Anyone who has read any amount of sword & sorcery fiction can attest that there are several modifications that need to be made to the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset to evoke the proper tone and feel that is required for the setting. In the series of articles tagged Sword & Sanity Dissected I have attempted to breakdown the sword & sorcery genre into its various elements, and take a closer look at how these elements relate to the Cthulhu Mythos, and how they can be implemented into your sword & sanity game. Here we will discuss sorcery.
The game mechanics discussed can be used for any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but are specifically written for Castles & Crusades. As with most game materials I will present, this article is considered Open Game License (OGL).
Level of Magic in the Game World
When comparing the classic works of sword & sorcery to how they relate to the rules presented in Dungeons & Dragons it becomes obvious that the biggest area in need of an overhaul is magic. In a baseline D&D setting magic is wondrous, whimsical and plentiful. There are exceptions to the rule, but most classic sword & sorcery settings are considered “low magic”, and the arcane forces present are mysterious, sinister and cannot be trusted. Only those who are willing to pay a high price (i.e. physical, mental and/or spiritual degradation) will even consider dabbling in the dark arts.
When preparing for a sword & sorcery game the first thing that needs to be established is the level of magic available to the players. In a Hyborian Age campaign the players can expect to see few to no magic items in the treasure troves they plunder, and forget about seeing any “whiz-bang” spells being cast. Adventures in Lankhmar would be similar, but the hint of magic is thicker in the air, only to help bring a more fantastic feel to the setting.
On the other end of the spectrum adventuring in the world of Elric would offer up the sword & sorcery package complete with a high level of magical saturation. This approach was intentional, and Michael Moorcock has stated many times that he wanted to reverse all the standard trappings, taking the sword & sorcery genre and turn it on its ear. In the end it is up to you as a game master to decide what works for the game being presented and what doesn’t.
In low magic settings limiting players to their access to magic is the key to maintaining a classic sword & sorcery feel. This may mean that playing a cleric or magic-user of any type is off limits. At the very least these classes will need to be pared down and tweaked. Healing magic should not be readily available to players, leaving the threat of bodily harm a real concern. As a game master it is up to you to set the parameters. Take a hard look at the spell lists available and see what works best for your setting.
What is Sorcery?
In the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and others who have written stories that take place alongside his Mythos, magic is very powerful, but it is also something that is suppressed and hidden. The general public does not believe in magic, and is clueless as to what is truly at work in the arcane underground. Those who are unfortunate enough to realize magic is a real force in the universe often live to regret their discovery.
Sword & sorcery literature takes a very similar approach. Sorcery is a catchall term used to describe black magic and witchcraft. It is strongly associated with calling upon demons and spirits, and in almost every case entering into a pact with them.
When thinking of sorcery in game terms it is important to remember that the eldritch forces of sorcery are insidious, unrelenting and ultimately all-corrupting. Sorcery is ritualistic, time consuming and taxing to the casters mind and body.
Wizardry vs. Sorcery
As presented the magic system found in D&D can be referred to as wizardry. It is important that we make the distinction between it and sorcery, especially if both will be present in the same game world. Wizardry is only available to those who have learned the art of harnessing raw magic, and reshaping it into a desired effect. These individuals are Magic-users, Wizards and Illusionists depending on the game system being used. Their spells and abilities are well documented in the various game manuals, so there is no real need to rehash them here. Depending on the decisions made by the game master during the setup of the game world wizardry may not be available, along with the classes that practice wizardry.
Sorcery is a skill that anyone can learn to use, and the effects of sorcery are only limited to the blasphemous knowledge that is available to the player characters. This means that the characters can only perform those sorcerous rituals that the game master introduces into the game. If the game master wants the characters to have the capability to summon a Great Old One then he will have the characters stumble upon an ancient forbidden tome that acts as a blueprint on how to make this summoning happen. If this is not something you want the players to be able to do then do not introduce this knowledge into your game. It is really that simple.
