Discworld: Miscellany

by Terry Prachett and Phil Masters

Art by Paul Kidby

Other Old Magical Equipment

Contrary to some beliefs, aside from staffs, most wizardly appurtenances and witches' tools do not absorb significant magic; perhaps a few shed octarine sparks or develop a tendency to mutter to themselves at stressful moments, but nothing more. The whole point of Discworld spells is that they control magic, and stop it from seeping too far. The old Archchancellors' Hat was a special, very old, case; few wizards' hats are worn on more than one head. Wizards are very possessive of their hats, and are often buried in them, usually when they are dead.

Authentic royal crowns can be a little unnerving for characters with psychic sensitivity; they tend to remember the lives and experiences of their past wearers, which inevitably include a fair amount of blood and fire. Wearing one, especially if not entitled to it, is not recommended for magical adepts.

Memorised Spells

Magic on the Disc works similarly to how most GURPS players expect it to work - if you know a spell, you know it and that's that. However, GMs wishing to parody that Certain Other GameTM may prefer to try the following optional rule that reflects the way magic was described in the earliest of the chronicles; note that it restricts wizards fairly severely.

Optional Memorisation Rule: Discworld spells may be read directly from a book, or memorised for portability. Characters may memorise a number of spells equal to their IQ + Magery + levels of Eidetic Memory. (Optionally, Very Hard spells can use two "slots," and extremely complex spells can take up more room at the GM's discretion.) Once memorised, the spell stays in the caster's head until it is used, after which that memory space becomes available again. Characters may memorise the same spell more than once at a time.

Reading a spell into memory takes five minutes per point of space required; wizards working in haste may attempt a Will roll, and deduct 10% from the time for every point by which it is made (to a minimum of one minute per space point), but on a failure they add 20% to the time, and on a critical failure, they get a splitting headache for 1D hours, in which time they cannot use any magic, and make all other rolls at -5.
In this system, learning a spell (and paying character points for it) represents the process of wrestling it into your personal grimoire. A skill roll is not required on casting, but the memorised spell is not self-energising; normal energy costs must be met, and skill level does modify those. Casting an otherwise-unknown spell from another wizard's grimoire requires a roll against Thaumatology skill at -5, or -10 for Very Hard spells, and costs full energy. (Alternatively, memorised spells may have no energy cost, but require skill rolls to cast; casting from a strange grimoire would still work as above).

When a wizard dies, all his currently memorised spells are cast at once, using the remnants of his life energy and draining his staff and any ritual participants he is connected to. The order in which the spells are cast, and their targets, are random (although the GM may intervene for maximum dramatic effect).

Obviously, all this requires fully literate wizards; shamans, witches and such would have to use a different system, which should be balanced to avoid unfairness to wizards. Perhaps they "memorise" spells by puttering about mumbling (for witches), or hitting the mushrooms (for shamans).

An Alternative "Memorisation" Rule

As an alternative optional rule to simulate the behaviour of Disc wizards as sometimes seen, try the following:

Any wizard wishing to use a spell that they have not used in the previous 48 hours must first roll vs. their skill in that spell, with -1 for every point of energy it costs for a minimum casting (the printed cost, unmodified by skill). If this roll fails, they must go back to their spell-books and remind themselves of the technique (taking 3d minutes) before they can cast the spell again.

As a further option, this limitation may be the result of a special disadvantage; "Book-Bound Wizard," worth -5 points, but only available to characters who know at least 15 different spells.

Optional Rule Mechanics

In general, a Discworld game should be run fast and light on rules; stopping the game every five minutes to check a detailed point of interpretation is likely to kill any humour stone dead. (Except for jokes about GMs who don't know what they are doing, of course).

However, some GMs who run light on rules, and who know that they should be emphasising plot and fun over system, end up with mild cases of megalomania. An RPG, humorous or not, is a co-operative project, and if the GM takes too much power from the players, they will ultimately become frustrated. Everyone should be permitted input.

And don't be afraid of using dice in a Discworld game, although the results they give can certainly be interpreted freely. The Disc is a place where the random peculiarities of fate are very significant, and risky endeavours genuinely can go right or wrong. Honest use of dice when dice are called for can keep both players and GM on their toes, expecting the unexpected.

Anyway, there are a few optional rules to think about: Hit Locations (p. B109), for example, are good for the "feel" of low-combat games, as they make injuries seem more realistically painful when they do happen. These rules also make non-lethal "knockout" blows slightly easier to accomplish, which is appropriate in Discworld games; characters in the chronicles are fairly frequently knocked senseless without long-term harm. In fact, combat and injury in the chronicles is realistic and painful enough that many of optional injury and bleeding rules (p. B129-130) are worth considering.

