Can’t Spell Invisibility   Leave a comment

I’m going to talk a bit about non-magical magic today on Magical Mondays.  But I’m also going to talk about magic in brief.  The magic I’m going to talk about is the age-old art of making yourself disappear!  Grab your cloak of invisibility and invisibility potions and join me on this ride.  More than invisibility, though, I’m going to talk about non-magical magic.

The reason why I’ll be focusing on Invisibility is convenience.  It’s one of the most recognizable “magic effects” in any number of games and stories.  Harry Potter had his invisibility cloak, Bilbo and Frodo had the One Ring, and the Invisible Man had his invisibility serum.  If we focus on the last one there, you may begin to see why I call this non-magical.  The Invisible Man, a scientist gradually driven mad by the toxic effects of his miraculous, though tragically incurable, invisibility serum, used no magic in his procedures.  How do we know he used no magic? Why, the story tells us he didn’t, that’s how.

There’s a certain element of power that story tellers and GMs have when adjudicating magic and its abilities, and whether or not it exists.  “Magic” is a word that we use to say that something supernatural happens, something outside the reaches of scientific understanding.  For much of our recorded history, “Magic” was an element of stories that suggested power that was simply beyond the capabilities of your regular mortal, requiring anything from the gift of a dark power to the involvement of fairies to knowledge of a simple magical word that no one else was likely to use.  This allowed story tellers to include all sorts of things that never happened in the real world.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but advances in scientific understanding opened a new and exciting (and some would say frightening) advance in literature through SCIENCE!.  SCIENCE! is a form of Magic that is distinct from Science.  Scientists didn’t necessarily replace the mad wizards who lived in shacks in the middle of forests, but they did sidle up alongside them.  Unlike the wizards, though, these (often mad) scientists didn’t seem to have an understanding of the true nature of the forces with which they tampered.  They were more like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice; while the golem’s creator knew the secret to making his clay creation go lifeless, mad scientists are often caught in a moment where they’re far over their heads.  Just as the animated brooms filled the well to the point where it might Ruin Everything, so did Frankenstein’s monster live with a desire to destroy his creator’s life.

Fast forward a bit, and the use of science stops being the realm of fantasy and horror.  Science Fiction exists both as a genre and a setting, forecasting the impact of science on society (or individuals) in one and providing a glimpse of possible worlds that may be made possible in the other (even if these possible worlds are often products of high fantasy themselves.)  It’s not really fair to “science fiction” that we use that term to describe both types of story, but they overlap enough that we accept it.  Flash Gordon gave us improbably functioning science that was effectively just the same old magic with the serial numbers filed off in many cases, and by the time Superman, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone hit their respective scenes, it was generally understood that outer space was, in a way, magic.

Stories of invisibility and other magical effects flourished in these environments.  Invisibility has benefited from the application of real-life science as well, making this a place where science fiction enthusiasts are slowly making headway in turning their beloved fantasy into reality.  Stage magicians have known how to use mirrors to bend light in a way that makes objects truly invisible (or at least hidden) to anyone sitting in their audience, and many have told the tale of the college professor who surprised his class by taking off his invisibility cloak after walking into the room.

What does this mean for gaming?  That depends on your game.  The first thing to remember is that “magic” doesn’t have to rely on magic.  When you put your story first, coming up with a supernatural effect before you have rules to work with can help you to find those rules.  Let’s look at three types of non-magical invisibility for three different games: Adventure!, Cosmic Patrol, and D&D.

Adventure! is just one of three games set in the Trinity Universe, originally created by White Wolf but now in another company’s hands (please oh please oh please publish more material for Adventure!, guys, I’m beggin’ ya.)  The three games were called Adventure!, Aberrant and Trinity, and each used a similar rules system to examine three different types of adventuring characters at different stages of history.  Trinity focused on the far future, with space travel and psychic powers; Aberrant focused on what was more or less the modern day, but populated by super heroes (or Novas, as they called them); Adventure!, meanwhile, was set in the 1920s with adventures that ranged from jungle exploration to chasing rum-running gangsters to murder mysteries to mad scientists with insane inventions.  I focus on Adventure! because it’s the most familiar of the series to me, and because the focus on mad science was a bit more pronounced.  I apologize to the Trinity Universe purists out there, because my preferred version of the setting used the d20 versions of the rules.

For a standard Invisibility Serum in the world of Adventure!, I would expect a character to have the Craft Compound feat.  Such an item would be an Innovation rather than an Advancement, and as such only the Stalwarts (superhumans and Novas) and the Mesmerists (psychics) can create it with much chance of success; sorry Daredevils, your mundane command of Inspiration simply will not do.  This is a compound that will affect living creatures, and the basic effect is one of obscuring the individual; as such the creator should have a minimum of 1 rank in Heal, and 1 other rank in either Disguise or Hide (depending on the precise nature of how the serum obscures the individual.)

