RETROSPECTIVE: The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

Monday , 27, October 2014 8 Comments

Ursala K. Le Guinn called this book “authentic fantasy.” Lin Carter said it was “absolutely first class.” Quite simply, though, this book is just downright fun. The dialog of the two main magicians featured in the story is loaded with anachronisms. Every scene practically boils over with vivid details. And the action is varied and exciting. This is not ponderous epic fantasy; it’s an engaging read that is extremely difficult to put down. It’s almost a shame that it’s so short– less than 180 pages with quite a few illustrations. But it’s loaded with charm, it doesn’t waste your time– and it provides one of the best close-up looks you’ll find of freewheeling wizardy anywhere in the Appendix N reading list.

The opening hook involves a tome of magic fraught with secrets and danger. The two protagonists, Prospero and Roger Bacon, discover what all is afoot through a a few odd journal entries:

February 18: I stayed up all night, and toward morning, when the letters were twisting  and squirming before my eyes, I found that the first two lines made sense. Laudate Dominum! All that is required, it seems, is concentration. It seems to be the beginning of an incantation of some sort….

March 14:  At first I was horribly disappointed. I chanted the words but nothing happened. However, I soon came to see that one has to want something specific to happen. I decided that the best thing would be to close my eyes and see what image formed. I saw many things, but one picture kept recurring: the snowy field outside my window, and in the middle of it one gray wolf…. I chanted the words again and went to my window. It was ten o’clock at night, a three-quarters-full moon was in the sky, and in the snow I saw a wolf staring up at me. In that instant I realized that I had made him.

This seems to be a rather big to-do for something as familiar as a Summon Wolf spell. In Steve Jackson’s classic MicroGame Wizard this was one of the easier spells, amounting to an inexpensive way to get an additional figure on the tactical map to fight along side you. But here we have an ordinary monk with no particular training in magic spending weeks upon weeks to decipher the formula, growing every more haggard in the process, taking on new quirks and disadvantages, and possibly even undergoing an alignment change in the process. There’s much more to this than a simple conjuring trick!

 March 17: More success with the control of the wolf. I have translated three whole paragraphs now. The intense study is affecting my nerves. I constantly think that something is plucking at my sleeves. When I turn around, there is no one there….

April 7: It seems that the next paragraph is not an incantation at all, but a set of directives. Prerequisites for further action. I cannot believe that such demands need to be met, so I will simply continue to the next spell….

[Later….] I spoke the words I have learned, and suddenly the whole room began to waver and drift like smoke. I felt as if I could put my hand through the table and the walls. I saw everything as through murky water. The floor pitched like a deck, but with difficulty I got to the window. The wolf was out there on the grass, closer than before, but beside him was a man in a monk’s robe. The cowl was thrown back, but I could not see his features through the shimmering air. Then his face grew impossibly large and came near, and I saw that it was mine– my face as it might be after a year in the grave. A voice, a dry insect voice, harsh and cracked, whispered, “Give me the book.”

This is good stuff. The magic here is mysterious and dangerous. It’s creepy… and yet this hapless monk can’t seem to stop himself. He refuses to take the proper precautions and ends up in sort of a cross between The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and The Twilight Zone. But this is only the beginning.

Our two heroes have to sort all of this out, of course. In contrast to this monk’s handiwork, their magic is quite a bit more tongue in cheek. They use a nonsense rhyme to shrink themselves down so that they can ride on a miniature replica of the British man-o-war Actaeon. They fire off all the guns on the ship at once with a spell consisting of “the Celtic word for Greek fire couched between two old Dutch swear words.” One of them destroys a bridge by yelling at it and then creating a whirlwind by throwing a bunch of tarot cards into the air. The other turns first a tomato and then a squash into a carriage by reciting a bit of nonsense. (For the record, the tomato carriage did not turn our so well.) As if recapitulating Cinderella wasn’t enough, the author later on takes a page from Jack in the Beanstalk by having a monk send them over a wall by enchanting a Creeping Charlie to wrap itself around them and then growing them to the other side.

In contrast to this hijinks, removing a curse is serious business. The scene pictured on the cover is of a grave in the midst of a haunted forest. The inscription on the tombstone is this:

Under this stone we have placed the burnt body of Melichus the sorcerer. He did great wrong. May his soul lie here under this stone with his body and trouble us not.

