Thaumaturgy, or How to Break the Rules: Magic in DFRPG, Part Three

This may be my longest post – it’s closing in on 7000 words, which is a respectable length for a short story. Thaumaturgy is a big subject to cover, because it’s a big system in the game. Just wanted to warn you before you start reading.

Quick recap. First, I talked about general magic theory in DFRPG. Then, I went into detail on evocation. Now, I’m tackling thaumaturgy.

What is thaumaturgy?

This is kind of a tough question to answer. The basic answer is, “You know what evocation is? Well, thaumaturgy is everything else.”

Thaumaturgy is the careful crafting of a complex, sophisticated spell construct that can reach beyond the immediate presence of the spellcaster to have an effect. It is the scientific and artful application of mystic knowledge and training to produce an arcane solution to a problem. It is a ritual designed to produce change in the world.

On the one hand, because of the careful preparation and ability to work slowly gathering power, thaumaturgy can produce effects of such staggering power that they dwarf the most potent evocations. On the other hand, because of the fine control that the caster can exert over the energies gathered, thaumaturgy can create effects of immense subtlety. You are limited only by your imagination and creativity when it comes to deciding what you can and can’t do with thaumaturgy – once you come up with the idea and structure of the spell, your ability to cast it is governed primarily by the cool stuff you can think of to make it work.

With care and precision, thaumaturgy can be the safest kind of magic to cast, sacrificing speed for safety. However, when it goes wrong, it goes wrong big time.

What can you do with it?

The key with thaumaturgy is that you’re using magic to, in essence, break a rule that the rest of the world has to follow. Little things like conservation of mass, the Laws of Thermodynamics, basic physics, stuff like that. Tracking someone down when you have no leads. Curing a disease without using medicine. Traveling 200 miles on foot in 20 minutes.

The biggest stumbling block in using thaumaturgy in the game is paralysis brought on by too much choice, at least in the beginning. You can do anything, really anything, that you can conceive of*. The rules break things down into a few broad categories, but really you can work out a ritual for any magical effect you can conceive of or have read in a book or seen in a movie.

The broad categories are meant primarily to provide some guidelines for determining complexity. As you read through the descriptions, you’re going to see a lot of overlap, and you’ll be able to think of how to accomplish the examples using one of the other categories. This, I contend, is a good thing: it provides room and system support for Here are the categories:

Solve improbable or impossible problems.

This is almost a meta-category that all the other categories could be said to be part of. More specifically, in the way it’s defined in the book, it’s doing something that could be done with a skill, given enough time and skill and favourable conditions. Thaumaturgy doesn’t care about that* – it lets you get what you want in situations when the skill wouldn’t work.

So, need to climb a modern skyscraper? Athletics lets you climb stuff, but the difficulty of climbing the sheer glass sides, plus the extreme height, makes the success of an Athletics check somewhat problematic. Thaumaturgy to the rescue! Whip up a little spell to let you walk up the side of the building, or even just fly you to the top.

Trying to find a tiny key hidden in a scrap metal dump? Alertness lets you spot things, but one little key among the piles of metal has a pretty high difficulty, and searching will take a long time. Again, thaumaturgy to the rescue! A little spell can pick the one key you need* from the vast, steely junkpile.

The key question here is, “How would I do this without magic?” If the answer is a skill, then this is the category you’re looking at.

Create lasting changes in people and things.

Turning lead into gold, or people into frogs, or live people into dead people. The key thing with this concept is that you’re essentially engaging in a contest with the target, and you use your magic to (hopefully) overwhelm their defenses and make change happen. The change can be as simple as adding or removing an Aspect from the target, or as complex as ripping the soul from someone and binding it to yours service.

These sorts of changes, while lasting, are not necessarily long lasting, which is why Wizards aren’t all rich from all that aluminum they’ve transformed into gold. Generally, the longer you want something to last, the more difficult it is to do, and the more power it’s going to require, unless the change is something that cannot be reversed – like killing someone.

So, if you want to turn yourself into a gerbil, this is how you do it. If you want to put someone into a dreamless sleep, this is how you do it. If you want to reinforce the door of your lab, this is how you do it. If you want to cause someone’s heart to burst out of their chest, this is how you do it. If you want to cause a thunderstorm, this is how you do it. If you want to reinflate a collapsed lung, this is how you do it.

Now, it’s worth noting that these types of changes often run afoul of the Laws of Magic, so practitioners looking to try something need to think carefully about how they’re going to do it. But these sorts of things also deal with personal shapeshifting and healing, so there are safe applications.

Provide inaccessible knowledge.

