Hedge Magic
Rural Sorcery for GURPS Russia
Copyright © 1998 by S. John Ross

This advantage, while especially suited to an Old Russian vedun or vedomye zheny ("wise woman"), is appropriate for any GURPS fantasy game where folk superstition has more reality than cynical burghers might believe . . .

This is recent work (designed in late 1997, made public in '98); it was never part of the GURPS Russia manuscript, but it would have been had I thought of it in time. It is meant to blend seamlessly both with Folk Magic, normal GURPS Magic and GURPS Grimoire spells, and anything else you want to layer in with it. Notes on this advantage's relationship to standard GURPS sorcery are included at the end of this page (special thanks to Dr. Kromm for requesting these and providing the questions).

Hedge Magic; 20 Points

You are a practitioner of hedge magic, the subtle magic of wise-women and rural wizards, most suited to keeping crops healthy and children snug, and to catching cryptic glimpses of the future. Hedge wizards are the keepers of ancient secrets: herbs that ease pain, forgotten words that can calm an angry beast, the nature of omens, and the language of the stars. Their powers are the powers of life and fate.

Hedge mages do not purchase their spells separately from their mundane skills. Rather, they have a special gift, and special knowledge, that gives them understanding of the magic within their mundane skills. For example, a wise-woman seeking to ease the pain of a woman in labor can indeed remove her suffering entirely, but it will require a roll against her Physician skill. Success will result in the right soothing words, knowledge of which herbs might be required, knowledge of which members of the family should be allowed to stay in the room. The result will be a patient that is entirely free from the pain and possibly (with a separate roll against Psychology) even the anxiety of childbirth: a genuine miracle, but a subtle one.

To put it another way: where an ordinary Physician can give you a root to ease your toothache, a wise-woman can give you a root, a chant, and a candle to remove your toothache entirely (and give you pleasant dreams). Where an ordinary Animal Handler can calm a wild horse, then take it home and break it and teach it to jump and canter, a hedge-wizard can calm a wild horse with an ancient word remembered only to horses, in such a way that the beast will follow the mage home, eager to be taught.

A hedge-wizard can try just about anything. It's the GM's job to tell the player what skills are required, and what rituals, materials, or other special effort must accompany the skill rolls. Some spells will require only a single Skill-roll and a little effort. Others will require rolls against many skills, or even Quick Contests in some circumstances. Many endeavors will require rolls at a penalty; many will get rolls at a bonus! In many cases, there will be several means to the same end: the fate of a lost child might be determined by reading the stars (Astrology/TL), observing the behavior of certain spirit-sensitive animals (Animal Handling or Zoology), or even by carefully watching the weather (Meteorology/TL). In short, all the normal rules for Skills apply; the only difference is that the knowledge of a hedge wizard have magical applications.

Parameters and Game Balance: As a rule, if the proposed spell does more to enrich the story than short-circuit or derail it, the GM should allow it, requiring difficult rituals or materials to make sure that very valuable magic is earned. The subtle nature and particular style of hedge magic should be preserved, as well: magic that has nothing to do with either (A) simple natural forces, such as fire and weather, (B) life, health, and well-being or (C) the fated results of human endeavor is beyond the scope of the hedge-wizard's powers. Also, keep in mind that hedge-magic is more likely to help a job get done than to get it done in absolute terms: A wise-woman can bless a house to ward off accidental fires, but deliberate sabotage or gross negligence can still set the house ablaze.

Appropriate Skills: The six most commonly-used skills of the typical hedge-wizard are probably Agronomy, Astronomy/Astrology, Animal Handling, Naturalist, Physician, and Psychology. In settings where spirits (either house- and forest-spirits or the spirits of dead ancestors, etc.) are matters to be reckoned with or appealed to, hedge-mages will frequently have Savoir-Faire (Otherworld), in order to know which gifts to leave out at night, and which entreaties will work best. Other skills may certainly be used and required for hedge magic; it depends on what the mage is trying to achieve.

Hedge-magic is never a shortcut. In fact, such magic often requires more, in terms of tools, effort, and supplies, than mundane usage of the same skills (with an appropriately impresive results, on a successful roll). Hedge-magic failures are rarely any different from mundane ones.

In many cultures, hedge-mages are essentially priests of a simple nature-faith that peasants practice alongside their more organized religion. In others, this advantage might represent the powers of any kind of holy man or subtle sorcerer. Appropriate social advantages and disadvantages (Clerical Investment, Social Stigma, or Secret are all possibilities) depend on the game-world, and should be taken separately.

Notes on Skills

The following guidelines illustrate how Hedge Magic can be used with many of the skills from the Basic Set; this is not an exhaustive list of applications or appropriate skills. It is intended only as a guideline for players and GMs.

Agronomy: Spells used to protect, alter, or even harm fields of growing food are common; most are very slow and the more unusual ones often require regular, long-term attention on the part of the mage.

Animal Handling: Actually holding a conversation with an animal is beyond the scope of hedge magic, but animals often reveal what they know in simple, abstract ways that a hedge mage can understand. Also, a hedge mage with this skill can sometimes dramatically alter the mood and tractability of animals.

Architecture: This includes knowledge of the interrelationship between the homes and temples of mankind and the spirits that often dwell within them. Useful for ferreting out the hiding-places of haunts and house-spirits, and for designing homes that attract the good kind and make the bad kind uncomfortable.

Astronomy: This is "astrology" at TLs appropriate to this advantage, and can be used to find the answers to many questions of long-term individual fate, and to reveal the nature of a stranger's personality.

