Hidden Assumptions: A Pact with Dario Nardi
By day, Dario Nardi is a lecturer at the University of California Los Angeles, where he teaches classes in “artificial intelligences and robotics, personality and organizational behavior, modeling and simulation of complex systems, and undergraduate curriculum design.” He uses computer models, group simulations, and he encourages students to pursue their own interests in their own way.
“The core theme,” he says of his teaching and research, “is ‘social situated action’ — understanding behavior through a ‘systems’ lens.”
By night, Dario Nardi draws geometric seals in chalk on the floor of his office in order to bind spirits to him and to earn supernatural powers.[More...]
Nardi and I spoke recently about his love of the d20, 3.5e, and trapping spirits.
Jones: First of all, what exactly is pact magic?
Nardi: Pact magic involves evoking and binding the spirits of ancient ghost-like entities in order to gain a small set of supernatural abilities for the day. The spirits might be demons, angels, fey spirit beasts, dead gods, lost souls, or even fictional characters of yore.
Each spirit has a geometric seal; drawing the seal calls and traps it. After negotiating, the binder gains four to six supernatural abilities and may experience mental and physical changes. A skilled binder earns a capstone ability.
Some spirits offer supernatural companions. All have favored allies and foes, and following tactical that mirror a spirit’s legend boost a pactmaker’s performance. Beyond this are mysterious creatures and organizations, supernatural traps and diseases, autonomous rogue spirits, and much more.
Jones: What is it about Goetian magic that appeals to you? Was it difficult to translate real-world pact magic into the d20/3.5 system?
Nardi: Goetian magic offers an odd appeal. It’s real-world Renaissance magic. It’s interesting visually; each geometric seal tells a story. And I like that it is both occult and religious. The Goetian spirits are demons and also the 72 names of God, and there’s a legend of how King Solomon trapped them in a bottle.
In a game, pactmaking feels to me somewhat more dark and precarious than spellcasting because a pactmaker is a mortal vessel borrowing from an outside agent. Translating pact magic into d20/3.5 was pretty easy.
Real-world descriptions provide each spirit with a title, legend, domains it rules over, a summoning ritual, four to six abilities granted to the summoner, possible side effects, and so forth. The abilities almost read like spells and skills typical of RPGs. It’s as if the material was handed on a platter! The Tome of Magic by Matthew Sernett, et. al did one treatment of pactmagic, and folks on forums sounded really keen for more. I definitely was. So I took it to a next level with my own twists. I mostly did not use the Goetic spirits as written, but created my own spirits.
One challenge was getting information on non-European pactmaking. I found some African and Middle Eastern examples like Kandisha, a vengeful spirit of a murdered Moroccan noblewoman. Another challenge was learning the d20 / 3.5 system inside-and-out including the hidden assumptions of the system.
There is also something sublime about pact magic. I received a steel medallion of Solomon’s seal as a gift from a friend returning from Israel. It’s a pact seal!
Jones: Okay, so I open up Pact Magic and try the rule for adding pactmagic for a day… What next?
Nardi: There are a couple of benefits. Sealing a one-time pact provides a change of pace, a set of special abilities to meet an unusual challenge, and/or exposure to a seedier side of a campaign setting. It’s one thing to visit a magic shop to buy scrolls. It’s another to track down a nonmagical book that provides a secret ritual, one likely prohibited or at least well-guarded, in order to willingly be possessed. I mean, who doesn’t want to cast invisibility or fly!
But I’d think twice with pact magic.
Also, a player will likely feel some push to role-play the spirit’s personality influence, to look for tactical points that the spirit rewards, and so forth. There are also briefs a player can read aloud to provide flavor. There is plenty of stuff to use both in and out of combat.
I’m mindful of the play experience. I hate flipping pages. So a player won’t feel they need to learn the book. Each spirit has a two-page spread and (usually) everything needed is right on those two pages.
For GMs, pact magic can shake up play. I clearly recall the look on my players’ faces the first time I introduced a pactmaker foe. Eek! They were 5th level and thought themselves tough and ready. But the players couldn’t define what they were dealing with so their PCs ran away.
