Finding (or making) a system for a setting with a strange magic system

I'm working on a Bronze Age setting for a novel. A driving conceit of the setting is that a civilization is built on holy dictates, graven in stone, made by a series of high priests over the course of centuries. Imagine a cross of Hammurabi's Code and the Ten Commandments, only if a tablet decreed by the high priest says, "Within twelve cubits, speaking the word 'karaga' will conjure flame on the speaker's fingertip sufficient to light a candle," then, like, that works.

There are lots of rules, restrictions, and caveats, and it ends up working a bit like a legal code, or computer code.

You can gain magical powers if you are, like, 'ordained' in a particular role like 'cantor,' 'proclaimer,' 'purifier,' or 'paladin.' To do that you must fulfill certain parameters set down in these commandments, and there's a big political component to who gets ordained. There is a learning curve to actually make best use of those powers, but if, say, you are a cantor of the god of the desert, you can survive many days without water; you just get that ability.

In addition to the official positions within the priestly hierarchy, there are, like, 'wizards' who are able to do magic by finding ways to tap into the divine laws - sometimes even subvert them a bit. And then there is more primal magic, which involves communing with beasts, calling upon wind and sea and fire, tapping into dreams, or making offerings to borrow the power of supernatural entities.

I could just handle all this by reskinning D&D, but one of my reasons for wanting to run a campaign in the setting is to, like, have my players try to break the rules, find exploits and loopholes, and basically do a stress test on the setting, so that when I write the novel, I can sprinkle in little bits of lore.

Like, "Oh yeah, if you're a priest of the god of weaving, you can't use your power to enweb someone if that person is wearing a green hat. Why? Well, firstly, your range is limited to 12 cubits because one of the early high priests was concerned about priests becoming too powerful, so he set that limit on most magic. Then 150 years ago the high priest walked into a spider-web and it annoyed him, so he wanted to make a decree that it wouldn't happen again. But there were a lot of rules set in place to keep the high priest from giving himself powers alone, so he had to make a broad rule. Now anyone wearing a green hat repels spider-webs if there is a priest within 12 cubits. Back then the word he used meant a specific shade of green dye that only he wore, but over time language drifted and now the word is interpreted to mean most shades of green."

Anyway, what to do?

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The general concept of 'magic derived from the word of El the Eternal' is called kelma. Some of the foundational bedrocks of kelma are:

Testaments - Seven very old stones, irregular in shape but weighing a few tons, inscribed in early language, conveying messages from seven angels to the original 'chosen people' of El the Eternal. These are basic things, not legalese. Stuff like, "El the Eternal protects your seven tribes from your enemies if you keep His covenant." Or, "The green garden of paradise awaits those who serve El the Eternal, but those who defy Him shall be cast into a black garden of eternal punishment."

Then El the Eternal tried to wipe out all those who were not His chosen people by sending a great flood upon the desert, protecting His people in seven great arks. But the other tribes sent champions who boarded these arks, take hostages, and threaten to kill them if El the Eternal did not end the deluge. And then one had the bright idea to go further: make me Your high priest, and share Your boons with us, or we will leave You with none to worship You.

From that point on, there was always a 'Logos,' a high priest of El the Eternal who could, once per day, speak words into stone. Those then took two main forms.

Commandments - A big, important stone that looks like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They typically are all kept in the capital city atop the Tower of Babel-style ziggurat that is the center of religious power. They might have a few associated decrees created across several days, which apply within a 3 mile radius, or which bestow powers to those who attain certain stations.

Dictates - A small stone tablet, 1 cubit across, whose power extends only 12 cubits. The vast majority of days, the Logos would create just a dictate, which could be given as a gift to a village or to a prominent family to give some small boon to their home.

Then there are variations:

Ra-Urum - A very small clay tablet, 6 inches across, which can be worn on necklaces. They're basically magic items that let the wearer function as the focus of a dictate, so they get the benefit (or create an aura 12 cubits across).

Kudurru - A boundary stone, usually 2 cubits tall and roughly hewn, which were used to formally cede land - up to 40 cubits in radius - to specific individuals or institutions, like temples to other gods. They're kinda rare, but can grant a bevy of abilities to the 'steward' of a location while that person is within the boundary stone radius.

Ra-Guru - Literally 'circumcised clay,' it is created by pressing a bit of wet clay into a dictate or commandment to copy a relief of the text, which lets the person who carries it tap into that power from afar. But since you can choose to copy only part of the text, you can sorta cheat and get powers that weren't intended, by trimming words.

Mud Sorcery - Blasphemous magic where by using non-kelma magic to affect people's minds, a sorcerer could alter what people think a word means, and in so doing twist the intention of a commandment or dictate. There's usually a nasty backlash when the mind magic wears off and the 'formal' definition reasserts itself.


That could easily* be implemented in an effects based system like GURPS or HERO.

* easily as in the mechanics would support it. It would take a chunk of effort to be sure, though it doesn’t actually sound that difficult to model, seemingly being mostly about having foci of different types with certain limits on them.


Staff member
So, you’re talking about writing a novel, but also about running a game? As in, you’re running the game to both provide some depth to your novel AND work as kind of a “continuity bible” for the fiction?

Another vote for HERO, then.

You’ve literally described the way in which a HERO GM can set up rules that are campaign-specific: assorted ability limitations, advantages and loopholes that define how your world’s weirdness works. They can be universal, universal with exceptions/cheats/loopholes, or there could even be multiple different systems that work, but operate by different rules.

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