Spooky action at a distance

Magic, Industry & Revolution

You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.

― Ursula K. Le Guin

My home campaign is set during the industrial revolution, but with elves and orcs and magic. Player characters have witnessed social injustice, and are in the process of establishing a resistance movement against the empire. This is a post about how I plan on running revolutionary actions. But first, few key points about the setting.

  • Technology and magic are at each others throats. Technology requires functioning laws of physics, magic breaks them. Magic is therefore prohibited on trains and in industrial towns. Wizards are outcast, performing cheap tricks in open fields.
  • Tech is advancing faster than the world can adapt. Technology has the ability to replace any spell, and doesn’t require as much training or ingredients. But nobody has stopped to ask if a cheap, commercially available necromancy machine was such a good idea.
  • Magic wants to keep up, leading to the world’s doom. Wizards are finding more and more ways to optimise and improve their spellcasting to compete with tech. They have created incantations that have the power to annihilate cities, or even destroy reality itself. In the hands of clueless industrialists, these spells will bring the end.
  • Capital is a deity. And not in a metaphorical sense. It has will (accumulate wealth) and the ability to possess. Helpless nobles (fearing economic ruin) are forced to listen to the whispers of capital-priests.

Revolution is an infinitely complex thing to model. Any version of it for game purposes will be missing out on something. As a referee I adapt, revise and make thing up constantly, but I always try and keep to a foundational structure. I’ve organised my thoughts into a list so you can follow along.


Before characters can perform any revolutionary actions, they need to organise.

  • Agenda. Goals and execution of a social program. The clearer and more precise it is, the less the chance of a schism, but it will be harder to forge alliances with other factions.
  • Headquarter location. A secure, but easily accessible place to meet and conduct planning sessions. Must have themeans to be expanded later.
  • Member recruitment. A way to find, educate and invite new members. Where will the recruiting take place? How do you hide it from governments eyes? Key non player characters can be introduced here.
  • Basic needs met. The org will need some way to feed, clothe and shelter its members, independently from the government.

Once the points above are covered, organised actions can be taken. They will depend greatly on context, but some basic ones include protests, riots, strikes, debates, printed media distribution. Also do not forget about improving the organisation itself: covering more needs, opening new headquarters, securing alliances.

Schisms, Disasters and Retaliation

As the organisation grows, negative events become more and more likely to strike. I divide them into three groups.

  • Schisms are internal events: disagreements about the agenda or actions taken, failure to meet basic needs or respond to calls for aid. Their frequency increases as member count grows.
  • Disasters are external events unrelated to organisation actions, but which still impact decision making: a bad harvest, snow storm, new law passed. These are better when used sparingly.
  • Retaliation is the way enemy factions respond to organisation actions: they might send assassins, increase police presence, declare an embargo between cities. The more actions the organisation makes, the more likely the factions are to retaliate.

Getting Help

Some factions may be aligned with your organisation’s goals. Securing these allies can be the focus of mid to late campaign, as the factions propose quests to complete. Here are some faction examples.

  • The Mage Guilds. Collective of wizarding schools and magic ingredient shop owners. Interested in compensation of harm caused by industrialisation and restoring their once powerful status.

  • The Rural Network. Peasants struggling to produce enough harvest from poisoned lands. They seek to own their farmland and pay lowered taxes.

  • The Council of the Caves. A community of socialist dwarves, who are for the most part isolationist. However you will have immense resources on your side if you can ward the mountains from Imperial mining companies.

Sidenote: What About Dungeons?

Exploring fantastical locations can be a key part of a campaign, so here are some possible themes:

  • Manufactories. With the goal of extracting valuable tech or just sabotaging the machines. Automatons and industrial hazards are the obvious dangers here.
  • Museums. Return stolen artefacts and ancient texts from deep vaults.
  • Royal palaces. Can be cleared out of monstrous nobles for public use.

Which aspects of magical industrial society should I cover next?

Published on November 25, 2022.

Tagged: osr   setting   downtime  


Spooky action at a distance is a blog run by emmy verte, to muse on sci-fi, fantasy location exploration and short fiction. You can donate to support Ukraine here.