Here, we’re talking about things like scrying, precognition, mind reading, and things like that. You can spy on remote people and places, or you can make assessments on targets. Basically anything that lets you know something you otherwise couldn’t. This is a pretty broad range of things, and has a great deal of overlap with the other categories, depending on how you choose to go about it.

Let’s say you’re going up against a nasty monster, and you need to know what its weaknesses are. You’ve got a number of possibilities to find that out, as long as you’ve got some sort of link:

  • Use scrying to spy on the creature and see how it behaves.
  • Summon up a spirit of intellect and interrogate it.
  • Mystically analyze some of its hair or its true name to see what the arcane correspondences tell you.
  • Call up the ghost of its last victim to help you by whispering its secrets in your ear.
  • Use automatic writing to channel the lore of the Akashic Library into your pen and onto your page.
  • Ritually tune your eyes and mind so that when you next encounter the creature, you will just be able to tell.

Each of these options touches on at least one of the other categories, but they’re grouped here because they all do the same kind of thing. They help you to know something.

You can also use magic to make declarations. Assessments and declarations are, after all, two different ways of knowing something about something. With assessments, the GM tells you what he or she has decided the target is like. With declarations, you tell the GM what you’ve decided the target is like. As with mundane declarations, though, if you get greedy, you’re gonna get slapped down*.

Allow interaction with the supernatural.

Summoning demons, trapping faeries, communing with nature spirits, and channeling ghosts all fall into this category. So do exorcisms and mystical assaults against these creatures*. There are lots of beings that mortals just can’t see or interact with, and this category is all about breaking that restriction.

The most basic kinds of interaction we’re talking about here are things like summoning something, binding it to your service, and then dismissing it. So, if you wanted to put a genie into a bottle, this is what we’re talking about. Or if you want to call up an assassin demon and send it after your enemies. Or tempt some of the wee folk into a magic circle using pizza as bait, and then bargain with them for service.

Beyond that, though, there are other applications. The right kind of spell with the right kind of links can damage a demon itself, rather than the ectoplasmic body it’s built for itself to walk around in. It can allow you to touch a ghost physically or hear the complaints and secrets of the spirit of a house. You can use it to ghost-proof a room, or make all the invisible spirits in an area visible. And, in extremis, you can use it to drive the possessing demon out of the little girl before she eats her daddy.

As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap (as usual) with the other categories.

Shape magical energies into physical forms.

Now we get into things like brewing potions*, crafting wards, and conjuring swords*. It’s creating something from magic that has a lasting presence in the world and an impact on physicality. Yeah, it’s kinda fuzzy, but so are all the other categories. Really, what we’re looking at here is producing something from nothing, as far as game system is concerned. So, setting up an invisible wall of force that will seal a doorway for the night falls into this category, as does forming a suit of ectoplasmic armour to wear into battle. So, too, does making a magical booby trap, or creating a temporary body for a spirit to inhabit, or conjuring a feast out of the air.

This is potent stuff, and it has the same big catch that creating lasting change does: duration. Making something permanent from nothing is impossible; the magic maintaining the thing will naturally* decay as time passes, and dawn and dusk are important thresholds in the day that sap the strength of ongoing magical effects. Eventually, unless the caster spends time, effort, and energy to refresh the magic frequently, the spell will wear off and the conjured thing will go away. So, the armour vanishes, the sated guest becomes suddenly hungry again, the pile of gold melts away, and so on.

But if you really need a rope for a few minutes, or a plank across a chasm for thirty seconds, or an impressive mansion for the evening, this can do it for you.

How does it work?

The basic structure for thaumaturgy is the same as for evocation, but the emphasis on what’s going on – the interesting bits where the story gets played out – are different. With evocation, it’s all about the risk of walking that fine line between power and control, when your ass is on the line and you need to think hard about what you’re willing to risk to achieve your goals. With thaumaturgy, it’s all about the set-up and the story of the spell.

So, while the basic metaprocess of spellcasting is the same – form the spell construct, empower the spell construct, release the spell construct – the system for thaumaturgy focuses very heavily on the preparation for the spell.

Spell Construct Phase

The first step in using a thaumaturgic ritual is the same as in using an evocation: figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it. While the choices for evocation are somewhat limited, the wide variety of things that you can apply thaumaturgy to can be overwhelming. Don’t let it paralyze you; you don’t need to solve every problem with magic. When a good idea comes to you, go for it. When one doesn’t, let it go. If you really need to use magic and you don’t have an idea about how, talk to the other players and the GM. They may have suggestions.

Start with practicalities: what’s the goal? What are the obstacles? What would get you past the obstacles to the goal? Let those simple ideas guide your magic. If the goal is to get into the building and the obstacles are security guards and a security system, what gets you past them and into the building? Maybe invisibility. Maybe intangibility. Maybe a disguise. Maybe a quick shortcut through the Nevernever. Maybe a distraction like a demon materializing to slaughter the hapless mortals*.

