Magic as Metaphor


This document outlines an alternative magic system for the Nephilim role-playing game. It is designed to supplement and in some places replace the official rules for sorcerous magic. This system allows for both the prescribed spells given in the Nephilim rulebook (and any later supplements), as well as on-the-spot creation of new spells by the players.

The basis of this system is given in the rulebook itself: Nephilim think in analogies.

Magic as Metaphor

Sorcery is a general term which covers the processes by which Nephilim change reality as they wish, by drawing on the power of Ka. The individual procedures can also be generalised more descriptively by examining how Nephilim conceive of these changes to reality. Firstly, of course, the Nephilim must decide upon a change to effect. Then, as comes naturally to Nephilim, an appropriate analogy for the situation is thought of. This might either derive from their own experience, or from an external source, such as a grimoire (this is essentially the difference between inscribed and non-inscribed spells; see below, Inscribing Spells). Having created in its mind the analogy, the Nephilim then imagines the change it wants, and uses its abilities (and the energy of its simulacrum) to effect that change in reality. Essentially, the Nephilim forces reality to conform to the analogy in its mind - magic is metaphor.

Important Note: Analogies cannot be based on magical effects; the experiences must only involve the mundane, and never effects produced by magic, either sorcery, summoning, or alchemy.

Determining Success

Like the official rules, casting a spell (changing reality through magic) requires two successful rolls, one against the Nephilim's techinique, and one against its Ka. The details of these rolls depend on whether the three circle divisions (Lower Magic, Higher Magic, Grand Secret) are maintained or not.

If the divisions are used:

If the divisions are not used:

Note that using the second system makes the analogy the vital part of spell casting; as such, GMs should be strict in applying negative modifiers to analogies which are not wholly appropriate. There is nothing else which makes casting very powerful spells difficult, unless the GM wishes to use different Ka multipliers for different spells.

Analogy-Based Modifiers

It is the GM's task to determine how appropriate a given analogy was to the situation, and thence to determine a modifier to the technique skill roll. If the analogy were a natural one, then the Nephilim's full technique value would be used. The more forced an analogy is, the greater the penalty. As stated above, GMs using the second method for spell resolution should not hesitate to impose large penalties to the chance of success for analogies which are not perfect. In particular, any spell which uses an external analogy (one not from the casting Nephilim's own experience) should receive a hefty penalty.

By using modifiers in such a way, subtle distinctions may be drawn between different uses of the same spell, as in the example below.

Exempli Gratia: Poti-pherah's experience of being burned as a heretic during the Albigensian Crusade is judge by the GM to be an entirely fitting analogy for casting the Pyretic Body spell on itself. Were it to cast the same spell on someone other than itself, the GM might impose a penalty, perhaps -30%; had Poti-pherah been the one who lit the bonfires under heretic Cathars, this penalty probably would not apply. Had Poti-pherah only been an onlooker, the penalty for either version of this spell would be great, since the analogy would lack the personal importance of the other experiences.

Negative modifiers may also be applied when a Nephilim is unaccustomed to using a particular analogy for a spell; this is particularly so when a Nephilim "inscribes" a spell (see below) for which it previously used an external analogy. This penalty should last for every casting of the spell until the GM judges that the Nephilim is used to using the analogy.

Sample Negative Modifiers

Inscribing Spells

For creatures which are in many ways immortal and who can live in many bodies over thousands of years, it is natural that experiences of the past should play an even more important role in the thoughts of the present than it does for humans. The best analogies are those that come from personal experience, particularly experiences which deeply affect the Nephilim involved.

Whenever a Nephilim uses a personal experience as the basis of a spell, that spell is considered to be inscribed. That is, no focus is required in the casting; there is no change to the Nephilim's aura or suchlike, as there is under the official rules. There is also no sacrifice of Ka made to inscribe a spell; the only disadvantage is that the newly "inscribed" spell will have a negative modifier to success until the Nephilim is used to using it with the new analogy.

If a Nephilim inscribes spells during past lives, it is necessary for the player and GM to come up with an experience which provides an appropriate analogy for that spell. This experience, as noted before, should be of some personal importance and consequence for the Nephilim.

Creating New Spells

If the GM wishes to allow it, this system offers players the opportunity of creating their own spells relatively easily. The only difficulties arise when deciding on such things as Range, Duration, and Focus (if appropriate). My own feeling is that in many cases the information for these can come directly from the analogy used.

Exempli Gratia: Poti-pherah wishes to cast a flying spell. Recalling its previous experiences of similar phenomenon (which do not involve magic), it rejects a flight it made in a 737 as being neither personally affecting, nor at all like flying - it might have been under the ocean for all it could tell from the trip. It chooses instead the one short time it went hang-gliding. This is far more suitable as an analogy, since it really gave it the feeling of being in the air and not plummeting directly to terra firma. However, the GM rules that while the analogy is good for some aspects of flying, it has its limitations. Notably the analogy gives Poti-pherah no guidance on how to make itself be high up in the air to start with, since the hang-gliding started with it leaping off a cliff.

The duration of the spell might be as long as Poti-pherah concentrates on maintaining it.

Given the extent to which modern technology allows effects to be reproduced which would have been considered magic even a hundred years ago, GMs might wish to place some restriction on using analogies drawn from Nephilim's present lives. Perhaps the old ways really are best, and more in accordance with the Nephilim's true nature, so that being burned alive at the stake is a much better analogy for Pyretic Body than putting on special clothing and setting it alight as stuntpeople now do.

Consequences for Agartha

It is clear that using this explanation of magic there is no innate reason for a division into the three circles of sorcerous power which exist in the official magic rules. That is not to say that they cannot be present under this system (although that creates headaches for the GM when it comes to determining the power of newly-created spells), simply that such a division is not inherent to the explanation of magic given here.

If such a division is not imposed by a GM, then it becomes necessary to rework the entry requirements for Agartha. With only one Sorcery technique, increasing this to 90% is easy compared to increasing Keys or Philosopher's Stone to 90%. Currently my only solution to this is to adopt the view that the requirements for Agartha given in the rulebook are only a minimum - perhaps even simply a guide to how a Nephilim should be. That is, a natural and effective user of magic, who has not only a practical but also a theoretical understanding of magical fields and disciplines, with a Ka sufficient to act according to its nature/Metamorphosis. Therefore it becomes once again up to the GM to determine the exact point at which a Nephilim reaches Agartha, without exact regard to specific requirements.

Using Magic as Metaphor in Play

Above all, this system is designed to encourage role-playing and add atmosphere to the game.

One option for players is to write up brief descriptions of the experiences on which their analogies are based, written from the point of view of the Nephilim character. Whenever a spell using one of these analogies is used as the basis of a spell, the player reads out the appropriate description.

Exempli Gratia: Poti-pherah wishes to magically reassemble a broken object to be as good as new. It has used this spell before, and its player has prepared this short description, and reads it out to the rest of the group: I am sitting on a hillside, looking down at a lakeside flock of geese. Spurred to action by the wind at my back and the fire in my breath, I rise and race down the slope, windmilling my arms and shouting my true nature to the whole world around me. The birds, startled at my hasty approach, rise honking into the air, a confused mass of wings and long necks. Soon, however, as I stand beneath them, the individuals who so hastily went their own way now seek out their companions; within half a minute they are a group once again, heading as one to another resting place.

Magic as Metaphor
Document created: 1995
Last updated: 14 November 1998