Magic, Spells, and Essence

One of the strangest and most powerful forces in the universe is an energy called essence. Essence is the source of all life. It drives emotions and binds the fabric of the physical world together.

A powerful wizard summons a wave of fire to strike down his foes. (Art by Mitchell Malloy)

One of the strangest and most powerful forces in the universe is an energy called essence. Essence is the source of all life. It drives emotions and binds the fabric of the physical world together. On some worlds, such as Aetaltis, the people, plants, animals, and even the planet itself, are closely bound to essence. On other worlds, the connection to essence is tenuous and fragile. The more tightly bound a world is to essence, the more numerous and visible are the supernatural effects of its power.

When properly channeled, essence can create wondrous supernatural effects in the physical world. The term commonly used on Aetaltis to describe these effects is magic. Often these are natural phenomena, with the term “natural” meaning manifestations that are not consciously created by a sentient being. These include animals that fly without wings, spirits that walk among the living, and plants that can instantly heal a life threatening injury when ingested.

On the other end of the spectrum are directed manifestations of magic. These are effects created through the purposeful shaping of essence to obtain a predetermined effect. The formulas used to do this are known as spells. Spells take many forms, from the complex scientific formulae of wizards to the free-formed essence shaping of sorcerers to the divinely inspired miracles of clerics. Whatever its form, the act of shaping essence into a spell is called spellcasting, and those who perform such feats are called spellcasters.

The History of Spellcasting

Talented casters make spellcasting seem effortless to the uneducated observer. With a few gentle waves of the hand and a swiftly muttered incantation, the spellcaster calls forth balls of flame, invokes stupefying glamours, or brings lightning down from the sky. In reality, most forms of spellcasting require incredible skill and even the slightest error can lead to disaster.

Over the ages, the methods used by Aetaltans to cast spells have changed and evolved.

Dawn Casting

In the time before Endroren's gift, the people of Aetaltis practiced a primitive, quasi-religious form of spellcasting that arcane scholars call dawn casting. In those days peoples' connection with essence was weak, the effects of their spells were blunt and artless, and their spellcasting techniques unreliable. Few enari had the natural ability to cast spells, and those that did had little understanding of how their magic worked.

True Casting

At the end of the Age of Dawn, Endroren gave the enari a new way to cast spells that is today referred to as true casting. True casting was as natural to the people of Aetaltis as walking, and every man, woman, and child could cast spells to some extent. Whether they were farmers preparing their fields or kings directing their armies, they wove magic into every aspect of their lives. No formulas or rituals were necessary to cast spells using true casting. The enari simply sensed the presence of essence around them and then focused on what they wished to accomplish. Perfecting the art of spellcasting still required practice and training, but the possibilities of what a properly cast spell could do were nearly limitless. Appropriately, the period of time when Aetaltans used true magic is known as the Age of Magic.

The Ritual of Limitation

Anyone who has studied the history of Aetaltis knows that the Enaros, in their divine wisdom, knew mortals were not ready for the power of true casting. There was no way to take back Endroren’s gift, but the Enaros could alter it. The Ritual of Limitation severed the direct bond people had to essence. While the enari could still sense the presence of essence—some could even touch it and crudely manipulate it—but they could no longer instinctively interact with it. What had once been an inherent part of their beings became an external force just out of reach.

Divine Casting

After the Ritual of Limitation, the Enaros sent their avatars to Aetaltis to teach the enari a new type of spellcasting. We call this technique divine casting. Divine casting involves channeling essence directly from the Enaros into the physical world to create spells. This requires an intimate synergy between the caster and the Enaros, and it is a rare gift. When using divine casting to create magic, the spellcaster does not consciously shape the essence. Rather, the essence is shaped unconsciously through divine inspiration. This form of spellcasting allows the enari to cast spells but only under the watchful eyes of the Enaros.

