Discworld Read-a-thon 3 — Equal Rites

This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions. It may, however, help to explain why Gandalf never got married and why Merlin was a man. Because this is also a story about sex, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense unless the characters get totally beyond the author’s control. They might.

Opening lines of Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites! In number three in the Discworld series, Pratchett digs into the strange gender divides that have often slid into our concept of magic, with male wizards and female witches. Eight is a magic number on the Discworld, and therefore the eighth son of an eighth son is destined to become a particularly powerful wizard. However, what happens when the eighth son of an eighth son is a daughter? This is the premise of Equal Rites, where we follow the story of Esk, born as the eighth child to a blacksmith (a mystic profession in itself), who was himself an eighth son, and gifted a staff at her birth by a wizard whose mortal coil was too short to waste time checking that Esk fits with the cultural norms. Equal Rites is also the first book to introduce Granny Weatherwax, a significant figure in future books from “The Witches” arc and a character that has marked many Discworld readers. We follow Esk’s journey into the world of magic, first training to be a witch under Granny Weatherwax’s guidance, and then as she sets out to join the Unseen University as the Discworld’s first female wizard.

Being one of the earlier Discworld books, there are still quite a lot of things that are a bit out of sync with the rest of the series. The use of magic is much more present and flashy than in later books, with Granny and the Archchancellor of the Unseen University having a full on transforming magical duel, in the style of The Sword in the Stone, but some of the fundamentals of how magic, and the world at large, works are still present. Normally in these posts, I do a short intro, and then grab a couple of aspects to use as inspiration for a specific TTRPG mechanic, item, or sub-class. In this case, however, I want to zoom out a bit, take a larger scope, and look at how this sort of inspiration can also help with world building. This blog isn’t going to be as actionable as the first two in the series were, but I hope that it’ll be interesting for you, all the same, if a bit more meandering and that you’ll bear with me in this diatribe.

A fair few TTRPG systems that use magic already have quite a lot of rules around it. D&D has its established list of spells, and the various limits to which can be chosen and how often they can be cast depending on the class chosen. Some, however, are slightly more fluid. In Monster of the Week, a Powered by the Apocalypse game, the “Use Magic” move has a list of things you can do with it, but there is also “Big Magic”, which has no prescribed limit, except what the Game Master wants it to have. In a lot of circumstances then, you don’t need to think too much about how magic works in your world and what it can do, as the game describes it for you. However, my aim here is not just to help those that might want to design their own system. I hope that it will provide guidance on any system where there might be “edge cases” that require your judgment. I also hope that it can also offer some narrative justification around the mechanics of those games with a more rigid structure.

Cover image of Equal Rites by Josh Kirby. Esk stands besides the witch Granny Weatherwax, as she faces off against a wizard in a magical dual.
Cover image of Equal Rites, designed by Josh Kirby.

The nature of magic

In the past there had been great wizards capable of forming whole new spells from the chaotic raw magic of the world, wizards from whom as it were all the spells of wizardry had flowed, but those days had gone: there were no more sourcerers.

The Discworld in an inherently magical place. There is a base level of magic that exists throughout the world, like background radiation, the raw magic that means that a flat world traveling through space on the back of a giant turtle can actually function. Once upon a time, sourcerors existed. People capable of creating raw magical power, making them practically godlike, being able to change the world around them with almost no limits. Sourcerors no longer exist however.

‘I think it’s magic, condensing out of the air.’ ‘Into the staff?’ ‘Yes. That’s what a wizard’s staff does. It sort of distills magic.’

‘Can’t you feel it? Asked Granny. ‘You can taste it in the air. Magic! It’s leaking out from something.’

The modern magic users of the Discworld are limited in their power because they must rely upon what they can draw from the world around them. They can, and do, however use a certain number of tricks to get around this. Wizard’s staffs work as solar batteries, capable of storing the magical power around them for future use.

‘Granny is quite big. If she turned herself into a frog what would happen to all the bits that wouldn’t fit?’

‘She’d just magic them away’, said Cern.

‘I don’t think magic works like that’ said Esk. ‘You can’t just make things happen, there’s sort of – like a seesaw thing, if you push one end down, the other end goes up…’ Her voice trailed off.

