Dragonmarks: Magicians

It’s busy as always here. Renegade Games just announced the Scott Pilgrim game I’ve been working on, and I just got back from a trip to LA where I did some things with Maze Arcana, Saving Throw, and Geek & Sundry. I don’t have time for a big article, but an interesting question came up during the week and wanted to explore it.

Before I start I want to take a moment to address the limitations of this format. Eberron is the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast, and at the moment, only WotC can create new material for Eberron. What I can do – both here and on Manifest Zone – is to clarify the material that does exist, as well as talk about how I use it and interpret it. But I can’t create entirely new material. So for example: I’d really like to write more about the planes, but I can’t precisely because so little has been written about them – and it’s a logical subject for an official sourcebook or series of official articles at some point in the future. This is why I’m planning to post more Phoenix material here in the future. I can’t create new material for the Shadow Marches, but I can create material for the Fens in Phoenix… and give some tips as to how you could adapt that to the Shadow Marches. So keep an eye out for that. And in the meantime, the best thing you can do for Eberron is to continue to voice your interest and support – to be sure that WotC knows there is ongoing interest in new material!

This question came up in a discussion earlier this week, and it pushes a lot of my buttons, so…

I’ve always felt the sorcerer is a strange class. They don’t “understand magic,” but they can read scrolls, use wands, and have Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana in their skill list. Theoretically you could have a sorcerer with Charisma 18 and Intelligence 3, who can barely read but can still use scrolls… Finally, specifically for Eberron, do they immediately control their power or do they have the same problem as aberrant dragonmarks, where they could accidentally harm friends or family? And aren’t they persecuted as “Hidden Aberrants?”

The first issue here is how you view classes. Are classes a construct that exists in the world exactly as they exist in the rules? Does every member of a class have access to all the choices within that class? Or are they simply mechanical tools that allow us as GMs and players to model the characters we want to play? Does every sorcerer in the world recognize “I am a sorcerer?” Or is that a term we use to identify anyone using this rule set, but not something they would recognize?

To me, what’s important is to start with an idea of who a character is and what their role is in the world. Then I will apply a class and break it down from there. Each class has a core, basic mechanical principle; the sorcerer’s is I cast arcane magic from a very limited list of spells, but with greater flexibility in casting than a wizard. The wizard has to memorize spells in advance, but has the ability to use any spell they can acquire; the sorcerer is limited to a very specific set of spells. Bear in mind that arcane magic is an ambient force that exists in the world of Eberron. The power is there, and it can be manipulated by tools, by formulas, by innate talent. A sorcerer interacts with this power in a fundamentally different way than a wizard – but within that framework (spontaneous arcane casting) there’s room for a lot of different concepts and stories.

  • Harry ir’Potter. There are people in Eberron who simply have a natural potential to channel the ambient arcane power in the world, but it’s a gift that they’ll never manifest unless they learn to harness is. Arcanix seeks out these sorcerers. By studying the principles of magic and engaging in a focused curriculum, they learn to produce specific magical effects. This character possesses both Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana, reflecting their disciplined study of magic. Their spells have no particular relation to one another, because they have chosen exactly what spells they want to cast as part of their studies; they understand their talent and its limitations. These characters are called sorcerers at Arcanix, though many wizards refer to them as “living wands”, mocking their inability to master a spell from a spell book.
  • Touched By Fire. Irilask is a tiefling conceived in a manifest zone tied to Fernia. She is a living conduit to Fernia, and she has developed the ability to channel its eternal flames. All her spells have to do with fire; as DM, I may allow her to cosmetically shift some spells to reflect this, so maybe her ghost armor is made of solidified flames. She could know Spellcraft or Knowledge: Arcana, but it’s up to the player; her spells aren’t tied to arcane study and there’s no reason she needs to have these skills.
  • Dragonmarked Savant. Haskal d’Lyrandar is a dragonmarked scion with the Mark of Storms. While he only possesses the Least Mark of Storms, he has connected to the mark in a deeper way that most heirs ever do. His mark is a lens through which he focuses arcane power related to winds and lightning; he levitate on a cushion of wind, or strike his foes with lightning or shocking grasp. Again, these are powers most heirs can never develop (and more destructive than the typical mark powers); the point is that the mark helps him understand and focus arcane power. Like Irilask, he doesn’t need to understand how magic works, because the mark is the tool that allows him to use it. He could study Spellcraft, but he doesn’t have to.
  • Deadly Aberrant. Tesha possesses an aberrant mark with power not seen in centuries. Like Haskal, she has a base mark (Inflict Wounds)… but like Haskal, I’m using the sorcerer class to represent the unusually powerful and versatile nature of her mark, which does far more than simply granting a single spell-like ability once in a day. Just as in the stories, Tesha’s abilities manifested when she was young and were never under control, and she killed her family before she knew what she was doing. Even now, these powers frighten her… and yet, they continue to grow stronger (as she gains new spells). If Tesha was a PC, I might provide her with a mechanical benefit (say, +1 to save DCs) in exchange for the downside that as GM, I can trigger her abilities without her permission. Meanwhile, she knows absolutely nothing about Spellcraft or Knowledge: Arcana; she doesn’t understand her powers or CHOOSE to make them grow stronger, they simply do.

