Tuesday, August 1, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Magic of the Incarnum

I'm going to start this reaction with the second-cattiest comment from my notes (the first cattiest, "the class of dubious fashion choices" was a bit reductive). It's just a quote from the book, but it's a quote I chose to document out of an extremely arch sense of detachment: "characters who can shape soulmelds are known as meldshapers."

Some of you may already understand what I'm getting at, but to clarify, lest you think I'm just being weird and mean - Magic of the Incarnum (James Wyatt, Richard Baker, Frank Brunner, Stephen Schubert) is an extremely interesting book that presents an entirely new magic system for use with D&D 3.5, one that has unique aesthetics and setting implications, but also . . . that fucking jargon, man.

A "soulmeld" is a magical object made of solidified soul energy. The person who created it can wear it as a piece of equipment and gain a minor magical power. That power can be boosted through the infusion of extra soul energy (known as "essentia") to create more consequential effects. And every soulmeld has at least one (and as many as 3-4) upgraded forms where it is "bound to a chakra," unlocking even more potent magic. 

For example, the Lammasu Mantle gives you a +2 bonus to AC against attacks from evil creatures. And if you invest essentia, you also get a +1 bonus to saves per point invested.  But if you bind it to your arms, you extend those bonuses to your nearby allies. Or you could bind it to your shoulders, in which case you gain an aura that prevents non-good creatures from getting closer than 10 feet. Or you could bind it to your totem and gain the ability to breathe fire. And what this looks like in practice is you start with a cloak of fur and feathers and then, you can either cause your arms to grow fur (arms-chakra variant), cause the cloak to merge with your back (shoulders-chakra variant), or you can gain a think, lion-like mane (totem-chakra variant). 

Every soulmeld has its own abilities and appearance, and you can mix and match them at the beginning of each day, in anticipation of the likely threats and challenges you're going to face. During the course of the day, you can shift your essentia investment (but not chakra allocation) from soulmeld to soulmeld, tweaking the strength of your abilities to the needs of a particular encounter.

Like I said, interesting. But . . . soulmelds? It's an unpleasant word to say ("meldshaper" is even worse). Aside from just, you know, not being as melodious as "cellar door," it's also a term with no mythological provenance, no genre connotations, and just no . . . anything. It's an artless portmanteau made up to refer to this specific thing and nothing else. And even towards the end of the book, when I'd started to vibe with its whole deal, that word never lost its nails-on-a-blackboard feeling. 

The reason I bring it up first, before anything else, is because when I think about my preferred alternatives to the terms "soulmelds" and "meldshapers" my kneejerk answer is "spells" and "wizards." And I swear, that's not just me being a cranky-pants (well, maybe a little). I actually think it's the key to unlocking the book's full potential. It's a new magic system for Dungeons & Dragons, a game that already has a (famously contentious) magic system. All of the mental real-estate it needs to occupy is, in fact, already occupied. Try to layer it on top of what's already come before and of course it's going to be ugly (it doesn't help that all of the good synonyms - sorcerer, warlock, witch, arcanist, enchanter, thaumaturge, etc. - have all been used for other things), but that doesn't mean the idea is bad. You just have to clear the way for it.

I really think it's the book's format that's holding it back. Magic of the Incarnum is treated as a source of new classes to add to the core's implied setting and it's ill-suited to that role. You need only look at the "Incarnum Campaigns" chapter to see that. The first half is just variations on "how do you introduce this thing to your game when no one's ever heard of it before." Maybe some ancient seal has been broken. Maybe it's been around this whole time, but it was kept a secret. Maybe it's how magic works in some distant land, and it's just now coming to the place where the PCs are. And these are all good plots . . . in a world where magic doesn't already exist. Oh, the last survivor of an ancient progenitor culture has been located and now various factions are racing to find him and hopefully unlock the mytic secrets of the old civilization, leading to an invasion of the characters' homeland by a hitherto unsuspected imperial power from beyond the sea . . . let's ask Elminster what we should do about this. The plot can't land because the default game already has something that occupies the same niche, but better (or, at least, more powerfully).

The question of "how does magic work" is at the heart of any fantasy worldbuilding project. You don't necessarily want to get too nitty-gritty about the details, but you have to address it because the knock-on effects are huge. What does this mean for the world's culture? For its metaphysics? For its religions? Its economy? And Incarnum works really well as a starting point because it unavoidably touches on these sorts of questions. You gain magical power by manipulating souls! A wizard will grab a loose soul, transform it into a pre-determined shape, and use that soul to perform miraculous, superhuman feats. Amazing. What does it mean that there are all these loose souls floating around? How does this factor in to the cycle of life and death? If a loose soul can power a magic spell, why can't a soul that's already inside a body? What would have happened if that one dark wizard had succeeded at "storming the Bastion of Unborn Souls?"

Magic of the Incarnum can't really answer these questions, because D&D already has a minimum of three different types of magic (arcane, divine, and psionics) and any attempt to really lock the Incarnum power source to the world's lore is going step on some toes. As a book, it's kind of stuck in this limbo. The only way to engage with it is as a novel set of mechanics, which necessitates it having jargon in lieu of flavor, and that's to the benefit of neither the player, the setting, nor the game. 

Also, while I'm being negative, I have to scold it about its far too frequent use of the word "savage," and in the bad context as well. The Totemist class is the best part of the book, but its core idea (what if: a shapeshifter class that could fill a spellcaster niche by changing into the form of D&D's iconic magical beasts and using their spell-like abilities) is undermined by the fact that it's wrapped in the worst of D&D's racist nonsense. Things we know about the Totemist: they're illiterate like Barbarians and they're the favored class of "savage humanoids." Plus, I'm pretty sure it's inappropriate to use the word "totem" the way this book does.

Overall, I'd say that Magic of the Incarnum is a good enough book to anchor a whole campaign setting. . . which makes it a shame that it doesn't. I enjoyed reading it, but mostly as a historical oddity. This was an experiment in the limits of D&D mechanics and while it could occasionally be fascinating, I never forgot that I was reading an experiment.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Threefold Mask of the Chimera. It has three faces and three sets of eyes and while wearing it you can see out any of them, with each face filtering the world in a different perspective. It's not quite as mystical as it could be, but I could easily give it a broader set of powers.

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