The option you choose is another great chance to showcase who your character is and what sort of person he or she is. Your strengths are, of course, going to play a role in the choice – if you’re good at veils, invisibility is a solid choice, after all – but that’s just another way of revealing things about your character. The kind of person who is good at veils is different from the kind that’s good at demon summonings, for example.

Once you’ve got the effect and the method chosen, you have to figure out how tough the spell is to cast.

Determining Complexity

This is the most complex part of thaumaturgy, mechanically speaking. It’s the calculation of how difficult the spell is to cast and how much power it will require, which are the same number but mean different things. The complexity of the spell determines the power requirements, so let’s just talk about figuring out the complexity.

This is where you start looking back at the categories of thaumaturgic effect described above to determine what the mechanical effect of what you’re attempting with the ritual is going to be. Here’s how you work out the complexity:

  • If the spell is going to reproduce something that could be accomplished with skill use, the complexity is equal to the roll result that would be required with that skill. So, if you could climb up the side of a building with an Legendary (+8) Athletics roll, the complexity of a spell to get you quickly to the top of the building is 8.
  • If the spell is going to essentially perform a maneuver to add or remove an Aspect from a target, the complexity is equal to the defending skill of the target, with a minimum of 3. So, if you’re trying to open a Great (+4) lock with magic, then the complexity is 4. However, if the target is another character (or anything capable of an active defense), it gets a defense roll, so to make sure you land the maneuver, you have to increase the complexity to match the highest possible defense result. That means that, if you’re using a glue spell to make someone Stuck to the Floor, and they have Great (+4) Athletics, the complexity becomes 8 (4 for the Athletics, plus 4 for the maximum possible roll).
  • If you want to stick someone with a lingering Aspect – essentially, a consequence – the complexity has to exceed the defense skill plus the maximum roll, plus a number of extra shifts equal to the appropriate Stress Track, plus a number of extra shifts equal to the kind of consequence you want to inflict. So, if you wanted to cast an amnesia spell on someone with Good (+3) Conviction, the complexity becomes 17 (3 for the Conviction, plus 4 for the maximum roll, plus 4 more for the Stress Track, plus 6 for a severe consequence). Killing someone means you have to match the defense skill, plus the maximum roll, plus the Stress Track, plus every consequence, plus one to take the target out – complexity 29 for someone with Average (+1) Endurance.
  • If you’re creating something, the complexity is going to be equal to the quality of the item, plus any modifiers. So, throwing up a Superb (+5) ward for an hour* is complexity 5, or 7 if it covers an entire zone, or 10 if you want it to cover an entire zone for a full day.
  • If you’re doing any of the above but adding or removing some aspect of the effect, the complexity goes up or down, depending on the case you can make to the GM.

Now, if you’re trying to do something cool, you’re quickly going to see the complexity of the spell start to climb into double-digits. Don’t sweat it. You don’t need to roll to meet the complexity at any point; with enough preparation, any spellcaster can cast a spell of any complexity*.

Preparation Phase

Now that you have the complexity of the spell determined (and thereby the power requirement of the spell), you have to prepare the spell. In game-world terms, this is when you build the external, independent spell construct – the ritual, with all its paraphernalia and weird little requirements.

There is one thing you need to have to cast a thaumaturgic ritual, and that’s a symbolic link to your target. If you’re casting the power on yourself, then hey, easy. Otherwise, you need some sort of arcanely significant representation of the target – blood, hair, a picture, a map of the location, the true name, whatever. You must have a minimum of one symbolic link, or the spell cannot find the target. You can use more links if you want, and each of these is effectively a declaration, giving you an Aspect that you can tag for making up the Lore deficit, as described below.

The amount of preparation you need is based on the complexity in comparison to your Lore. If the complexity of the spell is equal to or lower than your Lore skill, you know all the tricks you need to know in order to pull the ritual off with the stuff you have in your pockets – you can move directly to the next phase. Of course, complexity scores for thaumaturgic rituals can quickly range up into double-digits, so that’s not always going to be an option.

