On Magic Rules

There is plenty discussion on KULT groups I frequent about magic. How does it work? How to interpret divinity? Where are the other magician archetypes (the death magician was a stretch goal to begin with, live with it)? Lots of people hoping to find more mechanical support for using magic in the game.

I have opinions on this. Hi, Kultists. I was going to write this as a chat on the KULT – Elysium Discord server, but it would be too long, so here it goes.

A thought struck me on the idea of mechanically distinct ways to practice magic. This is something which is brought up now and again, the idea that the game should propose some grouping of magical thought and provide mechanically distinct features to it. Lists of rituals to perform based on school of magic, cultural significance, or what have you. Different rules for performing rituals depending on whether they involve blood sacrifice, multiple people, or some other categorization. I dislike this notion entirely. To some extent, it might be inevitable, but we should be careful with applying too much context to storytelling rules.

I write here some short examples to make my point.

  • Mikael is running out of options. The demon terrorizing his parents keeps him out of their house, even their neighborhood. After a long night of meditation and fasting, he rolls up the windows to his car, lights fire to an entire basket of herbs in the passenger seat, and drives straight through his parents’ garage door. Stoned out of his mind, but finally inside the demon’s domain.
  • At full moon’s rise, the transformation completes. They would walk like women, and fly like beasts. A month they had prepared, drinking only discharge and wine. The entire coven walks to the top of the hill, and bathed in moonlight thank Diana with voice and flesh until their songs turn to roars and new flesh grows.
  • Questionable choices lead to questionable outcomes, and the sub-basement of a Las Vegas casino was definitely questionable. The impatient nepharite leaves Erin’s chamber after lashing her into a red mess, and she knows it won’t be long before it returns. Thankfully, the blood makes excellent paint. She recalls the casino, where she came from, where she should be, winning her money back, away from this hell, and soon she sits as she were amidst the one-armed bandits. Bloody, naked, but alive.

(Cool stories, Krae)
Thanks! Now let’s look at the examples. Each describes something akin to a magic ritual, as conceptualized by KULT. The magician wants something to happen, they take the necessary steps to invoke magic, and something happens. There is sacrifice, transgression, intent, and intended symbolic imagery.

So, what school of magic is each of these examples? KULT, as you may know, has five magic schools: Death, Dream, Passion, Time & Space, Madness. I love and respect these schools, but they are imperfect, incomplete, and should not be considered prescriptive. By design, really. So, for the question: Do you have a clear answer? Let’s see mine! Mikael is doing either death magic or dream magic, depending on the nature of the demon and his dysfunctional relationship with his parents. The coven seems clearly in the spirit of Passion magic, but with some setting changes it becomes a Madness ritual right quick. As for Erin, Death seems the correct school but I prefer Time & Space due to the very specific visual -> effect relationship. I have a feeling she travels this way with regular paint.

So what? Well, I point this out, because it cuts to the chase of the problem with mechanical distinctness for magic. Here are three examples of magic ritual as it might appear in KULT: Divinity Lost, and the person who wrote them can’t even categorize them into one of the setting’s own schools of magic. The KULT core book is chock full of examples like the ones above, each unique and exciting and very few trying to neatly categorize themselves. If we cannot categorize these events as they play out in the fiction, and the categorization is mechanically relevant, how are we meant to apply the necessary rules to represent them? There are answers to this, but for now, they are irrelevant. Talk to me if you care a lot about that!

The problem is more multi-faceted than that, though. Imagine, if you will, a ruleset wherein we categorize magic based on type of sacrifice. Body fluids, pain, memories, freedom, and so on. What happens to sacrifices which do not neatly fit into these categories? Or are we to only conceive of magic which can neatly fit into such a category? These are helpful prompts to use when considering sacrifice, but the list is not exhaustive. Rules which categorize such things will feel like a contrivance, and instead of expanding the game experience only serve to limit it. They also invite incuriosity, asking people to fit their ideas into boxes rather than understand topics on their own terms.

I was going to write a bit here also about using the rules to distinguish magicians based on cultural factors, but I think I’ll sit here all night if I get into that. Don’t do that, there are more bad outcomes than good ones.

So, what then? No rules for magic?

The game already has rules for magic. Perform a Ritual. It is, due to the aforementioned stretch goal nature of that section, mechanically tied to the Death Magician. Surely one can conceive of ways to use it outside of that context. Perform a Ritual is good. Not perfect, but good, and if you apply the creative freedom allowed you by the Powered by the Apocalypse design, it can be utilized in most situations dealing with magic ritual. Explain what you intend to do. The GM tells you what you need to proceed. Make a sacrifice. Remember that the moves are triggered by taking action in the fiction, which means that these prompts are creative in nature and should be an extension of the conversation.

  • What do you intend to do: I want to get myself into my parents’ house. Pretty sure my car can get through their garage door, if I can just get that far.
  • The GM tells you what you need: You will need to completely cleanse yourself, as always, and you know that the demon has placed intense psychic wards. You might die if you don’t disconnect from it. Use the big basket inside the car.
  • Make a sacrifice: The big basket in the car? That’s not just expensive, but will I even be conscious from hotboxing that? I don’t know if my brain will be the same after this.

The options on the move are are mostly good, but there is a lot of room for play there. I might see Enlightened Advantages modify it further… However, it provides enough to formulate the end results of the ritual. Are you able to affect other planes of existence? Can you maintain the situation? Is everything going according to plan? Great questions, the answer to each informing the player and GM of what should come next. The exciting thing, of course, is that the options not chosen imply that something is missing. No ritual is perfect, and even success invites danger. Deciding outcomes for this roll provides immediate and impactful feedback both to the player and the GM about how the story continues. Your matron might have turned you into a beautiful bat monster, but now you’re not sure when you will become human again. The progression of narrative is central, not the specifics of death magic (even though this is the Death Magician’s move) or the type of sacrifice performed. Perform a Ritual asks the magician to decide what she wants to do, and then asks what compromises she’s willing to make for it. The GM listens to her answers, and brings promised glory and misery in return. What more can one ask for?

It isn’t comprehensive. Perform a Ritual is just that, ritual, and while this is the common focus in KULT, there could certainly be room for something to capture more extemporaneous and sudden magic, but the point now should hopefully be made. The rules of roleplaying games work best when they capture what is important about the thing they seek to describe. When performing a ritual, it isn’t the cultural touchstones which make it up or the broad thematic description of its magic that matters to the rules. The rules move the story forward based on action and result. I think this is something that must be acknowledged and embraced, if we are to have more productive conversations about providing rules on magic for KULT. Throwing more numbers and dice rolls at things is not how one improves this game.

2 thoughts on “On Magic Rules

    1. Thank you! I always have too many writing projects on my plate, but I assure you there will be more on the blog this year. 😀 One way or another.

      Like

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