Thursday, March 24, 2016

Living Spells

This is a preliminary first draft on a setting and system idea in response to someone on the Fate Core community suggesting that they'd like to hear more about this particular setting. There is a short story which features the example character (though he's not named anywhere) and his spirits and spells, but I'm still thinking of selling or publishing that somewhere. This is the work of about five hours and is thus very raw and has had little to no editing. I am mostly putting it up for ease of linkage and reference for people interested.

Magic has long been possible. Anybody with the right training may perform a ritual either alone or in cooperation with others in order to create an effect. This has always been something that needed to be handled carefully. Using magic too much to ensure good hunts or harvests would eventually kill the soil and destroy the local game. Something always had to be given to renew what was taken or else there would be nothing left to take. Not that farming and hunting were the only applications of ancient magic, of course, but they were, and still are, among the most common. 

There have always been people with a gift for magic as well. People with a special talent for warping reality in specific ways. People with strength that balks at the laws of physics, skin impenetrable to most weapons, ability to look into the minds of others and many other powers besides. And people have always been jealous of these individuals who could, with a thought and wave of their hand do what took other men hours of chanting and focus to accomplish. Even now, when spellcraft is a long tradition, is this true because many do not want to take the time for the intense study that spellcraft asks of them. They just want the power and the life-span that sometimes goes with it.

Nobody really knows when spellcraft was first practiced. It predates the written human histories we know of. We do know that there were civilizations before our own that also learned this craft. Different myths speak of different sources. Some point to Odin giving up his eye. Some speak of Prometheus stealing fire. Others talk about eating of the Tree of Knowledge or the Immortal Peaches. Regardless, at some point, humanity learned about spellcraft whether it was some wise shaman or a being from pre-human civilizations that taught them is immaterial.

The problem with being able to do what someone born or created with a gift can do is that warping reality requires an immense amount of focus and attention to detail that you just can’t do in a short time if it isn’t hard-wired into your soul and instinct. Spell-crafting solved that problem by performing a ritual to hard-wire the use of a power into a person’s soul. Instead of performing a ritual and sending the effect out into the air instantly, the ritual was used to dedicate a part of the person to that task. And then they could call upon that task whenever they liked and the details and directions would be handled by the embedded instructions.

But souls grow and they don’t grow in neat and easy paths that work around these hard-wired instructions, these spells. Normally, this growth is partially released into the world as the man or woman puts more of themselves into the things they focus on. Other times, they take into themselves fragments of other people’s souls who consider them important. It goes into their art, their work, their lovers, their children, their countries, their enemies, their friends and the world itself. In the process of this growth, the spells warp and bend and twist, but the spellcraft keeps it from breaking off, holding it to the caster well past the time most fragments would have split off into the world. Eventually, the spell becomes something more than just a deliberately shaped piece of the caster’s soul and no amount of spellcraft can hold it. When this happens, it is not a fragment but a whole entity of its own.

There is a discernible progression in the development of a spell into a being. Initially, spells are formless beyond what is absolutely necessary for the performance of their task. As more of the caster’s imagination spurs the growth of the parts of his soul that make up the spell, the spell becomes more complex. The caster begins to subconsciously allow the spell more autonomy and trusts it to complete its task without the need of conscious watching.

Eventually, the spell becomes an elemental and takes a discernible form, usually that of an animal but sometimes a tool or something more esoteric like a floating eye. Now the spell begins to act less like a remote controlled drone and more like a pet or companion, but it remains an extension of the caster. However, the adoption of a discernible form is the beginning of the caster’s first perception of a distinction between themselves and the elemental. It becomes harder to prevent the imagination from imparting more complexity and personality to the elemental.

The form of the elemental continues to change and most casters begin to anthropomorphize it so that starts becoming more human-like. The progression of the caster’s perception of the elemental as an autonomous animal progresses toward a perception of a more humanoid servant and when the first words are spoken, the elemental has become a spirit. Now it is capable of much more difficult and complex decisions. It quickly becomes able to communicate at a level similar to that of the person it is still an extension of. It is capable of even more tasks than it became able to perform as an elemental, including representing its caster as a messenger.