These are just a few concepts off the top of my head. A sorcerer could be someone twisted by the power of the Mourning. They could be the beneficiary of some sort of fey boon, or the result of mysterious magebreeding experiments. A sorcerer could have a connection to one of the Progenitor dragons, something I explored in a Dragon article back in the day. Of all these examples, Harry Potter is the only one who would think of himself as a “sorcerer” – it’s simply that *I* will use the class to mechanically represent the concepts I’ve come up with. Most likely an expert in the arcane will use the term “sorcerer” to identify “spontaneous arcane caster”, and HE might call Tesha or Irilask sorcerers, but THEY don’t identify that way.

Let’s revisit a few specific points…

They don’t “understand magic,” but they can read scrolls, use wands, and have Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana in their skill list.

First of all: a sorcerer doesn’t have to understand magic. That doesn’t mean they don’t. Looking to the examples I gave above, Harry Potter DEFINITELY understands magic and based on his concept he should have Spellcraft and Knowledge: Arcana. Haskal and Irilask don’t have to understand magic, but they could if you wanted to take the character in that direction – in which case they should take the skills reflecting it. Tesha definitely doesn’t understand magic and her powers have nothing to do with Spellcraft or Knowledge… so I wouldn’t give her the skills. The fact that they are on the skill list is a tool we can choose to use; but if it doesn’t make sense with the concept, don’t give them those skills.

The second question does follow, though: Tesha could be an illiterate peasant. So how is it that she can use a scroll?

The question you have to ask here is what is a scroll? Being literate doesn’t allow you to use it; a normal person can’t read a scroll and produce a magical effect. A scroll isn’t written in any sort of normal language, hence the existence of the read magic spell. Instead, a scroll is about sigils and symbols that contain pure arcane magic… and once you activate the scroll, the magic is GONE. So again, it’s not simply about words; a scroll is a spell that’s been frozen midcast and bound to paper. In my opinion, the ability of a sorcerer to use a scroll doesn’t represent them literally reading it the way you might read a book; it represents them connecting with the magic, feeling the locked progress, and having the power to unlock it and release the power inside. The same principle holds true for a wand. A wand doesn’t have a button; you have to understand how arcane magic works. A wizard may have a disciplined, technical approach to using a wand. In the case of Tesha, whether she’s using a wand or a scroll, she doesn’t understand what she’s doing in a scientific way. She just holds the scroll and she can feel the power within it, see the pattern in her mind… and she somehow knows that if she completes that unfinished pattern, makes that connection, the power bound to the page will be unleashed.

Because they approach it technically, a wizard can look at a scroll and copy the concept into their spell book. They look at the frozen spell and say “I get it – I understand the principle here and I think I can replicate that.” The sorcerer can’t do that, but they can still unleash the frozen spell.

