Tuesday, August 10, 2010

an idea for a magic item overhaul

My favorite scene in the film Dead Poets Society comes when Robin Williams, playing the new nonconformist English teacher at an uptight boys prep school, instructs his class to rip out the introduction to their poetry textbook.  The intro is too scientific, too systematic, too boring, especially for a subject as vivid as poetry.  I can't quite bring myself to like the whole movie, as I think overall it's exactly the schmaltzy sort of melodrama that Hollywood all too often tries to pass off as serious film, but I like that scene.

Today's thought experiment was inspired just a bit by that scene.  The text we'll use is the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide and the section we're excising (at least in our imaginations) is the magic item lists.  Pretend with me for a moment that the magic item charts on pages 121 through 125 (and their accompanying explanations) don't exist, with the sole exception of Table (III.E.) Special.  That's the list of artifacts and relics.

In the past I've argued that you could build a helluva campaign by ditching all the non-artifacts and concentrate on the uberpowerful weirdies on table 3-E.  But today I want to do something different.  Imagine instead that the items on the list are exemplars of an entire new set-up.  In other words, take the form and/or function of the artifacts to extrapolate new categories of items to replace the old familiar ones.  Here are my initial thoughts:

Axe of the Dwarvish Lords - Maybe each species has at least one magic item associated with them.  Cheese Slicer of the Wererats, Toilet Brush of the Otyughs, that sort of thing.

Baba Yaga's Hut - I'm trying to figure out which is a better idea, a whole range of ridiculous huts with chicken feet or a more general class of places that can go to other places.  A castle with centipede legs, a tavern with bat wings, etc.

Codex of Infinite Planes - Spell books should be more like this.  See also Call of Cthulhu tomes and/or 'Pages from the Mages'.

Crown/Orb/Sceptre of Might - Why wouldn't every ruler desire magical regalia?

Crystal of the Ebon Flame/Jacinth of Inestimable Beauty - A whole class of gemstones with magical hypnotic fires inside sounds pretty rad to me.  Drawing up a chart that gives the power of the gem based upon size and type sounds like a fun way to kill an hour or two.

Cub & Talisman of Al'Akbar - Potions are clearly too easy.  Instead give the PCs a cup and talisman and make them whip up the potion when they need it.  Then have a pickpocket steal either the cup or the talisman just to be a jerk.

Eye & Hand of Vecna/Teeth of Dahlver-Nar - Necromantic cybernetics.  A good critical hit system that left PCs with missing or mangled body parts would certainly encourage their use.  Buttock of Hargrave, anyone?

Heward's Mystical Organ/Recorder of Ye'Cind/Horn of Change - The Devil's Saxophone, Accordion of 1,000 Delights, Slide Whistle of Levitation & Gravitation, etc., etc.

Invulnerable Coat of Arnd/Mace of Cuthbert/Sword of Kas - This is how swords and armor and crap creep back into the system.  But each item needs to have a hero/demigod associated with it and at least one crazy ass power.

Iron Flask of Tuerny the Merciless - Suggests a whole range of "[Variety of Substance] [Type of Container] of [Kind of Monster]" that can both capture and release/control that type of critter.

Johydee's Mask - Magical masks just sound awesome.

Kuroth's Quill - "Literacy is power" is one easy interpretation of the magic-user class.  Given that, I'm surprised we don't have more more enchanted items in that vein.  Not just quills, but clay tablets, enchanted inks, brushes for Asian style calligraphy, magic scroll cases, arcane paper and pointers.

Machine of Lum the Mad/Mighty Servant of Leuk-O/Queen Ehlissa's Marvelous Nightingale - Arcane clockwork/robotics scaling from tiny devices up to magical mecha.  Perfect for Kitchen Sink type games.

Orb of Dragonkind - I like Orbs because they don't have much in the way of a non-magical function.

Ring of Gaxx - Magic rings with mutiple functions, players have to figure out with glyph on which side of the gem does what and occasionally the gem slips and activates the wrong glyph at the wrong moment.  What's not to love?  I'd probably be cute and make all the gems looks like polyhedrals.

Rod of Seven Parts - By Grodd if I have to assemble every ding dang plastic toy my daughter gets as a gift, the PCs ought to suffer through more magic items that come with 'some assembly required'!

Throne of the Gods - Enchanted places that don't move can easily become the focus of entire campaigns.

Wand of Orcus - What if every demon had a wand?  The Wand of a Dretch might not do a whole lot, but the Wand of a Succubus or the Wand of Demogorgon ought to be pretty dang interesting.