‘Magic’s easy, you just find the place where everything is balanced and push. Anyone could do it. There’s nothing magical about it. All the funny words and waving the hands is just… it’s only for…’

Raw power isn’t the only limit to magic though, as magic also obeys a certain number of laws and rules. These are never really made explicit in the series, it just not that sort of fantasy, but one of the rules we learn in later books is that there is a link between the energy needed to do something by magic, and the energy needed to do it normally. Create fire or an illusion ? It requires little work to make a spark or twist light slightly. Making something fly however requires as much energy as it would to resist gravity.

‘It’s not magic!’

Granny sat down at the kitchen table. ‘Most magic isn’t,’ she said. ‘It’s just knowing the right herbs, and learning to watch the weather, and finding out the ways of animals. And the ways of people, too.’

‘Exactly correct. That’s one form of magic, of course.’

‘What, just knowing things?’

‘Knowing things that other people don’t know,’ said Granny.

She tried to recall the bits of lessons that Granny grudgingly doled out. It isn’t what you know, it’s what other people don’t know. Magic can do something right in the wrong place, or something wrong in the right place.

This means that a lot of magic is based on finding work-arounds. For example, teleporting something can be achieved if you send something of similar weight the other way for example. As Esk says, it’s therefore all about finding where things are balanced, and just tipping them one way or the other, as this requires expending very little raw magical power. In fact, quite a lot of magic in the Discworld is more about knowledge than actual spellcasting.

Most people don’t know this and this is just as well because the world could not really operate if everyone stayed in bed with the blankets over their head, which is what would happen if people knew what horrors lay a shadow’s width away.

‘But – but – why are They interested? What do They want?’

‘Life and shape’ said Granny. She sagged, and let go of Esk. ‘They’re pathetic, really’ she said. ‘They’ve got no life or shape themselves but hat they can steal. The could no more survive in this world than a fish could live in a fire, but that doesn’t stop Them trying. And they’re just bright enough to hate us because we’re alive.’

Esk shivered. She remembered the gritty feel of the cold sand. ‘What are They? I always though they were just sort – a sort of demon?’

‘Nah. No one really knows. They’re just the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions outside the universe, that’s all. Shadow creatures.’

One of the reasons why Discworld’s spellcasters are so loath to exert their power is that it can attract… unwanted attention. Always lurking and looking for an opportunity, the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions are drawn to magic, and delight in preying on wizards that try to go too far.

There may be universes where librarianship is considered a peaceful sort of occupation, and where the risks are limited to large volumes falling off the shelves onto one’s head, but the keeper of a magic library is no job for the unwary. Spells have power, and merely writing them down and shoving them between covers doesn’t do anything to reduce it. The stuff leaks. Books tend to react with one another, creating randomized magic with a mind of its own. Books of magic are usually chained to their shelves, but not to prevent them being stolen.

The truth was that the presence of so much magic distorted the space around it. Down in the stacks the very denim, or possibly flannelette, of the universe was tortured into very peculiar shapes. The millions of trapped words, unable to escape, bent reality around them.

The library certainly wasn’t silent. There was the occasional zip and sizzle of a magical discharge, and an octraine spark would flash from shelf to shelf. Chains clinked, faintly. And, of course, there was the faint rustle of thousands of pages in their leather-bound prisons.

The distant horrors of the Dungeon Dimensions aren’t the only danger however. Magic has a life of its own, its very own essence, and that poses its own dangers. Back in the first post in this series I talked about degrading spell books and their dangers, and this is an evolution of the theme. Spells trapped in books want to break free, and their sheer accumulated power warps the world around them (I recent wrote a Twitter thread about an idea behind a library-based West Marches game that I hope to flesh out at some point). While not as foreboding as being from a parallel universe, unleashing wild unbridled magic can be enough of a risk for a budding magician.

Different strokes, for different folks

‘Witches is a different thing altogether,’ snapped Granny Weatherwax. ‘It’s magic out of the ground, not out of the sky, and men never could get the hang of it’.

While, fundamentally, magic might be from the same source for everyone, that doesn’t mean that everybody uses it the same way. On the Discworld, this generally means a distinction between Witches, nature orientated, practical, and wise people who live out in the world, and Wizards, academics who enjoy big dinners and arguing with each other (Witches are also generally female, and Wizards male, but as this novel demonstrates, this isn’t always the case).