Implementing Sorcery into Your Game
So how can we implement sorcery into our sword & sanity game? The first reaction I think most D&D players would instinctively have would be to create a character class that has access to sorcery. The new class would be called the Sorcerer of course. In my opinion I feel this is the wrong approach. As mentioned before sorcery needs to be very insidious. How can it be insidious if only a select number of characters have access to it? I propose that sorcery needs to be accessible to every player character and non-player character in your game world. That is as long as they have fulfilled a few basic requirements:
- Access – the first and most important requirement should be accessibility. If a character can obtain a scroll, tome or knowledge of a sorcerous nature then they are well on their way to becoming a practicing sorcerer.
- Will – just because a character has access to sorcery does not mean he will pursue it. This is where the insidious nature of sorcery comes in to play. As a game master do not hesitate to make sorcery available and also give the characters a reason to delve into the black arts. Decide what rituals you feel have a place in your game world, and have fun watching your players labor over whether their characters will take the dark plunge and begin practicing sorcery.
- Knowledge – now that the character has gained access to sorcery, and has found a reason to become a sorcerer he will need to arm themselves with the proper knowledge of how sorcery works.
- Characteristics – some rituals can only be performed by characters that meet a certain characteristic requirement (the character’s sexual orientation, race, a certain required ability score, sanity points, hit points, etc.)
- Skill – some rituals require more skill to cast than others. It is suggested that a Sorcery secondary skill be added to simulate this in your game. (see below) Language skills also play a large role in whether a ritual is understood well enough to be cast or not.
- Research/Casting Time – sorcery is a ritualistic school of magic, and some workings will require the sorcerer to spend extended amounts of time researching and also the casting of the ritual.
- Elements – this may be the hardest criteria to meet. No two sorcerous rituals are the same, but they all have formulas that need to be fulfilled to work. Within these formulas there are Elements that need to be introduced in the right proportion and at the right moments.
Here are a few examples of Elements that may be required:
- Verbal incantation of the ritual
- Somatic gesturing and bodily positioning
- Material components (bat wing, blood of a Deep One, a rare mushroom found growing in a specific cavern, etc.)
- Location (on top of Mount Voormithadreth, in a secluded woodland glade, on a specific altar located in a lost temple, etc.)
- Time (during full moon, during a thinder storm, dawn, dusk, etc.)
- Season (summer solstice, fall equinox, etc.)
- Cosmic Event (during an eclipse, when the stars are right, etc.)
- Pacts (entering into an agreement with a spirit, outsider, angel/demon, etc.)
Every sorcerous ritual will be different, but if all the requirements are met anyone meeting these requirements can perform the ritual with little chance of failure.
Suggested Game Additions
- Sorcery (Intelligence) – this skill represents the character’s ability to perform complex arcane rituals, researching and developing these rituals, and also a general knowledge of all things of a sorcerous nature. Sorcerers will have a working knowledge of various forbidden tomes and literature. Many enter into pacts with spirits and demons to assist in the workings of their black art. Sorcerous rituals usually come in these types: Call/Dismiss, Contact, Enchantment and Summon/Bind. This skill is available to any character who has access to the proper knowledge, and takes the time to become versed in the dark ways of sorcery.
Master of the Living Dead
Effect: reanimate corpse and enslave the risen zombie to do the sorcerer's dark bidding.
- Verbal: incantation found in the blasphemous tome Cultes des Goules
- Somatic: specified hand gestures while kneeling in prayer position
- Material: corpse that has been dead for at least one week, but no longer than one month
- Material: potion of said ingredients (refer to Cultes des Goules for recipe), which is to be poured over the corpse during the ritual
- Location: graveside
- Time: begin ritual exactly at 3:00 AM
Casting Time: half an hour
Duration: the life of the zombie
Sorcery Skill Level: any
Sanity Cost: d10+6 points
Saving Throw: none
Once the ritual is complete the corpse will respond to the commands of the sorcerer, including those to enter into combat and fight off opponents. The zombie will fight with no regard to bodily harm. The body of the zombie does not stop deteriorating, and will rot at a normal rate of decay. See Monstrous Manual / Monsters & Treasure for statistics and fighting capability of the zombie.