Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Voices in the Sky - Sorcerers

With my eyes sewn shut
To shut down and bathe in these words about me
And now you're standing alone with your eyes to the sun
Standing alone with your eyes to the sun
That heaven and earth may strike their sounds together
Worlds are ruined this way, 
And we've all been there time and time again
Before the battle always seem so still

These lyrics, from the song "The Undertaker's Thirst For Revenge Is Unquenchable (The Final Battle)" by Chiodos, have always made me think of sorcery; their mortal body all but unneeded, using words and rituals to devastate their enemies, their corrupted souls shining as bright as the sun to all who gaze upon them. They transcend what is natural, reach beyond this realm into the next to draw incredible power, power enough to break armies and, as put, ruin worlds.

But the concept of sorcery has always taken a conflicting position in my mind, and in my world. We’ll start at the simplest part, with my mind;

Like any child growing up with high fantasy, magic and sorcery played a huge part in my childhood fantasies. I’d often run around a garden with a stick in my hands, proudly exclaiming to a barely-listening parent that I’d vanquished the dragon with my almighty spells! (This was, of course, the same child who always wanted to be a robot when he grew up. Yes, robot sorcerers; a terrifying concept.)

As my experience with magic become more indepth, primarily through books but also through films and games, magic became a sort-of Curse-plus. The incredible power associated with magic of any type became a worthy goal of any sidekick, but rarely the hero; why, you ask? Sorcery was full of ancient mages, old hermits living in forests or caves, powerful wizards atop their keeps, protected by dragons and skeletons. Magic was a curse, as it alienated you from your family, an indescribable difference between you and them that couldn’t be healed by words. Magic took decades to master, if you ever did, if you even survived along the way, and it consumed everybody and everyone wishing to undertake it’s wonders.

My experience, again, grew. Two main sources began to colour my views on magic; Warhammer, and Bakker.

Warhammer 40,000, if I was more precise. Magic there, referred to as Psychic powers, and performed by Psykers, was an incredibly powerful feat. You could rend enemies in two with your mind, have fantastic mental duels with enemies across the battlefield, and produce dazzling shields of light to protect your allies. But, the risks were ever present; not only were these Psykers practically condemned to death in the God Emperors name, but they were at constant risk of possession; daemon could tear through the warp, the source of all psychic sorcery, murdering the individual, possessing him outright, or using him to tear a wound in reality to spread more daemonic filth.

And it broke many trends with that last point; most magic found that the stronger an individual was, the more they could defend against the nasties of another realm. Not in 40K; true, training and concentration, as well as endless devotion, could protect in some sense, the stronger you become, the more your presence became visible to daemons, and the more of a target you were. If psychic powers were the power source, and you were the light, then the moth attracted to you was over four times your size, and could crush you in an instant.

My other source tempered this ruthlessness of sorcery; R. Scott Bakker, author of the Prince of Nothing series of books (some of my favourite ever written) again saw sorcery as a curse. Religion had condemned sorcerers, and unless they were hired by a School of Sorcerers when they were young, they were destined to be hunted down as wizards and murdered in the brutal ways that only religion can muster.

Sorcery itself was there to be understood. The Schools each defined religion in their own way, and each had levels of power and control that the others couldn’t grasp. Some focussed through emotions, others through knowledge of the past and ancient languages, and others still could only grasp the weaker portions of magic, but had such numbers they were still competition for the more powerful schools. Sorcery was an incredible power, feared by the populace. More importantly, anyone could make use of the minor magic (every whore used a sorcerous shell to keep themselves from getting pregnant), but more powerful usage was restricted to those already in touch with sorcery.

Another main point to Bakker’s sorcery was the complete lack of defined spells and rituals. There weren’t any fireballs or ice-blasts; most sorcery acted as a blast of incandescent light, or flowing blue energy from the casters forehead. The sorcery was truly incomprehensible, beyond explanation and description.