When you have a deficit between your Lore skill and the complexity of the spell, you need to make it up before you can cast the spell. To do that, you need to go through the kinds of things that Harry goes through in the books in order to gain bonuses to your Lore. When Harry needs to cast a big spell, he spends time, talks to people who might be able to help, looks things up in books, ritually purifies himself, and buys strange and expensive ingredients, and that’s what you need to do, as well. Here’s how it works with the game mechanics:

  • Spend Fate Points. You can spend as many Fate Points as you like to invoke your Aspects to give you a +2 to your Lore. If you haven’t got any applicable Aspects*, you can spend a Fate Point to get a flat +1, as usual.
  • Take extra time. Having your character sit out a scene gives you a +1 to your Lore, as he or she is getting ready to cast the spell. There’s an interesting discussion about this on p262 of Your Story about the ramifications of this to player groups that you need to read before really considering this option.
  • Take consequences. Taking consequences gives you +1 to your Lore for every box of Stress the consequence would offset: +2 for a minor, +4 for a moderate, +6 for a severe, +8 for an extreme. This is some sort of self-sacrifice that you’re working into the casting of the spell. For physical consequences, the images are fairly obvious – blood sacrifice, flagellation, scarification, starvation, etc. Mental consequences can show how you short out your mind by trying to hold too much of the spell in your head, or maybe just indicate the extra effort you’re putting into the casting or the lack of sleep as you’ve been preparing. Social consequences get a little trickier, but I think that, if you’ve been putting together a spell that requires some unwholesome ingredients or acts, Arrested for Graverobbing could work, or maybe a Wild-Eyed Crazy Demeanor after spending all that time looking into forbidden books. The rules also suggest Oaths to other beings as a good way to boost your Lore – something like I Owe a Favour to Mab*.
  • Inflict consequences. You can get the same boost to your Lore skill by inflicting consequences on another being, whether they are willing or not. Note that this is a pretty dark route to go, even if the sacrifice is willing, and will probably have repercussions, but consider that killing another sentient being nets you +20 to your Lore skill for purposes of casting the spell – it can be a real temptation for the right kind of Wizard*.
  • Make declarations. This is really the meat of the thaumaturgy system – it lets you cast more powerful, cooler spells by coming up with cool stuff for the preparations. What you’re doing with this option is looking at your skills, and coming up with some interesting way that they can contribute to the spell. Then you roll on that skill, making a declaration to place a temporary Aspect on the spell that you can tag for a free Lore bonus. So, maybe you want to make a Lore skill roll to Research Sumerian Rituals, and then make a Resources skill roll to buy a Cuneiform Tablet to use in the ritual, and a Contacts skill roll to borrow some Shedu Blood from a friend, and top it all off with a Discipline roll to undergo a Purifying Meditation. Bang. You’ve just added +8 to your Lore skill for this ritual, as well as adding a bunch of cool details to it.

Once you’ve made up the deficit between your Lore skill and the complexity of the spell, you’re ready to move on to the next phase.

Drawing and Controlling Power Phase

Now that you’ve got the spell construct… er, constructed, it’s time to fill it with power. You need to draw in a number of shifts of power equal to the complexity of the spell, but you don’t need to draw it in all at once. Generally, you want to call in power equal to or less than your Conviction each turn of casting – calling in more does that pesky old Mental Stress, one point for every shift of power above your Conviction skill. Unlike evocation, though, you don’t take any Mental Stress if you keep the amount of power you channel each turn equal to or less than your Conviction skill.

The mechanic here is pretty simple: decide how many shifts of power you’re going to draw in a given turn, roll your Discipline score to try and control those shifts and, if successful, add them to the running tally of how much power is invested in the spell. When you’ve called and successfully controlled a number of shifts of power equal to the complexity rating of the spell, it goes off. Normally, there’s no targeting roll needed – you made sure it would hit the target when you set the complexity.

Of course, sometimes you don’t make that Discipline roll, and that can be bad.

When you fail a Discipline roll trying to control the shifts of power you’ve summoned on a given turn, all the power you’ve currently got gathered for the spell becomes uncontrolled. That can mean massive amounts of loose energy that you’ve got to figure out what to do with. If you let any of it go as fallout, the entire spell fails, period. So, in addition to maybe having the building collapse on you and your friends catching fire, the super-special escape spell didn’t get you out of there. The alternative is backlash, but considering you may be dealing with double-digit shifts of power, this is a good way to redecorate the walls with your brains. The upshot? BE CAREFUL.

Now, it’s not always that grim. If there’s no time pressure, there’s no need to roll. The GM just tells you how long it takes to cast the spell, and the spell goes off. This is probably going to be a longer time than if you had rolled, but no need to get impatient, right? Better slow and living than quick and dead.

The Story of the Spell

Thaumaturgic rituals can either be the most interesting, engaging part of the game, or it can be a quick bit of mechanical business that gets the characters from one bit of the story to the next. Which it’s going to be is going to depend on the needs of the game at the moment. If the spell itself isn’t really important, you can gloss over it pretty quickly and move on. Otherwise, you want to devote a little attention to it. That means telling the story of the spell.

Lenny Balsera posted this on the DFRPG site a couple of months ago, and it tells how he came to the idea of the story of the spells, and the impact it has on play. I can’t improve on what he says there, so just go read it.

