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 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.
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 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).
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 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!