Saturday, July 31, 2021

Magic, Madness, & Sadness Part VI - A Handy Guide To Non-Existence

 


Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him… When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Be not afraid, Zechariah…- Luke 1:13


        No one wants to die. Wizards have come up with myriad means to avoid this fate. Illusionists pull themselves into one of their own dreams; Evokers tie their souls permanently to the land; Enchanters steal the bodies of others; Transmuters warp themselves into horrifying monsters; Diviners remove themselves from destiny itself. Conjurers forge a different path.


        Conjurers (otherwise known as Summoners or Binders) are along with Enchanters and Necromancers, practitioners of what are known collectively as the Dark Arts. On the surface they do not appear as amoral as your typical mind-bender or soul-thief, but the powers of a Binder are just as readily corrupted. While materializing walls, weapons, housing and other objects is undoubtedly valuable, people are understandably wary of someone who can just as easily bring Fiends into reality. Many Summoners attempt to fight against this stereotype by aggressively policing their own who bind demons or devils, or submitting to terrible oaths. These efforts do little to burnish their reputation. Whatever their protestations to the contrary, everyone knows in a moment of weakness any Binder could call upon the forces of darkness for aid. This temptation shadows them all. After all, so many of their number have mortgaged their souls (or those of others) away for power. How could anyone ever trust them?



        Summoners share a wildly different perspective on immortality than other magi. Unlike most of the others, powerful Conjurers have actually seen or been to the various afterlives awaiting mortals. Most find themselves unimpressed. The afterlife is crowded, and dominated by forces and beings far older and more potent than humanity. Riven by ideological concerns and endless moralizing, the afterlife resembles the life they left behind far too closely for comfort. Finding they would lose their memories (and magical abilities) upon death is the final straw for these rare few. Unwilling to brook service to some fell being, or an eternity grinding away at another rat race, these powerful Binders begin to search beyond the boundaries of reality for a solution. In their quest to grasp beyond the end of the universe, they become what are known as Unmade or Seekers.



In the end, you are exactly—what you are.

Put on a wig with a million curls,

put the highest heeled boots upon your feet,

yet you remain in the end just what you are.” - Mephistopheles, Christopher Marlowe


        The summoning of dark beings beyond the ken of mortals has a long history within the realm of Sword & Sorcery fiction. From robed cultists attempting to summon their distant gods, to witches who trade their souls away to things with unutterable names. The trope of bargaining one’s soul away for power is even represented in the English language as the term Faustian Bargain. While D&D is practically overflowing with examples of summoned creatures, most of them are ultimately inspired by the tale of Dr. Faustus.


        In many ways the idea of the archetypal conjurer is derived from the tale of Faust. Based on the real life alchemist Johann Georg Faust, the tale spread throughout Europe during the 16th century in the form of folk legend and chapbooks. By the late 16th century the tale had been adapted into a play by Christopher Marlowe called The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. The play was scandalous in it’s day, the shock of devils being portrayed on stage being said to have driven some audience members insane.


        The plot itself is relatively simple. Faustus is a learned and arrogant man living in Wittenberg. Sensing he has mastered all subjects he is interested in, Faustus bids his servant to summon a pair of magicians to his home. They declare Faustus could be a talented magician himself if he so wished, so he attempts to summon a devil. Crafting a magic circle and speaking an incantation, he manages to attract the attentions of a demon by the name of Mephistopheles. Initially pleased his bindings worked, Faustus is disabused of this notion by the devil, who claims he targeted him because of how imperiled his soul is in the eyes of God; Mephistopheles cannot be bound, as his soul already belongs to Lucifer. After some instruction on the history of hell, he is offered a bargain by the demon; Faustus will be given 24 years of life, and during which he will be able to command Mephistopheles as he will. In return, Faustus must give up his eternal soul to Lucifer. The contract of service and sale is written in Faustus’ own blood. The good doctor signs, and the terms of service begin.