Then something happens, the exact trigger is hard to pinpoint and seems to be different from being to being, and the spirit separates from its creator. The ephemeral soul-stuff becomes flesh and blood. The simulated personality and quirks become true emotions. All the pain and joy of a living, independent being suddenly comes to the spirit and they become a being. The caster always knows when this happens as they feel a large piece of themselves suddenly split off. If the spirit had not been summoned into physical form when this occurs, then it manifests automatically and will never again become an immaterial presence. These new beings are not always aware of what has happened. Some are astounded to be told that they’re no longer a spirit.

Beings are capable of many supernatural things as they were created to be, but upon their newly found state of real life they lose a lot of their power and control and have to rebuild it over time. No longer can they borrow the disconnected unconscious and subconscious will of their creator. They are on their own, at least partially.

Not all spirits become beings, nor, for that matter, do all elementals become spirits or all spells become elementals. Some spells progress rapidly through the stages. Others will last for the entire life of their caster before disappearing along with their creators. There are some who practice spell-craft which deliberately collapse any spell that reaches a certain point so that it will not develop into something else. In some cases, the spell, elemental or spirit will live on past their creator. Perhaps they had been manifested when the caster died and can no longer un-manifest but simply exist as an automaton performing the task and orders it was last given. Occasionally these left over spells garner enough soul fragments to become a being in and of themselves.

Over time, advances in both science and magic have resulted in greater efficiency and versatility without needing spells or any gifts, however, they continue to be a useful and reliable tool. In modern times, different cultures have different laws regarding beings. Some consider them abominations and tools that have become useless, others accord them the same rights as humans and others worship them as the true expression of a human soul.

Multiple people can be involved in creating a single spell etched across multiple souls. This can create some very powerful spells which can be invoked in whole or in part. Some think creating a spell across multiple souls hastens the progression to a being, others think that it slows the process down since the spell doesn’t always have access to all of itself. In any case, if one of the crafters whose soul holds part of the complete spell dies then that part remains either summoned or unsummoned depending on its state when the crafter died. For example, Yuki-Onna was a spell originally created to protect a fortress from attack. Either it did not work and the attackers succeeded or the spell went awry and killed everyone. Yuki herself does not remember clearly since she did not progress to elemental, spirit and then being until long after her initial creators had died. She has vague sort of half-memories of that time.

A spell can be destroyed by other magics, elementals and spirits can be killed by injury, beings suffer much the same health issues that naturally born humans do though usually live for much longer, most at least live to two-hundred barring injury or disease but some rare beings have years counted in the thousands. Gifted humans and magicians similarly obtain long lifespans at times.

Creating a Spell

The first step to creating a spell is creating the formula and etching it into your own soul. This requires a challenge of Lore, Craft and Will.

The Lore roll represents the spell-crafter’s understanding of the magical theories that go into the creation of a ritual as well as what goes into the practice of etching a hard-wired spell into your soul. Someone with a high degree of understanding of the theories will allow for ignoring more of the laws of physics. Creating a fire that can hang in mid-air and does not require fuel or oxygen, for example, is more difficult than creating a fire-spell which ignites a piece of fuel.

The Craft roll represents the spell-crafter’s ability to apply the practices and procedures of spell-craft. Someone who is careful and attentive to their craft will create a spell that is easier to control and less likely to go off the rails. For example, a fireball spell that is well-crafted will usually stick to a well-defined and controlled area and be less likely to hit unintended targets while a more poorly crafted fireball will have an unpredictable area that splashes around and possibly acts more like a natural fireball of some kind.

The Will roll represents the spell-crafter’s focus and concentration during the process and the ability to keep their imaginations and emotions under control. Someone who keeps their focus in tight control while etching the spell on their soul can create a spell that is almost entirely without personality and is simply a tool, or they might deliberately embed some part of their nature into it. For example, a crafter might decide to embed his sense of duty or valor into a spell so that it will never harm bystanders. Another might try to embed their cruelty so that it would cause its harm as sadistically as possible. A crafter with less control will create spells that are quirkier with much more in the way of unintended behaviors.

The Lore roll should represent at least two days of research and theory-crafting. The Craft roll should represent at least one full day of arranging the ritual space and performing the procedure of manifesting and etching a piece of his own soul. The Will roll should represent the last few minutes of the ritual when the spell is finally completed. If the GM wants to allow players to Create Advantages on the situation to improve their chances, then it is advised to extend some of these times.

At the end of the spell, the GM and the player agree on a High Concept and a Trouble for the spell based on the results. The player will choose one of the two and the GM will choose the other. The player may veto or alter a particular Aspect by spending a Fate point. The GM, of course, has their normal veto powers. When both sides are happy with the resultant High Concept and Trouble, the spell is complete.

