Runequest Thursday #45 - Broadcast Sorcery!

Clint Staples

Note: Although written with my own Sorcery Rules in mind, with a little juggling of particulars, this could easily fit with standard Sorcery in RQ or other similar systems.


One of the things that you see in some films or books, as a side effect of certain types of magic, is that magic use, or the activity or presence of a magic user, is detectable to others who are sensitive to it. Like Luke Skywalker becoming aware that he was jeopardizing the mission by alerting Vader to his presence, or Gandalf refusing to work magic because it might draw the attention of the Shadow, active magic use or a powerful mage can be a beacon to those who know how to see it.

I have always liked this notion, but you rarely see it in games. Perhaps a game’s designers don’t want to limit mage PCs, or maybe they want a very finite stamp of magic on the world, so they limit things to ‘detect magic’ spells that must be cast, have a distinct range and duration, and possibly limited uses per day. Thus PC, and NPC mages can be assured that they can cast spells without people nearby becoming aware of their actions unless they happen to have a detecting spell working at that moment.

One of the things about magic though, is that it should not be able to do everything; it should have limitations and it should have a cost. Beyond the temporary cost of Power Points or Spell Slots or whatever, magic should brand the user in a fundamental way. In a lot of games and fiction, this brand is a set of activity-based limitations, such as being unable to wear armor, or fight effectively with weapons, even a health cost – a lower hit die in D&D, an essence-sucking ritual, or the devotion of life energy to an outside power, etc.

But another sort of limitation could be on the magic itself and its use. If a good magic system should not be able to do every thing, or at least not do them equally well, it could well have features that are significant detractors for its practitioners.


How Broadcast Sorcery Works:

In this optional system, sorcery broadcasts its presence, and the presence of its practitioners to those who are sensitive to it.

In my sorcery system, there are no spells to ‘Detect Magic’ or ‘Analyze Magic’. The Sorcery Skill is used to do this, and may be done ‘as needed’, the understanding being that sorcerers are tuned in to the world of magic, and feel it intrinsically. They no more need to cast a spell to detect magic than a dog would to detect a scent.

Instead, any one with the Sorcery skill can detect magic with a roll against that skill whenever they want. The power level of the magic, or the distance to it, can modify the roll, but it can be done anytime, or as often as the player wants to take the time to do it [generally a Combat Action, if the game is in tactical time]. The better the toll, the more information the sorcerer receives about what he ‘detects’; thus analysis of the magical world is inherent in the detection of its traces.


Detecting Sorcery or Sorcerers:

The GM can call for a Sorcery check when there is magic to note, or sorcerers about. Players can still take an action to do it, but the GM is more proactive about supplying the information all the time - again modified by the nearness of the activity and the power of the magic. The modifiers would be something like this [you can use these for player-initiated checks too, of course].


Sorcery Skill Percentage Roll to detect sorcery or a sorcerer:

  • Add 10% for each Rune Mastered by the sorcerer to be detected.
  • Subtract 20% if the detected sorcerer has Mastery of the Sorcery Skill [90%].
  • Add 10% if the sorcerer is known to the one detecting.
  • Add 10% to the roll for every rank of the spell beyond the third.
  • Add 10% to the roll if it is within 30 Yards.
  • Subtract 10% if there is significant obstruction [anything from a crowd of people, cavern walls, buildings, mountains, a forest, etc].
  • Subtract 10% if the effect it beyond 1 mile distant but less than 2 miles, Subtract another 10% for each subsequent doubling of the distance [the increments are 1,2,4,8 . . . , so 7 miles would impose a -30% penalty on any detection].


I have made the bonus based on power start at the Fourth Rank. This encourages the use of lower rank versions of spells if one is worried about detection. Thus a sorcerer could hurl three rank spells around with more surety that they might not be detected. Whereas Manipulating 6 levels of a spell would add 30% to detect it.

I have made the distance increments such that a capable sorcerer could possibly detect a spell, effect or sorcerer miles away. You can, of course, modify the system to suit your needs by increasing or decreasing the distance for each increment.

Magic items and similar effects:
You can use the same system to make sorcerers aware of active sorcery or magic items. This can be a useful 'bloodhound' ability that a sorcerer can use to track down a magic item or a creature with an active spell upon it, or zero in on a magically potent area like a portal to another location, a zone of death magic, even the presence of a lurking earth elemental. Use the highest ranking power of the item to determine any bonuses to detection.

