Archive for May, 2011

It’s A Kind of Magic, Part 3 – Measurement

May 29, 2011

Up until now, we’ve been examining ways to generate in-game explanations for metagame rules regarding magic. We’ve made character-based explanations for where the energy to power a spell comes from, for example, or why it’s harder to teleport an object that someone’s holding than one that’s unattended.

This time, we’re going to take a look at spell levels, and try to judge how they’re viewed in the game world. This is trickier than it might seem at first glance, because unlike how previous metagame rules couldn’t be brought into the campaign world-view, spell levels conceivably could.

When you get right down to it, there’s little reason why character’s can’t make reference to “third-level spells” or “0-level spells” when talking to each other. After all, there’s clearly a difference in power between spells of different levels, and since there are in-game effects that differentiate between spell levels (such as how a globe of invulnerability only protects against spells of certain levels, or detect magic sees auras at different strengths depending on spell levels), why not just import the existing “level” terminology for spells into the game world?

DragonQuest magic

This is what in-character discussions about magic are like in my game.

As it turns out, there are a few reasons for not having characters talk about spell levels in the game world (beyond simply saying “it’s dry and sterile”). For one thing, the use of these metagame gradations become tautological when used in-game. Why is a 4th-level spell higher than a 3rd-level spell? Because it’s 4th-level and the other is only 3rd! It also brings up some oddities regarding things that change spell levels. Do spellcasters with metamagic feats know how much their spell level adjustment is? When your wizard is saying “I don’t recommend studying how to make your fireball wider, because that will make it from a 3rd-level spell into a 6th-level spell,” you’re halfway to speaking out of character.

“Now, hold on,” you say (interjecting for the third time in as many articles), “you already said that spells are utilizing energy, right? So aren’t they just talking about measurements of energy? People do that all the time!”

Ah, now you’re thinking along the right track! Since we laid down that magic is manipulating external energy – whether ambient or god-granted – it does make sense that someone would have invented a manner to measure that energy. After all, units of measurement exist for virtually everything, so why not magical energy too?

But let’s be clear, the system of “spell levels” isn’t actually measuring spell energy – it’s charting levels of energy without saying what it’s defining. It’s like talking about temperature using only descriptors; “0-level” is like saying “freezing cold,” “1st-level” is like saying “cold,” “2nd-level” is like saying “chilly,” etc. These terms show a clear progression, but they’re not precise and don’t actually use a unit of measurement.

Given that, since there is no existing unit of measurement for the energy used in magic, we’re going to have to invent one. Luckily, there’s a third-party supplement that can point us in the right direction.

That’s Why They Call Me Mr. Fahrenheit

The Practical Enchanter, by Distant Horizons Games, is a book which has been mentioned on this blog previously. It’s one of the best third-party supplements that was ever released for the d20 System, and it’s usefulness is very much intact for Pathfinder (and it’s free, to boot!). But in this case, we’re going to take a cue not from its rules, but from one of the in-character quotes peppered throughout the book (p. 116, to be specific):

Research costs were quite another matter. It was a fine demonstration of Lerandor’s Rule – that it takes 2 spells of level ‘N’ to equal 1 spell of level ‘N + 1′. Ergo duplicating a spell of level N with spells of level (X) will require 2 to the (N-X) power such spells.

This quote was originally given in the context of new spell research, and – overlooking that it has the character talking about spell-levels (something easily done, since the in-game characters quoted in the book regularly break the fourth wall) – lays down a guideline establishing how powerful spells of a given level are in relation to spells of other levels.

Needless to say, this is key. Lerandor’s Rule provides a numerical formula for charting the power of spells in relation to other spells, rather than a set of descriptors. Using this, we can build a system of measurement, starting with the lowest-level spells and working our way up.

0-level spells are the weakest spells it’s possible to cast; given that, we’ll say that the amount of energy needed to cast a cantrip/orison represents the base unit of measurement in our system. In other words, a 0-level spell has a value of “1.” Of course, we need a name for this base unit; since we’re working off of Lerandor’s rule, we’ll say that a single unit of magical energy is a “leran.”

So a 0-level spell is a spell with one leran of energy.

From here, it’s just a matter of applying Lerandor’s Rule. Since each spell level is twice as powerful as spells of a previous level, then we can generate the following:

  • A 0-level spell uses 1 leran.
  • A 1st-level spell uses 2 lerans.
  • A 2nd-level spell uses 4 lerans.
  • A 3rd-level spell uses 8 lerans.
  • A 4th-level spell uses 16 lerans.
  • A 5th-level spell uses 32 lerans.
  • A 6th-level spell uses 64 lerans.
  • A 7th-level spell uses 128 lerans.
  • A 8th-level spell uses 256 lerans.
  • A 9th-level spell uses 512 lerans.

