him already, and in the dim light it made him look strange and sorcerous.

The least art of magic can be called "cantrips." Cantrips are minor displays of sorcerous craft, such as when Gandalf uses his lore of smoke on Bilbo's smoke rings, or when the elves snuff out their feast's lights. 

You may cast any cantrip you know as often as you wish. It is a minor magical ability you possess. 

I probably have a persnickity opinion about what are appropriate cantrips and what aren't (Light? Nope. Create Food and Water? Absolutely not.) but it's beyond the scope of this post to post custom tailored spell lists. Beyond the Wall's cantrip list is fine. 


But not Gandalf. Bilbo’s yell had done that much good. It had wakened him up wide in a splintered second, and when goblins came to grab him, there was a terrific flash like lightning in the cave, a smell like gunpowder, and several of them fell dead.

An enchantment is a single expression of magical power which requires some component or reagent of arcane potency. An enchantment is roughly equivalent to a first level spell in D&D terms. Sleep is a good marker for efficacy. 

Enchantments require consumable components to cast. Each casting of an enchantment consumes one component. As long as he has components available, a wizard may cast as many enchantments as he wishes. 

Each enchantment requires a specific component. For example, Sleep's component is a pinch of river sand gathered under the starlight, whereas Open Door's component is an iron nail etched with a peculiar rune. 

Wizards must track their components. Each component takes one item slot. (I'm imagining Lamentations-esque encumbrance rules) 

Gathering components in the wilderness should be treated like hunting. If it takes one hex action to hunt, it takes one hex action to gather components. Test Wisdom to gather components in the wilderness. Success yields 1d4 + Int bonus components of the wizard's choice. 


“They were not made by any troll, nor by any smith among men in these parts and days; but when we can read the runes on them, we shall know more about them.”

Runes of power are the most powerful expression of magic. They create a significant spell effect, such as the creation of a magic item or laying an enchantment around a large area. Crafting runes on wood, metal, or stone requires time, tools, and a steady hand. 

Runes of power, unlike enchantments or cantrips, have levels. You can only master runes of your level or less. Writing a rune requires a number of hours equal to the rune's level. 

When you cast a rune, make an Intelligence or Wisdom check (the ritual in question will list which to test). If successful, the ritual effect is successful. If you fail, there will be some twist or danger associated with the effect. 

Other games, like 5E or Beyond the Wall, might call this level of magic "ritual." The flavor here is not dissimilar. For this spell list, I would use Beyond the Wall's ritual list. But, really, any D&D spell is fine. If you want to Fly--you can--but it requires a lengthy rite of runic magic.