I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Living Spells

Here is a bit adapted from Dark Fantasy Magic:

The idea of “spells as living entities” is worth considering. My main inspiration here are the works of Jack Vance. Terry Pratchett uses it very effectively for comic effect. Our goal, however, is somewhat different from these authors, as we are trying to make magic a bit darker and scarier.

This idea can explain various parts of a spell system. For example, spells mishaps are just strong spells that the wizard was unable to control for a moment. Spells occupy a place in the wizard’s mind. They can reproduce and be extinguished, like viruses or bacteria, and they can make the wizard sick in the brain. They can lie dormant in old grimoires and scrolls, or be trapped in talismans and wands. They can mutate with time, or generate funny interactions with one another. Magic items lose power after all spells store within are spent – leaving a single spell unused might prevent this in some cases, probably because some spells can reproduce by parthenogenesis.

These things would ordinarily inhabit another planet, parallel to our own, where they roam free, only to be randomly picked by random wizards to fuel their actions. The most powerful ones could even take a physical form if they wish. Every wizard should have some grasp of this concept, even if only in a subconscious manner.

What kind of beings are spells, exactly? Well, that is up to you. They might be spirits, demons, angels, elementals, or beings of pure energy. Their minds are probably extremely simple or completely alien. They might be servants or parts of powerful beings (the god of fire, etc.). One would assume they do not mind being used by wizards, perhaps because they follow a higher order, or do not grasp the concept enough to organize a rebellion. They probably do not enjoy staying for too long in our plane, since most magic is temporary.

The truth, however, could be darker than the characters know. 


Maybe these beings can feel, and consider every casting a small torture, and repeated summoning a form of slavery. The screaming faces that appear every time you hurl an energy spell at your enemies are more than illusions. Magic artifacts may require the binding of a sentient spirit in a piece of metal or wood. Like trapping fireflies to make a lantern… or imprisoning Beethoven in a music box for your own amusement. 

The demon that lives in your sword is always willing to help you in your fights in exchange for some blood… but for how long? Maybe all wizards know this and keep it secret, or maybe they refuse to see it. Maybe it is only a theory, a legend, a hunch… an uneasy feeling in the back of their heads.

And maybe one day the wizards might find that these things want revenge.


As I've said above, this is adapted from my book Dark Fantasy Magic. It contains shorts essays and many tables that deal with magic, wizards, spells, etc.

You can find it by clicking on the link above.

If you like this, you'll find more stuff like this on my Dark Fantasy line.

It is also a great way to support this blog.
Hope you enjoy it! Thanks!

Monday, February 24, 2020

Darkness in in 5e D&D - torches, stealth and encounter distance (quick fix)

Fifth edition D&D lacks clear, explicit rules about these subjects.

I wrote a couple of posts about them already: here and here.

But these are long. Here is the TL;DR version:

- Torches are conspicuous (like lanterns, candles, etc.). They can be seem from a mile away in the dark. Even in dim light, they'll probably be quickly noticed unless there are brighter lights around, Which means, basically, that you cannot sneak around while carrying your own sources of light, and you can NEVER surprise someone in these circumstances - unless you opposition is asleep, blind (blindsight), etc.

- Large groups are noisy. When making stealth checks, do not make it a "group ability check". Each PC rolls separately. If the thief succeeds and the paladin fails, the opposition only sees the paladin at first. Which might be a good opportunity for the thief.

- If no one is sneaking or carrying torches, encounter distance is defined by darkvision (usually 60 feet). If both parties have darkvision 60 feet, the encounter begins at a distance of 60 feet. If you randomly encounter a monster with better darkvision than you, it sees you first. It decides whether to approach or not... or to attack from a distance. With a good perception check, you might hear a noise, take cover, etc.

Special circumstances may change this - if there is a door or other obstacle, for example, both parties could hear one another though the door.

- Inside narrow dungeons, encounters happen in corners. If one side is carrying a torch, you might still see the light before turning the corner, but it would make things less obvious.

