Grisly Incantations

Originally posted by Brianna Heine on the other (now defunct) version of this site.

Since I plan on writing a post concerning magic in the Hyborian Age at a much later time I want to start collecting some opinions on the topic. I’m going to save my opinion on how the system should work until later but in the meantime I want to discuss some of my thoughts on magic.

deviantART by Benito Gallego

In “The Tower of the Elephant” the being Yag-kosha explained to Conan that he “…came to this planet (Earth) with others of my world from the green planet Yag, which circles for ever in the outer fringe of this universe.”

Yag-kosha further explains that the sorcerer Yara captured him and used him to do his bidding. “But he [Yara] was not satisfied with what I taught him, for it was white magic, and he wished evil lore…”

Yara is described as “… versed in dark knowledge… with guile gotten among the dusky tomes of dark Stygia…”

This one story reveals some pretty interesting possibilities. In fact I didn’t really pick up on this until I started looking at it from a position of game development. Yag-kosha makes reference to “White Magic”.  In the context of the story it implies that magic is not all “evil lore”. Therefore I would conclude that magic exists that is not evil.

So what does this mean for the future of my Conan RPG? Well I have to accept that sorcerers exist that aren’t malevolent and twisted by foul magic. Such casters may have a limited selection of spells meaning the reason Howard didn’t write about them was because they were boring.  This would make spellcasters weak compared to their D&D counterparts and I wonder if that is interesting enough for a player character. Perhaps all magic is dangerous and the more powerful a wizard becomes the more evil it makes him. Unfortunately this means that a high level, balanced party will always include an evil spellcaster.

I’m going to choose the former and assume that not all magic is created equal however I am not going to make Sorcerers choose one or the other. They can freely choose any appropriate spell (White or Dark) but the dark lore will have consequences. Note that I’m not creating “grey” magic as I don’t think there is a need. Each practitioner of Sorcery chooses her own path. If she chooses equal White and Dark she can call herself grey if she wishes but I don’t think there needs to be a separate list. Also note I’m not calling it “Good” and “Evil”. I don’t think anything in the Hyborian age is inherently good. In this case “White” is just a placeholder for “Not Dark”. Upon further reflection would that mean magic is only “Grey” or “Dark”?

The question then becomes how to decide? If we assume there is White and Dark Magic then we have to create a list that explains which spells are which. If we stick to the golden rule then simple is the route to go. Going down the complete list of spells in the PHB and deciding if they are white or dark would be a massive quest and that is far more work than I’m willing to do. I think certain Schools of magic, sub-schools, and descriptors should decide which magic is White and which is Dark.

deviantART by MrZarono

In my opinion some schools should be inherently Dark. Divination, Enchantment, Evocation, Necromancy, and Transmutation are my initial thoughts. I struggled with Divination and Enchantment because they seem harmless to me. However with a little research Divination allows you to “Learn secrets long forgotten, predict the future, find hidden things…” and Enchantment “affects the minds of others, influencing or controlling their behavior.” That sounds like some crazy Cthulhu voodoo to me so on the list it goes.

I didn’t add Abjuration because in Black Colossus Conan “Somehow felt that Natohk [Sorcerer], like all his kind, was more terrible in defense than in attack.” I didn’t include Conjuration or Illusion because they don’t seem all bad. Some of their sub-schools certainly are though.

I also think the following sub-schools are dark as well. They are calling, healing (more on healing later), charm, compulsion, teleportation, scrying, phantasm, shadow, and polymorph.

Finally certain descriptors seem dark to me. Those are chaotic, darkness, death, evil, and fear. The descriptors good, lawful, and light would not count as dark.

This creates an incredible short list of “safe” spells but this is where I’m at so far. In the future I’ll continue to explore Hyborian magic and eventually unveil a system that I’d like to try. My next post will begin my series on Character Creation. Thanks for reading.

Author: John Carr

Gamer, comic guy, office drone.

10 thoughts on “Grisly Incantations”

  1. Imo:

    If the spell does damages/kills a creature, or summons a creature then it’s dark, rest are white.

    Just because you can use divinations and enchantments to questionable deeds it doesn’t make them dark. It’s like tools, which are meant for making life easier, but it’s possible to use them to harm other.

    1. That is certainly an interesting idea but when applied I think some rather dark things happen that wind up being safe. In a standard game of D&D Magic is as safe and commonplace as technology is in the real world. Sure some people still think that if you stare into a microwave it makes you sterile. Those people are the exception not the rule. In the Hyborian Age people are afraid of Sorcery.

      Let’s start with DETECT EVIL. It seems rather harmless but you’re using magic to see EVIL. What would the average farmer think if he could see EVIL? In fact auras would be so strong that said farmer would be stunned (game condition, not roleplaying) if a 3rd level evil cleric just took a stroll by the farm. In fact for the next 1-6 days said farmer will still see the vile taint of evil surrounding him. Auras are invisible and I think in this case ignorance is bliss.

      What about SPEAK WITH DEAD? With this spell you “grant the semblance of life to a corpse…”. I can’t imagine talking to a corpse is as simple as discussing your favorite bands with your bestie. In fact the newly awakened hunk of rotting flesh can resit your efforts to question it. Something unnatural is making a dead body remember parts of its former life. This doesn’t sound White to me.

      Another concern is POLYMORPH. This spell “transforms a willing creature into an animal, humanoid
      or elemental…”. Wait… an ELEMENTAL? You can transform a person into sentient fire? Even if we ignore the fairytales of Witches turning Princesses into toads you can’t deny that this can not be as easy as taking a bath. I also can’t imagine that this is easy on the recipient. Their entire physical form is now completely alien to them. I’m not a huge fan of Arnold’s Conan but Thulsa Doom turned into a giant snake. That’s some twisted stuff there. People aren’t supposed to be fire and snakes.

