Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Low Magic and Geriatrics

To summon the demons of darkness there is a price
and each time I call upon them, it consumes part of me.
 – Koura, the Black Prince

As a geeky blogger, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the passing last week of Ray Harryhausen, a man who brought fantasy to life.  Recently I watched a selection of his films, including the The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

In this film, Tom Baker – prior to his stint as Doctor Who – portrays the villainous Koura.  He engages in all sorts of nefarious deeds when he's not uttering Middle-Eastern flavored adages such as “He who searches for pearls should not sleep” and “A thief is a king until he is caught.”  Most of these deeds involve black magic and whenever he 'casts a spell' (like forming a homunculus, causing a portcullis to fall, or animating a statue), the magic takes its toll.  Specifically, Koura is afflicted with unnatural aging.


...and After

So I thought about how this effect could be represented in a role-playing game.  The effect cannot merely be cosmetic.  The price must have some teeth for it to be meaningful and – like the quote above says – the price must be paid “each time.”  Each spell consumes a fixed or random number of years?  Maybe, but what game mechanic would apply?  The aging rules from the DMG?  No, there are no effects unless and until a character moves from one age “bracket” to the next.  Still, a reduction of primary characteristics seems appropriate.

Dungeon Crawl Classics uses the concept of “spellburn” wherein a character can 'sacrifice' ability points to aid in spellcasting.  In the rules as written, spellburn is not required for 'normal' casting, the player chooses which abilities are reduced (as well as the amount of reduction), and the reduction is temporary.  I envision a riskier price – a price that is (1) not controlled by the player and (2) permanent.  (Of course, Khoura eventually finds the Fountain of Destiny and regains his youth.)

In Greg Stafford's Pendragon, characters 35 years in age and older must check for aging effects.  Each year, up to four rolls must be made on the 'Statistics Lost Table.'  There's a 44% chance that no rolls on the table are required and only a 5% probability that four rolls are necessary.  The 'Statistics Lost Table' indicates which statistic is reduced by one.  (When any statistic is reduced to zero, the character dies.)  In a given year, it's possible for the same statistic to be affected more than once.  For instance, if a player must roll twice on the table, both rolls might indicate the same statistic.  In Pendragon, there are only five 'prime' statistics:  Size, Dexterity, Strength, Constitution, and Appearance.  However, a d6 is used for the table; a result of six indicating that no statistic is affected after all.

In the film, the effects on Khoura are rather severe, but we can chalk this up to dramatic license.  If I wanted to closely model the effects shown in the film, for each 'spell', I would randomly determine a (D&D) characteristic and it would be reduced by a number of points equal to the lower result of 2d6.

In a less stringent setting (especially one with player character spellcasters), I would be more inclined to use something very much like the Pendragon aging rules.  Each call upon the “demons of darkness” might be handled as if aging a year in Pendragon.


  1. Great idea. In fact, it seems surprising nobody's done an implementation of this before.

    1. Actually, poor Koura rolled poorly on his Mercurial Magic table in Dungeon Crawl Classics. I believe he ended up with "04 Health bane", "09 Anima drain", and/or "23 Cannibal magic". Or maybe the judge followed the advice in the book and came up with a special Mercurial Magic table for Sinbad villains.

  2. Pretty cool concept. I like it better than the DCC stuff. For a long term campaign, though, unless there are a lot of Fountain o' Youths placed about, mages would have very short lifespans.

    Still wearing the chocolate underpants you sent me on Valentine's Day. So much nicer than flowers.