- Unless you avoid this on purpose, if someone in your group has a torch, the whole group will be spotted easily in the dark.

Intelligent monsters that have darkvision may use torches anyway, unless they are expecting an attack by enemies that do not have darkvision. This is a bit more complicated. Darkvision does not ignore the darkness, it makes it milder (like "dim light" - which causes disadvantage in perception checks). In addition, you cannot see colors in darkness, only shades of gray.

It seems creatures with darkvision would prefer live in dim light if possible - they keep their edge against diurnal creatures and can see well enough. However, most sources of light in the game create bright light in a small radius and dim light in a bigger radius - potentially forcing goblins, for example, to live partially in bright light.


- Monsters with keen senses may have different rules. If you use the rules as strictly written, a goblin should fight a wolf in the dark if given a choice. However, wolves have keen hearing and smell, and goblins have bows. A goblin village threatened by wolves might prefer to surround itself with torches if the night is dark, to see the wolves approaching (without disadvantage) and take them down from a distance.

If the goblin village is threatened by giant bats (with blindsight), they would DEFINITELY use torches.

However, a goblin village surrounded by aggressive HUMANS would never use torches, for similar reasons - humans rely on sight MORE than goblins, and would have a hard time approaching without being noticed.

Most of this is common sense, but easy to forget when you're playing the game and looking for actual rules.

In addition, all this stuff might hinder your fun, specially if the entire group suffers because one single PC doesn't have darkvision. If that is the case, decide what is best for you. Many groups hand-wave the whole notion of light and darkness... but using it right can lead to awesome situations.

If you want to support this blog, check out my books! Most are compatible with 5e.

Friday, February 21, 2020


So here are my two newest books: Dark Fantasy Magic Items and Dark Fantasy Settings.

They are on sale for US$ 0.95 and 50 cents for a limited time!


These are collection of tables and short essays to inspire the creation of dark fantasy settings and magic items. As always, the focus is on dark fantasy tropes: flawed heroes, terrible villains, corrupting magic, ominous ruins and damned wastelands.

Here are some examples from each book.


What is missing?
Gods. They died, left, became corrupted, etc. (see the “Dark Fantasy Religion” book for more ideas)
Water. In this deserted world, human life is cheap and water is expensive.
Food. Everyone are starving, and the number of cannibals is growing.
Sun. The sun is dying. It might have turned red already.
Light. It is always night, and torches are scarce.
Heat. This winter is harsh and lasts for decades. The whole world is covered in snow.
Civilization. Civilization has fallen, and barbarians live amongst the ruins.
Technology. The primitive humankind cannot tell the devices of the ancients from magic.
Sight. The whole world is surrounded by fog. Hard to see, easy to get lost.
Magic. The slow death of magic will bring doom upon the world.
Metals. Metals are scarce. Wood, bone and obsidian are used in its place.
Memory. Everyone seems to be forgetful, and the old ways are falling into oblivion.
Empathy. It is every man and woman for themselves now, and the devil take the hindmost.
Order. Nobody is in charge, and everything is permitted.
Transport. There might be peace somewhere, but no ways to get there.
Sanity. Everyone is crazy, but each in their own way.
Stability. Everything changes rapidly. Cities move around. Buildings grow and collapse like trees.
Souls. Most common people are born with no soul, although this isn’t always obvious.
Exit. No one can leave The Great City. Beyond the walls is hell, or worse.
Hope. Everything is going downhill, and nobody cares.

Magic items:

