Like we mentioned, in Empress, there are several forms of magic. Different schools of magic practice very differently. We don’t differentiate between “clerical” and “arcane” magic because they both have spiritual and metaphysical roots. Even skeptical scholar-wizards will call upon the old gods for protection when dealing with powers from the Other Side.
Magic is one place where Empress really goes off the rails, OSR-wise. Let’s talk about mechanics, and then get into the different schools of magic in our default world. You can always make your own.
6.1. Introduction to magic
Using magic, in Empress, is a matter of using spells. This leads us to three obvious questions:
- What’s a spell?
- How do I get spells?
- How do I use spells?
Let’s answer these in turn.
6.1.1. What is a spell?
In Empress, the definition of a spell is a little more flexible than in a standard OSR game. A spell is basically a learnable magical ability. The different effects that these magical abilities have are described by spells as listed in OD&D, as well as original effects here. These are collectively called spell effects, but a spell is more than just an effect.
So what else is a spell? A spell is also a set of conditions. For the most part, these conditions are costs, requirements and limitations to creating a spell effect. However, some conditions also represent the ability to do something special with a spell, like hold the effect for later, and maybe even pass it to a friend to use. But for the most part, conditions basically represent different things that keep a character from casting their spells like a machinegun, all day long.
In OD&D, spells had certain built-in conditions, based on the mechanics of the game. For instance, a magic-user can only memorize X number of level Y spells at a time. It’s possible to have a tradition of spells and spell casters that operate according to very similar mechanics. However, Empress is more flexible in terms of the conditions that end up defining the mechanics of spell casting.
6.1.2. How do I get spells?
How a character gets spells depends on what tradition of magic that he or she practices, but one thing is fairly consistent: a character must have Mage levels to cast spells, and usually to learn them, too.
Before we go further, a confession: we lied. There is actually more than one Mage class. However, the mechanics of all these different kinds of Mages are essentially identical. We’ll be getting into the specifics of what makes them different at a later point. For now, it’s easiest just to know that there are different flavors of magician, and their techniques are sometimes compatible, and sometimes not.
Speaking generally, though, to learn a spell, a Mage must spend learning slots, which are earned for every level of Mage that the character possesses. A given Mage has a finite supply of learning slots, and most spells cost at least one slot to learn.
If the character has sufficient learning slots, that’s only part of what’s required. The character must also have access to instruction in whatever spell he or she wants to learn. The nature of what qualifies as instruction will depend, again, on the school of magic. For some kinds of spells, it is sufficient for a magician to have a text written for the purpose of teaching how to cast it. For more spiritual arts, more hands-on apprenticeship may be required, and in the case of magic that draws from supernatural beings may require actual tutelage by such entities.
With the required instruction and learning slots, a character may proceed to learn a spell. All that is then required is time, and perhaps some solitude to safely practice the spell without endangering others or attracting unhappy attention. One week per spell level is probably a good guideline.
A character cannot cast a spell that he or she has not learned. However, it is possible for a spell to have zero learning slots. What this often represents is the fact that some spells can be cast directly out of an instructional spellbook. In all cases, casting a spell this way takes more time, as is more prone to failure.
6.1.3. How do I use spells?
The first step to using a spell is for the player to declare that his or her character is doing so. If that character is able to meet the casting requirements, then the spell may proceed. Some of the requirements may be optional, and if they are fulfilled, allows the magician to reduce or eliminate other conditions.
There are certain default requirements that most spells share. First, a spell generally must be learned, and this process is described above. For spells with no learning slot costs, the character must still obtain some kind of initial instruction, or have access to instructional materials at casting time.
The second common requirement is casting time. Each spell generally takes time to cast, and most take a minute or more. This generally can’t be rushed, although some traditions may allow a character to rush a casting in return for increased difficulty.
The third requirement is called mana. Mana is just a general term for a character’s ability to provide a spell with the power it needs to achieve its effect. Each Mage sub-class has its own mana pool, although all characters have a baseline score in every pool. If a character lacks sufficient mana, it is generally not possible to cast the spell, although some traditions will allow a character to use his or her own life force to directly empower the spell.
Finally, most spells require a roll to see if the character successfully cast the spell. This is resolved by making a Mind saving throw, with a penalty based on the difficulty of the spell. If the roll fails, then time and mana are still spent, as are any ingredients or other expenses (such as sacrifices...), but no effect occurs. For some spells, a failed casting attempt may further result in a miscast spell, which could have some kind of random (usually unpleasant) effect.
