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Rediscovering Magic

by Silveressa

Recently James S. asked:
“In my new campaign, arcane magic has been outlawed. It’s still there, people are just too scared to use it. This has been the status quo for 1,000 years. How would you recommend handling the pacing of magic items, non magical rewards, and character wealth in general?”

Hi James, thanks for writing in; this is a common issue with experienced and beginner groups alike. Here  are my thoughts on how to keep things balanced and interesting:

Non-Magical Rewards

With magic outlawed you may want to consider how far technology advanced during the thousand year ban, and how many steampunk style devices and inventions might be in use or lay lost among ruins.

Rewarding players with treasures of partially functioning attempts at replicating magic-using technology. You can easily keep them mystified and busy trying to decipher, repair, and sell the inventions they do discover without dealing with anything even remotely magical.

With magic outlawed, knowledge of magical cultures and the history of magic itself also likely has been lost to the mists of time. Letting the adventures discover lost arcane texts or simple historic scrolls regarding magic item creation techniques, and how magic influenced the history at the time, can make compelling rewards valuable to scholars on the black market.

Other useful treasure rewards are ancient paintings, statues and other works of art long since lost among ruins. Finding these treasures is only part of the fun since players will need to devise a way of safely transporting them (without magic) and then  finding a suitable collector to appraise the pieces, and lastly, someone interested in purchasing them.

The effort and cost involved in this process will slow the monetary income considerably, and make the money the group does receive at the end feel more valuable. (They might also make contacts and enemies along the way.)

Pacing Magic Rewards

Some characters  might be able to use the historical tomes to piece together the real reasons magic was outlawed, and perhaps use them to learn the basics behind the crafting of simple magical artifacts or rediscovering rudimentary cantrips.

For example, handing the characters a magical ring that gives a small bonus to armor offers much less excitement as allowing them to rediscover the secrets behind creating such a ring themselves, and letting them experiment. The process of experimentation will also help consume some of their treasure money and time, making control of magical power progression easier.

In regards to actual magic items and weapons, detecting them as magical in the first place without some type of preexisting magical detection artifact or steampunk invention could prove impossible. This would make the inclusion of magical items a difficult treasure reward unless the the magical gear mystically glows or exhibits clear magical properties.

Assuming they have a way to properly identify some of the treasure rewards as magical, without an alchemist or other scholar to identify the specific properties of each item the group will be left with experimentation and the rare magical lore text to discern the use of each artifact found. This lets you once again control how fast the group grows in magical power

Regarding the speed of rewarding magical treasure goes, I would start slow and small. Let the characters reinvent magical equipment rather than discover existing magical artifacts. At higher levels, offer small caches of magical artifacts hidden away from the magical purge a thousand years ago. This lets the players feel responsible for their growth in magical ability, and the later rewards will seem more valuable if they have to fight through  higher level traps and enemies to acquire them.

  • http://stuffershack.com/author/brian-liberge/ BrianLiberge

    I would also stress, some systems take Magic Items in to account when considering balance of creatures and encounters. If Magic Items are few and far between, you must take this into account in some way.

    Training is an excellent one, because the players have to take the time to do so. This can create interesting decisions as players want to stay in line as far as power is concerned but plot dictates certain things must be done by a certain time.

    The flip of this is boons, where the power is instantly granted by a greater power. This can a god, the vestige where the characters power came from, or the characters warrior bloodline. You can build it into the leveling scheme or make it another occasional cool thing, perhaps with strings attached.

    • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

      Great points Brian!

  • http://www.dvoidsystems.com Da’ Vane

    This part of the premise struck me: “It’s still there, people are just too scared to use it.”

    Although the question asks about magical items and character wealth, perhaps the biggest reward the PCs could get is to be able to topple the “status quo” and start using magic publicly again, particularly if you are using a magic is different approach.

    Even minor magical abilities, which they may need to use in secret at first, can make for great rewards that do not necessarily need to be tied to magic items. For example, the first module of the Dragonlance Chronicles features the rediscovery of Clerical magic after the Cataclysm, and success rewards the PCs with the ability to learn and use Clerical spells.

    The issue of detecting magical items becomes easier when you realise that the term “magical” in magical item is objective, just like lawful items and alignment. Thus, you may consider an effects based approach, by giving out items and abilities that duplicate magical effects in other ways without them being inherently magical, and then simply have the PCs discover their magical nature as part of the plot line. This makes detect magic abilities about as necessary as detect evil abilities.

    Another idea is to use “magical” items as plot hooks, and let the PCs rediscover magic by taking all the relevant steps, as if they were an apprentice. Knowledge is power, and discovering broken powerful artefacts that can be studied, and maybe eventually repaired might be an answer. The artefacts themselves don’t necessarily have to be used, although the adventures might see them regain their powers over time, but the knowledge they provide about the existence and capabilities of magic can be worth more than a lot of wealth.

    • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

      I like the idea of making magic legitimate a reward for the PCs.

  • Gerald

    An alternate way of handling it might be to re-define the idea of magic items in your campaign. Depending on which system you are using this may be less or more easy to do.

    I’m considering a re-defined version of magic in my campaign as I would like magic items to be seen as rare and wonderous and in a high-magic world I can’t see that working. But to keep campaign balance I find it difficult to avoid granting the characters magic items.

    So I’m looking at the idea of defining a level of Masterwork items which are the equivalent of low level magical weapons and armor. So, perhaps +1 and +2 items are simply weapons/armor created by master smiths which are difficult to find and expensive to purchase. This would mean I wouldn’t have to give out a “magical” weapon until they could be expecting +3 items.

    This doesn’t address other types of items like potions, rings etc. There are aother ways to handle those items – I have a spice in my campaign which, when added to your meal, grants a bonus similar to a Bull’s Strength etc. Changes the dynamic a little because the characters have to decide well before the encounter that they want to cook the spice into their food, but it lasts longer – makes for interesting decisions.

    So, perhaps it is a matter of re-evaluating what is actually magical in your world and what is, instead, merely extremely well crafted.

    • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

      Good point Gerald. I ran a couple of campaigns where MW +1 to +5 items were available. This let me introduce rules for exceptional crafting (superior skills + monster parts).

      One of those campaigns I also made a shortlist of magic items that were the equivalent of disposable cell phones. Healing potions, charm potions, scrolls, and other one-off items.

      Worked well.

      Good luck with your campaign!