The Long Shadows Arise: Magic Use
PCs rarely have access to magic in a horror story, but when they do it takes on a completely different tone than when used in a fantasy game. Magic in a fantasy game may be somewhat unpredictable, but it is almost always consistent, and either requires a special spark to use, or long years of practice to master. The idea that anybody could walk up and cast a spell in a fantasy game is a rare one. Conversely, in a horror game, almost anybody can cast a spell, but the effects are slightly less consistent, and there is usually a heavy risk or a personal cost involved in invoking the power.
To mimic this in the rules, I created a whole new subsystem for spells. On the one hand, the existing magic system in Dragon Age is usable. It’s functional, and the things that make magic risky or sickeningly undesirable are functions of the spells themselves in most cases. For example, if you have to graft a lizard’s skin onto your arm in order to use a spell that gives you chameleon-like hiding abilities, that’s a major and somewhat grisly step to take. I could have used that sort of price with the spell structure from DA and been done with it.
However, I wanted something that by its very nature, from discovery of a spell, to successful first casting, felt like the unpredictable horror in this genre instead. Since nobody is given spell casting as a class power, or even from a talent, I changed things so that if you make the necessary game tests you can successfully cast a spell. This is both liberating and horrifying. One of the better B-movies I watched in the past was about a small group of young people who accidentally killed their teacher, and then used a spell to bring her back. The spell turned the corpse into a zombie that was out for revenge. It is likely that they failed to cast the spell properly, but the magic had to go somewhere anyway, so boom – zombie teacher.
A creative game master can certainly do that sort of thing with some of the spells I’ve put together. A backlash or side effect is usually the result of failing to cast a complex spell. A complex spell is defined by how long it takes to cast or how high the casting TN is. GMs are encouraged to be evil, creative or both when adjudicating the failure of a complex spell. These are the sorts of complications that often make a story richer, and are moments often told around the table in the future.
There is also another built-in cost called Strain. Instead of being a surcharge of mana points, as it is in Dragon Age, strain is both representative of a TN to overcome not to become fatigued, and the base level of that fatigue, in damage points. Every spell has Strain to overcome, and if a caster is lucky they can practice magic in the field repeatedly. However, it is also possible that when a caster is low on Health and desperate to cast a spell to save the party from certain doom, that they might burst a blood vessel in their head, and bleed out from their eyes and nose after the spell manifests. To be clear, Strain isn’t a consequence for failure, it’s a part of the spellcasting process.
Speaking of the entire process, here it is. First you translate the spell, if necessary, so that you can read the text. Next you try to understand the spell. Finally you can attempt to cast the spell, and whether you succeed or not you test versus Strain. The difficulty to understand is based on the spell’s TN. If it is hard to cast, it’s hard to learn, or rather to gain the ability to perform. There is no limit to the number of spells one can “learn” because they are not combat powers that are invoked at will. Even the quickest spells take preparation or long practice.
The last major difference between magic in Dragon Age and Magic in Eternal Shadows, is that characters are not magical beings. They can’t simply get better at it every other level. In fact, there are only a handful of ways to get Magic Ability Advancements, and mostly it’s through a ritual of some kind. So, Magic is used to invoke spells, and serves as the basis for their effects most of the time, yet is hard for the average PC to get better at. This is the last difference between a Dragon Age Mage, and an Eternal Shadows Sorcerer.