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Friday, 10 November 2017

Classic Rant: Real Magick in RPGs - Sanity rules?

Before I go on with things real magicians do (or would-be real magicians routinely fail to do), I thought I should address a mechanical issue. In "modern occult" themed games, usually there is some kind of special mechanic or set of mechanics that are meant to reflect the state of both a magic-user's power, and the state of his "mental health" in whatever form as he works magick.

Obviously, none of these have been really well done as accurate reflections of what goes on in a magician's career. To give some examples of what I'm talking about here, in CoC you have "sanity" and "Cthulhu Mythos" stats, in Unknown Armies you have the madness meters, in oMage you had "paradox" (if I recall correctly), etc.

So what kind of stats would you really have to have to reflect the state of a magician's attainment, and his deterioration in turn, if you were trying to reflect how "real" magick is done in our modern world?

I've thought about this for a bit, and I think you'd have to do something like the following:

First, you'd need a stat to reflect the Magician's ongoing state of enhanced perception, the flowering of intuitive knowledge, the capacity to see into the supernatural world, or the general sense of transcending the mundane; let's call this Gnosis. 

Gnosis would start at basically zero, but your goal would be to gain in it as time went by. Gnosis can only be gained by what the mystic Gurdjieff called "Shock points", moments of spiritual crisis where something sufficiently outside your mundane understanding of reality happens that it leads to a potential growth in awareness. Basically, "mind-blowing experiences" and general weird shit happening.

Most people have some of this weird shit happen in their life at some point or another, yet usually they end up repressing it (this means that a Shock moment only has the potential to lead to gain in Gnosis, more on that later). But for magicians, there is almost always some initial event that takes place, something that knocks them out of their consensus of reality sufficiently that they can't ignore it, and this leads them into the study of magick in the first place, however half-assed or seriously they may go about it from there. 
Gnosis is increasingly hard to develop as you go along; this is because any previous experience is no longer a Shock. For example, dropping acid, the first time that you do it, completely blows out your frame-of-reference, your ego has nothing to compare it to; by the second time you do it, you already do have something to compare it to: the first time.

So a Shock has to be something different each time, and has to lead to a progression in one's understanding for it to even have a chance to increase Gnosis. I would probably run this as some kind of 0-100 ranged stat, where each time you experience a shock you would roll a percentile die, and if you got HIGHER than your current level of Gnosis, you would gain a certain number of Gnosis points. Any experience that was too mundane, or that was a retread of what you had experienced previously, would not grant you new Gnosis points, though it may be useful in other ways. This would be a tricky thing to govern, because your state of mind can affect whether something is a Shock or not; if you repeat the exact same action (for example, performing a certain ritual) but your state of mind has changed sufficiently, it might count as an entirely new Shock, as it provides you with some new revelation. 

Gnosis wouldn't be the only important statistic to keep track of, however. There's the flipside of Gnosis, which is Ego. "Ego" in this case refers to the "illusion of the world", to the construct of ideas and concepts, memories and outside influences on your being that you've patched together and decides is "you", as well as your ideas about reality and how reality works. Everyone would start with a certain level of Ego, a measure of how strong their personality is. Any Shock which successfully generates Gnosis should also reduce Ego. 

But on the other hand, any Shock which FAILS to generate Gnosis could potentially increase Ego. That is, you perform a ritual or have an experience that presents you with the chance to redefine your whole concept of yourself or reality; it creates a Shock (a spiritual crisis), and the next question becomes how you deal with that Shock. You can be receptive to it and allow it to change you, that means Gnosis is generated. Alternately, you can simply fail to take advantage of the change. But you can also react strongly against the change, trying to hold onto the Ego. Then you create new kinds of justifications for yourself, to avoid having to change, you rationalize the experience, and use it instead of as a vehicle for alchemical transformation, as a way to reinforce your existing prejudices about reality. Thus, your Ego gets stronger. So I would say that any Shock experience that fails to raise your Gnosis would require a test against Ego, to see if Ego increases. Basically, any Shock event that raises your ego is an experience so terrifying (maybe LITERALLY terrifying, or not, but definitely terrifying to your sense of self-definition) that you just refuse to accept it as it really is and build up a fantasy to help strengthen your existing ideas instead.

The third stat of importance in all this would be Obsession. As Shocks occur, whether they increase Gnosis or affect Ego, they can end up generating a certain amount of Obsession in the magician; this is the closest to "madness" that you would see. Someone under the effects of Obsession would be caught up in the distraction of the events that caused the Shock; they would end up getting lost in the minutiae of the vehicles used to obtain the Shock (be they drugs, magical ritual, ecstatic frenzy, kabbalistic numerology, alchemical gobbledygook, metaphysical ruminations, etc etc.), and this would complicate both their ability to function in the everyday world, and their ability to continue developing magically. 

