Of Morte and other Floating Skulls…

Morte: a Former Skull of Abaddon?

The floating skull as a motif for a talisman, familiar, opponent or companion has become a common enough trope in fantasy – think of the likes of the bawdy Morte in Planescape: Torment, the Skulls of Skullport in the Forgotten Realms setting, the Servo-Skulls of Warhammer 40K and even the now terribly pixellated flaming Lost Souls of the original Doom videogame to name a few examples. None may seem particularly suitable for the Order of Hermes, but as far back as ArM2 Covenants, the necromancer Abaddon ex Tytalus was assisted by a mob of skulls that acted as his eyes, ears and mouthpieces throughout the ruined covenant of Val-Negra and a floating version seems feasible…

Size, Shape & Material Considerations

According to ArM5 p97, a skull is a Medium sized object for an enchantment, providing a x3 multiplier and the natural bone has 3 base points, whereas base metals such as iron, copper and lead have 5 base points. Other “base metals” may include brass, bronze, electrum, pewter or even steel alloys – after all “brazen heads” are common enough in Medieval literature and stories.  This effectively multiplies out to 9 or 15 and therefore sets the requirement for 9 or 15 pawns of Vim vis to open the object to Hermetic Investment and limits the effects able to be placed in the device to 90 and 150 levels respectively. Similar formulae are used for various non-Hermetic enchanting methods.

For a more powerful device, either crafting the skull completely of silver (6 base points) or gold (10 base points) can be used to provide higher capacity for spell like effects eg. 180 or 300 levels at the significantly costly increased Vim vis investment likely to be beyond even the most capable Verditius magus with significant Craft and Magic Theory scores. Wood with 2 base points, provides little capacity at 6 but the different types of wood may have significant material bonuses suitable for various effects.

Skulls. What are they Good for Anyway?

According to the near complete combined Shape & Material bonuses PDF on the Atlas website lovingly maintained by Erik Tyrrell, a human skull has the following Shape bonuses:

  • destroy human body +4
  • destroy human mind +5
  • destroy or control ghosts +5
  • destroy or control ghost of particular skull +10

For a natural skull, human bone gives a +3 bonus to destroy human mind and a +4 bonus to destroy human body, but the same table arranged by bonus is useful for determining the potential benefits of the use of different base materials or additional fixtures (jewelled eyes, gold plating, copper springs, sigil inked parchment etc) for mechanic or thematic purposes. So in keeping consistent with the basic theme from the Shape bonuses above, lead as a base material provides the following potential Material bonuses:

  • hatred +3
  • summon or bind ghosts / spirits +3
  • wards +4

For most formulae, Magic Theory or a similar secondary Ability limits the total bonus possible, although various Verditius and other Mystery Virtues can increase or modify this limit.

So although useful for necromancy, in this context the default or common shape and material bonuses provide little benefit for the “floating talking skull” concept without the incorporation of more bespoke components…

Instilled Effect: Flight 

The first thematic effect is that of flight or floating movement. It’s arguable which of the two Rego Corpus base guidelines from ArM5 page 134 applies if the skull is created as a Magic Thing or can otherwise trigger the effect on itself such as in the case of a Talisman.

  • Level 4: Move a target slowly in any direction you please.
    Move a target slowly straight up, or in one direction over surfaces that
    cannot support it.
  • Level 5: Hold a target’s body motionless.
    Move a target slowly in any direction you please, even if the target is unsupported.

The following effects may be applicable:

The Floating Skull; 0 points, Init (Qik -2), Corpus; R: Per, D: Sun, T: Ind
The skull can float in the air and move slowly in any direction simply by concentrating. If distracted the skull still remains floating but while floating, it cannot support more than 50 pounds additional weight. ReCo 15 (base 4, +2 Sun, +1 constant, +0 size): Personal Power (15 levels, -2 Might cost)

Technically this effect would also suit floating heads, and animal versions of these above powers for non-human skulls are simple enough using the same base effect although technically need to be designed specifically. According to the Rego Terram guidelines in ArM5, page 155, technically moving a skull of stone is similarly a base level 4 effect, whereas a metal or gemstone skull is a base level 5 effect, resulting in potentially minor changes to the final instilled effect for the latter materials.

The Flying Head; 0 points, Init (Qik -2), Corpus; R: Per, D: Sun, T: Ind
The metal skull or brazen head can float in the air and move slowly in any direction simply by concentrating. If distracted the skull still remains floating but while floating, it cannot support more than 50 pounds additional weight. ReCo 15 (base 5, +2 Sun): Personal Power (15 levels, -2 Might cost).

A floating skull capable of supporting the weight of a human sized creature however would required a variant or similar effect to “The Woolen Cloud” power of Amiculum, the Awakened Magic Cloak from RoP:M, page 130-132:

The Floating Servant; 0 points, (Qik -6), Corpus; R: Per, D: Conc, T: Ind
For the duration, the skull can float upon the air and move slowly in any direction. While floating, it can support the weight of up to two human beings provided they are able to harness or attach themselves to the skull.
ReAn(Co) 15 (base 5, +1 Conc, +1 size): Lesser Power (15 levels, –2 Might cost)

Design Note: the first effect is based on “Flight of the Hummingbird” from RoP:M, page 38 which appears to assume that the Level 4 guideline is applicable, whereas the stronger example effect derived from Animiculum is based on the Level 5 guideline. The Terram guidelines are similar and accounting for a magnitude of variation, the spells are similar enough in practice due to their zero Might cost, although technically the first effect for bone skulls automatically renews whereas the effect designed for metal skulls must be activated. 

Instilled Effect: Speech

Replicating the effect of a skull speaking is essentially a modification of the Creo Imaginem spell Phantasm of the Talking Head, but with Personal range so base Level 4.

