Shaping Raw Chaos

Image derived from Wikipedia

Reality is a war between the ordering force of civilization and the pure chaos of the wild maelstrom. The farther from outposts of order, the more raw untamed power seethes just beneath the surface. Those that tap this dangerous and sanity bending power are sorcerers, and woe follows in their path.

To work their magic, sorcerers must have chaos to shape. The more chaotic the location, the more power is available. The most dangerous areas, such as deep in the underworld or perilous wilderness are the most chaotic. A wonder worker’s mortal mind cannot perceive chaos directly. It cannot be seen, tasted, or felt. Thus, the character can only speak of chaos in metaphors: trickles, flows, torrents, leaks. But this is not chaos. The way that can be named is not the way. The referee will keep track of quantitative details.

Shaping chaos is dangerous. Sorcerers can’t control exactly how much power they draw. Once tapped, the power must be used quickly lest it consume the sorcerer. Any worker of wonders that ends a turn holding chaos must make a saving throw versus magic. Upon the first and second such failure, they manifest a chaos leak, and the chaos decreases. If there is a third failure, they are consumed by the chaos. Unused chaos may by burned off assuming the sorcerer is not in a stressful situation.

Chaos may be contested. As an action, one sorcerer may attempt to steal chaos from another. The target makes a saving throw versus magic. Upon failure, the target takes one point of damage and loses a trickle of chaos. The aggressor gains that same amount.

As an action, wonder workers may attempt to siphon off power directly from chaotic creatures. The target must make a saving throw versus magic, and upon failure the creature takes 1 point of damage and the sorcerer gains access to some chaos. The referee will track how much, and this may vary by creature. The chaotic entity so targeted is now linked to the sorcerer, and is usually enraged by the theft. This link may manifest in a variety of ways, and can often be quite dangerous to the wonder worker (thus, many sorcerers attempt to destroy the sources of chaos that they feed upon in this way).

Sentient life energy, taken without consent, may be used in lieu of chaos. A sorcerer may target any intelligent creature within the range of a dagger throw; the target then makes a saving throw versus magic. Upon failure, the target takes 1d6 points of nonlethal damage, and the magic-user gains access to a trickle of chaos. In either case, the sign of sorcery will be upon the victim and the two will be connected. There may be other more violent and permanent methods to harness the power of sacrifice.

General considerations. Sorcerers may draw and cast in the same action. For all chaos manipulations (contesting, etc) the sorcerer must be within dagger throw range. An area has Nd6 points of ambient chaos available, where N is the dungeon level or distance in wilderness hexes from civilization. As alluded to above, those points will never be directly communicated to the player. Instead, the referee should use the following language:

  • Trickle: 1d6 points
  • Flow: 2d6 points
  • Torrent: 3d6+ points

A sorcerer may attempt to draw up to 1d6 points per round. They may cast immediately, or hold the power and attempt to build up more (save against chaos leak as specified above). A spell requires 1 point of chaos per spell level (thus, a traditional fireball would require 3 points of chaos). Spells cast with insufficient chaos fail and require a save versus magic to avoid a mishap (see bottom of that post for one possible table). Casting rules could be reliable or require a casting check. All such effect tables (leaks, mishaps, overloads) should regularly be refreshed. Consider replacing used entries between sessions to keep things interesting.

An “area” should be approximately defined beforehand by the referee, but follows no strict rules. A small cluster of rooms or a subzone could be appropriate area sizes. Think about how many rooms your players can explore in a single session and go from there. Certain areas of power may break any and all of these rules.

Mechanical transparency or mechanical opacity? In the transparent model, the referee tells the player, you harness a flow of chaos, 7 points, and then the player is responsible for tracking those points and can make decisions based on that quantitative knowledge. In the opaque model, the referee tells the player something like: you can sieze only a trickle of chaos. Does this mean 1 point or 3? The player doesn’t know. The referee needs to track the numbers, which might be a hassle, but all else being equal the danger and mystery of magic will be reinforced by uncertainty. The above model as outlined assumes the opaque model, but I expect that it would work in both modes.

This is necessarily a rough draft. It has seen no play testing. I’m certain that some of the numbers, probably the offensive drain abilities, will need to be adjusted, and that the writing could be clarified. Also, I think side effects from extra ritual considerations would add to the system, along with some other consequences for deriving chaos from sentient suffering within civilization. Some corruption tables might fit. The ranges might need modification as well, but how much more interesting is it to suck unstable chaos from an enemy (that might blow up in your face) rather than tossing yet another magic missile? (And you wonder why sorcerers build their towers far away from the prying eyes of villagers and other busybodies.)

14 thoughts on “Shaping Raw Chaos

    1. David Bapst

      i.e. predictable in the scientific sense. Unlike typical Vancian DnD magic, there is more understandable rational about why actions X produce results Y, even if it isn’t entirely consistent in practice.

