Fate of the Nephilim: Magic in General

A quick note about the information presented below: I’m not going to be explaining all the ins and outs of the Nephilim game. If you’re really confused by stuff, I urge you to grab the pdf of the game to follow along. You can get it at the Chaosium site, and the entire line is available at RPGnow. It’s well worth the purchase. And Fate Core is available from Evil Hat Productions. Also very much worth it.

Now, we’re really getting into the heart of Nephilim. The game is all about non-human, magical creatures – beings made of magic, who perceive the world through magical senses, who interact with the world using magic, and generally use magical thinking because it works for them1. And so the game has no less than three different magic systems.

Elements

All of the systems revolve around manipulation of the elemental fields. The elements, referred to as Ka,  represent both physical and spiritual components of the world – the Nephilim tend to not differentiate between those two states as much as humans do. The divisions into the elements are basically just fluff2, so there’s not any call to make changes. That means we’ve got the five elements staying the same as in the Nephilim book:

  • Air Ka
  • Earth Ka
  • Fire Ka
  • Water Ka
  • Moon Ka3

In addition to these elements, there are three special elements that exist and affect the Nephilim, but that the Nephilim4 don’t interact directly with:

  • Black Moon Ka, created by the mad Tyrannosaur prophet-king Mu and still used by the exiled Selenim
  • Orichalka, the deadly, Ka-destroying power of Saturn
  • Solar Ka, which infuses humans

These three types of elemental energy are each going to require some special rules to handle in-game.

Astrological Modifiers

One of the main features of the Nephilim game is the effect of the celestial bodies on the elemental fields. There are elaborate rules for it, and even (if you bought the GM’s screen) a special wheel dial that you could use to calculate the appropriate modifiers and enthronements for the current game day, based on date and such. It was pretty cool.

It was also a pretty irritating amount of work.

So, I want to include the influence of the planets on the Ka fields, but I don’t want to have to do the math every game day to figure out which elements are enthroned, which are diminished, etc.

Fortunately, Fate Core has a structure in place for determining these things – aspects. Easy enough to let characters use the Create an Advantage action to declare or uncover the current astrological modifiers. And while that may prompt them to always try and place their most favourable element in ascendancy, you can offer compels to get them to pick a different aspect.

The modifiers in Nephilim vary in amount, but aspects all work the same way. This means that there should be a fairly limited variations in the range of aspects that can be placed. I’m thinking just stick to Enthronement, with the name of the enthroned element. So, Fire Enthronement, Moon Enthronement, Sun Enthronement, Orichalka Enthronement, etc.

Each elemental enthronement gives a bonus to can be invoked for a bonus to that element, and as a penalty to two other elements5. Here’s the list from the Nephilim rules:

  • Air opposes Earth and Moon
  • Earth opposes Air and Water
  • Fire opposes Water and Moon
  • Water opposes Earth and Fire
  • Moon opposes Fire and Air
  • Orichalka opposes all other elements

There are no Black Moon enthronements, by default, though I can see that being a cool story-based thing to throw in when dealing with the Selenim6. Sun enthronements in Nephilim are more complicated – they cause the Ka fields to fluctuate, meaning the bonus elements change randomly. So, it becomes a much more flexible aspect, though I’d also use it to give bonuses to any humans, and use it to cause the characters’ simulacra to assert themselves, causing problems.

Of course, you can just use the planetary days and planetary months tables in the Nephilim rulebook to actually calculate the proper enthronement. Without having to give it a numerical value, this is easy enough to do. It does, however, require you to track the days of the week and the zodiacal months of the year to be able to do this7.

There are also Grand Enthronements, when the elemental fields are supercharged. These happen when the planetary day and the planetary month match, both lending power to the dominant element. So, Tuesdays in Aries are Grand Enthronements of Fire, for example, and Saturdays in Capricorn are Grand Enthronments of Orichalka. I can see doing one of two things to model Grand Enthronements: either increase the bonus/penalty for invoking the aspect to +3/-38, or give the aspect a couple of free invokes.

