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[7W] Getting Theurgy to work

Started by Justin Marx, December 20, 2005, 06:23:01 AM

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Justin Marx

Hi, Seven Worlds (generic working title, long story) was a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid that is starting to look, more and more, like space fantasy. That's OK, but it ignores the premise of the game when it was first concieved - that in this alternate universe, religious magic works as technology, while recognisably being neither magic nor technology. I know this is well-trodden ground, but so far syntheses of the two I have not found many that worked and were interesting. Theurgy is the crux of the game, without it, it seems like another hack-job space fantasy. While this is more of a Gamist centred game (nice and crunchy), exploration of setting is important and getting the theurgy done right, in system terms, is imperative for the game. My rolemodel of magical systems so far has been Pendragon, where it shows how magic in that setting is inextricably tied into the game setting - it is not something tacked on (even though it may have been developed later) but it reflects the way the gameworld functions seamlessly, and ties it into a character's effectiveness using the personality traits.

The idea is this - not so much that people use magic to make clock-work like artefacts, but rather that in order to use Theurgy (religious magic) the theurgist requires fairly complicated artifacts to pull off the effect. The most simple stuff is charms against the Evil Eye, holy relics that work as the foci for allowing the theurgist to levitate an object into space, crystals that create coherant light for lasers, bonsai-like trees that power the life-support systems of starships. The emphasis is on the tools themselves that allow theurgy to work.

The problem then comes with coming up with the theurgy itself. I started going over it again the other day and ended up writing a list of spells which I started to find unappealing - I felt that theurgy should be something more customisable. But at the same time, it has to be limited by the tools themselves, otherwise it ends up being fireball-material (as the game is Gamist heavy, I would expect people to come up with that, hell I would if I was given a magic system with no restraints). How to balance the two? Between having an open ended system and emphasising the limitations of the theurgy without codifying them?

In a RPG Design Patterns way of thinking, Theurgy is based upon competency in three types of traits:
Favour with a deity (the most important, how much power the God will grant you), the deity specifying the types of power that is accessible (For example, one deity is the Lord of Steel),
Skill in ritual (determining how well you can work that power, how much finesse)
Type of foci you have (basically a pre-requisite, also for enhancing and augmenting effects - increasing duration etc.)

The trick is the last one. The foci should be thousands of things, holy water, priceless jewels, rare crystals, unusual herbs (basic items) - as well as worked objects of art, relics, carved sculptures, runic writing, pieces of calligraphy on paper and so on. So far, it is a fairly arbitrary association between an item and its supposed sympathetic power that delimits which foci can be used or not, and that arbitrary association is made by me. I would rather have something more versatile, I'm just not sure what that might be.

So I'm sort of throwing out for ideas here, or advice on some other systems that have customisable magic (preferably without GM fiat, something I am really trying to avoid in writing the structure for the game). I have run Ars Magica, and Pendragon obviously - oh, and Mage 1st and 2nd, but I find that system extremely unsatisfying. These systems base their customisation on the character's traits themselves, not on potentially un-traited material objects. The only solution seems to have been in your run-of-the-mill spell components system, but I don't find that satisfying simply because it creates pointless grimoires of spells. Ideally (and this is a big if) I don't want theurgical abilities written on the character sheet at all - you know how much Favour a character has, what ritual types he has skill in (say, consecration rituals, or synergetic communions), and all you need is the foci and you've got some funky cool shit. The spell-book thing precludes that I feel.

Sorry, to recap - concrete questions:
What are some interesting systems that work magic in customisable, but still thematically-delimited ways?
Are there any ASSumptions that I haven't noticed in this sort of design (I've spotten a thousand in my own thinking since I came to the Forge, but I've never really put it to the test),
Any advice, ideas, etc.?

Thanks for your feedback,

Adam Cerling

Quote from: Justin Marx on December 20, 2005, 06:23:01 AM
Are there any ASSumptions that I haven't noticed in this sort of design (I've spotten a thousand in my own thinking since I came to the Forge, but I've never really put it to the test),

Check out this essay of John Kim's that points out many assumptions of RPG magic: Breaking Out of Scientific Magic Systems.