Rune Casting

The Ritual of Limitation prevented the enari from instinctively shaping ambient essence to cast spells, but the dwarves discovered they could still evoke and direct essence. Using a complex carving ritual, they designed a set of essence-laced symbols called runes. The runes acted as essence molds, and when the dwarves directed essence through a rune’s mystic pattern it shaped the essence and created a magical effect in the physical world. Furthermore, by directing the essence through a series of runes, the dwarves found they could cast simple spells. The dwarves called this rune casting. After each use, the runes took time to recharge, and even the slightest flaw in a rune might lead to a catastrophic failure of the spell, but for the first time since the Ritual of Limitation, arcane magic returned to Aetaltis.

Glyph Casting

When the Atlan Alliance arrived they brought a new spellcasting technique called glyph casting. Glyph casting takes trace amounts of essence drawn from the caster’s aura and forms it into a spell template called a glyph. Glyphs are constructed from essence, so they are invisible in the physical world. Individuals with the ability to detect essence, however, may sense the presence of a glyph's pattern as it is formed. Skilled spellcasters can even identify the spell a foe is preparing if they recognize the glyph their foe is weaving.

The glyph itself has no real power, but when personal essence is directed through it, the glyph is consumed and the personal essence is shaped to create a magical effect in the physical world. The technique is similar to rune magic, but the use of the living spirit’s essence gives the spellcaster far greater control of the shape of the glyph. Glyph casting creates far more subtle, complex, and intricate patterns than one can with runes, leading to precise control of the spell effect.

Not everyone can learn glyph casting. It requires the rare natural affinity for sensing and manipulating essence. Glyph casting also demands exceptional skill, and spellcasters spend decades to learn the intricacies of the spell formulas used to create glyphs.

Although similar to true magic, glyph magic uses the spellcaster’s personal essence to power the spells rather than ambient essence. This limits the power and number of spells a spellcaster can safely cast. Once the spellcaster’s store of personal essence is expended, the spellcaster must wait for their spirit to absorb more ambient essence before they can safely cast additional spells.

DIVINE MAGIC VS GLYPH MAGIC

Recent research by the scholars of Winterkeep suggests that divine spellcasting is actually a kind of glyph magic. In the case of divine spellcasting, the caster does not consciously form their glyphs. When the spellcasters entreat their patron Enaros for aid, their aura is altered by an unidentifiable outside force (the Enaros, one must assume) to spontaneously create glyphs. All that remains is for the divine spellcaster to channel essence through the glyph and the spell is cast. Divine glyphs are fundamentally different in form and pattern from arcane glyphs. Despite extensive study, no wizard has managed to reliably shape a glyph using the divine forms, even in the case of divine spells that produce similar effects to their arcane counterparts.

Essence

Essence is the mysterious energy that makes magic possible. It exists simultaneously as a part of our universe and separate from it. While life appears to have a direct connection to it, perhaps even a dependency on it, the exact nature of this relationship is not fully understood. Its power can ebb and flow, creating both deep eddies, rich with its power, and large spaces completely devoid of its energy. There is even another aspect of reality, a dimension perhaps, called the essential plane, that is a shadow realm of pure essence that directly mirrors the physical world, but it is not clear if this realm is the source of essence or simply another manifestation of it.

While we cannot hope to fully explain essence here, we will touch on some of the key aspects of this energy, particularly those aspects that impact the lives of Aetaltan adventurers.

Sources of Essence

There are two primary sources of essence on Aetaltis: ambient essence and personal essence.

Ambient Essence

Ambient essence is the raw essence that permeates the universe. It is not evenly distributed, running thick and strong through some worlds while bypassing others completely. Furthermore, its power is not constant. Over the eons it may shift its course or change intensity.

Personal Essence

Personal essence is found in the spirit of every living thing, from simple plants to the sentient races to the immortal Enaros. The spirits of these beings (which are themselves constructed from essence) act as essence vessels, and each one contains a portion of concentrated essence. This essence pools naturally within the living spirit, and if it is expended, the spirit will reabsorb essence over time.

Dark Essence

Dark essence is essence corrupted by the power of Darkness. Dark essence is exceptionally dangerous to spellcasters since it has the potential to twist magical effects and corrupt the caster's spirit. There are three primary ways that essence may become corrupted.