        Faustus becomes renowned for his abilities, able to perform seemingly miraculous feats. Unfortunately he does very little with them, amusing himself with what amount to mean-spirited jokes and pointless attempts to impress his peers and social betters. The time flows by for the doctor, and when his 24 years are nearly up, he begins to understand how much of his time and power he has wasted. Despairing, Faustus appears to his fellow scholars and gives an emotional speech about how foolish he has been, and how he has given up his eternal soul for no reason. He tries to repent and renege on his deal, but at the 11th hour the demons and devils of hell, led by Mephistopheles, rise from the depths and drag the screaming Faustus down to Hell.


        While the story of Doctor Faustus could obviously apply to a foolish Conjurer, or really any Warlock at all, the influence of this tale upon D&D really cannot be understated. It is all there—the magic circle, the creepy behavior of the summoned creature, the failed binding resulting in the summoner being dragged to hell—all of it underpins how conjurers are not only portrayed in D&D, but really within fiction in general. However, a seasoned conjurer would find the story of Dr. Faustus that of an inexperienced Summoner with a distinct lack of vision. To them, Faustus could have gotten the better of Mephistopheles, had he been wiser.





Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat…” - Rocky & Bullwinkle


        With the talent to bend eldritch beings and reality itself to their whims, the fear of death and sublimation drives prospective seekers forward. Their explorations start at the material plane, move to the Inner Planes of the elements, and to the Outer Planes of morality. There they find nothing but an eternal, ensnaring status quo. Searching ever further and wider, they delve into the forbidden lore of the Shadow plane, or the Far Realms. Even there, they find chains waiting for them.


        Seemingly bereft of options, many would-be Seekers simply stop there, and in despair they choose to bind themselves to some spirit. Others press on. They find that there is Nothing beyond the boundaries of the planes and existence itself. No mere void, but the place from whence existence was formed; every concept, natural law or physical object had their origin in this non-place outside of time or space. This Nothing, is made up of the cast-off shells of existence, every thought or notion that did not make its way into reality. Irrational numerical systems, colors and sensations which have no analogue, all of these things and innumerable others are in this non-existence. The Seekers have found their home at last. Now they must survive it.


        Non-existence is difficult, to say the least. Trying to directly transport oneself directly there seems unwise to even the most reckless Summoner. After all, even the most welcoming of the planes require preparation beyond what most mortals can manage; the Nothing would logically require even more. Putting together the clues left behind by those who have achieved the pinnacle before them, they enact a ritual termed The Summoning of the Self. Meditating long upon their memories and goals, the Binder crafts a series of four objects known as Fetters, which represent differing aspects of their core being: the Wand, symbolizing their will and ego; the Coin, which is the symbol of their own body, and actions taken during the Summoner’s life; the Cup, which is the representation of their emotional and spiritual connections to reality, and finally the Sword, which symbolizes the Binder’s opposition to certain ideas, and their own ideals in turn. Despite the names, these objects are not usually what their literal names suggest, but rather things which evoke those feelings within the Seeker. Each of these objects is then in turn placed upon a summoning circle in which the Conjurer writes their true name. Enacting their final spell within reality, to all observers the Binder seems to wink out of existence entirely. The memories that others had of them disappear as well, leaving only scattered evidence of their passing.



        There, in the place that was not, the Seeker either adapts to their new environment and masters it, or they discorporate entirely. If their fetters hold, and their desire to persist are great enough, the Seeker pulls a slew of the unused concepts from the Nothing into their presence, and shapes them into their Invisible Palace. From there, the Conjurer truly joins the ranks of the Unmade.


        Making court around their Palace, the Unmade wrests the Nothing in the shapes they wish, and summons what companions and servants from their former home as they will. Many legends of the Fair Folk supposedly kidnapping travelers and children have their seed in the actions of an Unmade bolstering the size of their Palace’s ranks. In their impossible world, they are like the Gods of their former existences. For all their power, they are limited to affecting reality through the auspices of their Fetters or by summoning or dismissing other beings from their Palace’s grounds. With limited knowledge of what is happening in reality, as well as servants who tend to go mad or be rendered incomprehensible by the nature of their home, the Unmade is significantly more limited in what they can accomplish than before. Glimpsed chiefly through the actions of servants or eerie circumstance, they are reduced to distant meddlers and observers.



