Behind the Screen10/22/2004

It's a Kind of Magic ...
Building a Campaign Story Arc, Part 6

"Okay, I think I've got the monsters pretty well sorted out," said Eddie. "A little more to do here and there, but that's pretty much square."

"All righty, then," said Vince. "So what's next on the agenda? You don't exactly have all year to finish this thing, yaw know. Unless you want to re-engineer everything, that is, 'cuz if you're not careful those PCs are gonna get too high-level for what you're putting together now."

"Don't worry, Vince. I've got it all under control."

"Uh-huh. By the way, I loved the part about the leeches. That'll be a nice touch once they hit the jungle, plus they get the reverb of the last time on top of the creepiness of this time."

"Yes, I thought it went very nicely myself!" Eddie grinned. "In fact, I plan to work those guys and a few other creepy jungle swarms into some of the magical spells I have in mind. I just have to sort out who can do which spells. In my mind, the divine stuff is pre-eminent in the culture, but arcane folks are still around a little bit, and I might borrow a little psionic stuff."

"I thought you didn't like psionics?"

"I could take 'em or leave 'em. Needless complication for me, but I think some of the psionic power and items ideas are a good fit for what I'm going for."

"So you've got some item ideas too?

"Naturally," Eddie replied. "In fact, sort of a 'natural' theme for some of them -- a touch of the exotic. Stuff that still works the same, but where it's clear they're not in Kansas anymore."


Consider the magic level. Do you want gritty pulp-style action? Super-high-magic? Or do you fall in between? Can you switch styles midstream in the campaign? Probably not, though you could try if you set up the rules the right way (like the demiplane in the infamous adventure WG6:Isle of the Ape).

Think about all the different forms of magic. How will you change arcane magic, including differences in changes for wizards vs. bards and sorcerers (or any other spellbook-users vs. spontaneous casters)? What about divine magic, including clerics vs. other divine casters? Any changes to magic items, such as entirely new categories of magic items?

Define universal vs. particular magic tradition. Does everyone in the world use basically the same set of spells and items? If there are local variations (by church, culture, race, region, or whatever), is it possible to learn magic from a different region? How difficult is it? Are there in-game repercussions for doing so?

Evaluate the need for cosmetic vs. deep changes. How much variety can you get by altering appearance without altering function? Doing this may take care of most of your tailoring, so don't assume you have to reinvent the whole magical wheel.

Examine your options. There are tons of magical spells and magic items out there in print and online (including from other game systems or other game editions). It's worth at least casually taking a look around to see if someone else has done your work for you and may have invented the perfect spell or item that fits your theme!

Welcome to Part 6 of our Behind the Screen workshop on building campaign story arcs. Our fictional DM, Eddie, is building a theme around an ancient race of frog-folk called sivs, and we're using his process as a model for creating your own unique campaigns. In the last several columns, we've seen some of the creatures that populate the fetid jungles of Eddie's imagination, where the vile sivs of Batul Darab hold sway! Eddie has gone through several different methods of creature design, finding things already in the game that fit his theme, adapting creatures with feats, regions, and templates, and even creating entirely new things to fill in the gaps. That's a good start, but what would a D&D game be without a bit of magic?

There are many ways to incorporate magic into a story arc, and you'll want to do so in a way that works best for your particular campaign. Some of Eddie's inspiration for his whole jungle idea comes from reading old pulp hero stories like Conan, Kull, or even (in an odd sort of way) Tarzan or John Carter of Mars. In those stories, the reader is never really sure whether the magic is real, or whether it's all just creepy atmosphere and theatrics with a few freakish monsters thrown in for spice. Eddie could run a low-magic adventure in the spirit of the pseudo-historical settings put out for AD&D in the early 1990s (e.g., The Glory of Rome, Charlemagne's Paladins, A Mighty Fortress). Such an approach could be a lot of fun, but Eddie's not creating a whole new campaign setting here (though most of the ideas he's had so far would work just fine if he were). He's planning this as an extension of his ongoing campaign, and the characters, background, and style of his game are based in the standard magic-rich world of most D&D games.

So the basic question, as always, is whether to make any changes at all. Can't the characters of your new story arc just use the same magic missile,invisibility, and cure light wounds spells as everyone else? Sure they could, but where's the fun in that? Whatever magic they have should have at least a touch of the exotic. How to do that depends on how big a change you want to make.

