Home > Uncategorized > On CHA, WIS and POW-based magics

On CHA, WIS and POW-based magics

Hill Cantons considers treating Charisma more directly as reputation and ditching all non-physical stats for D&D PCs.*

This post is not really a response to that, but instead a repost of something I said in 2007 regarding That Stat That Means Magical Potential. I propose that we mostly don’t know from the rulebooks what to do with INT, WIS or CHA, beyond a couple of standard applications/effects, and that POW in CoC and Runequest is even worse. The effects of STR are easy to visualize: it tends therefore to get a lot of in-game use. But the effects, the meaning, of the “mental attributes” are less understood, so we have less to apply tactically at the table. And the same is true of vanilla D&D’s magic systems, which is too bad because they could actually give us some insight into the in-game meanings of the attributes.

What do I mean by that? My gold standard for a rule is, can the players take tactical advantage of it? Can they use it as a tool, plan around with it? Can they imagine uses for it that I do not feed them? For me,  AD&D 1e MU and clerical magic do not meet this standard: the way the magic works is a glassy, impenetrable surface. (Same goes for magic in CoC, but there it seems intentional.) Players get spells and they apply them. Maybe they invent clever applications, but they can’t try out new spells unless you provide a novel system for doing so. This model of magic reminds me of what lots of folks hate about thieves: it’s like they have their explicit skills and nothing else. And if those are special thief skills, then nobody else can hide in shadows.

But if they had some understanding of how magic worked then maybe they could ask questions and invent their own effects and just plain be a bit more magical. Rangers do this all the time – “I search for tracks… I collect firewood… is there a plant that can help here?” So I find that rationalizing the magic system is one of the most important elements in making it usable by the players. And I think the following might help with that. And it would probably base magic off CHA, though WIS could do, too.

So. POW. The influence of classic works of anthropological theory on CoC is obvious: it’s written all over Petersen’s rule- and sourcebooks. Oliver Wolters (dead anthropologist, historian, colonial officer) had a theory of personal political power (the ability to influence people and events: Charisma, in D&D terms) in SE Asian society. He said such power was seen as a symptom of inner, spiritual power, which he called “prowess” or “soul stuff” (pretty much POW in CoC. Bear with me).This power varies from person to person, and determines personal effectiveness, leadership ability, ability with magic and ritual, and the occupations associated with magic (fishing, hunting, navigating and war). It doesn’t imply wisdom or education or knowledge or physical strength, but it has a direct effect on success because the universe would be inclined to go with your actions and leadership (luck), just like people would be naturally drawn to your innate superiority (“as bees are drawn to nectar”).

According to Wolters’ view of the Indonesian belief systems he observed, you were born with a certain amount of it, based either on your lineage or your conduct in past lives (opinion differs). Some further social implications follow from this, to do with the natural aristos of aristocrats, and an ever-diluting and sinking system of status, which Geertz wrote about in his book Negara(which really does read, in its completeness and airtightness, like a gaming supplement).

People are naturally drawn to follow charismatic leaders (per Wolters prowess is both POW and CHA) both as a compulsion and because, as cogs in the greater machine, they share in a larger total group POW (spiritual rapport with the leader yields a whole that is greater in combination than separately, although not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts).

This smells like a theory of gravity to me, but I don’t think any model of its relative strength over distance has been put forward – such a diminishment of force over distance seems to operate in Lovecraftian literature, though:  without it there could be no ‘moment of introduction,’ on which to hang the horror. What interests me is that this neatly explains the slippery and weird attribute POW and its associated effects. It also suggested some links with the Mage line of products. POW governs magic (natch) and also luck (which is explained as unconscious magery).

Note that on this schema, magic of all kinds is an appeal to the way the universe works, it’s neither “reality hacking” (something like James Maliszewski’s Termaxian magic) nor the trust in the Powers of Fate that prayer tends to become in RPGs. Instead, your world-view is a sort of spiritual extension of yourself, like a field of force: it exerts an influence on people and things around you.  When you encounter someone or something else your influence competes with theirs (in Greek terms, your genius has a chance of overmastering theirs).