Game Information


        Existing outside the boundaries of time and space, Unmade are unable to die through either violence or age. They cannot truly be slain, as that concept longer has any bearing on their current existence. However, the Unmade must still possess their fetters, and destroying them can have devastating effects upon them, even to the point of leaving them in tatters for centuries until they can reform.


        Unmade may still cast spells, provided they have either a rational idea of what they are attempting to do. Recalling the old rules upon which magic function is difficult for someone who need no longer follow them, and as such successfully casting a conventional spell requires a Wisdom check, or a Magic save, as appropriate to the system.


        Most Unmade rely upon their Fetters to serve their eldritch needs within their Invisible Palace. Fetters, having been summoned outside of reality, cannot affect it any longer. Beings who are unwilling to be affected by a Fetter are entitled to a save.


Fetter

Possible Effects

Coin

Affecting the bodies of others, or their own. Making clones or living beings.

Cup

Controlling the emotions of others or themselves.

Sword

Controlling the actions of others.

Wand

Fashioning new objects or places.


        The forms which Invisible Palaces can take are as varies as the imaginations of the Unmade who made them. While they can refashion them at will, below is a list of some possible Palaces.


d8

Palace Appearance

1

Places important to the Unmade, haphazardly strung together.

2

A massive castle sculpted from some impossible material like quicksilver or glass.

3

An endless and natural-seeming grotto sculpted of bone, blood and obsidian.

4

Some cosmic object such as a moon, or strange and alien planet.

5

A famous historical place derived from the Binder’s home plane.

6

The site of the Summoner’s apotheosis, modified for their uses.

7

A seemingly normal house, with skewed physics and impossibly turned rooms

8

The vision of what the Summoner had expected heaven or hell to look like.

        Well folks, that is yet another entry in this series in the tank. I only have two schools left to go over: Abjuration and Necromancy. As always, I would love comments or follows. Thanks for reading!


 All art is the property of its respective owners, and will be taken down at their request.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Magic, Madness, & Sadness Part V - Power Overwhelming

 


We sit together,

the mountain and I,

until only the mountain remains.”

Li Po, Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain


      No one wants to die. Magicians have come up with numerous ways to extend their lives, and to achieve immortality. Some become body hoppers, some remove themselves from the loom of fate, others others twist themselves into monsters, while others still retreat into a fantasy of their own making. Evokers, also known as Channelers or Elementalists, seem an unlikely candidate for immortality. Seen by many to be the most direct and violent of Mages, they generally lead lives of ceaseless dueling, battles and near-misses. Bodies criss-crossed with scars and burns from elemental spells, the typical Channeler is seen more akin to a warrior than a spell-caster.


     Commanding the forces of the physical world and raw arcane energies, they are able to level buildings or murder dozens with a snap of their fingers. Evokers dominate the field of magical dueling as adeptly as the battlefield, feared by other mages for their destructive spells. As devastating as they can be to their foes, most Evokers are valued members of non-magical communities or organizations. Unlike those who practice the dark arts, an Evoker’s powers, while brutal, are easily understood by non-mages. Most everyone has seen a wildfire, lightning strike, or blizzard. Even when they attack their enemies using raw magic, such as with Magic Missile, the results are direct and instantaneous. Most Channelers tend to find the grim peace of a veteran later in their lives, but for some the pursuit of power outstrips everything. Facing down their mortality, they begin a desperate search to extend their lives. Drawing from the same wells of power they always have, they link themselves permanently to one of them. These living dynamos are called Conduits or Gateways.



Who was the one with the impudence to come begging me for help, at every step of the way? You understand now, don’t you? Without me, you couldn’t do anything at all.” - Kurama, Naruto


     There are no shortages of Evoker-like creatures and threats within D&D—most notably Dragons themselves. This ground is well-trod, and as crowded as it is, I feel I cannot feasibly pick out a certain creature to feature in this article. We are going to talk about Naruto.


