Making Magic Items Interesting, Part 3 - Roleplaying Tips

Making Magic Items Interesting, Part 3

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #322

Making Magic Items Interesting, Part 3

This is the last part of our scheduled Magic Items series. Stay tuned for a Supplemental Issue for download that will contain all the great tips I received regarding magic items. Thanks again to all the authors and tipsters who’ve patiently waited for their tips to benefit game masters around the world.

Vague Powers

From Shahed Sharif

Remember the Light of Earendil, from Lord of the Rings? What exactly did it do? Well, it lit up, and evil creatures seemed to be afraid of it. So is that a fear effect? Maybe it burned them. Or perhaps it was a circle of protection. The point is, it didn’t matter. Indeed, the very mystery of it was part of its mystique.

There are two ways of implementing vague powers in your campaign:

  1. Decide on specific powers, and describe precisely the effect of those powers without letting on about the details.
  2. Craft a general description of an item’s power, and every time it is used ad lib the result.

For example, your notes about the Light of Earendil could say simply, “Evil creatures don’t like it.” Keep in mind, some players may be bothered by this latter technique, especially if you are inconsistent. If a vampire flees from the Light, then a zombie had better do the same.

Fewer Items

From Shahed Sharif

I noticed that in fairy tales and legend, heroes rarely have more than three magic items, and these items are very potent. Think back to the old D&D cartoon. Each character had exactly one item, albeit one of extreme power. With only a few items, that magic rope is no longer just another item in a character’s possession – it becomes a signature tool.

In my campaign, I’ve phased out all items of mediocre power, given my players signature items early on in the campaign, and from there on given only limited use items (potions, wands, scrolls) in treasure troves.

Progressive Power

From Shahed Sharif

Progressive power can be done in a straightforward way. That sword is +1 unless in the hands of a character of level 6+, at which point it becomes a flaming sword +1.

Better, though, is to tie power increases to the plot. My system has been to come up with a list of triggering conditions and a corresponding list of powers. When a condition is fulfilled, the corresponding power awakens.

For example, a short sword called Whisper’s Edge starts off as a +1 weapon, until any of the following conditions are met:

  • Pommel is replaced by a valuable, perhaps unique, gem
  • Blade is bathed in the waters of Asherak Falls
  • Owner loses the sword, then regains it
  • The scabbard of the original owner, a legendary thief hundreds of years dead, is recovered and used
  • Blade is anointed with the tears of a specter
  • Wielder is caught in an inescapable situation

Some of the powers activated are:

  • Weapon’s bonus increases
  • Those struck by the sword go blind
  • Sword can strike incorporeal creatures
  • Wielder can enter one shadow and walk out of another one
  • Sword whispers to wielder when he is in danger

Powers should be thematically related. Some conditions are cryptic – how does one make a specter cry? What qualifies as losing the sword? Some require quests: regaining the weapon could be one. Some require information, such as who was the original owner? Knowledge of the conditions themselves can be the object or reward of a quest. Perhaps the sword is so ancient that only a comparably old being, say a dragon, knows anything about it. Now the party has to find the dragon, convince it not to eat them, and then bargain for information.

Notice that two of the conditions listed, losing and regaining the sword, and being caught in an inescapable situation, are specific to the owner. That means the awakened power will not function for any other creature, including other player characters. Keying powers to one person makes ownership much more personal, not to mention it cuts down on intra-party theft!

History

From Shahed Sharif

An item should have an old, checkered history. One reason is that it gives the item more personality. Another is that the history is full of inspiration for the triggers and powers (assuming you use progressive powers). But most importantly, history links the item to the saga unfolding in your world. People will recognize the item and respond with fear, awe, or envy. In Lord of the Rings, goblins recognized, and hated, Sting.

