Streams and Spellcraft   Leave a comment

While browsing the Internet this week, I saw a question pop up about magic in the d20 system (so, we’re talking Pathfinder, D&D 3.5, possibly D&D 3e, and possibly some other Open Game License versions of the d20 rules.) It’s a little sad, to me, that the culture of mainstream gaming (if gaming culture can be said to have mainstream elements) on the Internet made it likely that someone would ask this question eventually, but it also seems inevitable. The question pertained to Spellcraft, and specifically the note on using it that a DC 30 Spellcraft check would be required to “understand a strange or unique magical effect, such as a magic stream.”  The poster wanted to know what this meant and what sort of effects would be here that Knowledge (Arcana) couldn’t cover.

The question came up, in part, because the game rules were beginning to infringe upon the assumed story that players would be encountering. When the designers of D&D’s third edition were setting things up, so the story goes, the designers assumed that house rules and homebrew design would be very common. Perhaps not the norm, but they wanted their GMs (and to a lesser extent their players) to use the rules as a framework for whatever tales might be told… even if those particular tales didn’t fit in the established rules.

The “magic stream” from the Spellcraft skill’s description represents the vast array of possibilities. Identifying spells while they’re being cast or figuring out what spells went into making a magic item is one thing (er… two things…), but what about magic that isn’t covered by spells?

For example: let’s say that the players are exploring a dungeon and find a purple mist blocking their path. They aren’t sure what the mist is, but they have a mage who can make a Spellcraft check. Knowledge (Arcana) might be called for, but this dungeon is entirely unknown; knowledge of this purple mist quite simply hasn’t spread yet, and it’s risky to assume that it might react just like the other magical mists that the mage knows about (besides, this one looks a little different.)

The player makes the roll. What happens next is up to the player and the GM, but effectively the mage takes what he or she knows about magic and uses it to extrapolate what’s happening. There are careful examinations of the hue of the mist’s coloration, the patterns made when the mist swirls, how dense it is, perhaps the mage even possesses some minute ability to see the faint signs of magic in the air itself; not enough to replace Detect Magic, of course, but enough to get a sense about how the magic “flows”. The mage might even compare this knowledge to other esoteric forms of divination performed earlier (during spell preparation, perhaps?) that would have given a hint about what the mage might encounter that day; not enough to alter any rolls mechanically, but enough to get some hints. All this (or possibly none of this) and more (or possibly not a bit more) is represented by the mage’s Spellcraft check (which is why the time required to perform such a check “varies” depending on the exact situation.)

After this check is made, the mage then understands some of the arcane mysteries of the purple mist. The player has the mage say “The bad news is that this mist will turn any living person that touches it into mindless skeletons. The GOOD news is that anyone carrying enough cold iron will be completely unharmed… if they swear allegiance to the hobgoblin tribe that rules the caves deeper down in the cave system. Fortunately, it looks like swearing allegiance is just a formality, not magically enforced. We can lie like crazy; it probably does more to keep visiting tribal dignitaries in check, given how superstitious the tribes are.”

I’m assuming that the person who got this check rolled REALLY well. Like, probably a 35 or 40. The catch, of course, is that the players might not know the name of the hobgoblin tribe.

So in a situation where Knowledge (Arcana) fails, Spellcraft can succeed. Note that this skill isn’t limited to discerning the effects of magical locations or bizarre meteorological mysteries. Any unknown magical effect might be determined, including the supernatural abilities of monsters. An unknown monster with a peculiar ability might be subject to a Spellcraft check for determining how the ability works once it’s seen (subject to GM approval, of course.) A truly generous GM might even let a success at something like this grant a second Knowledge roll to identify a creature if the first one failed, possibly with a small circumstance bonus based on the new information. (“Oh! A creature that generates electricity from the floor! Okay, I don’t know why I didn’t figure that out before with ears like that, but it just clicked.”)

Now: why use Spellcraft for this instead of Knowledge (Arcana)? Flavor, mostly. However, the distinction between Spellcraft and Knowledge (Arcana) can be likened to the difference betwee Applied Physics and Theoretical Physics, and would be used for different things. Knowledge (Arcana) represents a wealth of magical knowledge accumulated by the character while Spellcraft represents the character’s skill at extrapolating information.

Here are two magical effects that can be put into a number of games. The first is based on a favorite location of mine from the Zork universe (which is itself based on a location from MIT’s campus). It also seems a little disingenuous to have an article about the nature of Spellcraft based on the wording of the skill without at least including a magical stream, so we’ll also look at what someone might discern by rolling a 30 (or higher) on one of those.

