Roleplayer #15, August 1989


A Look At Historical Charms and Amulets

by Steffan O'Sullivan

"A talisman is nothing else than the seal, figure, character, or image of a celestial omen, planet, or constellation; impressed, engraved, or sculptured upon a sympathetic stone or upon a metal corresponding to the planet; by a workman whose mind is settled and fixed upon his work and the end of his work without being distracted or dissipated in other unrelated thoughts; on the day and at the hour of the planet; in a fortunate place; during fair, calm weather, and when the planet is in the best aspect that may be in the heavens, the more strongly to attract the influences proper to an effect depending upon the power of the same and on the virtues of its influences."

Pierre de Bresche, in Traite' des Talismans, 1671.

An amulet is a charm with protective powers. A talisman is a charm with empowering abilities. There is a long tradition of talismans and amulets made by alchemists (as well as shamans, witches, priests, etc.) and sold to the public throughout history. In fact, the odds are good that most of you reading this have some amulet or talisman at home, on your person, or in your car – just some little object that has a little extra meaning to you. It is a very human thing, this trusting of certain lucky objects, and these rules could easily be adapted to GURPS Ice Age, GURPS Space, or any other campaign.

Alchemical charms have been sold throughout history, and we have descriptions of many of them. They were worn by kings and queens, popes and bishops, merchants and diplomats. Less expensive amulets, usually made by "witches," were worn or hung in the house by nearly everybody else. Unfortunately, the most frequently mentioned ones are not necessarily suitable for gaming. The most common amulets were those that protected against violence, plague, theft and bad luck – you could, according to the creator of one amulet, wear it in the toughest part of town with bulging moneybags and not be touched. Others promised to spring you from jail the next day – sort of a "Get out of jail free" card . . . however, such powerful amulets might be out of place in many campaigns. Dishonest or deluded alchemists would certainly offer such charms, but whether they work or not is up to the GM.

Charms from Existing Elixirs

Some of the historical charms are promising game material, though, having the same results as certain elixirs presented in GURPS Magic and in the last issue of Roleplayer. These include amulets of Aesculapius, Janus, Moly, Athena, and Artemis, and talismans of Orpheus, Prometheus, Ceres, Theseus, Tyche, Aphrodite, Kuoun, and others. Moly is particularly interesting, and will be covered in detail in this article.

Going beyond the bounds of history, the GM can easily apply these rules to any of the existing elixirs. Those that protect can be made into amulets; those that grant powers can be made into talismans. In general, there are very few references in alchemy to charms that caused unpleasant results. Such objects were made by witches, and are rife in voodoo lore, but alchemy seems to have limited such hostile powers to occasional elixirs. The GM may allow such objects to exist, of course, but they should be scarcer than the beneficial ones.

Moly Amulets

The elixir Moly, introduced in Roleplayer 13, is an excellent source for amulets. Many amulets purported to work against hostile magic – some were very specific as to the type of magic they would counter. This can be introduced into GURPS very easily as amulets that work against certain Magical Colleges.

The most common Moly amulets would be those that protect against Mind Control, Communication & Empathy, and Body Control spells. Those that protect against other colleges are possible, but amulets should not work against Missile spells, Jet spells or spells with similar control of the elements.

Each Moly amulet protects against the spells of one particular college. The level of protection varies – see Time and Cost to Make, below. This can be thought of as Magic Resistance that is specific in the type of magic it resists – which can be a very valuable asset! The GM is free to regulate such amulets in any way he sees fit. For instance, some amulets might only protect against a specific spell. Such amulets would be cheaper to make than those that protect against an entire college of magic.

Time and Cost to Make

The cost in materials to manufacture an alchemical charm is the same as for the elixir of the same property. The time to manufacture such an amulet or talisman is ten times that listed to manufacture the elixir. The GM may vary this time and cost to make charms more or less available in his world. Making a charm is very hard work, requiring long hours and correct timing of the planetary influences to capture the essences desired. At the end of the time period, the alchemist makes his skill roll, applying any penalties as per the elixir of the same properties. A critical failure destroys the charm entirely, while an ordinary one wastes the work, but won't break any gem involved.

Talismans and amulets made of gems have always been valued more than those made of other materials. Any gem with an intrinsic value of $2,500 or more gives a +1 bonus in some way to the power of the amulet. This might be 1d +1 hours of duration instead of 1d hours, +5 to Leadership instead of +4, and so on. This is up to the GM.

The GM does not have to allow PC alchemists the ability to make charms. Such knowledge may be limited to Guildmasters, for example, or even Grand Masters. All the other ways to limit magic item manufacture can also be used – see p. M17.

Making Moly Amulets

Moly amulets are made in stages, like Powerstones. Each period of empowering the amulet produces +1 Magic Resistance, specific to whatever college is intended. This is an exception to the rule that charms have the same properties as the elixirs – Moly amulets may have less than 5 Magic Resistance benefits – or they may have more, if the GM permits it. (A GM may allow a sufficiently powerful Moly amulet to protect totally against spells of a given college. If it is allowed at all, though, this should be very rare and costly!) A level 1 Moly amulet must go through the whole empowering procedure again to become a level 2 amulet. Critical failures along the way destroy the amulet and any materials that have gone into it.

Detection and Analysis

Treat an alchemical charm as if it were an elixir for detection purposes – see p. M88. In general, if an alchemist knows the formula for the elixir in question, he will be able to recognize it with five minutes examination and a successful Alchemy skill roll. If it has powers that he does not know the formula for, the GM may assign a penalty to the Alchemy roll, ranging from -1 to -10. As usual, the GM rolls for the player, and lies on any critical failures.

Using Charms

Amulets are treated as always-on magic items. There is no "time to cast," and they cost the user no fatigue. They protect the wearer at all times, whether the person knows what the amulet does or not. Moly amulets add their level to the wearer's Resistance roll, and subtract their level from the caster's spell skill roll – see Magic Resistance, p. M13.

Alchemical talismans – empowering devices – should have limited time use. Treat such an item as a magic item with an exclusive powerstone. The time the effects last should be equal to the time the elixir lasts. After that, the power fades, and the talisman becomes dormant. It "recharges" at a rate equal in days to the time in weeks it would take to create the appropriate elixir. Thus, a talisman of Orpheus lasts 1d hours, and then takes three days to recharge before it can be used again. A talisman of Tyche lasts 2d hours, then needs six days to recharge, and so on. Count only the time that a talisman is worn; it could sit in a chest for centuries without losing power.

There is no "cost to cast" for a talisman – no fatigue is spent activating one. The wearer merely wills the talisman to have the specific effect – simply willing it to "Do something!" won't work. It is up to the GM whether a talisman works automatically if it is willed to, or if a roll is required against the alchemist's skill at the time of using it. If a roll is required, apply any penalties to skill that the alchemist needed to roll to create the charm.

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