I think the +3/-3 is the better choice, because the characters can get free invokes by rolling well on the Create Advantage action, and can replenish those free invokes by taking an action to Create Advantage again. So, the +3/-3 strikes me as more meaningful.

Ch’awe

Ch’awe in Nephilim is magic points, spent to power spells. As such, my initial thoughts have been to make a stress track for Ch’awe, and take hits there when casting spells – basically, the way that Mental stress is used in DFRPG. Lately, though, as I think about it, I’ve been wondering why I’m creating a new stress track, when the Mental stress track could serve just as well. See, I made the decision pretty much without thinking, initially, and all I can see in retrospect is that I maybe wanted to emphasize the magical nature of the Nephilim by giving them this battery.

And now I’m not sure it was the best idea.

In addition to this, I’ve been reading Dresden Files Accelerated9, and they add a neat little piece of Fate technology to the game: conditions. Conditions are sort-of predetermined, flavoured consequences10 that act as batteries for various powers. Thus, a magical practitioner gets the Exhausted and Burned Out conditions that they can mark to boost the power of Evocation.

Something like that might work well with Ch’awe, and it might make it easier to bring in concepts like Khaiba11 and Shouit12. I’m going to have to think about this some more, and do some deeper reading of DFA.

Types of Magic

In Nephilim, there are three broad types of magic available to the characters:

  • Sorcery is the oldest and most primitive, letting the Nephilim directly manipulate Ka fields to obtain results.
  • Summoning is contact and interaction with beings from higher realms of reality, composed of various Ka fields.
  • Alchemy is the manipulation of physical matter through magical ritual and the use of an athanor.

The differences between the magic types are mainly differences of tone and theme, rather than mechanics. There are little things – you need to create various alchemical powders in your athanor for Alchemy, you need to draw a summoning circle for summoning – that are in-game differences, but the actual mechanical process for the different types of magic is the same – know the spell, roll your skill, pay the cost.

I think that, in the Fate Core implementation, I’ll have to delineate some clear guidelines for what kinds of things each type of magic can do, and also convert a number of the spells in the Nephilim book to show how they work in the new systems. I’ll also have to check and see if there are more qualitative differences that I need to address.

I was thinking that cribbing from the DFRPG system for thaumaturgy would probably be the way to go13 – it’s a very flexible system that pretty much covers any magic working you care to imagine. The downside is that DFRPG thaumaturgy is somewhat complicated and math-heavy, and when I ran my DFRPG campaigns, play would inevitably slow when a ritual came up.

Now that I’m reading DFA, I’m liking their take on ritual magic. It’s still got a little math14, but the actual mechanics for building spells is much streamlined. It does a couple of interesting things with costs that, while they are great for the Dresdenverse, may not be quite what I want in Fate of the Nephilim, but that shouldn’t be too tough to fix.

Circles

In Nephilim, each type of magic is divided into three different levels, called Circles. Each type of magic has a different funky name for their circles – Sorcery has Lower Magic, Higher Magic, and Grand Secret; Summoning has Seals, Pentacles, and Keys; Alchemy has Black Stone, White Stone, and Philosopher’s Stone15. Each Circle is a different skill in the game, and you need to have 90% in a lower Circle before you can take the next one.

I want to avoid a glut of different skills in this conversion. Skill ranks in Fate Core are limited and pretty powerful, so diluting them among too many different skills is, in some ways, penalizing to the players. My solution is to have one magic skill for each of the three types of magic, and to place the Circles as thresholds within each skill. So, first Circle is at Average (+1), second Circle is at Good (+3), and third Circle is at Superb (+5).

I’m going back and forth on what that means, spell-wise. The Circles are only meaningful if there are some spells that are reserved for the higher Circles, so I’ll have to figure out exactly how I want to work that. Summoning has different groups of creatures summonable at different Circles, which is easy enough, and Alchemy is clear about the fact that Black Stone is about destruction and White Stone is about creation. But Sorcery is far muddier; I’m going to have to do some more reading of the Sorcery section in Nephilim and Liber Ka to sort out how to handle that.

