Magical Mondays: The Starstones, Backgrounds and You   Leave a comment

On this week’s Magical Mondays, I want to talk a bit about some lore that I’m working on for the Fifth Edition of D&D.  While we won’t know for sure how D&D Next will look until this year’s Gen-Con, there are already some good signs about the kinds of things that we can expect.  I strongly encourage game masters who want to expand upon the nature of magic in their game universes to look into Backgrounds.  Like the prestige classes of third edition, backgrounds have the potential to expand upon a campaign world.  Unlike the prestige classes of third edition, backgrounds don’t (usually) have requirements and can be used from level one once a character has a background in place.  This is neither the time nor the place to discuss the mechanical nature of backgrounds, however… that’s something that we should leave for Wizards of the Coast to do this August.  Instead, now is the time to create lore for our campaign worlds that will benefit our players once we have the definitive details on how backgrounds work.

In my setting of Cantadel I’m creating a city called New Brefton.  New Brefton superficially resembles the steampunk world of Seattle as demonstrated in the novel Boneshaker (I strongly suggest that fans of Steampunk sensibilities, or just of non-futuristic sci-fi in general, should read this novel.)  New Brefton was abandoned due to a fissure in the earth that released a gas capable of transforming people into zombies.  Before it became known for its zombies, however, New Brefton was known for The Starstones, five magical meteorites that fell to the ground centuries ago.  The knowledge gleaned from each of these meteorites was able to advance the capabilities of certain branches of magic.  When I was designing the Starstones I originally thought about having one for each of the eight different traditional schools of magic in D&D, but two things changed my mind; first of all, the “eight schools of magic” are already well documented, and it seems to me that, in a world like D&D, a wizard wouldn’t need to study a meteorite to expand their understanding of a magical school.  More to the point, one of the ongoing themes in Cantadel is the fact that one method of finding magical power is to seek out and understand universal concepts (so, bards study the magic of Art, druids study the magic of Nature, necromancers study the magic of Death, etc.)  With this in mind, if made sense to use different universal concepts instead of magical schools.  The second thing that changed my mind was the fact that eight was a big number, and seemed more difficult to manage than five.  When I established everything, it turned out that I hadn’t even worked out five, but more on that later.  Let’s look at each of these stones.


Petra Ignum is “the fire stone of the Pyromancers.”  Petra Ignum grants an understanding of fire, including the secondary benefits of fire (heat, light, combustion, etc.)  The Pyromancers are a cabal of magic users who use Petra Ignum to make their fires burn brighter, longer, and with more energy.  Of the traditional schools of magic, evokers and conjurers would be the most likely to join, though illusionists interested in pattern effects and the influence of stimuli on the senses can learn a few things about light from Petra Ignum that they might not get elsewhere.  However, the Pyromancers count many… even those otherwise without traditional magic… among their numbers.


Petra Cryptos is “the mystery stone of the Seers.”  Petra Cryptos concerns itself with the unknown, with mysteries, and with methods of discerning that which is hidden.  Its subtler powers include the disturbing knowledge of ways to make things that are known secret again.  Good Seers are helpful, if mysterious and aloof, generally working as soothsayers, fortune tellers, or sages.  Evil Seers use the knowledge gained from Petra Cryptos to gain more mundane knowledge that they can leverage into personal gain.  Most traditional casters who revere Petra Cryptos are priests and clerics, though arcane diviners and fortune tellers are among their ranks.


Petra Vitae is “the life stone of the Animists.”  Petra Vitae concerns itself with life, animation, growth and change for most; for some, the proper concerns of Petra Vitae relate more to death, reanimation, mold and decay.  Those who use Petra Vitae for this purpose are in the vast minority, but no one denies that they achieve results.  Death is, after all, part of the life cycle.  The balance between life and death is not the only dichotomy where Petra Vitae is concerned; some of its users see it as a source of natural wonder and beauty meant to exist as it is, while others see it as a natural resource more easily tapped than the other Starstones.  The natural magics behind crop growth and curative medicine have greatly benefited from Petra Vitae, but so have the more industrious magics (and sciences) such as those that bring life to mundane objects.


Petra Nox is “the shadow stone of the Umbral Mages.”  Petra Nox greatly enhances magic relating to darkness, shadow, the unseen, and to a lesser extent the passage of time and death.  The Umbral Mages have, since the Starstones fell, cycled between making people fear darkness and giving people the clarity to see for themselves.  While none of the stones are evil in and of themselves, Petra Nox is the one most associated with superstitions, villainy and evil.  Petra Nox attracts far more necromancers than Petra Vitae as a more direct route to the powers of darkness… quite literally in this case.  In addition to necromancers, illusionists and very specialized evokers have a great interest in Petra Nox.  Worshippers of powerful entities of darkness have sometimes wondered if Petra Nox might serve them in that regard, but they generally see it as a tool to use instead of a conduit to their deity.  Surprisingly, there are a number of bards who appreciate the stone, not to mention assassins who seem to have a fondness for the uses that they can make of its technologies.


Petra Kenos is the final stone, and it went missing centuries ago.  Poets have given it a name and affiliation similar to the others, calling it “the missing stone of Magic Unknown.”  While the other Starstones are well documented, the precise nature of the magic enhanced by Petra Kenos is lost to history.


The Starstones of New Brefton will be fun from a storytelling perspective.  But what, I hear you ask, does any of this have to do with D&D Next mechanics?  Well, each of the four remaining stones has a group associated with it.  Cult is probably a bad word for these people, but Cabal would fit nicely.  The benefit of these groups is that they are loose affiliations rather than strict organizations, meaning that any player with any class, alignment or play style might be able to fit into a group that sounds fun.  The key to remember is that despite the names of the groups (Pyromancers, Umbral Mages, etc.), backgrounds can be taken by members of any class, even non-magical ones.  A player taking the Animist background, for instance, may be able to temporarily animate a mundane item for a number of rounds equal to his or her proficiency bonus with skills equal to their own; suddenly a rogue can animate a sheet of paper to slide under a door and pick the lock from the other side where there are fewer magical wards preventing that sort of tampering.  Similarly, a rogue from the Umbral Mages might have greater uses for hiding in darkness, gaining a boost to speed in areas of dim lighting.  A rogue from Petra Cryptos might be able to deduce, after a few moments of observation, exactly where a person carries the most valuable object on his or her person, gaining a bonus to picking pockets.  Finally, a rogue from the Pyromancers might be quite the clever arsonist, setting fires that don’t actually light until minutes after she or he has left the building.


These ideas are all rough, I’m saving the more specific details until I see more from the finished project when the Player’s Handbook is released in August.  However, these four groups aren’t the only backgrounds that I’ve dabbled with, and from what I’ve seen so far they appear to be a fantastic method of giving mundane characters some of the magic that infuses the world around them.


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