Monday, September 30, 2019

Flim Flam Wizardy and the Figmentalist

As I write and research old grimoires, I think about magic users, wizards, witch doctors... who in the real word were often deluded or charlatans, while in the fiction of RPG worlds, were powerful wielders of arcane might.

… or where they?  Well some clearly were legitimate wizards and sorcerers, but I think a fair amount of magic "users" in RPGs were people who used a bit, or a lot, of chicanery, props and trickery to pretend to wield magical power.  These figures sometimes became so good at their games - and picked up bits and pieces of real magic along the way - that they became almost as good as the real thing.  Fake it till you make it.

I've always been intrigued by these characters.  The archmage of Ras Bolon is actually a fighter with the magical adept and ritual magic feat (5e system), but despite this he has cowed a level 9 necromancer into leaving him alone - not worth the risk of a confrontation.  I haven't published others, but several of my others NPCs over the years have been like this, many whom have fooled the world - and sometimes the PCs - into thinking they were more than what they were.

I'm not the only person who's thought about this. It's often been claimed that all Gandalf accomplished could have been done by a level 5 wizard.  Not to be outdone, it has been claimed that Gandalf was actually a highly intelligent fighter, reasonably convincingly so I may add (I may be biased because this parallels my own creation - but the fact that 2 people came up with the same idea independently is telling).

So how would such a flim-flam wizard present themselves?  How would it work?  Well first let's think about the "fiction" and then about the rules.

First, how do they *look*?  I think there are going to be two trends here.  First there is outrageous eccentricity (see this glorious image, and really take the time to take in all the details) to convince others that you REALLY are a wizard.  Look at all those runes!  Those funny colored smokes!  The outlandish outfits!  It *has* to be a sorcerer or something right?  On the other hands, others will do their best to appear as a respectable scholar who may wield terrible power.  This is usually done by flim-flam wizards who can afford not to be taken for a wizard at all time because they have something else going for them: either independent wealth and/or they actually are scholars.

We also have to consider the placebo effect, faith, deception and delusion.  People often think a placebo is fake, but this's more nuanced than that - a placebo is a fake medicine that provides a *real* result.  And depending on the illness/condition, placeboes are effective roughly 25% of the time.  Would you rather see a doctor who tells you "well, you're done.  Just lie down and die already" or one who will chant and sprinkle you with spirit water and *might* cure you?  The patient's faith in the doctor and the doctor's own belief in their cure - or their capacity to lie about it - is critical in making the placebo work.  For non-medical effects, delusion and suggestion are powerful tools to make a simple trick appear wondrous - sleight of hand, cleverness and a glib tongue will carry you far.

Actual know-how is another factor.  A flim-flam wizard may know one or several techniques that, while not magical, actually work.  The Petit Albert has a number of these (perfumes, acids, baits for fish...), and this excellent blog entry lists medieval scientific innovation from the Islamic world that must have seen like magic.  Alchemy had a lot of mumbo-jumbo going on, but a skilled alchemist could make real acid!  Greek fire, who's exact recipe has been lost, was devastating.   Knowledge about magic itself could be all over the place - from deep scholarly studies to a complete web of lies and/or superstitions.

Of course a flim flam wizard would want to augment their repertoire with actual magic if they could.  Magical items would be a great way to do this - potions, scrolls, wands, dusts... Xanathar's Guide has a lot of common, cheap but impressive items, and my previous entry has tables of minor magical items they could use.   If they are lucky, they might find something actually potent.  You stole a Staff of the Magi and figured out to make it work?  Heck you're 50% of the way to being a real wizard based on that alone!  A crystal ball makes you a seer.

Some flim flam wizards actually managed, to a degree, to cast *some* spells and can manage a few cantrips or minor spells.  5e does this very well with the magical adept feat.  There may also be some "idiot savant" types of casters - they can't manage the simplest spells BUT for some reason they can cast one or two big one like a master - like fireball, or teleport.

Some casters - flim flam or otherwise, operate mostly through the use of magical beings - they can't do magic, but they can control/summon creatures that *can*.  A lot of grimoires rely on this - of course a human can't do X Y Z but if you call upon this specific saint/spirit/devil they will lend you their aid and tada, magic!  My mom would pray to Saint-Antoine to find lost objects.  A flim-flam wizard who's really into smoke and mirrors will summon a "demon" (a disguised assistant) to impress the audience... but they may have acquired the services of a real supernatural creature?  

So how do we turn this into rules we can use in play?   Well for NPCs it's easy.  Do *whatever you want*.  You're the GM, your NPC can be however you desire.  Don't waste your precious time making sure they follow the rules, just eyeball it.   Need to make one in a hurry?  This great post has a good generator

For PCs it's much more difficult, especially if you want to make this not a "side show" of your fighter, rogue etc, but the actual core of the character...  I would say as a guideline, a flim flam wizard needs more skills and more hp than an actual wizard, to pull off the shenanigans and to make up for the lack of actual spell.  In 5e the rogue chassis might be a starting point?  But in 5e I think the artificer would be best - you could simply reskin it, or use it as a guide for the mixture of skill, utility and power level.  Finally I'll note that really, a 5e warlock is nothing more than a flim flam wizard that found a good, but demanding and sinister, patron woah things are getting intense!   So whatever the exact decision - and I 'll definitely have to take a crack at this class later -  the GM and the player will need to talk it out, test things and see how it works out.  Flim Flamery is not the path to awesome power, but shenanigans, fun and sometimes surprising utility.  The villain gloating in his anti magic field will sure be surprised when you "fireball" him with a fat flask of greek fire or a jar filled with bees!