The core of the idea is that what’s important in a thaumaturgic ritual is not the mechanical hoops you have to jump through or the dice you roll or even the way you work out the effect. What’s important for thaumaturgy is the impact casting the spell has on the story in the game. And not just whether the spell works or not; the entire process of attempting to cast the spell is important to the story – the things that the caster is willing and able to do to prepare, the way the effect is accomplished, the choices of how to build the ritual, the way he or she goes about casting it – all of it.

That’s where you should put your attention when someone starts talking thaumaturgy.

So, when you look at performing a thaumaturgic ritual, you need to think about a way to make the preparation you do fit into the story and say the things you want it to say. Look at the skills you’re using in the preparation phase, and string them together in a way that makes sense and adds cool to your character. If your Wizard bases his or her magic on the Enochian rituals of John Dee, then the preparations are going to be different from a Wizard following the ecstatic traditions of the Sufis, or a Wiccan practitioner – use this opportunity to set him or her apart and make the spell more interesting.

You want a great example of a story of preparation for a thaumaturgic ritual? Go see Iron Man 2. Watch Tony Stark put things into place to create the new element for his chest reactor*. He alienates his friends by keeping his secrets (takes a social consequence – Drove Friends Away), gets the box of his father’s stuff from SHIELD (Contacts, Messages From Dad), tries to get Pepper’s help (Rapport, Pepper’s Got My Back – failed!), finds the model of the expo (Alertness, The Secret of the Expo), guts his house to access the power and room he needs (Might, Remodeled To Death), buys or salvages the parts he needs from his expensive cars and other toys (Resources, Got Everything I Need), figures out the necessary element (Scholarship, New Element Template), puts together a particle accelerator (Scholarship, Kit-Bashed Particle Accelerator), and finally flips the power switch and lets it go.

That’s the kind of thing you’re striving for with a good thaumaturgic ritual preparation.

The Art of the Montage

Here’s the downside. It takes time, and focuses things strongly on the spellcaster for as long as it takes for the preparation and casting to play out. Sure, you can cut back and forth from the spellcaster to other characters, but it still effectively focuses the spotlight on one character for a significant amount of time. Especially because, if the characters have decided to eat a huge amount of time doing a ritual like this, everyone else is probably waiting for the outcome.

So as not to unbalance the spotlight time too much, it’s best to not run through every little bit of the preparation every time the spellcaster decides to trot thaumaturgy out. Take a tip from 80s action movies*, and use a montage. Just describe something you’re doing for preparation in a simple (but colourful) sentence, make your roll, and move on to the next item. Imagine a power ballad playing over the short cuts of your character going from task to task.

Of course, there are some situations where you want to focus the game on the preparation and casting of a ritual spell. In those cases, go for it. Roleplay all the preparation scenes, delve into the difficulties encountered along the way, and revel in it. Make it a set of scenes that everyone in the game is going to remember and talk about.

Conversely, there will be some situations where you don’t even want to spend the time it takes to do the montage approach. Maybe it’s a simple spell that the caster has done many times before, with no really dramatic outcome, and no time pressure. How do you handle the preparation then? Well, just say it all works and the spell goes off. Forget even rolling. Just take it as read that the spell works as described, and move on with the game.

The key here is to give the spell as much story as is good for the overall story, and no more. Deal only with the things that are going to matter, and drive on. But when it’s interesting and makes a good addition to the story, throw yourself into it.

Using Thaumaturgy Effectively

Those are the pieces that make up the thaumaturgy system, along with some comments on how they fit together and how to use them in play. Now for some thoughts about how to get the most out of thaumaturgy for your character. I want to be clear, here; I’m coming at this from the viewpoint of the GM – I’ve never actually been a player in a DFRPG session. These are just the things I’ve picked up from my reading of the system and running it from the other side of the screen. But they’re things that I think will hold true for most campaigns, subject to the whims of the GM.

Prepare as a player.

Because of the wide range of things you can do with thaumaturgy, it can get overwhelming to use it in play. And if you don’t use it in play, then you’ve wasted 3 Refresh and surrendered a huge amount of flexibility and functionality for your character. The best way to make sure you’re not paralyzed by choice is to do a little homework as a player to build in some options for your character. Here are some tips:

  • Work out a selection of rituals that your character might want to use beforehand. Can’t come up with anything? Look at the story bits you wrote for your character during character creation – especially the novels – and pull some ideas from there. Figure everything out at leisure, including working out all the math you need, what you’re going to do for preparation, and so on. Write it down and build a spell book. Add to the spell book, putting in the new spells you work out during play.
  • Take a look at your list of skills, and figure out a way each one can help you prepare for a ritual. Write it down and put it with your spell book. Add to it as you come up with new ideas, and keep updating it. In addition to this giving you a range of options for the preparation phase, it lets you look for ways to express themes in your magic and the way you practice it.
  • Work out your bonuses for different types of thaumaturgy, based on your focus items and refinements, in advance. Keep it up-to-date as your character advances.
  • Look at your specialties in thaumaturgy and make a quick list of some neat things you think you’d like to do with that ability. Keep expanding the list, and every now and then convert one of the ideas into a fully-worked up ritual for your spell book.