      I’ll spare my readers an overview of such a famous anime, and instead launch right into what I want to use as inspiration from it. The power source for most ninja abilities in Naturo is known in-universe as Chakra. Similar to Mana or Chi in other settings, Chakra is derived in living beings through inborn talent, training, surgery, and special regimens. By molding chakra through will, hand seals and written scrolls, the ninja of Naruto are able to perform a dizzying number of techniques from exhaling gouts of flame and making shadow clones of themselves, to stealing the hearts of others to extend their lives. Ninja have not only a finite amount of chakra reserves, but a natural maximum as well. Dipping below a certain amount of internal chakra, or absorbing more than one’s maximum results in the death of the unfortunate ninja.


      The eponymous Naruto, as well as a few similarly bonded individuals, are not subject to many of these normally unbreakable rules of chakra cultivation. As a child, Naruto was bonded to a being named Kurama, or The Nine-Tailed Fox, one of the kind of creatures known as Chakra Monsters or Tailed Beasts. The result of this joining of souls is known as a Junchuriki, and they exhibit extraordinary powers due to their essentially limitless reserves of chakra.


      The particular manifestations of their powers differ depending on which tailed beast the human has had sealed within them. In the case of Gaara, bonded with Shukaku, this allows him to control and animate sand in a myriad of offensive and defensive ways. For Naruto, his bond with Kurama gives him access to not only the massive reservoirs of chakra needed to summon massed shadow clones (an impossible feat for most), but also to heal near-instantaneously from most attacks. All of these wondrous powers come at a cost; the beasts hate humanity (at least at first) and attempt to wrest control away from their bonded humans, going on nearly unstoppable rampages in the process. This tendency for Junchuriki to go berserk often leaves them isolated, or otherwise held at arms length by their fellows. As powerful as they are, they lead lives of sorrow and loneliness. Their potency and value as defenders of their villages comes at the cost of their own happiness.



     It is easy to see where this is leading, at least with regards to our purposes. D&D is rife with places seething with arcane power. Sites of primal energies such as volcanoes or ancient megaliths, never-ending storms or forests so dense light never touches the ground—all could be potential sources for the apotheosis the Conduits seek to achieve. No matter its origin, this fount of power must be endless, or near enough to it. By making themselves one with it, they make themselves endless as well.



We Burn.- Archon, StarCraft


     Mortals were not meant to hold magic within themselves in an unrefined form. Magic-Users must contain the energies they shape with their spells through rote memorization of certain motions and spoken words. By using these means to direct these powerful forces, mages protect themselves from being exposed to the consequences of their own spells. More than any other school of magic, evokers need this protection from their own magic to survive. While Abjurers are the masters of securing themselves against the effects of others, evokers must learn to compel arcane forces to a finer degree than any other sort of mage.


     A prospective Gateway extends this necessary capability of their school to its logical conclusion, and begin to connect themselves to the very places they are directing these energies from. Seeking out a place with the proper resonance to their soul, known as a Demense, they forge a bond with it in a ritual known as Swallowing the Sun. The exact process can take myriad forms; spilling one’s own hearts blood on the ground and tracing a personal sigil; tracking down and murdering the spirit of the land; bargaining away a portion of their memories to a primeval beast.


     No matter how Conduits accomplish it, the process is never perfect. Though they are undoubtedly master evokers if they survive, their bodies and souls still warp and crack like over fired vessels. The bond forged goes both ways. As the Gateway is empowered, so in turn is their demense. If their place of power is marred, they falter in potency as well. This synchronization causes them to regard their demense as more than simply a place to serve as an unending font of power, but as a piece of their own souls. The rewards are well worth the effort spent seeking them. Immortality, the ability to regenerate from all but the most grievous of wounds, immunity to their chosen element, and a reservoir of arcane energy which allows to almost effortlessly cast even the most destructive spells.