Corruption by the Proximity of Evil

The extended presence of an especially evil creature, such as an abomnoae or a fallen avatar, can corrupt the ambient essence in an area.

Corruption by Evil Acts

Particularly evil acts, such as mass murder or heinous violence, can corrupt the ambient essence of a place.

Personal Essence of Evil Creatures

The personal essence reserves of an evil creature are, by their nature, corrupted, since any essence passing into the vessel of their spirit is corrupted in the process.

Ley Lines and Essence Wells

For the most part, the concentration of ambient essence on Aetaltis is relatively uniform, but there are some cases in which it may vary in intensity. In addition to the general aura of ambient essence that permeates all of Aetaltis, dense rivers of essence flow over the world. In some places the essence will branch off from the primary source like the veins of a leaf, creating smaller or weaker flows. These flowing rivers of essence are called ley lines.

There are also rare places where ambient essence pools. This might be an isolated wellspring of essence or a place where two or more ley lines meet. At these sites, one finds regions of high essence called essence wells. While inside an essence well, expended personal essence recovers more quickly, spells are easier to cast, enchantments last longer, and magical effects are heightened.

Not surprisingly, essence wells are greatly prized by magical beings of all types. Many a dragon has made their lair upon an essence well, and it is said that both the tower of Selenthea and Winterkeep are situated at points where powerful ley lines cross.

Deadlands

A deadland is a place where the level of ambient essence is far lower than elsewhere on Aetaltis. Magic is exceedingly difficult to use within the confines of a deadland. A few of these places are so devoid of ambient essence that they make magic of any kind nearly impossible.

In most deadlands the ambient essence is simply weaker than one finds elsewhere. The lack of ambient essence stifles a spellcaster's recovery of personal essence, can dampen the effects of magic, and blocks the supernatural abilities of most magical creatures. In the worst of the deadlands, regions known as essence voids, living creatures that venture into the void may feel their core essence leeching away. Within a few days the victim loses their desire to carry on and is wracked with an unnatural depression. Unable to summon enough will to escape, the unfortunate victim lies down and is slowly drained of life until there is nothing left but an empty husk.

The Essential Plane

There is a shadow realm of pure essence that mirrors our own called the Essential Plane. This realm is at once a part of our physical reality but simultaneously separate from it. What happens in one realm may influence what happens in the other, or it may pass unnoticed. Some scholars theorize that the Essential Plane represents the source of essence in our world, while others speculate that the Essential Plane is a product of our reality, like an essence shadow on the wall of the universe. Whatever the truth, the Essential Plane is undeniably real, and it has a deep influence on spells, spellcasting, and magic.

According to those rare few who can see the Essential Plane, or even more rarely, those who have traveled there, Essential Plane non-living objects appear as dark, ghostly shapes without true substance. They are lit by a wan light that seems to shine from all around rather than from any external source. Physical details are softened and colors muted almost beyond perception. Arcanists refer to these shadow shapes as a physical object's essence form.

Living things seen this way are another matter entirely. They literally glow, giving off a brilliant halo of color that ripples and undulates like water made from light. This halo surrounds a complex internal pattern of incandescent threads. It is known as an aura, and the pattern within is the essence form of the living thing, sometimes referred to as its spirit.

It is possible for a non-living thing to have an aura and a patterned essence form. Examples include magical constructs such as glyphs and active spells, runes, enchanted objects, and things that mimic life without being alive, such as crystals and some forms of undead.

Essence Sight

Normally, the Essential Plane is invisible to those living on the physical plane. There are some on Aetaltis, however, who have the rare ability to see the essential plane while remaining on the physical, a gift called essence sight. When using essence sight, the viewer is blind to the real world.

Auras

Every aura has its own patterns, colors, and rhythms. Individuals who study auras can learn to differentiate one aura from another and can even learn to identify people by their auras rather than their physical appearance. It is also possible to discern information about a thing from its aura including information the subject might wish to remain hidden. After all, one’s aura represents one’s true nature, a thing not easily disguised.