Of course, the casting requirements and the costs of casting will vary greatly between traditions, but will always be more severe for higher level spells. But the basic concept remains the same.
6.2. Effects of magic
In this section, we’ll discuss a bit of the details about how spells take effect.
6.2.1. Spell effects
Basic spell effects are described just like the spells in the D&D SRD. These describe what happens when the spell takes effect. As described, this is ultimately only part of what defines a spell.
6.2.2. Spell levels
The most important aspect of a spell is its default casting conditions, as described below. These conditions will determine how easy it is for a character to cast a spell, or whether it is even possible.
The main difference between OD&D spell level and Empress spell levels is that the latter ranges only between one and five, instead of one and nine. A spell effect from OD&D should be given a level in Empress equal to one-half its OD&D level, rounded up.
We’ve mentioned the concept of mana pools, which is not new to fantasy role playing in general but fairly rare for OSR. In this case, each mana pool is a very abstract representation of how much magical energy a character can access of the type needed for that kind of spell. Different kinds of magic have very different ways of empowering them, which calls for different mana pools. The rules for this will be discussed later.
For now, the thing to understand is that spells draw upon mana from one of a character’s mana pools, and when a pool is depleted, the character is (usually) unable to cast spells of those traditions. In addition, when any of a character’s mana pools are depleted, that character receives one point of fatigue, which go away when at least one point of mana is in all pools. The way that pools recover is different for different traditions.
6.2.4. Saving throws
Saving throws to resist magical effects are usually Will saves, although those that create some kind of physical manifestation may entail a Reflexes or even a Fortitude save. Some spells may not permit saving throws, and a few might call for something unusual like a Mind or Wits saving throw.
6.2.5. Types of magic
There are several different categories of spell effects, collectively describing the kinds of things that magic can be used to do. Each magical tradition will have fewer or greater numbers of spells in different effect categories, and in fact may omit some categories or focus exclusively on one or two.
Here are the categories:
- High Magic
Glamours could be thought of as illusions. However, the modern understanding is misleading; these are no mere holograms of light. Instead, they are figments of pseudo-reality, dreamstuff pulled into daylight and given a kind of form. All but the weakest of glamours can be physically touched, and can interact with real objects. However, they lack a true physical reality, so ultimately glamours may only affect various spirits and souls. Some view them as trickery, although they can be used to powerful effect. The most potent glamours can drive a man mad or stop his heart.
The most powerful glamours are called miracles, which are basically glamours that have a temporary physical reality. Transforming fantasy into reality is a function of Chaos Magic, which is a disruption of the natural order of the universe. These powers lie within the domain of only the most powerful wizards, certain few gods and the Old Ones themselves.
Witchcraft is used to describe the category of spells that are used to obtain supernatural perception. This can be in the form of seeing into the Spirit World, perceiving the warp and weft of magic, or looking into the future or the hearts of men. Since the line between seeing and doing is often thin to nonexistent, witchcraft can be used to nudge fortune to one side or another, and even guide the forces of fate.
Witchcraft also encompasses the magic of dreams, where many insights and visitations from spirits may be had. It also includes the types of effects that could be thought of as related to “second sight” or “psychic ability.”
Sorcery is the power to compel, the magic of mastery. This may sound all-encompassing, but it must be understood that sorcery may only command something within the parameters of its nature. For instance, an apple tree may be coaxed into bearing fruit out of season, perhaps even fruit of a different tree, but it cannot be transformed into a pillar of fire.
At least, not quickly. Over long periods of time, sorcery can be used to compel the nature of a thing on a very fundamental level, even causing gradual transformation into something very different. Usually, such a process is not quick, unless the end state is actually quite similar to the initial state.
In addition, sorcery cannot be used to compel the will of another. It can be used to implant ideas, emotions and sensations in the minds of others, but they cannot be actually controlled, and they may act against these compulsions of these sensations. True control of another’s body may be obtained with possession, but this involves a displacement of the soul of the original inhabitant.
Sorcery can also be used to compel spiritual beings. Using sorcery, different kinds of spirits can be summoned and imprisoned, to be compelled into servitude with threats and inducements. It can also be used to banish them from a place, and powerful sorcery can be used for acts of possession. Sorcery also covers various sorts of metamagic, such as counterspells, wards, conditional triggers, etc.