Perhaps someone will lay a claim to the item, with varying levels of legitimacy. The bandit from whom the party got the sword may come after it, or his son might consider it rightfully his. What about the noble the bandit stole it from to begin with? Or maybe a pathetic creature living beneath a mountain owned the sword for centuries, and is tracking the thief who stole it with a burning malice (sound familiar?). It’s quite possible the status of the item is more significant than its raw power – perhaps the baron who sees a character wearing the Amulet of Moranna (+1 armor) immediately kneels and swears fealty in Moranna’s name.

So how does one create a history? Some questions you want to answer are:

  • What is it called?
  • Who made it?
  • How did they make it? (In a volcano, with cat’s breath,  with the heart of her enemy, by prayer.)
  • Who did they make it for? (A friend, a liege, the  general public.)
  • Why did they make it? (To win a battle, for vengeance,  for protection, for fun.)
  • How was it lost by the original owner? (Was stolen,  slipped away on its own, owner died.)
  • Who else owned it, and what use did they make of it?  (Perhaps they didn’t recognize it for what it was.)
  • Are there prophecies surrounding it?
  • Who knows about it? (And to what degree – a fishmonger may know its name and description, but a goblin king whose father was slain with it may know more.)
  • Who fears it?
  • Who covets it?

If you use many magic items in your campaign, you obviously don’t want to overdo it. Not every dagger +1 has a story.

Drawbacks

From Shahed Sharif

Costs or side-effects can make any item more interesting. The main caveat here is that drawbacks are often annoying. The way to avoid something too irritating is to justify its existence.

For example, a golden scepter with a head carved like a dragon’s can breathe flame on command. It may use up charges, and the only way to replenish the charges is to feed the head red gems. When the wielder of a short sword travels between shadows, he walks down a dark corridor, where imps who live in this shadow realm could accost him on occasion, either taunting him or pilfering small items.

Most interesting is to make the power itself difficult to use. The easiest example is an object that summons a fearsome creature who attacks everything in sight, including the summoner. What about an explosion in a box -a metal box which, when opened, releases a ball of flame, then shuts itself. Maybe the item has a design flaw. Consider a metal rod which, when thrust into the ground, creates a wall of force, except the rod always ends up on the opposite side of the wall as the wielder.

A drawback could be physical. What if that machine of weather control weighs a couple tons, or is made of ice?

The social status of the item may also be a problem. Just found a javelin of dragon slaying? Every treasure hunter in the area will want a shot at you. And good luck if the nearby dragon hears anything!

With any drawback, make sure that the cost does not outweigh the power of the magical item. You don’t want the players to regret going through all the trouble of getting it in the first place!

Household Items

From Shahed Sharif

Most magic items have powers that center on adventuring. Yet, only a small proportion of the general population (or more importantly, of the rich and powerful) actually adventure. Most of the elite are political leaders or wealthy merchants. These are the people most likely to commission magic items that have prosaic uses and not so obvious adventuring uses.

How about a brush that sprays a caustic cleaning liquid on command, which might be good to spray in a foe’s eyes? A crystal dictaphone, (a jewel that records sound), could be a great spying tool. A wardrobe that dresses its owner upon command is useful for those in need of a quick disguise. For these items, you don’t even need to come up with a creative use yourself – just come up with a magical whatsit that makes any mundane task easier, and let the players figure out how to abuse it.

Transforming Items

From Shahed Sharif

Items that gradually transform into other items, or are parts of larger ones, give you an opportunity to add or change powers. Consider an egg that can store spells. One day, it hatches into a metal bird with new, greater powers. What about a stone whose color mimics the phases of the moon, with different powers at different times?

Be Descriptive

From J L Ford

Describe what the PCs have found. Be specific. Instead of saying “You find a ring,” tell your players, “You find a ring made of a reddish metal, a few dwarvish runes carved into it reading, ‘To Darkath, may you soar with birds.’ It feels slightly worn but gives off warmth as you touch it.” Which would you rather find as a player?

