The Magical Weave and 4th Edition

While I was diligently writing up the review of Worlds and Monsters it occurred to me that I was actually writing a completely different article right in the middle of the review. The easiest thing is to pull it out and present it separately. This isn’t review, or comment. Call it more speculation. Call it a rant.

In the review of Races and Classes, I briefly mentioned the concept of power sources. I pointed out that Iourn’s dependence on a universal magical weave could be called into question by the mechanics of the new edition. There are still no solid facts, and there won’t be until read the new PHB, however there is some food for thought.

A very interesting article on the changes to magic in the Forgotten Realms setting was published a while ago on the Wizards of the Coast website. The idea for a magical weave on Iourn was largely poached from the Forgotten Realms, and then adapted to try and make sense of the third edition mechanics. Given this commonality, it’s worth having a look at how fourth edition will change magic on Abeir-Toril and see if we apply the same solutions

The original document is an article from the online Dragon magazine, which means that you will eventually need a paid subscription to view it. It’s all free at the moment though, and likely to stay that way for the Summer – although you may have to register. Pop over and read it now. Go on. I’ll wait.

Well, they don’t do things by halves in the Forgotten Realms do they? Kill the god of magic, destroy the weave, unleash a plague and then advance the setting by a hundred years. Blimey. You can tell why many Forgotten Realms players are up in arms about the changes. However, it is an effective way to cope with the massive paradigm change that fourth edition demands. It truly draws a line under everything that was, and sets a completely fresh standard for everything that is and will be.

Don’t worry. I’m not advancing the Iourn timeline a hundred years, I’m not killing the god of magic (largely because there isn’t one) and there will be no magical plagues. Well, except for the one the Chosen of Narramac unleashed on the Great Dark. The bastards.

What is very interesting is that all the designers and creators of the Forgotten Realms setting couldn’t come up with a way to make the magical weave work under fourth edition rules. If they couldn’t do it, can I? On Iourn the magical weave is the source of energy that is used for casting arcane and divine spells, manifesting psionic powers and doing everything else in-between. Everything that is classed as a Spell or a Spell-Like ability utilise the weave. Everything else (notably Supernatural abilities) use a different power source.

Well, in fourth edition everything uses a different power source. The power for arcane magic comes largely from the Feywild. The power for necromancy comes from the Shadowfell. The powers of clerics come from the gods themselves. Goodness knows where psionics fits in, the jury is still out on that one. Where there was unity, now there is diversity. There seems less need for a weave to even exist.

But it does exist on Iourn. It’s actually quite fundamental to the history of the setting. The Weave was created by Lolth as a boon to her favourite ancient race, the Eladrin – I’m talking the celestial Eladrin of earlier editions, not the arcane elves of fourth edition. Those eladrin that wanted to master Lolth’s weave gave up a portion of her power becoming the drow. Lolth’s weave gave the drow access to True Magic (effectively epic magic from level one). Unsurprisingly, magic was too powerful and the drow became an unbalancing force in the universe. Some of the drow who saw the error of the ways combined forces with the remaining eladrin and other celestial races to take up arms against Lolth. The fall of Lolth was known as the Cataclysm: when she was thrown in to the Abyss and all the doorways to that realm were sealed. The drow that remained loyal to her fled. The drow who rebelled became the elves, and their leaders became the Seldarine (effectively elven gods). The Seldarine rewove the weave, allowing anyone to access it, but making it less potent. True Magic could now only be performed by the most potent and experienced spellcasters.

All the various forms of magic that exist on Iourn, are merely the ways that different types of spellcasters interrogate the weave. Two distinct traditions emerged. The dragons were so magical that they learned how to manipulate the weave by using the weave itself. Their blood descendents (the sorcerers) retained some of their talent. Wizardry was the attempt of the mortal races to copy the instinctive power of dragons and sorcerers. The elves uses sound and song to coax the weave into action. They jealously guarded their powers, but a bastardised version of it still exists, and is used by bards. As time passed, other traditions using life energy (druids), willpower (psions) or soul energy (incarnum) emerged but the traditions of Blood and Song were first and foremost. Divine magic requires faith, not knowledge. Gods grant clerics the ability to manipulate the weave, but it is the clerics themselves who devise their spells.

Now, I’m happy with all of that. I like that background, and I’m not going to change it. So I am left with the choice of either keeping the weave unchanged and hammering it into fourth edition like a square peg into a round hole, or I drastically change the weave. And if I do change the weave, do I do it surreptitiously and hope that no-one notices, or do I change it with some bold and fantastic event that alters the way magic works forever?

As I said in my review of Races and Classes, I want Iourn to retain its verisimilitude. I don’t want to change the way things work without offering an explanation. However, I also don’t want to run a massive adventure that only serves to explain why the rules have changed. That’s just silly. I need to find a middle path. Something will have to give, but I do not want any changes to be massive. If the weave stops working one way and starts working another, don’t the magic-users need to relearn how to use magic? That might be all right if you’re having a hundred year hiatus between editions, but that isn’t much help for us.

One of the things the background of Iourn has acknowledged is that the weave has been changed in the past. The Seldarine did it after the Cataclysm. So if it can happen once then the precedent has been set for it to happen again. However, just changing it because Hasbro wanted to put new rulebooks on the shelf doesn’t sit well with me. Aren’t there enough things going on in the setting at the moment without that?

Of course there are those among you who know that the Weave is currently imperilled. In the current League of Light campaign, the githyanki and their phaerimm allies have sealed off the Astral Plane to try and stop the coming war spilling over into their domains. This has had the effect of making resurrection, teleportation and summoning magics impossible. Recently, the party has learned that sealing off the Astral has destabilised the weave which could result in it unravelling and destroying all magic everywhere.

Now believe it or not, I came up with this plot years ago. The whole point of it was not to deny the PCs access to potent spells, but to provide the opportunity to run an adventure that is normally not possible under the D&D magic system – a journey to the Land of the Dead to return a dead comrade to life. My plan was that when that adventure was finished, the party would then find a way to thwart the githyanki and everything would return to the status quo.

I say that was the plan. In the middle of implementing this adventure arc, fourth edition raised its head. I began to wonder if my rational for magic could survive the change between editions, and suddenly, I realised that I already had the narrative excuse to alter the weave if necessary. The PCs thwart the githyanki but the weave doesn’t work quite the same way again… It is very tempting to pull the trigger on this plot. Maybe I will. What I don’t know is how far I will go.

I think the upshot of all this rambling is that I am committed to keeping the Weave and the distinction between different orders of spellcasters that have always existed in the setting. I will try to keep the story-related explanations for changes to the rules to the minimum.

In fourth edition, each character class has a different power source. Non-magical classes have the Martial Power source (for powers that are dependent upon extraordinary skill). The magical classes are more diverse, giving us the arcane power source (wizards and warlocks), divine (paladins and clerics), primal (druids), shadow (necromancers) as well as other sources for monks, psionicists and so on. All these different powers could just be a way of tapping into the Weave, or the Weave could be the common route of all the powers.

I don’t know. If there’s an easy answer, I’m not seeing it at the moment. Maybe I’m putting the cart before the house. Maybe I should just wait and see what is possible when I have the rules in hand. But I just can’t stop speculating.

Any thoughts?