There is no Knack that exactly produces the effect that we’re looking for, though some of the Mesmerist abilities to cloud the mind and remain unobserved are in the right ballpark.  It’s reasonable to treat the ability of this Invisibility Serum as if it comes from a second level Knack.  Depending on the difficulty of accessing super science and the whims of the GM, I would set the R&D DC of the Invisibility Serum somewhere between 25 and 30 with a heightened risk of accident, and 35 to work flawlessly.  Naturally, the GM should roll this in secret.  If the result is under 35, have the Invisibility Serum work for 10 minutes per hit die of the inventor.  Any attack has a ten percent chance of ending the Serum’s effect instantly.  In addition, there’s a chance that the user will go crazy, as if under the effect of Confusion.  The first attack has a twenty percent chance of this happening, and each attack after that increases the odds by five percent (so twenty-five percent the second time, thirty percent the third time, etc.)  There is no other way to prematurely end the invisibility effect, unless an antiserum is developed.  If the inventor rolls a 35 or higher, then there is no risk that the Serum’s effect will end on an attack, and no risk that the user will go crazy (though the user won’t know that this is the case initially if the GM is rolling secretly, and making unnecessary rolls.)  If an inventor rolls a natural 1 on the R&D check, then the duration of the invisibility is permanent until cured; until the invisibility is cured (likely through a combination of Craft Compound and Craft Organism R&D checks), the Serum’s imbiber must make a DC 25 Will save once an hour while awake and once while asleep.  If the check fails, the imbiber is under the effect of a Confusion effect for an hour (with no penalties on the next required Will save).  Every three failed Will saves makes the imbiber’s alignment slide one step toward Chaotic Evil (an effect that is totally cured after one day if the invisibility is cured, unless the character was Chaotic Evil to begin with.)  Finally, every failed Will save gains the character an “Insanity Point”; when the character’s Insanity Points are equal to its Wisdom modifier, it goes into a coma and, 1d4 feverish days later it dies if not cured.

Adventure! has a lot of complicated steps at times, though most of these can be glossed over in the name of the story (and this is recommended).  A Botch is a worst case scenario, of course, but it’s fun to be prepared.

The game of Cosmic Patrol has a much simpler approach to character creation and item use.  When creating a character, you simply pick whatever fun-sounding sci-fi gadgetry pops into your head (there is no official list of items or gear, though there are some fun props suggested in the game’s backstory, rules and sample characters.)  If I wanted a character to go invisible in Cosmic Patrol, I would simply create an item at the time of character creation.  Something like a Corvandium-Powered Hyperphasic Spectro-Shift Belt.  It’s highly experimental, of course, so it’s wonderful that the Cosmic Patrol entrusted my character with the task of field testing the device.  Lucky me.

This Belt… an Invisibility Belt, if you will… works however I describe it as working, which is fantastic for me.  Unfortunately, it also works however the other players and Lead Narrator describe it as working, which is a little risky but in the spirit of the game.  Another player (or even I myself if I want the scene to be more interesting) might use a Plot Point and decree that all Corvandium-Powered technology is based on quantum fields that are known to collapse when in the presence of Jovian Crystal-based energy, and the space pirates we’re dealing with have guns that are fueled in this manner.  I may be invisible for a round or two, but as soon as a pirate shoots a weapon anywhere near me at all my quantum field will collapse and the Spectro-Shift Belt will fizzle out.  My overpowered invisibility belt is suddenly nullified by the bad luck of facing enemies with EXACTLY the kind of weapon that my superiors told me to avoid.  CURSES!  How will I ever escape when I suddenly become visible again?

Part of the fun of Cosmic Patrol, and one of the things that makes it different from many other forms of roleplaying game, is the fact that it’s not a game you’re necessarily trying to win.  With the exception of campaigns like The Moon Must Be Ours (and even then) the goal of Cosmic Patrol is to tell an awesome story, not to “win” in some fashion.  If my character is gunned down by space pirates just when my experimental belt goes on the fritz, that becomes an incredible story I can tell in the future.  While I certainly won’t go out of my way to get my character killed just for a fun death scene, it’s never a bad idea to have your sci-fi gadgetry fail at the worst (or best) possible moment.

From the Rules-Heavy focus of Adventure! to the Rules-Light focus of Cosmic Patrol, the fallibility of the non-magical invisibility has been a selling point.  As we check on D&D (or Pathfinder or d20 or whatever you wish to call it) one fun way to make Invisibility more powerful might be to remove its limitations as a magical effect.  As mentioned above, stage magicians have long known about the very real science behind making objects vanish through the careful placement of mirrors.  A secret door hidden in a gap between two mirrors is intriguing, as is the assassin who might place two mirrors to hide in plain sight during the grand ball.  The lack of magical auras might confound any adventurers or investigators all the more.

This placement is clearly meant for the GM, of course, but players need not be without such methods of obfuscation.  A DC 25 Knowledge (History) or Profession (Stage Magician) can let a player’s character know of this method of hiding items (or a DC 20 Bardic Knowledge check).  With this information in hand, a character can attempt a Hide or Disguise check using mirrors (each at least as tall as the object itself) with a +4 circumstance bonus.  The object is suddenly invisible and safe from antimagic fields.  However, never discount the high search checks of Rogues, they seem capable of finding just about anything if they have a hunch about where to look.

Ultimately, none of these methods of Invisibility rely on magic by the strictest understanding of the term.  Ironically, the examples used for the fantasy games are the least magical of all, though possibly the most mysterious in terms of tone.  A lack of officially sanctioned magic shouldn’t keep us, as gamers and story tellers, from getting our hands on the crazy effects that we want.  While it’s handy to follow the rules most of the time, magic is about doing something unnatural after all, and it’s hard to be a bigger rule breaker than that.  So just because “magic can’t do that”, don’t think that it can’t be done.

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