Cooking: Often used in conjunction with Physician skill to make fortifying meals to speed along recovery from illness. Hedge wizards are also knowledgeable of the power of food to affect mood and outlook, and to distract people from their worries and disagreements.

Detect Lies: When used by a hedge mage, this skill often grants additional insight into a liar's motives or state of mind.

Diagnosis: This skill can detect supernatural maladies as well as ordinary ones, ills that would flummox an ordinary doctor.

First Aid/Physician/Veterinary(etc.): These skills all include knowledge of arcane and personal methods of healing, as well as more traditional means. Hedge-mages are consummate healers, and know to clean, plaster and bandage as well as any secular doctor - but much more. As a general rule, hedge magic can heal the sick or wounded two or three times as fast as mundane doctoring, but a good deal more effort is often required (both in terms of creating the right atmosphere for healing, and in terms of required medicines and treatments).

Geology: Includes knowledge of what the stones and shapes of the land reveal, and how to make minor changes to the spiritual "character" of an area. The "outdoors" equivalent of Architecture's applications.

Meteorology: Useful for reading portents in clouds and breezes, and for creating subtle changes in the weather itself. Dramatic changes are extremely difficult.

Naturalist: Possibly the most essential skill for the hedge wizard, since it provides knowledge of the magical properties of plants and animals, as well as a deep understanding of natural cycles and the relationships between all living things.

Poison: Hedge magic won't make a deadly poison much deadlier, but the magic of plants and animals can often be used to create exotic poisons, such as those that cause only the semblance of death, or those that work sickness on the heart and mind instead of the body.

Psychology: Many of the ills of a village are rooted in fear. Ironically, the (benevolent) village wise-woman or hedge wizard is often a village's first line of defense against the dangers of superstition. This skill can be used with great effect to alter moods and to nudge people towards or away from a particular belief.

Research: If the mage has an academic bent and tends to collect books and manuscripts, this skill will be useful for delving into them for hidden meaning or scraps of useful magic.

Teaching: Can be used to pass on the arcane wisdom to a student, and to appraise a potential student's usefulness. An hour or two is often sufficient to pass on a simple, helpful trick. Years of apprenticeship are necessary to grant the Hedge Magic advantage in it's entirety, though, unless the student is especially gifted with an open mind and a sense of wonder (GM's discretion).

Interaction with GURPS Magic

Hedge Magic and standard GURPS magic are two different ways of approaching the same thing. Unless the GM rules otherwise, spells like Analyze and Detect Magic will detect the results of hedge magic normally, and spells created with standard magic can be located and even dispelled by hedge magic (although, since hedge magic is the "weaker" form, dispelling a Curse spell might require many days of ritual, bargaining with spirits, and so on). Standard GURPS spells entirely outside of hedge magic's spheres of life and fate are detectable with the right rituals, but cannot be affected in any way . . . a wise woman can recognize an enchanted blade for what it is, but won't necessarily be able to identify the exact enchantment, and could never undo the magic without resorting to more formal sorceries, herself.

Note that many of my Second Sight advantages are also very appropriate for Russian wizards, from the Vedun to the Volkhvy.

Hedge Magic Update: FUDGE and Elsewhere

Steffan O'Sullivan wrote me recently to say that he was adding a Hedge Magic link to his FUDGE page (a gesture I found very flattering, naturally, since "ace mana-basher" Steffan (as Steve Jackson called him) is not only the designer of FUDGE, but also some of the best GURPS material ever, including Swashbucklers, Bunnies & Burrows, and two of the Bestiaries.

And, of course, he's right: Hedge Magic adapts super-easily to FUDGE, or to any system that uses skills or something like them. GURPS Russia does, too (hint, hint). As a bonus, he also sent along an expansion idea, suggested to him by Mike Harvey:

This could be fine-tuned with "aspected" hedge magic; for example dwarfin hedge magic might only apply to artifice and craft, while elfin hedge magic applies only to living things

... Some races, like dwarves and elves, could have Hedge Magic as a racial gift... so all dwarven-forged weapons have a subtle magical quality, and elven runners are able to dance over snow without leaving footprints. It essentially turns a mundane character into a magical one, without conscious application of magic or study of wizardry. An elf might still study sorcery, allowing him to cast traditional spells of great efficacy while still keeping that subtle magical "elf-ness." A human wizard studies sorcery and can cast spells, but lacks that subtle everyday magic.

-- Mike

Several other correspondents have written me with suggestions along similar lines, and I agree with all of them. By altering the spheres of "life and fate" to other areas of potential magical influence, the basic idea of Hedge Magic - magical aspects of "everyday" skills - can be used to elegantly model many different kinds of magic. Some Usenet posters even suggested that Hedge Magic, combined with Computer Operations and Computer Programming, can be used to represent what computers are really like! Scary notion.

Mike also clearly understands the distinction that Hedge Magic makes between being magical and being sorcerous in the "academic" or even "scientific" sense. I've always seen it as a metaphor for cooking, myself . . . the distinction between Home Cooking By Mom (a kind of "essence" of what is comfortable and swell about good food) and Gourmet Cuisine By A Schooled Chef (often-spectacular but somehow more coldly ritualistic and formulaic cooking, but damned fine for blowing the socks off the King).

But then, I'm odd. At any rate, it's good to see that Hedge Magic is liked. Thanks much to Steffan, Mike, and everybody else who's commented on these rules!

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