In other system it can be a challenge (the pathfinder's alchemist *might* do).  In the GLOG, where class making is easy and balance just a vague approximation, it's easier, and as a result there are already a number of pseudo casters kicking around.  I will give you now another one, based on the Yoon Suin setting:


It is well know that the hallucinations of opium users sometimes congeal into a real-ish form known as figments, and that these solid spirits can be enslaved by wizards who know the proper rituals.  A figmentalist is a spellcaster who's only talent is the enslaving and usage of such creatures.  This "wizard" has no true magical skills - the figments do the work.  It is hotly debated amongst Yoon Suin society if a figmentalist "counts" as a wizard, i.e. should they received the life extending yellow tea.  They certainly are considered to be somewhat... crass.  Human figmentalists are not troubled by such polemics and are happy to ply their trade.  (the stats for the figment are in the Yoon Suin Book, I will translate them to a GLOG equivalent).

For each level of Figmentalist the number of figment you can control and summon at one time increases by 1, up to a maximum of 4 at level 4.

A: Figmentalism
B: Fraternisation, magic sacrifice
C: Bronze Collar,  blood sacrifice
D: greater figment, master of figments

Figmentalism:  The knowledge on how to summon figments and bind them to you.  The level of figment in a given area is dependent on the opium usage and population level - in a large city or a metropolis 2d6 minutes in a secluded area is sufficient.  A town or large village might take 1d4 hours, and a thinly populated area may require the figmentalist to generate the figment himself by going on an opium bender.  A figmentalist can only summon figments once a day.  A figment that isn't liked can be dismissed at will (it does not disappears, it runs off, which may matter) and replaced if no figments have been summoned that day.

Figment:  An imp-like figure of short stature, vaguely devilish features and oddly colored skin (purple being frequent).  Stats 7 in everything.  HP 3, AC 10, 1d4 damage (bite).  50% chance of being able to fly.

A figment also has one MD and knows one random spell (see list below).  A figment lives 3D6 days, or 1d6 hours after losing their MD.  They know their lives are short and are perfectly ok with this, but while not cowardly, they will attempt to preserve said short life if convenient.  They will perform tasks to the best of their abilities, with a slight penchant for laziness and mischief.  Eating figments is a bad idea as their substance eventually vanishes, which could have negative effects on the consumer.  Also, they taste like playdough.

Fraternization:  Have a figment who has an MD transfer it on one who has none.

Magic Sacrifice:  Sacrifice a minor magical item to summon a single figment.  This can bypass the one figment a day rule.  Some say a wizard's tooth can also be used.

Bronze Collar:  By inscribing special runes on a bronze collar and putting it on a figment, the figment's attachment to reality is strengthened.  This process takes a full day. The figment no longer vanishes after a while, and regains its MD after a long rest.  Its stats increase to 9 in everything, its HP increase to 6, AC to 12, damage to 1d6.  It is more loyal and capable.  The spell known and its ability/inability to fly does not change however.  Only one figment may be enhanced such at a time, and it will usually demand a name, or come up with one for themselves.  Figments are devastated if their collars are removed, as they have grown used to existing.

Blood Sacrifice.  By sacrificing a figment and eating its heart, 1d4 hp can be regained.  alternatively, by eating its brain, a strong opium-like effect will be experienced.  This tends to unnerve the other figments.

Greater Figment.  Your collared figment improves in potency.  It now hits/saves as a 3HD creature, its AC increases to 13, stats are at 10, HP is now 9.  It learns a second spell, randomly selected, and retains its MD on 1-5 on the 1d6 roll.  The collared figment has to have been collared for a full day before this takes effects.  The figment will now eat a ration a day, and probably want some clothes.  It can carry up to 5 items for you and use simple tools.

Master of figments:  Figments encountered in the wild are liable to recognise your authority and will be very reluctant to attack you. - you can convince them to do minor tasks for you.  If your figment contingent is not full, you can fill your allotment.  It is said that the Old City surrounding the Yellow City has numerous figments roaming around.

Spells (1d12)
1. Blink
2. Darkness 10’ radius
3. Magic Missile
4. Cause Fear
5. Dancing Lights
6. Stinking Cloud
7. Colour Spray
8. Create Mist
9. Invisibility
10. Blind
11. Grease
12. Stone to Mud

Equipment:   Flashy but cheap silk robe, large "mystical" amulet, a dagger, a bottle of cheap spirits. 

1: apprentice:  can read and write, detect magic
2: charlatant:  advantage on deception checks
3: diletant  : advantage on knowledge checks 

Design note:  This is clearly weaker than a wizard in magical power, but it does give you cannon fodder and people to boss around.


  1. I really like this idea of the false-wizard, I'm definitely going to try playing one in the near future! Personally, I'm not a big fan of flashy, high fantasy wizardry and prefer to keep things more Gandalf-y or Ogion-y.

    1. Glad you liked it! What system would you use? And I'm going to have to read up on this Ogion…

  2. What system to play a false wizard? I think I'd prefer something a bit low magic, though it would probably be easiest in 5e. In an old school system you'd probably have to get your DM's buy in to let you gain access to minor magic early.

    Ogion is from A Wizard of Earth Sea by Ursula K LeGuin.

    1. I really should read that book.
      I agree with you that it is quite doable in 5e, but you need both a player and a DM who are engaged. Every effect has to be created and detailed. A roman candle substitute for magic missile, for example, would not work well in the rain but would not be affected by an anti-magic zone for example.

      The *real* challenge IMO is balancing how often the "fake" spells can be used. How often can you use that roman candle? At will? That's ok if it's a "weak" effect, but what if it's a pretty strong effect (like say, a large greek fire grenade). And how do you justify it? This really stumps me