Grim War is a Wild Talents roleplaying game setting of superpowered mutants vying with factions of sorcerers who summon dire, powerful spirits to do their bidding. Players can take either role, mutant or magician, and most games feature both.
On the Cult of ORE mailing list, Fidel Santiago asked for some examples of how sorcerers work in Grim War, specifically how their abilities function in play. My pleasure. First, I’ll break down what sorcerers look like as Wild Talents characters.
In Wild Talents, an archetype is an underlying type or category of superhuman character. It defines which powers a character is capable of possessing. Typically a character must have a superpowered archetype in order to have a Willpower score, which allows spending Willpower points in play.
In Grim War, sorcerers need no archetype. Anyone can learn spells and their associated skills. Unlike most non-superpowered Wild Talents characters, Grim War sorcerers have Willpower points that they can spend, lose, or gain in play.
Grim War doesn’t explicitly say whether that’s the case with all normal humans in the setting or whether it’s particular to those who have learned spells. That’s your call as GM. Personally, I would make Willpower a side effect of having learned (and paid the XP for) your first spell. Before that, you have Base Will but can’t spend Willpower, just like every other human.
It’s perfectly permissible for a Grim War mutant — a character with the Mutant archetype and superpowers that derive from it — to learn magic. But that means spreading character points pretty thin between magic and superpowers, so it’s not common.
There are two types of sorcerers in Grim War, invokers and conjurers. Invokers rely on the Charm stat. Conjurers rely on Command. Some dedicated sorcerers use both invocation and conjuration, but most focus on one or the other.
Conjuration: Based on the Command stat, this is the skill for forcing an otherworldly spirit called a daemon to do your bidding. Daemons can only be forced with Conjuration, never persuaded with Invocation.
Invocation: Based on Charm, this is the skill for persuading or cozening an otherworldy spirit called an archon to do as you want. Archons can only be persuaded with Invocation, never forced with Conjuration.
Spellcraft: Based on the Mind stat, this is the skill for creating new spells from scratch. That process gets a lot of detail in the book so I’ll skip it here.
Spiritwise: Based on Mind, this is the skill for recognizing unfamiliar spirits and remembering important details to help you persuade or force them to act.
Before we get to spells, let’s talk about spirits. After all, Grim War’s spells exist only to summon and obtain the service of spirits.
First off, we’re talking about inhuman, otherworldly spirits. Not ghosts. There are ghosts in Grim War, but they’re very different from the spirits that sorcerers manipulate, so let’s not worry about them here. The two key types of spirits are archons and daemons.
Archons embody or stand for some specific principle or concept. An archon always tends to create and increase the principle to which it is dedicated, and that’s all it does. It can’t reduce that principle, and it can’t create something outside its own domain. The Knight Protector is an archon dedicated to good fortune. The Celestial Jester is an archon dedicated to misunderstanding, mischief and panic. The Emperor of Souls is an archon dedicated to tyranny. Note that archons are not traditional ‘angels,’ and they are not ‘good’ as we commonly think of it. They simply increase whatever is in their domain.
Daemons oppose some specific principle or concept. A daemon always destroys or reduces the principle to which it is opposed, and that’s all it does. It can’t create that principle, and it can’t oppose something outside its own domain. The Knight of Sorrows is a daemon opposed to happiness. Lord War is a daemon opposed to peace. The Physician Without Body is a daemon opposed to suffering. Note that daemons are not traditional ‘demons,’ and they are not ‘evil’ as we commonly think of it. They simply diminish whatever is in their domain.
Spirits have four states of being: astral, liminal, bound, and materialized.
An astral spirit has very little connection to the physical, mortal realm. Many spirits cannot affect the human world at all while astral; only a few powerful spirits can exert their influence into it even while astral. A human can use magic to interact with an astral spirit. It’s possible to permanently destroy an astral spirit, but in most cases astral spirits can easily flee spiritual combat.
A liminal spirit is one that has been summoned by a spell. It usually takes shape in smoke, in mists, or in patterns of fire or soot or dirt. It can perceive and interact in a limited way with the physical world. A liminal archon’s powers are still limited to those it could exert while astral. A liminal daemon can exert its full powers in the physical world.
A spirit made liminal by summoning cannot leave the sorcerer’s presence for about an hour, unless one of the following happens: another spell (such as Abjure, Bind, or Materialize) changes its state of being; about an hour passes and the summoning ends; the sorcerer dies; or the sorcerer voluntarily releases it. However, a spirit that has been voluntarily released can choose to remain liminal if it wishes.
A bound spirit has been made liminal and then placed and locked into a physical receptacle such as an object or a person. A bound spirit cannot be driven away with exorcism or abjuration like an ordinary liminal spirit can. A spirit bound into an object cannot perceive the physical world unless it has powers that allow it to perceive the physical world while astral. A spirit bound into a human being can perceive the world through its host’s senses. The host of a bound spirit is called a conduit. Being a conduit is . . . interesting. It grants the host the spirit’s powers but comes with its own complications.
A materialized spirit has been brought fully into the physical world. It can use all its powers, can perceive and by unaided eyes be perceived, and can pick things up. It can also be physically harmed, unless it has specific powers that make it resilient. If a materialized spirit is killed by physical attacks, it goes back to being astral.
Knowing about spiritual states of being is crucial for Grim War sorcerers. Sorcery is dedicated to bringing spirits across the astral barrier to use their powers on the physical world.
Sorcerers buy spells with XP — with character points if it’s a new character. The more powerful the spell, the higher the XP cost.
There are two categories of spells, to go with the two key sorcery skills and the two types of spirits: Conjurations and Invocations.
