Storybuilding: The Price of Power (Part 2)
Sep 30, 2021

An article from guest writer, Greg MarksIn the previous article we talked about determining the source of magical power, and some possible arcane gifts. Yet all power comes with a cost. Here we’ll be exploring the price of power, pact marks that visibly reflect the power received, and then an example of how these new rules come together.

The Price of Power

An expectant clawed hand being paid coins.

Artist: Suzanne Helmigh

Not every gift of power is granted in a clearly defined deal between two individuals. A creature might master the secrets of an ancient tome, ingest a piece of primordial matter, or look through a mirror to another dimension to gain eldritch inspiration. There are many ways to choose to gain power without another entity spelling out the cost.

While not all prices of power may have a place in your game, here is a list of possible costs that might be paid, each organized by the type of pact. As the GM you might pick the most appropriate to the benefit gained and the source of power, or you might work with the player to choose. While most sources of power will use only one type of pact, it is possible that you decide to use multiple.

Each gift of power has a specific price that must be paid every time the character wishes to invoke it. The damage or loss cannot be reduced or resisted if the price is to be paid. If the character becomes immune to the effects of a price of power, they may no longer use it to activate their gift. If the immunity is permanent, work with your GM to choose a different price of power. Prices of power are detrimental. If they are no longer detrimental to the character, they are no longer a suitable cost to pay.

 

 

Amina Pact

Magic drains away a persons power

Artist: Klaher Baklaher

An anima pact twists your soul, making you more and more like the source of your power. It is perhaps the most dangerous type of pact as its effects cannot be undone.

Alignment Shift.

To use a gift, you invoke your source to directly fill you with its power. This may have a lasting effect on your soul. One axis of your alignment shifts a step closer to that of your source until you complete a long rest. For example, a neutral good character using a gift of power granted by a devil (lawful evil) becomes either lawful good or neutral. Upon completing a long rest, you must succeed on a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or the change is permanent and cannot be voluntarily changed by the character. If your alignment permanently becomes that of your source, you may no longer pay this price of power with an alignment shift, and you must replace this price of power with another anima pact price of power. Increase the DC by +2 per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

Corruption.

If your GM is using the optional inspiration and corruption rules from Grim Hollow: The Players Guide, remove one die from the resolve pool (fey, primordial, or seraph sources) or add one die to the beast pool (daemon, eldritch horror, or undead sources). Increase the number of dice by 1 per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

Cursed.

The power source taints your soul and may cause you to become cursed (as per Grim Hollow: The Campaign Guide) with a curse appropriate to your source. You start at stage 0 and have no ill effects at first, other than feeling that you are cursed. Each time you use the gift of power, you must succeed on a DC 15 Charisma saving throw or increase the stage of the curse by 1. If you manage to remove the curse, you lose the gift of power. Increase the DC by +2 per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

 

Amino Pact

The weight of the amino pact weighs heavily on your mind. The more you use your gift of power, the more you threaten to shatter your psyche.

Altered Personality.

When you use your gift of power, your personality becomes altered by a command given by the source of your power. An efreeti might demand that you solve all your problems with a liberal application of fire while a seraph of mercy might forbid you from slaying sentient life, no matter the reason. You must succeed on a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw to ignore your source’s command. Increase the DC by +2 per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts. These commands are permanent, and you may take on additional commands each time you invoke your gift.

Madness.

Your mind is being twisted by exposure to the alien thoughts of your source. You gain a madness level which starts at 1 and can increase to 3. When you invoke your gift, you must attempt a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw. Increase the DC by +2 per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts. If you fail the saving throw, you experience a bout of short-term madness, and your madness level increases by 1. If you have 2 madness levels when you fail the saving throw, you experience a long-term madness, and your madness level increases to 3. If you have 3 madness levels when you fail the saving throw, you will experience an indefinite madness and your madness level resets to 1. If you have a madness level above 1, any time you succeed the saving throw you experience a bout of short-term madness. It is possible to have more than one madness of any level at a time. Madness acquired by paying your price of power cannot be removed.

Mental Drain.

When you invoke your gift of power, decrease your Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma (as appropriate for your source) by 2. You die if your score is reduced to 0. Otherwise, the reduction lasts until you finish a short or long rest. Increase the loss by 1 per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

 

Corpus Pact

The corpus pact drains away your life or weakens your body as you try to control the otherworldly power. Practitioners of a corpus pact sometimes quite literally die for power.

Bloodletting.
A Ritual Sacrifice for power

Artist: Andreia Ugrai

You must spill your own blood as part of invoking the gift of power. You take 2d6 + your proficiency bonus slashing damage as part of invoking your gift of power. Increase the damage by 1d6 + your proficiency bonus per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

Drain Life Force.

Through concentration and force of will, you use your life force to channel the gift of power. When you invoke your gift, roll a hit die + your Constitution modifier, and decrease your current and maximum hit points by the result. You die if your hit point maximum is reduced to 0. Otherwise, the reduction lasts until you finish a short or long rest. Increase the loss by 1 hit die + your Constitution modifier per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

Physical Drain.

When you invoke your gift of power, decrease your Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution (as appropriate for your source) by 2. You die if your score is reduced to 0. Otherwise, the reduction lasts until you finish a short or long rest. Increase the loss by 1 per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

 

Ritual Pact

While the costs of power from other pacts are swiftly paid, their effects are long lasting and can potentially kill the invoker. The use of a ritual pact trades safety for time and cost.

