Historical Magic

This section is adapted from the "Historical Magic" section of the FuRPiG rule set, available here.

This section lists, as skills, those forms of magic that were and are actually believed in by historical peoples, mostly Medieval and Renaissance Europeans. The supposition here is that modern understanding of physical law is closer to the truth than is the Medieval, so that some of these people (alchemists and astrologers for instance) were doing magic when they thought they were doing science, and others (luck-casters, for instance) were unconsciously using their own magical energy when they thought they were doing "natural magic" using publicly known tricks for luck or fortune-telling.


The goal of alchemy is to "perfect" materials. Perfected metal is gold, or at least silver. Perfected flesh is young and healthy. Therefore, the twin goals of alchemy were the production of "philosopher's stone" (a powder to be mixed with molten base metal, turning it into gold) and of "elixir" or "panacea" (a universal health potion and rejuvenator). Alchemists pursue these goals using the apparatus of chemistry and strange tomes, cryptically written or even encrypted, and surrealistically illustrated, communicating procedures under cover of elaborate allegory.

Alchemy was practiced through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, into the Enlightenment period, throughout Europe and the Middle East, and there are Indian and Chinese equivalents. Unless they are rich, alchemists need patrons, who then expect results. Alchemists must also maneuver around each other, since they need to learn from each other but are also rivals for fame and the resources of patrons.

Though alchemists themselves do not necessarily realize it, there are two kinds of alchemy, medical and metallurgical.





Card Reading, I Ching, Palmistry, Gematria, etc.

Astrology is only the best-known, most prestigious, and most learned form of many schools of divination that give a number of coded clues rather than visions. Other examples are reading cards, tea-leaves, handwriting, cloud shapes, or entrails. The game mechanics can be adapted to any of them.

There are four forms of astrology. A professional astrologer will know all of them:

Casting a horoscope properly takes at least an hour, and may take days for horary questions. Assign negative modifiers for inexact information on dates and times. A success gives you accurate clues, though they may be hard to interpret. A failure leaves you as uncertain as you were.

In the Medieval period, astrology was legal and orthodox, but the clientele was usually limited to nobility, high clerics, and wealthy merchants. Certain questions were politically risky, such as efforts to predict the king's life expectancy, or to determine the legitimacy of heirs. In the Renaissance, with the advent of printing, lots of people could read up on astrology, there were more astrologers, and people of all social classes used them.

Ceremonial Magic

A ceremonial magician uses a quasi-religious ceremony, invoking the names of God and of high angels, to conjure up and make demands of devils and lesser angels. "Black magic" of this type is workable only through devils and seeks disaster, disease, or death for the magician's enemies. "White magic," workable through either angels or devils, typically aims at divining the location of buried treasure, telling fortunes generally, or acquiring luck in gambling, politics, or romance.

Ceremonial magicians are typically learned, and deal in tomes describing their ceremonies and listing the names and reputations of the spirits they wish to contact. At a minimum, they read and speak Latin, and may also know Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, astrology, a fair bit of philosophy and theology, plus the colorful, apocryphal fringes. (Despite this scholarly bent, they seldom seem to use their magic to acquire academic knowledge.)

The ceremony itself often takes a long time to prepare for — days of fasting and ceremonial purification, for instance — and requires one or a few participants. (Incidentally, it is the magicians who stand in the magic circles, to protect themselves from whatever they conjured.) The ceremony is almost always performed in secret, both to protect trade secrets and because the ceremony is frequently illegal or heretical. In a low-SFX game, nothing particularly strange happens, or maybe someone begins "channeling" the invoked spirit; the goals of the ceremony are then met by apparently natural turns of fate. In a high-SFX game, something actually shows up and fireworks may ensue. The nature of the conjured being is up to the GM, including whether it is really constrained by the magicians' spells or is just playing along.

Ceremonial magicians tend to work in clandestine networks of eccentric scholarship, and in secret and intricately structured lodges and orders. They may have powerful noble or ecclesiastical patrons who make sure their illegal or heretical activities are tolerated in return for their services. They are drawn into intrigue and conspiracy generally.


Channeling is temporary spirit possession by invitation. The channeler uses a ceremony to go into an ecstatic trance, during which the channeled being, called a "guide" or "control," uses the channeler's body. The channeler usually does this for petitioners, for whom the control typically answers questions, heals, or performs some other service, usually without leaving the site of the ceremony.

The nature of the ceremony is dictated by the channeler's taste and traditions. Experienced channelers can abbreviate the ceremony (roll at a penalty). It is common to use some traditional mind-altering substance (roll at a bonus). The nature of the control is up to the GM — dissociated personality, ghost, nature spirit, demon, god, whatever. This need not match what the channelers or petitioners think the control is. Typically, a channeler has only one control, or at most a small number.

Normally, the channeler is oblivious during the trance, while the control is in charge. By making a suitable attribute roll, the channeler can become vaguely aware of what is going on.

Channelers may find themselves being taken over without invitation, or with controls who outstay their welcome, or otherwise being mis-used. To resist unwelcome controls, the channeler makes suitable attribute rolls to attack and defend, and takes damage (mental or psychosomatic). The GM sets the difficulty levels to reflect the magnitude of the unwelcome control.

