Monday, March 15, 2021

The Ethos of Sorcery in His Majesty the Worm

The magic system in ​His Majesty the Worm ​is probably the subsystem that underwent the most dramatic  changes during playtesting. Four completely different systems were written, playtested, and rejected. There were a lot of babies tossed out with the bathwater (which I'm pretty okay with.)  

As I'm about to release the (final) rules for sorcery in ​His Majesty the Worm​, I wanted to reflect a bit about the design choices I made when it came to magic. 

Source unknown. Let me know if you can identify, please!

Earliest drafts

​I dug out these notes from my initial design documents. Note that this is basically how I start RPG projects--I just write down things I'm thinking about, then sort of iterate on that until it becomes words that someone else can (hopefully) understand. 

Some of these notes made it into the final version and some of them were left on the cutting room floor. Finding this document, I was impressed how many idea seeds survived.

Magic should feel magical

One of my most central design goal for magic is that it should "feel" magical. It should feel unscientific. 

Sorcerers use ​components ​to cast spells. These components are your eye of gnat, tongue of dog, toe of bat variety. Pulling out a pickled, rune-covered tongue and placing it into the mouth of a corpse to cast Speak with Dead inherently makes the sorcerer seem more magical and weird. Additionally, this system makes magic fit into the basic inventory management system that the game uses. How many spells do you have available equals how many pack slots you've dedicated to components. 

Additionally, the spell descriptions are somewhat terse. They do not have the precise legalism that 5E or M:tG cards have. The GM has a good amount of leeway to interpret the spells as they're cast, creating a sense of manageable mystery. 

Magic should be a strange Swiss-army knife

As a design goal, I don't want magic to step onto the aesthetic toes of other classes. If a wizard can cast Knock and Invisibility, they become better thieves than the thief. And that's disappointing. 

In a similar vein, I never wanted to force players to have a "balanced" party. In ​His Majesty the Worm​, you should be able to run a party of all thieves. You should also be able to run a party of all sorcerers. You should be able to have a party without magic, too. 

With magic, a party should be able to solve problems in a dramatically different way than without it. A thief can unlock a door and eavesdrop at the threshold. A wizard can cast Portable Hole onto the door and peer through it. One is subtle and one is obvious. Both have their drawbacks and advantages. 

Magic should never solve essential dungeon problems

​His Majesty the Worm's ​is about dungeon crawling. There should be no powers, abilities, talents, class features, or spells that solve the essential problems of the dungeon: light, hunger, exhaustion. There are no spells that provide darkvision, conjure food and water, or provide continual light. 

The one exception is the spell "Heavenfire" which does cast light and is harmful to undead. My rationale is that the component takes up as much space as a torch, but a sorcerer must power it through their ​Resolve. There's a trade off there, and a sorcerer casting an undead repelling light is fulfilling the "weird Swiss army knife" objective. 


If all goes as planned, the sorcery rules for ​His Majesty the Worm ​will be published this weekend. They should be usable for your home game, and work as a proof of concept for the system as a whole. 


  1. It appears that Blogger ate my post. I'll try again:

    I'm trying to do the same thing with Grymwurld(TM) except that: Wouldn't a party of dungeoneering sorcerers try to research or invent spells like: light, darkvision, purify foot & water, spider climb, etc., etc. to make their delving easier?

    1. I guess you'll have to ask yourself what limits there are to sorcery in your system. Wouldn't ambitious sorcerers invent spells that turned them into kings? Wouldn't poor sorcerers invent spells that turn straw into gold?

      If a sorcerer can conjure food as a spell, is there starvation in the world? Why? Why would a sorcerer who can conjure food from nothing even go adventuring? Why not settle down and become a magic baker?

  2. I agree that there certainly are limits to sorcery in the Sword & Sorcery genre as well as in all pre-modern literature of the world.

    Traditionally, a sorcerer could not create real food instead it was a kind of glamour that resulted ultimately in starvation in spite of tasting, smelling, and filling the stomach like real food. Likewise creating gold was in the eyes of the beholder or a curse like the Midas' touch. Later, it was believed that by selling one's soul to the devil the sorcerer could gain true wealth although the bill would come due in seven years.

    I think that it is very difficult for us moderns to appreciate how different our ancestors viewed the world. We take reason, logic, and the scientific method for granted -- it provides the basis for our worldview. And in that worldview there is no room for magic. In contrast, I suspect that a magical worldview has no room for reason, logic, or the scientific method.

    For example in the story The Scarlet Citadel, Conan and Pelias are confronted with the dungeon exit being locked. Instead of casting a knock spell, Pelias revives Shukeli the jailer and commands him to unlock the door. Once the corpse of Shukeli completed the task, it collapsed. Why is that? Is it because Pelias is a necromancer? Or is it because a lock cannot be commanded to unlock? Perhaps he could have summoned a demon to unlock the door but that would've required a higher level spell or a long ceremony? Animating the corpse of Shukeli seemed almost effortless as if it were a low level spell.

    So there must be certain magical "laws" that must be obeyed and thus is then incumbant on us (game) world designers to define what those laws are. And by defining those laws, we can define a miracle as that which breaks the magical law. For example, when a sorcerer casts Raise Dead, the corpse is animated by the shade of the original soul but not the original complete soul itself. It takes a true divine miracle to restore the original and complete soul to a corpse. Likewise a sorcerer cannot create life per se, but can construct a vessel for a demon to posess.

    1. "I think that it is very difficult for us moderns to appreciate how different our ancestors viewed the world."

      I think you're 100% right with that. Your example of the Conan story is a good one. Necromancy is magic that feels appropriate to folklore moreso than the "utility" spells that turn dungeoneering into SWAT tactics.

      For this game, I asked myself: "What do sorcerers *do*? How much can they do? What should they not be able to do?"

      I didn't want easy solutions to dungeon problems--not for sorcerers, not for anybody.

      Same with your game! What do you want your sorcerers to do and not do?