These things will accomplish two different goals: first, it will give you a bunch of pre-built stuff that you can use in play when you’re out of ideas or you don’t want to spend a whole bunch of time agonizing over what to do; and second, it will build your confidence and skill in using the system on the fly.

Think outside the box.

You can accomplish pretty much anything with thaumaturgy if you’re creative enough. So get creative. Look to your specialties for the obvious starting points in coming up with ideas, but look for ways that you can apply them to effects that may, at first, appear to be out-of-bounds.

Let’s say you want to curse someone, sticking them with the Real Bad Luck Aspect. You can do that by messing with the laws of probability if that’s your specialty, or you can do it by summoning a demon to interfere with the target at inopportune moments if that’s something you’re better at. You can conjure and interrogate a ghost for information if you’ve got a specialty in ectomancy, or you can enter a trance and access the Akashic Record if you’ve got a specialty in psychic magic.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again*: the measure of a Wizard is not how powerful they are, but how creative they get with what they’ve got*.

Take your time.

If you have no time pressure when casting, then you’re being foolish or cocky if you summon enough power in a given turn that you can fail the control roll. If your Discipline is Good (+3) or lower, of course, then you always have to make the Discipline roll, but if you’re Discipline is Great (+4) or higher, then you can summon a number of shifts completely safely each turn.

Do that.

Aside from its broad range of effects, the big advantage to thaumaturgy is that it hurts less to cast properly than evocation – if you do it right, you take no Mental Stress. However, it can be far, far worse if you fail, because suddenly you have to deal with all the power you’ve summoned into the spell up to that time. That can mean dealing with double-digits of uncontrolled power sloshing around messing the place up..

Now, if you’ve got to rush, then take the biggest risks earliest, when a failure will have the least amount of power to ruin your day. As you go on, drop the number of shifts each round to minimize your risk.

Let’s look at the odds* of things going badly. Assume you need 10 shifts of power and you’ve got a Discipline of Great (+4).

  • If you’ve got the time to go 1 shift per round, then you’ve got no chance of failing. Yay!
  • If you’ve only got 3 rounds to pull the spell off, and you summon power in blocks of 3 – 3 – 4, then you have an 18.5% chance of sucking up 3 shifts of power on a failure, an 18.5% chance of sucking up 6 shifts of power on a failure, and a 38.3% chance of sucking up 10 shifts of power on a failure.
  • If, under the same circumstances, you summon power in blocks of 4 – 3 – 3, then you have a 38.3% chance of taking 4 shifts, an 18.5% chance of taking 7 shifts, and an 18.5% chance of taking 10 shifts.

Those odds speak for themselves.

Sometimes, magic isn’t the right answer.

Thaumaturgy is wide-ranging, powerful tool kit, but sometimes it’s not the best solution. Don’t ignore the other facets of your character in favour of relying on spellcasting. Harry carries a revolver and keeps his contacts happy with him. He knows when to use divinatory magic and when to ask Karrin Murphy to look someone up for him. Keep in mind that, though magic is probably central to your character, it is not the solution to every problem.

Combat Thaumaturgy

One of the main distinctions between thaumaturgy and evocation is that evocation is combat magic. But thaumaturgy can be combat magic, too, as long as you can perform it all within the confines of a conflict scene. There is, in fact, something deeply cool about the idea of a Wizard scrambling to pull together a ritual amid a nasty firefight, with his or her companions fighting desperately to provide the needed time.

If you’re looking at doing this, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. First, the casting time of a thaumaturgic ritual is going to be dependent on how fast you can summon the necessary power, which means how big a risk you’re taking trying to control the power. Budget wisely.

Second, if you’re coming up with the ritual in the middle of a conflict scene, you’ve really got to keep an eye on the complexity. If you need to do any preparation, it’s going to take time, as you get ready to cast the spell, and some options may just not be available because of the circumstances. Of course, you can by-pass this by doing some preparation beforehand that can give you Aspects suitable for magic that you can attach to whatever ritual you start to put together. This is subject to GM approval, but it can work pretty much the same way as the preparation tips I gave for evocation.

And there you have my thoughts on thaumaturgy. Hope it was useful.