Finally, specifically for Eberron, do they immediately control their power or do they have the same problem as aberrant dragonmarks, where they could accidentally harm friends or family? And aren’t they persecuted as “Hidden Aberrants?”

As outlined above, this entirely depends on the story of your sorcerer. Harry ir’Potter will never manifest magic if he doesn’t get training. Irilask is in some ways like an aberrant, having the ability to spontaneously produce fire, but the fact that it IS entirely under her control and has no negative consequences is what makes her NOT an aberrant. Meanwhile, Tesha IS an aberrant, and her sorcerer levels are simply a reflection of her aberrant power; and it’s part of her story that these powers are dangerous, and thus she WILL be persecuted.

Bear in mind that people with PC class levels are rare in Eberron, and add to that the idea that there is no one set of rules governing how a sorcerer’s abilities manifest. Even with aberrant dragon marks, it’s STORY that says that they are dangerous to the bearer and those around them. Mechanically nothing says an aberrant mark can trigger on its own; it’s a choice we ENCOURAGE because it’s part of the flavor of the setting, and that STORY is why aberrants are feared.

I almost always have low level NPCs call their spells by other names, until some bookish wizard gets a chance to correct them. 

At my table, the spell the sorcerer casts may not BE the same “spell” that the wizard uses. In the examples above, the way Irilask casts her fireball will be quite different to what Harry would do, let alone a wizard. These spells have to have the same limitations laid out in the rules: verbal components, somatic components, etc. And someone can use Spellcraft to recognize a spell from these things. But that doesn’t mean that there is one single incantation that is the only way to cast a fireball, and that Irilask has somehow spontaneously stumbled onto it thanks to her connection to Fernia. Irilask has to have SOMETHING that matches the limitations of a verbal component; but in her case, that could be a strange sort of throat-singing that helps her focus her power, while Harry DOES use the same incantation an Arcanix wizard would use. Spellcraft is about recognizing patterns of magic as much as specific words.

This ties to my idea that Aereni arcane magic presents very differently from Aundair’s path. At my table the idea is that the Aereni use a definitive lexicon of magical incantations, and that as an Aereni wizard you not only learn the 82 words for fire and the proper conjugation, you also learn to enunciate them with the exact pronunciation the elf who first scribed the spell… while Aundair’s Path is that each wizard works from a basic toolset but personalizes it. So four wizards from Arcanix are all using the same fundamental incantation for their fireball, but they are emphasizing different syllables, and they’ve added or dropped a few words to find out what works best for them. Their gestures are similarly unique. Think of it as the magical equivalent of music. The Aereni are a classical symphony orchestra, where each piece has to work just so; Arcanix teaches jazz, and every time you cast a spell the casting might be slightly different, as you adjust to the feelings of the moment. Which is why an Aereni spends a century learning the same foundation a human can master in a decade. It’s not that the elf is stupid; it’s that their wizardry is literally more ARCANE, and human wizardry is more “figure out what works and run with it.” I think the Aereni are appalled by human wizards and amazed that they somehow produce magic with their clumsy, kluge-y methods. Meanwhile, those same methods are why human wizards are coming up with things that the elves have never tried in twenty thousand years of working spells… because their approach to magic encourages creativity.

With planes like Lamannia and Thelanis, is it possible that “sorcerer druids” would appear in the Eldeen Reaches and similar places, essentially treating primal magic like normal sorcerers would arcane?

I have no object to the concept of a spontaneous primal caster. The point of the sorcerer vs the wizard is that arcane energy exists in the world waiting to be manipulated, and the two classes represent two different ways of manipulating that energy. Primal magic is also a force that exists in the world, and I am entirely open to the idea that there are different ways to manipulate that. With that said, I seen Thelanis as more tied to arcane magic than to primal magic… back to my previous posts on Thelanis, I don’t see there being anything natural about Thelanis. A dryad is a fey creature, not an elemental. She’s not a natural entity; she’s about the magic we imagine could be part of the world. So it’s more that I see there being Greensingers with levels in Sorcerer and Bard, who supplement their primal magic with arcane illusion and enchantment, than I see Thelanis producing primal sorcerers. Lamannia is a stronger possibility, but personally, I’d see a primal sorcerer as someone who has simply developed an innate connection to Eberron itself. On some level I could see this in the Rothfuss style of someone who knows “the name of the wind” – they don’t know any of the standard druidic rituals or tradition, but they have found a way to directly interact with primal forces.

