Friday, September 17, 2021

Who, Whom, Why (GLOG Setting: Urban Fantasy/Wozerds)

    This post is a lightly-edited stream of consciousness I assembled from several discussions over the course of a few weeks (months? I have no sense of time) in the emergency-use-only double-premium 70% cacao GLOG server. If I were going to run this, I would write a sensible few pdf pages with actual rules (linked here when I write 'em), but before you read that I want you to follow along with this post. Feel the vibes, the mood, get into the headspace. Grimy urban-fantasy workaday warlocks. Hardboiled smalltimers in a city where it's always night.

Source: Harry Dresden, by thegryph.


    Read a longform complaint about the Dresden Files. Brought up an interesting idea (which is, of course, not really explained or expanded upon in the Dresden Files) of wizards and magical types somehow consuming their emotions, using them as fuel for their magic.

     Harry Dresden is someone who, due to incomplete wizardly training, vacillates wildly between terror and irrational calm, or calm and irrational anger; thus the emotional-fuel explanation correlates closely with what we see happening on the page. Perhaps, as a wizard, you become grey and emotionless over the years. You become a caricature of yourself, as every part of your psyche not devoted to sorcery is sacrificed for sorcery's sake. Not DF canon, but interesting fanon extended to a logical conclusion.

    "Weird. Do certain spells consume certain emotions?"
    Perhaps. There's a suggestion in DF that evil magic somehow burns up your connection to others. Or, and here's the good part, that some magic is considered capital-E Evil because of the parts of your personality it eats. Mind control is bad, but the reason the wizards will kill you for using it is that it turns you into someone who can no longer consider it wrong. "Time travel" keeps coming up in the books whenever people list evil dark magic, without any real explanation. Why is it bad to travel through time? What does it cost you that makes wizard society write you off as a lich? it doesn't seem inherently harmful — ponder this, come up with something interesting. I bet it's better than the DF lore.

    Wozerds have a defining emotion. Something they tend towards, in a vacuum. Dresden gets angry and he uses that anger to fuel his magic. When he's too weak to do something? That pisses him off, so he becomes stronger. This is portrayed as a good thing because his author is a hack fraud. Consistent heroic arc of him being the stinkiest gorilla in the cage.


    In the excellent web-serial Pact, from all sorts of places. Wizards ("practitioners", in-universe) can draw from, spooks and such, goblin goons, time, fairies, divine sponsorship, demon traffick, elements, potions, weapons, ghosts... I dunno. Go read it if you're interested.

     When push comes to shove, Harry Dresden whips out the fire; that's his preferred element. It's a good match for him, emotionally. He can always depend on it to fuck up whatever is giving him a little bit of trouble this week. Other wizards presumably have other favored elements, and I've chosen to correspond those to the eight Pritchard emotions. Everything a human feels is a combination of these (according to his stupid model).

     The Disgust wizard, with a condescending sneer on his face and in his heart. Black, poisonous ink comes to him naturally, spreading across the floor and up the walls, marking his surroundings, driving off the undeserving.
    Trust, silk. He believes the bridge will hold his weight and it does. His friends won't fail him and they don't. Wrapped in sturdy threads, his friends won't fail him, therefore they don't.
    Amazement wizards. A flash of insight. A crackling lightning bolt.

     Does this track with Dresden? Well, he has wild and unexplained mood swings. The author presumably thinks is Macho, but it can be interpreted as Harry (our narrator) not wanting to confront his addiction to emotional damage. Why confront your fear when you can eat it, and turn it into a fireball?

    "I think Vigilance deals with the very near future, right before shit happens. Always ready, always anticipating, and then the Vigilance goes away. Waves of paranoia and serenity?"

     "Hmm. If you use your emotions to power your spells, wouldn't you be skewed toward the opposite end? Rage wizard slowly losing their anger?"
    Exactly, which we see with Dresden. fear, irrational calm. calm, irrational anger.
    "But a normal person is capable of all the vibrant colors. Does a wizard exist in the colors minus the one they cast with? Do they spend more time in the color diametrically opposed to their casting color?"
    Ah: a normal person is capable of all the colors, a wizard was capable of all the colors but burns most of them up in casting. Their defining emotion is the one they return to after losing everything else, is the idea.

