Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Secret Names of God, and the Wizard Trap

Lashiec and the Stylite

In the mornings, Lashiec would milk his goats, check his duck traps, and then eat breakfast with his mother.  If there was any food left over, he would bring it to the stylite, who lived on top of a column.

In exchange for onions and sour cheeses, the wise man taught Lashiec everything he knew.  

In the beginning, these were mundane things: the organization of the spheres, the seven souls of man, the color of Zulin's teapot.  It took a great deal of time for the wise man to tell Lashiec everything he knew, for he had learned a lot by communing with the upper air, but it eventually came to pass.

In the end, the elder even told the boy the secrets of heaven.  On the seventh day, the stylite told his last secret.  Lashiec was astounded, and stared at the horizon.  "I understand my place in the world," he said.

But the old man was looking around in confusion and horror.  At his hands, at the ground below, at nothing.  "What is this horrible place?" the old man asked.  There was nothing left of him, for his spirit had departed.

-From the Seventh Sermon of Lashiec, Son of Heaven

In Lashiec's seventh sermon, he is explaining the nature of non-commutative knowledge, which is knowledge that cannot be shared.

We could say that the act of telling causes forgetting, but this is an oversimplification.

Non-commutative knowledge breaks from regular semiotics, because the signifier is the same thing as the signified, and yet neither has any meaning in the regular sense of the word.

In Centerra, these are called the Secret Names of God.

The Secret Names of God

They are believed to be the true names of the Authority, or perhaps just fragments of it.  Each is too powerful to be splintered among many minds.  They are described as an iron orb, sinking through the oily sea that is the world. 

If I tell you one of the Secret Names, it will leave my mind. 

If I write down one of the Secret Names, it will leave my mind.

If I read one of the Secret Names, I will gain it, and the ink on the paper will become meaningless.  (There are scholars who study these empty cocoons.  Each one is different, and bears little resemblance to each other, or any known language.)

If I die while I hold one of the Secret Names, it will remain in my brain, and later, my skull.  Different methods are required to retrieve the Name from these locations.  (Grand hookah, skull player.)

I've printed six of the Secret Names below.  They belong in your dungeon, like any treasure.  A character who holds a Secret Name gains the listed power for as long as they hold it.

A secret name can also be used to create a golem.

Secret Name: Shaimok

When you fire a bow, range penalties are turned into bonuses.  This doesn't affect your maximum range.

Secret Name: Phacops

At any moment, you can choose to die.  Your body rots into dust immediately.  The next morning, you will be reborn from the dirt beneath the location where you last awakened from sleep.  The word remains in your old skull, and must be retrieved.

Secret Name: Deiphon

You can walk on water.  The bottoms of your feet still get wet.

Secret Name: Destra

You can learn what spells someone has prepared by looking in their eye.

Secret Name: Zhuul

A character who holds this secret name can turn invisible whenever they close their eyes and hold their breath.

Secret Name: Amkala

If you sit in someone's warm spot, people will believe you to be that person.  Lasts until you stand up.

The Wizard Trap

So here's the problem:

We look at our fantasy world and classify the contents into the non-magical and the fantastic.  Fine.

The problem is that we use the real world as a the yardstick for measuring what is magical, and what is not.  This limits our creativity, and it limits how our players interact with the world.

Wolves exist in the real world.  Therefore they are not magical, right?

Gelatinous Cubes do not exist in the real world.  Therefore, they must be magic.  (Or at least, be capable of things that real world monsters are not, such as super-acid.)

If you pick away at this dichotomy a little bit, the flaw becomes apparent.

Why shouldn't there be something fantastic about the common wolf?

Why shouldn't our imaginary monsters be more mundane? (e.g. The psuedodragon would be a stronger concept without the tail sting.)

When the line between magical and non-magical creatures is blurred, it strengthens the setting, and by extension, the game.  (Scrap learned this long ago.)

This same flaw extends to how we see wizards.  It's a mistake I've made in the past: allowing only wizards to identify scrolls.  It extends far beyond that, though.

Many people will look at a force field and say, "this doesn't exist in the real world, therefore it must be magic, therefore it must be something that only the wizard can interact with." 

And this is a shame, not only because it shuts fighters off from a huge portion of the game, but also because it limits us in how we interact with magic.

The Secret Names of God escape the wizard trap because they can be used by anyone.


