Q’Rith: Navigation, Sea Turtles, and Magic

17:59 Sun 28 Aug 2011. Updated: 18:19 17 Sep 2011
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While getting ready to run the second season of my roleplaying campaign, I found myself with a question: several societies in the setting (based on this outline) are able to reliably navigate over vast oceans, but how are they able to do this?

In our history, the problem of navigation at sea has been solved by a tremendous amount of work, math, and technical innovation. But in a world with ubiquitous magic, would people really have invented the astrolabe or the sextant—or the chronometer?

It’s possible that they would, and that portable magical clocks telling highly accurate time allowed for longitudinal calculations enabling sea travel. However, I felt uneasy about that, partly because widespread accurate timekeeping feels odd in a fantasy world, and because it seemed like too transparent a mapping from technology to magic.

I considered spells that would let navigators fix their home port in their mind and sense where it was, but that didn’t seem flexible enough[*].

So I looked for other navigational approaches, and found a highly relevant one: sea turtles, which apparently navigate by magnetic sensing. That provided the answer: with the right spells, mages could detect magnetic north, then distance from magnetic north—i.e. latitude—and finally “angle” from magnetic north—i.e. longitude[†]. Accuracy would increase based on their skill level, but those were the bases for navigation in Q’Rith.

Once the techniques for doing this were discovered, they would more or less inevitably be exploited for conquest and commerce. Nations with professional navies would see the advantages and train cadres of navigator mages. Of course mages already provided all kinds of other services, and this training would be related to magical training in general. Magic in Q’Rith is related to the D&D magic system, and shares the notion of dividing magic into “schools”. One of these schools is quite well suited to this kind of spell: Divination.

As constituted in D&D, this school didn’t fit in very well with my setting’s approach to magic, particularly since I don’t like the idea of asking apparently all-knowing extraplanar entities for answers to problems, and find the notion of “predicting the future” inherently problematic. However, a number of the spells in the school already fit well with my shifting it to be focused on “sensing”—for example a 0-level spell I’d forgotten about, know direction, which gives the caster the knowledge of which way is north.

While the location-sensing spells would be extremely useful, and indeed would be important building blocks for entire systems of global travel and commerce, I didn’t want to reduce the school to being only about location. Similarly important to far-flung organizations is communication, something else that fits into the school fairly well. In Q’Rith, the Divination school is essentially concerned with sensing and communication. This makes it less powerful in a number of ways—no more answers from omniscient beings—but I significantly increased its power in another way by giving some of the new spells ranges that made sense in terms of global travel and exploration. This spell, essential to military communication in the Empire, is an example of the kind of thing I added:

Distant Scroll

Level: 2

Schools: Divination

Components: V, S, F, M (see description).

Casting Time: 1 standard action.

Range: 100km[‡]/(level squared).

Area: Circle, centered on you, with a radius of 100km/(level squared).

Duration: Permanent or 1 min./level (see description).

Saving Throw: None.

Spell Resistance: No.

Arcane Focus: A stylus.

Material Component: A scroll.

The caster enchants a scroll and assigns it a command word. Thereafter, when the command word is spoken near the scroll, if the caster is within range, they know that this has been done.

The caster may cast this spell with a specific existing scroll in mind; if they do, and the scroll is within range, they can see what is written on it, and they have as long as the spell lasts to read this. The spell does not confer any ability to comprehend languages or otherwise understand what’s on the scroll.

A caster can keep track of as many of these scrolls as their INT plus level. If they create more than their limit, they choose which of the prior scrolls to lose track of.

If a scroll is destroyed, the caster only senses that it isn’t within their range the next time they attempt to read it.

Creating a playable game class to use these spells seemed reasonably easy: navigator-mages, trained in location magic as well as in sensing of other kinds and in communication spells, and also in tactics and strategy. Not many naval commanders come from the ranks of these navigators, but any commander with their abilities plus leadership would be formidable. In game terms, the Navigator is a mage specializing in Divination, with an affinity for spells dealing with Water. In addition, they gain training in strategy and tactics; in terms of game balance, they may need another specialty school.

What about on land? The needs for navigating on land are quite different, and in terms of utility this would primarily be a scout or guide role. Those are lone or small-squad roles, and the land version would need to be significantly more self-sufficient than the Navigator. I ended up with something that tends back towards the D&D Ranger class: combat-capable, again focused on sensing and communication, but with a greater focus on sensing life nearby, both of enemies and in terms of the state of other squad members. This focus on life-sensing brought with it a connection to the healing arts, which are also magically-enhanced in Q’Rith. This connection helped me solve a gaming problem with the setting: when I removed clerics as a playable character class, this left no space for a healer class that was actually interesting: I didn’t want to give mages access to healing as this made them too powerful, but healers who didn’t do anything else were boring to play.

By reinventing the Ranger, I found a class that should work fine and would be interesting—and could end up overpowered, although I’m not sure. I made them very similar to the Iron Heroes Ranger-equivalent, the Hunter, but took away the Hunter’s terrain-related abilities and access to “lore” knowledge, replacing them will spellcasting in the Divination school and the Healing domain, gave them access to tactical/strategic feats, and capped their magical abilities so that they cannot cast spells of higher than level 6. I’m not sure about a name for them right now, but I might just call them Rangers.

So asking the question, “how can they navigate?” led to a large chunk of background information, including how key parts of organizational infrastructure work, a rewritten school of magic, and two new classes, the latter of which is quite promising and solves a problem I’d been unable to solve when I created the setting.

[*] Although similar spells are used and would have been the early basis for sea navigation.

[†] It’s reasonable for this to include elevation, too.

[‡] D&D uses feet and miles, but for large distances kilometers are far more convenient; coincidentally the common measurement of distance in the setting, the “league”, is exactly one kilometer.

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