What’s Next

So, I’m not sure what people would like to see here next. I’ve got some ideas for a few different posts:

  • Math and Miscellany, where I talk about how to calculate your various bonuses to power, complexity, and control, and deal with some of the corner-cases of magic rules, like The Sight, crafting, and hexing.
  • The Grimoire, where I walk through building a few evocations and thaumaturgic rituals.
  • Preparation Cheat Sheet, where I look at ways to use each of the skills to help make up the deficit between Lore and the complexity of a thaumaturgic ritual.
  • Something Else, where you’re tired of me wonking on about the spellcasting system and would rather read me wonking on about something else having to do with the game. And just what might that be?

If you’ve got a preference for one or another of the above topics, please feel free to post it in the comments section.

*If the GM lets you, of course. Back

*Well, it cares about the time thing, sort of. Back

*As long as you’ve got a sympathetic link to it. Back

*And, being a GM myself, I will laugh. Back

*Pretty much the same thing. Back

*Though this is really handled by a sort of subsystem in crafting that I’m going to talk about another time. Back

*Although there’s a good paragraph on p275 of My Story as to why this last idea is not always a good plan. Back

*Or supernaturally. It is magic, after all. Back

*Probably not this one, unless it’s that kind of game.Back

*Durations are a little slippery. It’s ripe ground for negotiation between the spellcaster and the GM as to how long a ward would last as a default duration. Back

*In theory, anyway. The higher the complexity climbs, the more power you’re going to need to gather, and the more rolls that’s going to take, which increases the odds of rolling that disastrous failure on the control roll that lets 30 shifts of power loose in your immediate vicinity. But no guts, no glory, right? Back

*And really, why wouldn’t you? Didn’t you read this post? Back

*But really, who’d go THAT crazy? Right, Harry? Back

*This is, of course, a violation of the First Law of magic. Inflicting Mental or Social consequences may be violations of the Third or Fourth Laws. Back

*Okay, some may be arguing that this is science and not ritual magic, but he still has to assemble all the items and information he needs before he can perform the ritu… I mean, experiment… that lets him do something impossible. I stand by my assessment. Whether you call it magic or science, this is a near-textbook example of the idea of the story of the spell. Back

*Is there anything we can’t learn from 80s action movies? No, there isn’t. Back

*Harry’s said it, too. Back

*And doing the unexpected is the most fun in play, I find. Back

*Odds are pulled from this site. Back

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21 Responses to Thaumaturgy, or How to Break the Rules: Magic in DFRPG, Part Three

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention What's He On About Now? ร‚ยป Thaumaturgy, or How to Break the Rules: Magic in DFRPG, Part Three --

  2. Archmage_cowl says:

    honestly i would be cool with anything you want to talk about next my good sir, but i find my players have trouble sometimes coming up with good ways to use their skills in preparing a ritual. Maybe you could do that preparation cheat sheet next?

  3. Grant says:

    I’d be keen to see the Grimoire, but failing that Math and Miscellany would be my second choice.

  4. Rel Fexive says:

    I vote for Grimoire and Cheat Sheet, in whichever order seems best; both would be very handy and I can’t pick just one! I think I’d say come up with some Cheats and show how to use them in a Grimoire.

  5. JesterOC says:

    I was wondering how that glue spell you mentioned would work. Lets assume you computed the difficulty and succeeded, you have now placed the aspect “glued to floor” to a person for lets say, an hour. Then a fight breaks out next to the target. So, do you then say I now tag that aspect and they are stuck, and when the hour is over you could use a fate point to increase its duration, or would you get to tag it in the first round and then have to use a fate point every turn? I guess I am trying to figure out the relation between the effect of glued to floor with the idea that aspects are seem very temporal (1 exchange of duration only).

    Thanks for the great article, it is a valuable resource.


  6. Rick Neal says:


    There are a few ways you could do it. Let’s go with the scenario you laid out: you cast the spell, succeed, and put the Glued to the Floor Aspect on the target for an hour. Then a fight breaks out next to the target.

    The target is Glued to the Floor without you ever needing to tag the Aspect. But if you want to, say, punch the target in the face, you can tag the Aspect (for free, the first time) to get a +2 or a re-roll. Now, if the Aspect is (no pun intended) sticky, it hangs around, and you can repeatedly compel it for a Fate Point. The target remains stuck to the floor until the Aspect comes off.

    How does the Aspect come off? The two common ways are either for the duration to expire, or for the target to succeed at a maneuver to remove the Aspect from himself.

    Aspects aren’t necessarily limited in duration by the number of rounds – they’re limited by the number of times they’re used. So, if you perform a maneuver to put an Aspect on someone and equal their defense, then the Aspect is fragile: you get to use it one time, and then it goes away. If you beat the defense roll of the target by one or more shifts, then the Aspect is sticky: it hangs around until someone does something to take it off. First tag is always free, but then, if the Aspect is still hanging around, it’s one Fate Point a pop, just like any other Aspect.

