Dresden’s Hogwarts: Magic

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Part of the reason for my months-long hiatus from blogging was that I finally read enough Harry Potter fanfic that I went from “I could do this” to “I have to do this.” If you’d like to see more of my writing, on a more regular basis, the first book of a Dresden Files/Harry Potter crossover is now getting posted twice a week on fanfiction.net. Dresden winds up going to Hogwarts after his mentor’s death, instead of a farm in the Ozarks. Shenanigans ensue.

The interesting thing about crossover fanfic is using one work’s worldbuilding to shore up the other’s, and this is potentially useful for designing games as well. My goal for the series was to make as much of the magic style from Dresden Files be true as possible without explicitly contradicting the worldbuilding in Harry Potter. Since the worldbuilding in Harry Potter is diaphanous enough to ride an elephant through in a lot of places, this had the interesting result of shoring up the whole into what feels to me like a much more reasonable structure. So this could probably be a good way to round out a setting you’re running a game in, if the supporting fiction is too thin: find a somewhat compatible property and use it for inspiration to round out your world.

Interestingly, in creating a hybrid magic system, I also came across a potential way to wrap my head around how the traditions work together with incompatible paradigms in Mage: the Ascension.

Without further ado…

This is the summary of how magic works as Justin taught it to me and I explained it to the kids who came to my enchanting tutorials. Hogwarts doesn’t explain most of this unless you take arithmancy, and even then, some of the theory is lost in the practice.

Magic is, quite simply, imposing your wishes on reality. Those with access to the gift can want something impossible to happen badly enough that it happens. When a wizard is young, this “accidental magic” is the only way he knows to enact his gift. When a wizard is old and powerful, he can, likewise, merely think magic into being. In the middle, wizards are taught complicated practices to organize this into spells that they’ll eventually try to abandon. The difference between the untrained child and the ancient master is control over these wishes. Accidental magic doesn’t do exactly what you expect to happen when you want it, but a master can create magic, when needed, every single time.

The first question you need to ask to understand how the process of magical training works is: why are most spells in Latin?

The reason is because it keeps the magic separated from your speech. If magic spells were in English (or whatever modern language you speak), you’d risk accidentally casting them in normal conversation. The pathways of your brain that control the instinct to create the magic get trained by the wording of the spell. Hogwarts professors probably don’t work hard enough to get kids out of the habit of referring to spells by their incantation rather than their English name. One day, some kid is going to talk about the fire-making charm as “incendio” and accidentally set a friend of fire.

As I understand it, every culture with magic similarly uses a language that’s not frequently used for conversation as their language of incantations. The Romans used ancient Greek, Aramaic, or Etruscan. Non-Western wizards use outdated forms of their own local languages.

Of course, you can’t just say the Latin word for something and consider that a spell. The use of a meaningful word in Latin is useful, but that’s because even if you don’t really speak it, it does have a meaning that you can latch onto. “Incendio” is a word that more or less means “I set on fire.” You could probably make the magic work with a different series of sounds, but it would be harder to remember.

The most important thing is that “incendio” is four syllables, and arithmantically adds up to a 5-4-4-6 structure (i is the 9th letter plus n is the 14th, which adds up to 23 which combines down to 5). There’s no way I could effectively summarize the exact practicals of how that number adding works or why 5-4-4-6 is a similar numerical array to related spells. You’re either just going to have to take my word for it or commit to five years of arithmancy class. Essentially, any word that was close enough to a 5-4-4-6 cadence could be used as the incantation for the fire-making spell. Why are some incantations really bad Latin? Because the more correct Latin didn’t fit the arithmancy.

There’s a ton of math in figuring out an incantation, and that’s just half of a spell. The other half comes in using your focus.

At the simplest level, the foci that I use for my magic (staff, blasting rod, etc.) are limited to particular types of spell. Spells that create or change motion are fundamentally similar in their arithmancy, so I was able to fit a bunch of them into my staff, and I have to differentiate between them by the different incantations. Also, turning the staff into different types of gestures improves the spell (but I can get a weaker version by just holding it and yelling). I’ve embedded a spell matrix into the staff, which is a three-dimensional (some say a four-dimensional) shape that also defines its parameters. The arithmancy of the incantation hooks into the arithmancy of the matrix to basically create a momentary bubble of possibility for the wizard’s thoughts to fill with the magic.