      So what does this teach me? That I’d have to pick and choose EVERY SPELL that I want to be dark and that will just take too much time. i’m already annoyed I had to talk about three of them.

      1. I have to say that I lean toward the idea that every spell probably does need to be judged on it’s individual merits, simply because I find the schools of magic in 3.x/Pathfinder to sometimes be a bit odd in their inclusions. Obviously certain spells are more complex than others, and may have some applications in white and some in black. Maybe for your purposes that makes them two spells.

        I have the added insight of knowing how you tend to run games, and I think your negative reaction to the notion of categorizing each spell individually lies in the fact that you see it as “Now I have to categorize every spell in the game before I can start my campaign.”

        I would humbly suggest that a better answer would be “Now I have to categorize each spell as a player tells me his character wants to try and learn it.” Assuming there’s some time/questing/rolling involved to successfully learn it, there should be some time for you to review the spell and make a judgement call. Also, the distinction shouldn’t really matter for NPCs mechanically, so you can just kind of wing it there.

      2. Well based on just the few comments so far, and my choosing 4 spells to comment on, adapting a particular spell or spells over time as opposed to all spells at once was easier for me. However I think that if I were to slowly convert the spells to White or Black the broad generalizations I made in the post will probably remain true. I think I’ll do a simple exercise and choose all 1st level spells of a school I think should be dark i.e. divination, and see if my initial impressions hold true.

  2. Yag-Kosha also says that he gained the black secrets through no wish of his own through the aeons.
    That could perhaps be implemented as a mechanic whereby the more magic you use, the more chances of further knowledge slipping into your mind.
    And while I’m all for magic having side-effects I don’t think becoming more powerful should necessarily make you more evil, Yag-Kosha certainly wasn’t, Pelias didn’t seem to be in The Scarlet Citadel. I think it should be what the player decides to do with the magic that determines if they become corrupted and evil, not simply using it.

    For the division between White and Black magic, since there’s no restriction it might be easier to ignore categorising them, and simply apply drawbacks to the spells you think deserve them.
    So summoning a black winged beast from beyond has a chance of backfiring on you, but if you bathe your hands in the blood of the innocent beforehand it negates that chance.
    Using spells seen as black secrets then becomes a question of if the player is willing to risk themselves, or others to do so.

    1. So I like the idea that just delving into magic of any kind unearths secrets the player might rather not know. Very cool.

      Unfortunately I think that if you use magic to fill your body with negative energy and start shaking hands (INFLICT WOUNDS) you are definitely asking for all the consequences that come from inviting lifelessness into your body. I’m not saying it should be an automatic effect, the player should have some ability to resist, but the danger of doing so exists. If the “White” sorcerer constantly casts INFLICT WOUNDS, all his spells, every day then he deserves to become twisted by the act. And just like I said in the post and my reply to Hex Ox I do not want to review every spell. Now I’ve done four and It’s as lame as I thought it would be.

      I also don’t think Pelias was necessarily evil either but there was something definitely wrong with him.

      However bathing your hands in the blood of the innocent to avoid the consequences of evil magic sounds… evil. Also from a game perspective it rewards the player character for casting dark spells. He can avoid the consequences of dark magic if he performs dark actions. Maybe a mechanic can exist but evil keeping evil at bay sounds wrong to me.

      1. Oh no that was pretty much my point.
        Performing dark magic through dark actions (like using the blood of the innocent) makes it safer but makes you increasingly evil, so it invites corruption of the soul rather than potential corruption of the body (through built-in mishap chances and such).

        Which could also add an interesting element between players in the party. “Well, all these sacrifices and pacts have been pretty helpful, but if he keeps it up he’s definitely going to become evil and insane, maybe we should put down this weaver of the dark arts while we’re still able…”

        And definitely there was something wrong with Pelias, but again that’s what I mean by there being potential consequences but not necessarily just becoming evil.
        Using magic in itself could have chances of backfires and side-effects, where parts of you become something other, you appear differently to different beings (like the snake shitting itself when it saw Pelias), your mind goes wandering through the cosmos, so on and so forth.
        But, the player has the choice of performing magic in dark ways, or making pacts with dark gods for talismans (like a ring from Set), which makes it more reliable, but is a definite path to evil.

        Really you probably don’t even need to divide spells up, you could simply give the magic system itself the chance of mishaps and side-effects every time it’s used, but maybe make the chances higher for some spells than others.
        I like sorcery being scary, I just don’t like it as a flat “you will be evil”, make it a player choice of becoming evil through their actions.

        Pelias raised the dead but he didn’t seem evil while he was doing it, he seemed like he went mildly insane.

      2. “Well, all these sacrifices and pacts have been pretty helpful, but if he keeps it up he’s definitely going to become evil and insane, maybe we should put down this weaver of the dark arts while we’re still able…”


  3. Pelias casually animated a corpse to get a door unlocked, and later won a staring contest with a giant snake-thing because it could see the soul concealed beneath his unassuming form. I suppose that latter one could imply “powerful” rather than “evil,” but still, Hyborian Age sorcerers are *messed up* from the viewpoint of normal people, and Pelias is the perfect example of that applying even to ones who are on your side.

  4. Exactly. I used the word “evil” as a placeholder because I’m still not sure exactly how I want to refer to it. Thanks for the comment Stacy and I hope you keep reading.

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