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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Ettin in the Playground

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    Jan 2009

    Default Nomenclative Magic

    I've been thinking of a type of setting where all the magic is based on Names of things, leading to strong use of nicknames by people. It's roughly based on the idea that one is (in an ontological sense) one's connections to others, and that one's Name is the representation of those relationships, so by knowing someone's Name, you can manipulate them. Also has a strong sense that you cannot change your name without a massive internal, ontological shift. This is based on some real life cultures and views that I can't fully elaborate on without violating the forum rules, so I won't go into the exact inspiration.

    Comments on internal logic and consistency. Not sure if this would really work for an RPG or not, but something I felt like getting feedback on.

    Basic Rules/Ideas
    1. All magic works because of a nomenclative Connection between the magic-user and the target.
    2. To use magic, someone must both have and know their own Name.
    3. The closer one really Knows something or someone’s Name, the more effectual the magic is. The less of one’s Name one really Knows, the less effective the magic.
    a. With things, the more precise a Name, the better the magic works. Calling a topaz a Rock is technically correct and could work, but Gem works better, and Topaz would work best. But if you didn’t know it was a topaz and just guessed it was, that wouldn’t work since you wouldn’t Know. Even if someone told you it was a topaz, unless you had strong reason to believe them your magic might not work since you still don’t truly Know.
    b. With people, the closer to a person’s actual Name, the better. So just knowing it’s a human allows some stuff, but knowing a nickname helps more, and really Knowing their actual Name would give almost complete control.
    4. A Nameless is someone without a Name. A Nameless cannot be impacted or sensed via magic, nor can they use magic, since there is no way for a Connection to form between them and another.
    5. Even with a clear Connection via a perfectly known Name, using magic still takes a tow on someone akin to physical labor and can take practice. Using magic essentially works a mental/spiritual ‘muscle’, so someone can get more stamina and finesse with practice. It is not less ‘work’ to do something via magic than it is to do it physically, but it can be faster. So you can start a fire, or move a wheelbarrow worth of bricks, via telekinesis in a few moments, but afterwards you’d feel a lot more tired from moving the bricks.
    6. You can target yourself with magic, but the usefulness is limited. E.g., you could heal yourself with magic, but it would drain you correspondingly, so you’d be equally weak after the healing as before (although you wouldn’t have to worry about lingering effects like bloodloss, infections, etc.). You could fly yourself up a building, but you’d feel just as tired as if you climbed (but it would take less time.)
    7. Magic can do anything a person, with the proper tools, equipment, or knowledge, could do. In effect, it can usually manipulate it, move it, break it, or restore it. But it cannot do something sufficient to make something have a different Name. E.g., you can use the Name of Fire to burn something, but you could not tell a Leaf to become burnt, since that would change what the Leaf is, changing it to Ash. (Well, you could get it to become charred a little using just the Name Leaf, but the power would falter once it would start to change its Name—since that would break the Connection.)
    BUT note the magic-user doesn’t need to have the knowledge or tools, and using it as magic is a different skillset. Someone could be really strong and move bricks easier, but it’d still make them as tired until they used to moving things via magic.

    #5-7 are to put some limits or consequences on it to make it usable in a system. The 'tiring' is somewhat inspired by the exhausting effects of overuse or stretched use of sympathetic magic in Roethuss' Kingkiller books.

    Consequences and Extrapolations and Clarifications

    For most things, the name of the type of thing is sufficient to work magic on them. If you know the word Brick, you can know a brick’s Name well enough to manipulate it via magic.
    For sentient beings, it is trickier. Knowing the word Mankind allows one to do general magic that can impact a person (except Nameless), but the effect is limited and weak and cannot be particular to that person. E.g., you could make a warning signal for if anyone approaches, or send a blast of force to damage anyone in an area, but you couldn’t target a particular person unless you knew more about their Name.

    For this reason, most people use nicknames or pseudonyms. However, these have to be somewhat linked to the real name, or it can cause internal confusion that makes it hard for the user to work magic. While not impossible to use a true alias, if you start to really internalize and go by that alias, your mental condition will make it hard to work magic since your grasp on your own Name will start to slip. Or at least that’s what happens to most people; in theory someone could maintain their Name perfectly while using an alias long-term, but it’s hard.

    This also means it’s hard to completely lie about your identity, since someone could use magic on you to test if you are who you say you are.

    Note, though, that Knowing someone’s Name means really Knowing it with certainty. Most people called Bob are really named Robert, but presumably nobody knows that for certain. So a Bob with the real name of Robert would be impacted better if someone thinks of them as Robert, but since that person doesn’t really Know (just believes) that Bob is Robert, they don’t actually Know the Name enough for perfect magic.