Some basic descriptors are:

  • Composition
  • Color
  • Texture
  • Writings/engravings
  • Perceived temperature of the item
  • Size
  • Shape

Some of these will be dictated by the item. A ring’s basic shape is already determined, as is writing on a scroll of fireball. However, perhaps there’s one region or race that makes a specific paper? A scroll written on paper made from seaweed grown only in one bay of the Oligmaar Ocean is far more interesting than just a scroll.

Give It More Properties

From J L Ford

A +1 longsword doesn’t have to be just a +1 longsword. Make it a +1 flaming longsword. This is minor, yes, but think of other uses for the flaming properties. I had one player with a flaming longsword who used to stick his raw steak on his sword, issue the command word, and then let his sword cook the steak.

Perhaps a wizard uses a +1 flaming dagger to light his candles? A fighter uses a +2 heavy mace of frost to keep his ale cold, while his cleric buddy is using a +1 holy crossbow bolt to assist in the creation of holy water.

There are numerous roleplay possibilities in many of the abilities, and the players (as well as their characters) will make their own stories with their own, unique items. Maybe a bard has discovered a way of making weaker thunderstones, and uses them in his/her performance to add some bass to their musical performance.

Don’t be afraid to let players use their items creatively.

Curse It, But Be Creative

From J L Ford

For instance, perhaps a sword was created, and in the attempt to give it intelligence, its creator gave it the soul of a doting goblin matron. Imagine the horror on the rogue’s face when the sword tells him to watch his language or she’ll rinse it out with mud.

Interesting intelligence isn’t the only curse an item could have. Imagine gauntlets of ogre strength that bestowed an ogre’s intelligence and charisma upon its wearer, as well. Perhaps a cleric’s holy symbol of turning requires the physical act of turning in a circle to work.

Be Consistent

From J L Ford

This is the one clue I give any and all GMs, no matter what the topic is. No matter what style of play your group likes, be it hack-and-slash, political intrigue, role playing, roll playing, and so on, be consistent.

The players (and thus, the characters) will notice that if a lowly thug has a +1 weapon, then it’s probably cheap enough for most people, and trying to charge the PCs 500,000 gold pieces for a +1 weapon will not make sense.

If the PCs have reached 9th level (or a similar equivalent for non-level based games) and one party member finally got a single +1 arrow, they will be quite upset upon finding out that magic weapons are sold everywhere for 40 percent of book value.

Tips for being persistent are:

  • Follow logic. If magic is rare, magic items will be rarer. If magic is everywhere and prevalent, then obtaining a +1 magic weapon should not involve a grandiose quest.
  • Follow basic economic principles. If there is no demand for magic items in a given location, there will be little (if any) supply. If there is great demand, and the supply chain can keep up, then there will most likely be a shop that purchases and sells magical items. If demand is great and supply is low, prices will skyrocket, whereas prices drop dramatically the other way around.
  • Remember and record. If it’s been established the elven weapon smith Arranag is always marks his weaponry with a stylish A, and now one of the party members starts marking their weaponry the same way, Arranagis is going to take offense.
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A Brief Word From Johnn

Next Issue Will Be Mid-August

This will be the last issue for a little while. Next issue will hit your Inbox mid-August.

Eve Online MMO Is Fun

I spent two weeks playing EVE Online, and it’s an amazing, awesome, sci-fi online game. You start by crafting your character and choosing a career path. Then you are unleashed on the galaxy to do whatever you want: mine ore for money to buy better ships and ship components, be a trade broker in the real-time marketplace, become a bounty hunter and kill pirates and rogue-PCs in space combat for huge rewards, join a corporation and try your hand at politics, or choose from several other options.

If you like science-fiction, then I recommend giving this game a free spin. Here’s a link for a 14-day free trial: https://secure.eve-online.com/ft/?aid=100685

Note: you’ll start play like I did, in a newbie-safe zone. So, if you haven’t tried an online game before, don’t worry – the tutorial guides you safely through things, and you can play without fear of being attacked or harassed.

