Arcana Ritual Toolset




Have you ever wanted to perform a magic ritual?  To summon up forces from beyond the veil of our reality?  To stand upon a blasted heath at the witching hour, under a honey-colored sickle moon, and chant the barbarous names of evocation that will call eldritch forces beyond human ken?  If the answer is yes, then the Arcana Ritual Toolset is the software you’ve been looking for.

The Arcana Ritual Toolset is an open-source, extensible toolset for creating your own magic rituals.  The Arcana Ritual Toolset is like a game, but it is more than that.  It is a game engine, an SDK, a visual programming environment.

I like to think of it as the Minecraft of Magic Systems.  Instead of building worlds out of cubes, the player makes rituals out of cards.  These rituals can then be shared with players, who can perform the rituals in order to create the desired effects (or modify the rituals to create new ones, or create their own rituals from scratch).

I’m Jeff Howard, the author of Game Magic: A Designer’s Guide to Magic Systems in Theory and Practice, and Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University.  In this book, I put forth a vision of magic as something more and other than the typical game implementation of “magic as artillery,” in which players spam a key until their mana runs out, flinging fireballs to kill orcs.  Instead, I advocate magic as ritual, defined as the performance of symbolic actions intended to alter reality inside and outside, transforming the world and consciousness.  Rituals are performances, puzzles with multiple solutions, interactions that yield multimodal feedback to the senses of vision, hearing, and touch.

Table of Contents

Implementation Details (Underlying Programming)

Art Style

Narrative and Custom Rituals

Module I (Lovecraft), Ritual A: The King in Yellow Ritual Summons Hastur

The Arcana Story (Project Background)


Budget Data



Risks & Challenges



Visual Programming Language

 The toolset consists of a card-based visual programming language that allows you to implement the sophisticated, arcane logic governing your rituals without ever typing a line of code.

The cards belong to five suits: actions, artifacts, effects, logical relations, and nodes.  Each of these suits has its own symbol, including a hand for actions,  a chalice for artifacts, a lightning bolt for effects, an exclamation point for logical relations, and a pentagram for nodes.


The user places these cards within the two-dimensional map of a magician’s temple in order to express the logic of the ritual.  Press a button, and the ritual comes to life within a three-dimensional temple.

For example, this video shows a user building a ritual that burns a robe when the robe is placed on a particular location or “node” in the temple.

To explain further, suppose you want to create a ritual to summon Bloody Mary.

You would first choose the appropriate cards: an artifact card for the mirror, another artifact card for a flashlight, an action card for chant, an effect card for apparition, and a logical relation card for the if condition.

Then, you would assemble the cards to encapsulate the logic of the ritual: “if stand in front of mirror and chant ‘Bloody Mary’ three times, then apparition will appear in mirror.”



 Many other examples are possible, and the Arcana team has written several rituals in order to flesh out the details of the Toolset.   Later in this document, you will find a ritual to summon the King in Yellow (from the book by R.W. Chambers, alluded to in the TV show True Detective).


Implementation Details (Programming)

 Performative and expressive logic governs the performance of ritual, and this logic can be expressed programatically, through flowcharts and other means.

 At one level, a ritual can be described as a sequence of actions (e.g. first purify the temple with incense, then light the sacred candles, then place the inscribed parchment on the altar and chant).

But, on another level, a ritual is a set of patterns: some of them occurring sequentially in time, others distributed simultaneously in space; some stored as true-false states, others measurable as points along a spectrum.

 The central programming challenge of the Arcana Ritual toolset is to create a pattern recognition engine that can read and write these patterns to a savable file, which can be shared with other users and loaded.  The Arcana team has already taken the first steps toward solving this problem through a script that writes to and reads from a text file, allowing users to store and retrieve ritual data (such as candle configurations and tarot card placements).

 Further development of this concept is ultimately a problem of artificial intelligence, which can be approached through the concepts of state spaces, state machines, and state space searching.

 “State space search is a process used in the field of computer science, including artificial intelligence (AI), in which successive configurations or states of an instance are considered, with the goal of finding a goal state with a desired property.

