Thoughts on Adapting Worth the Candle for Tabletop RPGs, Part 1: Entads, Exclusions, Tattoo Magic, Blood Magic, Bone Magic
Worth the Candleis a fantasy web serial that I write about (among other things) D&D, or more broadly, tabletop roleplaying games. A lot of it is commentary on TTRPGs in one way or another, with some just being fantasy kitchen sink, except doing weird spins on things instead of just cliches. Within this world are a number of magic items and magic systems, some of which can be adapted back into the TTRPGs from whence they came with a few tweaks and adjustments. This series will attempt to be system agnostic, but there will be a few pointers in various places for the systems that I’m most familiar with. Contains some very minor spoilers for Worth the Candle.
Entads are a term given to a subset of magical items on Aerb. What distinguishes them are that they are A) made by someone in something called a forge frenzy, directed by some outside force and overcome by the muse of creation with no focus except on the task and B) do not replicate, except when multiple of the same thing were made in a single forge frenzy. There are a few other rules, but those are the two basic ones.
Generally speaking, I hate Magic Mart style thinking in TTRPGs, where adventurers just go to the magic store and pick up something that they read about in a splatbook, or worse, a +1 magic sword. Entads are a way of correcting for that. Here, you might be able to go to a place that sells magic items (on Aerb, usually auctions), you might even have standardized bonuses either in-world or on the game level, but each thing is going to be a unique creation with quirks and character of its own. This is a fair bit of work for a DM, especially because descriptions are easily forgotten by players, but my go-to method if the sword doesn’t have a distinctive mechanical quality is to give it a distinctive mechanical quality that’s secondary to (or related to) its primary function. These can be super low powered, like a single use case for prestidigitation, but they help with the sense that these things are weird, unique, and magical. And because no one intentionally made design decisions, you can get crazy with it.
Almost all of the entads presented in WtC can be stolen for use, and a fair number of them originated in campaigns that I played. Timings need to be standardized to whatever time system you’re using, and some of the entads aren’t balanced all that well, or were balanced to unique circumstances, but I think they’re all pretty easily slotted into place.
An exclusion zone is the only place that a particular magic, creature, item, or phenomenon works. If you just had one of them, used to justify why the dread creatures haven’t spread like a plague across the land, it might be a little bit lazy. If you have a dozen of them, they’re worldbuilding and Zones of Adventure. I don’t find exclusions zones particularly unique, nor all that interesting on their own, since they’re a refinement/comment on a phenomenon that’s pretty common in fantasy where there are hostile and seemingly invasive species that should cross borders but don’t. Almost all of the listed exclusion zones should be pretty easily adaptable into an existing campaign, and if you want, you can reskin them so that there’s no whiff of the exclusionary principle.
Tattoo mages are a take on the standard TTRPG wizard, at least in some senses. They tattoo their spells on their skin using magical inks, which are consumed in the process. Some tattoos offer permanent benefits, while others are single use. Some tattoos can be transferred onto the skin of other people and used by them, while others are only usable by a tattoo mage.
In terms of adapting this, there are a number of considerations.
1. Tattoos sometimes serve the role of magic items. In the case of a spell like Parson’s Voice or one of the translation tattoos, they’re simply a thing to be acquired once you have enough money, and interesting only in that it takes a tattoo mage to apply or remove them. A neat thing you can do here, if there’s no one in the party who’s a tattoo mage, is to have an enemy with a valuable tattoo on them that will go non-functional in a half hour after their death, meaning either a race against the clock or an attempt at capturing them alive.
2. Tattoos sometimes serve the role of permanent buffs. Here, we can imagine a D&D 3.5 prestige class that says at level 4 you get, I don’t know, a boost to an attribute, or a selection of continuous effects, or something like that. This is quite a bit different from magic items in practice, because it only applies to the tattoo mage. Permanent buffs are usually pretty sparse in most TTRPGs I’ve played, but you could use them in the same way you’d use feats in D&D.
3. Tattoos sometimes serve the role of spells. This is what they’re most used for in WtC. Vancian magic gets prepared at the start of the day and used up by the wizard because casting erases the memorized spell from their mind, though most of that conceit has been stripped away over the years, leaving on the mechanical reality of a limited number and magnitude of spells in a day, sometimes with spells you can always cast no matter what. Tattoo magic was at least partially based on this: the magic is limited due to the limited amount of space on the body for tattoos, along with the time needed to reapply each tattoo.
I think it would be possible to simply reskin a D&D wizard as a tattoo mage by simply handwaving away the material component costs of inks (in a similar way to how material components are usually handwaved away). A tattoo mage doesn’t have a spellbook, he has a book of flash, and he spends his mornings tattooing himself for the day ahead, picking out prepared spells, until his skin is as full as he can make it. As he advances in level, he gets better at making the designs compact, better at making the spells impactful, and he learns new tattoos to put on his skin. How on point this is varies by edition/system, since one of the core conceits of the magic is that you only get what’s on your skin, meaning that you can’t cast stuff you haven’t prepared (which wizards can do in some editions/systems).
