Fantasy setting where magic is all elemental summoning [Fate Core]

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daniel_ream

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So I'm just finishing up the Legend of Eli Monpress series, which I'm enjoying greatly mostly due to the magic system (briefly, every inanimate object has a sapient animus that a wizard can communicate with and persuade to do things).

I'm lazy and can't be arsed to design a magic system that perfectly mimics the one from the series, but the Fate System Toolkit has a system that's very close: the Storm Summoners system. In Storm Summoners summoners can summon elementals of various sizes from any of five elements - Earth, Water, Ice, Fire and Thunder. There's another tier where a summoner can make a pact with an Elemental Prince for more power and the ability to summon a unique, named elemental of great power.

You can't hang an entire setting/series on "kewl magic system" though and there are some obvious holes that need to be filled:
  • The elements are based on the Five Storms of the original Fate Core magic system which is basically bending. Wood, Void, Air, and so on seem like obvious additions to the set but I can see it being challenging to come up with ways of making each element's elementals mechanically unique.
  • Summoners aren't that powerful in absolute terms but elementals grant both versatility and a force multiplier. There need to be other setting elements that justify why summoners aren't the dominant power elite.
  • The book series has Swordsmen with a capital S who wield "awakened" blades, swords whose animus is ancient and powerful and grant their wielder superhuman ability. The blades are created by Shapers, wizard-smiths who can create magic items by empowering their animus. That still brings things back to if-you're-not-a-summoner-or-have-a-pet-Shaper you're screwed, though.
  • Fate Core has a pretty compressed power scale, so purely by mechanics a small force of heavily armed men or a handful of PC-level characters could probably take down a Summoner, making Summoners dangerous but not weapons of mass destruction.
  • In the books wizards are kept in check by a Spirit Court that hunts down rogue wizards who abuse their power. It's mentioned several times that in the dim past there were wizard-kings that ruled via sorcerous tyranny and so the Court acts to prevent people from ever seeing wizards that way again, but it's never explained just how the mundanes of the world got out from under that system and what's stopping a cabal of wizards from just doing it again, beyond idealism.
 

Raleel

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Sounds very much like it would fit into Mythras animism as well, and I can see solutions to some of your problems there (though not trying to suggest replacing Fate, but it might provide some guidance). On your points that need to be filled
  • 5 different elementals defined (air/earth/fire/water and shades, which manipulate shadow and have a cold touch, probably close to void. There is no Wood. A nature spirit would make the most sense)
  • animism does take time, and there are some constraints by the spirits. They have to maintain a relationship
  • Awakened blades like this would be easy - bound spirit in the blade that Blesses the wielder.
  • Are they supposed to be weapons of mass destruction? I think by default an animist in mythras would be pretty tough but not undefeatable.
  • I think this would be well represented by the Spirit Court changing their attitudes towards the wizards.

what setting elements are needed to justify them not dominating the power elite? just the spirit court?

thanks, i'll have to check this out. I like this sort of magic system, and seeing it in a story would be fun.
 

daniel_ream

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Mythras animism

Yeah, I have RQ6/Mythras and the various supplements. Mythras being a fairly hardcore sim engine kind of game, though, means that there's no balance inherent in the magic system, and little to no advice on doing so. My recollection is also that Animism tends to be high-risk, high-reward: it's damn near impossible to reliably summon anything, but if you do it's overpowered. Storm Summoners goes for more utility, less difficulty.

There is no Wood

Why is that?

I should note that in the Monpress series, every inanimate object has a unique spirit (think genius loci). The Storm Summoners system is based on "five elemental storms at the heart of creation" and is more about summoning raw elemental beings from somewhere else. So I can see why excluding Wood makes sense for Storm Summoners although the storms thing is just fluff and could be easily reskinned wholesale.