  • Rage: fire (directed, destructive)
  • Disgust: ink (poison, corrosive)
  • Sadness: ice (defensive, absorbing)
  • Amazement: lightning (bright, electric)
  • Fear: wind (howling, incorporeal)
  • Trust: silk (strong, binding)
  • Joy: music (effective, insidious)
  • Vigilance: paper (warning, informing)

Counterclockwise, from Rage.

    Wizards burn their self down, end up in the middle, and then gravitate towards their "thing". Old wizards basically only experience neutral tranquility and the extremes of their defining emotion, since the rest of their emotions are used up.

     Of course, individual wizards have their own spin on things, their own emotional timbre. Dresden is an ass, more gorilla than man, and his fire is ruby-red and hungry. It destroys things that were stupid enough to cross him. Maybe your Rage wizard is a righteous type, and his fire is smokeless and blindingly brilliant, driving away shadows. Or maybe you're a sullen angry sort, closer to the Disgust side of anger. Your fire is sticky, slow, foul. Its smoke stains the clouds with greasy soot and the smell of garbage.

    Lots of details about DF are almost interesting. Wizards are oldschool because they kill technology, their magic gives them a troublesome aura, that's good. But it's not plot-relevant! It's just an excuse for humorous contrivances and sympathy-inducing inconveniences, none of which have any effect on the story! What about a magical-power stat? Measures how much of a wizard you are. When you need to use a delicate electronic (like a cellphone), X-in-20 chance it just immediately fries.

    "X-in-20 chance also implies 'With a minute or two of futzing and muttering, you can fry any delicate electronic', which is the sort of minor class feature you give to full spellcasters"
    That's another thing that should come up more often in DF but doesn't. I think a deliberate attempt to fry someone's gizmos happens once, and every other time it happens it's just comic relief.

     Other things wizards can do:
  • Swear binding contracts on their own name.
  • Insist on being taken seriously by Elder Things (no obligation, but they can still insist).
  • Charge up the batteries in magical doodads.
  • Look into someone's eyes and see their soul (usually an awful idea, doubly so since they can see yours).
  • Switch on Wozerd Vision to reveal magic and Hidden Stuff (usually an awful idea, since you can't forget what you've seen, and some of them don't want to be seen).
  • Live a long time unless they die.
    This is what being a wizard gives you. Education on things like rituals and spells and negotiating with demons, those are things you must learn.

    What goes on a wizard's character sheet?
    His six derived stats, g20 style. His... number of MD? Is this MD based? Power? Defining element/emotion, of course. We'll figure out the rest.

    Another detail, stolen as much from Pact wizards as DF ones: wizard gear gets better with age. New stuff melts in their hands, old stuff becomes heavy with significance. "If new stuff melts in their hands, how do they get old stuff?"
    By buying second-hand. Wozerds do lots of thrifting.

    I suppose things like plant/animal fiber cloth, wax candles, and suchlike don't count as "new" stuff. So organic materials get something of a pass — though maybe not for all wizards. Now I'm imagining a necromancer who just kills anything near him younger than a few years. Animals, insects, children, trees. The grass wilting as he passes because his antiquity-aura is too powerful and too hostile.

     A section on the sheet dedicated to Rivals. Opposite alignment, preferably? If supernatural favor is something that can be spent as a resource, supernatural enmity should be as well.

    Other thoughts on equipment: wizards like them a nice tall hat, and lumpy wool robes. Breaks up the silhouette, and insulates from fire. Handy when fighting a big demon thing half-blinded by sunlight.
    "Hats are serious business. They sit on top of the seat of your power, insulating your crackling, fizzing brainmatter."
    Yes, you can hide a crown in there, or a diadem, or a spare wand, or a familiar... Ah, of course. on the wizard character sheet: Implements, Domain and Familiar.

The kinds of things a wizard is concerned with. Note the spikes around the name, to protect it from elfs.

     Another idea in Pact, present but not really explored in DF: magical beings need to follow more rules than normal humans. The more magic you are, the less yourself you are. In Pact they're explicitly bound by rules, while in DF it's more of a corruption thing. Internal, rather than external Either way: less of a person, more of a force.

    Most people get up to 4MD without sacrificing too much. Beyond that, you need a few Taboos, a few Deals. Promise to Bwbch, the Scarecrow-Demon, to destroy every bird you can, +1MD. Swear to the universe that you'll never get caught lying, +1MD. That sort of thing.