And voila! Our in-character method for measuring different levels of spells is done!

Systems Check

…except, not completely. While this does present a good foundation, it’s still somewhat rough around the edges. Let’s go over some of the problems with the above system and see if we can smooth them out.

Numbering: Looking back at the above numbers, they seem somewhat off-putting, for two reasons. The first is how specific the numbers can be. A 9th-level spell, for example, isn’t 500 lerans; it’s 512. Do those last twelve really need to be there?

The other reason the above system can seem an awkward fit is that the numbers seem rigid. From a metagame perspective, there are only ten levels of spells, so having such fixed numbers seems to discard any possibility of any other measurements. If someone’s using detect magic, for example, they wouldn’t ever get a result of 100 lerans…that’d be some sort of weird spell that’s caught between 6th and 7th level.

The answer to both of these problems lies in remembering one simple fact: not all spells of a given level are equal.

It’s likely, if you have a head for spell design, that you already knew this. This is why some spells have expensive material components/foci and others don’t, or why some spells have a longer or shorter casting time than others. The salient detail is that this metagame consideration also translates into an in-game consideration as well. The specific amount of lerans a spell uses is a measurement of how much energy (that is, power) it has, and this is modified for a given level based on these other considerations for casting it.

Material components and casting time aren’t the only things that can indicate how many lerans a spell uses, of course. If the GM feels that a given spell is simply too weak or too strong, he can adjust its leran value accordingly.

For example, a 4th-level spell normally uses 16 lerans. But the stoneskin spell, with its 250 gp granite and diamond dust material component, is somewhat stronger than other spells of its level. Given that, it might be a spell with 20 lerans of power behind it. Likewise, foresight seems pretty weak for a 9th-level spell, so you might decide that it only uses 400 lerans.

Metamagic: One thing that’s interesting to consider when using the leran measurement for spells is where metamagic fits in. Since metamagic feats increase the effective level of a spell, do they also increase the number of lerans a spell uses?

On the surface, the answer to this seems like an obvious yes. After all, metamagic spells use up a spell slot of a higher level, and lerans are a way of measuring spell levels in game. However, despite how rational it seems, this answer is incorrect.

I bet you didn’t know that this was an Empowered Maximized blog.

It’s important to remember that metamagic increases the effective level of a spell, not its actual level; in other words, the size of the spell slot needed to cast it. The game rules lay this down very clearly; spells modified by a metamagic feat don’t use a higher save DC, for example. Hence, this is reflected in-game as well, and spells that use metamagic feats don’t utilize more lerans than they normally do without metamagic.

The rationale here is that a spell slot is different from a spell level. While that might sound like splitting hairs, it’s why you can prepare a lower-level spell in a higher-level spell slot, but doing so doesn’t lend it any additional power. You can prepare a fireball in a 4th-level spell slot, for example, but that lesser globe of invulnerability will still stop it cold.

The in-game explanation for why this is is that metamagic adds to a spell’s complexity, but not its power. When you make a spell silent, for example, you’re changing the method of casting to compensate for the lack of verbal components. The amount of energy in the spell doesn’t change, but you’re making it do more, essentially getting more mileage out of the same amount of power. Doing so is more difficult, however, and that’s represented by the higher-level spell slot you need to use.

The sole exception to all of this is Heighten Spell. That metamagic feat specifically adds more power, and correspondingly more lerans, to a spell, increasing just how much power it uses when cast. A heightened spell uses lerans based on its adjusted level, rather than the spell’s base level.

Caster Level: Although it’s going beyond what lerans are supposed to measure, it can seem a little odd that a measurement system for the degree of power of a spell doesn’t integrate the strength of the spellcaster. After all, a 10th-level wizard’s fireball deals twice as much damage as one cast by a 5th-level wizard.

There’s a reason for this, and it’s the same one that we went over when discussing metamagic in this context. While higher-level spellcasters have more mana, and can thus absorb and utilize spells with more lerans, they also know how to increase the complexity of spells they’ve already learned. That’s how they get more out of spells with effects that are measured by caster level.

In other words, our 10th-level wizard isn’t doing so much more damage with a fireball than his 5th-level counterpart because he’s able to sink more power into the spell; he’s just better able to utilize the same amount of power. His increasing mana allows for him to use existing spells with greater complexity, as well as new spells of greater power.

It should also be noted that detect magic utilizes a magic item’s caster level to determine its aura strength, instead of spell levels. Presumably this was done for simplicity, since then you only ever need to look at the caster level to determine the aura strength. Having said that, it’s much more internally consistent to just use the highest-level spell involved in the item’s creation to determine the strength of its aura; after all, that’s how you determine the aura’s school of magic, so why not its strength too?

