Thursday, April 8, 2010

Rune Magic

Runes are cool for three reasons 1) they are a unique alphabet/system of writing something that has fascinated me since childhood when I memorized the Phonecian alphabet from an old encyclopedia 2) They involve rune poems which give a mysterious sense that "Fehu," for example is much more than just an "f" sound, and 3) these rune poems usually involve kennings making them thrice cool.

Just to give you an example of what I'm mean:

Wealth is a source of discord amongst kin;
and fire of the arms.

Ulcer is fatal to children;
death makes a corpse pale.

So, what I want to do is incorporate rune magic into my campaign. I don't see the class as much different from a cleric, it's the mechanics of the magic that will differ. To me that's what's interesting that there are different kinds of magic in a game world. So, I would focus on the things that make runes cool and different.

First, they are not spells to be cast, runes have to be inscribed. So, they are either ritual like inscriptions that affect an area or thing inscribed, or they must be inscribed on amulets ahead of their time of usefulness.

Second, The magic should be cool in a combinatory way. That's sort of the point. There aren't 24 rune spells (because of the 24 Eldar Futhark runes) that would be very boring. There are spells that are brought about when you combine Fehu + Kaunan, or even Kaunan + Fehu.

It sounds like the first requirement might make a runecaster pretty useless on an adventure, but I'm not so sure. Those spells that later editions of D&D call "utility," like something you pull out of a mop closet, are the things that would be the most useful in real situations. I'm thinking something like Othila (Estate/Property) + Kaunan (Ulcer), for example, would make a door brittle and allow chracters to smash through locked doors or even chests.

Two ways of parcelling out this power to the runcaster that I'm thinking of 1) the dreaded spell components, i.e. to inscribe take some expensive dyes or gold leaf if you aren't actually carving into stone. To draw on human flesh would take expensive, aromatic oils. 2) Knowledge of the runes is incomplete. You could accomplish this by saying you can't achieve this rune combination until level 3, but that seems very video gamey to me. I'd rather say, you don't know what the Kaunan rune looks like. Hmm, I'm sort of unconvincing myself. Maybe the chracter knows all 24 runes to start, but needs to know the rune poems to use them effectively. That would be something they could be searching for in play, the way old school mages hunt scrolls.


  1. Serious undertaking but sounds like fun.

    You might want to check out Salvatore Macri's Supplemental Lore for Swords & Wizardry (also for WB) - he's created a "Godi" class which is a runic spellcaster, as well as powers for the various 24 runes, and suggests you could also have a cleric of the "Northern Gods" be able to use them. While there isn't a mix and match ability there as you've described (I've thought about doing something like this before too) each rune has more than just one ability so they're not just spells on their own per se.

    Anyhow, it works for me as a very straightforward and simple system that allows adding runes for some extra flavor but doesn't get overly complex and distracting. You might find something you can use there or rework to your liking.

  2. Thanks.

    And @ Bulette, yeah I should have mentioned the Godi class, I'd actually seen it. And your right it isn't a bad systematization of runic magic, but I'm hunkering for something a little more variable. (I've been looking at bind runes and stacked runes)

    Interesting to note that his system has godar starting out with no knowledge of runes.

  3. Telecanter, did you ever play Four Crystals of Trazere, or LEGEND, the old DOS game? There was a combinatory spell creation system for the Wizard that used not only runes but spell reagents as well if I remember correctly. It was a hell of a lot of fun to tinker around with and the placement of just the certain rune in the chain meant you could get a completely different effect (and moreover not have any idea what you'd cast until after casting it)

    It was great filling a room full of glowing fireballs and puffs of smoke after abusing the a rune you thought was the "chain" rune and then realising your entire party was flashing with poison or paralysis status modifiers.

    I can just imagine a runecaster and how it would affect party politics...

    "Hey guys I think this combination of runes will give us all a real boost in-"

    Rest of long-suffering party- "TEST IT OUTSIDE"


    Not very good screenshot.

  5. @Andrew: I hadn't seen that but love old abandonware games. I'll check that out. Thanks!

