Thursday, April 7, 2011

Worldbuilding - Bring out your Sorcerers!

The Sorcerer will always be a unique class for me. Unlike the Fighter, Cleric or Wizard, the Sorcerer was created in an attempt to address an old issue – the often (an unjustly) criticized “Vancian” magic system (which isn’t exactly Vancian, a  better term would have been “Gygaxian magic system”).
With the new spellcasting class done, it was necessary to create some sort of background to insert it in the game. I don’t know who gave the idea for a (at first) draconic-descent inborn spellcaster, but it stuck and sounded cool enough. Later it was expanded to cover other supernatural bloodlines. However, it is a pity that the concept was never fully explored. Sorcerers remain on the sidelines of most campaign settings (in other words, they still are nothing more than “non-Vancian” wizards). And that’s a shame. Because their powers are passed through bloodlines and families I believe that Sorcerers should have an impact as big as clerics and divine spellcasters in most fantasy world.
I’ll throw here some ideas I had for Sorcerers since they became part of D&D.
The Spawn: This is perhaps the “official” assumption. Sorcerers are likely the great-grandchildren of supernatural creatures, not their direct spawn, but nothing can stop you from changing that (remember the Dunwich Horror?). For example, in my Greyhawk campaign the Fighter/Sorcerer of the party discovered that his powers came from his dead mother. Before marrying his father – a Shield Lands human lord – she was a silver dragon later cursed to human form by a scorned wizard lover. The Fighter/Sorcerer even found out that his giant eagle mount was actually his half-brother (a silver dragon) secretly protecting the last living member of “his family”. This extra background gave a lot more flavor to the class and the players love it.
Linking a particular Bloodline to a setting element is a sure way to give more color to a character class. The Undead Bloodline, for example, could be the specific result of children of vampires with mortals (or wights or any other particular undead). The Aquatic Bloodline is also a ridiculously obvious option (just check its top bloodline power name).
Noble Houses: This is probably one of the easiest and most obvious options. In this setting, sorcery is royalty and royalty is sorcery. The idea can encompass the entire world to generate interesting stories (like in the excellent 7th Sea RPG): what happen when a noble scion from a Good but extremely Lawful dynasty doesn’t develop sorcery powers? Does the throne go to his evil brother? You can create all kind of conflicts and give another tone to your adventures by exploring themes like, for example, peasant revolutions and the “divine” right of rulers.
A more modest approach would be the creation of one or two cultures around this concept. I believe that the Draconic and Elemental Bloodlines are perfect for this. We could create a noble house for each type of dragon (or elemental). Three examples:
·         The Dragon Raiders. Imagine that the Vikings (or the even the Sea People) were ruled by draconic sorcerer houses, each one attempting to hoard a greater loot. Maybe accumulated plunder is seen as a “prestige meter” among these barbarians.
·         The Eternal Kingdom. We now move to the Far East. Imagine a grandiose empire like China, India or Persia, but controlled by ancient noble families linked to “divine” dragons. Maybe each house can be indeed ruled by a true dragon, old beyond reckoning (let’s face it: it’s easy to protect your hoard when you have an empire around it). These “civilized” dragons can be the patrons of the Empire against their “barbarian” brethren from beyond the Great Wall. This setting is also perfect for an Elemental Bloodline dynasty.
·         Talking about Elemental Bloodlines, how about a far land where most of the population naturally manifest some type of elemental sorcery. In these strange and exotic kingdoms, the type of element manifested by a sorcerer mark his race and native culture. These natives utilize the ascetic practices of monks to better develop their inborn powers (any resemblance to an amazingly cool cartoon is pure coincidental).
The Taint: This option links sorcery to dark and unsettling powers. Maybe sorcery is like a magic plague – you gain terrible powers, but your mind and body are slowly twisted by it. The Aberrant and Abyssal Bloodline are favorite choices for this option. Imagine if most of these Sorcerers irrevocably become evil or mad (or both), leading happy rampages across the world before being stopped in cataclysmic battles (Wheel of Time, I’m looking at you).
It would be interesting (and very creepy) if this Taint worked literally like a plague. Creatures wounded by an Abyssal Sorcerer would eventually develop fell sorcery. This geometric progression could have secondary dire effects – like the weakening of the walls between the Material Plane and the Chaotic Evil realms. The Undead Bloodline fits almost perfectly this alternate setting – with the extra effect that every Sorcerer of the bloodline that is killed comes back from the grave as an unliving abomination.
Children of the Gods: This is a little variant on the Spawn (and maybe Noble) option. Sorcerers are descendents from the gods, or rather from the True Children of the Gods. I would use the Celestial Bloodline for this variant. Sorcerers could be the children of the biblical Nephelim – please note that “celestial” here is not synonymous of “good”. You can say that the Nephelim in your setting are actually aasimar or titans (my favorite).
There is something in the Stormborn Bloodline that also rings true with “Children of the Gods”.
This option gets even more interesting if you explore the relation of these “Divine” Sorcerers with clerics and divine spellcasters.
Dark Pacts: Maybe Sorcerers aren’t born, but invested with their powers. The problem with that is that there is only one Source available: Devils. This is a classic theme in fantasy and can be easy simulated in the rules by the Sorcerer class. Again, this pact doesn’t mean exactly “evil”, so there’s a lot of potential for dark characters seeking redemption (or revenge, after all, they could have been cheated into signing that contract).
The second candidate would be the Fey Bloodline. Fey are great characters to act as patrons, antagonists and allies (and sometimes all three together). Their amorality and contradictory behavior lends itself to better player character’s stories than the Faustian tales of the Devils. This approach is even better if you place the Fey as a “third power” in the struggle between Gods and Devils (or Demons). Fey Sorcerers could be the “false” Druids of the setting, which also sets some interesting conflicts.
