Alternate Magic: The Power of Sensory Deprivation

A friend of mine was telling me about the concept (via 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons) of the Shadowfell; a dark reflection of the mundane regularly leaking into the prime material world. Or, alternately, even when you thought you were walking through the ‘regular’ world you could really be travelling into and out of Shadowfell. Specifically, we discussed dungeons in this context; that this framework supported the (oftentimes totally implausible) existence of huge dungeons (the construction of which could serve no discernible purpose). There’s similar shenanigans going in in Golarion (the Pathfinder setting) specifically around the God Zon-Kuthon and his puppet state, Nidal. Alternately, I think the film version of Silent Hill might be a good representation of who this would work, switching from an ‘ordinary’ creepy place to a land of eternal shadow-wrapped horror.

Thinking about that made me think about dungeons as nightmare realms, not ‘general’ nightmare realms but rather the nightmare realm of a particular individual locked away in a cell. Alone, in darkness the pitter of rat feet must sound deafening and huge. The torture that awaits just outside the door must grow to inhuman proportions. And your jailers must take on monstrous connotations, must seem larger and crueler than any mere mortal ever could be. But what if the isolation, terror, personal obsessions, and sensory deprivation of a betrayed nobleman actually warped reality to make an ‘ordinary’ four room dungeon into a multi level, monster-haunted, treasure laden labyrinth? Taking it a step further, what is this wasn’t an unexpected side effect of an imprisonment but something that had been done on *purpose.*

From this seed, I wanted to jot down some thoughts about an alternate take on magic that is based on various levels of sensory deprivation. This notion could readily serve as the base magic system for a world and/or a race, empire, or other alternate magic working along ‘traditional’ role playing magic.

Magic and the Caecine Tradition

There is one truth you must learn if you are to master magic: all magic requires you to turn your back, to blind yourself to the world that is. Let the academics argue if the wizards and other warpers of reality call upon worlds and powers beyond our own or merely those locked within their own skulls – it makes no difference. Instead, only know that:

Magic is real.

Magic is power.

Magic always has a price.

And this price is blindness, or deafness, or numbness, or deprivations of the sense even more extreme that mute the insistence of what is in favor of abilities and shapes born of dread or hope or need.

Levels of Magic and the Origin of Dungeons

There are levels to the Caecine tradition. These range from lay priests who spend an hour each day fumbling in blindfolds or deaf with their ears stopped up and so are able to produce small miracles to the ancients who shaped dungeon and maze deep in the earth by casting venerable highborn and inocent newborn alike into black pits to see what gnarls and twists in reality would pour out of their isolation.

Wonders and terrors are still uncovered in those deep places created or summoned by the extremes of isolation, including those creatures who likely smote the ancients and rent their empires and cities asunder. Though we’ve been exploring dungeons and labyrinths (each as idiosyncratic as the madman that spawned it) for centuries, though we’ll explore them for centuries more; we still have yet to uncover all the treasure or slay all the monsters ‘buried’ in such places.

The Specific Costs of Magic

In general, the level of ‘magic’ an individual wishes to effect has the following ‘prices:’

  • Cost of low level magic (equivalent to first through third level spells) – Requirement for caster to temporarily block of a single sense (about an hour each day) in addition to stopping that sense during the casting of the spell (lest reality intrude). This stopping can be accomplished by physically blocking of the eyes or ears and/or temporary poisons that numb the sense of touch or smell.
  • Cost of Fundamental Magic (equivalent to 4-5th level spells) – Requirement for a practitioner to spend the majority of their waking hours without the use of one or more senses (in addition to stopping that sense while casting).
  • Cost of Epic Magic (Equivalent to 6-7th level spells) – Requires that one or more sense be permanently stopped, this is usually accomplished by ceremonially applying a heated metal rod to the sense organ to be sacrificed of through the use of potent toxins with terrible side effects.
  • Supreme Magic (Equivalent to 8-9th level spells) – Requires the permanent sacrifice of multiple sense as well as repeated, prolonged numbing of any that remain. Casters of this caliber are usually deaf, their nostrils burned out, and their skin numbed to the point of deadness through the application of a potent alchemical salve. They are kept blindfolded most of each day, the cover removed only to help them ‘aim.’ Alternately, they may require the help of a ‘spotter’ which whom the occasionally communicate through magic.

There are levels beyond this, but the creation of the solipsistic pits necessary to achieve these ends should not be attempted lest we follow in the footsteps of the ancients. It should also be noted that individuals who are born without a particular sense can not access magic this way, there seems to be something integral to the act of choosing (or being willfully denied) a sense to wielding powers of this nature.

Obviously, this concept could be used to rework how magic ‘traditionally’ works (and given such obvious drawbacks might be of use for players/Gms who wish to ‘balance’ martial/magical characters). Or it could be used as an alternate (and horrible) sorcerer tradition (Paizo has something similar with oracles, but the burdens of their magic become less onerous over time instead of moreso). Alternately, this could be used in addition to traditional magic systems as a path that produces more powerful (or faster) results than would otherwise be possible. Lastly, this could serve as a way to make a race/ethnicity that was traditionally denied magic have a justification for their newfound powers.

But what do you think?

Could you see yourself using something like this in game? (For me at least, I think I’ll justify some dungeons with this as well as make some monstrous casters more terrifying in the way they produce magic.)

What are your thoughts on the potential costs of magic?

Sound off in the comments.


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Action horror writer and freelance game designer J.M. Perkins pays his bills by working procurement for a biotech company and by making things up. He's got over 20 short stories, some game books, and a novel in print. His website is he writes a fantasy tabletop setting built around the perpetual butchery of the Tarrasque called The City of Salt in Wounds, and you can buy his gaming book about surviving and thriving as the class everybody expects to die horribly The Adequate Commoner.