When objects or people with auras stay in close physical proximity for long periods of time, or if an aura is particularly powerful, one aura can influence the essence forms of other people, places, and things. A well-known example of this is the process by which essence is corrupted by the presence of evil.

Viewing Auras in the Physical World

Although essence sight is exceptionally rare, it is possible to observe auras without that gift. Certain spells intensify auras and make them visible to the caster in the physical world. Once an aura is visible, the caster can analyze what they see and learn about the subject. This is the basis of spells that detect magic, identify magical properties, seek out living creatures, and sense the presence of things that are invisible to natural sight.

Essence Vessels

An essence vessel is an essence form that can hold a quantity of personal essence. The most common essence vessels are the spirits of living beings. If the essence in a living essence vessel is expended (there are a variety of ways this can happen), more essence is slowly drawn back into it from the ambient essence around it, and the essence is restored over time.

Another type of essence vessel are objects that grow but aren’t truly alive (like crystals), or objects that were alive at one time but aren’t any longer. The essence forms of these types of objects can hold essence, but they do not refill on their own. If the essence in a vessel like this is expended, essence must be manually channeled back into the vessel.

The final types of essence vessels are objects that do not grow or have never been alive. These types of objects do not naturally hold essence. Some force, usually a spellcaster, must imbue the object with an artificial pattern that mimics that of a living thing. Spell scrolls and enchanted objects are examples of this type of essence vessel.

Enchanting

It is possible to reshape the essence form of an inanimate object to give it a patterned essence form. Typically the selected form applied to the inanimate object is the glyph for a spell. Once the shaping is complete, the object can create the magical effect the glyph is designed to evoke. The object becomes, essentially, a spell glyph locked to a physical object. This process is known as enchanting. Enchanting is a difficult and time-consuming process. Furthermore, the skills needed to perform enchantments are difficult to learn, and they’re typically kept secret by those who know them. This makes enchanted objects, sometimes referred to as magic items, uncommon and valuable.

Charged Enchantments

Charged magic items work a certain number of times before they need to be recharged. To create a charged device, the enchanter first shapes the essence form of the object into a glyph. Next they infuse the object with a portion of their personal essence. The resultant enchanted device can replicate the magical effect a certain number of times before it expends the essence. At that point it must be recharged with a new pool of essence. Normally this requires the conscious effort of an enchanter, but an object in the area of an essence well will recharge on its own.

Perpetual Enchantments

A perpetual enchantment creates a magical device that never needs to be recharged. The process is exactly the same as for a charged enchantment except that when forming the glyph, the essential nature of the object is altered so that its essence form draws in ambient essence when used. The result is an item that can create the desired spell effect by automatically drawing ambient essence through its glyph. In most cases there is a limit to how often the power may be used, since the stress of channeling ambient essence through the glyph could destroy the object if not allowed to recover between uses.

Alchemy and Potions

Since Aetaltis is awash with ambient essence, many otherwise mundane things are inherently magical. These objects and substances either have magical properties on their own or have the potential to become magical. This knowledge led to the development of alchemy.

Alchemists observed and cataloged the auras of a variety of substances, learning what magical properties they might have. They also experimented with preparing and combing the substances in different ways. When a reaction occurred it altered the physical nature of the substances, often creating a completely new aura with properties taken from the two source materials. The science of alchemy has been developed to the point that in the lands surrounding the Amethyst Sea, a variety of magical potions, salves, and powders are available that replicate the magical effects of many spells. 

Spell Scrolls

One of the developments that came out of Rune Magic is the technique for creating spell scrolls. These are scrolls made from a once living material that have been inscribed with a physical representation of the glyph or runes for a spell. The glyph is formed from the object’s aura and then empowered by infusing it with a portion of the creator’s own essence. Once infused with this power, anyone who knows how to cast spells from a scroll can cast the spell using nothing but the scroll. This type of casting requires no directing or shaping of essence on the part of the caster since the scroll’s creator prepared all of this in advance. Once activated, the power of the spell always destroys the physical material of the scroll as the essence courses through it.

The Forbidden Arts

Certain magical techniques lie outside the realm of acceptable arcane practice. In some cases these methods are truly evil while in other cases they are merely morally questionable.

