Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Magic School Campaigns by System and Setting: Scarlet Heroes


Artwork by Eric Lofgren

Back in May 2013, Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine Games published a series of free supplements for his Red Tide Campaign Setting known as Black Streams.  One of them, Solo Heroes, proved to be an incredibly popular pick.  It dealt with the mechanical aspects of how to run a game of one DM, one PC in a way which wouldn't break the game or result in one-sided battles.  More than that, the underlying math largely worked, and it was compatible with most existing B/X D&D and retroclone adventures.

One year and one Kickstarter later, Crawford expanded the concept into a full-fledged OSR game of its own, complete with its own setting, bestiary, DMing advice, and even rules for true "solo gaming" where you can play a Scarlet Heroes game with nobody but yourself.

Mechanical Considerations

Scarlet Heroes works very well for a magic school campaign, in that the character creation method is very forgiving for a player willing to go against type.  Unlike other retroclones, ability scores are generated using 4d6 drop the lowest, assign the results to scores of your choice.  Additionally, results where the highest score is below 16 allows the player to bump an ability of their choice to 16.

Race is separate from class, allowing for halfling mages, dwarven clerics, and the like.  Racial abilities are turned into "traits" which are a simplified pseudo-skill system which cover things like "acrobat, friend to secret society, vibrant health" meant to provide open-ended bonuses to rolls where they can be a factor.

What's more, a PC is not locked into their class, and can forestall gaining an additional level in their existing class upon leveling up in lieu of taking a level in a new one!  A 4th-level Magic-User may pick up a 1st level in Fighter to gain increased damage with weapons and hit points, or a Cleric may balance out levels with Magic-User to become adept in both arcane and divine spells.

Unorthodox Races: By seeking an alternate to the race-as-class system and boiling down racial features to pseudo-skill traits, Scarlet Heroes allows for the easy creation of new races and the implementation of existing ones.  Generally speaking, humans gain 3 trait points to spend as they wish, while non-humans gain 1 trait point to spend as they wish plus 1 trait point in a pre-determined skill reflecting the races' innate abilities.  Generally speaking the latter should be their most iconic feature and impossible for other races to take as a trait.

House Rule: Let's say we wanted to turn the Serpent Folk, a classic sword-and-sorcery staple, into a race.  As these ancient reptilians have a renowned ability to take the shape of humanoids, we'll give them 1 trait point in "Magical Visage," reflecting their keen ability to appear like a normal human and hide their true nature.  To balance this ability, we'll make any attempts to disguise themselves as a specific human require a skill check (which the 1 trait point applies as a bonus to).  Other than this, Serpent Folk gain 1 free trait point to spend as they wish.

Student Budget: Clerics are able to access potentially any class spell provided they are at a level capable of casting it, but Magic-Users aren't so lucky.  In order to add new spells to their spellbook, they must copy it from an existing spellbook or scroll or be taught by a teacher.  As even the cheapest method (scroll or spellbook-copying) takes 100 gp worth of ingredients per spell level, the GM for a Scarlet Heroes game should provide some means of spell access if they're going for a more Harry Potter vibe where the heroes aren't amassing great hoards of wealth while doing adventures at school.

House Rule: Beyond the spells a 1st-level Magic-User knows, every level gained in the class allows the PC to select two Magic-User spells of their choice to add into their spellbook, provided that they are at a level they are capable of casting.  Such knowledge represents the PC researching the accumulated lore they came across in their adventures.  As there are 50 Magic-User spells in Scarlet Heroes and this method allows them to gain 23 spells at most by 10th level, this is a reasonable value.

Naturally, Magic-User PCs are more than free to add spells they find as a result of scrolls and spellbooks borrowed/stolen, and favors gained from fellow sorcerers.

Arcane Lore: The creation of magic items and copying spells are expensive endeavors.  If sitting on literal piles of gold feels unseemly, the GM can substitute a portion of treasures in exchange for "Arcane Lore."  This may be in addition to or separate from the Student Budget houserule above.  Generally speaking, Arcane Lore is pseudo-treasure representing the scribbled writings of cultists, esoteric ingredients from unnatural beasts, mind-melded knowledge from otherworldly entities and the like which grant a spellcaster ability to create magic items and learn new spells.  They can range from research notes and insight-producing consumables, the latent power of a specific area (where the ambient energy is used by magical artisans while building/researching there), and strange ingredients.

Arcane Lore is treated as individual treasure values, but can only be "spent" for the purposes of creating magic items and the learning of new spells into one's spellbook, or trading in exchange for such material.  Here are some sample lists:

Random Value:

Arcane Lore
Value
Cheap
1d6 x 20 gp
Costly
1d10 x 50 gp
Precious
2d10 x 100 gp
Priceless
1d6 x 1,000 gp
Types of Arcane Lore:

