Guest Post: How the Magic Happens by Darrell Drake

Magic is fucking harrowing. Or it should be anyway. Wizards should piss their robes if they yank the wrong wand. Witches should batten down their hats at the mention of Toil and Trouble. Farsight should, at times, expose you to the world; raising the dead should turn that tanned leather to live-deer-made-boots. Magic is a force to be reckoned with, so why should it allow itself to be saddled without clocking its caster something fierce?

Perhaps the most widely-known example of magic going haywire is wild magic, as represented in Dungeons and Dragons. Wild magic in this setting involves relinquishing the control conventional mages have over spells in exchange for, well, bypassing the Health and Safety Manual, and in so doing seizing a fistful of raw magic. In return, your spell is prone to backfiring, or having otherwise unintended effects. Could be that you’re boned; could be that you benefit. Whatever the case, if your magic goes awry, you’re subject to the whim of a 100-sided die (or two 10-sided dice). Roll a 35–36, your age changes. Roll a 77–78, you risk turning yourself into a sheep. Maybe you open a planar gate, and a towering demon stalks through. Point is, you think twice. Or cry havoc and cross your fingers.


I’ve taken this “magic is fucking harrowing” philosophy and set it loose upon the spellcasters of A Star-Reckoner’s Legacy. At a glance, it’s easy to believe there’s not much of a system at play. That’s intended. It’s my opinion that a magic system shouldn’t be all that explicit: it should shore up fantasy like a vizier behind a throne. With that in mind, star- and planet-reckoning conform to a system of chance. And chance smarts. Unlike wild magic, star-reckoning is bound to have extreme consequences, dire or otherwise.

So, now that we’ve established the volatile nature of star-reckoning, what is it? Consider the constellations, the innumerable galaxies and all their luminaries—the cosmos as we know it. The war of the luminaries comprises all the universe. Known as the celestial theatre, this is where star- and planet-reckoners turn for power. In star-reckoning, a person projects their soul into space, which is known as drawing a lot. There, they search for allies from which to glean power. Where planets and stars collide, a star-reckoner can maneuver themselves into the mayhem, and from it, draw their lots.

We can continue to discuss it like armchair planet-reckoners, or we can get our hands dirty. Divs are nothing if not lecherous, so let’s draw a lot of our own (as a planet-reckoner).


What you’re seeing here is two things. Chiefly, a testament to why I don’t make my own covers. But beyond that, a simplified representation of a lot being drawn. The black symbols represent the constellations of the zodiac, and while I’m using contemporary symbols, they’re known by more period-appropriate names in the books. Among them, you have the stations of the luminaries: Jupiter in the Bull; Mercury below the horizon; the sun in the Scorpion; and Venus, Mars, and Saturn in the Ear of Grain.

While formidable Jupiter bears down upon the Bull, a more favorable theatre can be found in the Ear of Grain. There, together with Saturn at their backs, Venus and Mars form a conjunction. This auspicious gathering means the Ear of Grain constellation, and its leading star, Spica, have found themselves in dire straits. Any planet-reckoner worth his salt would pounce. Still a bit too forest for the trees, so let’s break this down.

Sun: Scorpion
Venus: Ear of Grain
Mars: Ear of Grain
Saturn: Ear of Grain
Mercury: Below the Horizon
Jupiter: Taurus

Venus Modifiers:
-2 Fall in Ear of Grain
+2 Conjunction
+1 Trine Aspect

Mars Modifiers:
+2 Conjunction
+1 Trine Aspect

Saturn Modifiers:
Wild Card (Inherits active modifiers of all other valid targets if sharing a constellation)
+2 Conjunction (Venus)
+1 Trine Aspect (Venus)
-2 Fall in Virgo (Venus)
+2 Conjunction (Mars)
+1 Trine Aspect (Mars)

There are numerous ways for planets to glean power from the celestial theatre, and just as many for them to be weakened by the theatre. This is determined by their locations with respect to other luminaries, and their individual characteristics. As you can see, Venus finds its Fall in the Ear of Grain constellation, which weakens it. Were it at 28 degrees in the Sturgeon, it would be at its Exaltation, and empowered as such. The same goes for its Detriment in the Ram or its Dominion in the Balance, respectively.

With a +4 modifier, Saturn is the strongest planet accessible, though planet-reckoners would do well to be wary: being a wildcard, the outcome is all the more unpredictable (favorable or not). But we’ll draw this lot under the auspices of Saturn. May as well!

With Saturn chosen, the fun part begins. Earth, the element belonging to the Ear of Grain, uses a six-sided die, and its maximum success roll is four of six sides. The chances of success can be changed for better or worse by the modifiers listed above. With Saturn granting a +4 total modifier, the chances of success remain at their highest possible value: I must roll a one, two, three, or four in order for the lot to succeed.

This is where the literal die roll happens. Whether it succeeds or fails, I write it into the story, and am forced to shape what happens around that. At this point, the reins are entirely in my hands. Success or failure, there are several properties associated with Earth. So I have to choose from black bile, crumble, heaviness, sensuality, and crops in devising the outcome. Further, I reconcile these qualities with Saturn’s: death and cold.

How this lot unfolds could have monumental, far-reaching consequences. Or it could simply empty the planet-reckoner’s stomach. That said, I tend to go for a bit more than the latter—that’s getting off easy! This very lot was drawn in An Ill-Fated Sky, and the outcome was, well, you can safely assume there was hurly burly involved. Give it a read and find out for yourself!

Many thanks to The Fantasy Inn for hosting me, and for all they’ve done besides to shore up indie authors. You’re the true heroes here!

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