How do you conceptualize progress as a wizard (i.e. levelling up) versus society’s progress in arcane magic as a whole in a world where magic is a scientific discipline?

Good question. Check out this post if you haven’t. The main issue is that arcane magic IS fundamentally different from our science and technology. It behaves in a scientific fashion: it is reliable, repeatable, predictable. However, it is something that incorporates a living component in a way that’s not easily defined. A 5th level wizard may be more intelligent than a higher level wizard, and could have a better understanding of magical theory (Spellcraft) than that wizard. They can read a 7th level spell and understand the concept, but they can’t cast it. Further, even the higher level wizard has to memorize that spell and then they can only cast it once before they need to prepare it again. Which means that it’s not simple science like a software engineer coding a piece of software or a scientist making a calculation. The wizard is a direct living component of this effect. The basic idea of arcane magic is that there is ambient energy in the world that can be channeled to alter reality. But beyond understanding theory, I believe that this requires significant willpower and takes a certain toll on the mind of the user. Note that a wizard’s Will Saving Throw goes up as they increase in level. In memorizing a spell, a wizard is balancing forces, weighing energy, both making mental calculations and potentially performing sub-rituals that are triggered when the final spell is released. But the short form is that a lower level wizard literally cannot cast that higher level spell. Something about their brain simply isn’t capable of serving as a channel or focus for the power that’s being unleashed. And that right there is something scientists in our world don’t generally have to deal with.

So first of all: It is certainly the case that if you go to Arcanix, they have a library of spells that almost no one can cast. They’ve had high-level wizards (like Mordain) in the past. And there are a few 12th level wizards floating around Aundair over the course of the war. They know this power exists, but most people simply cannot perform these spells. And you can be sure that they’re researching ways to make that possible.

WITH ALL OF THAT SAID: A fundamental pillar of Eberron is that player characters are exceptional. This is reflected by action points, by the fact that they use player character classes, and by the fact that they can both quickly advance in level and attain levels far beyond the masses. So if a wizard is a scientist, your PC IS Tesla or Einstein. The fact that YOUR wizard can create new spells doesn’t mean that EVERY wizard in the world can do it so easily; your character may make arcane breakthroughs people have been struggling with for centuries.

A 20th level wizard living in the present is going to be able to call down meteor swarms just as a 20th level wizard living in pre-Galifar Khorvaire 1,500 years earlier would be. The GM could restrict the spell list for the earlier wizard but does that still leaves us with phenomenally powerful spells available in the present (and also probably upsets the player of the ancient high level wizard)?

There’s a few ways to look at this. In the case of non-human civilizations, that’s correct. Giants, dragons and Aereni were all throwing around meteor swarms long ago. With HUMAN civilization, there’s room to play with this. Some day I’d like to do a deeper look at the evolution of arcane magic, and to identify the breakthroughs and legendary wizards who made them. But here’s the simple answer I came up with using 3.5 rules to consider how magic might have evolved in Galifar: Components. In 3.5 there are meta magic feats – Still Spell, Silent Spell – that let you cast a spell without verbal or somatic components… by increasing the slot of the spell by one level. This means it is POSSIBLE to perform those effects without gestures or incantations. In MY Eberron, those gestures and incantations didn’t appear out of the blue: they were painstakingly developed over centuries of research. The fact that proper gestures help to efficiently channel arcane energy was a revelation, and then generations of human wizards worked to refine those gestures. Likewise with incantations. So go back a thousand years and a wizard would be casting many of the same spells, but he’d be doing it without somatic or verbal components, and the spell slot would be two higher. So back in the day, Magic Missile was a third level spell. When your future wizard pops back, flinging magic missiles around like they’re nothing, it’s AMAZING to past wizard… even though he recognizes the principles you’re using. Meanwhile, in the present day, we’ve become so dependent on incantations and gestures that most wizards can’t even imagine casting a spell without them without special training (metamagic feats)… just as now we have matches and lighters, most people don’t know how make a fire without them.