1d12
Cheap
Costly
Precious
Priceless
1
Cultist’s Scribblings
Inquisitor’s Journal
Memory-storing Crystal
Dragon’s Knowledge
2
Witch’s Herbs
Elemental Salts
Earthshield Plates
Fey’s Dreams
3
Tarot Deck
Alchemist’s Lab Materials
Meteorite Metal
Unicorn Horn
4
Crushed Moonberries
Runic Stones
Sigil-embroidered Cloth
Spirit-Possessed Mask
5
Strand of Prayer Beads
Bardic-enchanted Writings
Magical Hieroglyphs
Quill of the First Library
6
Local Lord’s Library Resources
University Library Resources
Wizard’s Library Resources
First Era Library Resources
7
Curio Shop Trinkets
 Augury Bones
Demonflesh-stitched Tome
Raw Souls
8
Weak Ley Line Location
Druidic Grove
Location with Spiritual Resonance
Geomantic Planar Crossroads
9
Household Shrine
Village Shrine
City Shrine
Holiest of Shrines
10
Gnomish Cookbook
Basilisk’s Eyes
Dragon’s Blood
Fur from the Wolf God
11
Bloodstone Crystals
Onyx Skull Gems
Leprechaun Gold
World Tree Flowers
12
Zombie gallbladder
Wight’s teeth
Bottled Nightshade Spirit
Lich’s phylactery

Sufficiently "rich" wizard PCs over time will pepper their lairs and laboratories with the flesh and bones of magical monsters, cauldrons brewing with liquid shadows, shelves lined with crystals mined from the deepest dungeon trenches, and a small library of tomes penned by archmages, legendary bards, and other folk touched by the otherworldly.  As magic doesn't abide by the laws of the mortal realm, you might allow the PC to spend the gp value of treasures for the creation of otherwise-unrelated magic items.  Perhaps the Basilisk's Eyes (normally used for petrification and stone-related rituals) and a set of Wight's Teeth can be used to make a Purifying Oil, as the inherent "curses" of such creatures' essences overwhelm any latent magical debilitations on an applied person or object.

Quest-giving NPCs might grant the heroic adventurer things like access to a legendary forge worth an arbitrary amount of gold pieces for crafting the perfect blade in lieu of raw gold.  Adding such treasures, even if they're cheap things like macabre preserved monster fetuses from a curio shop, can add a hint of eldritch wonder to one's campaign.

Magic Schools of the Isles

The Sunset Isles are home to many civilizations with their own local magic traditions.  Although the Magocracy of Tien Lung is home to the grandest (and most cruel and dangerous) arcane academies, they are by no means the only realm with wizarding schools and temple-shrines.

Altgrimmr: dwarven magic-users bear runic stones as their "spellbooks," the traditional means of storing magic in the old times.  Apparently the long-forgotten dwarven civilization of the old Isles was home to grand underground spires brimming with magical energy.  Although the Underking has yet to find a way to harness their true potential, such spires provide indispensable aid against the many underground horrors poised to invade their country.  The inevitable attraction of dwarven mages caused magic schools to sprout up around these spires, which the local communities welcome because few of their own can hope to control the spires' great magical energy.

Hohnberg Pact: a devoutly religious folk, the Makerites of Eirengard devote significant resources to the upkeep and maintenance of holy shrines, statues of saints, and other divine sites meant to honor their patron.  Even Magic-Users are expected to follow in the religious traditions, supplementing their spell invocation with holy incantations and ritual prayers.  Young men and women who show a gift for magical manifestation, be it arcane or divine, are often brought to live in theurgist chapter-houses.  Here they are raised by monks and scholars under strict moral guidance so that they use their powers for the betterment of society and the Maker's glory.  Naturally, differing religious sects have varying interpretations on the nature of arcane magic, and it's not uncommon for rival schools to develop resentment and open disputes over theological interpretations.

Magocracy of Tien Lung: In comparison to Xian, Tien Lung seems at first to be a freer society for mages to carry on their magical research and work without pesky laws and moral codes restricting them.  A Learned (the magic-users of the country) can do what they want to the common folk without much in the way of consequence, and the lore of the otherwise-forbidden Stitched Path is the most common form of sorcery at the Academy of Refulgant Wisdom.  However, this "might makes right" society causes Tien Lung's wizards to be ruthless and paranoid, and it's not uncommon for even academy students to resort to sabotage and murder to preserve their social standing and surpass their fellows.  The school's teachers often force students to pledge loyalty to them, and cloak-and-dagger espionage is often carried out by their apprentices against their rivals.  Studying to learn astrology under the Stargazer's class might preclude an apprentice from attending necromancy lessons if the two teachers despise one another.  Mages who end up multi-talented earn both great respect and even greater suspicion, as the theft of scrolls and spellbooks is almost certainly required to accomplish this feat.

Mandarinate of Xian: The remnants of the Ninefold Celestial Empire are a shadow of their former glory.  Once the province of the nobility, now old and established families cannot afford to be so picky when their heirs produce no magical talent.  The magic schools of the capital are full of heirs to old money as well as the sons and daughters of well-off "commoners" and non-Xian foreigners, whose donations are too generous to refuse or overlook on the manner of xenophobia and elitism.  There is significant wheeling and dealing by the political powers of cities to woo a promising student to work for the local government or the private mage of a noble family upon completion of their graduation.  It's not unknown for even the teachers and faculty to incorporate local errands and favors as part of an apprentice's "training."  The magic schools of Xian are some of the oldest and most well-respected, but the deep incorporation of their residents into the societal power structures affords little respite for mages who wish to remain non-political.