The Infinite Corridor

This lengthy stretch of unlit hallway is one hundred and twenty feet long and twenty-five feet wide. Even if bright light is brought into the hall at every point, the hall still feels shadowy and murky. When adventurers travel down the Infinite Corridor with regular lighting, both ends of the hall remain obscured by the shadows. If the adventurers can create a greater source of light through the use of magic or guile around them that makes a bright light the ends of the hall and in the center, it always appears as if the players are a mere forty to eighty feet from the corridor’s end. No matter how far or how fast the players run or fly, they can’t reach the end. Arrows or items thrown with sufficient strength can make it to the end of the hall, but thrown creatures don’t make it (they appear to be as far from the thrower as they were legitimately thrown, and a comparable amount of walking can bring the thrower to the throwee, but the corridor ends won’t change very much in perspective, possibly giving a temporary impression that the corridor might be miles long.) Unfortunately, the goblins running into the hallway to fight intruders don’t seem to be affected by this. Worse, the Infinite Corridor effect seems to be in place no matter what end of the hallway is approached meaning that the players are effectively trapped.

Spellcraft DC 30: The stone of the hallway is miraculously infused with the essence of a realm of shadow. The shadows desire physical forms onto which they can latch, and subtly shift the road while people try to walk away. The goblins are exempt from the corridor’s snare due to an ancient pact their clan made. An intense burst of sunlight at both ends of the Infinite Corridor and around where the players are within a short time might fizzle the effect long enough for the players to leave. Alternatively, a very powerful Light spell might be used to nullify the Corridor’s effect for one round if used as a counterspell, though the caster likely wouldn’t be able to run to the hall’s end in time. Finally, if the players wait long enough and slay a large number of the goblins that continue mounting progressively larger attacks, they may be able to escape by inscribing sigils upon themselves with their blood (or with enough blood, simply covering themselves in it.)

Dwarves get a +2 bonus on this Spellcraft check due to their stonecunning ability. Determining this takes 1d12 minutes.

A Magic Stream

Local legend suggests that this stream has mysterious properties. Some say it causes great benefits, but others insist that it’s a cursed place of great danger. The adventurers come across the magic stream at a time of great need, but don’t know what to expect.

Spellcraft DC 30: This stream has a number of different magical effects within it due to a competing series of ley lines, astrological coincidences, and magical minerals in the stream’s bank. It’s hard to say just what will happen, but the effect likely changes with time.

Spellcraft DC 32: Rolling this well will allow a spellcaster to learn what the stream will do to anyone drinking or wading through the water, and also what will happen in the near future. With a DC 12 Wisdom check, the spellcaster will also have a good guess about what the stream just did. (See below). The spellcaster also learns that the effect won’t work on anyone who was exposed to the stream within the last 1d3 days.

Spellcraft DC 35: The stream has a number of magical effects that change over the course of the day. The stream has three effects during the day that change every four hours. During the night, the stream has two effects. The first takes place midway through dusk, and the second happens just after midnight. Rolling this well lets the spellcaster learn the next day’s schedule (determined randomly by the GM rolling from the options below.) The spellcaster also learns that the stream has a capricious effect: there is a random chance that anyone in the stream will suddenly appear 1d4 miles up or down the stream at a stretch of stream that looks remarkably similar (DC 20 Spot check to notice the minor differences, though the roller gets a +2 circumstance bonus if there were other people around who suddenly aren’t there anymore.) During the day, this random chance is only 10%. At night, the chance increases to 50%. Attempting to bottle the water to take away removes the magical properties of the water in the bottle (or other liquid-carrying container) leaving it as regular water. Finally, the stream seems to be haunted by a number of wraiths at night who might take notice of anyone tresspassing on their land.

Day Spell Effect possibilities: Aqua Vitae (2d8+10 hp recovered, extra remaining as temporary hitpoints for 1 hour), Hide From Undead (only while standing in the river), Bull’s Strength (2d12 hours), Tongues (2 days), Fool of the Forest (as Touch of Idiocy; take a 4 point penalty to Int, Wis and Cha for 1d4 days), Protector Spirit (as the Shield spell, 2d20 hours).

Night Spell Effect possibilities: Fairy Will (as Eagle’s Splendor but for two days), Curse of the Whispering Wanderers (as Bestow Curse, inflicting a -6 penalty to Wisdom caused by hearing whispering voices constantly), Ghoul Touch (duration extended to 1 day), Curse of the Bumbling Fool (as Bestow Curse, inflicting a -6 penalty to Dexterity), Hide From Undead (only while standing in the river), Transformative Curse (as the Polymorph Any Object, turns the person who touches the water into a Troll, a Stag, or a Tree (GM choice or random)).

For the purpose of resisting save DCs, treat the Stream as if it had a casting stat of 16.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays.  Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you next time!


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