    As an aside (as if this whole post wasn't already an aside), the greatest part of Pact are the caster classes.
    "I'm a 'wizard', but I don't cast any spells. Everything it looks like I'm doing with magic is actually done by the army of horrible goblins who consider me their queen."
    "I'm a 'wizard', but I don't cast any spells. Instead I'm incredibly haunted by 1,000,000 ghosts and bad things just happen in my presence. The only difference between me and a muggle is that I was ready for the poltergeist shit."
    "I'm a 'wizard', but all my spells get poured into the family's store of Time Magic, and I'm limited to tricking the universe into thinking I can see the future (which sort-of works if I talk fast and nobody actually checks)."

    Many strange sources.

    Potions? Surely some wozerds get their powers from potions. The most exciting bit of alchemy I've recently seen is an unreleased Steam game (with a great demo) called Potion Craft. In it, brewing potions is depicted as navigating a literal map of the conceptual space. It's a compelling visual, representing alchemy experiments as forays into unexplored territory. Hic svnt dracone.

Each ingredient moves you a certain distance in a certain direction, sometimes following a certain pattern of movement. Potions are points of interest on the map, and dead-zones spoil your potion when you enter them.

    Of course, exactly copying this without a computer is hard. I don't want to challenge a computer game on the battlefield of "lots of simple but tedious math done many many times"; D&D 4e tried that and lost (Oh-ho!). I prefer fights where my victory is assured.

    The most interesting part of Potion Craft is the solution it immediately proposes to the Alchemy Problem (for those who have a genius-brain like myself). For those who are unfamiliar, and unwilling to click the link I just shared, you fucking imbeciles, the Alchemy Problem is one of how to present stuff-based supernatural powers. Consider the following possibilities:
  • A potion is pretty much a spell. An Alchemist can chuck X numbers of Y potions per day, every day, regardless of how much material they have (or don't have).
  • A potion is an object you can make, given enough money. An Alchemist PC's power level is directly tied to how much cash the DM hands out. There's no other factor: an Alchemist with twice as much money has twice as many potions, and that's that.
  • A potion is an object you can make, given enough time. An Alchemist PC's power level is directly tied to how much downtime the DM included in the campaign. There's no other factor: if the DM gives you no time between adventures, you never have potions. If the DM gives you a few months between adventures, you have infinity potions.
  • A potion is an object you can make, but it takes up inventory space. As soon as you get a cart and a mule, or a bag of holding, or a street urchin, you have infinity potions.
    And if you're of a DM-minded bent, you'll have seen this problem pop up in regards to magic item crafting, sci-fi gadget development, McGyvering rules, &c. All of these possibilities leave something to be desired.

    Alchemy as a map, an Al-Chemic Realm of sorts, is such a cool solution. "If I know how to make a potion or a bomb or whatever, why don't I just mass produce it and have as many as I want, cash allowing?"
    You could, and you should, because the territory shifts over time. Passages through the mountains are closed off by winter storms, as it were. Lakes freeze over. What was a source of Water Breathing Potion is now a frosty step on the path to High Explosive Potion. Segments of the map might flip, rotate, translate, invert. This is why alchemists harvest certain plants only during the full moon.


    Emotions are but fuel. A wizard is only as powerful as their machines; without machines, setting off fuel mostly just produces smoke.

     Vague idea for progression mechanic: make people write down experiences of their PC on the big octagram. Like, memories with emotional baggage? And you burn those memories to fuel spells.
    I've read games where XP is a resource you get a few points of every session, which you immediately invest in stuff. And that feels appropriate for ritual magic. Literally investing your experiences into magical rituals, to get... jump boot, big zoom magick glasses, wand (cool stick).

    But a less abstract XP system (literal experiences that the character goes through) requires a more abstract allotment setup. Who decides what memories are an "experience"? Does every scene count? Then it's entirely out of the player's hands. They get XP proportional to how much attention the DM gives them — which, if they're using XP to make gadgets and spells, is a degenerate system. People with less XP get less XP, since they have less to do.

