Tuesday, June 09, 2009

excluding the middle

Today I want to talk about magic items. In D&D-type games magic items can be broken down into three broad categories.

Expendables – Potions and scrolls probably immediately spring to mind, but this category also includes charged items like wands and rings of wishes. Some miscellaneous items, like Quaal's feather tokens and the various dusts of also count here. And stuff like laser pistols with a limited number of shots in their power pack. You might be able to get back to town and reload some of this stuff, but if you can run out of the magic in the middle of the adventure then it's an expendable.

Bonus Gear – This covers your basic sword +1 and the vast swath of other magic items with predictable and reliable effects like rings of invisibility and horns of blasting.

Artifacts – The weirdo unique crap like the stuff that originally appeared in Eldritch Wizardry: the Wand of Orcus, the Recorder of Ye'Cind, etc. and other magic items that are one-of-a-kind (or nearly so) and tricky to use.

A fairly common complaint among D&D veterans is that magic items can seem dull as dishwater instead of wondrously awesome. I think a lot of this problem can be laid at the feet of the Bonus Gear category. The combination of reliability, non-expendability, and ease of use results in magic items that are about as arcane as an electric can opener. I don’t have copies handy as I type this, but if you look at the fantasy adventure RPGs put out by TSR after OD&D, such as Empire of the Petal Throne and Gamma World, I think you’ll find a lot less Bonus Gear.

So if you’re building an old school campaign world from the ground up, here are some ideas on how to downplay the Bonus Gear:

Ban the Stuff Outright – This is harsh and if the players catch on they will probably cry like big ol’ crybabies. The smarter players will research spells and order custom potions from alchemists and stuff like that to work around the holes in the magic items charts. The result would be an awesome campaign where demons are banished with custom Demon-B-Gone spells rather beaten up by swords +2, silver weapons are in high demand, alchemists are even bigger pains in the ass and everybody carries way too many flasks of oil. That’s assuming your players don’t just kill you and sell your internals to Chinese organ-leggers.

Artificial Maximum Scarcity – Get out your musty old D&D rulebook or retro-clone of choice. Flip to the magic item charts. Now imagine for a moment that there’s exactly one example of each item in your campaign world. There’s only one shield +2, only one wand of fireballs, only one of everything. Simple supply and demand results in players suddenly treating every stupid little magic item as the coolest thing since sliced bread. Want a good time? Slip the poor bastards a rumor that the only mace of disruption in the whole dang campaign is in Dracula’s castle.

Add New Layers to Old Items – Basically this method takes Bonus Gear and turns each item into one of the other two categories. A simple example would be an expendable rope of climbing where each time it is used there’s a 1 in 6 chance it completely unravels. Or going the other way consider an already-awesome flametongue sword that has artifact-like bonus powers and secret curses. This creates a lot of extra work for the DM, but making crazy crap like this is supposed to be one of the fun parts of running the show. And not every Bonus Gear item need be customized.


  1. I really like this! I particularly dig a combination of the second and third options. I've already been giving +1 swords and horns of blasting special names and histories in my West Marches-style game, but it would be even cooler if those were virtually unique items in the game world

  2. There's another option you overlooked: give the players a sense that every item has a history. These things didn't just materialize, after all - somebody enchanted them, probably for a specific purpose.

    Take that sword +1, for instance. What if it had a name inscribed on the blade: "Kreplok". Well, turns out one of the players knows that name - Kreplok was a famous sorcerer in the parts where that PC grew up. He disappeared while adventuring in far off lands - is this his fabled Singing Sword? Was this very dungeon where the wizard made his last stand? What else among these treasures belonged to him?

    You needn't do this with every magic item - but if you do it often enough, it should instill a sense in the players that these items have provenance - they didn't just "spawn" where they were found. This will add some mystique back into magic items.

  3. Christopher B, I actually omitted intentionally because I've known too many otherwise fun players who would just roll their eyes and go "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah. How many plusses does it have?"

  4. I always like the expendables- players are always waiting for just the right time to use them (presuming they're not readily replaceable) and that ends up creating more interesting situations... something the other categories of items often fail at.