Agent Michael Touka is an investigator for the FBI and makes use of spells fairly regularly. He wants to craft a spell used to subdue opponents into sleep. He spends the two days performing the necessary research and gets a Tie result. Satisfied with that, he then spends the time necessary to put the ritual together and begins to perform it. He rolls a success with style here. Finally, in the last part of the ritual, he rolls Will to make sure the spell is a useful tool. He does roll a success here but the GM Compels his Son of Yuki-Onna Aspect noting that Michael thinks of all of his spells as potential children and a bit of his emotions get into the spell. Michael chooses the High Concept Spell of Deep Slumber the GM accepts that and gives the Trouble A Momentary Sting noting that targets of the spell will feel a stinging sensation when they are hit with it. Michael accepts that.

To cast a spell requires a Will roll used to Create an Advantage. The spell always manifests with one Free Invoke on the High Concept and one Free Compel on the Trouble. Additional affects depend on the action roll.
·         Fail – The Trouble receives two Free Compels.
·         Tie – A Boost occurs that works against the Caster.
·         Success – As normal.
·         Success with Style – The High Concept receives two free Invokes or else the caster gains a separate Boost related to their success.

Once this is done, the spell is rolled to see how effective it is. This roll has a bonus equal to +2 per free Invoke gained. The caster may also spend Fate Points on the spell’s Aspect or on their own Aspects if they are fitting. These can add more bonuses to the rolls or add effects to the situation.

Michael wants to cast his sleep spell to put a cult leader to sleep and rolls his Will. He unfortunately has bad luck and rolls very low failing the spell-casting. Rather than spend a Fate Point to reroll, he decides to save those for making sure the spell works. The GM holds off stating what he does with his Compels for the moment. The Spell of Deep Slumber has one Free Invoke for a +2 roll, Michael spends a Fate-Point to further invoke the Aspect for a +4 and another Fate Point on his An Arrest is Preferable to a Funeral Aspect to increase that to +6. The spell rolls a +6 attack against the Cult Leader’s Will of +3. With an excellent roll, Michael deals 9 Stress and the Cult Leader is unable to reduce it all and thus falls unconscious. However, the GM declares that before the sleep takes effect, the Cult Leader swaps at his neck when he felt the sting and calls his Followers to the Alert as one Compel and manages to take one more action before he falls asleep. In so doing, he intones a chant along with many of his other followers. Just before he falls asleep, a horrible monster of a guardian spirit manifests with the intention of eliminating the enemies of the cult.

Over time, spells begin to grow and develop in complexity and personality as the parts of the caster’s soul upon which they are etched grow and change. Every time the spell is cast, the caster will tend to try to limit the impact of the Trouble and improve the effectiveness of the High Concept. In other cases, they will try to stretch the use of the spell into situations it wasn’t originally intended for but are related to its nature somehow. There are a couple of ways to handle this.

The first way is for the GM to simply Compel the Aspect of the Spell so that it advances to an Elemental when they think it is a narratively appropriate time. The second is more mechanically involved but may result in a more unexpected point of advance.

Whenever the player casts the spell with a new twist, the GM should roll an “attack” against the character’s Will. This Attack will have a bonus based on how many new behaviors or patterns have been added on to the original spell. When this attack succeeds, it deals Stress to a track for the spell which is equivalent to the caster’s Mental Stress track. This track never empties and has no consequences. Once the track is “Taken Out” the spell becomes an elemental.

Once a spell has graduated to being an elemental, it takes on a definitive physical form and both its High Concept and Trouble change to relate to its new, more complicated nature. Typically, the High Concept now relates to its physical form. A third Aspect, usually related to either a personality trait or the original task it was created for, is also made.

The casting where it successfully evolves works as normal but the next time it is called, it will be as an elemental. The caster will know this as the usually indistinct ephemeral cloud of soul-stuff will have a recognizable shape to it by the time it vanishes and the caster may find themselves referring to the spell as a particular animal or tool.

Michael casts his sleep spell again, this time wanting the spell to wait until the target is alone to strike so he doesn’t have to deal with a sudden alert. He is successful and the GM quietly rolls a +1 Attack against Michael’s +2 Will but deals no stress.

