The World of Xoth

Where cold iron meets non-Euclidean geometry!

03 April

The mysteries of magic

“And having written, I shall enclose the pages in a sealed cylinder of orichalchum, and shall cast the cylinder from a high window into the sea, lest that which I am doomed to become should haply destroy the writing. And it may be that mariners from Lephara, passing to Umb and Pneor in their tall triremes, will fnd the cylinder; or fishers will draw it from the wave in their seines of byssus; and having read my story, men will learn the truth and take warning; and no man’s feet, henceforward, will approach the pale and demon-haunted house of Avyctes.” — Clark Ashton Smith: The Double Shadow

The core magic rules of the Pathfinder system are based on the assumption that magic pervades the world and is used almost as a substitute for technology.

But, ironically, having too much magic takes away much of the wonder and awe of magic.

At the same time, taking away too much magic or making the magic rules overly restrictive and harsh tends to alienate players, who might consider it unfair that only non-player character should have access to powerful magic. Plus, tampering with the magic rules puts an additional burden on the players, who have to learn the new rules.

Thus, the philosophy of campaigns in the World of Xoth is to change as little as possible of the actual magic rules. The sword and sorcery feel can be achieved in a campaign by restricting or changing a few key elements of the core rules which interfere with the low-magic paradigm, without totally abandoning the fantasy that players expect and enjoy.

Restricting Spell Lists

First of all, certain spells from the core rules simply do not fit well in a sword and sorcery world. Any class with access to spells should have a spell list

customized for the proper atmosphere. Spells can be excluded if they fall into any of the categories below.

Artillery Spells: Avoid spells that turn the spellcaster into a walking piece of artillery, able to wipe out a small army of opponents with a single spell. Fireball and its derivatives (delayed blast fireball, meteor swarm, flame strike, etc.) fall into this category (but burning hands does not). On the other hand, note that certain fire-cults are able to use spells such as wall of fire and flame strike, because that is their special niche and such awesome displays of power remain closely guarded secrets among them.

Life-Restoring Magic: Death is final, and characters cannot count on being raised or resurrected. In the extremely rare cases where someone is brought back from the dead, it will always be through black magic (probably requiring blood sacrifce), and always as some hideous mockery of their former selves, whether a soulless zombie, wizened mummy, or restless, mad spirit.

Convenience Spells: Rope trick is only a 2nd-level spell, yet it creates an extradimensional space where an entire party can hide from the rest of the world; hardly fitting for gritty sword and sorcery. The spell create water is certainly convenient, but the wilderness becomes a more dangerous (and interesting) place without such spells. Similarly, characters should rely on their swimming skills and their Constitution scores instead of depending on water breathing. And so on.

Instant Transportation: Teleport and its varieties make a mockery of long wilderness treks and quests into uncharted waters. Neither should dimension door and other short-range teleportation spells be allowed, because they make it too easy to circumvent defenses and penetrate castle and city walls. In a low-magic world, there are simply no adequate countermeasures against such spells.

Powerful Low-Level Divinations: Detect magic might seem innocent enough, but in the hands of power-gamers it tends to be used as a “radar” to scan areas for anything interesting (such as magical items or traps). Roleplaying improves when there is no such clear distinction of what is magical and what is not. Detect evil does not apply to a world without alignments. Comprehend languages is a mere 1st-level spell, but allows you to understand all written languages. That might not seem very important when dungeon-crawling, but if such a spell exists, there is little point in learning ancient and forgotten languages, and the role-playing aspects of trying to decipher ancient grimoires are lost.

“Superhero” Spells: Flying (through the fly spell) and turning invisible (through invisibility and improved invisibility) are examples of powers rarely seen in sword and sorcery stories. These abilities are especially powerful (and therefore unbalancing) in low-magic settings, where there are few countermeasures available.

Magical items that duplicate these types of spells do not exist either (although there are no rules without exceptions).

It becomes apparent that in many cases, skills become more important for characters when magic spells are restricted. Skills such as Climb, Heal, Linguistics, Perception, Sense Motive, Survival, Swim, and the various Knowledge skills are good substitutes for many of the spells listed above.


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