Wonder & Wickedness (OSR/system agnostic)
This supplement clocks in at 88 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 83 pages of content. That’s 84 with editorial; these pages are laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), and my review is primarily based on the perfectbound softcover PoD-version, though I did also consult the pdf-iteration.
Now, in order to talk about this supplement properly, we need to clearly state what this is, and what it isn’t. If you’re looking for a spellcasting engine compatible with a high-complexity system such as 5e or PFRPG, then this won’t do you much good. The spellcasting system herein gets rid of spell levels, which makes all spells suitable for all magic-using characters; for the purpose of this supplement, such beings are referred to as “sorcerers.”
The engine presented herein is not adhering to any given system, but it works best for low- or rare-magic games and ends up on the rules-lite side of things. One of the major changes this brings to the game, is that it reduces the power-escalation that magic-users have been experiencing since the hobby began; in short, sorcerers using this system do not escalate their power in the same way, which makes this a surprisingly valid alternative for games/settings such as Dark Albion, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, etc. regarding sheer power.
The rules are simple: Sorcerers begin play with 3 spells; new spells must be discovered, and an Intelligence check or similar roll is required to learn a new spell; on a failure, the spell can never be learned by the respective sorcerer, which has an old-school-ish result of diversifying spell-lists. Each sorcerer can prepare one spell per class level. So, a 4th level character could prepare 4 spells; a 7th level character could prepare 7. These spells are wiped after being cast, in the traditional vancian manner. Unless otherwise noted, a spell has a duration of class level times exploration turns; an exploration turn is equal to 10 minutes.
Specialist sorcerers have a couple of benefits: They may always choose to roll on the table of their specialty instead, and must never make Intelligence checks to learn their specialty’s spells, and all spells of the chosen specialty gain an additional exploration turn duration. However, specialists must choose one specialty of magic, and may never cast spells from it or learn its spells.
Some spells make use of sigils, which are magically-inscribed runes that are clearly visible and act as a signature of sorts. A sorcerer may only ever have one sigil of a given type (for one type of spell) active at a given time, and inscribing a sigil takes an exploration turn (10 minutes); creating a new sigil associated with a spell eliminates a previously created sigil of the respective type. This means that sorcerers can create persistent effects, but it takes time, and the engine prevents spamming the same sigil over and over.
The system has two components I really like: The first is that it makes magical duels possible: Any prepared spell may be expended to protect one person per sorcerer level from the effects of one spell. This decision must be made before damage or saving throw dice are rolled. Additionally, any prepared spell may be expended to generate Maleficence. Each sorcerer’s maleficence is unique and is determined at character creation. Maleficence targets all creatures in melee range, or a single target – it deals two dice of damage (d6s, which the pdf should spell out; it’s obvious from context, though), with a saving throw for half damage. If both damage dice come up as 6s, you get to roll another die and add it to the total, continuing to do so as long as 6s are rolled.
The result of these two rules is simple: You have a pretty reliable defense option against magic, and you have a pretty reliable offense option with the flavor that you wanted for your character. Both are not overbearing, but certainly add to the magic system operating tighter than it should as a system agnostic rulebook.
The book knows 7 specialties, each of which comes with 8 spells: Diabolism lets you bind creatures, erect the classic circles of protection, seal covenants or conjure forth the miasma f hell, to note a few. The latter is a good example of one of the spells that could have benefitted from being a tad bit more precise, as it does not specify the area of effect or range – which is the one thing that consistently irks me about this book. The system never specifies a default range, which is curious, since some effects do mention ranges. This also extends to spells useful in battle, such as Elementalism’s pyrokinesis or the trapped lightning. Said specialty lets you btw. also call forth a tumult of air elementals via chariot of air, which let the sorcerer fly, but drown communication in a cacophonous roar. Opening mouths in the earth (ostensibly the mouths of an elder earth deity) or control the weather.