They have to maintain a relationship

This is how it works in the Monpress series. Wizards and spirits can enter into a kind of liege-servant relationship, but it's not supposed to be involuntary or abusive. Wizards that enslave their spirits are ruthlessly hunted down by the Court.

By the mechanics of Storm Summoners the smaller elementals are quite dumb, but even the large and intelligent ones are described as being completely under the Summoners control. I rather like the subtext in the Monpress series that wizards who treat their bound spirits well get more out of them and are more effective than wizards who use them callously. That's probably easily modeled with Aspects and compels, though:

"The Servitor or Fire streaks through the air at you, hellbent on burning you to ash where you stand! What do you do?"
"Oh crap - all right, the Drudge of Earth will leap in front of me and take the hit."
"Are you sure? It's only a Drudge, a Servitor will destroy him. And if I recall correctly, They Are My Friends, Not My Servants (holds up Fate Point). You wouldn't send a friend to certain doom, would you?"

Awakened blades like this would be easy

In Fate as well - it's just an Aspect unlocking the weapon which has its own character sheet. Fate fractal and all that. There are artifact rules from Legends of Anglerre I can probably steal.

Are they supposed to be weapons of mass destruction?

Wizards that enslave their spirits certainly are. The worst examples in the series are pretty much one-man armies (one enslaved the genius loci of an entire inland sea and used it to reshape the local geography; another had the spirit of every single inanimate object in his kingdom enslaved to his will).

I'd like to avoid that because the social pressure thing falls apart if you look at it too closely. I don't want to give away spoilers but in the Monpress series there are Powerful Entities who dislike the idea of people enslaving spirits, so that acts as a check on things; but I don't want to invoke the "Powerful NPC says no" trope.

I may be overestimating this problem. I'll have to run some back-of-the-envelope conflicts but I'm pretty sure that for pact-less Summoners a mundane king's veteran guard troop is going to be more than enough - and making a pact with an Elemental Prince means your biggest problem is now Elemental politics, which tends not to be overly concerned with earthly affairs.

I think this would be well represented by the Spirit Court changing their attitudes towards the wizards

The Court works in the books because it's integrated into the rest of the setting's history and so on, but I'm not sure at this point whether I want a Court analog in the world. It's very formal, organized and bureaucratic. I suppose a loose confederation of Summoners, none of whom would like to see any one of them upsetting the apple cart, would serve as well.

I think some if it is that in the books, wizards are portrayed as being motivated by primarily earthly concerns - they just have the ability to communicate with spirits. So it's hard to see why the Court hasn't just taken over by this point, beyond the fuzzy United Federation of Planets vibe the author gives the organization.

I suppose if one assumes that every Summoner is primarily motivated by working his way up the ladder to the point that he can convince a Prince to seal a a pact - which means some serious power - that keeps them out of earthly politics. Or at least orthogonal to them. And once a Summoner has a pact, the Prince is calling the shots more often than not.
 

Raleel

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My recollection is also that Animism tends to be high-risk, high-reward: it's damn near impossible to reliably summon anything, but if you do it's overpowered.
You are misremembering. No particular risk in summoning one that you already have a relationship with. Spirit combat is pretty high risk, but it is not necessary for spirit power.
Why is that?
Likely because they were basing on European elements or perhaps emulating other games. There are nature spirits, which can be of trees and the like
Wizards that enslave their spirits are ruthlessly hunted down by the Court.
What does enslave mean here?

I’m thinking about an analog that I could pull from animism. It sounds similar to a fetish.
The worst examples in the series are pretty much one-man armies (one enslaved the genius loci of an entire inland sea and used it to reshape the local geography; another had the spirit of every single inanimate object in his kingdom enslaved to his will).
The Mythras context for the former would be pretty straight forward - the island spirit has Demesne over the island.

im not sure how I would do the latter. Probably strip off the binding limits or bind a spirit that could subjugate all of the others. I suppose I’ll have to read to get an idea.
I may be overestimating this problem
Probably so. Likely just need to change the frame a bit.