But reskinned wizards are boooooooring. One neat idea I had a while back was that rather than spell slots, you could have a tattoo mage do some inventory management stuff like in Diablo and give them a grid that they would fill with shapes made of blocks to represent the tattoos. As level goes up, the grid expands, and more spells can be packed onto it. I think that’s a fair abstraction of filling the skin up with tattoos, and probably at least a little bit fun, maybe moreso if your grid was body-shaped. Too much work, especially balancing it? Maybe, but it’s an idea with more mechanical identity.
(In terms of flavor, tattoo mages are a grab-bag of dissociated spells with no common threads, which is sort of how I view classic TTRPG wizards. A wizard can cast a Fireball and Detect Thoughts, but these don’t really have anything to do with each other, and don’t really have much justification for being available to the same class, aside from that just being how things were in the beginning.)
In TTRPG parlance, blood mages are actually melee fighters with some magical themes to them and a few small utility spells that at least partly exist for flavor. The largest part of what a blood mage does on a day-to-day basis is punching things hard and moving fast, using the inherent energy of their pulse to gain kinetic strength.
The big problem with adapting blood mages to TTRPGs is that the primary power source of the blood mage (blood) regenerates incredibly slowly, and most TTRPGs are centered around a daily cycle rather than a monthly one. A healthy adult has about ten pints of blood in their body, and regenerates a single lost pint in about four weeks at the earliest. Now, blood plasma is different, and is on the 24 hour cycle, so you could certainly say that’s the real power source (rather than red/white blood cells), but that leaves the problem that blood loss leaves a person weaker, and generally speaking, TTRPGs will have you lose benefits but not actually gain afflictions, most of the time, depending on what you’re playing. A blood mage logically should be able to spend their blood until they’re getting woozy, racking up negatives from how hard they’re pushing themselves, but this is somewhat antithetical to how most systems are set up.
I don’t really know what the solution here is. Most likely if I had to adapt it, I would just bite the bullet and use something like barbarians get, with levels of exhaustion or temporary debuffs that can be shrugged off, rather than leaving a blood mage fighting for their life incapacitated for days or weeks afterward. Alternately, you could do something like blood points, if which would operate similarly to a monk’s ki points. That still doesn’t really do blood loss and anemia justice, but you might be able to get some of the flavor.
Blood mages get a lot of tangential benefits from their blood beyond just the physical bonuses to fighting and movement (and at higher level, the blood spear). They get heat and thereby light, enough to make a pseudo-flame or to cause minor burns. In my opinion, these should be pretty minor aspects of the character class, fringe benefits that come up every once in a while rather than core to the experience.
The healing/buffing/debuffing benefits of the class are a little more core to it. Hardening the blood provides either armor or damage reduction, though both would be minor. If a blood mage forces their blood into another person, they can either heal or harm. The former works best during post-fight downtime, given that it probably involves rubber tubes and some waiting. The latter works best as a special attack usable once per X when combined with a blood spear.
I think that as a prestige class, you would probably want to slim it down and give it more of a focus, because it’s got a lot of different identities that result from being conceptual outgrowths of this core but diverse thing. Blood moves through the body, it carries heat, it carries oxygen, it heals, it gives nutrients, etc., but if you take all those things together, you get something that’s really mixed in how it expresses itself … which was rather the point of it. I kind of think of blood magic as being a metaphor that got stretched out of shape by thousands of munchkins over hundreds of years, even if that’s not canonical to the text.
Bone mages burn through bones, which grant them the stats of whoever or whatever those bones came from. There, done!
The big problem, from a TTRPG perspective, is that bones are a limited resource, and A) tracking limited resources isn’t usually fun, which is why arrows and rations usually get abstracted away as soon as possible and B) limited resources come with expenses, which are usually not central to any character class. The little problem, which also has to be dealt with, is that stat boosts are great … but also pretty boring in practice.
IMO, the most compelling thing about bone magic is that you can use it to steal the powers of the things you’ve fought, though this is a fairly high level skill in WtC. Beat a unicorn, and suddenly you can have unicorn powers! Beat a troll, and you get a bit of his regeneration! Beat a rust monster, and you can rust things! So I think the key to success for this magic as a character class would probably be in highlighting that as much as possible. The real trick, obviously, is balance, as well as cutting down on how much DM time the class takes up, and I think that’s the biggest weakness in adapting bone magic, because there are a lot of monster/opponent abilities that players simply can’t be allowed to have if the game is to remain balanced.
So that’s the duality that we’re looking at. On the one hand, we have some pretty clean and neat stats that we can pull from, but they’re boring. On the other hand, we have all the things that make monsters special, but they’re horrifically complicated to balance and likely demand near-constant attention. I’m not actually adapting these classes, these are just my thoughts on adapting them, so the hard work of finding the balance is left as an exercise to the reader.
There are a couple of things limiting bone mages, even aside from the resource problems mentioned above. The first is that they need to be in physical contact with the bones. The second is that they need to focus at least some of their effort on draining the bones in order to make use of them. These aren’t hugely onerous, but you’d probably have to make a decision about whether bones will really take one hand to use, and how much if any of the action economy they’ll take away (with things like concentration being included in that).
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Thoughts on Adapting Worth the Candle for Tabletop RPGs, Part 1: Entads, Exclusions, Tattoo Magic, Blood Magic, Bone Magic