  6. Re:
    "the character knows all 24 runes to start, but needs to know the rune poems to use them effectively. That would be something they could be searching for in play"

    This sounds very cool. A problem might be that once you've got the 24 runes you got them all, no need to keep looking. Maybe: you can combine them in an adhoc way (which seems to be one of the main points) but if you want to really "know" a combination (with some kind of attendant benefit) you have to undertake your in-game quest/action/research to internalize the rune-poem. This could be more than just knowing the words, you'd have to arrive at the "inner knowledge" of the poem--kind of a self-secret thing, an esoteric realization. I'm thinking of the Taliesin poems in Grave's White Goddess. I've been toying around with ideas like this (although not rune-related) recently & have been thinking stuff like gaining the knowledge thru contests with fey powers, entering the towers of long-dead wizards and winning it via a riddling competition, and so on.
    WIth the metagame point being, these competitions can be made level-centric. You could enforce this with flat rules, or (which is more my thing) make them risky, with chance of success/failure/horrible side effect dependent on the PC's power level in the appropriate area. Then, let the player decide what they want to try for and when.

    I dunno, this might be a bit tangential to what you're looking for?

  7. That's interesting Charles. I hadn't heard of that Graves book. Some preliminary thoughts:

    I'm reminded of the Riddlemaster of Hed, where the protagonist gains power by winning contests and finding mentors.

    I'm reminded that 1e had strict rules about training when you went up in level-- I'm thinking those were a kind of abstraction of mentors and maybe offscreen challenges.

    I'm also reminded of the % chance to learn a spell and how in 1e your by-the-book MU might never be able to learn magic missile.

    One tugging worry is that I wouldn't want these mage -travels-to-learn-a-power-in-a-fey-challenge to become too story driven. Is the rest of the party just going to come along? Does the next power they want only exist in a certain place so they have to go there? I'd probably want there to be rumors of various powers available and let players choose. It would be even cooler if a challenge could be met in more than one way riddle/quest/deception.

    As far as my ideas on runes-- I like the idea of having different systems of magic. So since the standard MU (funny phrase) has spells that they learn as they grow more powerful, I think it would be interesting to have a completely different system, the player has all the runes from the start and player experimentation is what reveals powers available.

    Now whether this will work in play is a different question, but I think it could be great fun for the players to be timidly inscribing Horse+Giant on a door with a hypothesis of what might happen :)

  8. Yeah, Riddlemaster of Hed was my big inspiration here :=)

    > One tugging worry is...

    Last night I was thinking more about how this would work in actual play and came up with the same concerns. But your pt about lvl-gain abstractions is an excellent one. No reason the PC couldn't be "winning runes" in their off-season with a rolled chance of success, or even better, auto-success but roll for fall-out with severity proportionate to attempted rune-lvl/clvl.

    > I think it would be interesting to have a completely different system, the player has all the runes from the start and player experimentation is what reveals powers available.
    > ..I think it could be great fun for the players to be timidly inscribing Horse+Giant on a door with a hypothesis of what might happen :)

    Hehe. In this case you'd still need the system to be level-centric somehow.

    Maybe each rune/combination could have different power stages (ie simple-lesser-great), only available at a given rune lvl? You could mix the exact rune lvl up, so Horse becomes lesser at lvl 2 but Giant only at lvl 4--this would maximize uncertainty, altho fixed lvls would be a lot simpler.
    But this would mean you'd have to write up each workable combination x the number of available power levels. I don't know how much work you're looking to do.

    Another way to handle levels might be to leave the rune effect untouched regardless of lvl, but have lvl (where lvl = either caster lvl, or lvl rune is "known" at) affect the spell parameters (ie casting time, area, duration, lvls affected).
    A third way: have a lvl-dependent chance of misfire (each rune has an "awry" effect). This could also work with "you know all the runes, but have to acquire mastery of each of them", ie "knowing" decreases your chance of misfire. This requires a casting roll though, not sure how you feel about that.

    It also strikes me that if player uncertainty is a high priority then
    traditional spell write-ups may be problematic--once a PC learns a combination, all subsequent PCs for that group will know that combination.

    A completely different road would be to abandon precise spell writeups for rune effects and use broader "intent-based" writeups. Ie the PC could explain the specific effect they want in each case, you interpret how closely that fits the runes they're using (exact-close-loose-poor-not at all) and the player rolls on a table to determine the outcome.
    This might not fit at all with your/your player's/your current campaign's base assumptions & playstyles though.

    I'd love to know if this ever gets off the planning stage & into play!


  9. Thanks Charles, that is an interesting and insightful comment. I'm going to have to think a little bit about how each option would feel to me archetype wise/and game mechanics wise. Then I'll try and post again on it.

  10. Hmm. Is there some reason that you couldn't just carve the runes into some hapless prisoner if you needed to test their effects on humans, instead of spending all that money on costly oils? Of course that's more appropriate for a Blood Mage (Valdemar, not Dragon Age)...

  11. You could, but we're civilized around here :)