It’s all extremely technical, which is why any Hogwarts student that skips arithmancy and ancient runes has pretty much no idea how it works. They’re training engineers, not scientists. Most wizards never need to know how their tools work.

A wand is the most complicated piece of technology that wizards have come up with. If my staff is an abacus, a wand is a mainframe computer. Both can help you add numbers, but the computer can do so much more but is so much harder to understand. In a tiny, concealable form factor, wandmakers create a focus that can allow you to perform any spell, theoretically up to the maximum possible power possible.

The first drawback is the finesse issue. For whatever reason, I and a lot of other wizards have a really hard time using wands. It’s some combination of conceptual and down to sheer manual dexterity (I have really long arms and that messes up the precise spell gestures). There are probably a ton of great wizards who leave wand-focused schools thinking they’re bad at it, because they just can’t figure out the only technology those schools teach.

The second drawback is compatibility. While every focus has some degree of resonance with the aura of its user, wands are 100% locked into it. I picked the materials for my staff because they worked for me, but it’s still extremely effective in any wizard’s hands. A wand that’s a poor match, however, may barely work at all.

It comes down to the secret technology of how they fit all those spell matrices into one focus. My suspicion is that the wand bonds to the wizard to basically turn his whole body into a completion of the matrix. A poorly-matched wand means all your matrices are malformed before you even start casting.

The third drawback is the gestures. Most of the matrix for a spell is in my staff so I can get away with just pointing. But a wand has to fit every possible spell in, which means it can only carry the most common arithmantic elements of all spells, and algorithms for transforming wand motion into the rest of the spell matrix. Why do you have to swish-and-flick to levitate something with a wand when I just have to gesture with my staff? That precise motion is finishing the matrix for the spell, which I’ve already fully encoded into my staff. Wand users have to get very good at training their muscle memory.

Ultimately, advanced users tend to start getting into magic without words or foci. Without the words, you have to create the spell in your head without the mnemonic aid triggering your brain. Without the focus, you have to fully visualize the matrix. Without either, you’re basically relying on your imagination to fully generate an extremely complex mental construct with no aids other than your own brainpower. You quickly find that using words and tools to train your unconscious mind to do the heavy lifting makes a big difference.

And, when it comes down to it, all of this is training your brain. Arithmantic correspondences and spell matrixes aren’t real. Non-Western traditions use completely different methods of structuring their magic. Western wizards use the structures they do because they’ve been codified and imbued with meaning, so it’s something your brain can latch onto. I’ve heard some people suggest that part of it is also a “universal unconscious” thing: if enough people with the power to make their wishes reality think that the letter A is equal to 1, then that becomes true. I’ll leave that up to the Department of Mysteries to weigh in on. All I know is that every bit of it is a mental construct.

You are a wizard. Your thoughts and desires can make impossible things happen. Every bit of magical praxis you’ve been taught is simply about making it easier to do what you want and harder to have accidents. It all comes down to: if you wish hard enough, you can change the world. Magic is just a set of tools to help you make the best wishes you can.

Oaths of the Sidhe

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This is worldbuilding for my Beyond the Wall game, but since it was most of the way to compatible with D&D 5e anyway, I went ahead and made the tweaks. My players have gotten really into hanging out with the fae at the regular seasonal markets, and are drifting pretty close to just signing up. This was a way to systematize that process.

Also, check out Brandes’ recent post about fae contracts for some largely compatible ideas.

The Bane of Iron

Most fae are weak to iron, the punishment of the Sun for interlopers from the shadow planes. This is not an inherent weakness of Sidhe, except insofar as most are fae. It is said that sometimes mortals that become full Sidhe essentially become adopted by a shadow plane, effectively becoming fae.

Oaths of the Sidhe

Each rank of the court allows another oath to be taken, and each oath taken cements that rank in the court. Most serious Sidhe courtiers have taken all of the oaths: it is the requirement to be considered full Sidhe and to truly engage in Sidhe politics. However, those who have taken any oaths are part of the hierarchy, and have enforced respect over those that bow to Sidhe sovereignty, particularly in Sidhe lands.

Oaths broken tend to result in grievous wounds, commensurate with the wrong committed.