The Chattering Skull; 0 points, (Qik -2), Imaginem; R: Per, D: Sun, T: Ind
The skull can converse with human speech, although this is an illusion that affects two senses – the component parts or jaw sculpturing do not actually move.
CrIm 5 (base 2, +2 Sun, +1 constant, +1 intelligible speech): Personal Power (5 levels, -1 Might cost, 2 remaining intricacy points)

Design Note: by comparison for a familiar on page 105 of ArM5, giving an animal the ability to form human speech is Muto Animal, with a base level of 5 (a minor change that makes the animal unnatural). 

Optional Instilled Effect: Flaming

The following illusory effect is for show and impressing susceptible mundanes. Unfortunately it also is very clearly magic and may provoke accusations of Infernal patronage if used in front of a crowd of mundanes… as if a floating, talking skull wasn’t cause enough for accusations of devilry come to think of it:

Wreath of False Flames; 0 points, Init (Qik -2), Imaginem (Ignem); R: Per, D: Sun, T: Ind
Cloaks the skull constantly in a mane of fire that dances, illuminates, crackles, and (apparently) warms. It does not burn or protect against cold and is only a cosmetic effect.
CrIm(Ig) 10 (base 3, +2 Sun, constant, +1 for light from Ignem requisite); Personal Power (15 levels, -2 Might cost)

This cosmetic effect could be combined with an instilled effect similar to Fearful Flaming Eyes” (RoP:F, page 48), potentially paralysing the target with fear.

An effect that produced real flames would require a CrIg spell similar to “Coat of Flame” ArM5 page 140based on the level 5 guideline “create a fire doing +5 damage in an unnatural shape, such as in a ring or sheet, or covering an item”, but with R: Per and D: Conc. This effect would technically inflict +5 fire damage to the skull per round so would require an additional warding against fire effect or Major Virtue to protect the skull against the flames, such as Greater Immunity: Fire.

 Mechanica of Heron: the Anima Skull variant

In Chapter Six of Ancient Magic, pages 77-78, details are given of creating simple mechanica capable of simulating any single Creo, Rego, Perdo and Muto effect on Auram, Aquam, Ignem, Mentem or Terram. Their intelligent counterparts are created by awakening their anima, providing a sentient being that can create multiple effects and is capable of learning Abilities, including Languages.

Stylistic aspects aside, a mechanica skull fits the whole mimir / Morte as living library trope well, as invested devices and talismans are not normally capable of learning Abilities. A floating talking skull with considerable (Area), (Organisation) and/or (Realm) Lores makes for a more interesting source of XP at the very least.  It is unclear whether this excludes Supernatural Abilities as these typically require a corresponding Virtue, but creative adaption of the Mystery Initiation mechanics or through other non-Hermetic magic such as Lesser Craft Magic (see Rival Magic, pages 11-12) or similar. Employment of other spell like powers through the use of unique simple mechanica that can “modify” the anima may provide an interesting avenue to explain such development and even provide additional effects through the use of these simpler devices as extensions or carried as tools.

Technically, in the RAW, the anima needs to be a simulacrum of a living creature and not a body part, although there is *no* limitation on the anima being an animal despite the numerous examples given. So a human or fantastical creature form is possible like the famous Turk or a chimerae, but a floating disembodied skull is not unless the Storyguide allows a variant of the base Supernatural Ability through Mystery Initiation. More gruesomely, the simulacrum may be based on a intentionally stunted form or damaged after initial construction, providing a more “servo-skull” like appearance. As a creature of Magic Might, the decapitation of a simulacrum by a necromantically inclined mechanician may not disturb it’s functioning significantly, although may drastically limit its movement without the use of other spell like effects.

As opposed to Invested Devices, the Size and Material (plus either Artes Liberales or Philosophae) determines the anima’s Magic Might, still limits the number and level of effects that can be instilled but rather than determining the number of pawns of vis reflects the construction cost of materials in Mythic Pounds. As vis is not required, making this style of construct is appealing for low vis or predominantly hedge magic dominated Sagas.

By comparison, according to the rules for Magic Things in RoP:M, page 32, a skull designed as a Magic Thing given it has a base Size of -3 can have a maximum Magic Might score of only 10 regardless of material. A Mechanica skull made of bone however can only have a Magic Might of 9, but more elaborate  skulls fashioned from expensive materials  may have much higher starting Might scores.


Movement and speech are not inherent to a skull and must be imbued, although “the effect must be logical and the simulacrum capable of carrying it out”. While a humanoid anima could be imbued to walk but not fly by mechanical means without an additional variation or perhaps an advanced Mystery Virtue – a skull would therefore need an additional power from a different source or the use or even physical grafting of a simple mechanica that provided flight or perhaps spider leg based locomotion.

Speech is similarly unnatural but potentially logical for an unfleshed bone skull, but makes more sense for a finely crafted skull with additional components to provide the basis of the generation of a voice, similar to the classical example of Justinian’s Nightingale. The concept pushes the RAW significantly beyond the original intent of the author I suspect, but discussion with the Storyguide is suggested can determine how to realise this motif within any individual Saga.

Note: the original description of Mechanica of Heron describes it as a Supernatural Ability, but it would likely be classified as a “Difficult Art” using the later guidelines from Hedge Magic: Revised Edition  or Rival Magic and the totals could thus affected by relevant Hermetic Virtues and Magical Foci. Following the second Titanomachy / Ragnarok (see Dies Irae), the Mechanica of Heron Virtue would therefore increase as an Art, although a Mechanician would need to employ Entreat the Magic Powers Virtue similar to a Learned Magician (HMRE,  pages 81/82 and 87/88) or form a pact with a Magical entity such as a Daimon in order to link into the Golden Chain as a non-theurgical Gifted wizard.

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