18.104.22.168. High Magic
High Magic is used to manipulate time and space. Though these spells can’t be used for spiritual kinds of travel (in dreams, the spirit world, lands of the dead, etc.), they can be used to move throughout this universe, as well as parallel timelines, and even distinct universes separated by Chaos. Opening doors between universes is particularly difficult and hazardous.
In Empress, we fall back on the old canon of OGL spells, rated in power by spell level. However, the way that these spells are cast can vary greatly. In some schools, a wizard may always need his or her wand present for most spells, while in another school of magic, a sorcerer spends life force every time he or she launches a charm. In yet another, a witch may forget spells as soon as she has cast them, forced to relearn them every time they are cast. Priestesses of the moon goddess may need to wait for special astrological configurations to cast their spells, which may require days of fasting and meditation.
The system of drawbacks, as described in the next section, is the primary way we have of expressing this diversity of ways in which spells are cast. We’ll save the details for later, but for now, it’s important to understand that, in the case of some spells, only a certain number may be learned per level. In addition, for certain other classes of spells, it is only possible to cast their spells a certain number of times per day.
These limitations are captured by something we call spell slots, which come in two types: learning slots, and casting slots. A character will have a certain number of slots of each type. A Mage has a separate pair of slots pools for each magic tradition that he or she practices.
When a spell consumes learning slots, it means that the character must have that many free slots to learn the spell. Once learned, those slots are no longer free. A character who is level one in a starts with two learning slots, plus his or her Intellect bonus. Every level thereafter, the character earns a number of slots equal to twice the new level. These learning slots are shared across traditions.
When a spell consumes casting slots, however, it means that every time time it is cast, it consumes a that number of slots from the casting slot pool of the tradition to which it belongs. These pools are replenished once per day, in some manner that is germane to the tradition. It could be prayers, meditation, or simple sleep. In any case, a character has a casting pool for a given tradition equal to twice the number of levels that he or she possesses in that tradition, plus Intellect bonus.
Not all traditions may use these pools; in fact, most do not use casting slots. And they may make use of them in slightly altered ways. Empress can accommodate all of this.
6.3. Magic traditions
The way that Empress describes different types of Mage is as different traditions or schools. These encompass various techniques, as well as culture and possibly societies. They can vary extraordinarily, from mystical practitioners of inner strength and psychic power to rune-priests who stain their enchanted sigils with blood, and bookish academics who conjure the secrets of creation in their laboratories.
6.3.1. Tradition classes
Although there are many possible traditions, it makes sense for us to group them into tradition classes, representing groups of related traditions. The point of doing so is that, despite actual distinctions between traditions, mages can cast spells from other traditions in their tradition class with equal facility. This is represented by having each tradition class use its own mana pool and learning slots. Each tradition class is essentially its own character class.
There are any number of possible tradition classes that a GM might introduce into a campaign, but there are three common types that might exist in a lot of different settings. The wizard tradition class is considered “open,” meaning that anyone may learn these spells with proper instruction material, and may advance in this class through experience, without any special preconditions and restrictions. Traditions belonging to other classes, however, may be “closed,” meaning that there is some special precondition for using and casting spells of this tradition (like being born with fae blood), and there may be other special conditions that apply to these traditions.
This is the most typical sort of magic that we think of when we talk about mages in fantasy settings. Wizard class spells tend to have highly ritualized elements, oftentimes with chanting, arcane symbols, and material ingredients and tools. Magic of this type relies on the rituals to invoke and direct magical power, but the mage him or herself acts as a conduit and authority for these energies.
Most wizard spells can be cast without learning them, “from the book” as it were, as long as the caster has some kind of instructions handy. Since the caster has not spent the required learning slots, the effect of doing this is to correspondingly penalize the casting save and increase casting times. It is even possible for non-mages to cast spells in this manner. Every character has a wizardry mana pool equal to two, plus his or her Intellect modifier. This mana pool is regained at a rate of 20% for every hour of sleep.
Mystical powers are achieved in a fairly different manner than the spells of a wizard. Mystics obtain their spells through inner contemplation, expansion of their minds, and great acts of will. Mystical spells often require little or no external action on the part of the mage, and are usually cast very quickly. They correspondingly have high learning slot costs, and cannot be cast from written instructions.