Oathkeeping (Wisdom)

The most common oath is for the keeping of oaths themselves. This is the oath responsible for the famous Sidhe inability to lie.

My words will be my oath. What I say is true. What I commit to, I will perform.

Drawback: You cannot tell an outright falsehood (but can mislead through technically true statements). Your promises always count as an Oath.

Benefit: Gain Advantage on Wisdom checks to determine if someone is deceiving you. Make a Charisma (Intimidation) check when calling a promise due to force even a non-Sidhe to keep an oath to you (or accept commensurate consequences), DC equal to the target’s own Charisma score.

Hospitality (Constitution)

Another common oath, this is the one that protects others from the Sidhe as a guest. It is the only reason Sidhe politics can continue at the most cutthroat times.

While I share bread and drink with my hosts, I am their guest and they are mine. I shall respect their homes, and expect the same. Should they withhold their threat from me, so I shall withhold mine from them, until the guesting is through.

Drawback: You may not directly harm or even work strongly against guests and hosts after accepting/granting hospitality (but can politic towards eventual harm after guesting is over).

Benefit: Gain resistance to all damage dealt by someone who is part of a pact of hospitality to you (and this waives your need to avoid harming the aggressor). Gain Advantage on Constitution saves and checks made when you have guest right (e.g., against toxins or other poor conditions). Roll Charisma (Intimidation) against the target’s Charisma score when you are a host to force violators or those who will not swear from your home.

Demesne (Strength)

This is the oath that allows the Sidhe to build nations and employ diplomats. It is usually sworn after Hospitality, for it is that oath writ to a grander scale. It is the reason Sidhe can be driven off of even mortal lands, due to the respect of authority.

I shall respect territory, as I expect my own to be respected. Should I remain in land where I am unwanted, then this shall be war.

Drawback: You must leave an area when ordered by a rightful authority unless on a mission of declared hostility (and, unfortunately, church bells usually count unless you are expressly welcome, due to the general hostility of the church and their authority over mortal lands).

Benefit: Gain Advantage on Strength checks or similar rolls to erect fortifications or bar portals in your own lands. You, your mount, and your immediate retinue move 50% faster when moving in your lands to intercept invaders. You may automatically sense the strength and potential flaws of fortifications and other defensive measures nearby.

Gifts (Intelligence)

All fae have picked up the gift-giving system from the Sidhe, mostly because an upper class with very specific views on exchange of property quickly creates a culture of it. This oath ultimately serves to formalize ownership and prevent corruption through bribes.

I shall accept nothing that I am not owed. I shall give nothing without an expectation of a return in kind. My value comes from my deeds, not from the whims of others.

Drawback: You cannot accept a gift of item or service without providing something of similar value (owing a favor if you cannot immediately reciprocate); if you have provided services without a formalized gifting/quest structure, you can accept a gift as a way to settle this debt.

Benefit: You gain Advantage on Intelligence checks to appraise the value of items or services, and automatically succeed when they are offered to you as gift or for trade, allowing you to flawlessly detect counterfeits or other items with inflated values. Gain double XP for conspicuous consumption*. Spend Inspiration to have fate help track items that were stolen from you or to see that fortune returns them to your hands.

* In my campaign, the PCs earn XP based on spending cash on goods and services that make their characters happy but have no significant rules effect.

Craft (Dexterity)

Sidhe also have a propensity for games, riddles, and art competitions, as a way to establish dominance without bloodshed. This oath speaks to the cleverness required for true nobility, and is often one of the last oaths sworn by those fae that do not trust in their own intelligence.

I am wit, poise, and guile given form. Should one seek to test me in the domains I have claimed talent, and be it no true hardship, I shall prove my skills or acknowledge my superior.

Drawback: You cannot refuse a challenge to a competition over one of your proficient Skills or Tools unless it is obviously, actively dangerous to you (e.g., a distraction from a fight) or you admit that the challenger is better (you cede the advantage for winning to them).

Benefit: If you win a competition where you were challenged, you are owed by the loser similar to them promising you a favor (with the strength of the favor based on how much effort was required for the competition; a quick riddle game is not the same as a challenge to see who can topple an empire). You owe this in turn if you cede a competition to the challenger without competing, but not if you simply lose after giving it your try (in this case, the favor is minor because the stakes were small). You may learn to work dross and other ephemeral qualities into your crafts (essentially, crafting magic items).