Someone who is being affected badly by obsession would be that guy who gets caught up in the visible appearances of "being a powerful magician"; the guy who can't keep his mouth shut about the subject, tries to talk about the kabbalah or pagan gods, or whatever he's into, to anyone at all who'll listen.  The guy who starts ignoring his regular life and work and relationships to instead spend all his time trying to study or talk about or summon up demons, or read tarot cards, or find the numerical significance of every little thing that comes along. Like Gnosis or Ego, you'd have to mechanically create a chance of generating Obsessions whenever you had a Shock Experience, and you could require someone to make a roll against their obsession value at different times to see if the Obsessions don't end up interfering with either their magical study (obsession tends to create "blinders" where you ignore certain avenues in favor of your pet obsessions) or their social lives (obsession turns you into a nutter).

Failing an Obsession check might lead to a small increase in your Obsession level, while doing certain other things (meditation, intentionally trying to build up social connections, psychological self-analysis, etc) might have a chance of slightly reducing your level of Obsession. Later Shock experiences would affect Obsession in such a way that a given Shock might either increase or reduce obsession; so that I'd probably have any Shock point cause a direct percentage "check" in obsession, where if you rolled equal to or under your current level, you'd gain more Obsession, and if you rolled higher than your current level you'd reduce your Obsession. Note that unlike Ego, which would only increase in the case of failing a Gnosis check, obsession would be checked in every Shock event, so you could theoretically gain both Gnosis and Obsession at the same time. That's pretty common, actually.

Should someone get to 100 Gnosis points, they would become an "Adept", someone who has obtained a permanent state of awareness that there are dimensions beyond the material, and the ability to connect to that altered state of consciousness beyond the rational mind. Someone in this state would be able to permanently access their "higher self" (in magick sometimes called the "True Will" or more poetically, the "Holy Guardian Angel"). They would not necessarily always be willing to follow the direction and guidance of that True Will, however. 

Further Shock experiences would not need to be tested against Gnosis, but could still work against Ego, either to reduce or increase it, as the Adept struggled between the constructed-psyche he continues to identify with, and the higher state of consciousness he is now constantly (and sometimes painfully) aware of. Note that "True Will" rarely has much to do with what your ego thinks it wants at any given time, it is rather a kind of cosmic consciousness that has to do with your higher purpose; from the perspective of the human being at the level of the ego, it can seem like an entirely different entity, hence this notion of an "Angel" trying to guide you, and often demanding things of you that are very difficult.

Its possible for your Ego to reach 0, in which case you will have become a "Magister Templi", a Buddha, completely transformed into a new level of consciousness (where the physical body, the mind, the Higher Self, and what you previously believed to be the Divine are all experientially understood to be one single thing); but only if you can cross the "trial of the abyss": the dark night of the soul that is the final challenge of the ego's will to dominate versus your true will to transcend. 

A person confronting the Abyss would have to face all of their resistance, fears, attachments and obsessions, and be willing to let them all go. Failing the trial of the Abyss, resisting the annihilation of the ego to the point of shutting one's self in, would result in the creation of a new Ego-construct instead of transcendence; what Crowley called a "Black Brother", trapped in delusions of power and grandeur, and unable to let go of those accomplishments they cling to. It would be theoretically possible, but very difficult, to overcome this and again face the abyss a second time. Mechanically, this initial failure of overcoming the Abyss could be done by having your Ego raised back up to the level of your Obsession (which would be that which the magician would cling to, after all), and for a subsequent attempt to overcome the Abyss requiring some kind of very strong (probably life-endangering) Shock event, and a check with greater difficulty than the former (with another failure causing an increase in Ego to some multiplier of your obsession; ie. obsession x 2, x3, x4 etc. for each failure).

Having an Ego score get up to 100 would simply mean that you have an extremely rigid sense of self and reality, you would be almost completely unwilling to accept anything that was not your own illusions about what you are and what reality is like. It would make it very difficult to be able to reduce your Ego level, as you'd basically be in deep denial about everything. Having an Obsession level of 0 would just mean you're a very well-functioning human being, whereas an Obsession level of 100 would make you utterly batshit certifiably insane.

There's probably one more thing that would need to be mentioned here; and that's what I'll call "Masks". The Ego is seen as a problem for the magician's ultimate goal of "transcendence", unity with the universe, cosmic consciousness, whatever you want to call it.  But the Ego is also the personality, it is what we normally define ourselves as, and the basis for our interactions with everyone else, who also define themselves as their egos (in fact, the difference between magicians, and a few other spiritual practitioners on the one hand, and everyday people on the other is that most regular people don't normally question that they are their personalities, and don't even imagine that there is something else much greater beyond that which is also "them"). 

So the "successful" magician can quickly run into a problem, which is that if you reduce your Ego without developing any skill to compensate for it, you will end up seeming basically "broken" from the perspective of everyday society; you won't have a real personality, or a sufficiently stable one. You'll seem weird, disconnected (or obsessed, if your Obsession level has grown while your Ego has decreased), and generally uncomfortable to be around. But the fact is that the Ego is just a kind of mask that people have glued onto their true nature, their inner vastness. That vastness is uncomfortable and people can't connect to it (in fact, one of the most common early "Shock" experiences of a new magician is when they run into some kind of teacher in whom they catch some glimpse of that vastness). But if the Ego is just a mask, it is possible for a magician to learn how to put on other masks at will; to basically create a personality (or as many personalities as he likes) and put them on as needed to deal with different people. This would be a magical skill, which could be called "Masks". 