One idea it touches upon is critical to my thinking about "theurgy" -- a practitioner must maintain a relationship with the spirit/diety he serves, instead of just treating it like another power source to be tapped with the right science.
Adam Cerling
In development: Ends and Means -- Live Role-Playing Focused on What Matters Most.


  Well, I had a similar dilemna, this is what I did:
1) Came up with a system that explains how/why traditional magic and religious magic worked and how they were different. Maybe in your game traditional magic is elemental and theurgy is spiritual?
2) Came up with a list of raw capabilities for each discipline. I don't mean a list of spells, I mean what can and can't be includedd in a spell of each type. You've already thought about this, you decided that you can't use theurgy to create a fireball, but why? What makes it different? Should/could you make a fireball if you worshipped some kind of fire god? Maybe not, maybe theurgy can only effect the spirit, but not the body?
3) Codify that system the way you want it to be used. Create the mechanics then and make example spells so that the players are pushed in the right direction.
  I Hope this helps.
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
Free Demo

Justin Marx

Hi Adam,

Yeah I've been through that thread and I agree with the assertion - in order to cultivate favour, one has to actually be liked by the deity, it is not automatic. Basically, you need to act the way that a good priest would act if you wanted power, and you can't take too much from the deity. Making it a real spiritual relationship opens up story possibilities, for instance bad rolls on theurgy (dud spells so to speak) can start appearing like the God has abandoned you. Which, if handled right, would lead to some interesting play (maybe not so much as the opening scene of Bram Stoker's Dracula, when Dracula stabs the cross and drinks its blood, but down that line of thinking....). Mechanically, it will hinge upon Conviction and Passion traits, but I haven't got those traits down perfect yet.... and of course, past experience - if you build a big-ass temple to your deity, you get some extra favour, if you forget to go to church one morning, you lose a little.

--> Side mechanical question - I never liked WW's Humanity stat, but it was convenient in that it stipulated the 'minimum act' required to lower that humanity. However, it was very ambiguous, I would prefer something which doesn't leave (in this case) favour loss to GM fiat. This may be a pointless analysis, but how does (mechanically) the stat Humanity in Vampire and the stat Humanity in Ron Edward's Sorcerer differ? The latter presumably is a more effective system, but under what criteria can Humanity be lost in Sorcerer? End side note <----

Dindever, in 7W there is NO traditional magic, it's all religious. There are shamans and animists etc. but they get their power from spirits of the wild, animals spirits, cthonic spirits etc. Man is not innately magical. However, unless the character is a total atheist a-hole, almost every character will have access to minor theurgy (charms, wards, graces and gifts) which will give them a bit of an edge depending on which deity they cultivate a relationship with.

The trouble, as I said in the first post, is with the foci. Codifying the power of theurgy is easy enough to do, this deity does this, this ritual type does this, mix-and-match a la Ars Magica's 'verb and noun' system (can't remember the real title, form and something or other, it's been a while and I don't have my books handy). Well, it's not that easy, but I know at least how to do it.

The trouble is with the material components. I am thinking of writing out a list of foci, almost like a technological item list - eye of newt, pure sand, jewelled idols, clay idols, etcetera, and give each one properties that relate it back to the theurgy (jewelled idols allow blessing theurgy, clay idols shaping theurgies etc.). If the entire technological item list is composed of these relatively mundane or kooky-sounding items, then it should add to the feel. Trouble is - that's a big list.... actually, that sounds like fun to write....

Is this an interesting solution?


  OK, I am with you.
  So, the question is, what kind of pantheons are we talking? Is there going to be a Sun/Fire god? If so, it seems reasonable that they would have a fireball...
  Unless, magic doesn't work that way...
  Maybe magic cannot manifest anything solid. It can only alter existing things/feelings?
  Maybe that is the key to combining tech and magic. Tech provides the item, magic provides the anima?
  It seems you need to break it down: Deity provides the elemant, foci determines the effect and skill determines powerlevel? If it's religious, maybe the items need to be religious items? Holy symbol provides permenant effects like healing, incense provides temporary effects like protection or blessing. Maybe the list is manageable if it falls into a discernable pattern?
  Good luck man, sounds like you hav  a solid foundation to build from!
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
Free Demo