Jones: I’m really interested in the design process, especially in terms of balance. What sorts of things did you need to balance when designing rituals and feats and races and spirits? Also, how does introducing pact magic to a campaign in-progress effect the game’s balance?
Nardi: Oh gosh. Almost every mechanical option and theme in 3.5 is present in Secrets of Pact Magic in some way. For classes and races, I started from a point-based system. Mostly, I looked at Dragon Magazine articles and Unearthed Arcana and Expanded Psionics Handbook quite a bit to learn how to handle new material. I read the 4E rumors, which inspired the warbinder. Often I found myself walking a fine line because the 3.5 core classes and races are … precariously balanced.
Verisimilitude is important to me — I really like immersion and simulation and like to explore the nooks of d20 so that whatever a player or GM needs, there’s a spirit somewhere to help do that. Thus, a lot of the spirits support unusual elements like true names or dream magic and cover noncombat situations. Presently I’m playing a warbinder who is managing a kick-ass stage play to get the attention of a deity!
I also really held myself to write a short-short story (a legend) with each spirit. The legends have influenced what I put in rule-wise and helped balance combat vs. noncombat options.
One unexpected “gift” made all the difference in terms of balance. The primary illustrator for the Secrets book promised all 85 pictures in 3 months. He didn’t make the deadline (ha!) and went off to direct a movie. While I waited, I wrote 100 more pages and play-tested. And play-tested. Testing makes a huge difference! I tweaked a lot during that time. A drowess spirit’s sneak attack was too potent. A geometer spirit’s transdimensional ray needed clarification. And so forth.
Compared to traditional classes and characters, pactmakers are different and not unbalancing. That’s the feedback I’ve gotten and see firsthand. There are some optional rules for GMs to delight or rebuke PCs who get carried away, and both Pact Magic books suggest paths to introduce binding into a campaign.
Last year I sponsored a contest. The winning submissions ended up in Villains of Pact Magic. The contest process and the input of fans (on the forum and by private emails) helped ensure balance and breathed extra life into the spirits. The RPG community is a terrific resource for vetting material.
Jones: Is there a 4E future for Pact Magic?
Nardi: First off, 4E has definitely inspired ideas. In the Villains book, for example, GMs will find easy-to-add tactical templates and supernatural terrain zones like rivers turning to blood or weapons animating and impaling characters. But I do it all 3.5 style.
Some folks say pactmaking is perfect for 4th Edition but the devil is in the details and it’s still in progress. I’m presenting pactmaking like rituals. Anyone can trade some of their powers for a day to gain a spirit’s powers instead. So it won’t be like the 4E warlock’s pacts.
The big challenge is conversion. The editions are notably different and I haven’t actually played 4th Edition yet.
I don’t play 4E because… learning a game from a designer’s point of view is work. Also, I don’t like battle mats, my friends don’t play 4E, and the fiction sits between PG-13 and an R rating (nothing shown, a lot implied). I know the Open Game License and what I can do within it. In comparison, I haven’t grappled with the 4E license, which feels like a game system unto itself.
All this said, there is a 4E thread on the pact magic forum; I’ve posted some example conversions and genuinely welcome 4E fans to add to that.
Jones: Which of the places in Pact Magic would you most (or least) like to visit?
Nardi: Pact Magic has an implied setting with elements that can be fit into just about any campaign. While writing, I played (and at times GM’d) two campaigns in Eberron, so players in that setting will find a particularly easy fit.
Each spirit’s legend is like focusing in on one unkempt patch in a frayed tapestry with threads suggesting links to other legends and a larger picture. It was fun, after writing, to analyze and name the themes… apparently I view gods as capricious, believe you can’t really fool a dragon, and find love is patient and self-sacrificing.
The greatest compliment I’ve received in a long time comes from an anonymous reader of the Secrets book, who wrote, “It has inspired me to start up a D&D campaign again, and even to start writing fiction. Thank you.” To whoever said that, thank you. It means a lot to me.
