Magical Mondays: A Presence I’ve Not Felt Since…   Leave a comment

Vader Sensing A Presence

“You study the arcane symbols on the ground, careful not to enter the field of energy that’s caused the villagers to fall into their deep slumber. There’s something familiar about this magic. The handwriting that inscribed the runes may be different, but there’s no hiding the identity of one so foul, and so powerful…”

The modular approach to magic in most gaming systems is a wonderful thing, but it comes with certain concessions. Many standard fantasy tropes that have to do with magic fall by the wayside without any supporting rules. One of these tropes is the recognizability of magic from familiar casters. Often, magic of this sort is recognizable only if it relates to a particularly powerful or flavorful source, meaning that it can give the audience a taste of what might be coming. More importantly, it informs the audience about the history that a character has, even if it’s just “this person’s studied a lot.”

As a game master, if you make magic recognizable then there are many plot points and secrets that can become clear to your players. There are two basic approaches: magic from a person they’ve seen using magic before, and magic from a source that would be familiar to them. For the first of these approaches, recognizing magic would be similar to recognizing a person who’s disguised or recognizing familiar handwriting. For the latter of these approaches, it would tie in to what a character knows about magic, history, the occult, or certain magical creatures. The exact approaches would change based on the game you’re playing (a game of Mage: The Awakening handles this differently than Dungeons & Dragons which handles it differently from Cosmic Patrol, naturally) but understanding what you’re working with can inform your approach. Let’s look at some different kinds of recognizable magic.

The magic is innately tied to the caster. In this case, the magic is an extension of how a caster manipulates certain energies. Something like this would be most common in science fiction stories where psychic energies are a “scientifically acceptable magic” for most plot purposes. Darth Vader’s ability to feel the presence of Obi Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is an example of this; their very presence affected the force enough for him to be aware. A game where magic comes from auras or other personal things could use this. A sorcerer in D&D’s third edition or a Mage from Mage: The Awakening is almost perfect. If you’re playing a Moon Man in Cosmic Patrol, you could probably also recognize the Dynamo Psychism of another Moon Man that you’re familiar with, if it comes up. This can be used to inform players that an old enemy, or perhaps an old friend, is again on the scene.

The magic is from a historically significant source. If there was an invasion of fairies from another realm or aliens from another world fifty years ago, someone who’s studied that period of recent history might be able to recognize technology or magic if these forces are starting to encroach into the world again. This is more or less what happened when Gandalf realized that the Dark Lord was returning, and that Bilbo’s old ring was more than it seemed to be. This can alert players to the presence of some ancient magic or technology, both as a warning about upcoming events and as a feature of discovered ruins on archaeological digs. This can give your players the chance to shout “I’ve discovered Atlantis!” or “The Mordothermitites are returning from the ninth dimension?! I’ve got to warn someone!”

The magic is related to a certain tradition or history. This is related to the one before, but it generally requires more specialized knowledge. It would be like Indiana Jones realizing what ancient treasure he’s looking for and which secret societies or fascist militaries will be trying to stop him. Of all the methods that would be best for your traditional tabletop RPG wizard to use, this is the best. Use this one to give your players a quick run-down of the history of what you’re about to face. “Did you see the color of the fire from that wand? You only get that if you use a certain form of manganese in the casting… they must be learning their magic from the Fire Giants of Mishkala! Careful, guys, those people train dangerous canines to guard their homes…”

The magic is intentionally stylized and practiced in certain ways. This is similar to Voldemort developing certain signs and symbols to be associated with himself, and flavoring many of the dark arts that he practices in those ways. Often, a mage choosing to stylize his or her magic in this way will become very used to it, almost always performing magic in that fashion much like how serial bombers come to prefer certain methods of triggering their bombs (based on my in-depth knowledge of serial bombing from the movie Speed.) This method sort of combines all the previous methods into one. Recognizing magic this way is easy, largely because the force at work is so dangerous and self-confident that it *wants* to be recognized.

In my games, I treat all magic as being related to the first of these approaches, with a likelihood of the second two, but that’s because magic is always a very personal thing in my game worlds. If you prefer thinking of magical spells as being identical… every casting of magic missile being the same as every other regardless of caster or origin… then using one of these approaches to make magic recognizable might not be for you. Or if you just want a flavor of this, you can use the commonality of magic to make recognizing it more of a challenge… instead of recognizing it on sight, you might have to make it a challenge akin to a ballistics investigation, trying to match a single bullet to the gun that fired it. In that case, identifying the source of magic can become impractical, but possibly very rewarding. In fact, I just had an idea for an adventure while I wrote that, hang on… okay, I’m back.

It’s also worth noting that these four methods I’m suggesting are broad categories, not meant to be restrictive and, in fact, may confuse things if you try to apply them too strictly.  For instance: a fortune teller being able to recognize someone afflicted with Lycanthropy is one of those instantly recognizable moments from literature.  They can see the signs, or they can sense the aura, or they’ve studied werewolves, or something… it almost doesn’t matter.  For that kind of thing, you might want to make a “passive spellcraft check” to see if a player’s spellcraft check, on a roll of ten, might be enough to recognize cursed individuals or everyday magic (assuming you want your players to have a caster who’s always spotting things like that.  If it’s just for NPCs, I recommend not even worrying about the check, unless what they’re recognizing is something that the players are actively trying to hide.)  In some ways, doing it this way almost obviates the need for Detect Magic as a spell in D&D and turns it into a semi-reliable knack that casters have (which I’m fine with, personally, but I can understand why that might rub some people the wrong way.)

Here’s a few methods you can use to identify the presence of magic depending on games that you play.

In most editions of D&D or Pathfinder, this would usually be covered by something like a Spot/Perception check if it’s related to personal experience or a Knowledge check relating to Arcana or History (or Religion or the Planes or whatever) if it’s based on specialized knowledge. In third edition, or Pathfinder, preface this with a Spellcraft check to represent your studies of the magical presence that you’re dealing with. In fifth edition if you’re basing this on a personal history with something, just make it the standard check, but give advantage to that check so that the players can roll twice. If the caster being recognized tries to disguise their casting in some way, Disguise is probably the best roll to use on their part.

In the Storyteller System (World of Darkness, Adventure!, Mage: The Awakening and the like) there are a lot of different ways to make this work, and it really depends on the story you’re telling (and which of the myriad WoD sub-games you’re playing). A Wits roll would usually be called for, along with an appropriate check relating to knowledge, the Occult, or something.

If you’re playing a game like Cosmic Patrol or Valiant, this is almost entirely a Brains roll. We run into an interesting feature if the caster tries to disguise their presence; in this case, it becomes a Contest instead of a regular check, so the person identifying would roll their Brains die along with a d12, while the caster would roll their casting stat die (probably their special die, but it could be anything really) and a d12. Alternatively, if the Narrator for that scene just wants to make it a situational thing or something where there’s no attempt at discretion, the opposing roll should just be a d20.

Ultimately, if this is something you want to use in your gaming sessions, there’s no telling how many chances your players will take to investigate this kind of thing, especially since you’ll be going against the path of least resistance for most assumptions about Vancian-style magic. If you want the players to be aware of things this way, feel free to give them some extra checks after they’ve investigated something, and let them know that it feels familiar, or give them some information on what history they’re aware of.

They might not notice the change. But if they do? Well, then they’ll feel a presence that they’ve not felt since… possibly ever.


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