Problems are often modeled as a state space, a set of states that a problem can be in. The set of states forms a graph where two states are connected if there is an operation that can be performed to transform the first state into the second.”

From <>

The Arcana team uses the concept of “ritual space” to refer to all possible configurations of the tokens in a ritual, modeled as a conceptual space with an arbitrary number of dimensions.

 Factors that affect a ritual include:

  • Time

  • Star alignment

  • Location (at a crossroads, on a blasted heath, in a protective circle)

  • Spatial configurations (arrangements of candles, items in the temple)

  • Incense

  • Color

  • Words chanted

  • Sounds, such as bells or ritual rhythms

To help spark your creativity, the toolset includes many cards with artifacts and effects from different traditions of magic, starting with seven: Life, Death, Sorcery, Arcane, Chaos, Tarot, and Blood. (The illustration below is by Giles Timms


These pre-made decks of cards feature gorgeous, atmospheric art in the style of Glyn Smith, Robert Gould, and Aubrey Beardsley.

Here is a of the sample cards and models that we’ve already produced.  Card art is by Greg Roling and Matt Nelles, while 3d models are by Matt Nelles and Daryl Bunker.




























Art Style

The art style for the 3d assets of Arcana is meant to be extremely low-polygon and retro.  Too often, developers are pressured into a  false choice between the stereotypically indie route of 2d art versus the perceived AAA option of elaborate high polygon assets with complicated shaders and normal maps.  In the Arcana Ritual Toolset, our team seeks to sail between these two extremes by deliberately emulating the best 3d art of 1995.  In other words, we are aiming for primitive, retro 3d art: the kind of assets that would have appeared in a vintage Playstation 1 game.  In keeping with this style, we are avoiding all bump maps, normal maps, and specular maps, with only minimal UVW mapping: little more than coloring for the polygons. The primary benefit of this style is to speed up our art pipeline, requiring fewer modelers working fewer hours in order to produce a greater volume of quality assets.  At the same time, this style has its own charm, exuding a Gothic, spooky, atmosphere like that of cult classic Playstation 1 games such as King’s Field and Tecmo’s Deception.

The artifacts in our toolset are primarily meant to be symbolic and communicative.  Like any ritual implement or artifact, they represent something symbolically, and the power of this symbol alters inward or outward reality.  Wands are will, and hourglasses are time.  It is not  important that these objects be realistic; only that they be communicative and atmospheric.  Our toolset will give users the modular building pieces, the arcane “legos” by which they can construct their own interactive three-dimensional ritual collages.



















The toolset also includes fully functional code to implement the ritual logic, and detailed 3d models to help your ritual come to life. Of course, you can also import your own cards, models, and code.  The open-source nature of Arcana allows it to be modular and customizable.  Our intention, though, is to give users as much to work with as possible. Like a new player of a customizable card game, we let you begin with pre-constructed decks before you build your own.


Narrative and Custom Rituals

The Toolset has immense potential for player-authored narrative, since users can create rituals from any source they wish: history, fiction, or their own imaginations.  The purpose of the Arcana Ritual Toolset is to allow users to create rituals: rule-driven performances designed to alter reality by evoking supernatural forces. In order to guide and inspire our users, we are creating commented examples.  In the prototyping phase, we have written several of these rituals from various traditions (Lovecraft, voodoo, urban legend, druidic paganism).  We have also sketched several of these rituals as flowcharts.   Here is the first, based on The King in Yellow mythos of Robert W. Chambers.


Module I (Lovecraft), Ritual A: The King in Yellow Ritual Summons Hastur

The idea behind the ritual is to summon Hastur by setting the stage for the King in Yellow, “a forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it,” mentioned as a set of scattered intimations in stories by Robert W. Chambers.  Lovecraft borrowed the idea of the King in Yellow for his Cthulhu mythos, including the concept of forbidden texts whose very reading could drive someone insane (cf. The Necronomicon).

You will know that you have summoned Hastur when the lines of dialogue from the play are spoken by disembodied actors from throughout various points in the room.