  • Only the wizard can get us past this force field.
  • Only a wizard can read this scroll.
  • Only a cleric can raise the dead.
  • We can break the force field if we hit it really, really hard.
  • We can shatter the force field if we play a really high music note.
  • We can set the force field on fire.
  • Anyone can read a scroll as long as they're really drunk.
  • Anyone can read a scroll with the right training.
  • If the scroll is inside your body, you can cast the spell.
  • Anyone can raise the dead by sacrificing 77 people to the 7th Satan (provided that they aren't in Heaven).
  • Anyone who is level 10 can become a lich as long as they are willing to sacrifice everything they love.  There are fighter-liches and thief-liches.
Challenge your goddamn assumptions.

You may rightly note that some of these things require the players to know stuff.  Many people will assume that a magic scroll needs to be deciphered by a mage, but the flammability of a force field is more ambiguous--which just means that you'll have to work harder convey it.

Maybe the force field has a bit of squish when you touch it.  Maybe it has a crack in it already.  Maybe the force field vibrates and makes a single note.  Maybe it is common knowledge in your setting that force fields are flammable (based on a popular myth).  All of these ideas work.

And let me state, for the record, that these are not chores that my players perform in order to get back to the game.  These sorts of things are the game.  Figuring out how to set a force field on fire is rad.  Having the wizard make an Arcana check to identify (or paying a sage to cast identify) a scroll is lame.  If identifying a scroll isn't fun, why even have it in your game?  If a forcefield isn't interesting, why is it blocking the hallway?


  1. One thing I initially misread about 5th ed was that everybody can read scrolls, proving they know the language, and since then it stands as permanent homerule of mine because it makes game more fun.

    I like idea of thief-lich.

  2. I like the secret names of god... and seven souls of man. Creative stuff!

  3. This is an elegant and beautiful idea

  4. Dogwhistle spell scrolls, in the political sense of dogwhistle.

    1. Sure. Let's say there's a book that teaches Necromancy, but to most people, it just reads as an unusually verbose guide on the mummification, burial, and funerary rites of various cultures over the world. Most people lack the personality or background to read it as anything else, but the sort of person who views human beings as nothing more than material goods gets it in a way others don't, and learns animate dead and any other number of necromantic spells just by internalizing the text. Basically, the book unlocks the potential of a very particular kind of person.

      It's easy to think of this applying to other books or scrolls (the Bible might be the only spellbook a Cleric needs), and making a culture that makes people more likely to pick upon a specific kind of magic might be a goal for kings and kingdoms.

    2. Working backward could be interesting.

      Books are inherently magic (its how you learn things from squiggles), and if the subject resonates with you it manifests as a spell.

      Detail, clarity, and readability could be modifying factors.

    3. Absolutely fascinating concept. I may have to mull on that and incorporate it into my world's magic-thology somehow.

  5. This provokes the question: since the names can only be held in one "place" at a time, and they are all scattered around, does God know his own names?

  6. I think that this perhaps should have been 2 posts, not one. I liked the first, but the second one is very thought provoking. You are correct that fun and the fantastic should be a key focus.

  7. This post is really great, and has one of those extremely provocative thoughts at the end there. That's one of the biggest "paradigm shifts" I wish happened to fantasy in general, as its something that I have thought about for a while as well. People need to stop portraying fantasy as "real world physics simulator + magic layer on top" and start presenting the fantasy world as a place where our preconceptions of reality simply don't apply. Centerra is one of the better settings where this is done, but it needs to come from the people themselves.

    1. "People need to stop portraying fantasy as "real world physics simulator + magic layer on top" and start presenting the fantasy world as a place where our preconceptions of reality simply don't apply."

      You said it better than I did.

    2. "People need to stop portraying fantasy as "real world physics simulator + magic layer on top" and start presenting the fantasy world as a place where our preconceptions of reality simply don't apply"

      I vociferously disagree, untethering the game from it's core medieval reality leads to a loss of verisimilitude. The more fantastic elements you have (dragons) the more you need grounded real world elements (real physics, real medieval social structures). You lose player buy-in by ramping up fantastic elements, when things get too fantastic then nothing is fantastic anymore. You stop taking the game seriously when reality is dialed back to far. Most of us want to play a dungeons and dragons style game. I don't want to play an Alice in wonderland rpg. (Do you remember the Alice in wonderland module? It was awful.) The generic dungeons and dragons setting already has the fantastic dialed up to 9, if anything we should be reigning in as many fantastic elements as possible. If there's a mundane way to achieve something without using magic we should use that. Magic and fantastic elements are often cop outs and shortcuts and lazy writing, "I can't come up with a good reason for this so *it's magic*". Fantastic elements should be big, and overarching, they shouldn't interfere with daily life.