Most spells summon a particular spirit so that you can try to persuade or force it to do your bidding. A few spells instead give you advantages in dealing with spirits: In Conjuration, “helper” spells inflict harm on the spirit to force it to capitulate. In Invocation, “helper” spells make the sorcerer more appealing to the spirit. There are also defensive spells that protect the sorcerer from spiritual attack. And there are binding spells that lock a summoned spirit into an object or even a person for a time.
A summoning spell: Fortune Smiles is an Invocation that summons the Knight Protector, an archon dedicated to good fortune.
A helper spell: Adoration of the Translunar is an Invocation that reduces the difficulty in persuading an archon to serve.
A defensive spell: Purification of the Burning Ring is an Invocation that nullifies one particular power of a spirit for two or more months.
A binding spell: Astral Domicile is an Invocation that binds an archon into a crystal. Anyone possessing the crystal can access the archon’s powers and use them in the physical world.
How It Works
So how does this all work? It’s pretty straightforward.
- You cast a spell to make contact with a spirit.
- You persuade or force the spirit to serve you.
- The spirit serves according to the terms that you set.
Making contact means one of two things: either summoning the spirit with an Invocation or a Conjuration, or going astral yourself to deal with the spirit. Summoning the spirit makes it liminal for about an hour, during which you can try to persuade or force it to serve you.
Archons must be persuaded to serve. Daemons must be compelled.
Persuading an archon calls for negotiation. The sorcerer must make the case as to how serving him or her will further the creation or enlargement of the archon’s domain. The greater the advantage to the archon’s domain, the easier the negotiation. The more service the sorcerer wants, the harder the negotiation. The archon has a Threshold Factor, a number that must be reduced to zero by all that negotiation for the archon to agree to serve.
Compelling a daemon is messier. You have to literally attack the spirit with spiritual attack spells and fend off its attacks — which can physically hurt or kill you — with defensive spells. The more you want the daemon to do, the more damage you must inflict to force it to surrender and serve you.
Tables on pages 50-51 of Grim War set the difficulties of persuading an archon or compelling a daemon.
Once you have a spirit in your service, whether it’s for a single action or for a long time, it is called your familiar. No sorcerer can have more than three familiars at a time. If you already have three familiars and you need the powers of a fourth spirit, you must let one of the others go.
There’s another important option: Binding the spirit into a talisman where you can access its powers, or into a person who becomes a conduit who can use the spirit’s powers. A bound spirit does not count as a familiar. Binding does not require negotiation with an archon or combat with a daemon, but it’s usually a very good idea to either talk or beat a spirit into cooperating before the binding, because as soon as you enable the spirit to work its powers in the world it will start using them to try to escape and do you harm. Different binding spells have different durations and conditions. When the binding ends (or is disrupted by magic), the spirit leaves its receptacle or host and becomes first liminal and then astral.
Example: An Invocation In Detail
Timothy Nicks is an invoker working with an army squad in a war zone. Nicks has Charm 4, the skills Invocation 4 and Persuasion 5, and an immediate need for eyes in the sky to help scout since the squad lost all contact with base. Luckily crows easy to find in this part of the world and one of his spells is the Rite of the Black Feather, which summons Sister Raven, an archon dedicated to crows.
Rite of the Black Feather calls for burning a small model of a bird made out of crow feathers, but Nicks is smart enough to carry one around in his bag of tricks, along with a few other, weirder things. He tells one of the grunts in the squad to fire up a can of Sterno, he puts the little wax-and-feathers bird in the fire, and he starts chanting.
Nicks’ Charm + Invocation dice pool is 8d. He rolls 2×1, 3, 6, 9, and 3×10. Even the 2×1 would be enough to summon the archon, so no trouble there. Sister Raven, an unusually well-groomed, three-foot-tall, pitch black crow, appears in the smoke accompanied by a stench of carrion that everybody present suddenly, strangely, thinks is enticing.
Now Nicks has to get Sister Raven to help him out. Sister Raven is a First Circle archon, so the base difficulty is 1. Nicks wants her to help him for a week, since it might be a few days before he gets back to the comparative safety of the base, so that’s +2 difficulty. And while hanging around spying for humans isn’t directly against its raven nature, it’s certainly not something Sister Raven particularly wants to do; that’s +1 more. That sets the Threshold Factor at 4.
The Invocation roll had a Height of 10, which means –1 to the Threshold Factor. Nicks offers to make sure that he and the soldiers kill some nice juicy animals or people for Sister Raven to feed on, and to leave some shiny valuables that she and her crow minions can collect—the GM says that counts as a difficult task to help the archon’s agenda, so it’s worth another –2. Now Nicks can attempt a Persuasion roll based on all his offers. If it fails there’s no penalty but if it succeeds it reduces the Threshold Factor by 2. Persuasion is what Tim Nicks is all about. His slick-talking 9d roll comes up 1, 2 4, 6, 2×7, 8, 9, and 10. Close one! But 2×7 is enough. The Threshold Factor drops to zero and Sister Raven agrees to help Nicks for a week.
What can Sister Raven do? Well, not much; she’s a pretty minor archon. Her powers are Control Ravens 5d, which also applies to crows and related birds and has a range of 160 yards; and Perceive (Material World) 1d+1wd, which works through ravens and crows. But Nicks asks Sister Raven to check out that cave in the distance and keep an eye out for hidden enemies in the valley, and that might mean a world of good as Nicks and his squad try to make it home alive. And since Sister Raven is a separate character from Nicks, she can use her powers regardless of whatever Nicks does next.
If Nicks had wanted to bind Sister Raven — whether to house her in an inanimate object such as a crystal or house her in his own flesh as a conduit — he would have to go through the same steps to summon her, first, and then cast the separate binding spell.