Discworld Read-a-thon 5 — Sourcery

There was a man and he had eight sons. Apart from that, he was nothing more than a comma on the page of History. It’s sad, but that’s all you can say about some people. 

But the eighth son grew up and married and had eight sons, and because there is only one suitable profession for the eighth son of an eighth son, he became a wizard. And he became wise and powerful, or at any rate powerful, and wore a pointed hat and there it should have ended…

Should have ended…

But against the Lore of Magic and certainly against all reason — except the reasons of the heart, which are warm and messy and, well, unreasonable — he fled the halls of magic and fell in love and got married, not necessarily in that order.

And he had seven sons, each one from the cradle at least as powerful as any wizard in the world.

And then he has an eighth son…

A wizard squared. A source of magic.

A sourcerer.

Opening lines of Sourcery, by Terry Pratchett

The fifth book in the collection (and third in the Rincewind series) treads over some of the same ground as Equal Rites as it explores the fundamentals of magic in the Discworld. This time, however, it’s not the difference between wizard magic and witch magic that’s in question, but the very existence of magic itself as a sourcerer returns to the Disc.

The distinction between a sorcerer and a wizard in D&D 5e always seemed obvious to me, but it wasn’t until I returned to this book that I realized that I’d internalized its definitions into my view of magic. On the Discworld, a sourceror is unbounded by the normal restraints of the limited quantities of magic available, as they are capable of creating new magic and bringing it into the world. This of course makes them incredibly powerful, and also incredibly dangerous, not just for the current social organization in place, but for the very fabric of reality itself.

The idea of having some unbelievably powerful entity capable of changing the world is not new and has made for some iconic episodes of Star Trek and indeed at least one recent example in a streamed D&D game (cf. this episode of The Chain by MCDM), but it’s become such a classic for a reason. It can be incredibly fun to play and makes for an asymmetrical boss fight where the main aim is to find the entity’s weakness rather than facing them head-on.

The book also has a lot of fun with playing with the expectations around archetypes: the ‘barbarian’ warrior that has learned everything from a book, the daughter of an actual ‘barbarian warrior’ that has it in her genes but just wants to be a hairdresser, the grand-vizir who is very genre-savvy, … These sort of characters are a staple of Pratchett’s writing and I think Sourcery might be one of the most comprehensive examples of it, as I don’t think that there is a single character that doesn’t know exactly what is expected of them from the narrative, and will conform to them even if the character doesn’t want to. I really want to come back to this later, but the entire concept of ‘narrative causality’ is very evident here, even if it has yet to be explicitly mentioned in the books.

It remains, however, one of the books in the series that I resonate the least with. As a general rule, I think I have a harder time getting into the stories in the Rincewind arc than I do with the other stories. I love Rincewind (and sometimes feel like I have a lot in common with him) and the Luggage is one of those immediately iconic characters that sticks in your mind long after you’ve read the books. It’s an arc that is essential in setting up what the Discworld is but compared to the other storylines I feel that they tend to lack some of the social commentary that really elevates a Discworld novel above just a great read to something that’s truly exceptional. 

All that said, Sourcery is still an excellent novel for inspiration, and in this case, we’re going to be creating some magic items!

Traditional cover of Sourcery. Rincewind the wizard, flies on a magic carpet accompanied by a weak barbarian and a powerful woman. The Luggage runs underneath them.
Cover of Sourcery by Terry Pratchett, designed by Josh Kirby.

Archchancellor’s Hat

‘Figurehat?’

‘Worn by a figurehead.”

Wondrous item, legendary. Requires attunement by a wizard.

The symbol of wizardry itself, this rather threadbare and garish hat has absorbed some of the knowledge of the exalted heads that it’s adorned over many years. It also has pockets!