Identity (Charisma)

Not all fae are vulnerable to use of their true names, but this is the oath that ensures it. It is often the final oath, as it is the ultimate claim of identity that allows full nobility.

My name is my own, though I may keep it safe. By my sigil, my will. By my name, my pledge. By my existence, my guarantee. There is none other like me.

Drawback: Statement of your True Name by an antagonist weakens* any of your mystical protections, as well as your mystical attacks against the target (and “statement” may be broad enough to include working your name into bindings or other magics). It also unmasks you of any magical or physical disguise.

* GM’s discretion, usually advantage/disadvantage or the equivalent for effects that don’t involve a roll.

Benefit: Attempts to impersonate you, even with strong magic, automatically fail against anyone that has met you. You automatically succeed on saves to resist being transformed without your consent, unless the aggressor has some kind of authority or broken oath to hold against you. Similarly, you stand strong athwart time and reality, and can ignore changes to the flow of time, causality, and local reality if you so desire (e.g., immune to magic like Slow, Time Stop, and other plot-related weirdness).

Glitch: The Excrucian League

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The Glitch RPG is on Kickstarter for another day or two at the time of this posting. It’s the third game in the Nobilis-verse (the second being Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine), focusing on the Excrucians, which were the big threat in the previous games. They’re the dark riders from outside of reality that have come to destroy the universe, one essential concept at a time, until the whole thing unravels back into nonexistence.

Well, specifically, Glitch focuses on the small handful of Excrucians that have decided to stop trying to destroy the world for various reasons. So the primary mode of play seems to be very existentialist dark comedy: entities of godly power sitting around in a world they’re conflicted about allowing to continue to exist, pissing off the Nobles that they bump into who may not know they’ve taken a pledge to stop all that dark riding, and occasionally poking at a mystery like a sore tooth where they can’t help themselves from figuring out why reality is wrong.

The eponymous Glitch of the game’s title is the central conceit of how the characters came to get their powers. When reality was created out of the nothing that originally existed, it was kind of a rush job and many of the core elements that make up time, space, physics, and concepts have some bugs. Most people don’t notice them (because the perceptual tools you’d use to notice them are part of the whole hacked together reality), but sometimes someone will accidentally comprehend that a core aspect of the world they rely on every day is broken, and that person becomes glitched. For the most part, these poor souls gradually get torn apart and broken, but some are able to tap deep into their beings and find a seed of unreality and bloom themselves into full on outer-darkness godlings.

But they’re still dying of the core glitch in reality, the dissonance eating away at them the longer they live in the world, periodically becoming overwhelmed and having to retreat back into unreality to reform themselves. Even as gods, the flaw in reality remains essential to them, and drives a lot of their capabilities and behaviors. It’s the itch they can’t scratch.

Check out the Kickstarter if any of that sounds interesting (or if you’ve liked Jenna Moran’s other stuff).

But, anyway, while reading through the backer drafts, a lot of the description of character stuff started sounding like the backgrounds of a certain trio of superheroes, and it’s interesting to think of them from that point of view, so…

Clark, dying of Radiation

There are many worlds on the world tree, though Earth is a central battleground of the the Valde Bellum and, thus, gets all the press. When that war for reality hit a couple of load-bearing concepts on Krypton, the world managed to blow itself to bits, but at least one survivor found his way to Earth as a baby. Most of the legends of the dust-bowl-era farmers raising the boy are more-or-less accurate, and he did go to the big city to be a hero for a time, but that was until the Glitch set in.

If he was just essentially a mythic creature, naturally stronger, more durable, and able to fly, Clark wouldn’t have been any different than any of the other strangely-powered entities that sneak into prosaic Earth from various chancels and other worlds. But the longer he worked, the more clear it became that his powers were deeply tied to radiation. Why would the light of Earth’s sun power him when Krypton’s wouldn’t? Why should the shards of his home planet weaken and kill him? The disconnect finally caused him to Glitch and become an Excrucian.

He never really lost his Kansas values, however, and ultimately couldn’t bring himself to destroy the world he’d spent so much time trying to protect.