     It would be tempting to think of Conduits as the most benign of all the seekers of immortality. They usually do not harm anyone in attainment their abilities, nor do they need to do so to continue their own existence. Once they are linked to their demense, they rarely stray far from it. Able to subsist forever by simply sitting near their land, they have little reason to leave other than companionship or boredom. Gateways often begin to see themselves as literal extensions of their land, and as the living mind of the place. Growing distant from the mortal concerns which once defined their existence, they lose connection with what drove them to seek immortality in the first place.


     This isolation, coupled with the steady decay of their still very mortal friends and families, eventually leaves them alone for years at a time. Nearby communities typically treat the Conduit similarly to lesser Channelers, but keep them at arm’s length. Many locals come to see them as guardians or wise but dangerous saints. The awe they are held in only serves to accelerate their identification with their demense. Some find madness or solace, while most lose themselves to the rhythms of the place they’ve bonded themselves to, becoming ragged hermits living in the middle of nowhere. Interlopers foolish enough to threaten their demense are dealt with mercilessly, as their guardian grows ever more entitled to and dependent on it. Forays into the world of mortals are marked with over-eager interest, mixed with occasional threats and explosive confrontations. Having lost touch with the concerns of others Conduits must fake their way through many interactions.


     For their part, other evokers sometimes visit them, hoping to find the keys to swallowing the sun. These seekers are inevitably disappointed when they are told every instance of the ritual is unique. They must seek their own demense.



Game Information


     Conduits are of course immortal. Further, they have resistance against all spells of the evocation school, and immunity to a specific element the referee feels is appropriate to their demense.


     Far from being a singular path to immortality, Swallowing the Sun is the apex of the art of evocation, which few are able or willing to reach. To see what this path looked like for an individual Conduit, roll 3d8 on the table below.


d8

What sort of place is it?

What was their ritual like?

What did it do to them?

1

A massive, miles long and deep canyon.

Immersing themselves in the environment until they die of exposure.

Made them the enemies of elementals opposing their demense’s elemental aspects.

2

An isolated, storm-wracked mountaintop.

Stabbing themselves in the heart, tracing their true name on the grounds before death.

They visibly, though harmlessly, age as they grow further from their demense.

3

The only island in the middle of a huge lake.

Tracking them over days, the Conduit identified the Spirit of the Land and slew it.

Their eyes and mouth glow with pure arcane energies. It is difficult to look at them.

4

The center of an active volcano.

Meditating upon the site for forty days and forty nights, the demense becomes theirs.

Large sections of their bodies have become replaced by or enriched with their demense’s element

5

A lonely oak in a seemingly endless, windswept plain.

Trading the memory of their old lives away to something lurking in the place.

They cannot allow someone to come into their demense uninvited. If they do so, they must punish them.

6

A ferocious, never-ending sandstorm.

Giving up something indelible such as their voice, sight, or ability to hate.

They are harmed if their land is harmed, the damage reflecting on their own body instantaneously.

7

The heart of a forest, untouched by sunlight.

The complete destruction of all their previous possessions, including any magical ones.

Everything they touch is affected by the element of their demnse; leaving patches of frost, trails of flame, etc.

8

A glacier, carved with ancient symbols of power and littered with mammoth bones.

Lowering their protections against their own spells, they obliterate themselves in the heart of the demense.

They must immerse themselves in their bonded element at least once per week, or grow steadily weaker.


     Gateways gain access to an alternate source of spellcasting known as Mana. Only usable for evocation spells, Mana courses through Conduits and allows them to cast without memorizing spells cast with it or consuming spell slots. Conduits have a pool of Mana equal to their HD x 12. The cost in Mana for spells is provided below.


Spell Level

Mana Cost

1

1

2

3

3

5

4

7

5

9

6

11

7

13

8

15

9

17


     The Conduit’s proximity to their demense governs the speed at which they recover hit points as well as Mana. For obvious reasons most Gateways stay close to their demenses.


Distance from Demense

Mana Recovered per Hour

HP Recovered per Round

A few steps

100

5

Day’s walk

50

3

A few days travel

25

2

Weeks of travel

12

1

A different continent

6

N/A

A different plane of existence

3

N/A