Body Modification.

To call upon your gift, you must complete an extensive ritual where you carve or tattoo arcane symbols into your flesh. The process takes 10 minutes, and you suffer 1 piercing or slashing damage. The scars or tattoos must be the size of a knuckle or larger and are permanent. Your gift activates immediately at the end of the ritual. Increase the damage by 1 hit point and the time by 10 minutes per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

Ceremony.
Woman consuming human blood in sacrifical ritual

Artist: Tijana Janković

To call upon your gift, you must complete a tiring ceremony of chanting, singing, or dancing that takes an hour to complete. Your gift activates immediately at the end of the ceremony. In addition, you must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw at the end of the ceremony or gain 1 level of exhaustion. Increase the DC by +2 and the hours required by 1 per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

Rare Sacrifice.

To activate your gift, you must sacrifice 100 gp worth of gold, rare herbs, or strange components (as appropriate to your source). Whether you burn, bury, or toss them into the sea, the ritual of sacrifice takes 1 minute, and your gift activates at the end of completing the sacrifice. Increase the value of the sacrifice required to 250/500/1000 gp per additional tier above 1 when using advanced gifts.

Design Notes:

If you want to run a low magic campaign that includes thematic elements about the corrupting nature of magic, consider requiring all magic using classes to choose one cost listed above that they must pay in order to use their magical class abilities. In this case they must pay the cost once per long rest, rather than each time they use an ability. Note that this gives a significant advantage to martial and skill focused classes and is not a choice that should be made without talking it over with your players.

 

Pact Marks

When a creature accepts magic into themselves, whether they appreciate the extent of the consequences or not, they develop an outward sign of the warping effect of the power they now wield. A creature with a gift of power gains a pact mark from one of the options below, depending on their source of power. The player might roll randomly, choose their pact mark, or create something similar. All these effects are cosmetic and provide no mechanical benefit or hindrance, though it might make interacting with your local inquisitors more difficult.

 

Daemon.
d6 Effect
1 Your skin turns red.
2 A crown of small horns sprouts from your head.
3 Razors grow out of your bones, occasionally piercing your skin.
4 Your teeth become pointed and resemble either fangs or needles.
5 You grow fur on your shoulders and the backs of your hands.
6 Your eyes become compound like an insect.


 
Eldritch Horror.
d6 Effect
1 Your bones become flimsy and bend more than they should.
2 Vestigial gills sprout from your neck.
3 Your hands or feet become webbed.
4 Your arms or legs are unnaturally long or short.
5 Nonfunctioning eyes grow on your torse. They move on their own.
6 One or more tentacles sprout from your back.


 
Fey.
d6 Effect
1 Colorful butterfly or starburst patterns develop on your skin.
2 Your blood is green.
3 Your eyes turn violet or emerald green.
4 Leaves sprout from your hair.
5 You have a musky, animal scent.
6 Your skin takes on a rough, bark-like texture.


 

Primordial.
d6 Effect
1 You can no longer digest solid food.
2 Static electricity gathers in your hands frequently shocking you or others.
3 Your hair constantly blows in an unseen breeze.
4 Your skin is unnaturally moist.
5 You smell of freshly turned earth.
6 Knobs of rock, ice, or burning crystal grow through your skin.


 
Seraph.
d6 Effect
1 Your skin takes on a metallic sheen.
2 The irises of your eyes disappear.
3 You exude a faint smell of cinnamon or other spices.
4 Feathers grow on your back in the pattern of wings.
5 Your voice takes on a strange musical quality that others find captivating.
6 You are completely hairless.


 
Undead.
d6 Effect
1 Patches of your skin start to rot.
2 You no longer cast a shadow.
3 You have no blood. Instead, a thick black ichor oozes through your body.
4 Your fingernails lengthen to unnatural points.
5 Your skin fades to transparency, allowing your wet muscles to become clearly visible underneath.
6 You smell faintly of death or rotted meat.

 

Design Notes:

If you wish to stress the dangerous corrupting effects of magic, a pact mark is a great way to add thematic flavor, even to the magic wielded as part of class abilities. A cleric of Zabriel might stop blinking and sleep with their eyes open. The hair of a fire sorcerer might turn the bright red of Lady Morakesh’s flames and their skin might be hot to the touch. These little bits of flavor have no mechanical effect on the characters but tie them tightly to the origins of their magic.

 

Zdenko, the Ghoul Lord of Ostoya

Ghoulish pact marks like fanged teeth

Artist: Suzanne Helmigh

A powerful ghoul-like undead creature in the City Below, Zdenko offers a piece of his flesh to those who seek his generosity. Those willing to consume a fragment of the creature gain access to his power at a deep cost; slowly their body starts to look more and more ghoul-like.

Source of Power. Undead

Pact Mark. Your teeth become the pointed fangs of a carnivore.

Gifts of Power. Eyes of the moon, natural attack (claws), resolve (self)

Costs of Power. Eyes of the moon (rare sacrifice: must consume the rotted meat of sentient humanoid), natural attack (drain lifeforce), resolve (physical drain: Constitution).

The Ghoul Lord of Ostoya was once a necromancer, but as his power grew, he took on ghoulish aspects and eventually transformed into a unique undead creature that seeks to similarly corrupt others. Characters that bind themselves to the Ghoul Lord gain the power to invoke abilities similar to a ghoul, but at the same time, slowly drain their life away from themselves.

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