Monday, June 18, 2012

Methods of Magic: Dreadstar

I’ve been thinking about how magic is portrayed in works in various media and how there might be some tidbits that could enliven rpg magic.  I’ve delved in the broad strokes of different portrayals of magic before, but now I think I’ll look at some specific cases.  First up, Dreadstar.

Dreadstar is Jim Starlin’s comic book space opera about a group of super-powered rebels fighting the galactic theocracy, the Instrumentality. It’s got aliens, robots, psionic powers--and magic. Like in Empire of the Petal Throne (and the real world for much of history), magic in Dreadstar seems the province of people in special clerical orders which study and communicate with the gods of the Instrumentality and related supernatural forces. One of these groups (or perhaps the sole group) is named as the Order of Vieltoor. There are renegade or “infidel” sorcerers, but the only two we see in the series are unsual (one is the offspring of a human woman and a demon).

In the origin of Dreadstar’s sorcerous protagonist, Syzygy Darklock, we see him summoning a demon in usual ritual magic fashion. In the process, we are told that planes of reality exist, which are less adventuring places than metaphysical ones, and are depicted in a vaguely Ditko-ish manner.  We are told the gods store their power on “the eleventh level of reality.”

At the end of that story, Syzygy is said to have gained power perhaps equal to one of the Instrumentaility’s gods, which (if not hyperbole) is interesting given that he appears superhuman but can be knocked out by things that would kill a normal human.

While spells are spoken of (and named) in Dreadstar, they mostly seem to fall into the “magic as energy manipulation” territory. Spells appear to be patterns of energy that adepts can recognize, not formula. Perhaps there are mental algorithms associated with spells. We only see hand gestures, never incantations (except with rituals).

The most commonly utilized spell is the mystic bolt. This seems to come in degrees of strength from just injuring/damaging to disintegration. Flight and levitation appear nearly effortless--at least to the super-powerful Syzygy. Circular magical shields (which can shatter when hit with sufficient force) are frequently used--at one point a guy projects small versions of these from his eye! Cubic or spherical area shields seem to require more effort. Sufficiently powerful adepts are able to feel magical power in others like jedi sensing the force. Syzgy at least is able to quick open portals to places where tentacled things dwell.

There are limits to magical power. Expending too much can strain the sorcerer physically and cause him to lose consciousness. Things that significantly disrupt concentration (“hypersonic” beam directed into the skull) prevent the use of spells.

Overall, magic in Dreadstar shows its comic book origins. It bears a greater resemblance to sorcery in Doctor Strange than in literary fantasy. It's probably most easily modeled in a rpg system that accommodates superhero powers.


Jim Shelley said...

Dreadstar is one of my favorite comic saga so thank you for this interesting angle on the series. I look forward to more of these specific instances. If you are looking for suggestions, I would like to offer how magic is portrayed in the Wild Cards series.

Trey said...

Thanks Jim. As to the Wild Cards, since there isn't any actual magic in it (this may be seen as splitting hairs, but analyzing "magic" in wild cards would really require looking at every superhero presented), I don't think if would be a good one to do--though I admit its psionic powers as tantric magic take with Fortunato is interesting.

Needles said...

There are two other points to remember about Dreadstar's magic system..
1. Magic has its price & while it has its price. Its a very high price indeed. The super-powerful Syzygy is in my mind the Sorcerer Supreme of his universe. But while his magic is incredible & dangerous he still needs cybernetics to compensate for the physical toll of magic.
2. Magic is a lightning rod of fate. Fate always takes a handle in the lives of magicians in Dreadstar. The lives of magicians are not their own.
Your right that the Empire of the Petal Throne might be the best way to resemble this style of sorcery..The reason I say this is the amount of demons seen in Dreadstar's comic book pages. I'd hazard to guess that even the lowest magician begins with some minor entity & then works his way up to a full fledged demon warlord.

Needles said...

Oh awesome article btw!

Xyanthon said...

Trey, Dreadstar was one of my favorite's as a kid. Science Fantasy at it's best. It's been a while so I'll have to pull the series out and reread it, but I am very much interested in adding different takes on magic in my games. I have the Marvel Superheroes Game Book of Magic (I can't recall the actual title at the moment). I'll have to pull that out as well and refresh myself on how the FASERIP system dealt with magic. I'm thinking about adding a system of magic to my OSRIC rules that allows for characters to spend XP to purchase disciplines (such as summoning, banishment, charms, etc) to broadly reflect different fantasy takes on magic. I have no real qualms about Vancian magic, but would like to add some ritualistic or more diverse systems that reflect things like Elric's summoning in the Elric series. You've given me more food for thought...

garrisonjames said...