Practicality: So now that we’ve generated this in-game methodology for the power of spell levels, where does this ever come up in your game, besides having in-character conversations between spellcasters? Well, as it turns out, in quite a few places. Remember what we said before about how some spells and effects deal explicitly with spell levels? These are where you can insert the leran measurement system into your game more directly.

For example, lesser globe of invulnerability protects those within it from all magical effects of 10 lerans or less, whereas globe of invulnerability protects from magical effects of up to 20. Detect magic, when viewing an active spell aura, registers anything of 10 lerans or less as “faint,” of 11 through 100 lerans as “moderate,” of 101 through 999 as “strong,” and 1,000 or more lerans (which would be an epic-level spell) as “overwhelming.”

The above suggestions become even more fun when you consider corner cases where a spell with unusually low or high lerans for its level might be subject to an effect that it normally wouldn’t be.

Next Time: Barbarians might say “enough talk!” and hurl daggers, but spellcasters are all about talking! The next article in this series is a massive post about the language of magic in your Pathfinder game.

It’s A Kind of Magic, Part 2 – Interactions

May 22, 2011

When you look at it from a narrative sense, there’s a lot about magic in Pathfinder that’s difficult to translate into in-game terms. From the nature of how people actually cast spells, which we examined last time, to some of the thornier areas of how people interact with spell effects and magic items. It’s this latter area that we’re going to examine here.

There are several areas that fall under this particular aegis, each of which deals with fully-formed spell effects – as well as magic items – and the effects they have on people. These broad areas include saving throws, spell resistance, and others.

Magic Items

Magic items present some rather sticky wickets when you stop and think about them from an in-game context; things like the concept of “body slots” are clear metagame constructs that have no appreciable in-game equivalent. Why can’t you wear ten rings on your fingers, or even wear one ring on your toe? Why can’t you tie a magic belt from hip to shoulder like a bandolier?

If you’ve read the previous entry in this series, you likely have a good idea of what the answer is. We previously established that people have a system of magical energy flowing through them, called “mana,” that makes it possible for them to utilize magic in the first place. Whether the god-given energy of divine spellcasters, or the ambient energy of arcane spellcasters, people have to flex and grow their internal mana system to be able to use these energies at all.

Can you find the single magic item in this picture? Look carefully!

This idea was originally based on the idea of magic chakras for utilizing magic items, which comes from Green Ronin’s Advanced Gamemaster’s Guide, and it’s an idea that we’re returning to here, though we’re altering it a bit to fit with the aforementioned mana system.

As previously mentioned, all people have a mana system within them, even if they never exercise it enough to actually cast spells or use supernatural effects. The 20th-level fighter, who has not only no spellcasting ability but also no spell-like or supernatural abilities (since his class offers none) still has mana within him…it’s just too weak and anemic to be able to muster up even the tinest cantrip.

Magic items are able to function because they already have the necessary magical energy sealed within them at the time of creation, however. That’s why they detect as magical even when not being utilized; they don’t rely on the user/wearer for their energy. They key here, however, is that in order to utilize the magic items that you’re wearing – that is, in order to gain the bonus or other beneficial effect that they grant – you need to let their energy affect you; in other words, you need to let their energy into your mana system.

This is significant because just touching the magic item isn’t enough. You don’t gain the benefit of a cloak of charisma if you just hold it in your hands, for example. You have to let the energy it’s been imbued with flow into you. This is where the idea of mana “chakras” comes into play.

Your mana system, like any other bodily circulatory system, doesn’t flow through your body evenly. It has major points and minor points, the same way your blood circulatory system has major veins like your jugular and minor capillaries. Magic items are able to interface with you by “plugging in” to the major pathways in your mana – and due to the metaphysical nature of your mana and its pathways through your body, each plug is different, and so requires different “prongs” to interface with (the same way that plugs for machines can have two metal prongs or three…don’t those just drive you nuts?); magic items are thus built with the proper prongs to plug into a specific major mana point on your body.

This, then, is the reason that you can only have a certain number of magic items worn, and only on certain locations on your body. You only have so many “sockets” that magic items can plug into…and each socket requires a different type of plug. Hence, your magic ring on your right hand is taking up the entire socket that is, in metagame terms, your hand slot (for that hand); it’s also why that ring won’t work on your toes…because the plug doesn’t fit the socket.

“But wait,” you ask, “what about those magic items that don’t require body slots? What about ioun stones, or scrolls, or even just held magic weapons like a holy avenger sword?”

Indeed, those are very good questions, let’s go over them one by one below.

Spell Completion Magic Items: Spell completion magic items, better known as scrolls, only work for those people with the spell on their spell list. The in-game reason for how these things work is essentially the same for why only certain people can cast spells. Scrolls are pre-cast magic spells, the same way that a wizard’s prepared spells are pre-cast – both just need an activating set of components to release.