    3. @Jaco:

      I'm not arguing for an increase (nor a decrease) in how common magic is. Nor am I arguing to make the magical parts of the setting more (or less) foreground.

      I'm saying that when magic is bleached and quantified, it stops feeling magical, because then the world becomes clearly delineated between the magical (the world of the wizard) and the non-magical (the world of the fighter), without any intermingling.

      For example, a disease that rots metal is something that you would probably say is magical, because it doesn't exist in the real world. But what if that was seen as a common, mundane thing within the setting? What if the distinction between magical and non-magical was blurred? (Note that most rulebooks work very hard to sharpen that line.)

  8. Okay you've got a bunch of stuff going on here, some cool, some less so.

    Cool: Non-commutative knowledge. It's a great idea. That said, it's kinda hard to work into a standard tabletop RPG, other than in the way you've done it, which is to turn it into a Wondrous Item. It's... kinda more of an SCP concept? Fun to think about, and you could probably do an Outer Limits episode around it, but not all that game-able.

    Names of God: These are Wondrous Items. The only way they're different from Boots of Water Walking or whatever is that they can't be taken away. So in that sense, they're more like cast-at-will spells.

    (Spell vs. Item isn't as big a difference as people think. "Boots of Flying, usable 3X/day" is in game terms very close to "You can case Fly 3X/day". Not identical -- the boots take up the footgear slot, you can lose them, the Fly spell can be counterspelled or blocked by Silence, whatever -- but very close.)

    Thief-liches: 3e has had templates since 1999. You can very nearly make a fighter-lich or thief-lich with about sixteen different undead. Sure, there's a difference between a lich and a graveknight, but ehhh there's nothing preventing you from slapping the lich template on a fighter if you really want to. Bending one monster template slightly is not challenging assumptions.

    "Anyone can read a scroll" is also a 3e /PF thing: just hrow some ranks at Use Magic Device. Yeah, it's an ugly kludge but this is what it exists for. The underlying concept is that anyone can do what wizards do -- they just have to invest in it.

    The wizard trap exists. It's a real thing. But it isn't a thing because 3.x and its descendants compel it. It's a thing because those systems encourage specialization within a band. UMD isn't a class skill, and Athletics is, and the fighter is much more likely to use Athletics, so only occasional weird fighters invest in UMD.

    (Is specialization within a band a bad thing? This is close to asking "are character classes a bad thing", because that's really what specialization within a band is. TTRPGs don't need character classes to work. OTOH, the fact that so may RPGs have them, and that they've survived for so long, suggests that Gary Gygax was onto something deep.)

    Also, the wizard trap isn't always a bad thing. "F*ck, we need a wizard for this" is really neutral. It can be good or bad, depending on context.

    TBC this is not always the case. A five-minute adventuring day because you lack a healbot cleric is bad, and needing one player to play a healbot because otherwise it'll take thirty trips to clean out the dungeon is also bad. But "crap we can't pick this lock because we don't have a thief and nobody invested in cross-class Pick Lock skill or whatever"... well, now you need to come up with another way to get through, over, or around that locked door. Could be bad and boring, or could be an obstacle that leads to clever play. It really depends.

    Flammable force fields: Man I am ambivalent about this one. I agree, flammable force fields are rad. But I'm less clear on how you convey this without ending up at "you make a roll to see if you know this (or can figure it out)". You can bury clues in lore and flavor text, but this can end up with you telling an in-game legend to your table three sessions earlier and hoping that at least one player (1) likes hearing in-game legends, and (2) paid attention and (3) remembered. When this happens, yes, it's glorious. But 4/5 of the time you just have a bunch of guys staring at you blankly and you're sitting there wondering how many hints to give. It's trickier than it sounds, is what I'm saying.

    It's sometimes possible to train your players to pay attention to flavor text. But... not always. IME it's a very unpredictable channel, and maybe not one you want to build your TT experience around.

    Doug M.

    1. Hi Doug! Lotta good questions.

      Re Names of God are wondrous items: sure! Through a certain lens, everything that gives a new ability is just a wondrous item, only differing in how they are acquired and how hard they are to lose. Skill points, class abilities, boots of flying, grafted wings, and the backstory knowledge of how to make gunpowder. Any of these could be a magical item.

