This is the third and final segment in our series on the strange and unusual. Part 1 covered some tips for describing the dreadful. Part 2 gave some mechanical tweaks you could add to just about any system, to highlight the horrific. Below, we will address two of the outstanding topics, PCs that are themselves exotic, and how to make magic less mundane.
There is an ongoing issue in many fantasy campaigns. The setting document claims that certain races are vanishingly rare. Or that wizards are few and far between, perhaps less than a dozen in a given kingdom. And yet, as soon as you begin bringing together the party, you have two wizards, three members of “lost” races, a member of a race that is an enemy to the dominant civilization, and a half-breed even though half-breeds can’t naturally happen.
How can you expect to generate wonder in the appearance of a rare creature, when your PCs are even more rare?
There are a few simple solutions for this. The first is just to disallow anything outside of a limited range of races, or to put restrictions on classes. Or, preferably, give a carrot of some sort to players who choose “normal” options (increased starting equipment is an easy one, that rarely causes balance issues down the road). If your setting document says that the dominant race is humans, then there should be at least a couple humans in the party!
If that is not an option, you can work to create an inverted sense of wonder. If your party is largely made up of beings alien to your main setting, play that up! Have them confused by the use of common implements. Have the routines of the marketplace be deep mysteries, with rituals that the PCs clumsily attempt to emulate. Try to think about what a medieval village would look like to someone who had never seen one before.
You should also remind the players that they are each extremely rare to each other. Just because they travel together doesn’t necessarily mean they understand each other. Also, half a dozen “one of a kind” creatures coming together is unlikely to be coincidence. Play up the sense of wonder the PCs should have in themselves. Force them to think of each of the other members of the party as being at least as strange as the things they encounter.
Finally, make sure that the people this party of legendary beings meets react appropriately. In some cases, this may mean falling to their knees in awe. In others, instant attack. But, whatever you do, do not allow your rank and file NPCs to treat the PCs like people. Because, in all honesty, they aren’t. This will reinforce the sense of wonder in themselves that I mentioned above. It will also keep the setting internally consistent, so that when the peasants react to the troll with the same awe it actually means something. And, of course, that kind of reaction is generally exactly why the PCs picked the “unique snowflake” options to begin with.
Making magic truly magical is a constant struggle in RPGs. And there are some very good reasons why that is. The rules tell the players exactly how the magic works, so there’s not much mystery. As a culture, we have largely abandoned the mythical for the practical, and almost inevitably bring that bias into the game eventually. The necessity of precise and well-defined mechanics makes unpredictable or multi-layered magics difficult.
Again, there are any number of excellent articles out there on the internet on this subject. So, I am not going to dive into it too deeply. However, there are a few points I want to make.
Most of the mentions above for creatures are just as applicable to spells. Re-skin spells to at least be less predictable. Apply horror checks or sanity checks to witnessing powerful arcane rituals (or possibly for using them!). Control the rarity of magic and its practitioners, including its rarity within the party. Use your descriptive details to good effect.
In many systems, there is not a lot more you can do to make spellcasting more occult. The system assumes that the primary use of the arcane is going to be battle-magic, and that is how the mechanics lean. Battle-magic is very impressive, and a lot of fun, but it is rarely mysterious.
To really evoke the right tone, you may need to change out some details of the magic rules. One of the best ways to do this is to add an element to how the arcane power is earned. Again, I will refer to Unknown Armies. Part of the point to the setting is that magic requires you to be at least slightly insane, and completely obsessed. To gain a magical “charge,” you must feed your obsession. If you ever betray your taboos or ignore your obsession, you lose all of your charges. Enforcing this sort of behavior in your game creates wizards who are forced to act in ways that ordinary people, even their friends, find completely mad.
You can also add a cost to tapping into knowledge man was not meant to know. The sanity check is certainly one such mechanism, but it really punishes sorcerers in ways that might not be appropriate. The Shadowforce Archer setting for Spycraft had a marvelous variant, called the Thirst. Every time you cast a major ritual, you ran the risk of gaining a level of Thirst. A few levels weren’t bad. Indeed, they tended to make you better at casting rituals (though at the cost of becoming slightly worse at everything else). Once you picked up four or five, though, mechanics began kicking in that made it clear that this was an addiction. If you ended up with ten levels, you went insane and became an NPC. However, it was fairly easy to cleanse yourself of Thirst. All you had to do was meditate and perform specific rituals on the high holy days. Of which there are four a year, and each time would only cleanse one level. In between, you had to be careful. Using magic wantonly, or especially following the Left Hand Path, would result in you gaining Thirst faster than you could shed it. It added a very nice supernatural feel to the magic, and created a logical division between “white” and “black” magic.
Finally, you can add mythology to the magic, that colors how it is perceived and reacted to within the setting. In 7th Sea, sorcery was an inherited gift from a bargain with demonic forces, not a science to be studied and learned. Similarly in Deadlands, it is known that hucksters battle manitou and force them to enact their will. The defilers in Dark Sun destroy life around them to power their spells (this also calls back to the “how magic is earned” element above). No matter what arguments the players may make, there is no way that such thaumaturgy is ever going to be accepted as “normal.”
I hope you have enjoyed this series. Even as long-winded as I have been, this is only a bare overview of what can be done. If you only take a few points away, I want you to concentrate on some of the points from Part 1. Elements in your setting are only as exotic as you describe them to be. They are only rare by comparison to what the characters see every day. And, your players will take their cues from your NPCs, so make sure the NPCs are anything but blase.