Cheers,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Large Battles With Fewer Rolls

From Paul Wilson

Single Roll: Because D&D uses a D20 for most resolutions it can easily be used to handle large numbers of individuals. This is because each number in a D20 check can be thought of as a 5% increment (100% divided by 20). This can therefore be used to quickly calculate the percentage of the individuals that succeed or fail a particular D20 check.

If the check equals the target DC this can be treated as if 50% of the individuals succeed. For each number that the check exceeds the target DC you can add 5% to the number of individuals that pass. For each number below you have to subtract 5% of the individuals that pass. This is capped at 100% and has a minimum of 0%. This can also be used for attack rolls. The number that “pass” are the number that succeed at the attack and hit the enemy. Round off any decimals as normal.

For example:

Take the DC as 16 and the number of individual’s subject to this check as 40.

If a 16 is rolled then 50% of the individuals pass the check. Which means that 20 of them pass.

If a 17 is rolled then 55% of the individuals pass the check. Which means that 22 of them pass.

This system is scalable from an individual up to as many troops as you like because it is based on percentages.

Average Damage:

  • Roll damage once (or take the average)
  • Multiply by the number that hit
  • Divide by the average hit points of the targets.

This will give the number of individuals killed. The whole numbers give the number of troops killed, and if there are any decimals left, then keep these and add them to the next damage done to the unit (round off to 1 decimal place).

Here is an example of this used in a mass combat situation:

Alpha is a squad of 20 Archers. Beta is a squad of 30 infantry.

Alpha

Number of troops: 20 (Level 2 Fighters)
Weapon: Short Bow (damage 1D6)
Armour: Studded Leather Armour (total AC 10+3[armour]+2[dex] = 15)
Hit points: 19 (2D10+4)

Beta

Number of troops: 30 (Level 2 Fighters)
Weapon: Long Sword (damage 1D8)
Armour: Breast Plate and Large Shield (total AC 10+5[armour]+2[shield]+2[dex] = 19)
Hit points: 19 (2D10+4)

Example combat

Alpha unleashes a volley of arrows at Beta. 16 rolled +2[base attack] +2[dex] = 20

This means that 55% of the attacks hit the mark. That’s 11 hits.

If the average damage is 3, 11 hits makes 33 points of damage. This is then divided by the average hit points of Beta (19), giving a total killed of 1.7. So 1 individual is killed, and there is some damage to the rest of Beta squad, so you keep the 0.7 damage left.

Beta closes with Alpha and makes a melee attack. 19 rolled +2[base attack] +2[str] = 23

Critical threat, roll to confirm: 18 rolled +2[base attack] +2[str] = 22 A critical hit!

As Alpha only has an AC of 15 this means that 90% of Beta’s attacks hit giving 26 hits (29 * 90% = 26.1).

Average Damage = 6 (4+2)

Critical (*2) = 12

Multiply by the number of hits (26) = 312

Divide by target’s average HP (19) = 16.4

Alpha loses 16 troops bringing them to a total of 4.

Gaming Communications Accuracy

From Mike Bourke

Regarding the reader’s tip in issue 319 regarding world events:

http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=319#R2

One major flaw with the proposal stated is that it assumes a perfect communications mechanism. There is no allowance for communications lag or distortion from any one of a dozen reasons. Yet, if these are issues in our modern world, with all its high-tech news-gathering and reporting options, then they must also be present in pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds or the heightened anarchy of modern/future game settings.

There are five parts to any reported event:

  1. The core event
  2. The circumstances
  3. The outcome
  4. Official reaction
  5. Public reactions

These are ranked in order of unreliability in any media report containing them.

Each type of communications technology has an inherently limited level of accuracy. The worst (as any school yard game of Chinese whispers will confirm) are verbal reports; the next worst are transcribed reports; then relayed reports; then audio broadcasts; and most accurate are audio- visual reports, which require considerable sophistication to falsify or misrepresent – though it can be done.

