Sunday, November 25, 2012

Variants - Oh where have all the Magic Items gone?

The dustbin of history, I hope. Seriously, I cannot tell you the amount of times that players have found and sold that +1 sword in my career as a Ref/Judge/GM. Or the potion of healing, or any other of the various bags of holding, wands of restoration and the various other flavorless drek that has crowded the backs of character sheets over the years.

The fact that something so inherently interesting as an enchanted item would be reduced to so much clutter means that there must be something off. The various fixes with this, from RuneQuest to EarthDawn to DragonQuest and all the other noun-mashed RPGs over the years show us the way. Simply turn what was magical into something a player can produce and that can be treated as if it were a commodity. After all, these sorts of items are commodities anyway. This does have the potential to disrupt certain elements of the system, but only if we let them.

What about providing magic weapons to hit creatures that can only be harmed by magic weapons?  - Allow the ‘superior’ weapons detailed in an earlier post to harm corporeal creatures that require magical weapons to hit, and/or say that un-enchanted weapons do only half damage vs. these creatures. This makes the creatures more dangerous (a good thing) and makes a those few, interesting, significant magic weapons even more treasured, and not something to be cashed in when you reach a higher level.

As for the items itself, use the Earthdawn model, where each magic item may be presumed to have a detailed history, secret name, or an inhabiting spirit. The magic item starts out weak (that +1 Sword or Ring of Invisibility) and becomes more powerful the more that one discovers about it. “Bah! That’s no mere enchanted sword, you fool, but Dargaeron’s Arm, inhabited by a spirit of slaughter, which foments discord among those who wield it!” “Ring of invisibility? And you say you won it in a riddle game...?”

As for potions and scrolls, having items with single charges of magic strikes me as not only silly, but beside the point. Resources like this are made to be lost, unintentionally duplicated on a character sheet or ignored. “How many potions of extra-healing is your character up to this week, Sara?” “Thirteen...” If they are needed, it might be better for the players not to be on the adventure that requires them until they have grown in power. Further, players always remember character abilities more than they remember consumable resources. Maybe an invocation which allows one to strike creatures that cannot be otherwise harmed, for a limited number of rounds, is in order.

Scrolls and potion need not disappear entirely – after all, there is alchemy, as long as the concoctions produced do not duplicate the effects of already existing spells. In the 2nd wave RPG Bushido, players can acquire Suryas, which are scrolls that allow for effects to be produced as long as the words on the scroll are recited. The words do not fade after use, and may be reused. I stole this directly, and they now substitute as the older protection scrolls in my game. Scrolls as treasure maps, clues and rumors still appear regularly, but now as sources of information rather than as a minor effect, promptly recorded on a character sheet and then forgotten.

As for wands, staves and such, I prefer them to be magical foci, as they are in historical magic.

Here’s a wand or three as an example:

Wand of Jet – A silver rod of perhaps five inches in length, topped with a stone of Jet. This wand focuses mental energy, especially for healing and protection. It increases the variable effects of a spell or invocation by +1, up the maximum allowed by the effect, as long as healing or magical protection is involved. It also adds +1 to all saves vs. fear or magical domination while wielded.

Wand of Fire – An Ironwood wand, with a Fire Jasper at the base and a Quartz crystal tip, focuses vibrant energy, allowing a caster to re-roll any 1s, 2s, or 3s with any fire-based spell that causes damage. In addition, it can kindle the fires of men’s souls, providing +2 to morale checks for the duration of a single encounter.

Wand of Jade – This wand of Jade stone, banded with Silver, and tipped with a carved sphere of Quartz crystal, give the wielder a +2 save vs. all curses. In addition, if used to focus protective spells, it increases their strength, either by raising the caster level by two, or by maximizing their random effects.  

The final benefit of treating magic items in this manner is to reintroduce a sense of mystery into play. If the player can’t look at the back of the book and immediately see what the item is and how it works, then these elements begin to regain their original aura, and become genuinely magical.

Note: Sorry if you read this post earlier. It really needed a second round of revision, which I have now provided, which will hopefully make it a little more clear.  Next: The Dangers of DIY


  1. There's been an occasional idea floating around about taking one of the "short" magic item lists, like in Monsters & Treasure, and restricting it so that there is only *one* of each item listed, other than potions or scrolls. You found a +1 sword and want to sell it? OK, but remember that you won't find another plain +1 sword, ever.

    1. That seems interesting, and from a GMing point of view, would incline me to make up a decent back story for each and every item. On the other hand, if it's just a limit on those items acquired by the party, that seems far too arbitrary. I can see my player howling if I did that.

    2. I've contemplated a "there can only be one" OD&D campaign as well. I was literally going to take the monsters and treasure and distribute them around the setting. Only one goblin, only one dragon, only one sword +1, etc. I ended up going in a different direction, but I still think it would be a fun experiment.

  2. I have to say, I rather like consumable magic items because they make the use choice about resource management, and they also ensure that PCs don't accumulate an unlimited number of magic items (the 3E "christmas tree" problem). Getting a new character ability improves the power of the PC is a way that is monotonically increasing. In my opinion, having so many uses of something that you lose track of charges or doses means that perhaps treasure is too freely available (though of course this is a matter of taste -- I admit I prefer grittier low rent hard scrabble fantasy). One of the funnest things ever is to give a low level magic-user a powerful one-use magic item and watch them agonize about when to use it.

    1. I can see your point of view, but most players are so abysmal at tracking resources that at this time I would prefer to limit resources that they have to deal with. True magic items are still rare in my campaign, and I think my group has about one each, after over a year of intermittent play. The average level of the party is two, I think.

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