Channeling was not common in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, but it could be found in pre-Christian Europe (e.g. the Pythia at Delphi, channeling Apollo), and is a staple of modern Spiritualism, Voodoo, and the spiritual practices of many African and Southeast Asian cultures. Channeling may be treated as a skill, knack, or (with hostile controls) psychic disease, depending on setting.

Hedge Wizardry

Hedge wizards, also known as "cunning folk," "wise folk," and many other names, are expected to find lost objects, identify guilty parties, tell fortunes, and advise on how to improve one's luck. Their psychic talents are the same as those with the FuRPiG Sensitive Knack (bundling Detect and Analyze Psi, Finding, Anticipation, Foresight, and shallow telepathy), and they can use the same mechanics. (Their telepathy, however, extends to the Empathy level.) They are generally born with the talent, then develop it through training and practice.

Hedge wizardry is a knack, not a skill; it cannot be taught. It often combines with other knacks and skills. Shamans (q.v.) are generally also hedge wizards. Witches and luck-casters (q.vv.) may also be hedge wizards. The local hedge wizard is also often a priest, a midwife, or a healer.


Almost every culture has beliefs about good and bad luck. Here, luck is treated as the result of conscious or unconscious luck-casting. A successful cast of good luck means the target re-rolls the next failed roll and uses the better of the two results. For a cast of bad luck, the target re-rolls the next successful roll and use the worse of the two results.

A lucky charm or ritual is a prop used by many voluntary luck-casters, who believe the power to reside in the charm or ritual, not in themselves. Without the charm or ritual, they are at a penalty to cast.

Many uses of popular fortune-telling systems actually depend on a luck-cast to make the system generate the correct answer, or lead the fortune-teller to the correct interpretation.

Many instances of popular healing magic actually depend on a luck-cast made on behalf of the patient.

Luck-casting is a knack, not a skill; it cannot be taught. It often combines with other knacks and skills. Hedge wizards, shamans, and witches can often cast good and bad luck voluntarily. Someone who casts luck involuntarily is a "mascot" (good luck) or a "jonah" or "jinx" (bad luck). The difference is only in how the luck-casting is role-played.


A shaman is proto-priest and proto-magician, standing between their community and the Unseen. The distinctive shamanistic power is a form of astral projection. The shaman can walk the mundane world visibly or invisibly, enter the dreams of others, and travel to arcane realms such as Faerie, the Dreamworld, and perhaps even the realms of the dead. In the mundane realm, their astral form is always impalpable. In other realms, it is always palpable and visible.

A shaman can learn fay-style Shapeshift, though it only applies to their astral body. They can also possess the bodies of animals. Both these practices are common among shamans with totem animals.

A shaman can remove others from their bodies while they sleep, though the unwilling can resist. If one resists being pulled from the body or to tries to return against the shaman's will, the two fight it out with suitable attribute rolls. Neither can use psi batteries; the shaman's cannot be taken onto the astral plane, and the victim would have to wake to use theirs. If the victim wins a roll and the shaman loses, the victim wakes as from a nightmare. The shaman can win the fight by pulling the astral body free of the physical and quickly taking it far away.

Some people just stumble into shamanism without any cultural support. They may become visionaries or psychic investigators. Professional shamans learn their trade through an apprenticeship system. They make it their business to learn the "politics" of the arcane neighborhood, to keep themselves and their clients on the good side of (or at least protected from) whatever spirits, fays, etc. are likely to drop by. Almost all professional shamans are also hedge wizards. Many are luck casters.

Shamanism was not common in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, but is common enough beyond it. The Druids had it. So, probably, did Norse priests and wizards. Even in Medieval Italy, there were the Benandanti, clans of dream-walkers, in which the men regularly fought astral were-wolves while the women did business with the fays.

Prerequisites: Usually, an inborn gift and initiation by a senior shaman

Visionary Divination

The classic form is gazing into a crystal ball, but a mirror, a faceted crystal, a shiny metal knob, a goblet of water, a flame, or even a bucket of water will do. Anything shiny and tricky to the eye. Each method has its own proper name. Dream clairvoyance can produce the same results, with the same mechanics. But the diviner has a favored prop or method and is at a penalty if they use an unfamiliar one, a large penalty if the prop is greatly unlike the familiar one.

A successful use produces 1d6 short views, no more than a few seconds each, bearing on the subject of the inquiry. They can be of past, present, or future, and are notorious for sometimes being ambiguous and misleading. This makes life easier for a GM trying to guess the future course of the plot. Only dream visions may include sound as well as sight, but they are just as hard to interpret.

Prerequisites: An inborn gift or some arcane background


The witches of Renaissance folklore are supposed to sell themselves to the Devil in return for supernatural power. This power may include Hedge Wizardry, Luck-Casting, or Shamanism, but the witch-specific aspect of it is magically harming other people. This the witch does at the rate of one psi point per hit point of damage. The damage can take the form of "accidental" injury or various forms of illness, and may take a day or so to come about.

The famous witchly power of flight, on broomsticks or by other means, is actually part of Shamanism. Any familiar is a separate character, with separate powers and its own agenda.

Witchcraft is a knack, not a skill; it cannot be taught; one is endowed with it on becoming a witch.

Prerequisites: Pact with an evil spirit

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010