The difference is that for a scroll, the energy to be unleashed is contained within the scroll, not within one’s self the way it is for a wizard. But even with that, the fact remains that releasing the energy still requires utilizing one’s mana in a certain degree. Reading the words on a scroll isn’t enough anymore than an ordinary person using the right verbal and somatic components is enough. A scroll user has to reach out with their own mana and unleash, via reading the scroll, the energy contained within it (note that this requires a physical, or extremely near, connection in order to bridge your mana to its energy, hence why you can’t read a scroll from across the room and activate it from there).

Spell Trigger: A spell trigger magic item, like a wand, is essentially utilizing the same process as a spell completion magic item, but even simpler. In this case, you don’t need any particular method of being able to utilize your mana, so long as you can use it at all. You just “flex” your mana in the proper manner (something done with just a bit less than a conscious thought), touching it to the energy of the magic item, and say a word to activate it. Hence why you need, as the description says, “No gestures or spell finishing is needed, just a special knowledge of spellcasting that an appropriate character would know, and a single word that must be spoken.”

Use Activated Magic Items: These are often magic weapons, or other magic items where their magic is something that affects only the item itself, not the wielder or the person the wielder directs them against. In this case, the magic energy sealed inside a +1 longsword is simply making it sharper and better balanced (which translates to the +1 bonus to damage and attack rolls, respectively).

These use activated magic items are built to affect themselves, so the question of needing to “plug in” to creatures isn’t needed nor built into them, though sometimes they can have other functions built in, such as command word-activated abilities (see below).

Other such items can only be used in certain ways, such as potions. Potions work whenever they’re drunk, and as such effectively have a slot of “digestive system,” save that they’re charged magic items with just one charge, and so are expended when used.

Slot-less Magic Items: Some beneficial magic items affect characters without a body slot, which seems to fly in the face of everything listed above. How is it that you can wear just two rings when you can have a dozen ioun stones circling your head? The answer here is simple; these magic items are the equivalent of using a “wireless” connection, as opposed to how most magic items need to manually plug into you.

Now, it’s more difficult and more expensive to build magic items in this manner, as laid down in the Pathfinder rules. Notice how the section on creating magic items says (footnote 3), “An item that does not take up one of the spaces on a body costs double.” If you want to build a magic item that’s “wireless” to its user, and so doesn’t take up one of their mana sockets, you can, but it’ll cost more.

Saving Throws

Saving throws make perfect sense in the context of rules construction – characters need a way to avoid or reduce the damage from attacks that aren’t a question of hits penetrating armor. But from an in-game context, they’re difficult to reconcile. When was the last time you read a fantasy story and it had someone just sort of shake it off when someone tried to use a spell on them? Saving throws need better definition. Let’s break it down by type of save.

Reflex save: A reflex save is entirely the product of getting out of the way; it has nothing to do with magical interaction whatsoever. You’re simply trying to avoid the brunt of the impact. Note that characters with the evasion and improved evasion abilities don’t have some supernatural method of avoiding the unavoidable – they’re simply so well versed in dodging that they can do it far and away better than anyone else.

Similarly, a natural 1 on this save – which possibly damages your items – isn’t any particular failing of your mana. It’s just that you dodged so poorly that you put your gear into harm’s way.

Fortitude save: A fort save is where you’re trying to bodily shake off an effect. This one is tricky from the perspective of in-game verisimilitude because sometimes this doesn’t involve anything supernatural (e.g. recovering from an illness) whereas othertimes it does (e.g. a baleful polymorph spell).

Shouldn't that be "I do gets saving throw?"

When the effect is against any sort of spell – or spell-like or supernatural ability – a fort save isn’t a measurement of shaking off a physical ailment, but rather deals with using your mana to shake off a magical one. Your mana is part of you, remember, and so therefore reacts when some magical ability tries to affect you or alter you, the same way that antibodies kick in when germs try to affect or alter you. It may not always succeed, the way you may not always fight off an illness, but it does try.

The caveat that a natural 1 on a save against a damaging effect also damages your items usually applies only to magical effects that require a fort save (e.g. disintegrate), in which case it represents a total failure of your mana to fight it off the effect, and allowing it to also spread across the items on your person (see below).

Will save: In contrast to the others, virtually all will saves are against magical effects of some sort. And just as with fort saves, these are representations of your mana attempting to battle off an outside effect, save that in this case it’s affecting your mind and not your body.

Beyond what the saves themselves mean, however, are some ancillary issues to consider in regards to saves.

Biotemplate: The concept of a “biotemplate” is introduced in The Mind Unveiled, by Dreamscarred Press. Not a creature template, the biotemplate is an in-game concept to help explain some of the corner cases that come up regarding saving throws and similar issues.

A person’s biotemplate is their subconscious image of who they are and what they look like. It’s the proverbial mind’s eye that gazes upon itself. In other words, the biotemplate is how you perceive yourself to be. This is a purely unconscious sense of self-recognition; it’s not how you think of yourself, but rather your manifest sense of self and identity.

