Alternate Alchemies

I’ve just been reading an article on alchemy which suggests that the Arab alchemists’ development of mineral acids — that is, acids stronger than the vinegar derivatives which were their predecessors — was far more valuable to civilization than if they had succeeded in transmuting base metals to gold.

It made me imagine an alternate world where alchemists did indeed learn the secret of transmutation, and metals are thus completely fungible, but where the strongest acids possible are highly concentrated solutions of acetic acid.

On the one hand, many technological applications would be eased — there would never be shortages of metals — and if transmutation could be applied to finished objects one could fabricate in a soft metal and then transmute to a hard one. On the other, chemical fertilizers and explosives would be impossible. No batteries, and some plastic would be impossible. Come to think of it, certain metals — aluminum, for example — might be unavailable; sure, they could be achieved through transmutation, but if the alchemists don’t know that a metal exists, they may never figure out how to make it.

It seems like an interesting way to kick alternate-historical industry in the rear right up to the beginning of the industrial age, at which point you’re screwed.

The Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society
(October 8, 2003)

A Setting Element for use with GURPS Deadlands

This piece uses the book rules described in GURPS Deadlands: Hexes and the Designer’s Notes for GURPS Deadlands: Hexes.

The creative process that created this piece was entirely unreasonably byzantine.  In 2002, I wrote a book called GURPS Deadlands: Hexes.  Hexes is mostly adaptations to GURPS of spells (“hexes,” in Deadlands parlance) that appeared in original Deadlands publications, but I created a number of new hexes that appeared with stats for both GURPS and original Deadlands.  It also includes rules for magic books, because I’m a big Ars Magica dork, which I elaborated on the Designer’s Notes for Hexes.

After Hexes came out, my editor, the esteemed Andrew Hackard, suggested that I adapt the new material in Hexes to the Deadlands d20 rules, and that was published in Pyramid Magazine as The Hand You’re Dealt.  The framing device that I used for that article alluded to a book containing the hexes described, and it seemed a) obvious to work that book up using my book rules, and b) kind of dumb to put GURPS book stats into an article of d20 material.  So I wrote the book up, and present that here.

The Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill

The Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill operated in Wyoming from 1867 to 1869. To the world at large, it appeared to be a flimsy excuse for the biggest scoundrels in six states to get together and hone their skills by trying to pull their best cheats on one another. That’s true as far as it goes, but like so many things in post-Reckoning America, there was more to the Society than met the eye. Four of the Society’s seven members were hucksters, and damn good ones at that. Besides meeting to exchange their mundane innovations, they exchanged hexes and other occult lore at their get-togethers until that cold February day when the Agency adjourned the Society for the last time.

The Society’s Proceedings, published in 1867 and 1868, are avidly searched after by hucksters and ordinary swindlers alike. Only a dozen copies of each volume were ever printed (and several of those have been captured by the Agency), but the demand for them is great enough to have inspired several unauthorized reprints. On its face, the book is merely a record of what games the Society played, how the games went, and who was there. The attentive reader, however, may notice a variety of swindles and cheats leaving their traces between the lines. Many readers hope to learn some new shenanigans by poring over its pages. For those with the eyes to look even closer, however, the Proceedings contain potent hexes committed to code by the members of the Society.

Some aficionados of the Proceedings claim that there a draft of the 1869 Proceedings existed, and that it included an extremely deadly hex by the legendary “Red” York; the search for that manuscript has become many a huckster’s obsession. Skeptics note that if “York’s Last Hex” did exist, it wasn’t enough to keep the Agency from gunning him down in the bathtub.

Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill, Vol. 1 (1867)

Vol. 1 of the Proceedings contains the hexes Burning Death (p. D:H39), Hidey-Hole (p. D:H40), Phantom Amputation (p. D:H41), Rabbit Foot (p. D:H43), and Shift Wounds (p. D:H42). It may be used to study any of these hexes to a maximum level of 10 (the Rock Springs Society were good hucksters, but indifferent teachers). There is a -1 penalty to Cryptography to decipher the hexes.

The 1867 Proceedings is worth a whopping 18 library points in Streetwise.

Volume 1 of the Proceedings is avidly sought after for its relations of the stories the members told and the sneaky tricks they played on each other during the meeting — it’s considered a sort of scoundrel’s primer. It is, for this reason, very difficult to find; non-hucksters are just as eager as hucksters to get their mitts on it.

Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill, Vol. 2 (1868)

Vol. 2 of the Proceedings contains the hexes Blink (p. D:H38), Ecstasy (p. D:H39), Hell’s Arsenal (p.D:H40), and I Want Answers (p. D:H41). It may be used to study any of these hexes to a maximum level of 11. There is a -2 penalty to Cryptography to decipher the hexes.

The 1868 Proceedings is worth 12 library points in Streetwise, and 4 library points in Politics.

Volume 2 of the Proceedings is more sedate than Volume 1. By 1868, the members had tested each other’s skills thoroughly and exhausted the best of their stories. They were also concerned with the first stirrings of official interest in the Society, and a hefty chunk of the Proceedings is taken up by discussions of how to get the authorities off their back. Volume 2 is therefore less attractive to scalawags than its predecessor. Hucksters, however, are extremely eager to get hold of I Want Answers! Volume 2, therefore, is almost as rare as its predecessor.

Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill, Vol. 3 (1869)

The third volume of the Proceedings may be apocryphal; the supposed drafts and partial copies that circulate have no usable hexes, but the decipherable fragments suggest that the full text would contain hexes called Manitou Gate, Eruption, and Seducing Lady Luck.

Hucksters who believe that volume 3 exists want it bad.

This setting element is intended for use with GURPS Deadlands from Steve Jackson Games. It is not official, nor is it endorsed by Steve Jackson Games. GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

You Think Too Much

A cosmology of magic for GURPS

In a world that uses this cosmology, magic is a power of ineffable mystery. It is grasped by leaps of faith and intuition, not by logic and study. Indeed, any attempt to reason out the principles of magic nearly always ends in failure. Magic cannot be bounded or described; it twists about as if deliberately to frustrate anyone who tries to lay bare its mysteries.

In game terms, there is a maximum IQ that a character can have if he is to acquire any given level of Magery. A mage with Magery 1 can have at most IQ 14; a mage with Magery 2 can have IQ 11 at best; and a mage with Magery 3 can do no better than IQ 9. In campaigns with Extended Magery, the max IQ goes down by one point per level of Magery. Magery can be acquired after character creation up to the maximum permitted by the character’s IQ.

Such a state of affairs leaves a novice mage with an interesting choice to make. He can choose to take the path of the mind, studying to increase IQ and spell skills, or to take the path of the heart, pursuing further insights into the mysteries of Magery. A mage pursuing the path of the mind becomes very adept at his chosen discipline, but the great powers of magic will be forever closed to him. His counterpart walking the path of the heart, however, may eventually be able to twist time, space, and reality to her will, but the way will be long and difficult, every spell a new and bitter challenge. Such mages may well gravitate to opportunities to learn spells by initiatory ordeal rather than by study and research — see my article The Labyrinth of Oukoss for one possibility.

There could be a schism between mages of mind and heart. If this happens, the brilliant but limited mages with IQ 17 but no Magery tolerate their less gifted brethren with Magery 1, but they see unsophisticated yokels with Magery 3 as totally unsuited to wield powers like Great Shapeshifting and Great Wish, and seek to restrain them. Conversely, the intuitive casters with Magery 3 see more intellectual mages as pretentious fools fiddling with a force they don’t understand. This divide rarely breaks into violence, but both factions try to interfere with the other’s recruiting. The mages of the mind try to isolate and control people with Magery 3 or the potential for it, while the mages of the heart try to persuade particularly smart children that magic is not for them. Generally speaking, the mages of the mind have the best of it; they’re better at persuading people to join them, and they have better resources. Their consistent and smooth use of useful magic makes them attractive to bright students, and they generally have little trouble getting hold of Magery 3 youngsters to employ in the kitchens and keep out of trouble. However, from time to time, when the mages of the mind get out of hand, some hermit will come down out of the hills and rearrange the landscape around the nearest mage school. It tends to set back the mind-mages’ reputation for a good long while.

Some spells are difficult or impossible under such a system. Soul Golem is actually impossible; it requires Magery 3 and IQ 13+. Great Wish is extremely difficult, requiring Magery 3 and a combined DX and IQ of 30 or more. Any mage who manages to accumulate all Great Wish’s prerequisites with an IQ of 9 or less and who has a DX of 21 or better is not to be trifled with.

This page contains material intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. It is not official, nor is it endorsed by Steve Jackson Games. GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.