(I want to give an honourable mention to the Dragon Age series, too. There, mages were powerful and feared creatures, but as much for their weakness and vulnerability to demonic influence for their power. Mages were forced into strict order and censorship simply because they could play host to the demonic from the other side, not just because of their inherent power. While this influence has been much weaker, it is no doubt a part of what I wish for in the end.)

These sources played heavily on my own wishes for sorcery, and they were developed in DreX in the following ways;

Sorcery was not something especially terrifying. Almost everyone seemed at least somewhat capable of spellcasting, and many classes had what could be defined as ‘spells’; Knights could utilise prayers, Priests could call upon miracles, and even Warriors had a few tricks that borderlined spellcasting. The three sorcerous classes, the Schoolman, the Cishaurim, and the Quorista, all had their pretty unique viewpoints, but their spells between classes were barely unique in their style,

In truth, background aside, the classes were barely defined. They all had access to the basic ‘throw-element-here’ spells so famous through Dungeons and Dragons. They all had loose healing spells, or the summoning of invisible barriers. Sure, each class had maybe one or two unique spells; resurrection upon death, summoning of ethereal beasties, and what not, but they were lacklustre and ill-defined.

And I think that was what it was. It was only the background that defined the sorcerers, never the spells themselves. There was nothing really unique between each class, nothing really stood out to make someone say; Wow, I want to be a Schoolman/Cishaurim/Quorista!

Worse still, I always imagined each spell to be devastating. They’re unleashing the elements, the power of the spirit world, or the raw force of a living creatures soul! In a word, they should rend the heavens from the earth! Limp bodies should fall, bathed in flame, their screams cut short only by the screams of their comrades! It should be devastating.

But it always felt so.. empty. Roll to hit. You deal 2d10 damage. That person is on fire. Yawn. And most sorcery went unused or unnoticed; sure, some of the inherent God-skills were used enough, but they were unique, and they had a major effect on the world. Sorcery? It was just a glorified attack. Some dealt only slightly more damage than a regular gun.

And this is what I decided to change!

But where did I start? At the beginning, of course. At the activation.

How could I make a spell stronger, though? It had to balance out in the end; a single focus spent could only deal a set amount of damage, to keep everything in check. No matter what my childhood thoughts of sorcery meant, I couldn’t break the game just to live out my own fantasies. So I thought back to those days; what was the dominant feature of a spell?

Of course, the time it had taken to cast. The brave warrior always held off the enemies as the resolute mage prepared the next devastating spell. It took time. Playing DreX, spells were nearly instantaneous; you pay the focus cost, the spell happens, end of. This never rang true; in older editions, where turns were split into two halves with actions taking longer to occur, spells took at least a full turn to cast. Now, with the Focus system, there’s no delay, and it really limits the power of spells; they’re relegated to regular skills, and are trapped within those same boundaries.

The solution? Of course, I don’t want to bog down the game in waiting times and delays. Gunplay was reduced to a single dice roll, and why would I want it to be any more complicated than that? How about a single activate-able ability, gained upon taking a sorcerous class? What if the first skill on every sorcerous skill tree was akin to a set-up cost, a 4 or 5 Focus ability that had to be active to cast spells? More so, what if it had an upkeep cost of 1 focus per turn, to remain ‘in the zone’, to keep your concentration going so you can keep slinging spells?

This already adds a 4 or 5 focus cost to every spell activated thereafter, giving me a much wider range for spell power and strength. That dragonhead no longer needs to deal 2d10 damage, but can easily deal upwards of 5d10 damage to everyone in the area, without my worrying (so much) about balance. Other limitations, like the inability to dodge while in the trance, are a natural, of course; some inherent weakness to this spell-casting power frenzy is a requirement, or else mages would skyrocket in power compared to the other classes.

So this is the future. Schoolmen gain the ‘Recital’ ability, Cishaurim gain the ‘Remembrance’ ability, and the Quorista gain the ‘Ritual’ ability. There. But.. what does each class do?

It was time to truly define each role; not just their abilities, but their background.