Spells

This is another area that’s a little muddy. And it’s mainly muddy because of Liber Ka.

In the core rules for Nephilim, you need access to a physical focus for the spell to be able to cast it. This doesn’t vary for any of the three types of magic. Now, the copy of the spell can be written in a book, or inscribed on the Ka of an enchanted item, or whatever – you just need to have the copy available to you to be able to cast it. This means that the characters are often trying to recover their old toys, and occult libraries, and so on, so that they have the spells they need.

They can also have the spell tattooed on their own Ka, so that they always have access to that spell and don’t need the focus. This is a limited resource; you can’t have too many spells tattooed, because reasons.

I see no problem with this as it stands. There’s already a list of occult books and such in the Nephilim rules, and the tattooed spells16 work nicely as stunts, so I’m good.

The catch is, as I said, Liber Ka, which contains an alternate Sorcery system that allows for free-form spell creation on the fly. It provides a set of rules for coming up with custom rituals to achieve custom goals, not the very prescribed spells present in the core rules. It’s a good rule set, too; I had a lot of fun with it, back in the day, and it reminds me of the thaumaturgy rules in DFRPG and DFA.

But that kinda flies in the face of the “you need a physical focus” thing.

I seem to recall that there was a discussion of that issue in Liber Ka, so I’m going to have to reread it and see how they handle it.

Coming Up

Okay. When I started writing this post, I was going to provide a rough idea of each of the magic skills. But as I wrote about the underlying questions, decisions, and thoughts I had about magic in general, this thing somehow got long. And I still need to do some reading and thinking before I can write up each of the magical skills, including at least a few sample spells for each.

So, next up in Fate of the Nephilim17, I’m going to tackle Sorcery. After that, I’ll have another post for Summoning, and one for Alchemy.

Keep an eye out.

  1. Years ago, I did an article about magical thinking in Nephilim and casual divination using the structure of magical thinking in the game for a friend’s zine. I have no idea what became of that article, which is a shame, because I’d like to reread it and see if I had anything useful to say, or if it was all a bunch of pretentious crap. []
  2. In that they provide an in-game division and variety to the magic systems, but don’t really have a mechanical impact, beyond being descriptors to hang some bonuses and penalties from. []
  3. Weird thing I just noticed. I automatically alphabetized the four classical elements, then just appended Moon, out of alphabetical order. Some part of me rebels against putting Moon in before Water to maintain alphabetical order, because that would mean inserting it into the classical list of four. It seems I might be a geek. []
  4. Generally. []
  5. Mostly. Orichalka and Sun Ka are both different. []
  6. Or maybe a resurrected dinosaur sorcerer. Like you get. []
  7. This isn’t difficult, but it’s one more item of bookkeeping, and I like to minimize those. []
  8. With the fact that the standard +2/-2 from an aspect is a pretty big bonus or penalty in Fate Core, I’m hesitant to make the Grand Enthronement bonus/penalty any more than that. []
  9. Which is pretty awesome, and I’ll be doing a review of it soon. In the meantime you can buy it here. And you should buy it. []
  10. Also, some are benefits. They are a nicely flexible piece of game design kit. []
  11. The transformation into a raw, bestial form as the Nephilim loses control of it’s Ka fields. []
  12. The loss of control of the simulacrum as it’s soul overrides the Nephilim’s. []
  13. And I’m pretty familiar with those mechanics. []
  14. Adding so simple it’s really more accurate to call it counting. []
  15. Note that there are no spells listed for Philosopher’s Stone, because so few Nephilim have achieved this level, Alchemy being the newest type of magic. []
  16. I keep calling them “tattooed spells,” even though the actual game term is “inscribed spells.” But I used the word “inscribed” to describe something else in the last paragraph, so there it is. []
  17. There’s going to be a post or two about other stuff before that gets posted, though. []
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