This is quite a terrible thing to Prospero and he sets about to undo it with an elaborate ritual:

He took out a pair of brown beeswax candles and lit them, placing them a few feet apart on the carved stone. Between these he opened his large book to the place he had marked the night before. Then he went to the bag again and took out a square glass jar full of saffron-colored chalk powder. Going back to the book occasionally to check the words, he sprinkled the chalk in two concentric circles around himself and the stone, all the while whispering verses. Sometimes he would speak a word aloud, and then stop to listen before going on. In the space between the two circles, with the same yellow powder, he made signs: Hebrew letters, zodiac symbols, old complicated figures that every magician knew. One wide empty space was left, and in it he slowly wrote “Melichus.” First he traced the letters in the dirt with his finger, then he poured in the chalk. He got up, took a compass from his pocket, and sprinkled water from a metal jar to the north, the south, the east, and the west.

All of this was required in order for this mage to give a command to the dead to come forth. It’s all very evocative, of course… and it makes for a good read, but you don’t see this sort of thing turn up in tabletop games very often. Oh, there are perennial complaints about the lack of “realism” in Vancian magic. There’re numerous demands that magic be made more… well, magical. While innovative games like Ars Magica were designed from the ground up in order to address these sorts of issues, very few of the modifications to classic D&D in this vein ever seem to stick.

Consider the addition of material components in AD&D. To cast Comprehend Languages, a magic-user has to have a few grains of salt. Enlarge requires a pinch of powdered iron. Feather Fall requires a piece of down. Friends requires the mage to apply chalk, lampblack, and vermilion to his face before casting it. And so on. Most of these are lightweight and common enough that they wouldn’t require much in the way of bookkeeping to keep track of them. In fact, the magic-users robes become a bit more quirky as a result of these rules: “material components for spells are assumed to be kept in little pockets, stored in the folds and small pockets of the spell caster’s garb.”

This, however, does not do much to inject a sense of wonder and exuberance into the game’s magic. Indeed, this is almost painfully drab and mundane. A more pure Jack Vance type approach at least implies an alien culture and science that functions according to its own internal logic. These pinches of this and powders of that do little more in invoke medieval hucksters and charlatans vainly trying to turn lead into gold. And while there might be occasions where the lack of a certain ingredient could create an interesting problem for players to work around or perhaps an amusing situation, I can’t imagine the average group of role players wanting to regularly deal with the sort hassles that would arise from a magic-user somehow losing just about everything except his precious spellbooks.

That said, there are more than a few cases where spell components do add something more significant to the overall gameplay. In the case of the second level cleric spell Spiritual Hammer, the cleric must have an actual warhammer on hand to cast it. Given that the warhammer disappears after the spell is complete, this is a pretty severe limitation on a cleric’s ability to make use of it. For short excursions within a day’s journey from town, the expense of the warhammer is a minor annoyance, the weight of the hammer is enough to matter in encumbrance calculations, and the need for hauling around more than one backup weapon becomes something that has to be taken into account. For a journey of several weeks through a wilderness region, however, the use of this spell can rapidly cease to be an option!

The first level magic-user spell Identify is another good example. The spell components are expensive, costing a whopping one hundred gold per casting. The option of increasing the effectiveness of the spell by crushing up a relatively valuable luckstone and adding it to the brew is intriguing even if it is unlikely to ever actually be done. Thus, the addition of spell components in AD&D is mostly about opening up new ways to balance the various spells against each other. As far as chrome goes, it does very little to add to the overall atmosphere and the sense of awe that magic should inspire. Indeed, at low levels of play and in typical adventure scenarios, the game is often boils down to the players coordinating a team of misfits and rivals so that they can get into a position where they can extract a maximum value from the use of a insanely small number of Sleep and Charm Person spells. It might be insanely fun, but it’s far from spirit of characters like Prospero and Roger Bacon.