We’ll start with the Schoolman. They now call upon the power of the Unreal, the source of all sorcerous abilities, as an eternal power source. They speak the literal Word of God, commanding the world to change around them, and draw upon the Unreal to provide force to their demands. The empyreal strength of the Unreal empowers them, as their demands become reality; a dragonhead rears up behind them, spouting flames on their enemies. But what entities support them in the Unreal? Where does this power come from?

The Elementals, of course. Their rigorous training and lack of emotion with regards to sorcery has attracted these pure beings, who live their lives in the same pattern. An Elemental is a spirit of the deceased who has come to embody an element connected with their past life, and their death, despite their complete lack of memories. They constantly seek freedom from the swirling chaos of the Unreal, for reasons they no longer understand. The Schoolman plays upon this desire, releasing the elemental in parts; bouts of fire, an icy sheath, blasts of lightning. Enough to satiate the creature, but not to release it. Some are even refuted to be able to bound Elementals to their will, bringing them into the real world as servants and guardians…

The Cishaurim are next. They draw upon their emotions to bring about great power, usually manipulating enemies, bringing a soul-crushing pain onto their foes, or entirely removing their will to go on. Where the Schoolman expose their bodies and minds to the Unreal, the Cishaurim expose their very souls; their power comes internally, flowing directly into them. They use their anger to blast their enemies with psychic pain, they use their love to heal an ally and bring him back to life, and they use their apathy to dull a persons senses entirely, until they can no longer go on.

The Cishaurim draw on the numerous spirits of the Unreal, the deceased who have not passed through the Unreal onto the Wheel of Life and Death. These beings live with such purpose or willpower that their spirit refuses to fade away; they cling to half-forgotten memories, and exist as the middle point between the living and the empyrean. The Cishaurim connect en-masse with dozens of spirits at a time, who each clamour for the Cishaurims exposed soul; they see that life and purpose they once had, and long for it. This raw power and hunger they shape with their own emotions, then bring into the real world and redirect it upon their enemies, often to devastating effect.

The Quorista are the youngest, and darkest, of the sorcerous arts. They expose their body, and their soul, to the Unreal, and as such must be the most capable of manipulating the Unreal to their whims; they submerge themselves so deeply into the Unreal that they must fight off the spirits, Elementals, and other denizens of this dark world, until they gain the attention of a much higher power. They then bound this creature, often a Ciphrang, an Emyprean, or even one of the Infinite Chorus, and chain it to their singular will. They tear a whole through the Unreal into the Real, and drag the creature through with them. Summoners of the darkest powers, they are rare, but extremely feared.

With the Infinite Chorus aside, the Quorista find no source of power in the Unreal; their true sorcerous strength exists entirely in the real. Mostly Quorista do spend many hours a day engaged in a deep ritualistic trance, lost in the Unreal, learning the route to the strongest and most powerful creatures there, and figuring out how to survive there until they have found their prey. The Infinite Chorus, an organised cabal of powerful creatures inside the Unreal, has been mastered by the creator of the Quorista schools of sorcery, Ahramayav, who uses the Chorus in a multitude of ways; he can summon the Words, who lack the strength to appear in physical form but have extremely demoralising effects on his foes, he can bring about the Verses, powerful demons who put even the Ciphrang to shame, and the Chorus itself, said to be as old as the Unreal, whose power matches that of the Gods.

This is how I envisage the future of the sorcerous arts. Of course, the entire spell list will be reorganised and changed to better suit this vision; the current, rather vague sequence of abilities really doesn’t appeal to me. A unified ideal, something people can stick a tag to; an elementalist, a mentalist, and a summoner. The world is challenging enough as it is, I don’t see why the sorcerous classes should make it more so…

Of course, I'm always looking for ideas. This has never been a one-man project; the input from my players, friends, and even complete strangers is always a vital and required addition to DreX. I'd love to hear what people think of the above, whether you've read a copy of DreX or not!

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