Deep and dark like the night sky. You cannot see the stars move, but they do.
Looks as if it was made of contained fire, without heat.
A sea of desperate faces float around with open mouths, making no sound.
Its parts seem to flow slightly within, like water.
Luminescent. It glows in the dark but provides no light for you.
It contains one or more eyes that occasionally seem to blink.
Made to resemble flowers and plants, with a sweet, slightly narcotic smell.
Reflective, like a perfect mirror.
Ultrablack – darker than your pupils, and makes the light around them a bit weaker.
Beautifully prismatic, like a cross between a rainbow and the aurora borealis.
Old bloodstains that can never be cleaned.
Incredibly fancy. Decorated with precious stones or metals.
Resembles (or contains the image of) an animal, demon, monster, child, etc.
Has small pulsating protuberances that resemble cists.
Made of living, flayed flesh, or human skin. Might bleed if damaged. / Made of bones.
Smooth, squishy and wet, resembling octopus’ skin. / Semi-transparent, like hardened glass or crystals.
Covered in scales of a dragon or great lizard. / Engraved with glowing runes.
Decorated with large feathers of extinct birds. / Perfectly polished metal.
Rubbery and flexible, but still very resistant. / Radiant, like a beam of light or “laser sword”.
Covered in the strangely colored fur of an unknown beast. / All bent and twisted.

I think the series is now complete! I'm really happy on how things turned out. And I still have other stuff up my sleeve...  Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sword of Destiny (book review)

Sword of destiny is the second book from "the Witcher" series, which rose to worldwide fame mostly because of the videogames and, now, the TV series.

This book was actually published in Poland BEFORE The Last Wish, the "first" book in the series. However, the events described in The Last Wish happened before, and it also was printed before in english IIRC, so Sword of destiny is usually classified as book 2 in the series.

These two books are collections of interconnected short stories, not novels, with the main "saga" beginning in book three.

If you read my review from the first book, or watched the TV series, there is not much to add here. If you liked those, you will probably like this. The series drew a lot from this book.

Sword of destiny is like The Last Wish, but even more so: the flaws are more glaring, but the overall quality of te writing is not much different from the "first" book. Dark humor, clever twists, decent dialogue, etc.

There are LOTS of appearances from Jaskier and Yennefer in this book, among other fortuitous encounters that strained my credulity to its limits. Important characters bump into each other at crossroads, random villages, etc. "Destiny" seems to be the culprit in some cases, but it feels exaggerated sometimes.

The focus on relationships frankly makes me question why we should call this "dark fantasy" in the first place. Yes, there are some amoral characters and prejudice against the nearly-extinct elves, and institutions are unreliable (aren't they always?), but not much more "dark stuff" than that. Lots of happy endings (or at least not terrible), for example, unlike G.R.R. Martin or Moorcock. The dark parts in this book concern mostly Geralt himself and how the process of becoming a Witcher is dangerous and taxing.

And Geralt is again, an idealistic character, seemingly out of place in this world - much more honest and reliable than Elric or Conan, and deeply in love with Yennefer, a woman that apparently isn't sure if she loves him back. Or something like that. If you came looking for gritty, gloomy fantasy, you might roll eyes at some points in the story.

The focus on love and relationships (even impossible love) makes this stuff almost like some kind of "romantic" fantasy (I use quotation marks because romantic fantasy is actually a whole different genre).

But, ultimately, it is mostly "postmodern" fantasy, poking at the tropes of the "traditional" fantasy of Tolkien and others and often subverting them, reflecting on society itself and the nature of destiny, etc. 

It is not tragic or alien stuff, but has clear modern sensibilities (even the characters often think in modern terms...). It resembles the "pulp" classics like Howard more than the epic narratives of Tolkien or Moorcock, or even the more "magical" works of Dunsany (which I love) and Eddison (which I can hardly read, to be honest).

At least in these first two books, there is a quality of alienness and awe that seems lacking - if that is what you're looking for in fantasy novels.

However, the stories are interesting and well-written enough that, frankly, got me hooked. The pace is sometimes slow, but never boring, and the "short story" structure make pages go by fast. The action scenes are good, the jokes are often funny... And the characters manage to be compelling - Jaskier is a worthy companion instead of comic relief, and Geralt pass through hard times and mundane problems, making him more relatable.

And, once again, this book is great to mine for ideas for RPGs.

So, in short... I'm a bit on the fence on this one. It is a good book, but not one of the greats, at least not so far. But then again it is the first book the author wrote, and it show signs of becoming something bigger. So, if you like the "first" book or the show, I'd recommend this one. I'll probably read the next one to see how the series progresses.