4.1.15

Secrets: How I create tempting yet horrific dark magic in my games.

Worldbuilding dark magic into your campaign or chronicle
The Summoning by Balaskas www.deviantart.com

What is dark magic?

Dark magic is magic that is dark. Dark, in this case, means forbidden, dangerous, secret.

So, in order for me to have dark magic in my game, I have to answer several questions: Why would a particular kind magic be kept secret? How would you keep it secret? What would make it more dangerous than “normal” or “light” magic? Who would decide it is forbidden, and why?

Illegal magic

So, why would magic need to be kept secret?

Let’s assume for a moment that we are talking about a D&D type setting. In D&D and sundry, magic is largely well heard of. In those worlds, mages are kind of like doctor, lawyers, or physicists: they can do amazing, even shocking things, but people know about them and may wish to become them, though it is not easy to do so.

Magic is a tool that can do amazing things in the right hands. It can also do horrible things in the wrong hands. The magic that does horrible things may be considered “dark” in this instance. There are a few settings that make the light/dark distinction based on whether the spell hurts someone or not (early Final Fantasy, Harry Potter, etc). All spells that deal any damage are "black" or "dark" magic, where as spells that heal or actively help people are "white". There maybe "grey magic", which is magic that is useful, but doesn't heal as well.

Thus, magic that hurts people could be considered “dangerous”, and thus be taught only in special circumstances. The knowledge of those spells is kept secret by restricting the printing of books, by inquisitions of mages by churches, and other means. If you wanted, Fireball and Magic Missile would be spells that require special licenses to use, or could be banned in certain cities. This means lots of drama opportunities for your PCs if they must defend themselves with “dark” magic.
Thus, at times, being bad, can be reallllly gooood! Magic swordsmanby XiaoBotong at www.deviantart.com

It could be that ALL magic is "dark". Settings like RIFTS or Mage the Ascension have essentially made magic its own category of bad. That does not mean that their are magics forbidden even with magical circles though. Warhmmer 40k does not really have magic in it "per se", but Psykers are a good analog. Their magic is a bit dark even when it is sanctioned becuase its so dangerous and painful to the user, but even Psykers can shudder at the power of a Daemon or Xenos's "psychic" powers.

Secrets that mankind was not meant to know…


Curiosity claims another victim. The Horror Beyond the Door by jmdesantis on www.deviantart.com
But what if you want your dark magic to be more horrible, more terrifying and dangerous, the kind of thing that adventures would actually try to stop from coming in the world.

This kind of magic, in my opinion, is the kind of magic that does not abide by the normal limitations for spell work in your world.

Back to D&D for another moment (other systems will be coming into play, don't worry). In D&D, for some reason, wizards needs to memorize and recast their spells everyday to use them. You would figure they would memorize them at a certain point though, and since spell slots don’t really represent any sort of “drain” on the caster, a wizard should be able to fire off spells willy nilly. So, why can’t they?

Maybe their is a god of magic that stops them. Such a god could impose this system, and probably for the same reasons that the game’s designers did: to control mage power. The god(dess) would literally erase the complicated spell from the mages mind each time they cast it, and would only have the spell work so many times before they "cut the mage off". If these spells the wizards are casting are being preformed by spirits or elementals, this would still be plausible, as they would be "in on the system." Thus, they only have magic at the sufferance of higher beings.

Evil, dark magic would thus be probably concerned with breaking these rules. Dark magic spells or artifacts could be cast an infinite number of times and cause more damage. Mages could get ahold of these new toys through demon pacts, dark gods, and other entities who don't give a crap about mages blowing up the world. Evil artifacts would give extra spell slots in return for favors, souls, evil acts, praise to foul gods, sacrifices etc.


F---. THE. RULES. Destructionby ForinteDP www.deviantart.com
More drama comes from this implication.The gods/controllers of magic would pay hefty sums to people who could stop these insane mages, and would have sever punishments for PC who dare to use such secrets. The dark gods or demons would exact their own prices from those who use their secrets, and evil wizards would stop at nothing to gain this kind of deadly knowledge. If an artifact could not be destroyed, then it would have to be buried. If it was dangerous to use willy nilly, could not be destroyed, and had to be used in the most dire of circumstances, then it would have to be buried in such a way as to keep everyone but its owner from getting to it. In other words, it would have to be put in a lockbox, or in a dungeon…

Just say no to dark magic!

What if, on the other hand, dark magic was dangerous to the user as well? What if dark magic was alot like cocaine or heroin or even alcohol? Let’s explore that:

Drugs have a specific purpose: to make the user feel good. Drugs like heroin, cocaine, and codeine make you feel a certain way. Dark magic’s purpose maybe to destroy, or give power, or give something else the user wants. It may in fact be that using dark magic feels good in and of itself, like some dark rush of pleasure that normal magic does not provide.

Drugs appears worth the risk: just stick the needle in your are and you’re feeling fine. Dark magic in this case is effective, or easy, or feels good using it. A normal fireball is meh. A dark fireball burns hotter, doesn’t drain you, and makes you feel like a fucking beast casting it.

So long as the rewards out weigh the risks, someone will be willing to cast spells that could turn them into this to get a certain effect. (summoner by vesner on www.deviantart.com)
However, Drugs are dangerous, but not immediately. Drugs slowly kill the junkie, and many make the user addicted. There is also chance that one hit can kill. Like meth, Dark Magic can also effect the user’s health: tooth decay, hallucinations, crashes, funky smells. Dark Magic can be also be addictive, especially if you feel a “rush” with it. Maybe it hurts not to use it, maybe their are “dark magic D’s and T’s” maybe their are evil spirits that temp you into using it, maybe spells or effect start happening without your permission. Dark Magic may be accident prone (% failure chance) or hard to control (high difficulties).

