Discworld Read-a-thon 1 — The Colour of Magic

“In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…”

Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic

Those opening lines had me once again grinning from ear to ear in anticipation of what was to come. Those lines are the first words you’ll read (well, except for the about the author and other bumpf that can be found in more recent editions) of the Discworld series, and do an excellent job of conveying both a sense of wonder and humor that permeates the book, and indeed the rest of the series.

The cover of The Colour of Magic written by Terry Pratchett. The art work is from Josh Kirby.
I must admit that I find the old covers by Josh Kirby very endearing in their classic style (even if he slightly missed Twoflower’s description in this one).

Before digging into the book itself, I feel it best to talk about reading order, since this is the first post in this series. I’ve already read most of the Discworld series (there are a handful that for one reason or another I never got to), so I’m coming into this series to reminisce, knowing what to expect. For those of you that might be interested in experiencing the Discworld series for the first time, I suggest NOT starting at the beginning with The Colour of Magic, as the first few novels aren’t Pratchett’s best work (though are still highly enjoyable), and won’t help you get the best feel for his brilliance.

I generally recommend Pyramids or (especially) Small Gods as good starting points as they are very self contained and have the fewest links with the rest of the series. You can also check out the storylines on the wiki page, and chose one of the arcs that think might suit your tastes (The Guards series for fans of detective novels, The Witches for those that are fans of folklore,…). If you’re still unsure, feel free to get in touch (in the comments section below, twitter or on the discord) and we can chat about your tastes and try to find a good starting point. Don’t sweat too much about getting “spoiled” if you start at the wrong point, I know many people (myself included) that read them haphazardly depending on what book they managed to find, and it has never reduced the enjoyment.

Now that that’s been said, on with digging into The Colour of Magic !

Octraine

Wizards, even failed wizards, have in addition to rods and cones in their eyeballs the tiny octagons that enable them to see into the far octraine, the basic colour of which all other colours are merely pale shadows impinging on normal four-dimensional space. It is said to be a sort of fluorescent greenish-yellow purple)

Terry Pratchett on octraine, the eight colour, “the pigment of the Imagination”

The plot is, well, not so much a plot as a series of unfortunate events, as our protagonist and anti-hero, the failed wizard Rincewind, has to accompany and protect Twoflower on his travels as the Discworld’s first tourist, a term Rincewind has decided means “idiot”.

Being the first book in the series, there is still a lot of things about the setting that haven’t been quite ironed out yet, and there are several passages that I must admit I found jarring coming back to the book after so long (the characterization of Death is especially odd if you haven’t read the book in a while). It’s a book that lacks a lot of the social commentary that so characterizes the later works, being much more firmly grounded in its role as a parody of fantasy stories, rather than an actual novel on its own. Despite this however, or indeed likely because of it, it’s also possibly the book that is the most easily imaginable as a TTRPG adventure.

Our party of two starts off fleeing from a disaster they themselves have caused, mainly because they are far more wealthy than they should be given their skill level. They then randomly bumble along from adventure to adventure, occasionally picking up other party members before they disappear due to scheduling issues with other social engagements, and are able to bring down eldritch gods and powerful despotic mages despite having absolutely no strategy at any point. All of this is set to the background of the Gods literally playing a game with their lives, which involves miniatures and dice. If this isn’t a D&D campaign I don’t know what is (which is, again, very much the point since this is the most direct parody of fantasy in the whole Discworld series).

Despite it being a outlier in the series, it’s still a Discworld book, full of humour, commentary, and that in-imitable voice that is Pratchett’s. There is no doubt that it can be mined for inspiration for your own games, which is what I’m going to do now. I’m going to be starting off the series with some simple ideas that can be lifted, though in later posts we’re definitely going to have to come back to some of the more fundamental aspects of the Discworld, but we’ve got plenty of time for that (plus things we’re a bit hectic so I went design light, but next months should be quite a bit more intense). So without further ado, some TTRPG inspiration!

High magic zones

‘We’ve strayed into a zone with a high magical index’ he said. ‘Don’t ask me how. Once upon a time a really powerful magic field must have been generated here, and we’re feeling the after-effects’.

‘Precisely’, said a passing bush.

This book is one of the most overtly magical in the series, and it makes full use of it to fuel the wonder of the world. If you’re playing a magic heavy TTRPG (such as D&D), ask yourself how this affects the world. Not just the societies in it, but the very fabric of reality itself. You don’t have to have everything be supernatural, which can be rapidly tiring, but think about ancient battle grounds from the mage wars, or simply zones where magic has pooled over the years because of they way that the lay lines flow.