An odd inconsistency of the book is also that it sometimes spells out that it uses d6s for damage in some spells, while others, like Necromancy’s death ray, deal “three dice of damage” if the target makes their save; aforementioned, very powerful battle spell is btw. balanced by a 1-in-6-chance that a creature slain with it will either later or immediately rise to haunt you. Similarly, animating the dead via lich-craft is risky – it may net you permanent minions, have them simply return to the land of the dead, dissolve…or turn upon you. Necromancers can also transfer youth or vigor via life channel. Much to my chagrin, the spell does nowhere specify that the target needs to have a certain minimum intelligence, so yes, hand me my bag of kittens to drain…
Psychomancy is the specialty that includes enchantment classics like dominate, but also a spell to e.g. decipher an encrypted message or put people to sleep with dust of the sandman. Spiritualism includes ethereal barriers that block magics, use other persons as relays for magic, or open plasmic locks of secured objects, with some sample keys suggested, ranging from the sacrifice of a sinner to a debt to an angelic being, a severed finger, or a song. Translocation is the specialty that includes options to fold space, make targets a living gate (painful for target…), travel the dangerous mirror road, or recall teleport to a previous sigil. Vivimancy, finally, lets you incite bloodlust, using genoplasm to mutate matter and make it collapse (and potentially spawn…things), and it is also here that we can find the system’s variant of haste , the quickening, which does carry the risk of falling unconscious due to the stress it imposes on the system.
Now, you may have noted that, with the base system offering simple offense and defense options, these spells tend to gravitate towards being both specific and feeling very much in line with magic we know from various pieces of non-gaming literature; in many ways, the magic presented here feels magical and volatile. This notion is further enhanced by the presence of spell catastrophes. When non-sorcerers cast, when you’re damaged, when casting beyond normal spell allotment – depending on what you decide, there’ll be a spell catastrophe, with 12 entries presented per specialty, for a total of 84 spell catastrophe entries. These are listed by specialty, but also note a number ascending from 1 to 84, so if you want to roll on a large table instead, you can roll a d% and disregard anything above 84/reroll…or, if you’re sadistic, roll twice.
Now, what makes a good spell catastrophe table? Well, first of all, there should be an impact – a spell mishap should not be something you just shrug off. Unfortunately, plenty of supplements fall off the other side of the band wagon, instead being overly punitive. A good spell mishap is, to borrow Zzarchov Kowolski’s term, a “shenanigans generator”, and not a “lol, you die, so random”-BS. Because that’s an end, and not a chance to roleplay. It is my ardent pleasure to report that the spell catastrophes in this book firmly gravitate to the high-impact roleplaying conductive side of things. So, your diabolism spell failed? Well, what about ALL your associates growing horns? That town cleric and paladin will not be amused…What about being seen as horrifying by those with second sight? Being haunted by plasmic spirits? Now, I did mention that I consider these spells best suited for games with an intrinsic distrust for magic-users, and there are plenty of high-impact reasons in this supplement. What about a botched cast animating all shadows in a nearby settlement, which proceed to try to kill everything? This may not end a campaign, but it certainly puts a serious spin on things…There also are spell catastrophes that make you forevermore require regular rooting, as your limbs require tree-like sustenance. Yep, that would be from the vivimancy mishaps.
So yeah, the spellcasting part of the booklet works imho best for old-school systems that champion a volatile magic that feels occult and forbidden; in many ways, I think this book magics for a better LotFP-spellcasting engine than the default. Similarly, if The Hateful Place’s spellcasting is too overkill for you, this might do the trick.