    As an implication, parents usually strive to keep anyone from knowing their child’s name. (Go into detail later about Naming.) To use the example above, most Bobs are not named Robert, but some variation thereof or with an extra, arbitrary sound added: Robert-gah, Nash-robert, or Ribert.

    Another implication is that some skills are generally lacking overall. There are not surgeons in most societies, since it takes less experimentation to heal via magic. The society hasn’t had the motivation to learn medical science.

    How is someone Named?

    Nobody is really sure how Things got their name. They are established and known.
    But as for people…

    When someone is newborn, they are Nameless. A Nameless is, in a sense, ‘sticky’ for a Name when newly born, inherently seeking Connection with others. How long someone is 'sticky' can vary, but it usually fades within the first year. If someone goes without a Name until they are one year old – which is hard, since it’s rare a baby survives that long without some name being put to it, even a nickname that may become its name – the ‘stickiness’ wears off. Getting a name after that is extremely hard. Some people try to raise Nameless because they are useful, as magic ignores them, but it's generally frowned up culturally and Nameless are stigmatized. They are either extremely rare or kept hidden.

    For this reason, the parents will declare a name while touching the child, and that becomes the child’s name. If this doesn’t happen, others could Name the child. The Name is not truly held to the child until they become old enough to understand it as their own Name and accept it. Though usually a child only knows its nickname, lest they tell their real Name to others before they know better.
    Once a child is old enough, they are told their actual Name so that they can work magic.
    But note that the child can be impacted by magic even though they don’t know their own Name, as long as they have a Name.

    Names, once held, can change, but it is rare and can only happen by a strong Connection between two beings, a connection that changes them on an ontological and nomenclative level. Often becoming married, having children, or some similar act will create a strong enough Connection that their Name changes. Someone aware of their own Name automatically knows when it changes, though someone ignorant of their Name will only feel that something changed.
    For example, if Ribert marries Saraz, his Name may well become Ribert-wed-Saraz; although a sham of a marriage without true Connection would not do so.
    Most socities have religious ceremonies centered on events or life connections that should yield a change to Name.
    In rare cases, devotion to a religious order or other society can alter one’s Name. For example, many monastic orders have someone renounce their old Name and Connections, to forge a new one to the society and god. (Doing so does not always work; there is usually a religious ceremony, but it's not the ceremony itself that changes the Name, but the person's mental state and acceptance of a true change to their internal self and thus their Name.)

    How prevalent is magic?

    Most people know some magic. Something to help with chores around the house, or light a fire, or heal minor wounds.
    Magic takes practice to get good at, so most people focus on other things and skills, but it's not just scholars or traditional wizards who are 'magic-users'.

    Most militaries have a 'black ops'-esque branch that employs Nameless as assassins, spies, or saboteurs. Due to prevalence of magic, many important places are warded to set off alarms when someone enters; those alarms would ignore a Nameless.

    NOTE: Nameless are somewhat inspired by the Gray Men from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, and somewhat by Drabs from Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker,


    Here's some inspirations, noted and not noted
    Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (namely Gray Men)
    Patrick Rotheuss' Kingkiller (namely sympathetic magic)
    Brandon Sander's Warbreaker (namely Drabs)
    general ideas of Intent and Connection in some of Sanderson's cosmere novels (just some neat stuff on names here)
    general idea that to Name something means to Know it and have power over it
    some real life views related to names, ontology, and views of what it means to be a person
    Last edited by JeenLeen; 2021-03-30 at 02:03 PM.

  2. - Top - End - #2
    Barbarian in the Playground

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    Mar 2019

    Default Re: Nomenclative Magic

    It's a fun idea. Attempting to apply this to all magic in your setting is going to pretty much dictate that you must rewrite the whole system or come up with a system of modifiers. I have this as a supplemental system in one of my settings and I apply it to some magic in the following fashion.

    Adherents of this school of magic cannot cast spells on people without knowledge of their name or a piece of their body (fingernails, hair, blood, etc...). Spells cast in this fashion are cast at one level lower than their stated level. Spells that would have an area of effect cannot be used in this system, only spells that would affect a single target can be used.

    I've preserved the existing magic system but supplemented it with this secondary system which is clearly inferior to the mainstream system. It's not meant to be used by player characters. It's a system used by a single cult which controls a single kingdom. This leads to the public use of reference names (usually based on occupation or a physical trait) and the jealous guarding of true names.

  3. - Top - End - #3
    Halfling in the Playground

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    Sep 2020

    Default Re: Nomenclative Magic

    There's a lot of room for nitpickery here. That's be OK if this was a magic system for a novel, but for an RPG, it needs to be ready to be picked over by creatively abusive players.

