Taboo based magic

I was rereading some Tim Powers and thinking about the game Perfect (by Joe McDonald). And naturally I want to mash them together.

See, in Tim Powers novels, all these characters have weird rules that they have to follow. Solomon Shadroe can only eat cinnamon flavored candy and has to sleep on a houseboat. Loretta deLarava can’t wear buttons and so wears only velcro fasteners. Lots of characters in his novels have arcane rules like these, which are related in some way to their magical schemes and arcane dealings. Creating weird rules like that for themselves lets the characters catch and bind ghosts or channel the power of Tarot archetypes or whatever.

Now, Perfect is a steampunk dystopia game. Life is terrible and stifling, and in particular the government requires citizens to take on some number of “Freedoms”. Freedoms aren’t really free. They’re more like gaining one luxury or basic right in exchange for giving up some other basic right. Often the deal is one sided: you can’t be questioned by the Inspectors, but in exchange you can never talk. Or your home cannot be searched by the Inspectors, but in exchange, you are never allowed to let anyone else in your home.

Thinking about these, I want to make a game where the magic system is based on taboos. Your shaman can choose X number of magical abilities (the ability to speak the language of birds, the ability to be unseen by the guilty, to transform stone into glass). But the shaman has to take X number of taboos as well (cannot lie, cannot cross running water, cannot cause harm to a living being). Some taboos might be requirements instead of prohibitions (“Must sacrifice a virgin to your dark god to power your spells” “Must kill any cats you meet”).

Possible hacks to the idea:

-Fulfilling your taboo could actually power your magical abilities. Like, when you encounter situations where the taboo is relevant, you gain magic points, which can be spent on casting spells. This makes taboo/spell pairs something like Fate Aspects.

-The magical abilities are and the taboos are ranked similarly, so that you have to take a Moderate taboo in order to gain a Moderate magical ability. Or you can take a Minor taboo for a lesser ability.

-The taboos are more/less restrictive or onerous to fit the game’s genre. In a high fantasy setting, taboos should be minor flavor restrictions. In a horror or low magic game, the taboos might be very costly indeed.

-In some games you may be unable to break the taboo at all (the taboos are a form of geas). In others, you might be able to break the taboo, but the price could be high. Permanent loss, putting you worse off than if you ever had the spell in the first place. Possibly fatal, especially in a horror game. Breaking taboo=death can give some interesting dramatic situations. In what situations would breaking taboo and dying be worth it? Can we engineer such a situation?

-The taboos might be associated with specific abilities (like Perfect’s Freedoms), or there might be generalized list of taboos and abilities that you mix and match. Or possibly the players create their own taboos and/or abilities.

-Taboos could serve different purposes in different games. You might use taboos like the Oaths in Durance (by Jason Morningstar). They’re interesting restrictions that we as players/audience want to see complicate a character’s life. We push at the characters, hoping to see if we can force one into a situation where they break their taboo. In other games, they might be pure flavor or a strategic complication or a tool for your enemies to catch you in a trap. Different goals would mean tweaking the system different ways.

-Some classes or options might have more power for fewer taboos. Perhaps the Shaman playbook takes Moderate taboos but gets Severe powers out of it. Or the Warrior can multiclass and take a taboo, but they get a worse deal: they take a Moderate taboo but only get a Minor power. Or you can spend a feat or whatever to take one fewer taboo than you would have normally.

-Or a feat or something that lets you break taboos once per day/week/year/ever. Perhaps breaking taboo comes with a risk: “When you break a taboo, roll +Sly. On a 10+ the spirits let you get away with it like nothing happened. On a 7-9, the spirits don’t interfere, but they took notice of your transgression. The GM holds 3 and can spend those 1 for 1 to give you a -1 on any magic power rolls. On a 6 or less, the spirits are particularly angry with you…” etc.

-Taboos and spells could be more mechanized (“Moderate spells do 2d6+Cha damage…”, “When your taboo applies, you take a -5 to all applicable rolls…”) or these abilities could be mostly narrative/totally successful (something like More Than human/Less Than human in My Life With Master, spells and taboos could let you circumvent the standard system’s uncertainties.)

Come to think of it, I’m writing a horror game that might benefit from a weird, narrative-y magic system. This might work just fine there.

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