This sounds like so much mumbo-jumbo, but it provides the rationale for certain things that otherwise wouldn’t make any sense. Why is it, for example, that you can disintegrate an unattended (non-magical) item without it receiving a save, but it receives one when someone is holding it? Yes, you can say that they’re actively trying to move it out of the way and avoid the spell…but that’s a hard explanation to make work. The save is “fort partial,” meaning that it’s not a question of dodging. So then why does it get a save when you hold it?

The answer is that because, when you’re holding it, you’re integrating that item into your sense of self. It becomes part of your biotemplate. Your sense of who you are includes what you’re wearing and what you have on your person (real-world examples of people thinking this way are quite prevalent – it’s why people say “he hit me!” when you get into a car accident, instead of “he hit my car while I was in it!”).

But just because you’ve accepted an item into your biotemplate, why does that make it possible for it to reduce the effect of a disintegrate spell? Because, as mentioned previously, your mana is trying to fight the spell off.

That’s right, your mana extends to more than just your physical self. It encompasses you and, to a degree, the things you wear. Your mana, being metaphysical, extends beyond (only very slightly beyond) your body, to also envelope the things on you.

There’s a word for the part of your mana that extends beyond your skin: it’s called your aura.

Your biotemplate also handles other things, which usually fly under the proverbial radar in most games, regarding your sense of self. When you take massive fire damage, your hair is probably burnt off, but a healing spell restores it to exactly the length it was before. Why exactly that length? Because that’s the length that it has in your biotemplate, so that’s the blueprint for the magic when it puts you back together. If you want to keep your scars when you’re healed, you will, because they’re part of your biotemplate, unlike the scars you’d prefer to lose.

Spell Resistance

Spell resistance is the evolution of how your external mana – that is, your aura – can defend you from incoming spells and spell-like abilities. Instead of offering a weakened passive resistance, it’s strengthened to the point of being able to actively stop spells before they can penetrate your aura and reach your body.

It’s not a coincidence that creatures with a great degree of inherent magic, such as demons or dragons, tend to have spell resistance – they have a greater system of mana within them, so that spills over into a greater aura protecting them without.

Next Time: How spells levels are recognized in-game!

It’s A Kind of Magic, Part 1 – Definitions and Application

May 7, 2011

One of the thorniest areas of Pathfinder – and indeed, all role-playing games – is the level of abstraction that it presents in various aspects of the game. Much of the time, this involves sacrificing “realism,” so that the game remains playable, such as eschewing wound tracking and hit locations in favor of hit points.

Another level of abstraction, however, relies on the simple assumptions we make about the in-game nature of how things work. Sean K. Reynolds – now a developer at Paizo Publishing – once wrote (in one of his immortal rants) “it should be clear that if there is no listed answer to a question, the answer almost certainly is the same as asking the question about a human.”

Now, to be fair, he was writing this in regards to creatures. But the broader point – that unless told otherwise, we should assume things work in the game world as they do in the real world – is still clear. The major problem with this assumption is that there are some things to which we have no real-world analogue on which to draw.

Magic is one of those.

Ever notice how there's no spell that will let you draw a rabbit out of a hat?

For all its importance and prevalence within the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game, and D&D before it, the question of exactly how magic works has been startlingly ignored. This isn’t to say that explanations haven’t been given; just that they’ve been inadequate to the more fundamental question of how it is that people and creatures are able to use magic at all. We’re usually just told about the differences between divine and arcane magic, and perhaps given a brief statement that the exact nature of it is less important than the fact that it works at all, and that’s it.

Like all flimsy explanations, these break down if you start to seriously examine them. So what we need is a stable, working definition that will tell us what exactly magic is, how it’s used, and how creatures interact with it. Hopefully, this will help you create a campaign world with greater verisimilitude regarding one of its most important aspects.

The Basics

The first thing we need to do to define magic is properly restate what it is. So let’s lay down some terms and definitions.

Magic – Magic is energy that can be shaped and used to bring about various effects.

Spell – A spell is a specific quantity of energy, external to the one manipulating it, that has been utilized for a specific effect.

Spellcasting – Spellcasting is the act of gathering energies that are external to the spellcaster and shaping them into a desired result. This includes the use of supernatural and spell-like abilities.

Now that we’ve established that, let’s look at the classical division of magic in Pathfinder and D&D: arcane and divine magic.

The difference between arcane and divine magic is that the latter comes from the gods, while the former is not granted by any specific entity or power. That is, the energy that’s being manipulated when casting a spell has different sources for an arcane spellcaster than it does for a divine spellcaster.