Josh Roby

Do you have a limited number of deities that bestow power?  If so, something akin to Tribe 8's Synthesis could work for you.  Basically every deity has a limited number of themes that they can bestow on their adherents; an adherent can do any effect that falls within that theme.  You can obviously add a 'with proper tools' mechanic in there.  The thing of it is, doing this lends a good deal of characterization to the deities and adherents as well as providing a flexible magic system.
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog

Justin Marx

Hi Joshua,

Yeah, there are a limited number of deities, with the major deities having three aspects each (being the most powerful, they have several different spheres of expertise). That sounds like an excellent way of dealing with demarcation - I agree, I want experimentation with the theurgy, that's the beauty of customisation.

Tragically, I am living in China, and the assholes-that-be have blocked wikipedia to the general public here. Is there much chance of there being another non-wiki link to that material?


Josh Roby

I sum up:

Each Fatima (goddess) has two Eminences (themes).  So Eva the Mother has Life and Empathy, Agnes the Child has Capriciousness and Inspiration, Baba Yaga the Scary-as-Fuck has Death and Fate.  Members of their tribes and followers of their faiths inherit those Eminences, and the powerful priestesses of all tribes wield a special power called Synthesis.  So your Evan Priestess has Life, Empathy, and Synthesis at a given number (Synthesis-2, Synthesis-8).  The Eminence by itself lets you boost one die roll per game in that theme -- so you can use Devotion to save your family or something, getting a +2 on the roll.  Using Synthesis you can tap into the River of Dream and bring the spirit world to bear on the material world, manipulating and changing it.  There's a difficulty scale where ephemera (illusions in the shadows using Illusion)  are on the low end, minor manipulations (curing a disease with Life) in the mid-range, and gross effects (animating your toys into an army with Capriciousness) at the upper end.  Roll dice equal to your Synthesis rating, count the highest die (sixes add one, so if you have two sixes, your result is a seven).  Add modifiers for having icons, doing extensive prep, having ritual helpers, being in an auspicious time/place/state, et cetera.  If you meet or beat the difficulty of your effect, it happens.  If you miss it, and especially if you miss it by a large margin, you risk getting swept away by the River of Dream and getting all out of sync with the material world, which sucks.

For your purposes, your different icons and charms and things would either enable the use of Synthesis/Theurgy or give bonuses to the roll (whatever the roll may be; I doubt you'll use DP9's die mechanic).  You could easily rate the Eminences individually rather than using a generalized Synthesis score that applies evenly to all Eminences.  You'll need to rewrite the difficulty-of-effect scale to suit what is easy and difficult in your setting.  This works best if it's generalized (create/manipulate/destroy/mimic/increase/decrease) rather than specific (jump to lightspeed), although conceivably you could do a different range for each Eminence that the deities hand out.  Whatever works best for you.  You'll also need a replacement for disconnecting into the spirit world -- Synthesis is risky business in Tribe 8, but it doesn't sound like saying the wrong words and doing the wrong gestures means that all hell breaks loose in 7W (what does happen -- and what prevents a cleric from just trying again until it works?).
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog

Justin Marx

Thanks for your replies,

Dindever - the pantheon is pretty gorramn big - about 40 deities, plus lots of minor spirits etc. However, the major 7 deities hold the most power, and most of the theurgy comes from them (they cover all the general and useful abilities, but the lesser deities are more specialised - such as Vavastes the God of Gravity, Obes the God of Song etc.) I originally tried writing this theurgical system after developing an elaborate metaphysics for how it worked - and it was a mess. After coming to the Forge I realised I wanted a more Gamist centred game, and decided to place less emphasis on the mechanics of power transmission. Instead, I focussed on making it work within the aesthetic, and I hope I've succeeded.

But, in game metaphysics terms, the power to weild theurgy is invested in the individual who uses it as well - the boundary between what the God is doing and what the God has taught the theurgist to do is a blurry one - and should remain deliberately blurry, I don't see the point in explicating magical systems entirely, just enough to know the risks and the effects. The rest is for clerics to write up in treatises for their fellow scholars.... why should I have to do that? I've got rules to write.

