Spellcasters of the Hyborian Age

"He drove me from him at last, saying that I was but a common witch in spite of his teachings, and not fit to command the mighty sorcery he would have taught me. He would have made me queen of the world and ruled the nations through me, he said, but I was only a harlot of darkness. But what of it? I could never endure to seclude myself in a golden tower, and spend long hours staring into a crystal globe, mumbling over incantations written on serpent's skin in the blood of virgins, poring over musty volumes in forgotten languages." -- Robert E. Howard: "A Witch Shall Be Born"

While there is a fair amount of foul demons, black-robed wizards and snake-worshipping priests in the Conan saga, the Hyborian Age is a low-magic world.

The vast majority of the population live their lives without being directly exposed to magic or the supernatural. But they live in an age of great superstition and often blame death, disease and bad luck on the "wrath of the gods", "demonic magic" or "the evil eye", and seek to placate the gods and powers that be with offerings and sacrifice.

The average person working their shop or field has likely never seen a true wizard or seen a spell cast or held a magical item. Magic is generally feared, and most sorcerers and wizards (but not all) are associated with dark curses, evil gods and unbearable secrets which "Man Was Not Meant To Know". Even priests and druids are feared and held in awe by the common man.

Many of the barbarian nations (Asgard, Vanaheim, Cimmeria) revile magic, though in some places, magic is the power of the ruling class (Stygia, Hyperborea, Kambuja, Vendhya). In the Black Kingdoms (and Pictland) magic is widely feared and misunderstood, the province of tribal witchdoctors and shamans, who protect the rest of the tribe from the vengeful spirits and demons that surround them.

The select few who are able to use magic and cast spells guard their secrets jealously and attempt to use it to their advantage, often to the detriment of the lower classes.

Magical items are rare and are almost never for sale, though on rare events one will turn up in a market, unrecognized for its true value. Spellcasters might be willing to cast some spells for pay, depending on the individual's motivation or greed.

Arcane Magic

Arcane magic is alien to mankind generally inimical to his nature, and continued delvings into the arcane can result in madness, deformity and worse. Arcane Magic has its source in the Far Realms (also called the Outside), the space outside the Inner and Outer Planes, where the Old Ones reside, unspeakable entities of immense power and alien reality. Magic is spawned here, and can be taken at a price. There are two roads to gaining arcane power:

  • Wizardry: The study of complicated, ancient formulae and mystic equations, and study of the stars and the planes of existence. An occultist can learn to send his mind out into the Far Realms while his body remains on earth. In this trance, he can capture the energies of magic spawned in the Far Realms using the formulae he has learned. Once bound and held within his mind, he can return to his body and unleash the spells at will, only to lose their power until the next time he makes a foray into the Outside. Exposure to the Old Ones and their domain can be damaging to the mind - many lesser wizards go mad, irrevocably, and others who do resist still suffer the twisting of their bodies (see Alienist prestige class).
  • Sorcery: For those who are illiterate, impatient, or simply not intelligent enough to grasp the fundamentals of the studies of wizardry, there is another path - Sorcery. To the layperson, there is no difference, but to the enlightened, the gulf is clear - wizardry is a path of power in which the mage seeks his own, solitary path. In sorcery, the power is not discovered, but given by an extradimensional entity as part of a bargain. Most often, this bargain is voluntary, but there are instances where unwilling or unwitting victims have been so bound, for any number of reasons. Fiends, demons and elementals are the most common entities contacted for this purpose (but sometimes even a god might directly vest a mortal with sorcerous power). Once the bargain is struck, a mark is made on the sorcerer, either in the form of a tattoo, scar or birthmark, which completes the connection to the entity. Through this connection the sorceror may draw power, and cast spells without the wizards's need to visit the Far Realms or use complicated and incomprehensible equations. However, there too is a price -- as time progresses, the dark master will demand more and more of the sorcerer in return for his arcane powers.

