Monday, August 09, 2004

Magic Item Blues

It turns out that Sue wasn't being a stingy DM, she was just giving out whatever loot was in the little Adventure Keep modules.  Saturday night we ran through The Illusionist's Daughter, which played out a lot like a classical tragedy.  The only thing that was missing was someone poking their own eyes out with some pins.  Anyway, the module had a fair amount of treasure in it, so I find myself in the market to buy some magic items for my Druid 3/Rogue 1.  Although getting loot is a good thing, I hate treating magic items as commondities to be bought and sold on the open market.  I guess it's a logical consequence of the whole magic-as-technology model that runs through the more popular forms of D&D, but that doesn't mean that I have to like it.  Going back to the supposed roots of the fantasy phenom, how many magic items does Frodo buy from the elves?  And how many plus items does Conan cash in for beer money?  It seems to me that you could do a better job of emulating fantasy adventures by having rules for gifting and receiving magic items and for squandering gold instead of hoarding it for the next magic purchase.  Magic items would be won as rewards for jobs well done or earned by entering into dark pacts with strange powers.  Wizards could create potent items, but the rules shouldn't allow magic item factories to exist.
Magic items might again become rare and fabulous if we took the time to properly structure our games.  Instead we give out some gold pieces and say "buy whatever you like out of the book".  I know I've done that a lot.  It's the easy sleazy path but I fear that it ultimately undermines the whole point of playing a fantasy game.  Which of these two games do YOU want to play in?
  1. "I bought this sword +3 for 6,000gp"
  2. "My sword +3?  It was given to me by the Elf-King after we routed the goblin army at Fellsword Pass.  It previously belonged to the doomed half-elven prince Entregar, who slew a thousand drow with it, but eventually succumbed to their noxious poisons."
The second choice takes a lot more work to pull off, but sure seems to me like the way to go.  Not only do you need lots of nifty little write-ups on magic items, but you also need fleshed-out patrons to give them to the heroes.  Of course these days the problem is magnified by the expectation in D&D that every sucessful PC of mid-to-high level with be decked out with a half dozen or more magical goodies.  As far as I can tell there are two possible work-arounds for this issue.  The first route is to separate technology from magic, but don't ditch the technology in the process.  Use non-magical plus equipment (special materials or craftsmanship), non-magical devices (clockwork stuff, perhaps), and non-magical 'alchemical' potions.  Then you can save the magical enhancements for really special stuff.  The second option is to simply not play mainstream D&D.  The expectation of lotsa magic items may be hardwired into 3.0 and 3.5 D&D, but it isn't nearly as prevalent in Basic/Expert D&D.  I'm sure that most other fantasy games aren't nearly as bad in this regards as 3.0.  RoleMaster (at least the 2nd edition I'm familiar with) had special materials built right into the game.  My experience with Pendragon leads me to believe that most PCs in that game will never touch a magic item.  And you ought to be able to run a fantasy version of your favorite generic system without piling on the magic items.

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