As Discworld bar-room brawls do only tend to turn lethal when weapons are drawn, and people are quite often knocked out temporarily by the traditional cosh to the skull, Stun Damage rules may be very appropriate. (See p.CII151) However, the Disc is a realistic enough setting that only fists, one-handed clubs, and blackjacks are likely to do Stun-only damage. Alternatively, for a quick-and-dirty system, simply assume that all damage done in a fist fight is non-lethal, able to render unconscious but not to kill, and recovered in a few minutes between scenes.

Also, if a Discworld campaign is heavy on combat, the power of narrative on the Disc means that optional Swashbuckling rules (p. CII75-79) are likely to be appropriate. On the other hand, the "comic realism" of the environment should cut in, too; anyone swinging on a chandelier should either look very good and obtain lots of surprise bonuses, or cause it to collapse and land in the trifle on the dining-table below.

Mood and Pacing

Roleplaying is collaboration. Players and GMs must work together to create an entertainment, and to define a mood . Perhaps the single most common cause of game failure is a clash of expectations.

This is especially significant in comedy games, and in games set in well-known backgrounds. Even if everyone is expecting a comedy, if the GM is attempting a complex satire, half the players are trying to maximise the slapstick, and the other half are making puns about everything, the campaign is doomed. Similarly, the GM should determine what players want from a Discworld game; is it to revisit favorite scenes from the novels or to explore areas of the Disc that have mostly been ignored until now? To come up with new characters, or to emulate old favourites? To have adventures, or to have as many laughs as possible?

At least this sort of thing can be sorted out with a little discussion, and provided that there aren't too many distractions, and that everyone is prepared to put in a little work, constructing a mood isn't too difficult. What can be a little harder is pace .

Pacing is a skill shared by writers of fiction and good GMs, although the two have to work in slightly different ways. Stories and scenarios can't be played at the same tempo throughout; that would be boring. Equally, clues and key plot events shouldn't just be spaced out one-per-hour or one-per-ten-pages; that would be too predictable. It's better to start slow, and work on a rising rate of events, until the big comic or dramatic climax, then perhaps include a calmer "epilogue" scene. On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for dropping PCs into the middle of some action at the start, to get adrenaline flowing and inhibitions down; such a scene should not usually involve major NPCs, and especially not any major villains, especially in RPGs, where too much that's unexpected can happen if the players show unexpected ingenuity (or stupidity) or the dice run amok.
Switches of pace are especially important to comedy, and to many other forms of storytelling. Trying to play every scene at maximum velocity is exhausting and probably hopeless; rather, the GM should keep moving along at a sensible "walking" pace much of the time, then throw jokes or complex slapstick action at the players, ideally when they aren't expecting them. Plots can also involve false climaxes and escalating dramas, with a series of failed attempts to slow the pace before something really special ends the scene. Then, everyone should draw breath before the plot moves on, preferably in an unexpected direction that nonetheless emerges logically from the preceding events. In this sense, comedy is strangely akin to horror.

But GMs shouldn't be too nervous of all this. If in doubt, start with an even-paced, low-key plot, with the best "bits" you can think of evenly spaced throughout, and let the players develop characterisation and some conflict. As with most skills, practice is the best way to learn.

The Rights Of Man

Kings are Always Right. Sometimes the statements of kings require a great deal of interpretation, but they are still Right, even if a non-king who made such a statement would be considered stark raving mad.
2. Anyone who lives in a palace, or is wearing clothes that cost more than your village's annual GDP, is Right.
3. Anyone acting on the orders of people in the above classes (soldiers, policemen, tax collectors, etc.) is Usually Right, unless you can prove them Wrong without leaving any witnesses.
4. Scholars, priests, and the people who put up informational signs in public places are Right an unpredictable fraction of the time; discretion is advised.
5. Talking animals, prophecies found in unexpected locations, people who profess to read ancient inscriptions that look to the less initiated like stress fractures, and old women who own more than five cats are all, when they predict great hardships and trouble followed by long life and fabulous wealth, Exactly Half Right.
6. Village idiots, members of religions with less than 25 adherents, and weathered travellers who will gladly accept half of your food in exchange for keeping you awake all night with a story, are Rarely Right, but don't turn your back.

Whence the Turtle?

The idea of the flat world resting on the back of a vast and tolerant animal crops up in any number of ancient myths. Native Americans had a turtle, while Indian myths mention elephants. Other macro-fauna -- bulls, fish, angels, snakes, and so on -- also appear, some of them layered on top of each other.

However, the truth of such ideas is only occasionally relevant to the chronicles. Aside from Krullian research programs, Omnian heresies, and the incidents of The Light Fantastic , most Discworld stories concern people living life much as most of us understand it. Except for the magic and the gods and so on.

The real point about the turtle is that it shows that this is a fantasy world, where symbolism crosses the line into fact. Character stories and adventures might involve research into the nature of Great A'Tuin's biology; they should involve the fantastic.