  5. I've been using a variant of the "artificial maximum scarcity" option for awhile in my 2ed game. It's mostly for stuff like "type" weapons and items, such as vorpal weapons, gauntlets of ogre power, etc. which only have one version per type (i.e. one vorpal longsword, one vorpal scimitar) at best. I tend to give stuff that's "item + 1" individual names to keep it interesting.

  6. Something I'm thinking about for our next game (which is not necessarily D&D) is getting rid of the math and looking for other ways to make a magic sword special. Instead of a bonus to damage it might do something like allow the player to reroll their damage dice if they want (but they must take the second roll even if it's lower).

  7. Bonus Gear- Don't forget the demystification option. A +1 sword is just that- a sword that's well made. No need to magic it up, the weaponsmith just spent a little extra time on this one and sold it for a bit more cash.

  8. Anonymous11:29 AM

    Great work. Doing things like this help reinforce the idea that the game is taking place in a premodern society. No assembly lines, no factory floors, no interchangeable parts, everything is hand crafted and unique.

    Stuart's idea is lovely and can be expanded upon. Have the magic items do their thing in unique ways. A sword that lets you reroll damage. A big axe/twohanded sword/can opener that rolls 2d6 damage in the nonmagic version that once enchanted now rols 3d6 keep the 2 highest.
    This idea of uniqueness could also be applied to expendables. Maybe the healing salve you bought from the orcish shaman needs to be pored in the wound where it burns and bubbles cauterizing as it heals and leaving a large raised and angry scar. Where the healing oil from the temple of Kuan-Yin leaves the skin clear and soft even removing old scars. Or the dust of appearence you bought from that odd smelling alchemist will only reveal the blood vessels of the target leaving you fighting something that looks like a dada version of a subway map.

  9. One concern with banning the stuff entirely, or overly limiting it, is that it makes spellcasters the undisputed rulers of the universe. Without magic armor and weapons, the fighter types can never keep up with wizardly types. Sure at lower levels the fighter is doing more damage and kicking more goblin kiester, but if the PCs survive to higher levels, the MU is a god compared to the fighter.

    I tend towards an idea like Fitzerman's. IMCs, often a +1 weapon isn't magical, just well made. Actual magic weapons are rarer. But there are also expendables like Oils of sharpness that can grant a +X to a weapon for a period of time (usually just a turn or so).

  10. I expanded on my suggestion a bit: making magic items more magical - mentioning armour and shields as well. :)

  11. Anonymous2:37 PM

    Great post, Jeff. It seems like most people prefer the limiting of magical items in D&D games. That makes it all the more amazing that nobody is writing D&D editions or modified retro-clones that way. We keep going back to the "classic" method, even when we don't like it. Strange. Maybe someday we'll see a version of the game that we don't have to try and houserule or limit in this fashion, but I'm not holding my breath.

  12. I always liked the way pre-5th ed. Stormbringer did it, where most magic items were bound elementals or demons. That means the magic sword you just picked up is really the demon Gazeroth bound in sword form and you must defeat him in a contest of wills lest he be freed from his earthly prison and rend you limb from limb. Good times, good times...

  13. I like to keep magic items rare, as I never been a fan of the vanilla "+X Sword of Backstretching" bonus items. When I do give out magic items, I like to make them unique and intelligent. Such items would likely have a soul, spirit, demon, or whatever bound to them. They would have their own unique personalities and agendas that are not covered by the normal intelligent swords rules. To make things interesting (not to mention the less work on my part), I would slip a handout to one of the non-wielding players, that notes the general personalty, agenda, and powers of an item, once the presence of the item's nature becomes known. That player would control the item like a secondary PC. I generally encourage the players to have the items act up or complicate the item's user in some way - even whisper strange orders to that player, like: "Kill puppies, or I will force you to do perverted things!" Such PvP pranks and complications makes the game really fun! ;)

  14. Artificial Maximum Scarcity is my new favorite idea from you. It fits perfectly with the Brutally "Realistic" campaign I'm working on.