    Hope that helps, and glad you enjoyed the article.

  7. Tush Hog says:

    Great stuff! I would love to see a grimoire of spells. I started a thread over on JBO for folks to post their own spell creations and would love to see some of your examples of all the different types of things you could do. And if you could throw in some examples of potions that would be I would be really happy ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Santito says:

    Hey Rick,

    I’m really impressed by your work here, I’ve been lurking long enough and it’s high time to tell you this.
    We’ll launch a Dresden Files campaign soon, probably in Budapest and I’m just sucking in all the goodness you are putting up on your site.

    I’ll join the others and would like to see your interpretation of building some evocations and rituals them being an important part of the game.

    Keep up the good work!

    (actually this is a male surname as in Christian, just to avoid some misunderstandings)

  9. Ben says:

    Wanted to say: these three articles have helped both me and my players wrap our heads around magic and how to use it.

    My vote would be for Math and Miscellany and Grimoire, but “all of the above” is really where my heart is at.

  10. Rel Fexive says:

    I’ve made PDFs of these three articles as player handouts, with the appropriate credit obviously ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. Rick Neal says:

    ๐Ÿ˜€ Glad you’re finding them helpful. For the record, I have zero problem with people reusing stuff from my blog, but I appreciate it if it’s credited to me. That’s just ego, of course.

    What’s not just ego, but appreciation, is making sure that Jim Butcher and Evil Hat get props when you talk about the game. They work hard, and they give us great stuff, and they deserve credit. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. Rel Fexive says:

    Of course ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Pingback: What's He On About Now? ร‚ยป The Real Story of the Spell: Cooperative Thaumaturgical Preparation in DFRPG

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  16. SamWitch says:

    The link about the Story of the Spell… written by L.B. (something), doesn’t take me to an article, it goes to another DFRPG page. Help?

  17. Rick Neal says:

    @SamWitch: Thanks for pointing out the broken link! When Evil Hat moved the DFRPG site under their main site umbrella, the post I was linking to got a new URL. I’ve fixed it above in my post, and am including the URL down here for convenience.

  18. Erik says:

    Hey, I was wondering, how do you deal with Wizards that are perfectly okay with happy sacrifice days? I’m running a grey to dark campaign and as such they have no problems with murdering people for their ritual, creating long lasting powerful wards against being scryed and other such fun anti warden spells. With the 20 shifts from murdering a random person on the street, its not hard to create spells that are a smidge on the potent side.

    Currently, I’ve limited the shifts available to being the same as what they would have if the players fought them, so usually just a mild at most unless an important character. Is this ever a problem in your games, and if so how did you deal?

  19. Rick Neal says:

    This isn’t a problem in my games – I make it a rule that I only run games wherein the characters are heroes. I got over the fun of running evil campaigns many years ago.

    That said, it looks like you’re not happy with the amount of power that the villainous wizards are able to generate through casual murder. Some of the ways you might look at balancing that:

    – The Lawbreaker stunts. They’ve broken the First Law (and probably others), and that’s going to impact their refresh.
    – Stick an aspect on them to reflect the fact that they are now dark wizards. Compel the hell out of it.
    – Recognize that the Wardens and the White Council have the same advantage as the police: there’s more of them than there are of you. If you’re killing folks for magical purposes, a group of powerful wizards working together can put together something to pierce whatever the characters have done.
    – If there are murders taking place in the mundane world, there are mundane police to throw at the characters. Remember, you may be able to outrun a policeman, but it’s much harder to outrun THE POLICE. Everything becomes harder when you have to hide from the law.
    – There are other supernatural factions around, too. How much research do your players put into their random victims? Enough to be sure they haven’t killed a favourite pet of a powerful fey or vampire?
    – Vengeful haunting. Boom.
    – One very important mechanical tool is the fact that the energy gathered must be controlled. Stack up a few aspects on the wizard, and make the rolls to control the shifts of power they’ve generated that much harder. If you’re feeling mean, save this for when they’ve got 20+ shifts all set, and just need one or two more. It’s likely that this will at least sap a lot of fate points, and may result in a crater.

    Now, to be fair, warn the players before you start cracking down with these options. If they’ve been getting away with this stuff for the entire game and you suddenly start punishing them for it, they will understandably be upset. Let them know what the specific problem you have with the current behaviours are, and how you’re going to start addressing them. Then, you can land on them like a tonne of bricks, and they have only themselves to blame.

    Hope that helps.

  20. Erik says:

    Those are some brilliant options! I had only really considered one of them, thank you so much!

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