Thursday, December 16, 2021

Truespeaker - Freeform Magic for OSRish games

The quadratic wizard and the linear fighter is an old "problem." I also see RPG forum posts at least once a month asking for recommendations for freeform magic use, and Mage and Ars Magica are always ready at hand to recommend. I wanted to offer an alternative.

Truespeaking is a magic system that is freeform but also pretty dirt simple. No spell lists, no looking up rules, no spell slots. Magic relies on free Kriegsspiel rules, give or take. Fighters and wizards become incomparable - they do not use the same rules to do the same things. 

I've framed this class in GLoG terms because 1) the GLoG keeps HP low, which is important and 2) I wanted the abilities to cap out quickly. Reframe the basic idea into your game of choice. 

The Ouroboros Eats Itself: A lot of ideas for this class came from @ericbabe3's DCC homebrew rules. Many thanks to him for sharing those with me! 

A Caveat: Having control over everything and everyone is...weird! Inappropriate! Bad! LeGuin handles this material incredibly thoughtfully. Before using this magic system for murder-hoboing, set expectations at your table about what is kosher within these rules for you. Fun should be fun. Don't take the open-ended nature of this system to make gameplay not fun.

The Truespeaker

"That is the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world, and the language of our lays and songs, spells, enchantments, and invocations. … Any witch knows a few of these words in the Old Speech, and a mage knows many. But there are many more, and some have been lost over the ages, and some have been hidden, and some are known only to dragons and to the Old Powers of Earth, and some are known to no living creature; and no man could learn them all. For there is no end to that language."

- Wizard of Earthsea

You know the truespeech - the words of command, the old tongue, the language of creation. What you say in the truespeech cannot be a lie, therefore it is true. By speaking, you reshape reality to fit your words. 

Truespeaker A - Detect Spells, One Syllable Truewords

Truespeaker B - Two Syllable Truewords

Truespeaker C - Three Syllable Truewords

Truespeaker D - Four Syllable Truewords

Detect Spells

Speaking the truespeech resonates throughout the world. You can sense any truespeech within [template] miles of a spell being cast. 

Truewords

You may cast truespeech spells (see below). You may speak truewords a number of syllables long as templates in this class. You may speak spells with as many truewords as templates in this class + Cha modifier. 

Casting Spells

Sank the braggart, Youkahainen,
Deeper in his slough of torment,
To his chin in mud and water,
Ever praying, thus beseeching:
“O thou ancient Wainamoinen,
Greatest of the old magicians,
Lift me from this pit of horror

- The Kalevala

A spell is a sentence in truespeech. 

(Think about the terms here. A spell is a word. That's why you enter a spelling bee. To cast something is to throw it away. To cast a spell is to throw word.)

Anything or anyone who hears a spell must obey it to the best of their ability. 

For example:

  • OPEN will cause a door to open.
  • KNEEL will force a particular person to kneel before you.
  • GIVE IT TO ME will oblige a dog to give you whatever it has in its mouth or a thief to return what they've stolen.
  • DROP will cause a fig tree to drop its figs for you. It could also cause a fighter to fall prone or perhaps drop their weapon (at their own interpretation, see Rule of Plausible Deniability below).

How long do spells last?

A person is compelled to obey the spell until the earliest instance they have fulfilled it. Someone commanded to KNEEL may get up at any time afterwards. 

A spell commands a person instantly. (Clever truespeakers can use their "turn" to give their allies extra actions by commanding them with spells.) 

The commanded creature does not have to spend their action on a later turn to obey unless the spell specifies continuous or prolonged action.

If a creature ever starts their turn under the effects of a spell, they may make a saving throw to break the spell's hold on them.

That is to say:

Step 1: The target acts immediately on the truespeaker's turn. 

Step 2: If the spell has not been resolved, the target may make a saving throw at the beginning of their turn until they break the spell or the spell is complete.  

Game Design Sidebar: Effects should never not do anything. If you are bitten by a snake and get poisoned something bad should happen. Can you make a saving throw to avoid the worst of it? Sure. But if a wizard casts a spell on you, something bad should happen. Only by an act of defiance and will can you eventually shrug off an effect. 