A lot of comic-book magic and spells are made-up to fit the needs of the plot and not worked-out ahead of time. The early Doctor Strange comics were a great example of this sort of making-it-all-up as things progressed. Dreadstar felt a lot more like Starlin had given things a great deal of thought and consideration before-hand. It's very well done.

Have you looked at Warren Ellis' Gravel?

Alan Moore's Promethea is a modern classic well worth looking at if you're at all interested in magic, however you care to spell it.

Mandrake The Magician is kind of interesting, if for a sense of how magic was sometimes handled in the Golden Age, though Blackstone, and Jupiter: the Master Magician are worlds apart, but might be worth a look-see as well.

Outside of comic-books, have you ever looked at Lin Carter's use of magic/sorcery in some of his series like Thongor? Several of Thongor's tales were adapted into Marvel comics, so that kind of gets you a two-fer...

The Angry Lurker said...

Not familiar with Dreadstar, will need to bone up a bit!

Trey said...

@Needles - Good points, though as you point out Syzygy (and the Lord High Papal) are probably different from you standard mages. It's interesting in that The Price talks a lot about summoned demons (major and minor) but that doesn't get a lot of mention elsewhere in the saga. Perhaps that's a big concern of lower powered mages, but the main characters are able to wield more raw power?

@Johnathan - That sounds really interesting. I hope you post what you do with that.

@James - Very good points. Promethea is certainly the most "real world magical beliefs" of any comic. I have not read Gravel. Is it any good?

@Angry Lurker - It's certainly worth a read.

garrisonjames said...

RE:'s interesting, and very, very if you like Ellis, you might like it. The main conceit is that Gravel is the wolrd's only 'combat magician,' which is funny, since Joseph Max555 was shopping around a manual that included combat magick techniques back in the Nineties...maybe they crossed paths, or Eliis dipped into the old Chaos Matrix perhaps. Either way, it's comic book magic that is different from the rest of the stuff out there, so I thought it worth mentioning.

Promethea is absolutely wonderful stuff. Very worthwhile.

Have you read the essay at Comic Book Galaxy on Comix and the Occult? Kind of mingy on details and the author doesn't go very far back...and it dwells on 'ol Mr. C a tad too much...but it might be of passing interest.

The old, old, original Doctor Fate comics were really interesting. Lots of invocations of Thor and others mixed into the gibberish. The stuff from the 1940s is well worth tracking down.

There's also the Green Lama, to consider. He's a millionaire who snorts radioactive salts to gain incredible powers, in addition to the usual magical stuff. His original incarnation was heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhist practices. This used to be a majorly popular character back in the day. The more recent additions to the Green Lama's adventures are okay, if you overlook a ton of typos.

Have you looked at Doctor Spektor? The magic is a bit down-played, but he uses amulets and stuff to fight various occult-ish beasties. You might find some inspiration there. Not as showy or flashy as Dreadstar by any means, but interesting in its own right.

Matt Wagner did a great job presenting magic in his classic Mage. That was good stuff. It's a modern re-telling of the Arthurian tales, but done really well. Grendel was the back-up feature.

Arion was a bit more flashy. Mystic bolts. Demon summoning. Angsty & arrogant Atlantean magic-user...yeah...and he got his start as a back-up in Warlord...

And there's a handy list of 'occult' superheroes at comic book religion, that might help in locating a few more good examples. Maybe.

garrisonjames said...

I can't believe that I missed Darklon The Mystic, from the old Warren 'zines like Eerie, but never fear: Needles has done a really decent overview of this obscure comic book character. This character/series came out pre-Dreadstar and really paved the way for Vanth and company. Very interesting stuff. Loads of Super Science and Sorcery of the Seventies-vintage.

Canageek said...

You might want to glance at the various rules GURPS has for magic, I believe it has a number of different systems based on various ideas, and GURPS books are usually a delight to read, if you don't try and follow the math.

Another one would be The Dresden Files, particularly the first one, as his use of magic in it is quite creative. I think the potion system in it would be an excellent match for The Strange New World.