Anyway, thanks for everyone's advice (especially Joshua, thanks for taking the time to write out the summary of Tribe 8's magic), it's helped the mental block, it helps to get other ideas and opinions, especially when you're feeling indecisive. It's helped a lot, so I will run through the theurgy system, in basic, and then I'll start writing it up.

Theurgy is contigent on three factors (as above - Favour, Skill and Foci).
In summary:
Favour and aspects determine the elements and power levels.
Skill determines what can be done with them.
Foci are requirements and boosters to the rolls.

Favour is broken into primary and secondary ranks (for major deities). The primary rank is out of 24, the inverse is the TN (on 2d12). This represents how good the deity relationship is.
The secondary ranks are from zero to three. Any ability to use theurgy requires at least one. They represent the different aspects of a deity, what type of power the deity grants them (similar, sorta, with Eminences).

For example:
Shisden, God of Thieves and Liberty (Favour ranked from 0-24, Primary Rank)
Aspect 1: Shadows, Theft, Confusion (Aspect Rank from 0 to 3, Secondary Rank)
Aspect 2: Enlightenment, Communication, Freedom (Aspect Rank from 0 to 3, Secondary Rank)
Aspect 3: Trickery, Impersonation, Deceit (Aspect Rank from 0 to 3, Secondary Rank)

The aspects determine what sort of abilities (need a name for that, I will use 'themes' for the meantime from the Tribe 8 example) one can use, the rank the level of power that can be invoked.

One requires a foci, which acts as a basic requirement for theurgy. Foci are described in these terms - how they are made and from what (rarity/skill - these are important because I want people making their own foci), as well as the themes and highest rank that can be used for those themes (e.g. crystal mirror = Confusion 1, Impersonation 2). Will write this out as a big equipment list, which I think will work because in a sense it mimics a technological item list from many sci-fi games. So instead of a looking for "Blaster Rifle", players will look for "Glass tube", or some other interesting item. The trick is to have the list large and varied, which will be fun to write and is open ended as you can always add more stuff to it later. Well made items give bonuses to the task check.

One also requires skill to do it - these are the ritual skills. The ritual skills also define HOW the theurgy can be used, depending on the ritual skill being used. So using the Augury skill with the Trickery theme one could give false prophecies, for example.

The mechanics for this are simple:
Player rolls their appropriate ritual skill, presuming they have the Aspect Rank requirements to do what they want to do, and an appropriate foci as well.
The GM rolls against the inverse of the player's favour. The player wants to see this roll fail - if it succeeds, it implies the deity does not want the character doing that effect. (This is reversed, the GM could of course roll the normal TN just have to roll UNDER it, but the opposed system screws that up, so it has to be inversed - but this is easier than it sounds, as the two values are written on the character sheet anyway)
This is an opposed roll obviously. The result is the difference between the two. The magnitude of that result shows how chunky it was.

But as I said, there are several types of potential results:
Player succeeds (makes his ritual skill roll), GM fails (the deity does not ban the use of the theurgy) - OK, hunkey dory, no problems. Result shows how powerful the effect.

Player fails (fails his ritual skill roll), GM fails (the deity does not ban the use of the theurgy) - it may work, but only if the skill failure was less than the GM failure. As the final result is the difference between these two results, this would result in a weak effect. If it fails altogether, then it may be retried (the character was unable to harnass the power at that moment for the effect). Extreme player failure results in spell fumble type effects (to be determined, stuff like inversion of effect, broken foci).

Player succeeds at his ritual roll but the GM succeeds too (the deity is disinclined to the use of the theurgy). Once again it may work, in that the deity only marginally disapproves (and that the theurgist is really good at the ritual, in a sense being able to tease out more power from a smaller pool of it). If it fails, it can be retried but only on a different target or at a different time in a different situation - the deity rescinds the power to the theurgist. A very good GM success may also give Wrath Points (negative favour basically, which can be atoned).

Player fails, GM succeeds. Both the negative effects of the last two cases (spell fumble + wrath points) if the margins of both checks are large. Not a good situation. No chance of making it work obviously.

