Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Magic in 1800

My last 1800 post sparked some discussion (okay, two comments) about magic. Here are my thoughts ...

Regarding replacing magic because the setting is more ripe for science - I originally thought about going the science route. It was done in Northern Crown and I've certainly mixed science with fantasy in other projects, but for this one I wanted to go the pure magic route. Why? First and foremost, I think the "steampunk" concept tends to completely take over a setting and game. I didn't want to do that with 1800. I wanted the game to focus on wilderness exploration, which (point number two) leaves science types without the use of a workshop or spare parts, and thus forces us to really stretch the imagination to fit him in. Of course, one can also just use magic and call it science, but that wasn't a satisfying option for me.

Finally, science and non-human powered machinery as we know it today is really just at its beginnings in 1800 - you've had a manned flight in balloon across the English Channel and some demonstrations of steam engines, but steam power hasn't come to dominate the imagination and landscape just yet. Magic, superstition and pseudo-science, on the other hand, are still alive and well. Consider that the medical training Lewis received for his and Clark's western exploration involved lots of bleeding and laxatives that were 50% mercury (and that mercury in the explorers' droppings has apparently helped historians track the Corps of Discovery's progress across the continent), the presence of esoteric groups like the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Illuminati and the Invisible College (well, the Royal Society, by this time), and, most importantly, the existence of Native American medicine men and shamans.

This, along with my desire to include fantasy-style monsters in the "Mysterious Interior of America" seemed to make old-style magicians, powered down a bit for the setting, the way to go. Of course, somebody running an 1800 campaign could remove the magic or even introduce a more science-intensive class (perhaps the Mechanician) as they like. Once I publish something, you can house rule it to death for all I care!

So, what will the Magician class look like in the game. My initial sketch has it looking something like this (all subject to change, of course) ...

Magicians are men and women who have learned through long study and practice to work magic - breaking the laws of nature and delving into the secret knowledge of the supernatural through the use of special formulas of words, movements and materials. Magicians come in many different varieties, from the intellectual European tradition typified by the likes of John Dee, Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin to the servants of the Abrahamic God and the workers of folk magic, be they Dutch hexenmeisters, witches from Naumkeag or Native American medicine men.

Skills: Decipher Code (Knowledge), Identify Plants (Knowledge), Predict Weather (Knowledge), Translate Language (Knowledge), Work Magic (Knowledge)

Choosing a tradition determines one's spell powers. To work magic, a magician has a percentage chance equal to their skill bonus + knowledge score - the difficulty of the magic (see below). Failure always has a consequence, and they can potentially be dire.

Missionaries, Friars and Soldiers of God
Cantraps: Calm Emotions, Chant, Cure Light Wounds, Protection from Evil (10’ Radius)
Spells (-25%): Divination, Flame Strike, Heal, Holy Smite
Rituals (-50%): Control Water, Control Weather, Earthquake, Holy Word
Master Ritual (-90%): Summon Angel

Alchemists, Philosophers and Freemasons
Cantraps: Dispel Magic, Divination, ESP, Invisibility
Spells (-25%): Break Enchantment, Fly, Hold Monster, Lightning Bolt
Rituals (-50%): Astral Projection, Legend Lore, Repulsion, Shapechange
Master Ritual (-90%): Summon Elemental

Witches, Hexenmeisters, Hoodoo Men, Medicine Men and Granny Women
Cantraps: Calm Animals, Divination, Plant Growth, Wind Wall
Spells (-25%): Commune with Nature, Control Winds, Fly, Summon Animal
Rituals (-50%): Control Weather, Shapechange, Summon Monster [i.e. creatures from folklore and mythology], Whirlwind
Master Ritual (-90%): Summon Spirit [White Buffalo, Rainbow Serpent, Thunderbird - maybe something different for the European folk magic practitioners]

There would also be an NPC category dedicated to Black Magic. The spell descriptions would  include an idea of the material components required. Cantraps could be cast in a round, spells maybe in 2 successive rounds, rituals in 3 and the master ritual over 4. Obviously, we don't want master magicians pulling angels and elementals out of their hats very often.

That should give you an idea of where my mind is on this subject at the moment. I'll probably fool with the spell lists some more.

Final bonus - the map continues to shape up. I've filled in the Yucatan and some of the islands of the Caribbean and added a few settlements, mostly in the Deep South and in the area of Maine. When all of the settlements are done, I'll be able to focus on drawing rivers and coasts.


  1. I like the approach you're taking with magic. Steampunkian stuff has its place but there's a lot to be said for a purer "historical" magic setting. Good stuff!

  2. I might suggest summon angel/demon for the FM./phil., unless leaving it out is a design choice.

    Historically, it's the main preoccupation of the european grimoires.

  3. There is a real need in the osr for this game. Yes there have been some western role playing games that have come out recently. They're really nice at what they do but we need a game to address the spirit of the times without the steam punk vibe. There has too be something more with a heroic spirit to it. The wilderness during that time was harsh & very unforgiving. The magic element is fantastic! I want this game on my book shelf now!

  4. If you are concentrating mainly on the Lewis and Clark era of Exploration (1800-1810ish), then while I still feel magic is out of character of the times, it becomes slightly more acceptable. Although I still think you underestimate the power of technology even at that point.

    It might help to say that I never was thinking steampunk when I was talking about technology, but just the pure level of invention that happens between 1780 to 1930. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing right in the middle of the Clark Expeditions, and the driving force of finding new resources for those up and coming corperations is very much an interest for other people following the Lewis and Clark Expeditions.

    While the exploration of the territories should be a good and primary focus of your game, I think there is a lot of potential in remembering that 1790-1820 as a whole is a very exciting time to be alive, with all sorts of new and important changes to ways of life happening. Bringing in some of that as springboards for sponsors for exploration might be fun.

  5. The more I see of this, the more I like it. Have you seen Eyes of Fire (sometimes known as Cry Blue Sky, though that is not an official title for the movie)?

  6. Oh, and also Ginger Snaps Back is a good choice for fantastic elements in early 19th century North America.


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