Still, GMs are entitled to play with the Disc's defining characteristic, if they wish. Going back to those myths; sometimes, part of the animal's function is to get irritated and shift about, generating earthquakes. This might happen on the Disc. There's probably not much that PCs can do about something that could give an itch to Great A'Tuin, but they might at least be able to research it.

Control Ratings

For those who wish to use GURPS Society Control Ratings (see p. CII188); Discworld societies cover the whole range, but few survive long as CR 0 anarchies, as neighbours and would-be leaders march in and take over, and few have the organisation and technology required to run at CR 6 (although the Agatean Empire has come close, and Omnian theocracy was truly totalitarian). Ankh-Morpork's ad hoc legal system is effectively CR 2, although weak enforcement often makes it look more like CR 1, but it shifts to CR 3 if Captain Carrot is being efficient -- and don't push your luck in the vicinity of the Patrician. Lancre is currently CR 2; under Lady Lilith and the Duc, Genua achieved a truly bizarre version of CR 5 or 6.

Legitimacy and Inheritance

politics has one element that is slightly different to most of our history; illegitimate offspring frequently inherit power.

This is not quite "legal," but it is widely accepted. To be sure, a legitimate heir will have priority, if he or she wants the title -- but especially in the absence of such a claimant, the old king's mistress's child (or whatever) can usually apply for the job. This principle may be pragmatism, it may be sentimentality, but it is certainly widespread, and it has influenced the history of nations including Lancre and Genua in recent years.

Leonard of Quirm
9, DX 12, IQ 21, HT 10
Speed 5.5, Move 5
Dodge 5
Advantages : Reputation (brilliant oddball), +1 among alchemists and artificers in Ankh-Morpork; Status +2; Fully Literate; Gadgeteer (realistic); Inspiration Magnet.
Disadvantages : Unattractive (slightly nerdish); Absent-Minded; Pacifism (Total non-violence); Involuntary Duty (kept locked up by the Patrician); Broad-Minded; Curious.
Quirks : Writes backwards; Doodles in his own margins; Sees everything he does as just a theoretical demonstration of some principle; Wishes the inspirations would leave him alone in his sleep.
Skills : Alchemy (Discworld)-18; Architecture/TL3-19; Armoury/TL4-20; Armoury/TL5 (Sidearms)-20; Armoury/TL5 (Artillery)-19; Armoury/TL6 (Sidearms)-20; Artist-22; Engineer/TL3 (Primitive Machinery)-21; Engineer/TL4 (Clockwork)-20; Engineer/TL5 (Clockwork)-19; Engineer/TL5 (Guns)-20; Engineer/TL6 (Guns)-19; Geology/TL3-21; Mechanic/TL3 (Siege Engines)-20; Mechanic/TL4 (Small Gadgets)-21; Mechanic/TL4 (Wagons)-21; Mechanic/TL5 (Small Gadgets)-20; Metallurgy/TL3-20; Metallurgy/TL4-19; Meteorology/TL3-19; Naturalist-20; Physics/TL3-20; Physiology/TL3-20; Woodworking-13.
Languages: Ankhian-21; Ancient Tongue-19.

Leonard of Quirm is the Disc's current greatest all-round intellect; an inventive and observational genius who could quite likely cause Ankh-Morpork to jump a GURPS tech level or two inside a year. Physically, he looks older than he is, at least to a first glance; his head has outgrown its hair covering, and he is slight and looks introverted. He is also, naturally, rather eccentric.

Little is known of his early life, but he certainly came from a family who could afford to have him well educated, despite his tendency to sit staring out of windows, Observing. Eventually, he settled in Ankh-Morpork, where he built quite a name for himself before the Patrician realised how dangerous he was, and had him locked away in a secret cell deep in the palace. Very few people know about this.

It doesn't worry Leonard very much; the cell has plenty of windows, and he is well supplied with artistic materials and components for his experiments. The Patrician has had countless lesser dangers assassinated without a blink, but Leonard is unique, and fascinating. (It is also possible that Leonard could be of use, of course).

The fact is that he understands the mechanical principles of the universe better than any other person on the Disc. However, he "illustrates" them by sketching detailed, functional designs for siege engines, or by creating working TL6 sidearms. Alternatively, he comes up with slightly less deadly concepts, such as flying machines -- or he may spend days inventing sticky yellow memo notes, or creating the finest paintings on the continent. The inspirations leave him with no sense of priorities, and he is naive about human motivations. The Patrician has tried hard to recover and eliminate Leonard's more clever sketches, but he knows that the task is unfinished. Leonard, a total pacifist, apologises profusely whenever another of his intellectual booby-traps goes off.