How do NpC adepts fit into the mix, especially in 3.5 when they get familiars? If they are a healer, does their magical companion strike anyone as out of the ordinary?

First of all: just as I’ve outlined with sorcerers, the adept is a tool you can use to represent a certain type of character. Just because it has a particular spell on its spell list or skill in its skill list doesn’t mean that EVERY adept has access to that spell in the context of the world. And looking to familiars, note that per the SRD, they may call a familiar; it doesn’t automatically appear if they never call it. So, for example, most Jorasco healers are adepts. Some revere Arawai or Boldrei, while others are agnostic and draw their healing power through the lens of their dragonmark. A Jorasco adept whose power is justified as coming from his mark will simply never take spells like Burning Hands or Wall of Fire; those spells are on the adept spell list, but they don’t make logical sense for THIS adept.

So within the world, adepts are healers, both secular and religious. They are found in all of the major faiths as a step between the mundane priest and the full cleric; they are able to touch the divine, but not with the full power of a cleric, just as the magewright understands the principles of magic but not so well as the wizard. They can also be found in places like the Elder as a simple village healer… though I also created the Gleaner to serve this role.

As for familiars, there are wizards and sorcerers in the world. Familiars exist. And hey, in 3.5 gnomes can talk to animals… not to mention Vadalis magebreeding. Familiars may draw attention, but it’s not like people will freak out about them; it’s a recognized magical talent.

Would 4E/5E rituals be the natural culmination of the process of greater spell acessibility at the cost of more complex spell components? It seems to me that rituals almost all but eliminate the caster themselves as a living component.

I’ve written about rituals before. The basic CONCEPT of rituals is a far better match for Eberron’s vision of a magical economy than Vancian magic. It’s hard to imagine a magewright making a living making arcane locks if he can only make two per day; what’s he do for the rest of the day? This is what led to Dragonmark Focus Items in 3.5 – the point that while a Sivis Gnome can cast Whispering Wind once per day with his mark alone, what is economically important is that it lets him use a Speaking Stone and communicate more frequently. In addition, the idea has always been that Eberron dragonshards are the “fuel” of the magical economy. If you consider 4E’s residuum to be crushed and refined Eberron dragonshards (something I discussed in the Q’barra Dragon backdrops, IIRC) then that works. The magewright can cast arcane lock as often as he wishes during a day, provided he has the time (15 minutes per ritual) and a sufficient supply of dragonshards,  and he marks up the costs to make his profit.

So: the basic principle of rituals is very good for Eberron. However, what I HATE about 4E rituals is the idea that it’s all about just essentially reading them off a book. Because Magewrights and Eberron are about the idea that performing a particular ritual or set if rituals is a JOB – that you have an arcane locksmith who knows knock and arcane lock, an augur who can perform divinations, a lamplighter who makes continual flames… not that these guys could pass books around and suddenly trade jobs. So what I do in 4E is to say that Magewright is a feat allowing the individual to perform three rituals without a ritual book. So PCs with the Ritual Caster feature are prodigies who are so talented that they can just look at a book and perform the ritual on the spot; but most people in the world spend years studying a book and mastering the ritual. They don’t need the book to perform the ritual, but they also can’t just spot-read a different ritual.

Having said all of that, how do rituals eliminate the caster as a component? The ritual can’t cast itself. It’s a pattern that produces an effect… but you still need the ritual caster to perform that ritual, channel and focus the energy, and make it happen. Even dragon mark focus items require a character with a dragonmark to operate them.

Tied to “Greater Spell Accessibility”, in my 4E Eberron I also restricted a significant number of rituals to the dragonmarked… essentially having rituals take on the role of the Dragonmark focus items in 3.5, but with the idea that the Arcane Congress is always looking for ways to replicate these effects with rituals anyone can learn. This is discussed in far more detail in this post.

How have you used sorcerers and magic in YOUR games?