I may have been misreading your original intent, but I wasn’t suggesting for a minute you use Mythras for the magic system, since you already were working with fate, but rather use it as an inspiration for figuring out new angles.
 

robiswrong

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  • The elements are based on the Five Storms of the original Fate Core magic system which is basically bending. Wood, Void, Air, and so on seem like obvious additions to the set but I can see it being challenging to come up with ways of making each element's elementals mechanically unique.
Hrm, I'll think on that.
  • Summoners aren't that powerful in absolute terms but elementals grant both versatility and a force multiplier. There need to be other setting elements that justify why summoners aren't the dominant power elite.
I think to a great extent that comes down to numbers and weaknesses.
  • The book series has Swordsmen with a capital S who wield "awakened" blades, swords whose animus is ancient and powerful and grant their wielder superhuman ability. The blades are created by Shapers, wizard-smiths who can create magic items by empowering their animus. That still brings things back to if-you're-not-a-summoner-or-have-a-pet-Shaper you're screwed, though.
So, is this a setting question, or a system question ("can I have summoners next to non-summoners")?
  • Fate Core has a pretty compressed power scale, so purely by mechanics a small force of heavily armed men or a handful of PC-level characters could probably take down a Summoner, making Summoners dangerous but not weapons of mass destruction.
You can change the assistance ratios, and bump out power levels for NPCs (or alternately scale down power levels for NPCs if PCs are expected to be summoners.

Also, there's the scale rules in Dresden Files Accelerated that might be useful.

Another idea is that Fate games often rely heavily on a lock/key kind of thing, rather than just numbers. It's pretty common to do things like "oh, you can't take them down until their mystical shield is dispelled" rather than just tossing bigger numbers on them.
  • In the books wizards are kept in check by a Spirit Court that hunts down rogue wizards who abuse their power. It's mentioned several times that in the dim past there were wizard-kings that ruled via sorcerous tyranny and so the Court acts to prevent people from ever seeing wizards that way again, but it's never explained just how the mundanes of the world got out from under that system and what's stopping a cabal of wizards from just doing it again, beyond idealism.
Again, I think it's numbers and weaknesses. If you can figure out what wizards are weak to, that goes a long way towards it. Some special material that negates elemental attacks that is kept highly secret, for instance. This kinda goes back to teh lock/key idea earlier.
 

daniel_ream

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So, is this a setting question, or a system question

Yes. The system has to reflect the setting; I don't want Summoner-Kings. I want Summoners to be an integral part of the setting without also being the dominant power elite. What I'm looking for is additional setting elements that 1) keep Summoners from simply being in charge of everything and 2) are not themselves also magical. It's why "a Swordsman with a bound-elemental blade is less versatile than a Summoner but far deadlier" doesn't appeal to me because we're back to mundane kings needing a Summoner in their back pocket to keep their throne.

I was briefly thinking that pact-bound Summoners might be directed by their elemental Prince to reign in anyone using their summoned elementals to disrupt mortal society too much, but it's hard to imagine why the Princes would care in the first place, and I'm not a big fan of "Powerful GM NPC says no". I want PC Summoners to have the option of upsetting the status quo but there has to be a reason why the status quo has been preserved for so long.

Some special material that negates elemental attacks that is kept highly secret

I'm not a big fan of the Kryptonite trope because then you just have the JLA Mobile Kryptonite Disposal Squad problem. As I mentioned above, the power spectrum in Fate is much narrower so this probably isn't as much of a problem as I'm assuming.
 

daniel_ream

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What does enslave mean here?

In the books, a wizard can enter a kind of feudal pact with a spirit - the spirit gains some of the wizard's power, becoming stronger in exchange for voluntary servitude. A wizard can also just bludgeon a spirit into submission with pure force of will; this drives the spirit insane but the wizard gets absolute suicidal obedience.