Each step in the communications relay exposes the message to the inherent risk entailed by the communications method. Considering each area of sensitivity as an additional communications relay step permits a simple exponential calculation to let the GM assess the reliability (and level of distortion) of each aspect of the message:

Net reliability = base reliability ** (sensitivity + steps).

For example, if word of mouth reports are received of a famine in the east by means of 4 relay steps, and word of mouth is 90% reliable, then:

Net reliability, core event = 0.9 ** 4 = 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 = .6561 = 66%.

There is thus a 1-in-3 chance that there is NO famine in the east, though the population there might be preparing for one or expecting one.

Net reliability, circumstances = 0.9 ** 5 = 0.9 x 0.6561 = .59049 = 59%.

So, while the reported cause might be locusts, there is a 41% chance the real cause could be anything from a guild dispute to excess of rain.

Net reliability, outcome = 0.9 ** 6 = 0.9 x 0.59049 = .531441 = 53%.

So, while the report might state they are all starving to death, and the army has deserted to loot and pillage for food, there is a 47% chance the army is in complete control and is staging an invasion of its neighbors to gain the food needed.

Net reliability, official reaction = 0.9 ** 7 = 48%

Net reliability, public reaction = 0.9 ** 8 = 43%

“The majority of their citizens are clamoring for relief and would aide us in the event of an invasion by our forces in exchange for food. Many of their generals are believed to be ready to launch a coup and would welcome our aide. Your majesty, they are a plum ripe for the picking, at little cost to ourselves….”

Note, this method is very sensitive to the base reliability. If the reliability of word-of-mouth reports is only 1% lower than that used above (89% instead of 90%), the reliability of the public reaction drops a full 4%. Even at the 90% mark, adding another two steps to the relay drops it by 9%.

This method is rough-and-ready, and capable of a lot of refinement. It doesn’t take into account the degrees of local interest in the news – but the more important it is to the people relaying the message, the more likely it is to be correct. Thus, reports of an earthquake to the south might not cause a great disturbance locally, and might not be reported accurately far to the north (or at all); but reports of an earthquake to the south that was going to cause an increase in the general taxation rate would be big news all over an empire. Thus it would persist far longer and be distorted even more.

There is also the truism that news travels by the fastest route possible. This is not quite true – rumor and gossip do so, but reliable news is often much slower.

There is clearly a lot of room for further development of the idea, but the nature of that development would vary greatly from campaign to campaign, and even from location to location within a campaign.

Gaming Consistently

From Greg Stockton

My method, which has sustained my weekly campaign for nearly 4 years (and 16 levels of character advancement) is that we run on Thursday nights, at 9pm.

Virtually everybody in my campaign has a significant other, and four have two or more children, so any attempt to do Friday nights, weekends, or any other time that would incur spouse wrath was just not going to happen.

I hit on the idea of 9pm Thursday night at the very start of the campaign. The logic is that by 9pm people have spent time with their families, and the kids are either in bed, or the spouse can take care of them without undue burden. Also, although going to bed at 12am or 1am can be painful when you have to be up 4-5 hours later, it’s Friday, so you get to sleep in the following day.

Obviously, it doesn’t work for everybody all the time, and I’m probably the worst for cancelling (being the GM), but the trend is that it works and everybody (spouses included) is happy with it.

Paralleling Real-World Events

From John Pete D.

I can appreciate the frustration when one takes away from his busy schedule to set aside time to play a game, and then everybody else is late.

To maintain interest, find out what your players are interested in. Incorporate ideas from movies and books they’ve read and seen. Current events are cool. When Saddam annexed Kuwait, it was like in one of our games when the kingdom of Georgeland was at threat of being taken over by changelings working with a border nation of trolls, and other beings. Instead of sending in tanks, the DM sent an

iron clad dire bear of some sort (in one of the books) that ran people down like a tank. Parallel world events make for an engrossing game.