Technique: Strongman, Reporter
Eide 3 (Defined)
Flore 0 (Outsider)
Lore 0 (Lostling)
Wyrd 3 (Armiger)
Ability 3 (Basic)
Gifts/Bonds/Geasa: Durant, Flight, Immutable, Bond (I fight for those that can’t fight for themselves)

Clark’s Eide is sufficient to allow him to do basic physical stunts for free, as well as instantly change his costume. With a small expenditure, he can act with tremendous talent within his techniques, as well as pulling off greater stunts. His Wyrd allows him to easily retreat to his Fortress of Solitude, a soothing elysium of unreality where he can rest and recover, and with a small expenditure, he can unleash destruction in the form of his heat vision, inflicting Radiation on those before him. His Ability allows him to get by in the skills of the mortal world.

Diana, dying of Chauvinism

Themyscira is a chancel created by a True God centuries ago, breaking off a significant portion of ancient Greece and preserving it to the present day, its denizens reflecting many of the virtues of the ancient seat of democracy and culture. Most cherished of them all was a young woman created from clay and given great might and wisdom, then sent out into the Earth that is not a pocket reality as an envoy of the Amazons.

It didn’t take long for her to begin to understand the fundamental flaws of humanity regarding their neighbors and gender. Everything was organized wrong, and all her attempts to convince people that there was no need for war between the nations or the sexes failed. Eventually, she realized that something was wrong with the coding of mortal behavior, and it began to eat at her until she finally birthed into a true goddess of unreality, like Athena bursting from their fathers’ head.

Yet the mind that would not accept the necessity of war between mortals could not accept war between what is and what is not, and she quickly exited the Valde Bellum

Technique: Warrior
Eide 2 (Envoy)
Flore 4 (Awakener)
Lore 0 (Lostling)
Wyrd 0 (World-Bound)
Ability 4 (Professional)
Gifts/Bonds/Geasa: Durant

Diana’s Eide is sufficient to allow her to do basic stunts for free (though the irony of being such a skilled warrior while eschewing war is something she’s well aware of), with display of talents and greater stunts within her reach with an expenditure). Her Flore provides her five treasures (the bracers, the lariat, etc.) and the ability to freely activate the glory of their powers, as well as to cheaply ignite these abilities to a nigh-unbelievable edge. Her Ability allows her to thrive in the mortal world.

Bruce, dying of Crime

Bruce was the favored son of old New York City, over a century ago when it stretched all the way up the state’s coast and was inarguably the biggest city on Earth. So many opportunities brought just as much crime, which claimed his parents as it claimed the lives of so many others. At first, he tried to use his family’s wealth to establish social programs and fund elections to clean up the city. None of it worked. But as soon as he became a vigilante, stalking the night and punching criminals, he began to see a marked improvement.

The insanity of what he was doing had already begun to eat at him when the hundred nights of murder began. An imperator creating a chancel requires the life’s blood of 100 citizens, and the formation of the Gotham chancel from a significant portion of New York involved a deadly crime spree like none had ever seen before. As the pocket realm formed and nobles were chosen, Bruce fully succumbed to his Glitch and became something more than a man, and even more than a symbol: he became an Excrucian.

However, his war was never fully with reality itself, and when not worrying at the edifice that is Gotham, he’s quite happy to let existence go undestroyed. For their part, the other members of the Excrucian League try not to get involved in his ongoing war with the city and its Nobles, including the powers of Comedy, Cryogenics, Cryptography, and Cats.

Technique: Detective, Ninja
Eide 0 (Ingenue)
Flore 0 (Outsider)
Lore 4 (Outrider)
Wyrd 0 (World-Bound)
Ability 5 (Driven)
Gifts/Bonds/Geasa: Bond (I’m vengeance. I’m the night. I’m Batman.), Talented

Bruce’s Talented gift allows him to use the Talent miracle of Eide for a range of uses to establish his martial arts superiority even on a mythic level, though he is not skilled with Eide in general. Rather than the treasures that Diana wields, Bruce’s belt of tricks and car full of gadgets are truly Arcana of unreality, which his Lore allows him to accumulate and deploy. His rating in Lore also allows him to freely tap deep into the secrets of the universe and perform a Greater Investigation into nearly any subject. His Ability marks him as omni-competent in just about any mortal discipline.