Magical Mondays: Making Your Origin Story   Leave a comment

For today’s Magical Mondays, I’m talking about a concept that I use to try to give some feeling to the magic in my games.  I’ve seen other people do this, but I don’t know if they do it intentionally (or if they do it intentionally, if they ascribe any significance to it like I do.)  Basically, I like to give themes to my casters, but I try to take it a step beyond simply saying “This caster likes acid spells”, or “this is a pyromancer.”  See, rather than treating the spell as a magical widget that a magician fills with energy to create a certain effect, I like to use these themes to explain where the magic comes from.

I think this is an area where comic book writers actually have a leg up on game designers, or even novel writers.  We’re often shoehorned into thinking in certain ways regarding certain genres… and that’s fine, honestly.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wizards wearing pointy hats and long beards who all cast very similar fireballs, lightning bolts and magic missiles.  If your book only has one magician, and that magician is a lot like Gandalf or Merlin, well, that’s fine most of the time.  Your readers expect it, and it can make it easy to start writing.  However… when you read about, say, Longshot’s supernatural luck or Zatanna’s backwards magic words, there’s a certain element of fantasy that’s missing from… well, fantasy.  Part of this is admittedly related to the fact that comics have been around so long that trial and error has caused a lot of intriguing magical concepts to come into play.  I think a lot of it, though, is related to the fact that comics have the time to explore the reasons behind certain powers.  I mean, your average comic book reader will be familiar with the phrase “origin story” after all.

(As a side note: I think it’s a bit of a cop out that one of Superman’s weaknesses is simply listed as “magic.”  I don’t want a knife to be able to cut Superman because it’s “magic”.  I want a knife that can cut Superman because it’s “magically imbued with the ability to pierce the hide of even the most dangerous beasts.”  That’s not really related to this topic, I know, it’s just something that’s always bugged me.  It’s like saying “This gun can harm Superman, because we built it… with math.”  Technically accurate, sure? But… we can put more effort into that, guys.  Okay, rant over.)

I think this is why the mages that I see running around fantasy RPGs all seem to look more or less the same, while the magic users in comic book RPGs have more of a flair about them.  The focus is on the execution of the power and origin of it rather than what the power is.  That’s all well and good for MMOs, I suppose, but this is a tabletop blog.  What’s it look like when we apply this to games?  Let’s take a look.

A friend of mine once ran a World of Darkness game (Hunter:The Vigil to be specific), and our antagonist was a Mage (built using a lot of the rules from Mage: The Awakening, naturally.)  In true Word of Darkness fashion, the Mage was actually a pretty well fleshed out character.  He’d been imprisoned by his fellow mages for coming close to destroying the world, and we accidentally broke that seal.  He called himself DJ Danger (among many other names), and he loved 80s Music, and the 80s in general.  His music was his life, man.  His soul.  And, ultimately, the music was his power.  My friend had scoured a lot of the best (and worst) pieces of 80s music, and had tied many of them to spells, abilities, and effects.  Even worse, this mage was more or less unaware of the 90s, Naughts and Teens, and with over two decades of missing pop culture knowledge a lot of what we had to say was lost on him.  We could not, it turned out, depower him by requesting that he play Never Gonna Give You Up.


Astley, you failed us when we needed you the most.

Anyway… ultimately, this mage’s powers (probably) came from the towers that all mages get their powers from in World of Darkness.  However, in terms of this particular story? DJ Danger’s power came from his music.  It led to my favorite character death to date: while locked outside on the roof of a skyscraper, I happen to see something coming up the side of the building…


But instead of McFly, it’s Danger holding a boom box.  And then that classic Scorpions song began blasting, making my character be Rocked like a Hurricane.  The German rock music summoned (was?) the mighty wind, I didn’t roll enough successes, and my character fell to his death.  Now, could any other Mage have done the same thing to me? Quite possibly.  But DJ Danger did it in the way that mattered.

I’ve spoken about this earlier, specifically when talking about how there can be different versions of the same spells or magical effects, but in this case the emphasis is on how the magician creates these effects.  In the Zork universe, magic is described as being comprised of Presence, Incantation and Unusual Effect: if you want a memorable magic user, don’t worry too much about the Unusual Effect and consider, instead, the Presence and Incantation side of things.  Let’s take a look at the identical spells of two D&D necromancers and see just how we can make them different.

0th level spells: Disrupt Undead, Touch Of Fatigue, Light, Ray Of Frost
1st level spells: Cause Fear, Chill Touch, Animate Rope

Sammar Scorchman, Pyrekeeper: Sammar is a necromancer dedicated not just to death, but also to death caused by fire.  Sammar believes that fire, flame and ash represent great mysteries, especially when used to manipulate death itself.  Disrupt Undead is fueled by holy fire from pacts made daily with beings from the positive energy plane, and Touch of Fatigue hits a target with a feeling of intense humidity.  Ray of Frost is curious: unlike most wizards, Sammar’s spell isn’t a ray that shoots cold energy at a target: instead, it’s a ray that pulls the warmth from the body of his enemies.  Moving on to first level spells it becomes a little harder: Chill Touch is similar to Ray Of Frost, as it also saps the warmth from the body leaving an incredible, frosty chill.  Cause Fear is an ability granted because Sammar has stolen a fragment of the soul of an ancient red dragon, instilling a portion of his frightful presence onto the assembled.  Finally, Animate Rope works due to a literal spark of life stolen from an individual (possibly from a Ray Of Frost cast weeks earlier) that allows the rope to act as Sammar chooses.

Scurvy Samuel Sawbones, Watcher of the Black Tide: Sam Sawbones has been a sailor all of his life and a pirate for most of those.  He learned from an early age that the sea was an engine of death, just as much as a medium for passage and a provider of food.  Disrupt Undead is an ancient pirate curse that befouls the remains of anything that forgot how dead it should be.  Touch Of Fatigue is a single touch that compresses a day’s work of sailing into a single instant.  Light is a remnant of St. Elmo’s Fire, brought into being to cause some good for once, no matter how unsettling the other sailors find it.  Ray Of Frost is the piercing sensation of the icy blue waters at the bottom of the sea.  Level one spells are a bit easier than they were for Sammar up above: Cause Fear reaches into the primal sensations of ancient people when they first learned to fear the sharks and krakens that hid in the deeps, Chill Touch causes a person to briefly become possessed by the soul of someone who was keelhauled, feeling the water just as they expired.  And, finally, Animate Rope is an old sailor’s trick, often said to be invented on sea before the land… though some think it makes use of the souls of the poor sailors who got caught up in the ropes while they weren’t paying attention one day.  Samuel knows, but won’t say.


These aren’t great characters, in my opinion, but I think with some work those kinds of concepts could come to life in a character.  I went with Necromancers because I’m playing one at the moment who comes from a culture where manipulating ghosts was commonplace, and so each of his spells are thought to actually be the work of ghosts instead of arcane energy.  Having said all this: remember that there’s a lot of fun to be had from any other number of ways when you flesh out a character.  If you want someone who’s basically Gandalf but with a fear of stars, go for it.  Toy with your characters, and I think you’ll be surprised at what you can come up with.


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