Magic Circle
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Basic Information

A magic circle1 is a pattern marked on the floor of a ritual space which is intended to provide some benefit during a magical working.

The most famous use of magic circles is their application as a form of ward magic to protect the worker during an invocation. It's worth noting however, that the media (and fRPG) image of how these are used is very much at odds with the "real world" application of these things. In the media version, the power that is invoked appears inside the circle and is (at least in theory) contained there whilst the invoker negotiates with it. This is, obviously, preferable to the historical application, whereby the invoker is inside the circle, using it for protection as the invoked power comes and goes as it chooses. A lot depends on where the invoked power is coming from and whether it can come under its own power or not - if you have to pull it in from another dimension, then there's an argument for it being possible to pull it into somewhere where it can be contained. If it can come under its own power, then trying to trap it in a circle is much riskier … and will probably lead to it appearing outside the circle to object. In either case, breaking the circle voids the protection - and in some cases breaking the circle can be as simple as laying a straw across the design. Sometimes the circle will snap back up once an obstruction is removed, sometimes you need to go through the whole enchantment process over again. In all cases the Charles Dexter-Ward Principle should be scrupulously observed2.

For a general rule concerning the breaking of circle barriers, consider that whatever is warded against cannot break the circle without first defeating the ward (and in fact, once the ward has been defeated the circle is likely only good for catching cats). This tends to make a ward-barrier like a wall - an absolute barrier unless you are strong enough to break through it (and even them you need to exert yourself to do so). However, anything that is not warded against can easily cross and break the circle. Therefore if a summoner, for example, captures and binds a demon within his binding circle, that demon cannot exert itself beyond that circle except within such limits as the summoner has imposed3 (and may not be able to leave) but if some random intruder happens to wander into the summoning room, they can wander freely in and out of the circle. Or at least wander in freely…4

Magic circles can also provide more general ward-barriers - against pretty much anything you can ward against, including bad weather. Obviously, the user is very much on the inside of these. Note that creating a circle to ward out material, living beings is not easy - spirits and other outsiders are more vulnerable to this sort of exclusion.

Ward magic aside, the circles can also be used to channel and direct mystical energies in almost any kind of workings, connecting ritual objects and drawing power from or feeding it into specific items. This can be a great benefit to a worker who would otherwise have to channel flows himself and effectively reduces the number of balls he has to juggle during the working.

The design of any given circle will normally be specific to the power being invoked, the force being warded against or the working being practiced. Some will require words of power or sacred geometry worked into them, others will function with simple lines - and depending on the working, there may be sectors of the circle marked out for specific purposes5, nodes to connect various ritual tools and … other things6. Candles, of various kinds, are popular additions. Technically the circle may not even need to be an actual circle - pentagrams and triangles and other pieces of geometry may also work - but a circle is traditionally a strong shape, without joints or weak spots.

Materials of construction may also vary. In general, the better the materials and the clearer the design, the better the circle works and, where possible, a design of circle that will be used a lot (or a generic "core" that can be easily modified into a range of similar circles) can be engraved, mosaicked or painted onto the floor7. This has the added benefit that the permanent part of the circle is much harder to erase. In some cases the circle may need to be traced with specific things - blood, powdered metal and ground insects are all examples - and in many cases these may militate against a permanent circle. However, the user should always remember that the circle is a tool, not a power in its own right - the worker makes the ward, not the circle8, and in the right hands a rough circle scribbled in chalk can be more effective than a master-crafted one operated by an amateur.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Figure out which way circles work in your rules. Tell players whose characters have the appropriate skills. Let the remainder guess.
    • Or at least tell knowledgeable PCs the current state of opinion on the matter… which may not be the same thing, but should be near enough if magic is common. If magic is rare, hidden lore - as, for example in the cthulhu mythos - "common knowledge" may turn out to be "dangerous nonsense".
  • Likewise, determine if it is possible to test a circle in advance … or if the user only finds out whether it works or not when the shit hits the fan.
  • If pre-laid, mastercrafted circles are a useful thing, then expect them to be a major feature of wizard's bases.
  • It may be possible to tell what a circle is for just by looking at it.
    • Bonus points if the PCs analyse it and find they are on the wrong side.
  • Someone stuck inside the "protective shelter" version is an interesting adventure hook.
  • As, in fact is something stuck inside the containment version.
  • If circles are involved in ward magic, the vulnerability to having the circle broken should be balanced somehow.
    • For example, a ward cast using a circle will be broken when the circle is broken… but it might only be broken that way, rather than being counterspelled or waited out.
      • Allowing the ward to stand without being consciously maintained by the caster once it has been bound to a circle (or other form of demarcation) would seem obvious.
  • In the Dresdenverse the circle is a core feature of any non-instant magic and has a variety of uses from defining a metaphysical area in which power can be collected during a spell to forming a barrier to exclude magical energy or spiritual beings. Almost anyone can use a magic circle with a bare minimum of training and properly deployed a circle can cur off the supply of supernatural power to the area inside it, as demonstrated during the Aquarium Battle or against Binder's goon squad…
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