      We can file non-commutative knowledge under "slightly more interesting formats for magic items" along with tattoos and grafted wizard-limbs.

      Re thief-liches already exist: Rad. I'm glad there's more sources to plunder ideas from. Although, the fact that I still see wizard-liches in lots of modules but I've never seen a thief-lich in a published adventure means that the idea hasn't really caught on yet. Which just makes me want to write up a thief-lich that is compelling enough to inspire other people to write up thief-liches.

      (Step one: come up with a better name than 'thief-lich'.)

      I think the problem is that the idea of "mastering your skill so utterly that you become an immortal, undead monster" is only seen as possible for the wizard, because of the aforementioned wizard trap.

      It might not be possible to write a compelling lich-thief until we escape the idea that only wizards are capable of the impossible.

      Re Use Magic Device already exists: yeah, but UMD is an ugly kludge compared to what wizards can do easily. This is gatekeeping via classes, and it's very intentional.

      I like a system more when everyone can use more tools. Give more tools to more people, and let them scheme more interesting schemes.

      I like classes better when they give a player a new toolset, point of view, and objectives. I don't like classes when people use a class to push "class protection". Having a door that only a wizard can open is pretty close to having a door that only Dave can open (assuming that you have a player named Dave).

      Better to have a door that has multiple ways to get past it. Most systems do this for combat--different classes have different ways to contribute. Most people would dislike a system if there was only one class that could contribute to combat (or any other task that was common in the adventure). Scrolls and magic doors are pretty common things in D&D.

      Re flammable force fields: I think we can both agree to hate Knowledge rolls. I think using a flammable force field effectively would require a dungeon designed around it. Maybe all the magical effects in the dungeon are flammable and/or smashable, which actually sounds like fun. The players could learn that over the course of the whole dungeon. Or you could take the method mentioned in the post, and make the forcefield cracked or singed.

      I imagine burning force field smelling like burning plastic.

    2. Fighter-lich: a Sigurd. Slay a mighty monster and devour it's heart. If your body and will are strong enough, you will assimilate the creature's power rather than being destroyed. (Note that this is distinct from a high-level fighter's normal power to battle Death and so prevent a person from dying, as Hercules.)

      Prose Edda:

      Sigurd was the mightiest of all the kings of hosts, in respect to both family and power and mind. Regin explained to him where Fafner was lying on the gold, and egged him on to try to get possession thereof. [...] Fafner crept to the water and came directly over this ditch, Sigurd pierced him with the sword, and this thrust caused his death. Then Regin came and declared that Sigurd had slain his brother, and demanded of him as a ransom that he should cut out Fafner’s heart and roast it on the fire; but Regin kneeled down, drank Fafner’s blood, and laid himself down to sleep. While Sigurd was roasting the heart, and thought that it must be done, he touched it with his finger to see how tender it was; but the fat oozed out of the heart and onto his finger and burnt it, so that he thrust his finger into his mouth. The heart-blood came in contact with his tongue, which made him comprehend the speech of birds, and he understood what the eagles said that were sitting in the trees. One of the birds said:

      There sits Sigurd,
      Stained with blood.
      On the fire is roasting
      Fafner’s heart.
      Wise seemed to me
      The ring-destroyer,
      If he the shining
      Heart would eat.

      Tolkein included a nod to this:

      A great cunning and wisdom have they, so that it has been long said amongst Men that whosoever might taste the heart of a dragon would know all tongues of gods or men, of birds or beasts, and his ears would catch whispers of the valar or of Melko such as never had he heard before. Few have there been that ever achieved a deed of such prowess as the slaying of a drake, nor might any even of such doughty ones taste their blood and live, for it is as a poison of fires that slays all save the most godlike in strength. - Book of Lost Tales, ‘Turambar and the Foalókë’

  9. The wizard trap is an excellent way of putting it. One of the things that always bothered me was 'arcane damage' or magic type damage or whatever it's called. There's not much intuitively tying it to any of the things we experience, and that goes for 'holy' or 'radiant' damage types too. Always better to use fire or electricity, in my opinion.

    1. I like the idea of "magic" damage being ionizing radiation. Patrick Stuart likes to play with this concept a lot (see: Deep Carbon Observatory & Veins of the Earth).

  10. This is one of the most evocative posts I've ever read. Thanks for sharing!