Casting Runes 7: Magic and Mechanisms

This post continues the exploration and implementation of RuneQuest 6th Edition for the creation of a sword and sorcery campaign setting. In this entry for the series, we will take a look at some of the faces of magic, the Divine Force which fuels it, and talk briefly about the cultural effects of both it and science. We will also take a brief look at the Guild of the Lifesworn, the Heresy of the United, and the Order of the Horizon, organizations or cults within this setting and perhaps the best examples of this topic.

You can watch a video on this topic >HERE<

Deciding what to do with the excellent array of tools provided by RQ6 (and others from related games if needed) was one of the harder parts of laying the ground work for the parts of the campaign I prepared before enlisting the players. Before things fell into place, I had to walk through how a world like this, with its people, its gods, and the threats to both, would conceive of itself, what lies and truths about itself it would wrestle with, and ultimately, how it would decide to protect itself.

As this world is a former battleground for the forces of Law and the forces of Chaos, and as its gods were once much more readily accessible than they have been in generations, it made sense to have cultures where certain behaviors were forbidden or restricted. Over time, restrictions might grow or lapse, but the ingrained culture would leave its mark.

I began with a proscription against developing complex tools and systems by which the work of a person could be replaced. A person can use their ingenuity to devise ways to enhance or magnify their efforts, but not replace them. The commonly held understanding for infractions of this divine decree is death or exile to a place synonymous with death. The Toxic Lands beyond the ordered fields of the expansionist kingdom of Aelroth are said by some whose kingdoms are no more, to be the lasting sign of the gods’ judgement on the last civilization to flaunt this law. That Aelroth’s kings have forced its priests to keep silent on matters relating to mystical and mechanical enhancements, and that over the last few decades science and sorcery have advanced significantly, may be in some way related to these stories and rumors. Where people once ground wheat through muscle and large wheels, mill-races are now appearing. Where palaces and hovels were once built by hand, brick by brick, now – for those who pay – dwellings can almost literally be dreamed into existence by mastery of magic. Things are not what they were. The old laws are wearing thin, but the fear of reprisal is still strong. Aelroth as a nation, is growing defiant, and its people are growing hungry for more land, more challenge, and more blasphemous ways to show their ultimate independence under the crystal canopy of the sky.


Magic: Folk Practitioners  (Superstition and Best Practice)

For the most part, what RuneQuest bundles under the heading Folk Magic, this setting interprets as a collection of fundamental beliefs and traditions, coupled with innate ability. As one travels across the firmament, one can see workmen making the same gestures and speaking the same blessings as they repair worn out tools using the same time-honored methods. In most cases it is muscle, skill, and tradition which yields results. Some, however, have been taught from a stream of knowledge closer to the source. Some among these unknowingly tap into the divine force when they work, and reap more for it.

Few who watch would notice the divine force at work. Those who do are often cut out to pursue that force in later life either in the priesthood, or in service to some one or some group which has gleaned such secrets on their own.

As magic, folk magic is hidden in plain sight. It is the simple beauty of a sunset ignored, or the unremarked mood of a bird’s heartfelt song. On the steppes beyond the Desert of Diamond Tears, and among the sensual and observant Fidrans it has its place of reverence and respect. It has its wise women and men who become the hearts of their communities. It has its cult-taught traditions with flair and spectacle. Mostly, though, it is a quiet helping hand in the night, born of work and skill.

Magic: Theistic Practitioners  (Theism and Sorcery)

In a world with active gods, the presence of an empowered class of citizens as priests is a given. The Firmament is no different, however, it is not as simple as it might seem on the surface. Within the temples of the pantheons across all the settled lands, there are divergent traditions of how the priests maintain their position, and fulfill their obligations. Over the long and bloody history of the spread of mortals from their separate homelands, into conflict with each other and their own kin, the temples have been a mirror of those struggles. Those called to the priesthood are those who have the minds and talent to channel the energies of the gods and refine the energy harvested in rite and ritual from the devotions of their worshippers. Such people are unsurprisingly able to capture and refine other energies as well – and some of these have the will and intellect to learn how. As the temples grew into bureaucratic institutions and theologians transformed into politicians, the need for power independent of one’s god or gods became entrenched. Priests whose devotion to the faith was rewarded with greater insight into the minds and hearts of their deities, and whose sincerity and leadership in worship built them large flocks of devoted followers, soon found themselves capable of acting as intermediaries between Heaven and the Firmament. At their behest, miracles could be worked. Priests less devoted to the work of the gods than they were to their own advancement in the hierarchies of the temples had to protect themselves and ensure their pride of place, made good use of their cunning, ambition, and driven natures, to wrest the secrets of the divine force, which permeates, sustains, and pools on and under the Firmament, from ancient texts, studies, and drawings of the great Runes entrusted to their care by the gods. Although the Runes themselves had long been lost, and much of lore surrounding the gift was likewise lost, misunderstood, or mistrusted, enough lore remained for those hungry for power to learn its hidden recipes. Not able to urge and direct the great miracles, these priests nonetheless grew powerful and able to aid or harm their congregations at will. Over time, the character of the temples changed, and miracles were enacted less and less often, until in these bleak times, it might be hard to think of an example in living memory.