  1. Man, I love the way you think... especially when you're confirming something I've been kicking around in my campaign.

    They already have wands of succubi... they're called dildos. *snicker*

  2. I think this is a fantastic idea. I'll have to file it away for a sword & sorcery game that I hope to run at some point.

  3. Iron Flask = Pokedex

  4. Exactly what I was pondering for Pars Fortuna.

  5. See... you had me until you started generalizing from the Artifacts. I like the idea of taking the uniqueness of artifacts as a framework. Make all magic items weird.

  6. Stuart, I've argued doing exactly that more than once. Today I just wanted to try something different.

  7. Love this stuff! Lately I've just been making up magic items at random, so this is right in my wheelhouse. Thanks!

  8. Anonymous12:34 PM

    Waitaminute. . . we weren't actually supposed to rip these lists from the DMG? Aaargh!

    Nice way to think out of the box, by poking a hole in its side!


  9. As usual, Jeff, you have way too many cool ideas. :) I think there's game balance issues with doing away with magic items altogether, between expected "to hit" rolls and things like "+2 or better weapon to hit" (that one's a lot easier to deal with than the 'whiff factor', though), but I love your idea of "artifact classes". The idea that every powerful wizard/cleric type might have their own "Hut On Foul's Legs" is just wonderful. At least one must look like a plain wooden box, of the sort a guardsman might stand watch in.

  10. Jeff,

    I know you have... which is why I was getting excited at the possibility that you'd come up with a nifty method for it...

  11. "Slide Whistle of Levitation & Gravitation"

    if i didn't already worship at your altar (and i do), this would ensure it. rest assured my kids will find one of these next time we can find time to play.

    oh no! i wonder if they even know what a slide whistle is... i may have failed as a father up till now.

  12. You hooked me at "buttock of Hargrave"

  13. The wand of a succubus runs on batteries, I'd imagine.*

    And that buttock's already on the Blue Room :)

    * Nickel-Cadmium-Human-Soul type.

  14. I've been kicking around a similar, but slightly more expanded, magic item list for a campaign. All magic items fall into one of three categories:

    "Spell in a Bottle" - most commonly potions and scrolls, these are one-shot items that can be purchased at an alchemist's shop

    "Magical Arms" - in medieval times, blacksmiths were seen as magical. Here, they are. Essentially, this takes the "masterwork" concept from 3.x and expands it to cover +1 to +5 weapons and armor. No fancy powers or anything, though. And you should think of them like high-end Italian sports cars. Rare, valuable, and likely to attract a lot of attention.

    "Items of Power" - unique creations, modeled heavily on the artifact table. Including drawbacks and possibly intelligences. (Sooner or later, I am going to inflict Bob the Skull from Dresden Files on one of my players.) They all have names, histories, and a long list of people that really, really want to take them from you.

    It's all the middling magic items that get weeded out. No "ring of slightly better at this skill." No "pouch of ignoring this annoying rule." No "boots of violating niche protection." If a wizard is going to spend the time and money to craft an item, dammit, he's going to make something awesome!

  15. @Marshall: I've always felt items which enhanced skills or otherwise attacked niches should work better for someone who is already trained in that skill, by whatever game system you're using. (i.e, in 1e/OSRIC, maybe you've got Boots Of The Arachnid which let you climb as a Thief of your level -4... but if you ARE a thief, you climb as if you were your level +2. Sure, they'll be helpful for a non-thief, but they won't let him REPLACE the thief.)

  16. @Lizard: Sure, that's a good solution. My problem, though, is that it quickly creates a situation in which half of your character becomes invested in what you own, not what you are.

    If my character is going to be defined by his stuff, then that stuff is going to be defined by Awesome.

  17. @Marshall: I can agree and disagree.

    Agree:"Fool! Do you not know who you face? I am Bragoran, Wielder of Krathilikios, also called the Blade of Frozen Night, and as it has slain a hundred demon princes, so shall it slay you!" is a thousand times cooler than "I'm Bragoran, I have a +4 Frost Brand sword, and +3 chain mail, and Boots Of Agility +1, and a Ring of Water Breathing, and...."

    Disagree: I'm not one of those commie hippie new age "storytelling" gamers, even if I tend to prefer newer game systems overall. Getting things is FUN. Having players find things is FUN. And if this happens often enough to be a major part of gameplay, not every item can be awesome. "When everyone's special... no one is." It's the truth. Only by comparison to the minor items and trinkets is a truly awesome item AWESOME.