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This article was originally posted on the now defunct Scrolls of Lankhmar blog:

Nehwon Ritual Magic

In order to develop a magic system that truly captures the feel of the Lankhmar stories in play, I’ve been looking at the common threads of invoked magic in the stories. The most consistent thread is ritual. In this case a ritual is an established or prescribed procedure performed to invoke magic.

Another commonality–and one that I think is key–is that the sorcerers, witches, etc. are tied down to a single spot, figuratively speaking. They will typically have equipment set up that they must manipulate and maintain to perform the magic. As such they cannot move away while casting, nor could they quickly set up and break down their equipment to travel between spell-casting.

Ill Met in LankhmarIn the midst of the table an alembic was working. The lamp’s flame–deep blue, this one–kept aboil in the large crystal cucurbit a dark, viscid fluid with here and there diamond glints. From out of the thick, seething stuff, strands of a darker vapor streamed upward to crowd through the cucurbit’s narrow mouth and stain–oddly, with bright scarlet–the transparent head and then, dead black now, flow down the narrow pipe from the head into a spherical crystal receiver, larger even than the cucurbit, and there curl and weave about like so many coils of living black cord–an endless, skinny, ebon serpent.

…and a little later:

Ill Met in LankhmarAbruptly the incantation peaked and broke off, like a drum struck very hard, then instantly silenced by palm and fingers outspread against the head. With a bright flash and dull explosion, cracks innumerable appeared in the cucurbit; its crystal became white and opaque, yet it did not shatter or drip. The head lifted a span, hung there, fell back. While two black nooses appeared among the coils in the receiver and suddenly narrowed until they were only two big black knots.

This suggests a mode for RPG spell-casters in Nehwon, both player character and NPC alike. Typically RPG adaptations of the Nehwon setting simply use their own magic system and either limit the power or availability of spells in an attempt to emulate the story magic. Why not have a clean break and use this form of ritual magic?

This works well for NPCs, especially NPC villains. NPC spell-casters would have an area with their equipment set up to perform their magic rites. It would be in a place of safety for the NPC, and the PCs would have to confront the wizard on his terms. Away from this environment he would be just an ordinary person, albeit one with a dread-inspiring reputation befitting a wizard.

This would probably not be a natural state for player-characters. Players are too used to slinging spells on the move and in combat. It would be a truer representation of a Nehwon spell-caster, and offer some interesting role-playing opportunities for any player willing to try this style of a spell-casting character.

Spells can be scaled. More powerful spells would simply be more complicated, require more time, more equipment, and along with that are less mobile and carry a greater risk of failure and danger. Less powerful spells can be simpler and more mobile.

So what are the game implications?

  • Wizards will want to set up in a secure place before casting.
  • No one will be walking around in public and throwing spells.
  • Wizards are forced to prepare and plan.
  • PC magic will be more behind the scenes and not in the middle of combat, unless the combat comes to the PC.
  • Does not limit how powerful magic can be.

I do not think this would work in a high-fantasy campaign as it does constrain the options of the PC. However, for a sword & sorcery campaign the emphasis is typically on the heroes being swordsmen and rogues with the villains being the sorcerers. That being said, the player could still play a swordsman or rogue that also knows some magic thus allowing the PC to have fun in either situation.

This entry was posted on Sunday, January 17th, 2010.

Comments from the original blog post:

6 Responses to “Nehwon Ritual Magic”

  • Risus Monkey Says: January 17th, 2010 at 3:03 pm e

Great post. I think you are absolutely right. When I ran by Lankhmar games back in high-school and college, we used the native magic system of whatever game we were using (Rolemaster and Gurps). If I were to run a Lankhmar game today I would follow the advice that you outlined above. I’d love to go back to stories and catalog the instances of magic use (as well as the techniques used to counter it). I’m specifically thinking that I need to reread “The Unholy Grail”.

  • Srith of the Scrolls Says: January 17th, 2010 at 10:08 pm e

Hi Risus Monkey. The Unholy Grail is a great story to bring up for it’s use of magic. There are the introductions to black and white magic, and the relationship between Mouse the apprentice and the hedge wizard. There is also the climactic use of black magic to end the story. I would even argue that the climax is a great example of an another method of ritual magic. To create the ritual the Mouse manipulates his situation to stage events to achieve the necessary conditions to channel black magic.

  • Shane Mangus Says: January 25th, 2010 at 9:40 pm e

This is excellent stuff! When trying to emulate certain sword & sorcery stories, like those of Lankhmar, it is tough to strike a balance between what is fun for the game and what was written about in the stories. I played the TSR version of Lankhmar years ago, and had fun with it, but it never felt authentic. The Mongoose edition of the game I feel comes about as close as we will ever see. Keep posting. Great work!

  • Srith of the Scrolls Says: January 25th, 2010 at 10:27 pm e

Thanks Shane. I know exactly how you felt. I ran a Lankhmar campaign twice back in the day using the TSR version. I was never quite happy. Nowadays I’m more in the home-brew frame of mind.

  • Patrick Maslen Says: January 31st, 2010 at 11:41 pm e

Another example of ritual magic in the stories is the Snow Women’s cold magic, which created a blizzard to hinder Fafhrd and Vlana’s escape in ‘The Snow Women’ and was also implicated in Fafhrd’s father’s death. Ritual magic of this kind does appear a lot in the stories. It would be good to reflect this in game play. The only counter-example I can think of off-hand are the death spells used by the hired sorcerers at the start of ‘The Swords of Lankhmar’. They were pretty ineffective though.

  • Srith of the Scrolls Says: February 1st, 2010 at 8:16 pm e

Hey Patrick. Good examples! I’d don’t know whether to call the Snow Women’s magic ritual or not, although I guess it fits the definition. It is Coven magic as it involves a group of Snow Women. I’m not sure whether it is helpful to think of it as a subset of ritual magic or to consider it on its own ground. It had its own exceptions though, as Fafhrd’s mother seemed to be pretty potent with magic on her own. Now the hired sorcerers at the beginning of The Swords of Lankhmar are pretty interesting. The only facts we know are that there were two of them, there were visual effects–the electric bolts and the winged daggers–and they were casting from a tower. We can assume that they were casting on the fly just like a D&D character, but we can just as easily surmise that they were using Nehwon-style ritual magic. The tower was their place of safety, they had plenty of time to set up, and they could easily have whatever paraphernalia required set up in the tower.