Characters start with a default mystic mana equal to their Nerve modifier, and first level mystics gain four mana. This mana is recharged by 20% for every hour spent meditating, or performing some other form of focusing rite as developed by one’s tradition. Otherwise, mystical mana is regained at the rate of one per night of four or more hours of sleep.
Spiritualism describes a very diverse category of traditions that rely on getting various supernatural beings to perform services for the mage. This category is actually so broad that it is not a single tradition class, but rather a different class for each spiritualist tradition.
Within the cluster of spiritualist traditions, there are two sub-categories: Shamanism and Summoning. The primary difference is that shamans perform their works by gaining favor with spirits, either through bargaining or outright worship. Summoners, on the other hand, use spells that coercively bind the spirits to their wills. In some cases, traditions of summoning are really specialized wizard traditions, and should be treated entirely as such. Shamans, however, are always a class unto themselves. Shamanic classes are distinguished based on the group or “pantheon” of entities with which the magician gains favor.
Shamanic spells of both types tend to have a lot of ritualistic elements, although these are not very academic and more about achieving the proper state of spiritual communion. Sometimes, the spell is cast to create a triggerable focus (often called a fetish) to symbolize the bargain, and allow for easier invocation. The default mana is equal to a character’s Charisma modifier, and first-level shamans receive four more mana.
Recharging the mana pool for shamanic magic can occur in varied ways. It is not uncommon that a practitioner must perform certain rituals or even sacrifices to regain favor with those they serve.
6.3.2. Tradition canons
Different traditions will specialize in different types of spells, but there is still plenty of overlap. Empress relies heavily on the spells from the OGL SRD, making little distinction between Magic-User and Cleric spells. Certain kinds of spells, like illusions or healing spells, are drastically changed in these rules, while many others are left largely intact. For the most part, it’s not necessary to formalize spell canons.
However, the setting you are in might have spell canons that are highly limited. Generally, such traditions will be restricted to either three or five spells per level. These spells might even be automatically learned upon gaining the necessary Mage level in the appropriate closed tradition. If this is the case, the GM needs to define these canons ahead of time. Given their limited breadth, it shouldn’t be too hard.
6.3.3. Tradition conditions
Different traditions have tendencies for different kinds of conditions. For instance, a tradition based on astrology might restrict certain spells to be used used only at night, or during certain astrological events. On the other hand, a tradition taught by a demon-lord might entail heinous rituals and human sacrifice.
In the case of closed traditions, some of the conditions might be very much inherent to how that school uses magic. For instance, mystical traditions that rely on inner spiritual strength might tend to take a long time to learn and sorely drain one’s magical reserves, but they also tend to take immediate effect, requiring no rituals, incantations or props.
Note that most of these traditions, even the closed ones, are semi-permeable. Spells, techniques and theories are borrowed from one tradition into another, and practitioners of one school may branch off techniques to form a wholly new one. What this means, in practice, is that a tradition will have certain tendencies in its conditions, but these conditions are by no means absolute. For instance, most alchemical spells require costly ingredients and long periods of time, but there’s nothing to say that a given coven of alchemists haven’t adapted a technique of meditation that allows them to see into the spirit world. All mages (especially alchemists) have a tendency to use whatever works.
6.3.4. Learning a tradition
When a character starts out as a Mage, the player and GM should decide what kind of Mage the character is; open, or one of the closed traditions. To keep things simple, we’re not differentiating between open traditions, so a general Mage can learn freely from any spell from an open school, as long as he or she has comprehensible instructional material. To learn from a different open tradition, the GM might require the character to make a Scholar or Mysticism skill roll.
If a character wants to learn a closed tradition, or a character with no experience as a Mage wants to learn open tradition Mage, the character must locate training in-game. This is often cause for adventure, although it can also be handled through the simple expenditure of coin in settings with lots of available apprenticeships to wizards.
6.3.5. Effective mage level
A character’s effective level when casting a spell depends on the spell tradition, and the character’s training. If the spell is from an open tradition, use the character’s generic Mage level as a default. However, if the character is unschooled in that tradition, his or her level equivalent is penalized by the spell’s tradition’s Ease rating and the lowest Adaptability rating of all the open schools known by the caster. If this would reduce the character’s effective level to below what would be needed to cast spells of that level, then the spell cannot be cast. Also, as previously stated, the character’s Mind save is penalized by the same amount for purposes of casting the spell in question.
In the case of a closed tradition, it’s much simpler to determine a character’s ability. Just take the character’s level in the tradition or tradition group to which the spell belongs.