As for where I would travel…. Many of the spirits hail from ancient time or a Renaissance era — not so bad. In contrast, the Apocryphal Desert, Ravaged Sea, and similar demi-planes are just awful places and I (and possibly my soul) would likely become lunch right away. The creatures and NPCs in Villains of Pact Magic are even worse. I have no sympathy for them as much as I understand how they came to be. During a play test with cyclopes (think, the Daleks meet Event Horizon), a good PC’s player remarked with relief that at least his evil PC companions were humanoids.
If pactmaking were real, I’d probably be a soul weaver, a class that combines binding with arcane spellcasting. I’d likely stay safely in my library most of the time, casting spells to ensure the best possible pacts, and reading and writing about spirits and going to conventions — oh wait, I’m confusing this with my real life! Adventurers would stop by and pay me to help them out. I’d spy on them with a crystal ball and provide aid when needed. So I’d be a beneficent binder NPC — except at payment time, because there are many fun ways to remunerate besides coins!
Jones: Do you approach writing fiction and writing for games differently? Is one more natural than the other for you?
Nardi: I’ve loved gaming since day one in 1982 and writing RPGs is a creative outlet. I’ve done a lot of nonfiction in the area of organizational development, plus academic topics like artificial intelligence. I’m used to being technically precise.
Somewhat in contrast, fiction is about people — their issues, their emotions and relationships, their dreams and regrets, and most of all their contradictions. Fiction begs to be psychologically precise. I find that I need to get into the groove of writing fiction. I need freedom to watch five straight hours of Supernatural or follow an inspiration until 4 AM, the next day be damned. I’m very visual, so most of my inspiration is film, artwork (masks, architecture, you name it), and real world historical locales like a recent visit to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. The Rome miniseries, Carnival, The Tudors — these provide lovely helpings too.
When I was a graduate writing student, I was pretty unskilled at women-only scenes, and the Pact Magic stories have been a part of getting comfortable conveying female perspectives. I really enjoyed writing the legends of female spirits like Vandrae, The Drowess Poisontouch and Swan Elashni, Dancer of Spurned Love.
That said, I love all the characters; if I don’t love them, that’s a hint something is wrong, that I’m not doing them justice.
Recently, I created a dungeon-like board game for my students. Writing game rules for neophyte players: Wow, it’s hard! I really appreciate that our audience consists of sophisticated role-players who allow us the freedom to move way beyond square one. I also tremendously respect the engaging style of Paizo Publishing’s adventure paths. Which reminds me, I’ll be at PaizoCon II this June!
Some readers are clamoring for a campaign setting book. I really look forward to settling in this summer and starting that. Game rules may change but worlds tend to remain.
Jones: Lastly, are there many connections between your day job and game writing?
Nardi: I teach modeling and simulation of social systems, with a bit of programming, group dynamics, neuroscience and games thrown in. It’s an adventure watching people’s brains in real time in a simulated dating scenario! Teaching also provides stretches of time off, which I suspect is essential to any creative activity.
Playing Dungeons & Dragons (and the Traveller RPG) has made me a better teacher and theorist. Teaching is about… students learning. I run outdoor simulations. I try to be entertaining. I let students pick their own projects — these parallel GMing. RPGs have also made me think a lot about how we often try to give coherent narrative structure to our lives, the nature of determinism and chance, the individual cognitive experience, that kind of abstract stuff.
As an anthropologist and having lived in various countries and seeing culture as a “complex adaptive system,” I find myself better informed as a world builder. During one campaign, the PCs visited the ruins of a giant city, built on top of an aberrant city, built on the remains of a fiendish city. One player was annoyed that I was mixing lore and epochs in one location. But real historical cities are like that.
I wonder if the tabletop RPG, as a phenomenon, is becoming like a historical city. There are so many layers and subcultures. I’m really impressed with the creative design space made so readily available in d20 / 3.5. You can be retro, mix genres, try novel rule systems like Pact Magic. There are so many ways to mix and match subsystems.
If RPGs are allowed space to breathe, I wonder if they’ll be even more impressive in 20 years.
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