Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Friday, June 24, 2011

Demons of Darkness

When I first started playing D&D I had not read much in the fantasy genre, other than Tolkien, and I had a tough time putting the game in a familiar context and wrapping my head around what it was all about.  Consequently, a lot of my early gaming was influenced by mythology, and by my love of Ray Harryhausen movies, particularly Jason and the Argonauts, and the Sinbad movies.

One of the most influential of these cinematic frames of reference was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which helped me to visualize what a D&D adventure should be like.  This movie pretty much had it all: a fragmented treasure map, a sinister sorcerer, fearsome monsters, fabulous treasure and, best of all, one of the hottest slave-girls in cinema, played by Caroline Munro of Hammer Films fame.

I just watched this movie again yesterday, for the first time in years, with my five-year-old daughter, and I was  amazed to find that it still embodies many of the things I love in a D&D game; particularly the dark and sinister nature of magic much like my favourite pulp sword & sorcery novels.

This is something that I've always felt has been lacking from D&D magic.  Even as a kid, D&D magic never really resonated with me, mainly because I'd never read the works of Jack Vance, and I had no literary or cinematic context in which to place it.  I still haven't read Vance, but I recently order the Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus so that shortcoming will soon be rectified, and maybe I'll finally gain a greater appreciation of D&D magic.

Nonetheless, magic as a sinister force is a well-entrenched convention in my favourite sword & sorcery novels, but it was interesting to see how my early exposure to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad influenced my perception of magic users, since I was only introduced to S&S fiction after having played D&D.

At the beginning of The Golden Voyage we are introduced to the evil sorcerer, Koura, a swarthy, and charismatic figure whose very demeanor implies power and menace.

Right from the get go, we know that Koura is a powerful man not to be trifled with, but that power comes at a cost.

We first see the toll that magic takes on Koura when he is forced to create a new homunculus familiar to replace the one that burst into flames after Sinbad caught it spying on him.  As Koura prepares to animate the new homunculus, his henchman begs him not to weaken himself, but Koura replies that the demons of darkness will not be denied and proceeds to slice his arm open and let his blood drip down onto the homunculus, bringing it to life.

Notice how much older Koura looks at this point?  One the really cool things about this movie is how he very gradually becomes aged and weak as the price for his magic.  In the latter half of the film he looks seriously worn out, with red-rimmed eyes, greying beard, and withered hands.

Each spell ages him a little more until, at the end he is withered and frail, with barely the strength to crawl the last few feet to the Fountain of Destiny.

This is great stuff, and I've always wished that the D&D spell system included some mechanic to represent the physical or spiritual cost of trafficking with the "demons of darkness." For the past couple of years I've been tinkering with rules to accomplish this, but with an option for truly evil magic users to make human sacrifice to avoid paying the cost themselves, which is another classic sword & sorcery convention (and also provides the characters with a steady stream of slave-girls to rescue).

Another thing I love about The Golden Voyage is the nature of Koura's magic.  It's subtle and relatively low-key.  He doesn't go around flinging bolts of arcane energy, immolating his enemies with fireballs, or frying them with lightning bolts.  Instead, Koura delves into his chest of spell components to animate the figure head of Sinbad's ship to steal his chart of Lemuria, collapse the entrance to subterranean caverns trapping Sinbad and his crew, and finally animating a statue of Kali to gain the loyalty of Lemurian savages, then pitting it against Sinbad in a dramatic fight.

Thus, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad remains one of my favourite cinematic examples of the sword & sorcery influences in D&D.

What is especially interesting is how closely Koura's homunculus familiar resembles the Find Familiar spell of AD&D.  He uses the familiar to spy on Sinbad, and is able to see and hear what it does.  There is also an obvious physical link between Koura and his familiar, and he cries out in pain when the homunculus is killed.

This is such a great and iconic magic user spell, that no sword & sorcery campaign should be without it.  Since Swords & Wizardry Whitebox has no Familiar spell, here's my one of my own:

Bind Homunculus
Spell Level: M1
Range: Near caster
Duration: Permanent

Once bound, a homunculus becomes the caster's familiar, serving as a spy, scout, and guardian.  It can converse with its master with whom it shares a mental link allowing the caster to see and hear what the homunculus does.