One idea Eddie always liked was introduced to AD&D years ago in the FR 10: Old Empires supplement with the spell read southern magic. The premise was that certain spells were native to some of the ancient cultures of the southern Forgotten Realms, and that they had a unique magical language that could not be understood with a standard read magic spell. If you wanted to learn these "southern magic" spells, you had to learn a special variant read southern magic spell. In that campaign, this spell was a carefully guarded secret, and foreigners known to have learned the spell were apt to be hunted by the Church of Thoth, guardian of knowledge! In FR 16: Shining South, a mage named Darsson had stolen the secret spell and made it generally known (and was as a result a hunted fugitive), and in 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms supplements it is generally assumed that most (or all) such spells have become generally accessible knowledge.

That's a logical solution to what could otherwise become a problematic idea. After all, how many variations of this model should one use? Should each major magical culture have its own standard spell lists? In Eddie's case, do the fiend-worshiping Servants of the Seventh Circle, one of Eddie's main villainous organizations, have their own special magic in the nations they control? What about the dragons of Urska Driulys and their slave-nations, or the elves of Solenne, or the barbarian witch doctors of Ungureanu, or the deep-delving dwarves of Dorjsuren and their elemental allies? Should each have a separate magical language and culture? This kind of model does add a lot of distinctiveness to the texture of magic in the campaign world, but it is easy to see how this could quickly get out of hand. Are there some spells common to all cultures (such as the spells in the Player's Handbook)?

Also, what you do with sorcerers and bards, who do not learn spells with traditional spellbooks and magical languages? Can they duplicate any spell that anyone in the world can do? Do they have to see it first to select it? Is just hearing about it good enough? Is there some in-game prerequisite for gaining access to "foreign" magic? If Rashean Bantecou is adopted into the elf-realm of Solenne, or Arphaxad receives an initiate's tattoo from an Ungureanu magician, is that the sole requirement? Or is there a game-mechanical prerequisite (perhaps a feat, prestige class, set of skill ranks, or other spells known) to gain access to certain spells?

More complications arise when you step out of the arcane realm and look at divine magic. One obvious place to introduce new flavors of magic is to create new clerical domains (which will be covered in a future article), but are there other ways to introduce new spells or new types of magic? Perhaps some spells are taught only within a particular faith, but if that's the case, how do you learn them? Are they taught by NPC divine spellcasters (and if so, can PCs teach them to others)? Are they written in special prayer books? If so, can characters not of the faith learn the spell if they find the right books? Are there divine punishments that accrue for using spells from another deity's prayer book? What about druids or paladins or rangers -- can they use these kinds of specialty divine spells? Is there perhaps a special feat that grants access to one or more specialty spells of a given faith?

A last consideration is what to do with magic items. You might be tempted to create a new category of magic items so that your villains could have an entirely new type of magical stuff, but that way lies madness! There are enough magic item categories as it is without gumming up the works with new types. Heck, you could say the same for new categories of magic, domains, and spells. Still, there are ways to work in something new without totally going around the bend.

In the next several columns, we'll continue to discuss magic, including how to make magic items more exotic and unusual. In the meantime, remember that often minor or cosmetic changes can really enhance the flavor of otherwise common treasures. You can also designate favorite "signature" items for a culture (such as the sivs' sianghams, nets, staffs, and bracers), favorite gemstones and metals, and characteristic types of jewelry, adornments or other valuables that a

culture favors in the accumulation material wealth. You may not need any real changes, just an intentional consistency in how you construct treasures. You're making things seem different without actually having to make them work differently.

You can do much the same with spells, such as with the Spell Thematics feat from Magic of Faerûn (updated in the web enhancement). This feat adds "special effects" to spells and makes them harder to identify (and boosts the caster spell of one favorite spell of each level). For Eddie's game, this means a simple Spellcraft check won't necessarily enable Arphaxad to know what the sivs are throwing at the party.

The key, as always, is to consider what fits your theme. Obviously, you can make up really new stuff as much as time and creativity allow, but be strategic about it. Don't just make up something new for no reason, especially if there's a perfectly good solution already available (or needing just a slight tweak to make it fit). When it comes to magical spells and items, there are several metric tons of stuff out there in print and online. Beg, borrow, steal (figuratively speaking, of course!), and massage what's already there together with your own ideas! At the end of the process, you'll really have something magical.

Next time around we'll start looking at how Eddie approaches divine magic, the primary form found in siv society.

Next month: Let's make some magic!

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He is a part-time medical transcriptionist, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social and cultural foundations of education, and a freelance writer for Dragon and Dungeon magazines. An active and committed born-again Christian, he began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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