The next operation, Michael casts the spell again in a way so that it will wait around a door knob and strike the first person to use it. While the casting to delay until the target was alone is not used, this has now created two changes of behavior to the spell and it now rolls a +2 Attack and deals 1 Stress. He continues to use the door knob trick without initiating attacks because this isn’t a new thing anymore.

Later he decides to make use of the Trouble by directing the spell so it seems to come from a different direction, hoping that the target will send the other bad guys in the wrong direction away from him. This is a third behavior add and the spell now rolls at a +3. Finally, Michael is unaware that the Spell’s Stress track is filled and again uses the door knob trick, this would normally not produce a roll since he’s done that before, but he wants to make sure that the spell hits the first criminal to use the door and not a random janitor as it did last time. This is a +4 attack and this time the attack “takes out” track.

The GM suggests changing the High Concept to An Eight-Legged Elemental and the Trouble as A Small Bite for the Prey. For the physical form’s Aspect, they agree on Sleep follows Stalking to represent both the elemental’s hunting personality and the nature of its venom.

Among other things, this means that someone wearing armor will be harder for the spider to bite and afflict with its sleep.

Once a spell has become an elemental, it gains a Health Stress Track and can be killed by injury. It starts with a track of 2. If killed, it can no longer be manifested and the caster will have to start again from the point of crafting a spell formulae and etching it into his or her soul.

On each casting, the elemental can use three skills chosen by the caster. One of them will be at +2 and two at +1. If Physique is one of these skills, it will increase the elemental’s health. Only one of these skills can have a rating higher than that of the same skill possessed by the caster. The elemental can still get bonuses from free Invokes and Fate Points but as it is likely intended to remain out longer, these will be less likely to be used all in the first strike.

Now an elemental, the caster must determine a task for the elemental using Create an Advantage. This creates an Aspect used to determine how the elemental might behave. The elemental does not itself actually gain a turn in the exchange but serves as a permission for the caster to attack through it, aid an ally, spend Fate Points to affect something in a zone they wouldn’t normally be able to affect and other such things. However, the character can forgo their own character’s action in order to perform an action from the elemental’s position using the elemental’s skills (which are often going to be less effective version of the character’s skills).

Michael is outside a room where a drunken dealer in weaponized rituals has taken his own kid hostage to keep the FBI from arresting him. He does not have a line of sight on the criminal and even if he did, the guy is using a kid as a shield. However, he does have Yellow Spider summoned and forgoes his own roll to have the spider sneak into the room through the door. His Stealth is +3 but the spider can only use it at +2 as that is the skill most connected to its task this time. He uses one of his Free Invokes from casting the elemental to increase its stealth roll based on the small size of the spider to get it into position. Since the Spider is now already in the thug’s zone and has succeeded its stealth, Michael could forgo another exchange and just have the spider bite. He instead chooses to Create an Advantage by talking at the thug the GM and players meanwhile imagine Yellow Spider crawling along the floor quietly and then up the bookshelf behind the man. With the third exchange he opts to have the spider prepare its leap setting up another Create an Advantage. Within the fiction, Michael is still talking, but the focus is now on the elemental’s preparation. Before the fourth exchange, one of Michael’s team-members, the sniper Myra Snart, gets a bit antsy and decides he has a good shot at the bad guy. Normally, only the Advantage that Michael set up from talking would let him aid this action, however, since they’ve set up the spider getting into position, he determines that Yellow Spider chooses the same moment to strike (it’s a bit eager itself) and grants Myra the use of the Free Invokes he’s accumulated to that point. The shot is a resounding success and between the GM and Myra they decide that Yellow Spider jumped to bite the arms dealer, startling him enough to shove the hostage out of the way and leaving him open to a clear shot from Myra who initially wants the shot to be a non-lethal disabling shot but is then the GM compels her Hates Child Abusers Aspect and suggests that a blow to the heart wouldn’t be looked at badly in this case. So the arms dealer is dead and Michael’s case hits a bit of a road block as the information dies with the thug.

The elemental can perform any task which it’s form and other Aspects make it suitable for. Once again, anything outside of its past experience will produce an attack against the casters Will and the Stress for this attack will strike a newly empty Stress Track equal to the caster’s Mental Stress+1. This time, however, the track will have a Minor and Severe consequence which are only taken if it has no choice other than being taken out. The Minor consequence will represent an acquired human-like behavioral quirk while they Severe will present a change in physical form that brings it closer to human form (or at least the native form of the caster). Once again, this Stress track does not recover and once “Taken Out” the Elemental begins to speak.

