Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Magic School Campaign Inspirational Material: Harry Potter Series

Universal Studios Picture

For this series, I am going to cover various novels, shows, movies, role-playing supplements and other media for ideas and tricks to add to one's magic school campaign.  And what better fictional world to start with than the most iconic and well-known series?  Harry Potter is a very good series because many people, gamers and non-gamers alike, are familiar with the source material and the use of a similar backdrop can help ease players into your setting.  Thriving fan communities on the Internet for children and adults alike mean that plenty of information about the series is available at one's fingertips.  On the other hand, its familiarity can be a double-edged sword, in that some players might not appreciate it if your setting feels too unoriginal or copying too much.  There's a difference between a teacher who's a hard-nosed disciplinarian, and one who copies Professor Snape's mannerisms down to a tee!

A Hidden World

The Harry Potter series takes place in our own modern society, albeit one with a secret community known as the Wizarding World.  Those who cannot cast magic are known as Muggles, and are separated from the magical communities via a series of spells meant to alter perception, erase memories, and the like along with general secrecy.  Witches and wizards learn magic through training and study, but the gift to be able to do it at all is an inborn trait which can never be learned by Muggles.  Magic is an all-purpose power which acts more or less as a substitute for modern technology such as light generation charms, travel by teleportation or broomstick, and of course offensive spells such as the summoning of a patronus (a kind of guardian spirit) or the forbidden killing curse.

Campaign Ideas: Even beyond the marvelous school of Hogwarts, magic was omnipresent.  It wasn't out of place to see schoolchildren eating animated chocolate frogs on the train to school, nor for large sports stadiums to hold Quidditch tournaments between international teams.  Perhaps your magic school campaign takes place in a setting where the benefits of magic spread across all social strata.  The local blacksmith uses minor repairing spells to supplement his work, while village militias stock their arsenals with healing potions and silver and cold iron weaponry.

It can get easy to get carried away with this, and if magic seems too omnipresent the PCs might not feel so special in comparison.  To rectify this, have the majority population of spellcasters know magic focused for their trade and little beyond that.  Another idea is to borrow the concept of reusable cantrips from games such as Pathfinder and 5th Edition D&D, and hand out a few to most NPCs.  That way, the more powerful magic of Vancian casting can remain within the hands of important characters with class levels.

Hidden Portraits and Passages

Hogwarts' full environs have not been entirely mapped out in the series, and in virtually all of the books Harry and his friends utilized many secret tunnels to get around the school.  One such pathway in the Chamber of Secrets leads to the lair of the vicious basilisk.  Another was the Room of Requirement in the Order of the Phoenix, which would appear people in an hour of greatest need and was used for the clandestine training of Dumbledore's Army.  And even the very environment itself has a tendency to change, like stairs spanning several floors moving to other doorways of their own accord!

Campaign Ideas: In the creation of your own magic school, you should draw out a rough draft of a map.  Leave plenty of empty rooms and space so you can develop rooms and places as the need arises over the course of the campaign.  Consider the benefits of illusion magic and spells such as Magic Aura and Detect Secret Doors.  Think of the original purposes for secret rooms and passages in the school's original design: that tunnel leading out of the school and into that unassuming shop might have once been used to smuggle people into or out of the academy.  That sealed door might hold a vicious monster trapped in stasis.  Rival houses might have secret passwords to get into their dorms.

Death, Power, and Limitations

In spite of its great power, magic can only do so much.  Wizards need wands to focus their magic into reliable spells (wandless magic is possible, but often so hard and unreliable most don't bother using it).  Magic cannot bring the dead back to life.  The Rule of Conjuration makes it such that items made out of thin air tend to better fit general uses than specific ones, and Gamp's Law makes it such that food cannot be made out of nothing (along with four other Principal Exemptions).

Although most fantasy worlds have some sort of principal laws governing magic, the world of Harry Potter's is interesting due to the fact that it cannot master death itself; even spells which can extend one's lifespan come at a cost.  The inability to spontaneously create food is another one, as it would otherwise eliminate a primary need for living beings.

Campaign Ideas: The limitations of magic in OSR games tend to be more broad than Harry Potter's.  The granting of wishes, the possibility of continual energy sources, and resurrection magic are some of the greatest powers and thus the ones most capable of changing society.

And the disparity climbs even farther in Pathfinder.  Although OSR games tend to have binary either/or conditions for things such as material components, spell slots, and casting in armor, most of these limitations are done away with or can be circumvented in Pathfinder.  Eschew Materials, reducing Arcane Spell Failure, and leaving spell slots open to fill in with spells later that day are valid tactics.

In comparison to most fictional fantasy worlds, D&D mages tend to be broad, unlimited, and multi-disciplined in how they can use their magic.  The imposition of limitations should be done so as to not be too harsh and ruin the player's fun, but be able to reign in some of the more extreme shenanigans.  Perhaps magical effects cannot be permanent or retained indefinitely, and thus require the expenditure of ritual energy and material sacrifices?  Maybe spell energy's principally tied to the planes or the land itself, and overuse can drain the land of future spell use.  Or maybe certain materials are strongly anti-magical in nature, and thus can be used to block against scrying and other useful applications of spell energy.

Thanks: the Harry Potter Wiki was instrumental in helping me search for and remember events from the series.

Harry Potter is a long and popular enough series that I could go on, but right now I feel that this post is long enough, and to move on to other forms of lesser-known media for the time being to mine for inspirational material.