So how do you use it? What I like about this interpretation is that it makes the attribute a more active part of the magical exercise – untrained magery could work something like Clerics without Spells, turning undead could be a POW vs POW (or WIS or CHA) battle, and raising the supernatural stakes is liable either to draw the heroism out of your spellcaster (as their POW overmasters the opponent’s) or turn them (either away or to join the enemy, who has superior supernatural charisma). The ability to increase POW through a POW vs POW battle is not analogous to spiritual ‘exercise’ or ‘increasing skill’ – when you overcome someone else’s POW you effectively snip off a bit of their authority – they spiritually ‘pay tribute’ to you, increasing your authority directly (though this is not modelled in the game as a zero-sum operation… not sure why, or if there’s some further bit of thinking here). This maps neatly onto Polynesian ritual cannibalism, BTW, in which one ritually ingests the strength or force of one’s enemies.

There are other implications for games with Cthulhuvian elements, which might include your flavour of D&D:

– POW also governs SAN, because it represents one’s spiritual negotiation with the world. Encountering another person’s POW is dangerous but intelligible: no matter who wins, you stay in much the same mental/spiritual place. CoC Monsters are spiritually powerful and fundamentally other (we’re not really in Wolters’ territory any more, but you can kind of follow him in this direction, with the right twist of mind…). When you encounter them, their power actively disrupts yours, their world-view intersects with yours and is toxic… modeled as SAN loss, a loss of self-guided mental structure. This is the sense in which I’ve understood John Tynes’ discussion of the more powerful monsters as a kind of mental plutonium. The disruption of your POW is either experienced as trauma (simple diminishment) or a reconfiguring to the monster’s perspective (which is why you can’t play a permanently insane character: all such folks go over to the enemy, as reprogrammed but disfunctional drones). Implications for the undead are left as an exercise for the reader.

– The pooling or investing of POW explains the formation of cults and the strange hold cult leaders have over their followers: they start when the cult leader is overborne by the POW of a monster. The resultant collective POW (that of the monster reflected through the leader) acts as a honeypot for impressionable souls (those with comparatively lower POW), who ‘pay tribute,’ to the collective POW pot, further emPOWering the monster/leader. This is why you have to both mentally and physically separate followers from their leader before they will be ‘cured’ of their cultism. It may also explain why monsters adopt mad human leaders as intermediaries between themselves and larger groups of followers, rather than leading cults personally – aside from the scaleability advantages of a franchise organisation model, the monster may realise that its own direct presence will disrupt the POWs/SANs of its followers, making them somewhat more loyal but a great deal less functional – the leadership effect can be had without the damaging side-effects by refracting their personal magnetism through the leader, who acts as a sort of power-translator or transformer [Ken Hite notes: must write up the “magic as electrical engineering” rules in my head.Yes]

From this perspective, the tendency of cultists to enact summoning rituals may be seen by the monsters as an annoying pathology in their control network (because it brings cultists into direct contact with the monsters, reconfiguring their own POW/worldviews), a bit like being stalked by fans. On the other hand, the whole cult-formation thing might be seen as an irritation or simply irrelevant: there’s no evidence that anyone can control or ‘switch off’ their charisma/soul stuff/POW – it might just be a side-effect of high POW that people trail around after you.

Now I just wonder why Sandy Peterson did such a poor job of explaining it in the rulebook, and if Greg Stafford (or whoever first put POW in Runequest) also read Wolters, or came up with the whole thing in yet a different form. Which, given Greg’s penchant for shamanism,  he may have.

Best short ref to Wolters’ own work: his essay “some features of the cultural matrix” in O W Wolters: History, culture, and region in Southeast Asian perspectives (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982)

*In response to ckutalik, yes I see what you mean. But I like having mental stats for PCs, even if they’re hard to roleplay. Challenges are good. They help you visualise who your character is, even if you don’t always succeed in being them. And you can save against them (INT for memory/education, WIS for common sense, will, morale, CHA for persuasion).


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