"This is your brain on The Secrets of the Old Ones" Insanity is a common, natural, and effective consequence of Dark Magic use. Can be caused by the whispers of Daemons, the brain damage from dark energies, or dangerous back lash. (From the Movie Pulse)
Because they're hazardous, Drugs are illegal. This is a point that can be elaborated on further. The government has declared them illegal because they hurt so many people so much of the time. Dark magic is also illegal for the same reasons: Clerics of Good Religions convince rulers to illegalize it, The Camarilla/Sabbat forbid it on ground of the Masquerade or just public safety, the Imperium of Man hunts such users for religious purposes, the UCAS Association of Magic Users Committee on Dangerous Magic passes a bill declaring the magic illegal for public safety and runner control. Illegalizing magic also creates a need for enforcement, this can be a simple as a king having an excuse to pay adventures to destory or capture magic users, or as complex as several multinational law enforcement agencies, armies of lawyers, shelves of legal codes and flocks of judges to detect, investigate, indict and punish dark magic user offenders. If the PCs are using, these will be their NPC enemies (or friends, for the right price…)

With this last point, keep in mind that just because one government/institution/culture/religion/ethnic group says its illegal, does not mean that some other government/institution/culture/religion/ethnic group agrees. That how black markets are made: one group smuggles the illegal substance/magic into another group, and the second group pays a premium. Every setting can accommodate that kind of crime, and the drama inherent to it. Last one now...
Is this the price of the learning of the dark arts, or is this the introductory class...? The executionerby DavidGaillet on www.deviantart.com
Drug use makes you associate with dangerous people. Since drugs are illegal, you have to encounter or enter the criminal underworld to get them, exposing you to enemies and problems unique to that world, such as gangs, mafias, undercover cops, corrupt cops, cartels, and the like. Dark magic similarly exposes you to some bad folks: demons, diablerets, evil cult leaders, cabals of dark magic users and Things-that-should-not-be run amok in fantasy settings. In Warhammer 40k, Daemons, aliens, Chaos Legions, mutants and heretics have all manner of dark secrets to tell. In Shadowrun, toxic shamans, bug cultists, crazy mages, religious cult leaders, bad spirits and “demons” may tempt an inquisitive runner, not to mention the gangs, mafias and cartels that may be pushing illegal flash. There are dramas inherent with these new “friends” the dark magic user will encounter: gang wars, inquisitions by a militant church, cabal rivalries, the schemes of demons, the plots of aliens, and so on.

"'Sup bro?" Nurgleby kirimitsu on www.deviantart.com

How does Dark Magic create drama in my game?

All of this makes dark magic sound both really awesome, and really bad, but mostly really bad. Keep in mind, DM, that the consequences of dark magic are not necessarily there to be used as ways to punish players for foolish decisions, but for ways to create real, easy, natural drama.

If your are running a particularly tragic game, one where all the Players WANT their Characters to die a horrible death or suffer in some truly sublime way, then dark magic and its lures and punishments are great dramatic devices. Work with your player to exploit the fatal flaws of your characters and push them deeper and deeper into such sinful knowledge until it consumes them, so that in the end, we can see the consequences of their choices. This approach is great for a Tremere vampire who discovers Dark Thaumaturgy, or in Ravenloft for adventures who discover the powers given by the Dark Powers, or Wahammer 40k for Space Marines lead to join the Chaos Legion, or, perhaps most of all, investigators lead into the darkest knowledge by the Old Ones, in Call of Cthulu.
The Fall into Darkness is a facinating trope to explore, and to fear. The Becoming by milestsang on www.deviantart.com

In games where success is the goal, but danger needs to be high, then use the consequences of dark magic to create truly horrible challenges for your Players. They will encounter those who use the dark arts, and as I mentioned before: the darkest arts don’t follow the normal rules. If you come up with a dark magic spell, and you are worried that the effect you just made will break the game, then you are moving in the right direction!

Remember, we call a particular spell "game breaking" mostly because it would allow the PCs to kill lots of tough things really easily. That’s a two way street though. If you make a death spell that can target 100 kids at a time and has no save, don’t you think that, like, everyone would be scared shitless of that (in game terms, it would be a death spell that can nuke an entire villages future in a flick of a wrist)? Don’t you think they might illegalize it, and send adventures to go destroy its inventor? 

Just remember the other side of the dark magic coin, that the magic itself can be harmful to its user. Maybe it weakens them mentally, making them more unstable or more prone to brain domination by demons. Was the spell give as part of some even worse creatures sick plan? Is it addictive? What if they stop killing elves? Do the elves come back from the dead to torment their murderer?

If any player characters start as dark magic users, then their stories may involve repentance, forgiveness, or coming clean. If you make dark magic addictive, they may have to kick the habit, or die that tragic death above. If you make them associate with the wrong people, then your setting may turn against them. What if the dark magic pulls on their fellows health or sanity? What if it summons trouble after so many uses. If your players are lured into dark magic and must come back out, then you may have one of the most dramatic games on your hand. Think of Raistlin from Dragonlance.
On your PC's way back from the dark side, what will she or he see? Repentanceby hiroshi18 on www.deviantart.com

Back to you, Toasty

How have you incorporated dark magic into your games? Would you like to see some example dark magic spells in certain systems written up on the blog? What if I made nice cards….?
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