In practical terms, the population and even most of the varied priesthoods of the Firmament generally cannot distinguish between a genuine miracle and the facade of one portrayed by a sorcerer in priest’s clothing. The battle between these two factions within factions are hidden away from the public eye, but their effect is felt nonetheless.

To their chagrin, their own ranks are responsible for the rise of sorcerers and men of magic across the nations of the Firmament. Fragments of lore lost, secrets traded or stolen, priests excommunicated or thought sacrificed… all of these are seeds planted in a garden of deceit and ambition which would one day produce a crop of heretics beyond the control of the temples.

Magic: Independent Practitioners  (Sorcery and Mysticism)

Sorcery is a wide-spread, but still mysterious art. Its spread throughout the temples of the Firmament is not generally known outside sorcerous circles, and realistically speaking none of the limited number of organized groups which hold its secrets are open with its use or instruction. Options for those who hope to be initiated into this complicated and demanding arcane science are divided between luck and service. Either one is lucky enough to meet someone trustworthy who is in need of an apprentice, or one must be willing to forego one’s own dreams and aspirations for those of an Order.

The art of sorcery is a subtle, but powerful one, which does not dazzle with its blatant displays of unleashed energy, but rather twists the fabric of the real from the dark places between places.

The Order of the Horizon
Officially, the Order of the Horizon was called into being to serve as a guard and executive arm joining the temporal power of humanity’s kings with the divine perspective of its priests. Engaged typically as peace-keepers, royal or religious protectors, long-distance messengers, and as the banner carriers in any direct confrontation with chaos-twisted creatures from beneath the surface of the firmament, the Order of the Horizon is among the most well-known military units in the explored and settled lands of the firmament. Still, much is unknown about how this group of military magi manage their affairs, and why it is that they can continue to occupy a place of trust in throne rooms and sacred sites for generation after generation.

Members are chosen as children after long trials held in the Holy City. Selection is followed by a decade-long apprenticeship which often ends in a forgotten death in some unnamed part of the world, but can instead open the initiate to a world of steel and spell they would otherwise only dream of.

Among the Order’s most sacred duties is as escort for the Pilgrimage to the Temple of Ascension. Only allowed once every ten years, the chance to serve as an escort is a great honor to members. Of course, some who haunt the halls of power must simply assume it is just a relief for members to have a duty that they do not have to keep secret.


I had not intended to have Mysticism play a role in this setting. By that I do not mean I intended to leave it out entirely, but I did not make initial setting choices around its existence. During character creation, however, two players incorporated it into their design with intriguing and far-reaching possibilities, so I was more than happy to follow the course their imaginings might take us.

In the setting, we have included two threads of this internally-realized form of magic. One is branded as a heresy among the warrior society of near humans, exiled below the surface by their deity (Plenthans). The other is one of the mysteries initiates can receive enlightenment in as adherents to the Lifesworn, a cult from whom loyalty unto death can be bought for the right price.

The Heresy of the United
Among the Plenthans, the priesthood is no less prone to dogmatic politicking than the other priests of the Firmament. In particular, one rule over all has been used to ensure their hold over the warrior heart of their people: Plenth commands that each should stand against chaos alone, without external aid – magical or mystical. Its influence has insured that no one has been able to wrest actual control of the society from the Temple of Plenth, although the protective coloration of the aristocracy is used to obfuscate that control.

Perhaps rising from an ember of past rebellion, the Heresy of the United is a battle-tested rite of passage and initiation whose survivors find within themselves the strength and gifts which their warrior god displays in the scriptures. It is vehemently denounced and opposed from the pulpits in the temples of each Deep, and its practitioners imprisoned or exiled.

