Clive Oldfield: Magic in WFRP4
Today we have another blog post about Magic in WFRP from Clive Oldfield. Clive started playing WFRP virtually the day it came out, back in 1986 and has contributed to the second, third and fourth editions of the RPG, as well as the officially unofficial Warpstone magazine and so is an excellent source of information!
If you missed Clive's previous post - you can find it here.
For this article I’m having a look at magic in WFRP and ways to bring its distinctive tone to the gaming table. Any game is going to be enhanced by a GM who can convey some of the unpredictability of the Winds of Chaos, and by a Wizard player who can convey some of the otherworldliness of their profession.
To my mind, the colours of magic are one of the most interesting aspects of the entire Warhammer mythology. Having these wild flows of magic rippling barely beneath the surface of the world is a wonderful tool for bringing a sense of unknowable power, and often insurmountable fear, to the game.
For groups missing educated or magically inclined Characters, magic and Chaos are the stuff of superstition and rumour. When it does manifest it is unknowable and confusing. Parties fortunate (or otherwise) to have a Wizard in their midst are given a window into a different world.
Second Sight manifests differently for each Wizard. This gives the GM and their magically inclined players the freedom to decide the precise way they sense the magical winds. If the lingua praestantia is required to communicate concepts of magic in the Old World, then it follows that the GM and players (bound to this meagre realm) are not so well-equipped to do so. Therefore they must resort to vaguery, metaphor, and making it up as they go along.
Because no one at the table actually speaks Magick, changes in perspective might be required to convey the full picture. For example, Agnetha Corvus, a Wizard of the Lore of Beasts, stumbles across a dead flower seller down a dark alleyway in Ubersreik:
‘The familiar billows of Ghur lap around the corpse, cloying at its grey skin, blowing all other winds aside. The very flesh of the poor pedlar has been rent by cruel eddies of Amber.’
‘What does that even mean?’
‘The pedlar has been attacked by someone using the Amber Talons spell.’
Second Sight is a powerful tool, not just for adding atmospheric descriptions to the game, but for conveying information about the setting. As any magical activity leaves its mark upon the world, the GM should be careful to use it consistently to impart the information they wish to impart, but should also be careful of giving too much away.
If the GM uses the winds to convey information in one part of an adventure, perhaps to build suspense or foreshadow what is to come, then the players can reasonably expect the same sort of information to be available the next time they are in similar circumstances. This could easily kill an investigation, reveal an ambush, nullify a trap, etc.
The fact that a Wizard cannot simply switch off their Second Sight should not mean they get to perceive the magical realm and the natural realm with equal clarity. It should mean that, to them, both realms are confused, and potentially confusing. Given time to concentrate, a Wizard should be able to focus on one above the other, but they should not be able to stroll through both worlds, conveniently flipping between them like a fighter pilot with a heads-up display.
Throughout the game the GM and Wizard players’ interactions can form a dialogue where the perception of the Winds are explored. As the winds are perceived differently by each Wizard, it is just as important that a player has their say on how their individual character might see things. If an Amber Wizard player decides that their Flock of Doom leaves a residue like the smell of cinnamon biscuits, who is the GM to argue?
As atmospheric as the Winds are, it is perfectly fine to lapse into pragmatic descriptions for clarity on important points. ‘You notice the shadow left in the Wind of Ghur around the dead goblin, has the same sort of feel as the one you saw around the old flower seller back in Ubersreik,’ is perfectly fine, as it gets the message across. The fact is, no one at the table is a real Wizard. Probably.
Unlike in some game systems, ingredients are not mandatory for casting, nor do they help with the actual casting roll. They merely mitigate the effects of a miscast. Whether this is a convincing reason to use them is left to the individual Wizard, but if they are not getting used much I would remind the GM to ensure players are rolling for a miscast every time it is called for. It would be a shame if such an evocative part of the Wizard’s arsenal gets overlooked.
A specific spell does not necessarily require a unique ingredient, so an individual Wizard is able to create an ingredient from a range of potential raw materials suitable to them. This also helps to avoid the situation where a particular ingredient might be entirely unavailable. This is not to say, however, that an ingredient created for one spell can be used for another. Wizards from the same college regularly argue over what is the most effective arrangement of specific elements for each ingredient.
For example, Agnetha, might have a penchant for crow skulls. If she wishes to cast Amber Talons, she knows that a crow skull and rabbit’s foot bound together with cat gut makes a fine ingredient. However, this is no use for casting Beast Form. For this she uses a wolfskin bag, in which she places squirrel offal, and a signature crow skull. If she does not have any crow skulls handy, Agnetha knows she could get away with using a potion of cow urine and dog blood, but prefers not to (who wouldn’t?).
Meanwhile Felix, Agnetha’s fellow Shaman, uses a triangle of cat paws bound by horse hair as an ingredient when he casts Amber Talons. Could Felix use Agnetha’s signature crow skull–rabbit’s foot combo to cast it? Well, he’d probably rather not, but whether it works is up to the GM.
In general, if a player comes up with a unique and interesting ingredient that adds to the flavour of the Old World and its magic, consider rewarding them in some way. A bonus +1 SL when the spell is cast using that ingredient is a nice bonus without being too impactful, and encourages players to create interesting ingredients and reagents.
Arcane spells are interesting in that they do not really exist as a spell list at all, they are a collection of common magical effects that can be achieved through the manipulation of any of the Winds of Magic and belong to every list. A Pyromancer, for example, would see all arcane spells as just more spells from the Lore of Fire. A Hierophant would see them as intrinsic to the Lore of Light.
Wizard players should consider how particular arcane spells manifest in their Lore. For example, Aethyric Armour could be called Armour of Aqshy among the Bright Order, and appear as an aura of flickering flames surrounding the caster’s body. To Alchemists it might be Shield of Gold and manifest literally as a physical golden shield. The two effects would look nothing alike, and leave entirely different traces among their respective Winds, but use the same effects,
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