  15. Oh, yeah. Stormbringer, that was a game where magic items were fun!

    I my game I have all items that's not one-shot-items include a small drawback or side effect. Those are unique and tend to add some spice to the mix.

  16. I am a big fan of magic items generally coming with a unique drawback.

    This is actually something I played with in the early days of 3E, towards the start of my Nine Hills Dairy campaign. There was a town--it was probably Freeport, in fact--in which you could either buy regular magic items for their usual high prices, or you could go buy them from a Spooky Witch Down By The Docks. Those were cheaper, and she said they were just as good.

    So Buddy the Druid (no points for guessing his last name) bought a magic ironwood sword +1 from her, and it sure was inexpensive--and wooden! The thing is, the first time you scored a critical with it, it was as if someone had cast Barkskin on you. And the next time, Stoneskin, only the skin was more like really THICK bark, and your Dexterity and movement went down. And the third time? Why, you sprouted roots, became a tree, and stayed right where you were, forever.

    I didn't have the energy to do that for every damn magic item in the game, but I wish I had.

  17. My own general approach to magic item specialness has pretty much always boiled down to the following:

    (1) Emphasis on items which encourage creativity. There's no creativity in using the +1 in a Dagger +1 ... so I just plain never put them into a campaign (I don't avoid magic swords, I just avoid magic swords defined by a "plus"). I have no problem, though, with items like the Decanter of Endless water, because every use the PCs come up with tends to be inventive and strange and distinctive ... so even though the item is functionally predictable, its role in the game never is, and it feels special.

    (2) Emphasis on items with compensating drawbacks. I never hesitate to drop a Wand of Wonder into a campaign ... "expendable" or not, it's madness in a stick, and the players have to really DECIDE to use it; it's never a slam-dunk that it's a good idea. On a calmer level, the same goes for magic items which exact a cost of some kind, or generate some kind of side-effect (even if there's nothing unique or expendable about them).

    (3) Social censure. For whatever reason, it's a general rule in both of my campaign fantasy worlds that normal folks are very leery of magic items, because so many of them ARE dangerous or nasty or have side-effects. In my Uresia campaigns, in particular, it's been established in the past year or so that magic items in any concentration attracts ghosts and other potentially-hazardous spirit presences ... and that goes for any kind of magic item at all. The only magic items the peasants are happy to see are those with a specific positive reputation, and even then, they'd prefer if you didn't stay the night with that thing, thanks.

    (4) Emphasis on items with a history, and items with a mystery. I like magic items that tie into the campaign background (often with bonus ties to old enemies, rivalries, grudges and curses) and those that aren't fully understood right out of the box (multi-function items that, darn it, didn't come with a user's manual).

  18. Adam sez "or you could go buy them from a Spooky Witch Down By The Docks. Those were cheaper, and she said they were just as good."

    I love bargain magic :) There's a bit in Uresia2 about buying potions from inside someone's coat ...(tangentially, there's also a line about drinking something that's been laying in a tomb for 200 years ...)

  19. Lord Gwydion2:32 AM

    I've been slowly putting together a set of documents that use a version of your 'artificial maximum scarcity' idea. Instead of one of each type, I went with the idea that since there's a d00 roll on the charts, there are only 100 magic swords in the campaign total. I worked up a name, description, bit of history or legend attached to it, and of course powers (with very few overlaps).

    Did the same for other weapons, and then did it for wands, staves and rods. Currently working on the armor and shields. When I get it done I plan to release the pdfs free on Dragonsfoot.

  20. I used to share a lot of the views expressed here however as I've gotten older and had less time to play or DM I've changed my outlook. As a friend of mine once stated half the fun of the game is the "toys" (i.e. magic items.) Typically in my games I will control magic in a few ways. I make potions fairly common items to be found and/or purchased at vastly inflated prices. Kind of gives those normally non-magic using Characters/creatures a one shot chance at casting a spell so-to-speak. I've even allowed Characters to buy a magic item they really want/need, after much effort and expense searching, by barting cash and items at a vastly inflated cost. I like the idea of individualization of items however outright restriction, considering the number of monsters requiring some form of magic to hit, seems to my mind rather limiting and less fun. Seems to me if you want a low or rare magic campaign play some other rules set (TSRs Conan comes to mind...)