A divine spellcaster is simply receiving energy directly from their god. A deity is so incredibly powerful, is such a font of energy, that they can grant that energy to those who ask for it. Of course, divine spellcasters not only have to work to be able to handle manipulating greater and greater quantities of energy (see below), but they also need to have their god’s trust so that they’ll have it granted to them to begin with.

Arcane spellcasters, on the other hand, are simply manipulating ambient energy. This raises the question of where exactly that ambient energy comes from to begin with. While this is determined by the GM, the most likely answers are the most obvious ones: planar apertures, solar radiation, leftover energy from the moment of Creation, and others all kickout a supply of energy that is, for all intents and purposes, infinite, leaving arcane spellcasters with a power source for their spells.

Methods of Use

Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of exactly how it is that mortals can interact with these energies at all. For this, we need a better explanation. Luckily, there’s one – or at least the basics of one – to be found in Green Ronin’s Advanced Gamemaster’s Guide.

One of the ideas laid out in the book is that the system of magic items on the body works because all characters have magic item “chakras,” or specific points on the body that magic items interact with. This is an idea we’ll return to in more detail next time. Instead, we’re going to take the basics of this idea and reinterpret them to suit our needs.

People are able to interact with the energies that are used in magic because they have a sort of metaphysical circulatory system within them. The same way that blood flows through veins and capillaries, and ki flows through chakra points, the external energies of magic can be absorbed and internalized by living (and unliving) creatures.

To avoid the cumbersome phrase “magic circulatory system” throughout the rest of this series of articles, let’s replace that with something simpler: mana. To reiterate, a person’s mana is their inner ability to absorb magical energies.

The key to this idea is that while all people have mana within them, it is fairly weak when they’re growing up, but can be exercised like a muscle. In other words, most people don’t start off as being able to absorb enough energy to be able to produce any magical effects…but some people strengthen their mana to the point where they’re able to do so.

What are you if you lose your spellbook? A spell-schnook!

Given that, the basic system of magic in Pathfinder is as follows. All people have the ability to manipulate external energies, but only some actualize that potential (in other words, only some take levels in spellcasting classes). This potential is realized by exercising their mana to the point where it lets them absorb enough energy – either from ambient sources or from gods – to be able to manipulate it to produce tangible results.

This is the reason why characters learn their spells in a step-progression. They slowly become better able to absorb larger quantities of energy, which can then be used to cast more, and more powerful, spells.

This salient point explains why, in-game, a wizard can make a bunch of gestures while babbling something and waving around a glass rod and some fur and conjure a lightning bolt…while a rogue who can perfectly replicate the words, gestures, and has his own fur and glass rod won’t accomplish anything. One has mana enough to gather and focus the necessary energies to actually create something, channeling it with the various components; the other is just (quite literally) going through the motions.

It should be noted that increasing one’s mana – while there are many different methods for doing so – can be used to two different ends. That is, the energies from the gods is different enough from the ambient energies of the multiverse that training your mana to use one doesn’t help you with using the other. Hence why a high priest can absorb a great deal of divine energy bestowed upon him by his god, but cannot take enough from the surrounding environment to cast even a single cantrip.

Mana Exercises

There are different methods whereby a character actively increases their mana; this is one of the main in-game differences between spellcasting classes. Note that the different methods are all metaphysical in nature; none require any sort of physical exercises.

Devotion – Used by clerics, druids, paladins, rangers, inquisitors, and adepts.

Devotion involves rigorous prayers, strengthening faith, and other exercises that bring you closer to the metaphysical nature of a deity. In this way, you increase your mana to accept the energies of your god, and can thus cast greater spells.

Study – Used by wizards, alchemists, magi, and summoners.

The use of study involves examining the “science” of how magic works, which also includes formulas by which the user better attunes himself to the methods necessary to draw in the surrounding energy. In understanding these forces, they also attune themselves to them more closely, though they may not necessarily realize that this is what they’re doing.

Imbuement – Used by oracles and witches.

This is one of the rarest forms of learning to manipulate magic. In this case, your mana is augmented by an external force acting upon you over time. For oracles, this comes from the gods (and thus is only suitable for divine spellcasting), while for the witch it comes from their mysterious patron, acting through their familiar.

Biology – Used by sorcerers and monsters.

For some creatures, the development of mana happens completely naturally as part of the maturation process. This is why many creatures have supernatural and spell-like abilities; because their mana naturally grows great enough to use them. Sorcerers are similar, in that something about their heritage gives them the genes to naturally grow in magical power over time. Note that this doesn’t need to be the result of their family having interbred with some creature; for “bloodlines” like Arcane or Destined, the sorcerer is – for whatever reason – possessed of a mana that grows of its own accord.

Accidentally – Used by bards and others.