While you are wearing it, you gain the following benefits:

  • You can use the hat as a spellcasting focus for your wizard spells.
  • You can try to cast a cantrip or a spell up to the third level that you don’t know. The cantrip or spell must be on the wizard spell list, and you must make a DC 10 + the spell’s level Intelligence (Arcana) check. The DC for this check increases by 5 if the Archchancellor’s Hat is upset or annoyed with its wearer. If the check succeeds, you cast the spell. If the check fails, so does the spell, and the action used to cast the spell is wasted. In either case, you can’t use this property again until you finish a long rest.

The hat also functions as a Bag of Holding.

Sentience. The Archchancellor’s Hat has accumulated enough magic to become sentient and develop a personality of its own. It’s a sentient lawful neutral item with an Intelligence of 22, a Wisdom of 12, and a Charisma of 16. It has hearing and darkvision out to a range of 30 feet. It communicates telepathically with anyone attuned to it. It can speak, read, and understand Common, Dwarvish, Elvish, Abyssal, Draconic, Infernal, and Primordial. In addition, it knows every language you know while you’re attuned to it.

Personality. Having graced the head of some of the most powerful wizards in the world, the Archchancellor’s Hat sees itself as an institution and, therefore, far more important than any individual that might wear it, no matter how powerful. It expects to be treated with respect and will be cold and uncooperative if it doesn’t receive it. Its voice is reedy and faded, much like its sequins, with a slightly petulant, nasal, whine to it. Should its wearer meet a spell caster that doesn’t prioritize book knowledge (such as a sorcerer or warlock) then the hat will constantly berate its wearer to stand up for the superiority of the wizarding method in the arcane arts. 

Modern cover of Sourcery. A small figure stands in a backlit doorway holding a staff aloft from which beams come from.
Cover of Sourcery by Terry Pratchett, designed by Joe McLaren (also pictured: my thumb).

Whispering Staff

Thunder rolled, on cue.

Weapon (quarterstaff), legendary. Requires attunement by a sorcerer.

Seeking to cheat death, a sorcerer attempted to transfer their soul into their steel-bound oak staff, however, the ritual went awry and his soul was claimed by the beyond anyway. Despite this, something in the ritual transferred the sorcerors sentience to the staff, providing it with a form of false life, filled with the bitterness and bile of its past owner.

This staff can be wielded as a magic quarterstaff that grants a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with it. In addition, it can be used as a focus for your sorcerer spells.

While attuned to the staff, you have access to one more Metamagic option than you would normally have at your level. You also gain the Thaumaturgy cantrip.

The staff has 20 charges for the following properties. The staff regains 2d8 + 4 expended charges daily at dawn.

  • Power Strike. When you hit with a melee attack using it, you can expend up to 3 of its charges. For each charge you expend, the target takes an extra 1d6 force damage.
  • Font of Sorcery. You can expend 5 points to regain a sorcery point.

Sentience. The Whispering Staff retains some of its former owner’s sentience and personality due to the ritual that was used to create it. It’s a sentient chaotic neutral item with an Intelligence of 16, a Wisdom of 12, and a Charisma of 22. It has hearing and darkvision out to a range of 30 feet. It communicates telepathically with anyone attuned to it. It can speak, read, and understand Common, Elvish, and Draconic. In addition, it knows every language you know while you’re attuned to it.

Personality. The staff retains the most overt elements of its former owner’s personality but lacks any depth. It is full of spite towards other magic users, believing itself to be far superior to them, and angry at always being looked down upon for being self-taught. The staff will whisper to its wielder to try and get them to show off their spellcasting and advise them to solve every problem with magic. While it normally communicates with a hoarse, strained voice, barely above a whisper, it retains a certain sense for the dramatic and will occasionally burst into a loud booming bellow, often when urging its wielder to engage in a magic duel. 

Half-a-Brick-inna-Sock

‘It’s a half-brink.’

‘But it has great power.’

‘Er. You can hold things up with it. If you had another one, you’d have a brick.’

‘So. It is a brick of ordinariness, within a sock. The whole becoming a weapon.’

‘Um. Yes’

‘How does it work.’