The lines will be spoken by the disembodied voices of three invisible characters: Cassilda, Camilla, and the Stranger. Cassilda and Camilla will be female voices, while the Stranger is male.

The player must set the stage for the play by enacting elements from Cassilda’s song in Act I of the play, quoted below.  (The sequence is inspired by a similar puzzle in Silent Hill: Downpour, in which the player character must set the stage for a ghostly school play of Hansel & Gretel by using a rain machine, props, and other theatrical elements).

“Along the shore the cloud waves break,

The twin suns sink behind the lake,

The shadows lengthen

In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,

And strange moons circle through the skies,

But stranger still is

Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,

Where flap the tatters of the King,

Must die unheard in

Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead,

Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed

Shall dry and die in

Lost Carcosa.”

The King in Yellow, R.W. Chambers

Elements that must be staged through ritual actions here include:

  • Twin suns setting behind a lake

  • Lengthening shadows

  • Strange moons circling in the sky


In order to produce these three effects, the player will hang lanterns above the ritual circle and then put the shining trapezohedron in the room’s center.  The light from the lanterns will shine on the trapezohedron, which will refract its rays outward, producing twin suns on the walls as well as strange moons. By pulling on the chains, the lanterns will rise, causing the lengthening shadows mentioned in the poem.  The phenomenon of the rotating shadows and lights resembles a kaleidoscope, zoetrope, or camera obscura.

 Step by step, the actions constituting this ritual are:

  • Placing tattered yellow robes on a wooden cross, which functions as the framework for a scarecrow.  The player would need two items: a cross, and a cloak, and would place them together.  When the play starts, the tattered cloak would blow mysteriously.

  • Turning a rainstick to cause the sound of rain, followed by actual rain and wind (the tears and song of the Hyades).

  • When these actions have been performed (or while they are being performed), the play becomes automated, self-driven.  At this point, the trio of Camilla, Cassilda, and the Stranger pipe in.  The final effect is that the cloak comes down from cross, then approaches with its pale ivory mask and looks at you.  Hastur is hidden within the tattered yellow cloak as an incorporeal presence.

The Mask of the King in Yellow (modeling and texturing by Greg Roling)


Having seen this example of a narrative-driven ritual in the Toolset, it is now time for the narrative of the Toolset itself: how it came to be, how it evolved, and where it is going in the future.

The Arcana Story (Project Background)

Arcana has been a long and winding road.  It began as a project called Arcana Manor: an action-adventure game about a woman exploring a mansion in search of her lost brother.  I developed some early level designs and a prototype of the project in the Torque Game Engine Advanced over the years of 2008-2009.  Here is a wiki from this stage of development:

The game’s most interesting feature was its level design, which featured platforming through the paths of the kabbalistic tree of life.  Here are some videos of these very early builds.

During 2010-2011, the focus of Arcana Manor gradually shifted away from level design and toward its magic system.  Because the game was no longer focused on a vast mansion, I shortened the title from Arcana Manor (which had always been somewhat awkward to pronounce) to Arcana.  I prototyped an interface of this magic system in Flash, then incorporated this Flash-based interface into Unity.  Here is a video of the Flash-based interface, as well as the integration of the 2d interface into Unity.   At this point, I was also experimenting with the Emotiv Epoc headset, a piece of hardware that reads brainwaves to control a computer interface.


Art by Larry Teng

The project then morphed into Arcana: A Ceremonial Magick Simulator, which placed the focus of the game firmly on its magic system.  In the same way that a flight simulator seeks to provide the most detailed and realistic experience of flight, Arcana seeks to provide the most authentic and immersive experience of magic.  Instead of a large action-adventure game, this game takes place entirely in a single room, a magician’s temple where the protagonist uses ceremonial magic to summon demons, with whom she converses in order to discover the whereabouts of her lost brother.  A team of students helped develop a prototype of this game over the course of 2012-13.  Team members included Landon Anker, Daryl Bunker, Pat Gilmore, Larry Teng, and Travis Till.   Here is some gameplay video from Arcana: A Ceremonial Magick Simulator, as well as a journalistic feature on it.