I'm dithering over how much sapience I want elementals in a Storm Summoners setting to have. I kind of like the idea of every elemental from a Wisp up to an Attendant having a personality, if not necessarily much intelligence. One of the things I find appealing about the Monpress books is the notion that wizardly power is largely based on social skills and building relationships (the protagonist, Eli Monpress, is a charming wizard-thief and con man; he pulls off heists by constantly flattering and bamboozling people and spirits into doing what he wants. The Javert to his Valjean is a stiff-necked hunter from the Spirit Court who constantly vents that while she went through all the formal training and has elaborate pacts with all of her bound spirits as is right and proper, Eli gets the spirits to do things for him just by asking them nicely and that is deeply unfair).

By default Wisps and Drudges are dumb and simple-minded, Servitors are smart and Attendants are "intelligent and able". A pact-bound Summoner can summon a very powerful named elemental, which kind of implies the lower tiers have neither names nor personalities.
 

robiswrong

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I'm not a big fan of the Kryptonite trope because then you just have the JLA Mobile Kryptonite Disposal Squad problem. As I mentioned above, the power spectrum in Fate is much narrower so this probably isn't as much of a problem as I'm assuming.
The power spectrum of Fate is whatever you want it to be. While +4 is the top skill rating for a PC by default, there is absolutely nothing holding NPCs to that.

And skill ratings in Fate are relative. If the PCs are really that much more powerful, its' easy enough to either say that most normal humans are 0 at max or even negative numbers, or to use something like the scale rules from Dresden Accelerated - as a short version, each level of "scale" basically grants an equivalent of a +2 on every roll. So if you want Summoners to be basically demigods? Grant them a few levels of scale and they'll basically be that.
 

Moonglum

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The original Stormbringer rpg (Chaosium, ca. 1980) treats magic as consisting only of elemental summoning and demon summoning (this was slowly expanded upon, but this is how the core book magic system works). You could easily repurpose that part of the game, either alone as a setting-non-specific system, or combined with other BRP games.
 

Moonglum

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Another option is to play any fantasy game system you like, but with a carefully pruned and curated spell selection so that magicians only have access to the relevant spells. Actually, this is generally the first step any thoughtful DM takes to mold D&D or another generic system to their particular vision for their setting.
 

daniel_ream

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I'm almost positive I specified Fate Core in the OP.

I keep forgetting this place is mostly refugees from Punditland.
 

Moonglum

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Blech. I wouldn't pee on that guy if he was on fire. But yes, I know about old games. Which are great and worth knowing about.
 

The Convenient Skill

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You can nerf spirits as much as you like, so they are mostly useful but not all powerful.

Require some extra level of expenditure so that you can't have a pet spirit 24/7, Fate Point/Condition/Stress.

Limit the access by skill level works too, only Superb allows access to Princes or whatever the level in Fate are.
 

robiswrong

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Literally everything about this thread has been about how I don't want them to be demigods.
Then it's easy. Don't have them be demigods. If they're still basically limited to "standard" skill levels it won't be much of an issue.

All of the solutions I've suggested scale well from 'like other people' all the way up to 'demigods'. Stunts and permissions to start, varying levels of scale to move up that "ladder".

How powerful do you want them?

It sounds like you want them almost demi-god like (you state "so purely by mechanics a small force of heavily armed men or a handful of PC-level characters could probably take down a Summoner, making Summoners dangerous but not weapons of mass destruction." like it's a bad thing). But you don't want them to have the level of domination of the setting that would make sense if that was the case.

How many people should it take to take one out?

If it's a lot, but a few of the counter-summoners can take them out, then there either has to be a reason that teh counter-summoners are that much more effective (leading to "why don't the counter-summoners take over") or some reason that the counter-summoners aren't impacted by the summoners (basically, kryptonite in some form). About the only thing I can think of is the counter-summoners can have some abilities that really only impact summons... but that's basically kryptonite, right?
 
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