    2. Brendan

      In general I like to keep magic mysterious, and I tried to maintain that here with things like the mark of sorcery and the connection forged by siphoning power from another creature. Do you think having some idea about the source of the power makes it inherently more scientific? It is certainly less predictable than traditional Vancian magic, in a number of different ways.

      I think there is an inherent tension between making something available for use by players and mystery. Like, classes and magic systems need to have a certain amount of transparent logic about them so that players can make decisions. I think this also shows up very clearly in races; the only way to really keep a fantasy creature from becoming mundane is to make it NPC only.

      It’s an interesting point though, whether or not system and mystery can coexist and to what degree.

  1. LS

    A friend and I had a conversation about this. Thought you might find value in it:

    Noelle: It’s untested, as stated, and I find myself wondering a) how chaos can be coherent, and b) what sorcerers DO with it. The last lines imply that the caster isn’t just casting Magic Missile, but then what are they doing with the chaos?

    As for point A, chaos is by definition chaotic – it doesn’t hold together well. It’d be more interesting to me to have it come in singlar motes, little moments of disorder. Drawn from a living thing, they leave that thing *more* orderly turning them partly to stone, or something like that. Put too many in one place and they react violently, as like charges.


    Depending on how you view it, magic is a force of chaos. Sudden balls of fire break the laws of nature.

    So if chaos is the force which magic users control, maybe they try to apply it, but can’t be sure of the results.

    They make “fire,” but who knows if it’ll be a ray of fire, a cone of fire, a ball of fire, or a hail of fire?

    I do like the idea of a creature becoming more “orderly.” I’ll have to bring that up to him.

    1. Brendan

      Perhaps the last line is phrased poorly; if a standard D&D spell list is being used, the sorcerer could use the chaos to cast magic missile. The comparison that I was attempting to draw was between recent rule sets that grant magic missile as an at-will power or cantrip so that the wizard always has something magical to do. Here, the thing they can always do is manipulate chaos.

      I could actually see this being used with a more freeform magic system than traditional D&D spells, but that would require a lot more work, I think, because you need well written guidelines for what effects can be created and what those effects cost. Also, adventuring to find spells is fun, so that would need to be taken into consideration.

      How I see chaos is essentially raw potential that allows one to break all the normal rules (or maybe even as the absence of those rules to begin with). So the sorcerer is doing something sort of like imposing their will on what would otherwise be formless or undefined. This can work for a time, which is how sorcerers can get concentrated effects like lightning bolts or whatever, or shape a tower out of solid rock, but there is an instability there lurking right below the surfaces, such that only the truly gifted sorcerers can really keep the whole thing going.

      I have at least one more post in this pseudo-series which focuses on the law of return, and how manipulating chaos and working wonders contains karmic dynamics, and how chaos responds in general to sentient creatures interacting with it (not just sorcerers).

    2. Brendan

      The idea of a creature becoming more orderly is also interesting; I’ll need to think about that more. Like, what if the “order” came in a psychic form rather than a physical form? What would that look like? Like, stealing the sentience or consciousness and just leaving the meat behind?

    3. Gusty L.

      I was thinking about how this would effect spell list – perhaps something along the lines of a spell predictably orders the wizard’s chaos through repeatable ritual and hence is valuable. A wizard knows what a sleep spell will do, whereas single handedly trying to form raw power into a sleep effect might do anything. It might cost more power.

      I like the fumble table – but one could also simply make failure cost HP of the missing chaos amount (multiplied by spell level?) even on a sucessful save to make it more chancy.

    4. Gusty L.

      I was more curious about spell availability – one of my favorite things about magic users is making them scrabble for spells – In Pahvelorn for example the amount of success the party will feel when Higgans learns Wizard lock will be pretty high I think.

  2. Hedgehobbit

    Looks like someone has been reading Warhammer lately.. Hmmm?

    It would be less fiddly to keep track of dice instead of points. Plus, that way the wizard would have to choose how many dice to spend on the spell (point costs would have to increase significantly for this to work). The wizard can try to cast a spell with a few dice and risk failure or spend extra dice for a sure thing (but leave himself without power later in the fight).

    1. Brendan

      I haven’t been reading Warhammer recently, but it is certainly a big influence on my stuff no doubt (despite the fact that I’ve never actually played it).

      Using literal dice would be an interesting prop, sort of like the Carcosa dice conventions for hit dice. I’ve been doing most of my gaming over G+ hangouts recently though, so physical things like that have tended to fall by the wayside.

    2. Hedgehobbit

      The point wasn’t a prop but to add some level of uncertainty or risk into spell casting. For example, if a spell needs 8 points to cast, the wizard can take a chance and only use 2 dice, use 3 dice for a more sure thing or use 4 dice if he absolutely has to have it cats successfully.

    3. Brendan

      I see. So the power would be measured in dice rather than points? That would work. I also have uncertainty built into the system with the casting check. I see the measure applying to an area also, not just an encounter, so the wizard needs to potentially worry about exhausting the power in the surroundings.


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