‘Their magic’s all numbers and angles and edges and what the stars are doing, as if that really mattered. It’s all power. It’s all -‘ Granny paused, and dredged up her favourite word to describe all she despised in wizardry, ‘-jommetry.’

Wizards, as per traditional fantasy tropes, tend to like flashy displays of magic. This often includes ritual chanting, arm waving, and specific words in order to obtain some loud noise or visually dazzling effect that allows them to show of their magical skills in style. You can summon a demon with three milliliters of mouse blood and two sticks, but if you’re not going to put in the effort with the pentagrams, dribbly candles, and weird smells, what’s the point?

‘Bow, I told you,’ she said, without rancor. ‘Witches bow.’ She demonstrated.

‘But why?’ complained Esk.

‘Because witches have got to be different, and that’s part of the secret,’ said Granny.

‘So people see you coming in the hat and the cloak and they know you’re a witch and that’s why your magic works?’ said Esk.

‘That’s right,’ said Granny. ‘It’s called headology.’

Granny was no stranger to the uses of power, but she knew she relied on gentle pressure subtly to steer the tide of things. She didn’t put it like that, of course – she would have said that there was always a lever if you knew where to look. The power in the staff was harsh, fierce, the raw stuff of magic distilled out of the forces that powered the universe itself.

It wasn’t that Granny could make herself invisible, it was just that she had this talent for being able to fade into the foreground so that she wasn’t noticed.

Witches are more subtle in their approach, using ‘Headology’ mixed in with knowledge, a lot of common sense, and occasionally a sprinkle of actual magic. It’s not showy, but it tends to be less dangerous than Wizard’s magic (in terms of threatening to end the world), and is generally more effective at actually getting things done.

In the Ramtops witches were accorded a status similar to that which other cultures gave to nuns, or tax collectors, or cesspit cleaners. That is to say, they were respected, sometimes admired, generally applauded for doing a job which logically had to be done, but people never felt quite comfortable in the same room with them.

Witches are pragmatists, willing to put in the hard boring work needed to do things by magic. This is one of my most treasured aspects of the Discworld: the mundane is magical, but more importantly, magic is mundane. Being a witch is a job, and its not always glamorous. You might be standing on the edge between worlds, stopping the world being invaded by otherworldly beings, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll get any prestige out of it or be hailed as heroes. In a world of high fantasy, why would they? We are no longer amazed by electricity when we turn on a light, why would someone from the Discworld be particularity impressed by someone casting a spell? They might fear to play with magic due to lack of knowledge, in the same way we rely on electricians rather than trying to wire our own houses, but it remains just a job.

Unlike Granny, who dressed like a very respectable raven, Hilda Goatfounder was all lace and shawls and colours and earrings and so many bangles that a mere movement of her arms sounded like a percussion section falling of a cliff.

This large distinction between the two styles of magic hides a lot of subtleties however. Granny Weatherwax isn’t the same style of witch as Hilda Goatfounder, or other witches that we’ll encounter later in the series such as Mrs Gogol or Miss Tick, while among the Wizards Archchancellor Cutangle is quite different to his predecesor Trymon, and is very different to later wizards like Ponder Stibbons and his team in the High Energy Magic Building. Witches and Wizards are large categories with a lot of variation inside them, rather than homogeneous monoliths.

Cover image of Equal Rites designed by Joe McLaren. Esk and Granny Weatherwax ride on a broom stick above a dark mountain range.
Cover image of Equal Rites, designed by Joe McLaren.

You’ve spent 2000 words rambling, do you actually have a point in here somewhere?

Well, Other-Me-That-Wrote-That-Subtitle, as I said at the start, not really, you should have paid more attention. There is no actionable conclusion at the end of this article. I don’t have a “how to make your D&D game use Discworld’s magic system” or the like. The aim was just to discuss magic in the Discworld context, and hopefully help you spark ideas about how you could conceivably use these concepts in your own games, to help you make decisions as the Game Master. Ok, fine, I’ll provide some examples.

