Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus and Alakazam

The Sorcery! line of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks is one of the great overlooked masterpieces of pulp fantasy. Yes, I'm serious. If you've never read them, or have some sort of misguided prejudice against gamebooks, I'd say you need to do some serious thinking about your life and the way it's going.

Anyway, one of my favourite aspects of Sorcery! is that in order to cast spells, the player is forced to memorise certain code words. As with most aspects of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, this is achieved through a strict honour system which naturally nobody ever follows; if you play by the rules you're not allowed to look up the code word when trying to cast a spell, and instead have to guess or recall from memory. The code words are simple (zed, mib, hig, that sort of thing) so it isn't a particularly onerous task, but when you guess wrong and cast a completely inappropriate spell it injects a dose of light-hearted weirdness that I used to really appreciate. (Of course, I would usually then go back to the previous entry and guess again until I got the right phrase.)

I've sometimes thought about introducing some sort of system of magic words for D&D spells, so that instead of Vanican spellcasting a wizard can cast any spell according to his experience level - provided the player can get the word right without looking. Of course, for every new magic user character you'd have to randomly generate new words, in order to prevent it from being too easy. And you would only allow the player about a minute to try to memorize all the different code words. There would also have to be a system of random effects if a mistake were made. People being turned into frogs and the like.

I can't quite decide whether this would be inspired genius, amusing distraction, or idiotic annoyance and mood spoiler. Probably the latter.


  1. System I used in a comic book once:

    if you can say an anagram of it, you can do it.

    i gas slim mice!


    (probably derived from the Justice League's Zatanna and Zatara's "say it backwards and you can do it" magic)

    (and less fruity than Dr. Strange's "make a limerick that ends in it and you can do it")

  2. There's also an appealing rules-control facet to these kind of mechanics:

    make a task a challenge for the PLAYER to do

    and it obviates the need to have rules which make it a challenge for the CHARACTER to do

  3. I loved the sorcery series. Had no trouble memorizing the spells though! The last epic entry of the last book gave me trouble though, the the trickery of the bad guy, not the spell, and their Svinns were so much more memorable than D&D generic Orcs. Now that you mentioned it, Sorcery and Lone Wolf series were he masterpieces of that type. Wasn't thrilled with them having to repeat and re-invent the Kai series every six books though!

  4. "Khare: Cityport of Traps" - now there was a memorable gamebook. The artwork and the writing synergised perfectly.

    As for magic words, why not use the nonsense words that the word verification thing throws up? Apparently they're selected to appear to make sense so that they're easier to remember and type than a random string of letters...

    wv: meticr - either the command word for charm person, or for a spell summoning an extraplanar servant.

  5. Hmm, maybe run it like the system in Four Crystals Of Trazere, where you combine "direction" runes and "effect" runes (so "Missile" + "Damage" = a damaging missile). Each syllable would work like one rune. Don't forget to add the direction syllable before the damage one - or you get hurt. Bwahaha.

    Might not be appropriate for all types of roleplaying games, but it has a place.

  6. I was a massive fan of FF when I was a kid but the Sorcery! series never got printed in my country...shame.

    I think Noisms' idea can be used in combination with Vancian magic; if the player recites the word/angram/whatever the spell goes off but it is not deleted from the magic-user's mind.

  7. I think this is an awesome idea. Might not work for jaded D&D players who are sticklers for *the rules*, but it could be great for new players. Maybe kids?

    I recently replayed through the Sorcery series, going the hardline "die and start over" way. I think I had to go through the 1st book twice, then didn't die again until I got to the Fotress of Whatever (book 4). Couldn't bear to start all the way over, and I couldn't bear to "cheat" for some reason, so I just put the books aside.

  8. Zak: As a rule I quite like that sort of thing. I play a lot of roguelike computer games, and they also require you to remember a certain set of keystrokes to cast a spell - although it's possible to look things up if you can't remember.

    Making up a limerick is fucking hard.

    There was a young lady from Ryll
    Cuckolded by her boyfriend called Bill
    There wasn't a doubt
    That the only way out
    Was to cast on him power word: kill

    Brooze: The last one was pretty tough. It had 800 entries too, as I recall, which made it damned long. Although I haven't read it since I was about 14 so I can't remember a huge amount about it... Wasn't there an Otyugh in there somewhere?

    Chris: Great idea! That way during a game session you could just have a laptop sitting next to you and keep randomly commenting on people's blogs to generate words.

    Anders: Testing the player rather than the character is definitely a very old fashioned idea. These days I gather it's looked down on. Shame, because although I wouldn't want it in every game I play, it's fun.

    Edsan: You can probably get them at you local library, you know. That's where I got most of my FF books as a kid.

  9. Fitzerman: I tried the same thing fairly recently, but died several times on the Shamutanti Hills alone. (The manticore at the end is such a bastard to kill.) The furthest I got was about half way through Khare, and my death there was so soul-destroying I just couldn't face going through it all again.

    Fighting Fantasy books are really hard if you do them properly. As a kid I always had about three fingers shoved in various pages, almost like reload points, and if I lost a fight would always pretend I'd won and carried on. I now realise that I was missing out on a lot of fun that way.

  10. I do like Zak's system... but then I've had a crush on Zatanna since the episode of Batman with her... which must be something like 10 years now.

    Chriss's system is also nifty.

  11. I think there's a lot of fun to be had with such a system.

    Back in the day, my group played through the Dragonlance modules as they were released.

    I was Raistlin. Because I wanted to establish an air of mystery about my spells, and also wanted to do some conjuring that the other members of the party might think were spells, I compiled a list of spells and effects with random numbers against them. I gave a copy of the same list to the DM.

    That way, I was able to say "I'll cast number 32" and narrate the effects, rather than the more mundane "I cast sleep".

    I changed the numbers on the list regularly.

    It worked really well until I transposed a couple of the numbers, so the DM's list had different numbers to mine.

    Hijinks ensued.

    Ahh, memories.

  12. Rach: How old were you then? 7??

    Sir Harrock: It's good for the other players to be kind of afraid of what a mage is going to do everytime he or she prepares to cast a spell. Adds a nice frisson to the game.

  13. This could be pure fun given a more limited use, perhaps as the method of activating spells or magical powers from a particular book or magic item? Or perhaps a curse that seals a certain set of spells in such a way that they become dependent upon the mage's muse's memory, and not their own 18 INT. (i.e., the player's, and I'd make the words that need to be memorized long and foreign in that case, since it is a curse.)

  14. I've also seen this done by making the words be the words for the spell name in another language. I've seen a variety of languages used including Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. A friend ran a campaign where divine magic used Latin words (depending on which sounded cooler) and arcane magic used Aramaic.

  15. E N Shook: Oh, that definitely works, and would be a great way to annoy players of wizard characters...

    Joshua: That's very nice. Languages such as Latin or Aramaic (or Sanskrit or Coptic) naturally work better for that sort of thing, because they already have religious and semi-occult connotations. Unfortunately I only speak Japanese, French and a bit of Portguese, and those don't have quite the same feeling...