Divine Magic

The gods are real, and they offer power to those who devoutly give them worship, the source of their strength.

  • Clerics are held in fear and awe by the common man. Through proper worship and observance of rituals pleasing to the god, priests are given power through their prayers to affect the world around them. There is no need to visit the Far Realms, as the power is sourced directly from the divine entity or one of its avatars. Many gods have their avatars reside at their temples, particularly during high holy days, and many priests can expect to see their god or his avatar during their life.
  • Druids also worship the divine, but do so through more primitive beings, such as powerful spirit totems, ancestral spirits and wild and feral gods who despise the ways of civilized men.
  • Shamans believe that the deities themselves are everywhere. Shamans are intermediaries between the mortal world and the realm of spirits -- the vast multitude of living beings that infuse the entire world with divine essence. The shaman offers sacrifices, prayers, and services to the spirits, and in return gains the favor of patron spirits who bestow spells and other magical abilities upon him.

Changes to the Spellcasting Classes

To reflect the low-magic paradigm described above, the following modifications apply to the spellcasting classes of the Hyborian Age:

  • Wizards do not learn spells automatically when they gain a new level. A wizard may not learn a new magical ritual without finding either a spellcaster who already knows the desired ritual (and who is willing to teach the wizard), or some sort of written description of the ritual, such as a scroll, clay tablet, or tomb inscription. Most commonly, spells are found in ancient books of magic (or fragments thereof). To learn a spell from such books, the wizard must know the language the book was written in. Such books are often copied and/or translated by wizards, with each copy or translation potentially introducing subtle changes and even errors into the text. Since bad copies introduce the chance of spell failure, original works (such as the fabled Book of Skelos) are highly prized by wizards.
  • Sorcerers have entered a pact with an extradimensional entity (usually an evil outsider) in exchange for power and spellcasting ability. All sorcerers have a mark somewhere on their body which symbolizes this pact, often a tattoo or scar. They do not need to have much of an understanding of magic and do not need to study magical books the way wizards do, though they must rest in order to commune with their dark master and regain the energy necessary to channel arcane energies. The spells available to the sorcerer depends on the entity he serves. When the pact is entered, and whenever the sorcerer gains a level, available spells must be negotiated between the sorcerer and the entity (the DM), who might not have neither the ability nor the will to grant certain spells. A sorcerer can only have a pact with one entity, although he may seek to enter a pact with another entity if he abandons an existing pact (doubtlessly gaining the eternal enmity of his former master). Many sorcerers act as priests, particularly for darker gods such as Erlik, Set, Gwahlur and Yog. Most people do not trust sorcerers and can't distinguish the difference between them and wizards. A good example of the sorcerer class can be found in Khauran, where the ruling Askhauri dynasty is cursed to produce a witch with a blood-red crescent between her breasts, every 100 years.
  • Clerics are granted access to certain spells depending on which god they worship, through the selection of domains (many new domains, in addition to those found in the PHB, are available in a Hyborian Age campaign). Additional spells can be learned from fellow priests or discovered through study of magical books (in which case they might learn spells which are not on their base spell list). However, it is not uncommon for various factions of the same priesthood to jealously guard their spells.
  • Rangers cannot cast spells.
  • Bards and paladins are not appropriate in a Hyborian Age campaign and are thus not available as player characters.
  • The shaman from Oriental Adventures is allowed and represents divine spellcasters from primitive areas, such as parts of the Black Kingdoms. They do not devote themselves to worship of a god like true clerics, but appease and serve the spirits in return for powers and spells.
  • Item creation feats are unavailable to player characters. This includes scribing scrolls and brewing potions. There are a number of new feats available to spellcasters, though.
  • Clerics can use spell scrolls created by wizards, and vice versa. Druids, sorcerers and shamans cannot use wizard or cleric scrolls (but can use scrolls prepared by a member of their class).
  • Some inappropriate spells are banned. See the Sorcery section for updated spell lists for wizards and priests.