Foci are requirements for theurgy but they also give bonuses for the ritual rolls - so having well made foci (e.g. clay idol +2) helps a lot. But if you don't have the favour with your deity, then the odds aren't high that the God will even grant the power anyway. But passions/convictions and heroic prayers boost your favour chance, as does using theurgy to assist the faithful or smite the enemies of the faith.

Ok, that's it so far. Thanks for all your help. If anyone reading this has any suggestions or notices any problems, I'd love to hear it.

Steve Marsh (Ethesis)

I might suggest that if you are going to use Pendragon for inspiration, you might want to tie personality traits to each god.

So, if I follow Agni, the average of my Lust, Giving and Pride forms a base number that interacts with my skill to get results.  If I am not lusty, giving and prideful, I don't do too well with the god or his theurgy.

Then, do the classic riff from history, the utlity of theurgistic tools is directly related to their rarity/cost.  Gold tools rank silver ones, for example.

I'd still go with standard recipies or prayers that cause the items to work ...

Justin Marx

Hi Steve,

I agree - the personality mechanics of Pendragon are my favourite feature (especially the way it ties into magical ability). However, the way that the traits are delimited (a finite trait list) I dislike, and Passions/Convictions I am using in 7W are open traits in that one only has a few from a large selection - you don't have ranks in them all, just the ones that apply to your character, the one's that are exceptional. These have mechanical effects in normal play and boost die rolls when appropriate. These traits are then linked with the different deities based upon the deities ideology, and also traits that they are opposed to. For instance, Teusos, the God of Kings and Oaths, has a linked passion of Vengeance and a conviction of Honour. Having these traits boosts favour aquisition in an as yet undefined way.... (coming soon).

But passions should be directly related to theurgy. This is the problem - there are a lot of variables coming into play on theurgy, and even though I like crunchy systems, it could be too much - namely, I want the single opposed dice rolls for using theurgy, without too many others. There are already 3 dependents on theurgy as listed above (Favour/Aspect, Skill, Foci), and as this is not a die-pool system then throwing in more and more bonuses starts slowing down on the speed of play unneccessarily. However, I was thinking that theurgical power, in the sense of how much theurgy one can work is determined by one's passions. This would introduce an additional die roll into using theurgy - one to invoke, one to resist harmful effects (wrath points, fatigue, curses, personal damage).

I suppose that theurgy is becoming increasingly complicated - which is not a bad thing, as it is a central element of play, but it is not the only element of play. This level of depth becomes very Ars Magica-ish, customising abilities for magical use and without the breakdown of Ars of Mage/Companion/Mook which makes no apologies for emphasising magic completely over other options. I don't want theurgy to be the one and only option - it is the spice of the game, not the be-all and end-all. The complexity of such a system (in so far as it has, as of now, 4 sets of variables involved) compared with combat or social conflicts (which each only have 2) sets it apart - this may not be a problem, most magic systems are a little more complex than the physical mechanics on which they are overlaid - but, I distrust it a little bit.

Another question - what are some easier ways to streamline down these variables into less complicated units?

As for the theurgical tools, yes rarity/expense combined with skill of construction are the criteria by which foci are judged for the power and utility. I am an archaeologist normally and am collating hundreds of artefact photos as inspiration for these tools (especially Buddhist idols and art.... I love the notion that a work of art, if done by a master and as close to perfection as they are able, produces the most powerful artefacts of all - materials notwithstanding). Which makes me think of another question - has anyone come across magical item creation rules in a game which reflects this ethos? (for plundering of ideas and comparison and curiosity and all that).

However I still want to keep the recipe spell-book out of it. Examples to set the feel, but customisable makes more sense to me - if nothing else, if there were spell recipes to learn, it would mean ANOTHER variable to using theurgy - do you know spell X?

Thanks again, all these ideas are extremely useful to me,

Steve Marsh (Ethesis)

However, I was thinking that theurgical power, in the sense of how much theurgy one can work is determined by one's passions.

That is a nice idea, using passions in place of what RQ would call Power or many systems call Spell Points.

I actually favor limited lists of passions.  There is a lot to be said for granularity, especially in design work (and in scenario design).

But using the passions as the source of spell points (though, again, that means giving them ratings) would reduce the number of things to keep track of in some ways.