How many spells can you cast?

You may cast spells with as many truewords as [number of templates] + [Cha modifier]. 

Each trueword in a spell can only be as many syllables long as your [number of templates]. 

For example:

  • A Truespeaker A character with +2 Cha can speak a sentence 3 words long, with any 1 word being only 1 syllable. 
  • A Truespeaker C character with +1 Cha can speak a sentence 4 words long, with any 1 word being 3 syllables. 
  • A Truespeaker D character with +3 Cha can speak a character 7 words long, with any 1 word being 4 syllables.
Whenever you cast a spell, you accumulate spellburn equal to the number of truewords spoken in the spell. 

Spellburn

Truespeech is the tongue of dragons. Mortals are not designed to speak it. It burns their throats and saps their spirits.

Each point of spellburn lowers your maximum hit points by 1. For example, if you speak a 5 word spell your maximum HP is lowered by 5. 

If spellburn would ever reduce your HP to 0 and someone administers first aid to you so you don't die, you gain a random mutation when you recover. Use your favorite random mutation table. 

(These mutations called "brands" if you're a good little truespeaker from the Isle of Roke. These are called "blights" if you're an evil necromancer who knows the Lore of Paln.) 

You can bleed off spellburn by sleeping. You reduce your spellburn 1 + Cha per night. 

You can also bleed off spellburn at places of magical importance, like places where leylines cross. This  requires you to perform a ritual 1 day long and reduces your spellburn by [1d6 + Cha + number of templates].

The Rules and Limits of the Truespeech 

'What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of Command. That proved too great a strain. The door burst in pieces. Something dark as a cloud was blocking out all the light inside, and I was thrown backwards down the stairs. All the wall gave way, and the roof of the chamber as well, I think.

- The Fellowship of the Ring, Jolkien Rolkien Rolkien Tolkien

Alright, I lied when I said you didn't have to memorize a lot of rules. There are limits to casting spells with the truespeech. These rules define what is and isn't possible with this system. They're pretty easy though, so consult them only when needed. 

Side Note: It is rumored that Truesinging controls not the present - but the future. (This is how the world was made.) They also say that the dwarves' Truerunes control the past. 

The Rule of Sub-Creation

A spell can only work within the natural bounds of creation itself. Snow cannot BURN. Apple trees cannot GROW PUMPKINS. A dog cannot TRANSFORM INTO A MAN (or vice versa). You can only command objects, things, people, etc. to do things they can reasonably accomplish. These actions can be foolish - even dangerous - but they cannot be unnatural.

The Animist's First Exception - Movement

Most people don't know this, but almost everything can move. They just choose not to. Spells can command something to move - rocks to stack themselves, arrows to fly without a bow, flames to leap from their logs. 

Spells can command anything to move and it will obey.

The Animist's Second Exception - Speech

The little spirit in almost anything can also speak. Spells can command anything - rocks, books, dead bodies, living people - to speak and it will obey. Unless the spell is cleverly constructed, most things will not say anything meaningful (see Plausible Deniability below).

The Necromancer's First Exception - Time

Time isn't real. It's a tacit lie that makes people comfortable. You can speed up natural processes (but not work) through spells. For example, milk can instantly CURDLE. Fruit can instantly RIPEN. A man can instantly GROW A BEARD.  

The Rule of Iron

Iron is the act of the Demiurge. Men use iron to kill each other, thus fulfilling the evil will of the Demiurge. The True Creator has never touched iron and thus cannot affect it. 

If you are carrying a significant portion of iron, truespeaking cannot affect you.

If you are carrying a significant portion of iron, you cannot speak the truespeech. 

Game Design Sidebar: For stuff as nasty as this subsystem, you should give players an out. Someone carrying iron can neither benefit from (by getting extra actions from) nor be harmed by truespeaking. They tap out. 

The Rule of the Listener

Spells only affect something that can hear you. You cannot affect the moon, for instance, because it is too far away. 