As before, the casting that causes the transition goes as normal except that the elemental will speak and the next time it will be summoned as a human-like spirit. (note, spirits grow more human-like because they’re growing to be like their creator, non-human casters would create non-human seeming spirits)

Once again, the Aspects change to reflect what will be the new form. In addition, a fourth Aspect is added this can represent either specific details of their abilities so that the High-Concept and Trouble can be simpler or it can represent emergent personalities.

Ever since the Yellow Spider, as Michael calls his Eight-Legged Elemental, evolved (a term recently popularized by a kid’s video game) he has used it for a number of other tasks including scouting and the placing of silken trip-wires. Between the applications of webbing and finding ways for it to report findings, he has added five new tasks for the spider. It has begun to display a reluctance to performing any task that doesn’t involve attacking enemies (minor consequence “Purposed to Hunt”) and has also gotten larger and a propensity for standing on its back most two legs and listening with its other legs either crossed or to its side like a soldier listening to a commander. He is expecting it to advance to spirit fairly soon and after his last casting, the spider reports to him its findings by speaking in addition to spinning a web-report.

The Aspects change again. Now the High Concept is Ninja Spider Spirit, the Trouble has become Intent on Stalking Prey. For the other two Aspects they choose Bandolier of Knives and Six Arms to Use Them as well as Toxins and Threads Aplenty. Michael decides to give the spirit a name at this point and goes with the rather unimaginative Gumo (Spider). His prior “spirits” turned daughters Suzume (sparrow) and Mukade (centipede) roll their eyes along with his mother Yuki-Onna.
Among other things, the conversion of her bite and webbing to coherent tools and equipment leaves Gumo open to running out of ammo and being disarmed, even if it is spirit stuff.

Spirits act more or less like elementals save increase the intelligence and autonomy to a degree similar to an unreasonably loyal human servant. Other than that, they are still not autonomous and act in a manner similar to the elementals basically as an extension of the caster’s presence. The Spirits now gain the benefit of six skills, one at +3, two at +2 and three at +1 and two of these may be higher than the caster’s own rating.

Unlike elementals and spells, spirits begin to grow and change every time they are exposed to something that would normally invoke emotions. The bonus to the attack roll increases with each new emotion that could be potentially stirred. They have the same Stress track based on the caster’s Mental Stress+2 and has a full complement of consequences, which represent the acquisition of more quirks relating to emerging emotions and independent existence. Once again, these tracks and consequences never clear out and once taken out, the spirit has become a being. Beings are entirely independent NPCs (unless some player wants to take them over as a new character) and the caster loses all direct control over them.

Once a spirit becomes a being they become flesh and blood with all the limits and benefits that entails. If they were injured before the transition, the ectoplasm floating out of their injuries suddenly turns to blood and they become vulnerable to bleeding problems. Pain also suddenly becomes a reality. Methods meant to repair injured spirits aren’t effective and a medical expert needs to be called. Fortunately, transitions can be triggered by anything that could be emotional, not just trauma and battle.

Earlier in the night, the GM used a Compel to cause Michael’s go-to scouting spirit, Karasu, to become a being. Not wanting to endanger what he considered a new-born, Michael called his mother to come and take a protesting Karasu off site and he cast Gumo to fill in as a scout despite the fact that she’s generally a bit trigger happy. In the course of the operation, Gumo’s leg is injured and afterwards she is sitting down while an ephemeral expert patches her up and Michael gives his after action report. One of the other players decides to play a joke and spend a Fate Point to compel the fact that it’s Christmas in-game to have a bunch of kids having a snowball fight nearby the scene of cops and the like. Through random luck, the GM determines that a snowball hits Gumo who is having her first exposure to childish game-play. The resultant roll on her transition stress results her becoming a being. She suddenly laughs very joyfully and then starts screaming in pain as her injuries hit her resulting in the characters having to send her to the hospital. Now Michael has lost both his current spirits to being NPCs he won’t risk in combat and also had a Flying Electric Eel die in the same fight. Now he’s left with a spell for counting people and a snake elemental whose original purpose was mapping. Hopefully he’ll be able to spend a week creating some new spells before the pre-human worshipping cult manufactures a few psychotic demons.

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