Blood Magic

Blood Magic involves siphoning off the personal essence of another living creature to serve as a source of essence for spells. The process is agonizing for the victim, and in many cases results in the death of the subject. Spellcasters that learn this dark art can apply it to anything with a spirit, from sentient beings to plants.

Due to the complexity of blood magic casting, it is typically only used in ritual castings. Spellcasters must have time to bind the spell to the subject and exert enough sustained force to tear the subject’s personal essence free from their spirit. This makes it impractical for use outside of ritual castings.

Higher dark powers such as wraiths, fallen avatars, and the abomonae are not bound by these limits. These beings are known to use blood magic regularly during the course of normal spellcasting. Some even keep an entourage of willing supplicants or slaves to use as sources for their vile magic, draining the victims to lifeless husks in order to power spells they might not normally have the necessary essence to cast.

Entreating Endroren

Using a technique similar to Divine Magic, one may call upon Endroren to provide both the divine inspiration to form a glyph and the essence to empower it. Even non-spellcasters are known to have created magical effects by entreating the Dark Lord. Each time a spellcaster entreats Endroren, however, the Darkness of his power stains their essential form. The more the spellcaster entreats Endroren, the easier it becomes to use the power again in the future, but the greater the danger of corruption. Eventually, the corruption overwhelms the pure essence of the caster's spirit, and they become one of the Fallen.

Although the idea of consorting with Endroren and the risk of corruption is enough to deter almost anyone from attempting this, there are other risks. There is the possibility that Endroren will ignore the entreaty, leaving the supplicant at the mercy of their foes when the magic fails. Even more terrifying is the possibility of unintended consequences. To entreat Endroren is to open a conduit between his spirit and one's own. All manner of terrible outcomes of this vile union have been recorded, including possession, madness, and the complete obliteration of the supplicants physical and spiritual forms.

Animating the Dead

When the Dark Hordes burst into the dwarven halls at the beginning of the Age of Darkness, the armies of the dwarven kingdoms were woefully outnumbered. As the hordes crashed against their defenses, the defenders fell at a frightening pace. All the while, more and more endrori came up from the depths to bolster Endroren’s forces. It is during these dark times that the dwarves came up with a grim solution to their plight.

The dwarven runecasters created a set of runes that gave the dead an imitation of life. They carved these runes into the skulls of the deceased and when the runes were activated the corpse would animate to continue its fight against the Dark Hordes.

The reason the remains of the dead worked so well for this, as opposed to a statue or other unliving object, is that the physical forms of once living things retain an echo of their living essence form. When energized with the proper spell and an infusion of essence, the corpse returns to pseudo-life. Not only can it move about, it can even follow simple instructions, thanks to the essence memory of its once living state.

It is said that the walking dead not destroyed during the fighting still wander the halls of the Deeplands today.

Necromancy and Bound Undead

The animation of a corpse is a minor evil compared to the art of the necromancer. Necromancers call forth the spirits of the dead and then forcefully bind them to corpses. The result is an undead monster that is not truly alive but not fully dead either. 

Only under the very rarest and most desperate of circumstances would a spirit submit to such an act willingly. In almost every case, it is forced on the wandering spirit. The ritual inflicts excruciating pain on the spirit, and this torment, combined with the sudden return to the world of the living bound to a rotting corpse for a body, drives nearly all the victims of this despicable molestation insane. The deranged monsters that result from this process are typically violent and harbor a deep hatred for all living things. These vile creatures are known as bound undead.

True Undead

True undead are naturally occurring bound undead. Most true undead are driven mad by the transition to unlife, but a rare few retain their sanity. This natural form of binding typically only occurs with tainted, tormented, or truly evil beings, but a few uncorrupted true undead are rumored to exist. In addition to their undead state, true undead also have the ability to draw strength by absorbing the essence from the spirits of living creatures. Over time, as a true undead absorbs more and more essence, they take on a more lifelike appearance.

ART & ILLUSTRATION

  • Art by Mitchell Malloy

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All game rules published under Open Game License v 1.0a.