    If someone is Nameless, can magic still target their equipment, or body parts, or the still-being-digested last thing they ate? Could magic detect their weight, the displacement in the air/water/etc. created by their body, or their appearance? There's a long list of things which are associated with a person, that aren't the person themselves. I can easily imagine a spell that targets human skulls, for example - which would be just as effective against a Nameless person because the person isn't being targeted; their skull is! There's a correspondingly large number of ways that a Nameless person could be indirectly fought using magic, and creative players will try all of them.

    What counts as Knowledge for the purpose of this magic system? Would a person who has a Gettier case belief count? Could players trick an NPC into "knowing" a person's name, see if their magic works, and then if it doesn't mindwipe them and try again over and over until it works?

    What can be a name? Is there a maximum length to a Name? Can a person be Named in sign language, in writing but not speech, or in speech but not writing? Can a person be given a Name which has a spelling completely unrelated to the pronunciation? Can a person have a Name that references abstract concepts (e.g. calculus) in such a way that only someone who understands those concepts could know the name? Is is standard practice to give names, for security, a minimum of nine characters with at least one numeral, special character, uppercase, and lowercase character?

  4. - Top - End - #4
    Dwarf in the Playground

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    Nov 2019
    Home, Social Distancing

    Default Re: Nomenclative Magic

    Interesting topic, reminds me a lot of the fantasy series “Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin. Which if I remember correctly uses name based magic. I think I remember there being a language aspect to it too, draconic being the language closest to the truth of the world and therefore the knowing the name in draconic would be most powerful?

    The way I see this affecting spellcasting is the need to learn the true names of effects, elements, and components that make up a spell. Which brings to mind the word-caster system of magic where magic is cast free form by stringing together words of power that determine what the spell does. I think that was from pathfinder’s ultimate magic.

    As mentioned by others, how do players interact with this system without breaking everything?

    What if true names are not so much given, as they are discovered? Maybe bestowed by the divine entity that blesses one’s coming of age ceremony? And all names used in regular conversation are just nicknames given by ones parents. Does your true names grant you power dependent on their meaning or if historical figures had the same name?

    Did you look at 3.5’s truenamer class? Never played it, heard it had a few issues.

  5. - Top - End - #5
    Ogre in the Playground

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    Jun 2005

    Default Re: Nomenclative Magic

    I think that "true name" is pretty well-established as the phrase for the relevant concept.

    Anyway, a point to consider is that people wouldn't only want to avoid using the names of people, but also to avoid using words for anything that they want to keep people from messing with. So those things also will consequently be referred to unclearly or indirectly. But the more standardized that any euphemism becomes, the more it is thereby increasingly rendered a clear direct reference, thus driving continual linguistic evolution.

    Except in cases where some phrasing is readily understandable only by your target audience, there's an inherent, unavoidable tradeoff between obscuring meaning (because you don't want everyone to be able to tell what you mean) and clarifying meaning (because you do want some people to know what you're talking about, or not much point saying it), and these conflicting concerns can influence the use and development of language in lots of odd and interesting ways.

    Quote Originally Posted by jjordan View Post
    Attempting to apply this to all magic in your setting is going to pretty much dictate that you must rewrite the whole system
    I took it as obvious that this isn't for a setting that already has a different magic system, but is an outline for writing a system (or choosing which existing system to adapt).

  6. - Top - End - #6
    Barbarian in the Playground

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    Mar 2019

    Default Re: Nomenclative Magic

    Quote Originally Posted by Devils_Advocate View Post
    I took it as obvious that this isn't for a setting that already has a different magic system, but is an outline for writing a system (or choosing which existing system to adapt).
    I didn't, at first, then realized what I'd done and sent JeenLeen a PM apology.

  7. - Top - End - #7
    Pixie in the Playground
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    Apr 2021

    Default Re: Nomenclative Magic

    Just wanted to post to say that I love the idea of this. Very creative and fun. Thanks for sharing OP!

  8. - Top - End - #8
    Bugbear in the Playground
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    Nov 2007

    Default Re: Nomenclative Magic

    I really like this concept, and it shows up all over the place in Fantasy and real-world mythology.

    Spoiler: Interesting
    There's also something in Hebrew mythology where G-d is always repeating these certain sacred and powerful words, thousands of times per second, and that keeps the universe from falling apart. It's thought that scriptural magic (healings, ressurections, golems) were performed by reordering and reciting the words.

