Friday, September 16, 2016

Review: Thaumatology - Urban Magics

An illustrated cover!
I bought this on an impulse a few weeks ago, and I was really surprised at how enjoyable it was and how many good ideas it gave me, and how much mechanical benefit it had. You know, I am pleasantly surprised so often, I wonder if I have a right to be surprised anymore? Like, I mean "wow, this book is better than it sounds," can only fly so many times, right? But here I am again, accidentally getting more than the *shrug* amount I paid for, and acting like this is not the norm. You shouldn't be surprised anymore if books keep being way better than the low bar you set! Maybe I need to adjust my expectations up? Who knows! Oh well, with that introduction out of the way, let's dive in.


Table of contents
This is a 55 page pdf in the Thaumatology line, but it somewhat defies my expectations for what actually goes in the line, so let's talk about that first. This book is not about magic systems like a majority of the books in the series, but instead, it is a setting building kit. It helps the GM think of and answer questions like: how does an economy function if people can literally make infinite food and shelter? What's the purpose of a city when magic users are common? A little unusual? Super rare? What happens in a world where they are considered national treasures? Pariahs? There is a bit of mechanical detail here, and the mechanical detail offered is actually really cool in my opinion, but that isn't the star of this show.
Anyways, chapter one begins on page four, and the last chapter ends on page 52, giving us 49 pages of content between the title page/introduction and the index. Chapter 1, 5 pages long, speaks to the daily life in a magic city. Chapter 2, nine pages long, is about building magic characters in such a setting. Chapter 3, seven pages, is the most mechanically intense chapter and speaks to magical elements that might inform city planning and magical abilities to tap into them. Chapter 4, 7 pages long is about accessing magic and competing magic sources in the city. Chapter 5, 9 pages long, is about public fixtures in a city and how magic might impact them for better or worse. Chapter 6, five pages long is about interesting types of NPCs. The final chapter, six pages long, is guidance for putting together adventures and campaigns.
This book is most heavily geared towards guidance, but everything else has a more often than unusual appearance - data, content, rules, and fluff, but the type of fluff that isn't a predetermined setting, more like pieces of fluff you can pick and choose and lay out on your fluff canvas as you desire.
There is a lot of art in this supplement, though I feel that there is a bit of a missed opportunity here in terms of the lack of Discworld pull quotes. Organization is what it is; there is no especially meaningful way to organize this content one way or another, but as usual, there is an index if you need it.
Overall, like I said this is a really good tool for anyone that wants to run fantasy settings in a predominantly urban setting, or especially if the game is slightly more modern than the typical TL3~4 fantasy.

On the Street of the Wizards

Wow, that chapter title has a bunch of articles. This chapter is about how "the daily life of cities affects the practice of magic." It talks to the types of groups that one would likely encounter in a city, and how magic might impact them. For example, what would a factory that could be powered by magic be like? What systems of magic would be fitting for a street gang? The chapter ends with a section on Spirit Transactions. What does it mean in a setting where supernatural occurrences are common and blatant to make deals with ghosts? To die with debt? What tools does GURPS have to facilitate this?
The chapter covers a lot of ground, and a lot of interesting topics, but, and I don't know why, it seemed a little "dry" to me. Maybe it's just because it serves as the introductory overview, but I start to enjoy the book as I go further.

Magical Practitioners

This chapter is dedicated to building magic characters that suit an urban environment. It has several occupational templates in the range of 75 to 125 points, with several lens options each. Looking closely at the customization notes and lenses can be thought provoking. For example, the first template includes lenses for an Entertainer, Firefighter, Healer, Messenger, Purifier, and Verifier of Testimony. Just ignoring the mechanics for the moment, thinking about magicians fulfilling such "mundane" jobs gets the creativity engine firing on multiple cylinders. Most templates have a similar sized pool of lenses. The chapter ends with a discussion of some advantages and skills, but it's mostly speaking to existing options, though some of the specializations or guidance on contacts can be helpful.