In 2013-14, Arcana transformed once more into its current form: The Arcana Ritual Toolset.   Another team of students produced a prototype of the Toolset.   Team members included Daryl Bunker, Braydon Hanson, Scott Jonker, Ryan Johnson, and Greg Roling.  While working on the Simulator aspect of Arcana (the virtual ritual space), it occurred to me that the best way to allow for an inexhaustible experience of magic is to rely on user-generated content, allowing users to create whatever kind of magic they would like.  I think of Arcana, ideally, as the Minecraft of Magic Systems.  Instead of making worlds out of cubes, users make rituals out of a card-based visual programming language, which they can then share with other users.

Both prototypes were student projects, constrained by a budget of zero dollars and a timetable of five students working eight hours a week each: the equivalent of a single person working full time.

What we need now is a full team with a real budget, empowered to work full time over two years.  This budget and timeline will allow us to develop a fully functional toolset that expands upon and fulfills the potential of the previous prototypes.



2 years (September 1st 2014-September 1st 2016)

 Major Milestones:


Design & Paper Prototype (3 months: September, October, November)

First Functional (3 months: December, January, February)

First Playable (3 months: March, April, May)

First Fun (3 months: June, July, August)

Alpha (3 months: September, October, November)

Beta (3 months: December, January, February)

QA (3 months: March, April, May)

Release, Marketing, & Rewards (3 months: June, July, August)

Budget Data

50 work weeks in a year (with 2 weeks for holidays) = 2000 work hours in a year

Hourly mean rate for illustrators: $22.96 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

22.96 X 2000 = $45,920 per year

Hourly mean rate for programmers: $39.21

39.21 X 2000 =  $78,420

Hourly mean rate for 3d modelers/animators: $29.50

29.50 X 2000 = $59,000




1 lead designer/product manager: me

1 full-time programmer

1 full-time 2d artist (for cards, interface)

1 full-time 3d artist/animator


$183,000 per year

$366,680 for two years



$1 Tier: Your Name in the Credits

$10 Tier: Access to the Ritualist Forum and Your Name in the Credits

$25 Tier: Design Your Own Action Card, Access to the Ritualist Forum, and Your Name in the Credits

$50 Tier: Design Your Own Effect Card, Design Your Own Action Card, Access to the Ritualist Forum, and Your Name in the Credits

$70 Tier: Design Your Own 3d Artifact (Card and Model), Design Your Own Effect Card, Design Your Own Action Card, Access to the Ritualist Forum, and Your Name in the Credits

$100 Tier: Printed Physical Copy of the Cards, Design Your Own 3d Artifact (Card and Model), Design Your Own Effect Card, Design Your Own Action Card,  Access to the Ritualist Forum, and Your Name in the Credits

$250 Tier: Bound copy of the Book of Compiled Rituals (Text Write-ups of Rituals that Can be Built in the Toolset), Printed Physical Copy of the Cards, Design Your Own 3d Artifact (Card and Model), Design Your Own Effect Card, Design Your Own Action Card, Access to the Ritualist Forum, and Your Name in the Credits

Stretch Goal: 3d printed Artifacts

Stretch Goal: 3d printed Artifacts with RFID Chips (e.g. a goblet that can light up in the real world as a ritual effect)

Stretch Goal: Hue Philips (Colored Wireless Light Bulbs) Integration



A committed, persistent lead designer who has

  • worked on iterations of this project for six years

  • written a book explaining the theoretical underpinnings of the toolset’s design principles

  • extensively researched multiple traditions of occult and fictional magic, which can bring authenticity and creativity to the Toolset’s rituals

  • presented on magic systems at the Singapore-M.I.T. Gambit Game Lab, the East Coast Games Conference, and the Game Developer’s Conference

Risks & Challenges


  • A new, experimental idea with a relatively niche audience

  • The need to delimit scope, which is potentially open-ended

  • Complex programming

  • Many art assets



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