This can be major changes: an upside down mountain, a sentient moving forest, a desert whose sand flows like water and is roamed by sand pirates. But it can also be much subtler, such as the party being woken up during the night because the trees that they have set up camp under have decided to move 60 feet away, or maybe the gravity is lower meaning that they can jump twice as far.

You can also weave this in mechanically. Perhaps luck is inversed in the area, so 1’s are critical hits, and 20’s are critical fails (or go the whole hog, and have the dice result be 20 minus the result from the roll, so that you’re hoping to roll low), or give everyone an extra spell slot because of the excess magic slushing about.

The fun of these zones is that you can mess about with them, without it upsetting the balance of the rest of the setting. If you’re characters find a way of using the rules of the area to their advantage, great! That’s a fun change, and once they’re out of the zone, they’re back to normal with no harm done to the rest of your plot.

Unstable spell books

After the first Age of Magic the disposal of grimoires began to become a severe problem on the Discworld. A spell is still a spell even when imprisoned temporarily in parchment and ink. It has potency. This is not a problem while the book’s owner still lives, but on his death the spell book becomes a source of uncontrolled power that cannot easily be defused.

Why is it that only wizards can use spell books? Why can’t anyone just copy a spell from a book into another one? The obvious answer is that because spells are special, inscribing them requires magic itself, not just penpersonship. What if magic is required to bind them into the paper, to stop them being able to fly off on their own? And if that’s the case, what happens when the wizard that bound it dies, loosing their control over the binding?

Whether you’re looking to try and instill a sense of urgency in your wizard PC that’s been hoarding books for later, or if you’re just trying to explain why magic books are rare in the setting, this is an excuse for you. Here’s an example below, for when your characters pick up a spell book from a dead mage (designed for D&D).

Degrading spell book. Once per day, roll a D20. If the result of this roll is lower than the level of the highest level spell in the book, then this spell escapes the confines of the book, choosing its target (if appropriate) randomly. If several spells have the same level, the DM chooses which one is effected. This spell is no longer available in the spell book to be copied. This continues, once a day, until all the spells in the book have escaped. A wizard can make an Intelligence (Arcana) skill check to stabilize the spell book for 24 hours, the DC of this check is equal to 10+the level of the highest level spell contained in the book. If the creator of the spell book somehow returns to life, the degradation stops, turning it back into a normal spell book.

The cover of the Colour of Magic written by Terry Pratchett. Art work from Joe Mclaren.
I generally prefer these covers by Joe Mclaren, though this isn’t my favourite in the series.

Other thoughts and miscellaneous quotes

Unbidden, the spell welled up in his mind. It was perhaps untrue to say that he had learned it; it had learned him. The episode had led to his expulsion from Unseen University, because, for a bet, he had dared to open the pages of the last remaining copy of the Creator’s own grimoire, the Octavo (while the University librarian was otherwise engaged). The spell had leapt out of the page and instantly burrowed deeply into his mind, form whence even the combined talents of the Faculty of Medicine had been unable to coax it.

I really want to make a Warlock or Sorcerer subclass based on being inhabited by a sentient magic spell. Since this theme comes back in next months novel (The Light Fantastic) this might be in the next article (along with a certain mix-up between a bag of holding and a mimic).

Swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust…

Damn. Pratchett can turn a phrase.

Lets just say that if complete and utter chaos was lighting, then he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour and shouting “All the gods are bastards”.

We’ve all had a player like this.

‘!’ said the stranger … ‘?’ said the stranger.

Dialogue at its best.

Magic is one thing, and reflected-sound-of-underground-spirits is another.

Despite the fact that this is explained later in the book, it took my so long to figure out “echo-gnomics”, and then I laughed my socks off.

The Law of Conservation of Reality; this demanded that the effort needed to achieve a goal should be the same regardless of the means used.

The way that magic works on the Disc is just one of the intriguing ideas that I really want to come back to in later novels that revolve around the wizards of the Unseen University.

‘What I’d really like is to be a ploughshare. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds like an existence with some point to it’

So says the magic sword.

‘I just think the world ought to be more sort of organized’ ‘

That’s just fantasy’, said Twoflower.

‘I know. That’s the trouble.’ Rincewind sighed again. It was all very well going on about pure logic and how the universe was ruled by logic and the harmony of numbers, but the plain fact of the matter was that the Disc was manifestly traversing space on the back of a giant turtle and the gods has a habit of going round to atheist’s houses and smashing their windows.

When people try and use logic to explain why a fantasy idea doesn’t work.

Want to have a good chat about the workings of the Discworld? Maybe you have your own ideas about how to use it in your games? Feel free to get in touch on twitter or the discord!

Next month, we’re on to The Light Fantastic (a direct follow on the The Colour of Magic, the only time that it happens in the entire series to my knowledge).

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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