Finally, it’s possible to strengthen your mana without realizing you’re doing it. The same way a person who enjoys playing sports gets good exercise as a by-product of what they do, some people just exercise their mana completely unintentionally. Bards are the best example of this, as they grow in magical power simply by traveling around, learning new songs and dances, and being swayed by art. This opens them to the arcane energies of the universe, and though they likely have little formal schooling in the ways of magic, they find themselves able to manipulate it.

This is also the case, albeit much less so, for other classes that have some degree of spell-like or supernatural abilities. The rogue who takes the minor magic rogue talent, for example, has unintentionally figured out how to absorb and utilize a tiny bit of energy in a specific manner.

Casting a Spell

One thing to note is that this energy, whether ambient or god-given, is gathered ahead of time, before a spell is cast. This is encapsulated in the one hour that spellcasters must prepare after they get eight hours of rest. During this hour, they’re absorbing the necessary energies.

I'm totally telling my GM that this is what it looks like when my character is preparing his spells for the day.

Preparatory casters, such as wizards, allocate their energies completely ahead of time towards specific ends. Spontaneous casters, by contrast, can pick and choose how to use those energies when they utilize them, but only know how to do so in a set amount of ways.

Finally, the act of casting a spell is the act of actually shaping the energy you’ve gathered. The components involved – whether somatic, verbal, material, or foci – are part of the esoteric process of shaping these metaphysical energies into physical results.


It’s worthwhile to ask why – if their energy sources are different, and they require different ways of shaping one’s mana to use – do arcane and divine spells interact with each other so completely?

To answer this, let’s look at the different classes of fires. Some fires are caused because organic materials are ignited, others are certain metals that autoignite in the air. However, both produce flames that operate according to the same rules of combustion.

That’s how it is with different types of magic, also. The sources are different, the methods of gathering are different, but when the metaphysical energy is shaped into physical results, they’re subject to the same laws of reality. Hence why spells of one type can affect those of another.

And Lastly…

While it should go without saying, it’s worth mentioning again that all of the above is simply one possible explanation for the how’s and why’s of magic in your Pathfinder game. If you’ve already come up with a series of answers that work better, then definitely stick with that. This series of articles is simply meant to offer an in-game explanation for the meta-game mechanics of magic for people who haven’t generated one for their campaign.

Next Time: How magic items work, the nature of saving throws, and more!

It’s the Magic Item Economy, Stupid!

May 1, 2011

Dedicated readers of Intelligence Check (there’s something like four, now) will notice that this blog devotes quite a bit of space to the kingdom building rules from Paizo’s Kingmaker Adventure Path. There are multiple reasons for this, both personal (I’ve run a Kingmaker game, which is currently on hiatus) and professional (I think that introduces concepts that can be used to really change the focus of the game).

Having said that, the kingdom building rules are, like any other rules set, subject to being bent and even broken. While I’ve little doubt that Paizo playtested them and edited the mechanics they wrote prior to releasing them, it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, despite the best editing in the world, errors and unexpected loopholes make it into the final rules.

Luckily, there’s a wide community of gamers out there who, in the course of playing the game, will eventually stumble upon these problems and, in some cases, talk about them on the internet. In other words, they become de facto playtesters. And we can learn from their mistakes so that the headaches they had to endure don’t come up in our games. It’s with those gamers in mind that I move on to today’s topic.

The Politics of Failure Have Failed…

The central part of using the kingdom building rules is spending Build Points to construct new buildings in your cities. Some of these builds have magic item “slots” – that is, they generate a magic item(s) of a certain type (minor, medium, and/or major) every month, which then remain until they’re sold – whether to the PCs or someone else.

The secrets of the universe at discount prices.

By itself, this isn’t a big deal. It’s a way of measuring what’s available should the PCs (or some NPCs) go shopping for magic items; the PCs don’t determine what these magic items are, nor do they have access to them without paying for them first, just like in any other campaign. ’nuff said.

Except, however, for a clause mentioned elsewhere in the rules. Step 3 of the Income Phase, “Sell Valuable Items,” says the following (emphasis mine):

You can attempt to sell items that cost more than 4,000 gp through your city’s markets to bolster your kingdom’s Treasury; these can be items you recover during an adventure or they can be magic items currently held by any of your cities. To sell these items, make an Economy check (DC 20 for minor items, DC 35 for moderate items, and DC 50 for major items). A failed check indicates the item doesn’t sell. Success indicates that the item sells and you can increase your kingdom’s treasury by 2 BP (for minor items), 8 BP (for moderate items), or 15 BP (for major items). You can make one Economy check per city district during each Income phase.

From what I’ve heard on the Paizo messageboards, the emboldened part of this rule quickly became a problem in many Kingmaker games.

The nature of the problem is self-evident. Once the PCs spend BP to build these shops (the ones that generate a magic item every month), they can then make a check each month to have the shops sell the magic item and reap the BPs that are generated from doing so. And this happens every single month with the PCs not needing to spend any further BPs to keep earning these rewards.