The magic user must craft the homunculus out of materials costing no less than 100 gp.  The magic user may sculpt the homunculus in any form he desires, but they are often given wings, allowing them to fly.

To animate and bind the homunculus the magic user must complete a one-hour long ritual that culminates in the caster sacrificing 1d4 hit points to bring it to life.  The homunculus has a number of hit points equal those lost by the caster.  The magic user heals this damage normally, but should the homunculus be killed he immediately loses those hit points permanently.

Armour Class: 7             Special: n/a
Hit Dice: <1 (1d4 hp)     Move: 9/15 (if flying)
Attack: Bite or claw        HDE/XP: <1/10 xp


Cygnus said...

Very cool.

As for magic wearing out the caster, I'm using Constitution as a major modifier to the number of available spells per day. Spells take their toll! (and it also helps CON be less of a dump stat...)

Dylan said...

Cool post! I'll have to revisit this flick.

Kaiju said...

The Sinbad films are great fun. Harryhausen is the master, never to be forgotten. Excellent post!

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Did you see this on TV? I've never seen this movie (gasp) but i'm thinking I might try picking it up on DVD, i've hear so many bloggers mention it as a seminal influence on their gaming.

Dr Rotwang! said...

This movie is, indeed, totally-motally awesome.

Sean Robson said...

@Cygnus: The Con modifier sounds like a great idea.

@Kaiju: I'm still amazed at the longevity of Harryhausen's movies; I prefer his stop-action special effects to modern digital effects, hands down.

@Paladin: The Golden Voyage was the most important early influence on my gaming, and I'm surprised to find that it influences me still. I ordered the DVD a few weeks ago from Chapters.Indigo.Ca for $14.95. Or you can get the Sinbad trilogy boxed set for $34.95.

Anonymous said...

Cool to see thist blog post. I have always thought this movie portrayed magic with great flavor and wished D&D could be more like it as well. I once wrote up a Sorcerer class that worked much like the one in the movie. Great great fantasy film.

Jayson said...

Yes, this film is utterly choice. The fight with Kali is spectacular, and Miklos Rosza's score makes it magnificent.

And hell yeah, Tom Baker.

Sean Robson said...

@Jayson: Yeah, Tom Baker is awesome. It's hard to believe that Koura and Dr. Who were played by the same guy.

Trey said...

Great film, no doubt.

Marcel said...

Sean, have you ever tried the Conan D20? I think you might appreciate some of their choices with the magic system.

Sean Robson said...

@Marcel: no, I haven't, though I was always interested in checking it out.

ClawCarver said...

Sorry, did you say something after "Caroline Munro"?

Sean Robson said...

Ha! Caroline Munro does have the ability to cloud men's minds, doesn't she?

Mason said...

Good post, but the points you addressed are in AD&D at least. Many spells have an aging cost (haste, permancy,wish, limited wish) to name a few, and anytime a caster ages he has to survive the ordeal by a system shock roll. Other spells have a constition drain, sometimes temporary (idenify and permancey comes to mind)

And making a Homolculous is in the frist edition Monster manuual, including the pint of blood.

In 3rd edition there is a move away from this leathal magic, after all, the wizard in Singband in one, maybe 3 at most adventures in the one movie cast magic so much he is close to death , PC wizards would not last long -- and by the old rules, they don't -thought they have the CHOICE to avoid the dangerious magics - most DM's ignored the extreme negatives of the spells, I think, mainly because the negatives where secret - the DMG listed them seperatly from the core spell description- a spell caster was not supposed to know how deadly a spell was cast till after the casting . . .

Sean Robson said...

Hi Mason,

My point was not to advocate a slavish adherence to the magic in Sinbad, but rather to adopt its flavour. I do this by using the sorcerer's hit points as spell points, and this system works really well without making spell casters any less viable as characters.

The Bind Homunculus spell is for Swords & Wizardry Whitebox, which emulates the original three books of D&D, and has no spells like Find Familiar.