Thursday, May 31, 2018

Review: Thaumatology

Cover art that takes up over
50% of the cover!
This is a long, pretty important book. It's pretty useful for anyone that cares about magic of any kind in their adventures and campaigns, and it is big. That is redundant but true. It's also a pretty entertaining read for people that like reading over mechanics, but it is a bit like drinking straight from the hose. Reviews try to answer a few hard subjective questions about whether a book is "good" or "important" or whether the reviewer would "recommend" the book, and my answers to those questions, Re: Thaumatology are somewhat nuanced. I think the book is a very dense exploration of a lot of topics, and for people that like reading manuals, it has a lot to pick through and ruminate over. In terms of application however, I personally haven't found it fundamental to my games or mechanical navel-gazing; there are a few extraordinarily valuable gems of worth hidden inside, but for myself, I had this feeling that the book deep dived often on things that were superfluous, and when it reached a place where it got interesting, it was disappointingly shallow. Finally, despite that, I think it is worth recommending, but specifically if one has already found a magic system that they like and want to fine tune it; the tools only help slightly for spinning something up brand new whole-cloth, and personal opinion, many of the standalone systems in the book are easily eclipsed by the regular Magic from Basic Set in terms of huge catalog; Sorcery for a semblance of "balance," or Ritual Path Magic for solid fundamental mechanics for a flexible system (with a slippery power curve.) However, if you have found a system you like, this book can help fine tune them into something that matches your specifications and expectations even better. Let's take a closer look then.


First page of the table of contents
This is a 273 page book; my pdf is 275 pages accounting for the cover art. There are 5 pages of front matter including a two page introduction, and 32 pages of back matter including a detailed list of modifiers, alternative critical failure tables, a table of prerequisite counts, a bibliography, and an index, leaving 236 pages divided amongst 8 chapters. The book is decently illustrated and colored (the recent POD release is black and white) and considering the huge volume of material, as well organized as one could hope. The introduction is helpful, and I think it is available for free in the sample PDF. Notably, though this book mostly stands on its own easily, it complements well GURPS Magic if you intend to use that system, GURPS Powers if you intend to use "Magic as Powers" (or Sorcery, in which case you should probably have Thaumatology Sorcery as well,) and a recommendation to pair it with GURPS Fantasy for setting building advice.
Normally, I'd give a high level summation of my opinion here, but the tricky thing about this book, for better or for worse, is that the subject matter isn't particularly homogeneous. There are some chapters that I like, some I don't. Some that have great practical application, and some that seem entirely pointless, and that's kinda what happens when a book is a big giant toolkit like this one. So instead of making a sound-bite judgement here, let's look at each of the parts individually, chapter by chapter.

What is Magic?

Second page
The opening chapter, an introduction part 2, is a discussion on some of the fundamental themes of magic, and examples of how it might express itself differently from setting to setting; some settings have it be a gift from the heavens; some have it as a set of formulas and laws; some settings make it a genetic privilege, etc. etc. The idea here is to start the wheels turning on how it might work in a GM's potential setting, and to think about what this might imply for strengths and weaknesses; if magic is a divine gift, could offending the deities cause one to lose it? If magic isn't built on formulas and laws, how do magicians discover or formulate new methods of casting? If only a few people can acquire magical ability by birthright, does this make it a huge social advantage, or maybe it is something that needs to be kept under wraps.
The chapter is an interesting, mostly system agnostic discussion on magic at a holistic altitude in campaign or setting design. I don't know if I would call it "useful," but it is a good read, and perhaps it can inspire the reader to make a unique decision.

Minor Spell Variants

This is a really big chapter that goes over a lot of mechanical details to modify the default Magic system this way or that. Ideas include different modifiers for the Magery advantage, basing casting on different attributes, or alternative "colleges" of spells. It includes guidance for ideas like banning spells, or changing the cost or time of casting, or adding enhancements to the spells directly. There are a few interesting concepts in here that are usable here, and a few bits that might be useful for inspiration, but it will take some effort to pare through the stuff that isn't needed for the stuff that is useful. That isn't a condemnation about the organization of the chapter, rather, there is a lot of stuff. Perhaps though, it might be said that the chapter would have been better if split into smaller bits.