     Then perhaps the DM decides one, two, three points per session (or thereabouts, i don't know, i haven't figured out what you're spending XP on yet), and every player writes down one, two, three experiences the character had. they don't determine how many, but they get to pick which ones mattered


    That's almost... character-building. Almost seems like a cool idea.
    And it works just fine if the player is "gaming" it. If they decide that they want a lot of Fear Experiences, to make the extremely cool Fear-Based Gear, then... that's the character's takeaway. When they look back on their memories of that adventure, what they most remember is the fear.
     And perhaps the table gets a soft veto; you can't be "disgusted" at a memory of being hit by a car because you're racist against car drivers — unless you established that part of your character beforehand. Ideally the player is thinking about that during the session, so they roleplay being racist to cars at some point, and then we all know the character's racist to car drivers. When the player is stretching things, interpreting innocuous things as Disgust, or going out of their way to be confronted by Disgusting experiences, then the character is experiencing Disgust. That's their natural tendency, to find flaws in things, to feel Disgust.

    Perhaps you can always derive your natural emotion from a memory, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense? If you're just an angry person, you can get angry about lemonade stands or getting hit with a car. "How dare that piece of shit hit me with a car. When I catch him, I'm going to jam him into an industrial box-packager feet first... ooh I'm getting worked up just thinking about cars... grrr..."

    Anyway, Domains are places you can influence (like a clubhouse whose physics you control), Familiars are creatures who do your bidding (or maybe you do theirs, it can get complicated), and Implements cast spells (you can also just blast things with your chosen element, I guess). All of these are maintained, fed, created by and with and for XP.

    "So do Domains have to like, resonate with their favoured emotion? Vigilance guy needs a tall tower, Rage guy needs access to mass media, &c"
    They can be influenced by other memories, I think? Say, you can invest your carefully-stockpiled Rage memories, even if you're by nature a Sad boy, to get an angry fiery Domain. But you're going to be patching the bits in between with sadness. Wherever the cracks show, the ice will shine through.

    "So the optimal Domain has a balance of all emotions?"
    That would be wise. You want things that resonate with different emotions, but also a strong defensible position which resonate with your natural emotions. The Domain must be small enough that you don't step on anyone else's toes, but also big enough to give you space for projects, and to be worth the trouble of maintaining.

    Imagine a Fear wizard who lives in a shitty apartment with a psychotic crack-dealing murderer landlord, so as to have Fear close at hand. Their Domain spreads out from there; perhaps self-reinforcing — as more of the shitty apartment becomes theirs, more tenants leave in a fright, making the building lonelier and darker and quieter. More fearsome, more fearful.

     Wozerds incapable of feeling certain emotions, opposing their natural element? Like D&D wizards and school restrictions? A Rage wizard is not emotionally capable of backing down (fear is another reason to get mad). A Sad wizard can't feel happy about things (even pleasant experiences are ruined with ennui or regret at missed opportunities), a Vigilant wizard can't ever really be surprised (each new emotion another variable in a clockwork life), an Amazed wizard keeps losing focus (he's permanently damaged his ability to care for sixty straight seconds).

    This suggests a mechanic where you can turn your missing emotion into bonus XP. Say, a Rage wizard can get two points of Rage by considering the time they almost got spooked, or a Vigilance wizard can be driven into a fit of paranoid narcissism by thinking of when they were almost caught off guard. Bonus XP, but some sort of negative consequences? There's always a price to pay. What happens to you when you've got an important feeling which you can neither process nor address?


  • FLESH — Literal physical integrity. Those with more flesh are more sturdy. Why can you fall a farther distance without injury? Because your bones and joints are tougher. A starting character has 6 flesh.
  • KARMA — How rightly you sit with the universe. Those with less karma are more unfortunate; coins and cards turn up against them; strangers are less friendly; random chance tilts in their enemies' favor. Add up every stat bonus/malus. The sum is your starting KARMA.
  • TOWER — How high you dwell above the common man. Those who tower above him have more inherent magic, and need rely less on ritual and tools. More inherent magic isn't always a benefit, as it interferes with electronics and binds you tighter to the Laws. Anyone capable of magic (which is every PC) starts with at least 1 TOWER.
  • DMND (CON/STR) to do something physically demanding, kick down doors, knock over foes, free yourself from restraints
  • WAND (STR/XHA) to call up what you can't put down, go where you're not allowed, do what you shouldn't
  • CRCL (XHA/INT) to contact a friend, exploit social connections, call in favors, lay down bindings before a demon eats you
  • GRIM (INT/WIS) to interpret a grimoire, understand a contract, reach the center of a maze, detect magic
  • HNDL (WIS/DEX) to ride a motorcycle, drive a car, shoot a werewolf, duck into a refrigerator when a grenade goes off
  • WELL (DEX/CON) to control yourself, avoid madness, dismiss possession, trust your own ability to survive, hide in a well