Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Folk Magic in Hammerstein!

It is too easy to allow magic in D&D become bland. There is no casting roll, no consequences for magic use, and spells occur instantly (if you win the initiative roll). I did like AD&D2e's casting times and material components, but never actually used them in play. The 2e schools of magic and specialist wizards were a good idea, even if they didn't work that well [to my mind, Brendan at Untimately has a much better way of handling 'specialist' magic in D&D]. RuneQuest magic can play pretty vanilla too, especially Common Magic, though the attempt by RuneQuest to embed magic in the cultures of the fantasy world - into the very fabric of the world, in the case of Glorantha - sets it apart. WFRP1e gives you magic with material components, and promises a world in which magic is a dangerous force, but unless a character opts for the dead-ends of Necromancy or Demonology, it is actually quite a low risk pursuit. What I am attempting to do with Hammerstein! is to tinker with the OpenQuest magic systems to produce some appropriately flavourful effects. First, by way of the RuneQuest lineage, magic is easily tied to the social organisation of the world - cultures and cults, guilds and grimoires, etc. Second, while magic will be ubiquitous, most people will have little magical power - Folk Magic (Common Magic/Battle Magic in Hammerstein!) is increasingly harder to learn at higher magnitudes. It is the magic of simple charms and curses, ritualised gestures and chants, echoes of lost knowledge. Third, other, more powerful forms of magic - supernatural intercession and thaumaturgic sorcery - carry risks. Communing with the supernatural is exhausting - so we're talking Resilience tests with Fatigue and even Hit Point penalties. Understanding the magical nature or reality is mindbending - so we're talking Persistence tests with Insanity Points. Or somesuch - I've yet to decide whether to use OpenQuest's elegantly simple rules, or build something pointlessly complex on top...

It's enough to drive you mad!

Anyway, there's more to it than that. With Folk Magic, I'm adding in 'material foci'. Below, I try to explain what these are, and suggest material foci for the OpenQuest spells that I'm including in Folk Magic. Of course, players will be free to suggest that their character comes from a tradition in which object X is used to cast folk magic spell Y. But the examples will set the tone. Unfortunately, the material foci that I've come up with are boringly literal. Suggestions for other material foci are welcome. Very welcome.

[] Material Foci
Casting folk magic spells usually involves the use of a material focus. These foci are as variable as the traditions through which this form of magic is passed from generation to generation. More often than not, the material focus of a spell is not consumed by its casting; it is simply a prop around which the ritual has been taught. A character casting a folk magic spell without the material focus used in the tradition he was taught does so with a Difficult (-20%) modifier to his Folk Magic skill score. Characters with very high Folk Magic skill scores are able to dispense with material foci as their mastery of the ritual is sufficient, but for the day-to-day practitioners, holy symbols, pinches of salt, feathers and the like are essential elements of magic. 


A small pouch of tiles or pebbles painted or carved with letters. 

Clear Path 
An ordinary knife.  

A toy top, a feather, an accurate set of weights, or extract of monkey brains.

A necklace, a bracelet, or a ring of other warding charm.  

A pot of tar, a falconry hood, or a candle snuffer. 

A toy mask with exaggeratedly fearful facial features or a small bag of live spiders. 

Detect (X) 
A small piece of the substance to be detected, a compass with the needle removed, or a dowsing rod. 

Dispel Magic 
A bag of salt, a pinch of which is tossed into the air when the spell is cast. 

A strip of leather, squeezed or pulled, as the spell is cast.

Dull Weapon
Two pebbles, ground together in the hand as the spell is cast.

Enhance (Skill)
The material foci for these spells are highly variable, ranging from trade tools to guild symbols, to material with a symbolic of mythic resonance with the skill being enhanced.

An ordinary container of water.

The teeth or claws of a vicious beast.

A piece of amber, touched against the missile.

A piece of amber, slid against the blade. 

Heal spells are unusual in that they often do not require a material foci, though some traditions build their rituals around the use of a holy symbol.

Hinder (Skill)
The material foci for these spells are highly variable. Guild symbols are often used, though many guilds deny that they teach such magic to their members.   
Hinder Perception – a pinch of dust blown in the direction of the target.
Hinder Trade – common material foci include counterfeit coins, rigged weights, and other symbolically fraudulent measures.
Hinder Persistence – spilling strong drink or a sedative drug onto the floor often serves as the material focus.

Pieces of flint or a small pouch of ashes.

This spell needs no other material foci other than the object to be illuminated. 

A small piece of paper covered in writing, which the caster swallows. 

A feather.

Archers using this spell often use a bag of down as the material focus of this spell. Cultures that use slings often use a handful of sand. The javelin wielding tribesmen of Inner Pogotania use a small bundle of reeds. Interestingly, though these traditions reflect the missile weapons of the culture, a Pogotanian tribesman can cast Multimissile on the crossbow bolt used by a Genezian mercenary perfectly well.   

A steel or bone needle.

The material foci of these spells are often simply the clothing, armour, weapon or shield of the target. The Allmeny barbarians, who eschew armour, often smear themselves in Frazetta oil when casting this spell.  

Second Sight 
The material focus of this spell is often a ring, to be looked through when casting the spell. 

A pouch of stones or lead shot, or a jar or treacle.

Tools for measuring distance, such a ruler or a knotted string. 

The knuckle bones of Trolls and other large humanoids or a mouthful of bull’s blood. In some barbarian tribes, the passage to manhood involves receiving a thick leather belt that acts as the focus of this spell.

Strong liquor or hot spices.

Water Breath 
Traditional material foci among the fishing villages along the Dragon’s Back include swallowing dried fish gills, while the Pearl Islanders take a small breath from a pouch made out of a swim bladder.  

Weapon Enhance
Blood from a man or woman who died in combat. Soldiers in the armies of Genezia are trained to use the gold doubloon that they received when being commissioned or conscripted.


  1. Ah, I see today that RQ6 has renamed Common Magic as Folk Magic. And, as I am doing, has weakened it. So maybe I should just play RQ6 and give up on Hammerstein! as a set of rules and stick with it as a world? After all, our recent D&D games have been set in the Hammerstein! world...

    No. Though I will be buying RQ6 - getting a pre-order in before Aug 22nd - at 450 pages I can't see how that is not too complex a game for me and my group. And, complexity aside, I want the game to evoke a certain atmosphere and body of gaming antecedents. That doesn't mean anyone else will want to play it, but it remains a live project.

    Until Magic World comes out and I find everything I'm trying to do has been anticipated...

  2. This is all pretty cool, and very similar to something I've been fiddling around with for Open Quest. I've been trying to come up with a way of modeling magic as it was found in the Lord of the Rings books. Many creatures and characters show everyday magic (Legolas walking on snow, etc..) but only a few characters are able to produce real works of magic (and almost all of them are inherently supernatural).

  3. Yes, the problem with MERP was that it brought over Rolemaster magic, so everybody could throw around 'Force Bolts' and stuff like that.