The second part of the book deals with magic treasures – a total of 50 items are included. These do not come with suggested gp-values, item scarcity or the like – they live solely on the strength of their concepts. To give you a few examples: The Armor of Grogaxus leaves footprints of moist sludge wherever they tread, and ride waves of earth or animate pillars of earth to attack targets; however, a spirit is bound within, and whenever the elemental powers are used, there is a 1-in-20 chance it will be released… The ardent reader may have surmised here that there is no range given for the attack, nor for the speed-increase granted by the wave of earth. Coins of bewitching make those that take them subject to one command from the one paying with them. What about a crown that may erase you from existence? There is a cymbal of names that usually remains silent – but if a name is said and it struck, it sounds if the target is within 100 paces. There is a ridiculously tall hat that renders you invisible if you remain motionless for a long time; what about a cat statuette that can transfix targets? A strange armor with insectoid plumes and feelers that can make inexact dreamstuff duplicates of items. What about a feylight lantern that not just illuminates the vicinity, but which also renders armor weightless?
The goblin-birthing knife lets you slice open the belly of a slain human-type creature (the item prevents the kitten-exploit!) to birth a goblin with a favorable disposition. The meteor lure is placed in the ground, and after a day, makes a meteorite crush everything in the size of a large house. What about a dark mace that can permanently transform you into an orc? The Mizuthian battle-shroud revives one of the fallen, but taints them with dark magic – on a second death, the target becomes a crazed wraith…There are also tablets, which, when placed against a door and shattered, will shatter the door as the tablet does. What about a net that transfixes a target in time?
Yeah, as you can see, these items tend to gravitate to the potent, but dangerous side of things, fitting in rather well with the remainder of the book. The supplement ends with an alphabetic spell index.
Editing and formatting are per se very good on a formal level; on a rules-language level, the book system-immanently suffers somewhat from being system-agnostic; I don’t mind that. I do, however, mind that it’s at times slightly inconsistent, and the lack of suggested standards of guidance regarding areas of effect and ranges of spells is neither required for a system-agnostic rules-lite spellcasting engine, nor appreciated. So yeah, this will need a bit more work than e.g. the rulings that enhance e.g. the more charming aspects of B/X. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard without much frills, with pretty large letters and massive headers – this book could have been much shorter in theory. The interior b/w-artworks by Russ Nicholson deserve special mention: Detailed, unique and inspiring, they really elevated this booklet for me. The pdf-version of the supplement comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The perfectbound softcover sports its name on the spine, which is certainly appreciated. It should be noted that my copy’s cover is not exactly black, but rather dark-grey.
B. Strejcek’s “Wonder & Wickedness” honestly took time to grow on me. At first, I was frankly disappointed by being left alone regarding intended ranges and areas of effect; and yes, a good designer can certainly quickly and painlessly extrapolate those, but they really shouldn’t have to. That being said, once I got over that aspect of the book being not as detailed as I’d have liked to see, the book did grow on me. It manages to make many classic concepts feel fresh, and it breathes that ephemeral, hard to capture notion of magic being both volatile and seductive. I particularly consider it to be a perfect fit for games like LotFP, especially if you want magic to have an impact without destroying your campaign. The system presented here is high impact enough to allow for tactical depth and result in sorcerers being feared and ostracized – but it does not go so far as to make it a bad proposition for groups to bring sorcerers with them.
As such, while this does require some work on parts of the referee/GM, it can be a godsend for specific campaigns and playstyles. If that does not sound interesting, or if you’re looking for a replacement system for your high/standard fantasy campaign, then this is not what you want; if you’re looking for a volatile, occult-feeling system that doesn’t constantly derail your game, then this delivers. The closest analogue, perhaps, would be a simpler DCC-engine: And it GENUINELY is simpler: It has a simple base engine, is easy to parse, and gets successfully rid of the spell-block. So some people will love it for that.
How to rate this, then? Well, ultimately, I think it does very well what it tries to do, leaving me only with complains regarding minor inconsistencies in presentation, and the lack of range/Area of Effect complaints, both instances that simply were not required by the system to operate. These are what ultimately costs this my seal of approval (which it could have easily attained) and half a star, but I can’t bring myself to rounding down from my final verdict of 4.5 stars – I got too many genuinely great ideas out of this booklet.
You can get this system agnostic, rules-lite spellcasting engine here on OBS!
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