Wednesday, April 22, 2009

They Burn Wizards, Don’t They?

A little time ago, I was reading the Necronomicon (not the actual Necronomicon mind you, just the Chaosium anthology of the same name) when I ran across this quote:

“Wisely did Ibn Schacabo say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes.” – The Necronomicon (Olaus Wormius translation), Fragment 8, Verse 3.
It is little things like this that goads my mind into packing its bags for another trip out to Bat Country. Just give me a little hint – a mere taste – of some seriously macabre possibilities and I’m hooked. The less I have to work with at the beginning, the better.

With this passage percolating away in my head, I began casting my thoughts back to one of the old standards of the sword and sorcery genre: the idea that wizards have, at best, a tentative control over the power they claim to command. The variations on this tune are numerous. Sometimes a wizard has engaged in demonic pacts to attain power normally beyond the reach of humanity. Other times, a wizard’s magic threatens to escape his control when he lets his attentions lapse in the slightest. Many of swords & sorcery tale has ended with a fiery explosion, a collapsing tower, or some other explosive event that coincides with the death of an evil magus.

Fertile ground from which to harvest, no? Let’s see what we can do with this idea.

Let’s start with the premise that magic-users do tap into powerful magical forces above and beyond the regular spells they cast on a daily basis. Perhaps this is a learned talent or maybe it’s a genetic quirk. In either case, it is this connection with the supernatural that allows them to cast their spells and do their assorted voodoo. In game terms, this is connection has no affect on game mechanics or regular play. Magic-users are clinging to their d4 Hit Die hard enough without gimping them some more. However, what if we brought this premise into action at a time when it would have little or no effect on the magic-user. Say, after his death? As the Necronomicon quote above seems to indicate, wizards can be most troublesome after they’ve sauntered off the mortal coil.

When a Magic-user (or Elf) dies, there is a chance that his now-uncontrolled attachment to the supernatural forces of the multiverse goes a little off-kilter, producing some unforeseen occurrence or event. Occasionally, this may even result in deadly ramifications to those around him. Not wanting to have every Magic-user in the game going off like a roman candle once he hits zero hit points, we’ll set this possibility at a reasonably low chance of occurring to start.

With this in mind, I’ve decided that for every level of experience the Magic-user or Elf possesses, there’s a 3% chance of some spectacular event to occur upon his death. With a nod to the old cliché that evil wizards tend to have more spectacular deaths, let’s modify this chance for Chaotic Magic-users and elves to 5% per level. Therefore, a Neutral 6th level Elf has an 18% chance of going out with a memorable effect and a Chaotic Magic-user of the same level would pop off spectacularly 30% of the time. If a percentile roll made upon the Magic-user’s death indicates a supernatural event, the referee then rolls on the table below:

The “When Dead Wizards Go Bad” Table

1 – Mage’s body turns to ash. A ghostly wind appears from nowhere and scatters the mage’s body to the winds. No resurrection is possible.

2 – As above but the mage’s body becomes 1d100+100 butterflies, wasps, ants, worms, maggots, or some other small insect or vermin. If these creatures are all somehow collected, the mage can be raised from the dead. However, these vermin will all die in 1d3 days, after which resurrection becomes impossible.

3 – The Lawful Church was right about the origins of magic. Knowingly or unknowingly, the mage made a pact with infernal forces in order to wield spells. A random demon or devil appears to collect his soul. At the referee’s discretion, this infernal being may collect his payment and leave, attempt to slay anyone else on the scene or offer nearby creatures a deal for their own souls. The dead mage’s companions may attempt to bargain with this being on the magic-user’s behalf. Chess, anyone?

4 – The mage’s remaining spells explode in a conflagration of eldritch energy. Treat as if a fireball spell has detonated with the mage at the center. The damage caused by this spell is in dice equal to the number of spells the mage had remaining in his memory. Particularly fiendish referees may instead rule that the blast does damage equal to the total number of spell levels in the dead magic-user’s memory.

5 – A curse affects the area in which the mage died. The exact effects of this curse are left to the referee. The area affected by this death curse is in proportion to the magic-user’s experience level. A low level mage’s death may curse a room or corridor. A name level mage’s death might curse an entire dungeon or village. The death of an arch-mage might lay a curse upon an entire kingdom.

6 – On the third night following the magic-user’s death, his body – if not destroyed – rises as a wight which seeks revenge (justified or not) on his friends and loved ones.

7 – As above, but the magic-user rises as a spectre.

8 – The mage’s body and all things (living or non-living) within 10’ of it become petrified. Sentient creatures may save to avoid this effect.

9 – The magic-user’s body dissolves into a puddle of water, phlegm, bile, venom, blood, or some other liquid. If the entire volume of liquid (50 liters) is collected, the mage may be raised.

10 – The mage’s death is accompanied by a foreboding omen. The moon turns to blood, an unforeseen solar eclipse occurs, cows give sour milk, chickens lay red eggs, a baby is born with two heads, a comet appears in the sky, etc. Whether these omens herald some misfortune to come is left the referee.

You can of course add to this list your own fiendish ideas. The possibilities are endless.