The Mysteries: In most D&D/Pathfinder settings religion is anything but mysterious. One way to restore the aura of the unfathomable and the unknown is to introduce weird or strange cult that breaks some of the game’s assumptions (especially clerics). A good way to do that is with Destined Bloodline Sorcerers. This type of Sorcerer could easily simulate a group of ascetic chosen or mystic philosophers devoted to a “higher power” or “hidden mystery”, beyond the known pantheons. Their independence from a divine source allows all kind of campaigns, especially about intrigue and investigation (and also tons of role-play options). Others good contenders for Mystery Cult-sorcery are the Dreamspun, Protean, Shadow and Starsoul Bloodlines.
Witch Hunt: Let’s give credit where it’s due. This idea came originally from the excellent Iron Kingdoms setting. Think about it – Sorcerers have access to amazing powers naturally. It doesn’t require arcane books, secret knowledge or anything else. Even the lowliest peasant can achieve the level of might enjoyed by archwizards. It’s just natural then that Sorcerers are hunted and reviled – they’re just too damn unpredictable. Almost all Bloodlines work pretty well here. Fey and Infernal are two classic candidates.
A good implementation of this idea can be seen in the brazilian 3.5 setting of Réia. This is a low-magic world, based on Charlemagne’s feudal legends. Here wizards are members of the nobility (few people in the Medieval Age could read) that greedily hoard any arcane knowledge from the lost empires of old. Sorcerers usually arise from the peasant classes and have a bad reputation as Devil-touched or cursed individuals. This is represented by a very interesting yet simple rule: strange things happen around Sorcerers. Milk spoils, candles behave oddly, animals act weird etc. None of these effects allow people to precisely pinpoint a Sorcerer, but they know that one is near. I don’t need to say that Sorcerers have a terrific flavor in Réia.
Legacy: This approach is a little radical for it requires a human-centric setting (it fits perfectly a classic Sword & Sorcery world). Sorcerers here are humans that bear the touch of the Others – the fallen races of lost ages. The mythic races of yesterday have faded away and only thin bloodlines survive among men – Sorcerers. It’s easily to adapt this with Bloodlines like Aquatic, Abyssal, Boreal (giant folk and trolls?), Draconic, Fey (descendants of elves?), Deep Earth (would this Sorcerers would be short and stocky?), Serpentine and Verdant (yes, your ancestor was a treant).
Bound: You can also add a lot more flavor to Sorcerers by bounding their powers to a specific setting location (preferably a mythical or legendary one). Maybe sorcerous powers are granted as a boon (or curse) to any person capable of reaching these mysterious places. You can have a magic mountain (Olympus) for Stormborn Sorcerers, a mythical land beyond the pole (Hyperborea or Kadath) for Boreal or Aberrant Sorcerers, a primordial forest (Fangorn) for Verdant Sorcerers or even a distant city among the stars (Carcosa) for Starsoul Sorcerers.
Traveling to these places could leave a mystical “mark” on the adventurer, represented by the Sorcerer class’ powers. A more radical option would be to link the potency of the sorcery to the status of the mythical location. If the holy mountain was shattered or taken, the Stormborn Sorcerers would lose their power (or be greatly weakened). This would really forge a bond between Sorcerers and the geography of your setting (and maybe create interesting clashes with druids and rangers).
Manufactured Sorcerers: This is a crazier concept linked to the abstract Arcane Bloodline. Maybe a very powerful archmage developed a way to imbue magic in other creatures, creating beings who would become Arcane Bloodline Sorcerers. Try to picture the kind of war that in bygone ages shook the world – entire armies of arcane spellcasters created without the need of years of hard studies and long tomes of mystic lore.
A second variant that I used in a home setting was that the Arcane Bloodline Sorcerers were created by the dead of the greatest of all archmages. When defeated by his direst enemies, this archwizard unleashed a powerful spell, creating a new star in the skies and giving origin to Arcane Bloodline Sorcerers. The catch is that all these Sorcerers are born with a mark resembling the ‘Star of the Mage’ (as it is called). Many believe that these Sorcerers are actually a massive and extremely powerful ritual of resurrection: when one of them reaches enough power, the Archmage will be reborn in the Sorcerer’s body (not a good scenario if the Sorcerer in particular is a player character). How to stop the ritual? What if only the legendary Archmage has the necessary knowledge to stop the campaign’s nemesis or save the world from a cataclysm?
Weirdness: You can always create unique and strange origins for Sorcerers in your campaign setting. Take two examples: Protean and Shadow Bloodlines.
While I liked the Protean Bloodline, I created a more generic Chaos Sorcerer because the first lineage has a strong connection to a monster instead of a concept. If I were to use the Protean Bloodline it would be as a type of “Anti-cleric” Bloodline. In this setting, the Gods would be the forces responsible for creating worlds and life (evil gods still love destruction and death, but not formless chaos). Protean Bloodline Sorcerers would be the servants of the true Lords of Chaos, the serpentoid primordial beings who desire to return all the planes to the unshaped Seas of the Maelstrom that existed before Creation. Called “Devourers of the Gods”, these Sorcerers would be seem as great menaces, even if in fact they were unwilling chosen by the Proteans.
The second example is weirder. The Shadow Plane is in this setting would be something alive. Shadow Sorcerers are those that either make a pact with It or are simply taken by the shadows. The consequences are the same: instantaneous arcane powers. However, there’s always a price. Sometimes, a Shadow Sorcerer comes to the Material Plane years later, other times he loses something, like some memories, his shadow or even his face. Worse, the Shadow Plane has its own agenda: It may send shadow clones of the Sorcerers to do its desires. My Chronicles of the Seventh Moon campaign uses a very similar approach.