  21. Anonymous9:31 AM

    Once I played a Hobbit in this campaign, and I had what looked like a run of the mill ring of invisibility.

    As the campaign progressed, it turned out that the ring was actually a Major Artifact that would allow the Big Bad Guy to return to full power.

    Ah, good times ...

  22. Before limiting all your campaign magic items to a +1 dagger and ball of magic twine, most DMs need to put themselves into player's shoes and imagine if THEY would enjoy such a campaign....chances are, not much.

    I hate to call anyone out but I find most DMs that can't deal with a moderate amount of magic in a campaign are pretty much unimaginative and can't think of any other way to control a campaign. Limiting magic to little or none, while filed under the label of "old school" or "classic" or "back to the basics", is nothing more than a power trip by someone that is deep down frightened his players are going to beat up all his carefully created monsters. It's sure lots of fun when the DM hits the players with a demon knowing no one in the party has a magic weapon...

    Most DM's just need to nut up and realize, if the players have a few magic items, it isn't a gamebreaker. I've found giving out a lot of unique type magic items (for example, a +1 sword that has the spirit of an old ranger inside who acts as the mentor to a PC) makes the players more interested and seems to avoid "oh, ANOTHER +1 sword, throw it on the pile..."

  23. Badmike, you make a great point here. Maybe it's not clear in the original post, but I'm not arguing for taking all the shiney toys away. I'm arguing for better toys. Fewer swords +1 and more Stormbringers.

  24. Yeah but then you deprive the Characters of the useful "+1" incentives they might use to insure the loyalty of Henchmen & Followers ;-) In my Campaigns the Characters always hang on to the extra +1 goodies as either replacements (I love item saving throws) or loyalty enhancers for NPCs.

  25. One option to keep magic items scarce, yet avoid the whole 'mages will kick my *ss at high levels' is: ever-growing items.

    I think FFG's "Midnight" did a version of this first, and now 4e to some degree.

    As the owner of the item grows in levels, so does the item (at 2nd level it gains another power, and another at 3rd, etc).

  26. Banesfinger, I believe Earthdawn had a similar take on magic items, with the extra kick that each level increase of power had a in-game requirement to it. For example, to get that sword to go from +1 to +1/+3 vs undead, you had to defeat a wight in single combat and then have a priest bless the remains afterwards. In effect, each magic item had several little plot hooks that the GM could throw at the players if they wanted that +1 sword to eventually reach Holy Sword status.

    Word verification - outertigo" the disorientation some feel upon visiting the outer planes.

  27. Earthdawn had a lot of cool idea. I think I'll have to dig it up again.

  28. Maximum artifical scarcity can also work even if you want to or are willing to have a lot of magic items in the campaign -- you just need a big enough source of items and a willingness to include them whenever and wherever possible. This makes magic fairly common but each item remains unique. It's not for the "low magic" DM, but it does have some of the benefits of the one-of-a-kind approach to items.

    I'm actually using a "big pool / frequent magic" version of artificial maximum scarcity (for magic items and for spells) in my rainy city campaign at the moment, and it's working out great so far. I have those four volume spell and magic item compendium books from 2nd edition and roll randomly in them to get items, but then count each item as a unique. It's a good fit with our caper/heist style campaign. I can roll up random magic items and spin "rumors" around them as a way of setting up sessions. The players decide which of the priceless, unique items (or spells) they want to try to filch this session, which they want to avoid, which sound worthless, which sound too difficult, and so on.

  29. @Badmike:
    "I find most DMs that can't deal with a moderate amount of magic in a campaign are pretty much unimaginative... It's sure lots of fun when the DM hits the players with a demon knowing no one in the party has a magic weapon..."

    This sounds more like an indictment of the DMs you've had to deal with rather than a valid criticism of the ideas presented here.