So the next time you stick a sword through some skinny guy or gal in robes, you’d better not let your guard down. Something interesting might just be about to occur.

19 comments:

Chris said...

Good stuff Mike. This is going straight in the "Magic is weird" file along with Trollsmyth's 'secondary spell effects' and James Mal's 'twisted by magic' articles.

WFRP plays with the cost of magic as part of the core casting mechanic (magical side effects when the numbers on the casting dice match, more severe as you get nearer to a Yahtzee).

I'm wondering if modifying something like that to D&D might simulate a 'russian roulette with magic' feel?

S. S., CFA said...

I've used a version of this idea before. Also used it with clerics -- high level clerics dying in an area tend to leave a light/dark mark.

You'd be amazed at how quickly a group of fighters will close ranks around a wounded spellcaster when they realize that he/she might "fall down and go BOOM!".

It's good to mix it up, though, as I've had a couple of clever players treat enemey spellcasters like "arcade oil barrels". You know, those things that explode and wipe out nearby baddies if/when you shoot them...

jamused said...

I like it, but I think I'll make it apply to the mage's lair instead of the mage himself. His death loosens the bonds of all the spells and things he has pent up in the lab, yadda yadda. Makes a good reason for even non-evil wizards to stick to a remote location instead of the center of town, and even sane wizards leave behind dungeon-like abodes.

Anonymous said...

I like it. The remains of the body (i.e. ashes, goo, etc) would work wonderfully as spell components also.

Al said...

That is very cool. Thanks!

Christopher B said...

I hadn't thought about the potential for disaster when a magic user dies, but my D&D house rules include the possibility for extended spell use ("over-casting") - and I was planning on adding Fortean events as the result of failure in the attempt. To that end, I was going to use "101 Occult Events" - written by our very own Grognard, James Maliszewski - to determine any such results.

kelvingreen said...

When/if I run Labyrinth Lord, I am definitely using this. Thanks!

Prismatic DM said...

Very nice idea. This is definitely finding it way into my games. Poor PCs won't know what hit 'em. Thanks Mike! :-)

Timeshadows said...

Very nice!

Coopdevil said...

Many years ago White Dwarf ran an article about gaming AD&D in Discworld (and I think only the first two books were out then!). Because of the Pratchett idea that spells in the Vancian magic system were actually entities in their own right that had to be forced in being confined into the Magic-Users skull and were "forgotten" once cast because they were no longer present (Discworld having started life as Pratchett's D&D world so this was his justification for the Vancian magic system) there were nice rules for what happened when an MU died.

Essentially all the spells he had memorized at that point all tried to escape and get said, very, very quickly...

Amityville Mike said...

I'm wondering if modifying something like that to D&D might simulate a 'russian roulette with magic' feel?

I'm not at all familiar with WFRP, so I can't comment on how this might work. I'd be interested to see what you come up with if you take a crack at it though.

Amityville Mike said...

It's good to mix it up, though, as I've had a couple of clever players treat enemey spellcasters like "arcade oil barrels". You know, those things that explode and wipe out nearby baddies if/when you shoot them...

This was exactly what I was shooting for. Make it a slim possibilty but a possibilty nonetheless so the characters can never be sure what's going to happen.

Amityville Mike said...

I like it, but I think I'll make it apply to the mage's lair instead of the mage himself. His death loosens the bonds of all the spells and things he has pent up in the lab, yadda yadda.

Yeah but then I can't have a chance of blowing up the party when their MU dies! :)

Amityville Mike said...

I like it. The remains of the body (i.e. ashes, goo, etc) would work wonderfully as spell components also.

They'd make a great ingredient for a powerful magic item. Now how does the party go about harvesting that stuff? That'd put a quandry into the laps of Lawful characters to be sure.

Amityville Mike said...

That is very cool. Thanks!

When/if I run Labyrinth Lord, I am definitely using this. Thanks!

Very nice idea. This is definitely finding it way into my games. Poor PCs won't know what hit 'em. Thanks Mike!

Very nice!

Thank you all very much. This was a fun one to come up with.

Amityville Mike said...

I was planning on adding Fortean events as the result of failure in the attempt.

In my mind, anything that reinforces the idea that magic is a bizarre force not quite within the complete control of its users is a good thing.

Amityville Mike said...

Essentially all the spells he had memorized at that point all tried to escape and get said, very, very quickly...

I've never seen the WD article but it seems to be exactly what I was going for with this little experiment. Especially the part where all the MU's spells decide to blow up when the caster dies.

noburo said...

Oh, goody! Another neat idea to nick for my campaign. Now to get that elf killed...

This reminds me of the old Stormbringer RPG (the Eighties version, by the venerable Ken St. Andre), where all magic took the form of summoning and binding demons and elementals to do the wizard's bidding. A dead wizard's demons could escape their bindings and vent their anger in all sorts of nasty ways (or thank the slayers and depart – but where's the fun in that?).

Ragnorakk said...

I always liked it when a dying wizard could breathe out some final dire imprecation - something far outstripping his/her own developed power.
Kinda similar...