SIFRP Design Journal: Magic
by Steve Kenson
“Sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.”
Magic has all but vanished from the world. The Children of the Forest are no more. Priests perform no miracles. The dark arts of necromancy no longer function, and even the pyromancers have lost much of their lore, reducing them to mere shadows of their past greatness. Magic has passed into legend and myth, alive only in the superstitious imaginings of the smallfolk . . . or has it?
From the opening pages of A Game of Thrones, it’s clear magic has returned to Westeros. Its effects are subtle at first, but as the books march on, stranger and stranger events occur. The Red Woman gives birth to hideous black shadows. Dragons live in the world once more. The dead walk the snowy north, and ancient relics of power have been unearthed from the vaults of the dead. Old spells woven into ice and stone grow in strength, priests find new power in their gods, and pyromancers recover secrets and powers long since lost. Magic may have entered its decline with the Doom of Valyria, but it has returned to the world once more, perhaps as a trickle, but there can be no doubt that it will soon become a flood.
Magic and the Game
SIFRP recognizes that magic exists in the world, but at the time in which this game is set, it has yet to make its return in any significant way. Wights and the Others stalk the land beyond the Wall, but they are a problem for the wildlings. For the rest of Westeros, they are a tale used to frighten children, a disturbing ghost story told over the campfires on chill nights in the long summer. Priests go through the motions of their faith but are no more adept at working miracles than a smallfolk leech farmer. Even the maesters, who make a practice of examining the lost arts of magic, have had little luck in finding power in the old spells inscribed in ancient books and scrolls. So while magic does remain, it is elusive, mysterious, and lacking the power it once held.
Even though there are no wizards with spells, no magical artifacts of fabulous power, magic does exist. Instead of shimmering curtains of eldritch energy or lightning bolts flung from the fingertips of sorcerers, magic is a mysterious thing, a power bound up in history, laying across the land invisibly, unseen and unfelt until time and circumstance demand its revelation.
Magic serves as a narrative tool, a device to propel your stories, to add color to places of historical significance, or to weave into your stories to add an air of mystery and fear to the plots as they unfold. In this way, magic can serve whatever need you might have, whether it’s to explain some unexpected flash of insight, a queer dream, or even a strangeness of architecture. As your campaign moves into the time of the novels, magic may return in greater force. Heirlooms may manifest great power. Characters may learn and master spells and rituals. Hideous demons and monsters of nightmares could stalk the lands once more. Whatever you decide, magic should always remain dangerous and mysterious, always beyond the reach of the common mortal to understand, let alone use.
Omens and Portents
One way in which the supernatural manifests in the world is through omens, portents, and dreams. Signs and warnings are everywhere for those who know where to look and what they’re looking for. Easily the greatest example of these signs from the novels is when Jon Snow and Robb Stark find the direwolf pups in the snow. There was one for each scion of House Stark, five around the decaying carcass of their mother and one alone, separated from the rest. The appearance of these direwolves signaled the import of the Stark children but also warned of the fate that awaited House Stark in years to come.
Omens are excellent ways to introduce a chronicle’s themes to your players. You need not create a circumstance identical to the one that affected House Stark, but some strange sight or unexplained event could encompass the challenges and threats arrayed against the players’ house. By establishing the omen early, you can set the tone for the entire chronicle, setting up the plot in a way that gives it the same gravitas as the one faced by House Stark in the novels.
The greensight is the ability once possessed by the children of the forest that allowed them to catch glimpses of the future. Called green dreams, the events witnessed in the mind’s eye always come to pass, even if the circumstances of the dream are not immediately apparent. The ability of greensight is rare in Westeros, and if it exists beyond the lands of the Seven Kingdoms, it is known by other names.
Since the greensight is always accurate, and the actions undertaken by the players rarely so, adjudicating greensight can be challenging, so much so that you may be reluctant to use it at all. Unfortunately, not using greensight for a player that has invested in this quality deprives that character of a resource that might be better spent elsewhere. So if any player has this quality, you should make use of it at least once every story or two.
A green dream does not need to map out exactly what will happen and when. Instead, it usually captures a particular scene, an important event related to the story that marks a turning point in its plot. So when using greensight, you should select a pivotal scene to appear in the dream sequence. Instead of describing in detail what will happen during the scene, you should couch the entire scene in symbols. Look at the scene’s setting and establish it as the background for the dream. Then, look at the principle Narrator characters related to the scene. Use their blazons or geographical locations to symbolize their presence. Finally, look at what’s at stake in the scene, and shape the dream’s action to represent the most likely outcome of the scene.
A good example from the books is Jojen’s dream about the deaths of Bran and Rickon Stark. Jojen was certain that the boys would die, but they didn’t. Instead, the lands believed them dead when Theon Greyjoy murdered two smallfolk boys in their stead to conceal their escape and cement his rule over Winterfell. From this example, you can see that while the expected outcome did not come to pass, the dream was still true because of what was believed to have happened and also what Bran and Rickon both would have to face.
Greensight Fate Quality
Your dreams sometimes come true.
Requirements: Cunning 5, Will 4, Third Eye
Effects: You have prophetic dreams, powerful portents of what is to come. The dreams are filled with symbolic meaning, images, and metaphors. The meaning behind the dreams is not always clear, but once you have experienced one, you will see the fulfillment of your visions in the unfolding of the events around you.
The greensight is not something you can will to occur. It comes to you when events significant to you and your allies are about to happen. The Narrator will take you aside, describe the most important elements of the dream, and give you the pieces to put together in whatever way you will. Regardless, the events you foresee using the greensight always happen.
Uncommon in the North, where the old gods still hold some sway, skinchangers are virtually unknown in the cultivated south. A skinchanger, sometimes known as a beastling or warg, is a rare individual capable of casting out his mind to fill the consciousness of an animal. At first, the link can only occur between the individual and an animal to which he or she is close, and even then, only with exceptional animals.
When a skinchanger first awakens this ability, confusion is the most likely result because th
e person experiences vivid dreams and impossible events. Such links are unconscious, and the skinchanger has no control over these sensations, though the effects on a skinchanger and the animal begin to manifest early, as they take on the mannerisms of the other. In time, with practice and often the training of another skinchanger, the skinchanger learns to control the experience, blending his consciousness with the animal at times of his own choosing.
Skinchanging is dangerous for numerous reasons. The beastling must ever resist the influence of the animal and must always fight to retain his own identity. As well, should the skinchanger be killed while inhabiting his host creature, he remains trapped in the mind of the beast, condemned to spend the remainder of his days lost in the mind of his linked animal.
There doesn’t appear to be any limits on the types of creatures a skinchanger can inhabit. Wargs, skinchangers who bond with wolves, are relatively common enough to color the opinions of most Northmen, but there are examples of skinchangers who link with shadowcats, eagles, direwolves, and even bears. It’s said that the greatest skinchangers were the greenseers, children of the forest who could wear the skins of any beast.
Skinchanger Fate Quality
You have mastered the method of skinchanging and can now freely leave your body for that of your Beastfriend.
Requirements: Will 5 (Dedication 2B), Animal Cohort, Third Eye, Third Eye Opened
When you sleep, you can wear the skin of your Animal Cohort. You use the animal’s statistics but retain your own Cunning and Will. You may remain in this form as long as you wish, though be aware your true body’s needs must be met, and extended trips into your Animal Cohort could cause you to starve to death if you remain out for a week or more. You can return to your body and awaken at will. If your Animal Cohort takes damage, you automatically return to your body as well.
In addition, you can now take the Animal Cohort benefit multiple times, thus allowing you the ability to wear the skins of multiple animals, though no more than one at a time.