Why do sourcerors in D&D 5e have access to metamagic and other spell casters don’t? That’s because most spell casters draw their magic from the world around them, while sourcerors have the ability to actually create new magic from nothing. This allows them to twist normal spells in new and interesting ways. This is also why they can create new spells slots, as they draw on their own source of power rather than just drawing on what they can accumulate from the world around them. In this case, spell slots become more of an indicator of how much power your character can draw from the world around them, rather than some inner source. As they become more skilled in the arcane arts, they learn how to use their magic more efficiently, expending less raw energy on each spell, but also being able to eek every small sliver of raw magic from the world around them.

What about games where the magic system is more flexible and left more up to what makes sense for everyone involved. In the intro, I talked about magic in Monster of the Week, so lets work with that. How do you decide what is feasible or not within your game, in a way that makes enough sense so that your players can actually make meaningful decisions and plan accordingly. One of the ways to do this is to define with the players what their style of magic is. Did you learn hidden secrets from a cabal of sourcerors that dabble in arcane rituals in creepy basements for personal gain? Or perhaps from a circle of moon worshipers that have been delving into ancient teachings to fight against climate change? In the first case, if the players want to summon and consult with a demon then that seems reasonable, in the second case it seems unlikely, however they might have a better chance of dream-walking into a discussion with the fay. Obviously, you can add further limits (items that have to be found, time spent, etc.) but this sort of coding can help flesh out the characters back stories, and also make them feel part of a larger and more mysterious world.

The Discworld is full of magic and wonder, and yet its practitioners are anchored in the world around them, concerned with everyday activities rather than great mystical feats. Don’t hesitate to ground your magic system. Make it seem normal, everyday, mundane. In a world of magic, it is no longer extraordinary, it simply is, and your characters reactions can reflect this. That doesn’t mean that it has to be boring however, or plain. There can be plenty of variation within it which will add colour, and make it seem deeper.

Before I get to the other assorted quotes and finally sign off, I know some of you might be amazed by the complete lack of discussion about Borrowing. I haven’t forgotten about this aspect, but I want to come back to it in a later book in the Witches arc, as I’ve got some interesting ideas percolating for them that I hope you’ll find interesting. Anywho, random quotes!

Other thoughts and miscellaneous quotes

It wasn’t a large village, and wouldn’t have shown up on a map of the mountains. It barley showed up on a map of the village.

This quote lives in my head for whenever anyone asks me what my holidays were like.

Often there is no more than a little plaque to reveal that, against all gynaecological probability, someone very famous was born halfway up the wall.

I don’t know if anyone outside of Britain will get this.

‘But she is going to have a lot of problems?’

THAT’S WHAT LIFE IS ALL ABOUT. SO I’M TOLD. I WOULDN’T KNOW, OF COURSE.

Death’s appearances are always amazing.

‘Do you know how wizards like to be buried?’

‘Yes’

‘Well, how?’

Granny Weatherwax paused at the bottom of the stairs. ‘Reluctantly’.

It’s a classic joke, but still gold.

‘If you don’t want me to come then I’ll come” she said. This sort of thing passes for logic among siblings.

No comment.

Goats did have names for themselves, she well knew: there was ‘goat who is my kid’, ‘goat who is my mother’, ‘goat who is herd leader’, and half a dozen other names not least of which was ‘goat who is this goat’. They had a complicated herd system and four stomachs and a digestive system that sounded very busy on still nights, and Granny had always felt that calling all of them names like Buttercup was an insult to a noble animal.

Goats get so much disrespect and I don’t think it’s deserved. Now sheep on the other hand, they deserve everything they’ve got coming to them, with their cute little lamb routine.

‘What’s an elephant?’

‘A kind of badger;’ said Granny. She hadn’t maintained forest-credibility for forty years by ever admitting ignorance.

This is the sort of thinking that lets you go far in an unfortunately large number of cases.

She patted Esk’s hand as nicely as possible. ‘You’re a bit young for this,’ she said, ‘but as you grow older you’ll find most people don’t set foot outside their own heads much. You too,’ she added gnomically.

Some of Pratchett’s lines just cut too close to the bone.

‘They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’ is not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance’.

Given the discourse that’s happening as I write this post, I must admit that this line hits a little too hard.

Esk glared down defiantly. Granny glared up sternly. Their wills clanged like cymbals and the air between them thickened. But Granny had spent a lifetime bending recalcitrant creatures to her bidding and, while Esk was a surprisingly strong opponent, it was obvious that she would give in before the end of the paragraph.