Major Variations

While the previous chapter pretty much kept the mechanics in tact but made adjustments to details, these changes are... major variations. It talks about clerical magic, or adjusting the tenets of magic to rely on the divine instead of mana; then it goes into an expansion on ritual magic from the basic set. After that though, is the actually interesting section on Threshold Limited Magery. The system works differently than using FP for energy, with some foundational changes that fundamentally change tactical decision making when it comes to what spells are trivial and what are really needed. The next section speaks to modifiers to give magic a stronger thematic feel by affecting potency depending on material components or the astrological signs. Finally, Assisting Spirits is about magic provided by contracts with spirits. It has many of the same pros and cons as threshold limited magery mentioned earlier, but it is mechanically distinct.
Threshold Limited Magery and Assisting Spirits are both pretty neat novel ideas, and Clerical magic is... well, not "interesting," but pretty fundamental. A really good chapter.

Material Magic

A chapter that deals with finding enchantment materials and actually manufacturing enchantments. In short, like a lot of GURPS enchantment information, the system for doing the enchantments is pretty good, it ties together a lot of existent system idioms in a cohesive way and makes sense. Unfortunately, the section on finding magical raw material is lacking, and comes down to the sloppy kinda wishy-washy guidance of "roll prospecting or something, then choose how valuable you want the stuff to be, you're the gm, not me!" I feel like maybe if this chapter was taken out, and made into a dedicated focused shorter book, it might have done better.

Paths and Books

Just like the previous chapter, there is a lot of stuff to like here, and a lot that feels like a tease; something that could have been better. Path and book magic rituals take a lot longer to do than regular magic and the grouping is more thematic. The rules for using the spells that are included are very detailed and flexible. The big big problem with this chapter is there is no spell creation system and just a handful of spells. Luckily, the remedy for that has come and gone since. Thaumatology  - Ritual Path Magic combined with Pyramid #3/66 and this chapter fills in a lot of the unsatisfying blanks.

Flexible Magic

This chapter has a number of systems that work by defining constituent parts of spells instead of a full fledged spells. For example, instead of a Fireball spell, Syntactic Magic might work with a Verb component of Create and a noun component of Energy, both represented by skills and relying on the GM to apply a few more mechanics and a bit of fiat besides to make the spell. I especially like the Realm system that combines leveled advantages and skills in an interesting way, that on paper (never actually tried it) seems it could do well to allow players a bit of flexibility while tempering the risk of too much power. I also reiterate my comments from the previous chapter, that Thaumatology - Ritual Path Magic is also a pretty good flexible, well developed system, though it has a bit of a dangerously steep power curve that some of the less developed systems in this chapter sidestep.

Magic is Power

A crossover of GURPS Powers looks at using the power mechanics in said book in the context of magic. The contents seem a bit all over the place, like they tried to fit that book into a single chapter and add a few things on top of it. Thaumatology - Sorcery seems like an application in lessons learned from writing this chapter; it takes a more focused detailed approach on a more constrained power, and ends up being more satisfying. That said, this chapter is, if nothing else, a neat bridge between all three of GURPS Powers, Thaumatology, and Sorcery.

Games of High Enchantment

This is a guidance and advice chapter for GMs on how to apply magic to a gameworld. It reprises some of the themes in the first chapter, but applies them in the context of planning, and focuses on what a GM might need to consider when worldbuilding. What does choosing a system with slow casting mechanics mean for a game? What does it mean if people can make their own spells on the fly instead of casting from a learned menu? How do multiple systems interact? The chapter ends with an example setting (a low-tech magic ocean world with several islands) to demonstrate the planning process.
I have no complaints about this chapter except that the content could easily be doubled or tripled and still be worth reading.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

I don't normally cover them, but the appendices in the back of the book are full of interesting tables and trivia; I think it might be a bit overwhelming to try to play with them at gametime, but it can give some good ideas, and the prerequisite count table is pretty useful no matter where you come from. The illustrations throughout are pretty good, but it is obvious they are not homogenous and some seem to be recycled. I think, in the end, the feeling that sums up my experience with this book is that it is a bunch of ideas that are almost useful, but not quite there. I think some Pyramid supplements have gone on to fill in the gaps, and later books in the Thaumatology line as well, but there's still, I think, some potential to draw some useful stuff from this book for further writing. If it weren't released nearly a decade ago, it might have made sense to release it as several PDFs that could give each topic the attention it deserved, but eh, it is what it is.

1 comment:

  1. As I pointed out in my review, Thaumatology misses out on a couple of points. It doesn't provide any magic systems that have enjoyed wide popularity (a few things are moderately popular, but they're swamped by RPM and Sorcery), and it didn't attempt to provide a wider framework to think of magic systems inside of. The last is a tall order, but it's the type of thing that so many good GURPS books have distinguished themselves by doing.


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