War of Ashes RPG: Extras, Extras! – Part 1: Magic

Jaarl PopioAs I work on the system portions of the War of Ashes RPG I’m writing for Evil Hat Productions, I’ve reached the sections that are not ready just out of the box in the Fate Accelerated system.  In Fate parlance, these are the Extras, used to model some special features of the setting like magic, superpowers, advanced technology, etc.

Let’s check some of the features we’d want to model that way for the world of Agaptus:

  1. Magic, of course.
  2. Strange technology or knowledge of the Ancients.
  3. Mass warfare, and the connection with other games set in the War of Ashes universe.
  4. Equipment.

I’ve been re-reading not only lil’ old Fate Accelerated but also Fate Core, Fate System Toolkit, and a number of implementations of the Fate system in various books and online to collect and compare good ideas. As usual, I’m jotting down ideas here so I can refer to them later, to clarify my own thought process, and to solicit your suggestions, questions and comments. Today, let’s talk about magic and the gods.


Magic in Agaptus is in many ways more trickery and taking credit for fortuitous success than actual arcane workings; after all, no one wants to see the gods show up up too close. Priests mostly try to pretend to do magic without actually attracting attention from the gods, whose appearance is dangerous even to their devotees.

Why even have it, then? One: it works. Sorta. Sometimes. It’s not much, but in battle it can make all the difference. Two: the gods get very, very touchy when you neglect them and they react badly. Then it’s not ambiguous, two-edged, or risky at all: it’s all bad.

Think of Agaptans as pets, and the gods as their owners. There’s not that much communication going on, and every once in a while the owners remember to put some food down, but all too frequently they completely misunderstand whether you wanted the litterbox cleaned, more water, or walkies. But pee on the carpet or ignore them for too long, and oh boy! It might be off to the pound with you. Or worse.

Priests’ objectives, then, are to minimize the amount of actual god involvement in mortals’ affairs while maximizing the satisfaction of their flocks and patrons. They try to do just enough actual magic and no more, covering the rest with a mix of sooth-saying, show-boating, quackery, and blind luck.

The Basics

Using the five factors discussed in the Toolkit (pages 77-79), magic looks like this:

Tone: Something with opinions. Magic is generally “divine” in origin, and the gods are arbitrary and cantankerous. Different magical traditions also have very different dogma on what magic is or should be.

Cost: The first cost is training; there is also definitely a risk associated with working magic. Too good or too bad a job will attract the Divine Gaze, something that can get you incinerated on the spot. Just plain failure will of course disgruntle the people and the authorities.

Limits: Each variant works within a set of limits; effects (counterfeited or real) are accomplished through rituals. These are mostly used to encourage and motivate troops on the battlefield.

  • The Elvorix use animal sacrifices to convince the populace that their deity has noticed them and blesses their endeavours. These sacrifices double as flaming shock troops when the ylark (large cattle) are set on fire and pointed at enemy troops,
  • The Vidaar primarily use augury through the interpretation of cheese and the occasional drunken party to “interpret” the will of their deity, Akka-Maas. The moldy cheese also doubles as ammunition for the stinkiest artillery ever.
  • The Jaarl carry large chunks of Sacred Stone from Murmadon which they use to power their rituals, but invoke no god.
  • The Kuld1 use rituals based on the subtle scents they regurgitate to interpret the will of the Source.

Availability: Requires training, and some individuals are more gifted than others, just like some have talent for music or art. In addition, all Jaarl can sense the presence of Sacred Stone, as do trained Elvorix and Vidaar priests.

Source: The source of Elvorix and Vidaar magic—at least when it rises above trickery—is divine power, whatever that is. An additional wrinkle for the Jaarl: their power comes through sacred stone, though it comes from from their god, at least in theory. You could say the stones are the proximal source and the god the ultimate source.

Nuts and Bolts

Risk: The probability curve of Agaptan magic roughly matches that of Fate: a fairly tight variance around the average expressed as a generic “Trust me, it worked” result. To either side, long tails represent rare but spectacular success or failure. This can be well represented by the Fate ladder.

Of the examples of magic systems examined in the Toolkit, the one that most resemble our power level is the one presented in “The Subtle Art,” pages 101-107. However, we are not using skills as in Fate Core but the Fate Accelerated approaches here; sure, we could add a new Magical approach, but that special status does not match very well with the low-key quality (and perhaps uselessness) of most magic rituals.

Limits: We know we’ll require a permission, which will be reflected in an aspect; this will usually (but not obligatorily) be the high concept. Like in “The Subtle Art,” we’ll use a list of rituals which priests can pick from to call on specific effects.

It’s doesn’t seem appropriate to require a Refresh cost or use a power point pool for an ability that we envision as providing no tangible, or at least provable, benefits most of the time.

However, we may create magic-related stunts that characters can add as normal (first three are free, additional ones cost Refresh) which will pump up the result of specific rituals. This brings its own cost since it will increase the likelihood of high results which in turn will be reflected on the Divine Interest stress track (see separate discussion below).

Effects: Most of the time, the effects will be handled as fiat (see the discussion in Toolkit pages 143-145). On an unusual success or failure, we may add aspects or even stunts. In addition, spectacular success or failure will be reflected on the Divine Interest stress track.

Kuld worshipping the SourceDivine Interest

Divine Interest and its stepped-up version, the Divine Gaze, are concepts found in the War of Ashes: Shieldwall miniatures game (ZombieSmith). To model this, I’m planning to use an additional stress trackFate Accelerated characters only have one stress track rather than Fate Core‘s separate tracks for physical and mental stress, so that will not badly clutter the character sheets.

A new stress track suggests that there should be:

  1. specific triggers causing the stress,
  2. points in the story for the boxes to be cleared,
  3. ways to clear them sooner by doing certain things or at a cost,
  4. one or more consequences, and
  5. effects attached to filling all your boxes (being “taken out.”)

Examples of things that would cause Divine Interest (i.e., cause you to check stress boxes or take a consequence) include:

  • Rolling +4, +3, -3, or -4 on the dice.
  • Obtaining a Fantastic (+6) or better result. (Break point may change based on playtest result.)
  • Obtaining an Abysmal (-4) or worse result. (Break point may change based on playtest result.)
  • Certain costs associated with magical stunts.
  • Being associated with someone who takes a consequence or who fills up their own stress track and is “taken out”. For example, you might get a point of Divine Interest stress when the priest in your party takes a Divine Interest consequence (e.g., “Marked by Ilunus“) and you might take two if they are “taken out” and thus singled out by the god for a special demonstration of interest.

1 Yeah, that’s new as of this week: we’ve decided to add the Kuld as a player faction. Since I love the models, this makes me happy. Return

Credits: Art ©ZombieSmith 2012-2013, used with permission.