16 May, 2018

Walkabout: Magic of the Dreaming

I've been digging through my old Walkabout notes, some of them almost a decade old. I had at least two versions of the game, drawing on different clusters of inspiration.

In the original version of the game, magic was a fairly static affair. At the end of each game, a player could ask another player to inscribe a tattoo or marking on the characters body. The player would literally give their character sheet to another player, and that second player would literally draw on the character sheet in pencil, and fill in a couple of words. This would be related to some deed that the character had performed during the course of the story. If the player liked the idea, they could find a shaman, or do some kind of "quest of permanence" to integrate that marking into their soul. If the player didn't like it, they could erase it during a later game. Characters would have a limited number of these marking slots on their body, and if they suffered a permanent injury like a loss of a limb, then naturally there would be less "marking slots" to play with.

The whole idea here was that characters would be dedicating their body to the spirits and showing that dedication in the physical world through those markings. As a benefit for this dedication, characters would gain an automatic success on actions associated with the marking and the keywords written with it. One wedge-tailed eagle glyph might provide benefits to perception checks, a different wedge-tailed eagle glyph might provide a sense of presence and majesty to it's bearer... a character truly dedicated to this spirit, with multiple markings on their body dedicated to wedge-tailed eagle might get both. It was a very freeform system, and when the success bonus from the glyph was used, the character would either need to re-inscribe the glyph, rest and allow it to recharge, or perform some deed for the affiliated spirit.


A variant magic system linked into the elemental concept I've had in many of my other games. It basically works of a cubic cosmology. Air on one side of the cube opposes earth on the other, water opposes fire, and wood opposes metal. If you cross section the cube in one way, you get a square with the Western Hermetic pattern of elemental forces (Air-Earth-Fire-Water and mysterious quintessential life forces in the middle)...and if you cross section it another way, you get a square with the Eastern Taoist pattern (Fire-Metal-Water-Wood...with a balanced earth in the middle). But it didn't seem to fit the paradigm of Indigenous mysticism as I understood it. I felt like I could reskin it in some way, perhaps renaming "Earth" as "Wombat", "Air" as "Eagle"...but it was getting tricky to do some of the others and this was really starting to feel like the hollow cultural appropriation I was trying to avoid in this project. That obstacle was actually one of the things that brought the project to a standstill.

But recently I heard a talk by an Indigenous elder about certain redgum trees. He said that a sacred life like this required the elements to come into play. Seeds from the plant are eaten by birds and are thus infused by the air in their journey, then they are dropped to the ground in the bird's shit where they become buried and infused with earth. Next, they can wait for years or even decades until a bushfire sweeps through the area, and the energy of the fire invigorates the seed. Finally, with rain, the energy of water completes the cycle and the plant begins to grow. This struck me as a hybrid of the Hermetic wisdom, channelled through an Indigenous lens to give a perspective of the world. So maybe the elemental concept might have been valid after all.

I still like the idea of the marked wayfarer, where the first marking is an indication of the character's status as a wandering balancer of nature.

So my next idea is to unite those concepts. Similar to some of the ideas that I've been having for magic under the banner of "Familiar" or "The Law".

If I'm running with 4 attributes... those 4 can be combined in six pairings.

Physical-Social
Physical-Mental
Physical-Paranormal
Social-Mental
Social-Paranormal
Mental-Paranormal

Now it's a case of meshing those pairings to one of the elemental affinities.

Physical-Social : Air
Physical-Mental : Metal
Physical-Paranormal : Fire
Social-Mental : Water
Social-Paranormal : Wood
Mental-Paranormal : Earth

In the non-magical version of "The Law" a characters rank die can never be the highest die they possess... they always need to have one of the attributes higher. Under this magical system, a character might be limited to having a magical die no higher than the corresponding attributes.     

To use a magical effect, the character needs to be using one of the attributes linked to the element. But the two attributes have slightly different manifestations of the elemental energy.

Air (using Physical): This is about movement and speed
Air (using Social): This is about surface appearances of things, fleeting thoughts and illusion
Earth (using Mental): This is about science and the immutable laws of the universe
Earth (using Paranormal): This is about resilience and permanence
Fire (using Physical): This is about strength and raw power
Fire (using Paranormal): This is about destruction of body, mind and soul
Metal (using Physical): This is about death and decay
Metal (using Mental): This is about the darker thoughts, and knowledge of spirits or technology as an antithesis of the living world.
Water (using Social): This is about clarity of purpose and leadership
Water (using Mental): This is about higher conceptual thoughts, and the cycles of nature
Wood (using Social): This is about emotional energy and community
Wood (using Paranormal): This is about health, growth, renewal and regeneration

When I was thinking about this paradigm of magical thought for "Familiar", I was working with the theory that different schools of magic would fall into a specific elemental pattern. A character could spend XP to understand the framework of a specific school of magic (theurgy, illusionism, conjuring, alchemy, divination, etc.). This would give them a natural bonus when trying to perform mystic effects relating to that school, and would let them boost the associated elemental die by one step. There would be dozens of these magical schools, and to gain the maximum die in a certain element they'd have to understand the framework of five different schools each contributing their knowledge to a holistic understanding of the element (one school = d4, two schools = d6, three = d8, four = d10, five = d12).

Under the Walkabout version of the system, each of your body markings would provide a natural bonus when attempting to perform specific subtle actions, an a boosted die of the relevant element. For example, a marking of the Gecko might provide an automatic bonus success when climbing walls (a Physical action), and since this is a movement related effect it would increase the Air elemental die by a degree. If the character is engaged in subtle magic, they simply gain the success. If they want to climb a sheer surface that requires multiple successes, they might invoke full air magic by rolling their physical attribute and their air elemental die.

Here's where my thoughts earlier today seem to have reached a conclusion I'm happy with.

In Mage: the Ascension, the power of magic(k) is limited by the mage's Arete, their one-ness with the universe. The more enlightened they are, the more powerful the effect they can manifest. This system has a bit of that in it as well.

I like the idea of having rote magic, and that's linked into the markings on the character's body, but could just as easily be linked to artifacts, fetishes, magical items and rituals that require outside forces to achieve. The game could go that way, but it doesn't need to. 


When a character invokes one of their elemental dice, they are effectively casting "vulgar magick" (from the parlance of Mage). Elemental dice always apply to the success column of the table, this reduces the chances of rolling a 1 (and failing), but there is also a chance that the elemental die will be the highest rolled. A character who opens themselves up to mystic forces doesn't necessarily know how to control them all the time. If the elemental die is the highest rolled, it represents uncontrolled magic flowing through the character and into the world...an effect based on the elemental force will manifest in the world at the discretion of the GM (maybe filtered through a random table and translated into the story by the GM). Such effects could be powerfully positive, or powerfully negative. Magic is always dangerous to someone, and the spirits are always watching. Familiars like it when uncontrolled elemental energy flows into the world, some feed on it, some absorb it into themselves for their own manifestations, some redirect it to their own ends as it is unleashed.

Within the dreaming, characters might gain automatic bonuses or penalties to their elemental dice depending on where in the cosmological geography they currently stand. 

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