‘Um. You swing it, and then you. Hit something with it. Or sometimes the back of your hand, sometimes.’

‘Not really,’ he said at last. ‘It sort of kills people but leaves buildings standing’.

Weapon (flail), Legendary.

A weapon so mundane that it defies magic itself. It’s half-a-brick-inna-sock, what sort of description were you really expecting here? Oh ok fine. This isn’t any ordinary Half-a-Brick-inna-Sock, the power within it comes from its wielder’s firm belief that a hard object swung sufficiently hard is sometimes just what a situation requires.

The Half-a-Brick-inna-Sock functions as a flail with the following properties.

Simple yet unpredictable. It is treated as a simple meele weapon for proficiency. On rolling a 1 when making an attack, the Half-a-Brick-inna-Sock hits the back of the wielder’s hand. This causes no damage, but does require them to exclaim loudly in pain.

Just chuck it. It gains the Thrown property, with a range of 10/30.

Offensively mundane. Attacks against a creature with the Spellcasting trait are made at advantage. Any concentration check made after suffering damage from the Half-a-Brick-inna-Sock has its DC increased by 5. It also ignores all resistances and immunities except to non-magical bludgeoning damage.

Other thoughts and miscellaneous quotes

‘And what would humans be without love?’

RARE, said Death.

Death continues to be comic gold.

NOTHING IS FINAL. NOTHING IN ABSOLUTE. EXCEPT ME, OF COURSE. SUCH TINKERING WITH DESTINY COULD MEAN THE DOWNFALL OF THE WORLD. THERE MUST BE A CHANCE, HOWEVER SMALL. THE LAWYERS OF FATE DEMAND A LOOPHOLE IN EVERY PROPHECY.

Important advice for writer’s that want a prophercy in their story here. Make them vague, it’ll not only make it easier on you, but finding logical loopholes is a time honoured tradition of TTRPG players everywhere.

‘What is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?’

Death thought about it.

CATS, he said eventually, CATS ARE NICE.

There a days where I really resonante with Death.

YOU’RE ONLY PUTTING OFF THE INEVITABLE, he said.

‘That’s what being alive is all about.’

Possibly one of the pithiest answers to the meaning of life out there.

Once upon a time it had meant that he would be the most powerful in the handling of magic, but times were a lot quieter now and, to be honest, senior wizards tended to look upon actual magic as a bit beneath them. They tended to prefer administration, which was safer and nearly as much fun, and also big dinners.

Pratchett has started to move the wizards from the (slightly) evil schemers of the first books to be more affable and generally harmless parody of academia that we know them for in the later books. Having spent quite some time in academia, it’s sometimes hard to figure out where the paradoy stops and reality begins.

He is tall and thin and has the scrubby king of beard that looks like the kind of beard worn by people who weren’t cut out by nature to be beard wearers.

I’m feeling very called out by this.

Probably no other item in the entire chronicle of travel accessories has quite such a history of mystery and grievous bodily harm. It had been described as half suitcase, half homicidal maniac.

I was sure that this quote about the luggage appeared in an earlier book but no it was here all along.

The Luggage might be magical. It might be terrible. But in its enigmatic soul it was kin to every other piece of luggage throughout the multiverse, and preferred to spend its winters hibernating on top of a wardrobe.

As do I.

However, ever since the great Mage Wars left whole areas of the Disc uninhabitable, wizards have been forbidden to settle their differences by magical means, because it caused a lot of trouble for the population at large and in any case it was often difficult to tell which of the resultant patches of smoking fat had been the winner. So they traditionally resort to knives, subtle poisons, scorpions in shoes and hilarious booby traps involving razor-sharp pendululms.

If ever you need a reason to explain why a powerful magic user is hiring adventurers to deal with a rival rather than doing it themselves. Fully blown magical duels can be harmful to bystanders.

In his younger days, he’d sought power in strange places; he’d wrestled with demons in blazing octagrams, stared into dimensions that men were not meant to wot of, and even outfaced the Unseen University grants committee.