The ability to just subvert expectations at the end of a sentence is just so quintessentially Pratchett.

Animal minds are simple, and therefore sharp. Animals never spend time dividing experience into little bits and speculating about all the bits they’ve missed. The whole panoply of the universe has been neatly expressed to them as things to (a) mate with, (b) eat, (c) run away from, and (d) rocks. This frees the mind from unnecessary thoughts and gives it a cutting edge where it matters. Your normal animal, in fact, never tries to walk and chew gum at the same time. The average human, on the other hand, things about all sorts of things, around the clock, on all sorts of levels, with interruptions from dozens of biological calendars and timepieces. There’s thoughts about to be said, and private thoughts, and real thoughts, and thoughts about thoughts, and a whole gamut of subconscious thoughts. To a telepath the human head is a din.

I use this so much when someone wants to read someone’s mind in an RPG.

He had the kind of real deep tan that rick people spend ages trying to achieve with expense holidays and bits of tinfoil, when really all you need to do to obtain one is work your arse off in the open air every day.

One of those wonderful little realities of life. Though as someone that spent summers working in agriculture, the tan lines really aren’t the same.

A hint was to Esk what a mosquito bite was to the average rhino because she was already learning that if you ignore the rules people will, half the time, quietly rewrite them so that they don’t apply to you.

This is always one of the quotes that I have a hard time with. I look at this quote, and recognize so many cases in which it applies, but the examples that always come to mind (for some entirely inexplicable reason) are those done by white heterosexual men.

She was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy.

Logic-bomb.

The lodgings were on the top floor next to the well-guarded premises of a respectable dealer in stolen property because, as Granny had heard, good fences make good neighbours.

*Chef’s kiss*

There seemed to be a whole world under the University. It was a maze of cellars, coldrooms, still-rooms, kitchens and sculleries, and every inhabitant was either carrying something, pumping something, pushing something or just standing around and shouting.

Never forget this. If your adventure is taking place in any kind of large organization, remember that there is a huge amount of support activity that gravitates around them, even “mobile” operations such as an army camp has its support staff and followers complicating logistics.

‘There are plenty of opportunities here for a young woman willing to work hard,’ said Mrs Whitlow. ‘Aye myself started as a maid, you know.’

‘We all do,’ said Granny vaguely.

This is just one of those little bits of Granny’s past that is very intriguing, especially given later books.

Granny suffered from robust healthy teeth, which she considered a big drawback in a witch.

And then there was warts. Without any effort Nanny managed to get a face like a sockful of marbles, while Granny had tried every reputable wart-causer and failed to raise even the obligatory nose wart. Some witches had all the luck.

It’s not always easy being a witch.

It was a fact well known throughout the universes that no matter how carefully the colours are chosen, institutional décore ends up either vomit green, unmentionable brown, nicotine yellow or surgical appliance pink. By some little-understood process of sympathetic resonance, corridors painted in those colours always smell slightly of boiled cabbage – even if no cabbage has ever cooked in the vicinity.

Very much reminds me of my secondary school.

They both savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were ignorant of only ordinary things.

It would seem that after secondary school, we’ve moved on to higher education.

‘I can see you’ve been getting ideas below your station,’ said Granny coldly.

An important reminder to everyone. Never get ideas below your station.

You’re not really here, Esk told herself. It’s only a sort of a dream, what Granny calls an annaloggy. You can’t really be hurt, it’s all imagination. There’s absolutely no harm that can come to you, it’s all really inside your mind. I wonder if it knows that?

Fun with mind bending dream adventures.

Something else was happening, in a place as far away as the thickness of a shadow.

This sentence is just beautiful. I’m in love with it. I want to enter into a long and committed relationship with it, only to be later heartbroken when it moves on to someone else because it deserves so much more than what I can give it. I feel like I’ve gone on too long about this now, unlike my love for the original phrase which is never-ending.

‘Million-to-one chances,’ she said, ‘crop up nine times out of ten’.

This is a recurring theme throughout the series. The Discworld runs on the basic principle that reality has to conform with the logic of fiction, and this one one of the consequences.

Next time we move on to Mort, which is often given as a good starting point for new readers, so if that’s the case for you, don’t hesitate to join in on twitter or the discord. If you are the sort of person that tracks your reading then you can check out the challenge on the StoryGraph.

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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