Note: A powerful [rank 4 or higher] effect that is not on, does not affect a detection attempt, so a Stave of Fire and Frost 5 is no easier to detect than a ring with Light 1.  A sword that has a permanent Sharpen 4 on it, however, is 10% easier, at all times.


How do you determine when, or how often, to call for detection rolls?

This is rather fluid and may be altered to suit the campaign. Generally, it is a good idea to give an NPC a roll early, at a relatively low percentage, then each time something changes the roll - as the range changes, or when a potent spell is cast, etc. Of course, range may not always be important. If there are numerous sorcerers in a city, for example, they will likely ‘tune each other out’ after a while. Perhaps this explains the stereotypical sorcerer preoccupation with isolated towers in which to work. The main thing is to keep the game flowing, so if rolling Sorcery checks is slowing play, tone it down.


PC sorcerers may call for a check whenever they like, and should occasionally remind the GM of the Broadcast nature of Sorcery. And of course, should another sorcerer cast a potent spell, or move nearer, they should get a check to detect that.


The Results:

If you fail the roll, the presence of the triggering spell or sorcerer remains unknown. If you fumble, you cannot detect that sorcerer or his works until he attempts a more powerful spell than the one you tried to sense.

How much you roll below the target number determines the amount of information you receive. This can be rather loosely interpreted on the part of the GM and allows her to impart as much or as little information as suits her, but the amount should be greater for a lower roll than one that only just succeeded. Things like direction, distance, type of magic, elemental aspects, identity of the spell or spellcaster, how magically potent the spell or sorcerer is, all are possible details. If a rule is required, you could impart one of these for each 10% by which the roll was made.


Here are a couple of options to consider if you want to use Broadcast Sorcery:

Spells that could mask one’s presence:

Invisibility and Countermagic might be effective at screening a sorcerer, and possibly his workings from detection. If you wish, these spells reduce the detection chance by 20% for Invisibility and by 10% x Ranks of active Countermagic. Thus an invisible sorcerer with three ranks of Countermagic active would impose a 50% reduction on the chance of detection. Of course, in such circumstances, each will need to be extended significantly to be of much use. If you use this option, these spells probably shouldn’t be detectible at higher levels, since part of their function is specifically to avert detection and magic.

Other Types of Magic and Broadcast Sorcery:

Shamanism, theism, and other non-sorcerous magical arts might be as likely to detect sorcery, or less so, as you prefer. Because sorcery is essentially the imposition of the caster’s will upon the fabric of reality, others sensitive to magic might perceive its workings easily. You can allow non-sorcerer magic users to detect sorcery using the same system, possibly with a reduction of 20%, because they are less familiar with the intricacies of the art. Roll against the magical skill [Shamanism, etc;] to detect active sorcery spells or casting. You might also want to make it harder or impossible to detect the presence of a sorcerer, on the principle that a shaman or priest might not know what a sorcerer ‘looks like’ magically.



OK. How does this work around the table?


Two sorcerers, Koli and Rake, rivals for power on the streets of New Pavis, are approaching the bazaar from different directions. Even a few hundred yards apart, and out of sight of each other they may know of the other’s presence. Koli has an active spell [Sharpen] at rank 5, Rake is warded by Countermagic 2. The GM calls for the PC [Koli] to roll vs. his Sorcery skill of 64%, to see if he detects Rake. Koli’s player rolls 26, and the GM checks to see if any modifiers apply. Rake has not mastered any Runes, his own Sorcery skill is 79% [so not mastered], Koli does not know Rake, and there are no range modifiers. The bazaar is crowded [-10%], and Rake has Countermagic 2 [-20%]. 64 – 30 = 34. Koli’s roll of 26 succeeds.

            Now the GM determines whether Rake perceives Koli. Koli has a rank 5 spell active [+20%], and is known to the other sorcerer [+10%], who keeps abreast of potential threats to his power. Koli has not mastered any runes or his Sorcery, and range is not a factor. So Rake has a +30% modifier to sense Koli, giving him 79% +30 = 109%. Rake can only fail on a roll of 95 or higher.

The example has a fairly neutral set-up. But what if the situation were different. Perhaps Koli is infiltrating the ruin that is home to the sorcerer Rake and his band of cutthroats. Because of Koli’s active spell, and any other powerful spells that he cast in the approach, Rake is very likely to become aware of the attack. Of course, Rake might not have Countermagic up and be more noticeable himself. Or Koli could be more circumspect and keep his spells at rank 3 or below to avoid detection.  Regardless, Rake’s chance of noticing the intrusion will grow as Koli nears.