Needless to say, this is a HUGE problem. Yes, there’s often a significant investment cost for the PCs to build shops that generate magic items in the first place (particularly for shops that make medium and major magic items), and yes, they still do need to make a check…but those aren’t really disincentives. Once the PCs have a high enough Economy score (something that’s not at all hard to achieve), and don’t roll a natural 1 on their check, they can pretty well count on free BPs each month. And this is a problem that only snowballs as the PCs build more and more magic item-generating shops…

Given that, let’s lay down some guidelines and alternate rules to keep this sort of thing from happening.

…We Need to Make Them Work Again

The rallying point for a Kingmaker capitalist revolution.

First, let’s establish why the existing rule doesn’t make sense. There’s a disconnect between the in-game nature of the government that the PCs run, and the metagame nature of the players building a country. While the metagame effects of the PCs spending BPs to decide what buildings get built makes it seem as though they (the government) is managing the economy, this isn’t the case in-game. In-game, the economy is a private sector that doesn’t answer to the government (though it likely works with it).

It’s this separation between the market and the government that stops the PCs from simply taking every magic item that shops generate for themselves for free – if the PCs were to decide that they wanted to keep a randomly-generated item, for example, instead of selling it, they’d still have to pay for it. So if that’s the case, why do they get to reap the benefits (in BPs) of selling those same magic items? When stores in the real world sell wares, the government doesn’t get to keep the profits – the private sector does (taxes are the exception, but the kingdom building rules already models taxes in a different way).

As such, Step 3 of the Income Phase, “Sell Valuable Items,” is deleted. Cross it out entirely and don’t use it in your game. If your PCs want to earn BPs for selling things, it must be for things that they personally own.

But how do they do that, now that we’ve eliminated the aforementioned rule? Well, let’s back up and look at Step 1 of the Income Phase, “Deposits:”

You can add funds to a kingdom’s treasury by donating coins, gems, jewelry, weapons, armor, magic items, and other valuables you find while adventuring. For every full 4,000 gp in value of the deposit, increase your kingdom’s BP by 1. Items that individually cost more than 4,000 gp must be sold as detailed under Step 3 below.

This is a good guideline, and we’re going to tweak it, largely be eliminating that arbitrary proviso that caps what this step can handle at 4,000 gp. Try using the revised version of this rule given below:

You can add funds to a kingdom’s treasury by donating coins, gems, jewelry, weapons, armor, magic items, and other valuables you find while adventuring. For every full 4,000 gp in value of the deposit, increase your kingdom’s BP by 1.

Items that individually cost less than 4,000 gp can be deposited without a check. Items that individually cost more than 4,000 gp must make a successful Economy check to be deposited. The DC of this check is 10 + the gp value of the item divided by 1,000. For example, selling a pair of goggles of night – which have a market price of 12,000 gp – would require a DC 22 Economy check [10 + (12,000/1,000) = 22]. Successfully selling the goggles of night would increase your kingdom’s BP by 3.

You can attempt to make one such check per item over 4,000 gp per turn.

This method not only limits the PCs to selling their own materials, rather than mandating shops to sell their wares and turn over the profits, but has several other benefits as well. The major one is that it keeps the rewards for selling magic items to reasonable levels – A PC selling a +5 vorpal longsword, which has a market value of 200,315 gp, will only earn 50 BP for its sale. That’s a lot, but not at all game-breaking.

Further, this system prevents the PCs from automatically being able to liquidate big-ticket items. The aforementioned magic sword, for example, would require a successful Economy check against a DC of 210! Notwithstanding rolling a natural 20, only the largest and most prosperous of kingdoms could make that check, which makes sense.

Finally, note that “depositing” items using this system doesn’t necessarily mean letting them sit in the kingdom’s treasury. In fact, it’s more likely that such “deposited” items are sold by the PCs’ government, gaining material wealth, favors owed, goodwill, and all of the other tangible and intangible rewards that are represented by Build Points.

Mage Labor and Capital

Of course, these rules are just suggestions; make sure to tweak them to fit your home game if you find that they’re not working as well as you’d hoped. For example, perhaps the BP gains for depositing items should be 1 BP earned per 1,000 gp spent (but make sure to adjust the ratio of making withdrawls to match – you should always be able to withdraw gold for BPs at a rate of half the gold you must deposit to earn BPs). Or perhaps it’s better to eliminate the “1 always fails, 20 always succeeds” rule for kingdom checks, so that PCs with a low Economy score can’t try and sell that uber-expensive magic item.

However you tweak these rules, hopefully they’ll save you from PCs attempting to become insanely rich on the backs of honest merchants making magic items. After all, the rules are for building a kingdom, not running a communist state.

…though a Communistmaker game does sound interesting, comrade.