This tendency of players to only use a handful of the most effective spells no doubt played a part in Gary Gygax’s revision of the rules in the Greyhawk supplement which was incorporated into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Not only does he introduce additional variation into magic user characters by requiring them to roll for their “chance to know” based on their intelligence, but they also start the game with only Read Magic, a random offensive spell, a random defensive spell, and a random utility spell. This left the players in a position where they would have to really apply themselves if they were going to have access to anything remotely like the full spell list:

…the ramifications of spell scarcity are bound to aid your campaign, and not only with regard to excess treasure and magic items. A scroll of but a single spell becomes highly meaningful to the magic-users in the game, especially when it is of a spell heretofore unknown. The acquisition of a book of spells from someplace in the dungeons or wildernesses of the campaign is a benison beyond price! PC and NPC alike will take great pains to guard scrolls and spell books. Magic-users will haunt dusty libraries and peruse musty tomes in the hopes of gleaning but a single incantation to add to their store of magic. (Dungeon Masters Guide, page 39)

People that came to the game via one of the popular Basic Sets released over the years were unlikely to think in such terms. Even hard core adherents to the AD&D system were unlikely to be aware of this facet of the game: their dungeon masters may have been running the a Basic or OD&D style game with only the more immediately understandable new rules appropriated into the mix. These instructions on spell scarcity were tucked away in an odd corner of the Dungeon Masters Guide and players would not have been aware of them unless their DM specifically enforced them!¹

Back in the early days of role-playing it was often considered bad form for the players to ever look in the DM’s books.² Of course, many groups would often take the opposite tack and consult the Monster Manual during the middle of a fight in order to fine tune their tactics. Players naturally want to master the game and make informed decisions; concise, playable magic rules that the players can completely understand is something that’s nearly inevitable in a tabletop game. Not that it isn’t impossible to run a game where the players never actually see the rules³, but it’s not something that happens very often. This sort of mechanical reliability is often antithetical to “real” magic… but that’s the price for having a playable game.

The ideal place then to create more mysterious and frightening forms of magic is not in the rules that govern the players, but in the adventure situations that emerge from the actions of non-player characters. Bad things can happen to those guys without violating the players’ sense of fairness. Critical spell failures that you’d never think to dole out to an acquaintance of yours at the tabletop can be unleashed with impunity upon random simpletons and fools. These guys thus become not only cautionary tales, but also clues for the players as to how best to approach whatever malevolent forces there are that have been unwittingly turned loose. Finally, truly despicable sorcerers, corrupted with the knowledge of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know can toy with spells and rituals that could never be fully articulated in a rule set. The only real limitation from a game design standpoint is that the resulting situation must be something to which the talents of a group of bold and greedy adventurers are relevant.

Rules are primarily there to govern the players and their avatars within the game world. Adventure designers, however, should feel free to indulge in exploring the possibilities that lie far outside their scope. Still, even without getting fancy, just keeping magic scarce can go a long way toward bringing a sense of awe back into the mix.

¹ The implications of these rules were not lost on the designers of Infocom’s Enchanter series, however.

² In Paranoia, even saying something that indicates you know what’s in the referee’s material is grounds for the execution of a clone.

³ See Rick Stump’s Making Magic Amazing Without Touching Mechanics for details on that.


  • Thomas says:

    Great book.

  • Daniel says:

    I still consider it bad form for players to consult the rulebooks during play. Even when NFL coaches throw the red flag to make one of their (extremely limited) challenges to the referee, they don’t whip out a pocket edition of the rules.

    It is the referee’s job to know the rules, and the referee’s responsibility to enforce them within his judgment. Players have a role to play, after all – that of players.

    Paranoia was so doggone fun, it is hard to believe I haven’t played it more than 25 years now. I don’t remember if it was someone questioning the rules of the game or questioning some rules of The Computer, but I remember a hilarious TPK within the first 10 minutes of a game that involved three homicides (two on one six-pack), an accident and a suicide, all in an attempt to keep The Computer from executing everyone for insubordination. With the regenerated 2nd (and one 3rd) wave guys, The Computer very justifiably sentenced the new clones to death, as justice had been thwarted by their predecessors. Whoops.

    But yeah. Play – don’t consult the rulebooks – and make sure you have a trustworthy ref. Unless your magic-user has a prop spell book that actually works…consultation is for wargames only.

  • Ostar says:

    Is this the book that has that scene in the inn where the innkeeper wants the protagonist to “go to sleep”?
    That scared me more as a kid than most horror books I’ve ever read.

  • Todd S. says:

    It’s been sitting on my TBR list for awhile now. May have to move it up toward the top.

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