Rule of Plausible Deniability

(This is an important rule.) Someone who hears the truespeech must immediately obey the spell to the best of their ability. 

They are allowed to find loopholes. 

A person commanded to do a single thing will do it - and can then resume whatever they were doing previously. A person commanded to KNEEL will bend the knee for a moment then get back up. A person commanded to DROP YOUR SWORD will drop it - but can recover it at the earliest opportunity. 

The truespeech is especially ruinous when a moment's action would spell their doom. WALK FORWARD can make even a strong-willed person step off of a cliff. (But then again - so could a strong fighter bullrushing them to their doom.) 

Clever spells can entrap a person for a length of time. COUNT EVERY GRAIN OF SAND on a beach could potentially occupy a victim indefinitely. If a creature ever starts their turn under the effects of a spell, they may make a saving throw to break the spell's hold on them.

The Rule of Naming

Anything that hears you will obey you for a moment. Given time, a creature's own will can overcome your spell. However, if you speak a true name as part of the spell, the target cannot make a saving throw to overcome continuous action.

The Exception of Counter-Naming

The Rule of Naming is sublimated by this exception: If the target also knows your true name, their knowledge of your name allows them to ignore the use of their true name. They are allowed a saving throw as normal.

The Rule of Mortal's Limitation

Outside of the Sub-Creation Exceptions (time, etc.), a spell cannot do much more than the truespeaker could with free hands and tools. 

Most spells do as much damage as a normal weapon (say, 1d6). This includes thrown stones, tongues of fire, or entangling thorns. 

Some cleverly worded spells may do more (fire may continue burning, a collapsed bridge might drown someone, etc.). 

The most grievous part of this limitation is the inability to affect life itself. Spells may not directly affect the life force of any creature, positively or negatively. 

The Rule of Right and Left Hand

Speaking the truespeech can be very vague and context is all important. A truespeaker can provide context through vigorous gestures

Anything gestured to with the left hand is the commanded one.

Anything gestured to with the right hand is the target of the command. 

For example: The truespeaker says ATTACK, gesturing at one orc with the left hand and a human bandit with the right hand. The orc is compelled to attack the human bandit.

You can only gesture with hands that are completely empty. Being more eloquent with your spells removes the needs to use gestures altogether.

The Rule of Specificity 

Gestures can only get you so far. The more specific a spell, the better in accordance with the caster's wishes. For example ALL ORCS STOP would target every orc within hearing. 

The Rule of Cumulation 

Spells only command, they do not create. You must have a valid target for your spells. 

There is a saying: It must be raining before it storms. 

You cannot call lightning from nothing. First, the spirits of the air must make it rain. Then, it must storm. Then, you can call the lightening. 

The Rule of Countering

Anything that truespeech does can be undone by truespeech again. 

(The most dangerous spells compel changes that cannot be undone, for example, an ensorcelled brother putting his sword through his brother's face.)

The Exception of the Sorcerer

Spellburn cannot be healed by the truespeech or by any magic. 


6 comments:

  1. Really, really cool. What I like most about this is that it is quite intuitive and not a single die roll is required on the part of the Truespeaker to bend the world to their will. They speak, and their words are true. It is the target that must resist, and only after they have already been affected by the spell. That's power right there. Undoubtedly, I will shamelessly steal from this for a similar concept in my campaign.

    Thank you for the post!

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  2. The rule of Left and Right is so neat! Going to use that for everything, I've been thinking about hand gestures for a while now and this is it

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  3. Damn McCroo, you’ve done it again. Incredibly good post, will be adapting - I really want to try this out.

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  4. Damn. This is great. My mind is blown.

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  5. I'm slightly confused. Can truespeech heal? If I tell someone "HEAL", will they get better? The Necromancer's First Exception would seem to allow it and The Exception of the Sorcerer implies it (by saying something it can't heal), but the last clause of The Rule of Mortal's Limitation seems to say otherwise.

    I assume healing is possible and The Rule of Mortal's Limitation is referring to more direct things, but a clarification would be nice.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I think you can speed up a body's natural processes and command them to HEAL.

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