The Guild of the Lifesworn
Among the oldest Guilds practicing in Aelroth, with roots in nations consumed by that land’s hunger to expand, the Guild of the Lifesworn offers specialized servitude of the highest order, and commands a high price. Its adherents serve their clients, called patrons (more like slave masters in actual practice) as bodyguards, spies, champions, and other more exotic professions. Known for their fighting prowess and unswerving loyalty when contracted, guild members are perceived by the public as the best-trained bodyguards in settled lands. What most do not realize is that the guild offers so much more than guards, and that their training is so much more than the best. Through a process of rigid indoctrination of children sold to the cult which operates through the guild, the Lifesworn create mystic warriors able to access the divine force which flowers within them, and use it to accomplish incredible feats.

Magic: Animist Practitioners

The only form of magic I banned from player use at the outset of the game was Animism. This was partly for cultural and cosmological reasons, and partly to provide some structure to the development process. At this time, it remains to be seen if this form of magic will make an appearance in the campaign.

In terms of cultural limitation, the Firmament simply does not have a large shamanic tradition nor many remaining barbaric primitive cultures which are likely to support it. Among the human nations, a shamanic or animist perspective on the Firmament is all but extinct. In other nations, particularly the Alira, the traditions still exist, but in most has receded to a fragment or relic of the past. This loss of spiritual interaction and connection may prove to be the undoing of the Firmament, and the end to all things. 

The Divine Force

The energy all magic may come from could be classified, if one believes the apostate theorists from the priesthood, is the shed blood and breath of the divine beings who called the Firmament into being. Harnessing this mystical force enables priests to hold and shape the praise and devotion of their flocks, it allows the Mystic to find miracles of flesh and bone within themselves, and it bends to the invocations and exhortations of the sorcerers and shamans. Its nature is giving, it seeks to be used. It pools in places where it can be found and harnessed, it gathers in the still places of the mind and the heart, and when it has been caused to flow out, it always flows back in like the tide.

In game terms, Magic Points can be replenished at holy or mystical sites at a fairly quick pace of 1 MP per day. Without such a site or the fruit or water which can be found there, this energy replenishes at a rate of 1 MP per week. Vows and pacts with fallen beings from beneath the surface, or sacrifices of living beings can hasten this rate considerably, but at a commensurately higher cost.

For Mystics, meditation and remaining true to their passions is the source of their power so it operates independently of external sources of the Divine Force. Mystics do not benefit from it or from living sacrifices, but can benefit from pacts made with beings from below… if they can stomach to do so.



In the same way that magic has slowly and secretively slipped into the hands of ambitious mortals, science too has been gaining ground against the prohibitions of the priests and the dim memory of their potent gods. While still in its early stages, dreamers and inventors seek ways to enhance their natural abilities, and more aggressively seek ways to violate natural and divine laws without the need for the culturally problematic, and often practically limited, paths provided by sorcery. There are those who seek to build machines that will help one to fly, while others seek to fashion boats not dependent on the wind or oar for motion. Most, of course, seek more lucrative markets for their work and so seek to fashion better weapons.

Some, like sorcerers of the laboratory and factory, pour over the old legends and scraps and fragments of ancient tales, seeking clues in what the gods decreed.

Even in the firmament it is known that laws are not made to prevent future transgressions, but ones which are entrenched and bothersome to the law-makers. If such machines once existed that could bother the gods… what fortunes await the one to rediscover them?

Again, while this is not a focal point of the campaign in any of its phases, I expect time to pass – possibly generations of it. As such, and with the nature of the themes and questions being raised by play within the setting, I do expect to have to introduce or see players introduce advancements in the level of technology present. For practical purposes of planning and scaling these will likely do with improvements to forging and fabricating items, faster travel times, and possibly even the advent of black powder weapons. Of course, this campaign being what it is, lost items of magical-seeming super-science are just as likely to appear. As has already begun to be uncovered in play, the history of the Firmament is turning out to be not what the characters have been raised to accept. That the gods actually warred with tangible forces of Chaos, and that human armies arrayed themselves as a war-host and stood with their deities are ideas that even in such a world as this seem too fantastic to be easily believed without proof. With the proof they have been given, it is the sort of revelation which changes lives, and launches quests.

And so…

This concludes this summary of magic and mechanics in the setting we are devising to explore the amazing engine which is the 6th Edition of RuneQuest. How fresh it is to be on this journey, and how refreshingly like coming home it has turned out to be.

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