When I was younger I remember thinking that this was a joke. I know better now.

An incoming Archchancellor had to request entry three times before they would be unlocked, signifying that he was appointed with the consent of wizardry in general. Or some such thing. The origins were lost in the depths of time, which was as good a reason as any for retaining the custom.

For those of you that think that this is just an amusing random thing that Pratchett made up, I invite you to look up the UK State Opening of Parliment, and notably ‘Black Rod’ (which yes, is a job title, and we’re so used to it that we sadly don’t even snigger about it, not even at the outfit).

This was the type of thief that could steal the initiative, the moment and the words right out of your mouth.

Just such an evocative description, I couldn’t help but quote it.

‘Psst,’ it said.

‘Not very,’ said Rincewind, who was in a state of mind where he couldn’t resist it, ‘but I’m working on it.’

Hehehehehe

‘Quick, you must come with me,’ she said. ‘You’re in great danger!’

‘Why?’

‘Because I will kill you if you don’t’

I think I mught steal this line for the next time a player character decides to be a smart arse.

Ankh-Morpork, a city once described as resembling an overturned termite heap without the charm.

Again, Pratchett is great at short, vivid descriptions.

No one knows why smoking boots always remain, no matter how big the explosion. It just seems to be just one of those things.

Let this be a reminder to you all. If your party’s wizard kills anyone with a fireball then the victims boots must still remain afterwards, slightly smoking. It’s just the way of life.

Rincewind rather enjoyed times like this. They convinced him that he wasn’t mad because, if he was mad, that left no word at all to describe some of the people he met.

I have a tendancy to have my NPCs be incredibly unhelpful witnesses when my players try and invesitagte a mystery that I haven’t prepped for (generally because there wasn’t one until the party made it up based on the fact that I decribed some random pot of flowers and they took it as a clue). I think a lot of them an inspired by background chracters from the Discworld series.

He had spent years in search of boredom, but he never achieved it. Just when he thought he had it in his grasp his life would suddenly become full on near-terminal interest.

Gods I’ve been feeling this of late.

And then Nijel uttered the battle cry that Rincewind would never quite forget to the end of his life.

‘Erm,’ he said, ‘excuse me…’

If you’ve ever wanted to make a nerdy barbarian, then you really should mine Sourcery for quotes.

There has always been considerable debate about the precise geography of the place; heavy concentrations of magic distort time and space, and it is possible that the Library doesn’t even have an edge, never mind a centre.

Hints at L-Space before its time. We’ll be coming back to this, probably in Guards! Guards!

‘It’s in the book. To be a proper hero it says you’ve got to labour under a geas.’

Rincewind’s forehead wrinkled. ‘Is it a sort of bird?’

My players no longer use the geas spell because of my use of this joke.

‘I’m not going to ride on a magic carpet!’ he hissed. ‘I’m afraid of grounds!’

‘You mean heights,’ said Corina. ‘And stop being silly.’

‘I know what I mean! It’s the grounds that kill you!’

He’s not wrong.

Other things besides the cream floated to the top, he reflected sourly.

No comment needed.

‘Oh yes. It’s vital to remember who you really are. It’s very important. It isn’t a good idea to rely on other people or things to do it for you, you see. They always get it wrong.’

This might be one of the most significant throw away lines in the book. I should probably print it out and stik it above my desk.

That’s all for September’s read, and since I’m publishing this at the beginning of February, I think it’s safe to say I’m running late on these posts! I’m only about a month behind on the reading and catching up fast, but I haven’t got the blog posts written yet. I’ll be trying to get back up to speed and, hopefully, you’ll have more than one of these posts per month until I’m back up to date.

Next time, we’re back to the Witches series and a bit of Shakespeare as we look at Wyrd Sisters! If you want to have a chat about the wonders of the Disc, don’t hesitate to get in touch on Twitter, or join 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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