New Magical Arts

This chapter, as mentioned in the overview is the mechanical hard hitter. It includes some new spells dedicated to the concept of ley lines for the vanilla magic system, a lot of new divination abilities. The concept of Sacred Architecture on p.21 is especially compelling with mechanics for civil engineering scale feng shui like concepts - build a factory in the right location and style for bonuses to the types of mana most useful for the types of goods produced, for example. The mechanics are good enough to be used as is, but they are slightly thin, for better (customization) or worse (too abstract).
I like this chapter a lot, but the one nagging bothersome element to me is that it assumes the usage of the vanilla casting system. But that's fair, because they need some kinda foundation to build on; too abstract a concept, and the chapter turns into wool-gathering navel gazing nonsense. The systems I do prefer are of course flexible enough that just glancing at these mechanics I can probably easily port them over to Sorcery or Ritual Path Magic anyway.

Magic in Urban Environments

The previous chapter was more about new elements for magic enabled by the urban environment. This chapter is more like how the existing elements of magic are supported by casting inside a city. For example, we start off talking about a ton of people concentrated in a small area that can have a big impact on ceremonial spells. So many people that you have new mechanical concerns like concerting and managing mana contributions for world-shaping spells. It also addresses important elements like mana levels and of course, religion, critical to Power Investiture dependent casters. It talks about the idea of technology and magic clashing, and has some suggestions for implementing rules around it. It addresses the issue of critical failures being a 1 or 4:216 chance in a city where people are casting spells maybe tens or even hundreds of times a day; the latter would probably mean a near daily trip to the hospital... for everyone.
The chapter ends with an interesting discussion of Essential materials - GURPS Magic has many spells that make supernaturally ideal samples of a particular substance, and Powers has rules for creating similar with the Create advantage. So it has some suggested mechanics for what to do when building with girders of essential steel, or forging with essential fire.
This was one of the more captivating chapters again, maybe because I like the idea of looking at magic in a systematic organized way and that's basically what this chapter is all about enabling.

The Enchanted City

This chapter speaks to the types of convenience and public works that can be conveyed and taken care of by magic in such a fictional city, and how to enable this pursuit in GURPS. The chapter includes some interesting thoughtful lists of spells that professionals in certain lines might find useful. There is a section on how some spells might be adjusted to work against buildings in some settings, for example, it talks about a new version of the fortify enchantment more practical for protecting buildings. Though I think the Public Works section might be more detail than I'll ever need for a campaign, it was a really interesting read that gives some ideas for background details in campaigns nonetheless. The Travel and Transportation section on the other hand is just as interesting, but that much more accessible. The last section Wonders and Marvels is a little weird to me; it's about the things that people don't *need* but you know, people don't live on bread, water, shelter, and utilities alone. I guess, the idea is important, but there is no instruction manual for making the perfectly interesting or character building extra details that make a city special.

Supernatural Inhabitants

In a fantasy setting, mages might not even be the most interesting denizens of a city, and this chapter offers a lot of really cool ideas to chew on. It's divided into Gods and Spirit Allies (kind of a weird combination?) Magically Created Beings, and Haunted Streets. The first and second are more or less neither obviously or singularly hostile or kind, but the last group is especially interesting and inspired. Even among this group, not everything is immediately malevolent, and concepts like the Ungeziefer are dreary and disheartening (I really find The Metamorphosis horrifyingly tragic.) A golden chapter from start to end.

Urban Settings and Campaigns

The final chapter is guidance especially for the GM to manage and build up a campaign from the fantasy urban setting, fixtures, and tropes. The first section deals with the scale of the campaign, going from a single building to mega city, but no advice for going beyond that; that said, that's probably fine because you can find that advice elsewhere and integrate the city into the mega-setting. The next section Location talks about logistics interestingly, does the city have access to the basic necessities it needs? How does it fit into the rest of the world? How does it protect itself? Next the chapter talks about setting the magic level (not the mana level.) Is magic a secret? Or is it an overtly obvious cornerstone of civilization? Somewhere in between? The chapter ends with a few adventure prompts, always fun to read, but I don't think I've ever used them. I do appreciate the book recommendations at the very end though. I wish they baked them into books on the regular.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

Maybe I'm weird for having the preconception that a Thaumatology book should be about magic systems, but the majority are. Alchemical Baroque and Age of Gold (I have read and own neither) are exceptions though, along with this one. What series would they go in if not Thaumatology? Maybe they don't need a series? Or maybe it is just my hangup. Oh well. It was a really fun read all around though.


  1. Yeah, bumping this up the 'need to get' list a bit.

    As far as fitting in the line, this is obviously following on the first chapter of Thaumatology where it talks about the nature of magic. Even so, it might actually have been a better fit as a supplement to Fantasy.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...