OSR Demons, part 1
OK, let’s talk demons.
My first taste of Stormbringer’s demons was with The Madcap Laughs in White Dwarf back in… whoah! 1987. This was just after WD had become a house magazine but before they ditched the roleplaying to focus on Warhammer and miniatures.
This was the third edition of Stormbringer (the Games Workshop printing with the Peter Jones cover), which wasn’t much different from the first two editions. Before then magic had been D&D’s spells, point-and-click magic, and the idea of a sorcerer’s power being invested in a demonic proxy — a proxy with form, and personality, and a relationship to the summoner — blew my mind.
The fourth edition (Michael Whelan cover) spoiled demons. They were no longer summoned based on function (combat, desire, etc.) but instead build up with a point-buy “chaos value” and “demon breeds”. This change made them impersonal, no longer unique, relegated to pick-and-mix monsters. That persisted through the fifth edition (aka Elric!) but by then the magic system was watered down with RQ-style spells.
Later, Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone went back to using the terminology from Stormbringer 1e to describe demons — so maybe the authors Green, Whitaker and Nash agreed with me that the earlier version was better. But that product had god-awful black-on-grey and multiple font printing, so was nearly illegible.
Anyway… what follows are some ideas for translating SB3e style demons to an OSR/d20 system. I like this for a complete replacement for magic spells; if you want the same spell effects, the demons become containers for the spells and cast them on behalf of the caster. This first part is an overview, with mechanics to come in part 2.
One: Demon Anatomy
Demons have the following descriptive bits:
- A unique Name (in The Madcap Laughs Ziamora’s demons are “Quolalola”, “Seepreest” and “Gjasajaguj”)
- A Kind (Seepreest is a Demon of Desire)
- A Form (Quolalola is “a giant seven-headed swan”.)
- The various Services the Demon provides (depends on the kind of demon)
- A Relationship with the conjurer.
Two: True Names
Beyond the Wall has rules for True Names of things (though it’s loose on where they originate from — should be part of the cosmology, see below). It’s up to the GM or group whether demons give their masters their true names, or just their common names.
Is the demon’s True Name known to the conjurer? Three options:
Yes, because that’s how the magician summons and binds a demon. This implies that there are demons “out there” with names that can be discovered by certain means. This implies a sort of otherworld that the demons come from, which may have a hierarchy or may be unstructured or chaotic (like an ocean where the big demons prey on the little ones)
Yes, because the True Name is given to the demon by the magician. This is the subjective demon-as-conjurer’s-personality version. This also implies that if the True Name is discovered by someone else then that person could have power not only over the demon but also the conjurer.
No. The magician summons the demon and the demon offers services in exchange for a relationship that fulfils a need; the True Name is kept back by the demon. If the conjurer (or anyone) discovers the True Name of the demon they will have complete power over it; for now, the conjurer just has a contract for services rendered. This version works best where there is an otherworld hierarchy, i.e. the demon has status or a role to fulfil in the demonic/angelic ranks. Maybe they’re offering their services on the side.
Three: Explanations for Demons
Stormbringer’s official dogma is that demons come from other planes where the owe fealty to the Lords of Chaos. But sorcerers are self-serving and deceitful individuals with a warped sense of reality, and we only have their word to go on.
Answer two questions:
- do people believe in demons?
- is that belief organised?
Suggest four tiers of belief and affiliation:
There are no answers for these things. There is no language to describe them. There is no identifiable pattern. There is nothing to learn. Summoning skills are intuitive acts of luck and will by isolated individuals, each with their own answers (Sorcerer)
Campfire tales and folk religion that finds answers for demons from the landscape, placing them in the context of a wider but diffuse spirituality in balance with the land, varying depending on which wise woman or priest you speak with. Demons are a bridge to the natural and spiritual world; some may be guides. Opinions vary from village to village (Beyond the Wall)
Large-scale collective beliefs, but no supremacy of any one; rival organised churches with clear heraldry and iconography; organisations that leverage the benefits of demons; negative associations are balanced with power and wealth (Stormbringer)
Large scale, highly developed human hierarchy that connects with an equally large scale of divine or demonic hierarchy. Theories become dogma; strands of belief are heresy. Objective notions of Good and Evil (In Nomine)
Four: Alignment and Need
Demons have needs (Sorcerer, before then Elric!/Stormbringer, though not so well developed). These needs seem random. Alignment can be a guide:
- Chaotic needs: to do harm and transgress against society, serving oneself
- Neutral needs: to identify with a natural state (a beast, a rock, a tree) and behave according to those needs (e.g. hunting and killing prey)
- Lawful needs: to represent whatever stands for order and civilisation; serving institutions and principles
Needs are satisfied by the Relationship with the conjurer.
Five: Overview of Demon Kinds and Services
Stormbringer 1e has six different Kinds of Demons. The Kind says nothing about the demon’s appearance or origins — it’s all about the Services the demon provides. The taxonomy is according to function (i.e. what it can do for the summoner) rather than “breed” as in SB4e and later.
- Demon of Combat come in two forms — either as weapons, or as Demon Fighters (basically monsters). Their powers are hitting and hurting things; could also include inducing fear, poisoning, inhibiting or restraining. (STR)
- Demons of Protection also come in two forms, either as Demon Armour or as Guardians. There’s also some stuff about Wardpacts which the game interprets as invulnerability to a class of thing (following The Vanishing Tower). Services will be armour, soaking damage, cushioning, hiding, reflecting or redirecting damage. (CON)
- Demons of Knowledge know specific facts, though they’re not infallable. They “will not fight under any circumstances”. Normally they’re summoned by a sacrifice of a piece of art or something, rather than a blood sacrifice which is usual for the more violent demons. Services include scrying and divination, but could also be elevating senses. (INT)
- Demons of Travel help the sorcerer move around, whether it’s physical movement, teleportation or jumping to other planes of existance. (WIS)
- Demons of Desire are wish-granters; they can procure objects (limited by their physical dimensions). They also tend to look attractive, and they can heal the sorcerer. (DEX)
- Demons of Posession are bound into bodies or objects and can be ordered to do whatever the body it posesses is capable of doing; additionally they can leap from body to body, by overcoming magical resistance. Services will be kinds of enchantment i.e. charm, hold person (CHA)
I’ve mapped each demon onto a specific attribute — demons should work as Relationships (also I will work in rules for Harm). This may also be specifically useful for Whitehack. In part two I’ll talk about the mechanics.