To obtain it, the magician would have to perform practices and techniques of invocation, learning about archetypes and how to embody those archetypes, or how to create new archetypes. Mechanically, he'd probably have to develop a level of Masks skill that was in some way greater than his level of Obsession, because Obsession acts as a total barrier to the effective use of a mask. Someone who is successful in the use of a Mask skill would be able to essentially "construct" a temporary personality out of archetypal concepts; and would go from being socially inept due to low-Ego or high-Obsession to being extremely socially capable, as he could create a different mask for different occasions as they were necessary (becoming a "regular guy" when he's around regular guys, an intellectual around intellectuals, a hobbyist around hobbyists, a hobo around hobos, a hipster around hipsters, whatever). This is not just "acting" or "bluffing"; part of what wearing the mask does is temporarily incarnate the qualities of that mask-persona completely (its only comparable to acting in the sense of those very intense method-actors who go so totally into a role that they "become" the character). Someone who became a "master of the temple" would have to continually rely on the wearing of Masks to be able to function in regular society at all.
The easiest masks would be those closest to your existing persona (or for those beyond the Abyss, the imitation of their prior persona); after all, that too is a mask, it just happens to be the one you've been wearing your whole life.

Anyways, that's all I've got for now, and I'm not really planning on developing anything further in this direction; after all I'm not making an RPG here, just trying to create guidelines for others to try to use and develop stuff for their own "modern occult" campaigns.


Currently Smoking: Castello 4k Collection Canadian + Image Latakia

(Originally posted August 23, 2011)


  1. Hmm... that's pretty good, but I would model things just a bit different, naturally. For instance, a mechanic that reconciles Gnosis with Ego. Also, Right and Left Hand Paths should have separate methodologies and goals.

  2. Great Post! I will use Gnosis as one of the skills for my Magic Users. I run an AD&D 1st Ed./RQ clone and broke away from Vancian magic. Magic Users, Illusionists, Clerics, and Druids all use different game mechanics for determining chance of spell success and how spells are acquired.

    It's great that you introduced Gurdjieff. His ideas you mentioned were validated by psychology. Back in the 1990's there was an outfit peddling applied psychology based on Gurdjieff's concepts to corporate and state clients with deep pockets. Gurdjieff's Shock Points were renamed SEE's (Significant Emotional Experience). This was non-magical, but had everything to do with emotional survival. The premise was that research identified deeply held values, over which people are willing to kill and to die for. Ego exists within the framework of the worldview and belief systems, by which it explains away misfortunes and maintains its stability. SEE is something so traumatic, so out of ordinary, that the person's worldview and belief systems can not account for the tragic event and collapse. After which individuals can either recover fully and grow as a result, or become broken human beings. This was postulated as the only way to actually change someone's values.

    1. Hadn't heard about that - the 90's were an uneven time!

  3. Grand stuff pundit,
    In this framework what would PTSD (without subsequent PT growth) be? the ego growth or ego reaching 100 and being paralysed by that?
    And what about self-abuse- alcohol, drugs, gambling, adrenaline junkies etc... are these a symptom of increased obsession?
    Psychic wounds perhaps?
    I'm thinking here not just of broken people but also of accomplished folk who ended their days (apparently) in alcoholism... Allan Watts comes to mind.

    The more you write of this stuff the more i wonder when you will write a definitive guidebook to magick, not as an rpg supplement.

    1. Hmm, that's a tough kind of question. In my experience, the psychological trauma associated with occultism tends to be (most often) obsession, then neurosis, then paranoia.
      I wouldn't really consider any of it "PTSD", though of course if someone was suffering from PTSD prior to or from some other source than their venturing into occultism, it could be worsened by it (or, if they were very careful about it and very good about their practices, ameliorated by it).

      The obsession I'm talking about is more often obsession with occult systems, metaphysics, cosmology, etc, manifesting in an inability to stop referring to, thinking about and talking about these things even in social situations where it would not make sense to do so.

      I don't know anyone who became a drug, alcohol or gambling addict due to their activity in occultism. I do know lots of people with pre-existing drinking or drug issues who have ended up using occultism to justify or enable their addictions.

      In the case of Watts, for example, I don't think his spiritual interests led him to become an alcoholic; but I suspect that he used his spiritual experiences as a justification to not get his act together.

    2. I guess my angle view of this was from your use of shocks. My understanding of PTSD is that in some sense it is a shock of perception disintegration, their world view did not equip them for attrocity that they cant reintegrate it.... they come face to face with the genuine dark side of the human beast "evil" (interpersonal violence or attrocity) or worse witness it in themselves. Maybe this isnt so much a part of of occult experience, more toward warrior path mysticism.

    3. Well, PTSD is not itself a 'Shock'. It is a CONSEQUENCE of failing to effectively overcome a shock situation.
      War, for example, would be a 'Shock'. So someone who gets PTSD is unable to overcome the challenge presented by war.