Remember, you should be able to pre-calculate most things (like bonuses to skills in RQ, those don't get calculated every time the skill is used, just once when they are folded into the skill number) or use simple tools, like poker chips, to keep track of them.


  In another direction, maybe passions don't need a mechanic. Instead, Favour does actually represent your passion. A character who is not passionate about their faith will not be able to maintain enough Favour. I wouldn't get overly concerned about modifiers with what you have so far, Favour is the only big variable and it shouldn't change THAT often. Skill will change rarely and the foci will not change too often either, so you can rig the char sheet to include pre-calculated values with the foci maybe.
  I haven't seen too many systems have very good luck with regulating personality and matching roleplaying against personality numbers on your sheet. But I haven't tried Pendragon, so I could be wrong.
  Good luck!
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
Free Demo


First time post here... hope you don't mind the intrusion.
great topic, passion, a modifier that allows a player to have input for religious zeal of fervour, the more they want something the more "real world" influence they can effect over a theurgy. As I understand it this means that if the story is at an interesting junction or the character has a predisposition towards a series of events the player, in a reasonable manner, can help to make their goal come to fruition. There is nothing as frustrating for a character then to come to an apex of a campaign and have it rely on a single dice roll and then roll that 01 and your legendary character who has fought his way through the twelve hells. The player and GM both spending countless hours getting to this point only to have the dice failure come up and your chacter falling on his ass dropping the pivitol artifact on the ground and knocking themselves out at that crucial moment.
To be honest its an anti-climax. It also seems like a game failing. The inclussion of a character trait like passion alleviates this. There should be some player influence on results, not in a munchkin, let the player do what they want kind of way, but in a genuinely hard won, character development sort of way. If a character is at a real destiny point then there should be some method, like passion, that helps the character forward, this could even be interperated as a form of divine intervention. in a system that is very heavily using deity effected magic then it would seem to me that it would be logical that the deity would have some effect. in this way not only do the Player and the GM want to see an event take place, but in the game the character, and their deity want to see the event take place. This says to me that in a pivitol junctior, if the player has played their character with passion then the dice roll of 01 should not be possible. There should ba a bonus for the previous preperation, there should be some bonus for the divine influence as well.

i'd like to step away from the passion topic and ask a few things.

The system has no set spell list or "spell books" as you say, which i conclude means that the player creates spells as they are needed. you say that the GM makes an opposed roll against the spell. Does this mean that the player can create any theurgy based spell? can the first level priest of the god of gravity try to disipate all of the gravity on a planet wide scale? Obviously the oposition roll to this would be pretty hefty, but would they still be able to 'give it a go' as it were?

Back to the fireballs and specific theurgy available to the different gods. You mention two different deities: such as Vavastes the God of Gravity, Obes the God of Song
if the system has no set spell lists how do you influence a player to choose a lesser powered deity, it seems to me that you could more easily think up some funky spells if you had a theurgy based on the laws of gravity than you would if you had a theurgy based on song. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that a god of song would be crappy, or that there would be a lack of interesting song ideas you could come up with but it just seems that character creation would consist of a few more powerful deities being selected while your priest of Obes, God of Song, goes by time and time again being unused. A good GM may use the the unused gods in a creative and effective manner which may make them more appealing, however it seems to me from experience, most players, during character creation will try to make the most powerful character they can, which is simply human nature. They are going to be playing these characters, for hopefully a long time, they want to give them the best chance to succeed. I suppose what I am asking here is; if your giving free reign to the players to create their own spells as the need arrises what can you do to get the players to try out the spectrum of the pantheon?

Sorry to be annoying here but I have a few more questions...
do players get rewarded for creative and origional use of a specific deities theurgy? are they rewarded for creating new spells and getting them to work?

Does a spell become easier the more often it is used?

Is there an inhibiter for spell casting? for example, if a player can try any type of spell, is there a spell leveling system or perhaps a rolemaster style power point inhibiter? Like my priest of gravity fresh from character development trying to crush a planet with gravity?

Anyway, it seems a solid system, not sure if the interuption is constructive or not, I like the conceptualization so far, I'l read with enthusiasm.