    For a tabletop game, if nobody has suggested it yet, there's a D&D 3.5 sourcebook called (iirc) the Tome of Magic. It lays out a magic system based around True Names. Basically, you master a few "Verb" words that can manipulate the world around you, like Break or Move. (You may know other words, and even be able to pronounce them, but you may not have whatever internal power it takes to use a word, until you're sufficiently high leveled.) There's also a difference between the "Noun" for, like, "forum goer" and "Burley."
    Learning new words takes time, money and skill checks (research checks and practicum). You then can use your Verb in conjunction with you Noun to make an effect happen.

    Here's the problem: Let's say you learned a Verb to light things on fire: Burn. Now, do you know the different words for Kobold, Goblin, Orc, Skeleton, Human, etc.? What about the difference between a person and a tree? If you know a specific person's Truename, can you affect them from any distance?

    Food for thought. It's a great idea and it looks like you have a lot of the brainstorming already done. (tl;dr)
    Check out a bunch of stuff I wrote for my campaign world of Oz.

    I am the Burley, formerly known as Burley Warlock. I got my name changed. Please remember me...

  9. - Top - End - #9
    Pixie in the Playground
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    Apr 2021

    Default Re: Nomenclative Magic

    Sounds like a interesting system but I am a little uncertain about a couple of points.

    1) Power consumption. In rule 5 you state that it is the same or more effort to do something with magic than it would to do something physically. While there are certain clear cut equivalents (i.e. moving a rock), what about less physical ones (ex. make fire hotter)? I bring this up as it would shape the uses of the magic. Using it to move heavy objects is silly as it would be more effort than not using magic. But if magic could be useful in forges as it eliminates the need for getting time consuming intermediate products like wood/charcoal/coal to get a fire hot enough to melt ores. This pushes magic into solving time consuming activities rather than effort consuming activities.

    2) The ability to change items. In rule 7 you state that you can use magic on an object to "...break it, or restore it" but later give an example of being unable to burn a leaf. At what point is something changed when magic is involved? Restoring something from a pile of separate parts is destroying the pile isn't it? You might want to consider a hierarchical rule of some sort: names for a group are stronger than the individual pieces. For example: House takes precedent over Nail so even though the nail is part of the house, magic wants to keep them together as a House and resists pulling out nails.

    3) How private is a person's true name? In Consequences and Extrapolations you mention surgeons use magic. This implies that they would have to Know the patient's true name. So how often does society expect to give out true names? The implication would be that would be whenever you wanted magic performed upon you. But once it is given out, ANY magic will now work on you by that person. That would result in certain professions having a great deal of power and a great deal of trust/fear around them. Would you go to the doctor unless you were CERTAIN you were going to die? They could tell your name to anyone. Do you sign contracts with your true name? It would be a pretty binding contract if you did as either side could work magic against the other.

    4) Do inanimate objects have true names? If casting a spell on Brick, how is magic to know which brick is being meant? Why I bring this up is with your rule 3a (the more specific the easier), it could result in magicians having a personal token to aid magic. It is easier to use magic on the token and have secondary effects naturally occur. Example I toss my token rock into the dry leaves and make the token turn red hot. I am not using magic on the leaves (and violating rule 7) but they go up in flames anyways.

    5) Is there a line of sight or distance restriction? The implication is no. This could allow for a lot of fine detail uses of magic. Magic could wind a gear within a sealed watch. So some complex devices could be built, sealed up, and only those that knew how they were originally put together could properly use them. A bank vault door would require a huge amount of effort to tear apart from the wall but to move a small gear within it would be trivial.

    Again I like the concept. It sounds like this could really lead to some interesting places. If you are interested in some reading suggestions:
    Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick has an interesting plot points on True Names used in magic and society. Master of Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy has some interesting ideas on how magic and inanimate objects interact.

  10. - Top - End - #10
    Ettin in the Playground

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    Jan 2009

    Default Re: Nomenclative Magic

    Oh, wow. Some discussion has started up! Cool. I've gotten kinda busy real life, so might not have time to respond fully, but glad to read it.

    Quote Originally Posted by KragBrightscale View Post
    What if true names are not so much given, as they are discovered? Maybe bestowed by the divine entity that blesses one’s coming of age ceremony? And all names used in regular conversation are just nicknames given by ones parents. Does your true names grant you power dependent on their meaning or if historical figures had the same name?
    I really like this idea. It goes against the idea of Nameless existing, though maybe that simplifies some things. (Well, it definitely simplifies things, but maybe it's for the best.) Especially if tie it in with something like "you generally figure out your name around age 4-7" or something like that, or around 10-15 if want to line it up with physical development.

    Someone has a Name, but it's unknown, so they can be targeted but not perfectly, and they can't do magic themselves. Once they learn their Name, they now have the informational aspect needed to Connect themself to other things.
    Eh, kinda doing rambling thoughts in the above, but I like this idea.

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