His inspiration-powered ability to come up with ideas far ahead (or to one side) of his time explains how Leonard has learned skills above the local tech level. Both these TL ratings and Leonard's skills are basically just approximations, in any case; the fact is, if something is physically possible with late-medieval tools (and remember that you can build some very modern tools with late medieval tools) it might easily happen on the Disc, and Leonard might well be responsible.

Astrology and Astronomy

Disc-based research into the lights in the sky is still pretty much at a medieval, TL3 sort of level, albeit with plenty of accumulated data. However, the telescope has been invented, and is certainly in widespread use on Krull, so some Disc astronomy might be rated as TL4. It is still very much entangled with astrology; either word can be used for the single skill, although some characters may concentrate on the geometrical, observational bit, and some may think more about star signs and horoscopes.

Part of this, of course, is the fact that, on the Disc, astrology works, very reliably. In this game, it's treated as a version of the Divination spell for convenience, but in truth, this is one of those supernatural techniques that don't require much in the way of thaumic aptitude -- just time and the right technical knowledge.

Given this, and its reliability, one might wonder why it isn't used more often. After all, it sounds very convenient to know one's future. There are several parts to the answer.

For one thing, casting a horoscope requires the subject's exact date and place of birth, which are things that not all Discworlders actually know about themselves. (Players should be required to convince the GM that their characters know these facts, if they want accurate horoscopes cast). It also requires some precise astronomical observations, which either means running a good observatory, or having recent, detailed information from one.

Part of the trouble here is that Great A'Tuin actually moves at a fair speed relative to nearby stars, and sometimes changes course. This means that the Disc zodiac is not fixed; it changes noticeably within a human lifetime. Unseen University and other institutions track and publicise these changes, but not everyone has access to the data.

And lastly, Disc astrology generates predictions that closely resemble those little paragraphs that appear in our world's newspapers, albeit with flashes of greater precision. Think about that. If those glib little premonitions really said something about your life, would you want to know? And what use would they usually be?

Incidentally, there are 64 constellations in the Disc zodiac, but the list can change with time as the Turtle moves. Current examples include the Celestial Parsnip, Gahoolie the Vase of Tulips, Wezen the Double-Headed Kangaroo, and the Small Boring Group of Faint Stars (Rincewind's sign).


Oggham is an ancient runic alphabet, still used by some dwarfs in the Ramtops. Nanny Ogg claims that it is somehow connected to her own (very old-established) family. It can be learned by fully literate characters as a Language Skill, as it is as much a system of symbols as anything; it is intimately related to the old languages of the region.

Oggham is not a magical language as such, but it is used in some old inscriptions of interest to characters researching ceremonial magic or rituals. There are doubtless scholars at Unseen University with at least a theoretical knowledge of it, and any witch, dwarf, or amateur historian from the Ramtops region could justify having a few points in the skill.

Vampire vs. Vampire

PC vampires are at least theoretically possible, and need not be entirely bad. NPC Vampires can be as super-powered and viciously evil as a plot may call for. There is scope here for interesting conflicts in the clash between classic monster and angst-ridden PC.

"You know, Count, all of us really admire you, except for the, well, you know. The stake, here -- this is going to really hurt me. Because you're an artist, Count. Except for -- well, it's nothing personal."

Tethis the Sea Troll

Few intelligent beings from beyond the Disc appear in the chronicles; frankly, there's more than enough variety on the world, without adding such gimmicks. However, the Discworld does move through space in a universe that seems to be as astrophysically complex as our own, and suffers from magic that can weaken dimensional barriers, so "visitors" are possible, if not advisable as PCs.

Tethis the Sea-Troll is one of the few space-travellers known on the Discworld. He was born on the water-world of Bathys, but suffered the worst fate known to a land-sailor of that disc; he fell off the edge. Eventually, he crash-landed on the Discworld, where he was found by Krullians, and enslaved as a lengthman. He later travelled briefly with Twoflower and Rincewind; his last likely location was a lake in the Forest of Skund. He is a rather melancholy being, forever aware that he does not belong here; he combines a basically peaceable nature with a full willingness to use as much force as any situation may demand.

Tethis appears to be a humanoid creature of animated water, whose height varies with the tides; he is polite and mild-mannered, but gives a clear sense of being personally formidable. Presumably, the Krullians used magic to control him.

He has ST 30, DX 13, IQ 12, and HT 20. His watery nature makes him effectively immune to physical attacks (markedly better than the standard GURPS Body of Water advantage), while letting him punch with the force of a tsunami and carry objects up to Heavy encumbrance. He can survive on land or in water; in the vacuum of space, he freezes solid and becomes inert, with the ability to thaw back to life without harm later. Fire and heat-based attacks do him full damage, although his watery body can also put fires out; cold-based attacks do him one-quarter damage, but if the full rolled damage exceeds his HT, they freeze him solid for a number of hours equal to the excess amount.

Article publication date: September 4, 1998

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