Making Magic Items Interesting
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #320
Making Magic Items Interesting
From Matt Craft
A common problem in fantasy games is that magic items, no matter how rare they’re supposed to be, end up becoming boring, commonplace tools as far as the players are concerned. A longsword +1 is just a weapon that deals an extra point of damage, the ring of regeneration just means the fighter can go toe-to-toe with a troll, and the horn of blasting just means the party can threaten mighty kings. Players rapidly start picking through the treasure, tossing out items they don’t feel are good enough.
Part of the problem is the players, who fail to roleplay their characters properly – how do they know it’s a +1 longsword? They can tell it’s enchanted to make it a better weapon, perhaps, and they might even be able to tell the enchantment is weaker than the one on their own blade—but no one, unless they’re a wizard with time to study the item in depth, should be able to tell exactly what it does. That weak longsword +1 might have a wish spell concealed under the main enchantment.
Another part of the problem often lies with the GM who makes magic too common. He gives in to the Magical Warfare Arms Race, where the party gets a specific item to beat a specific bad guy, but the item proves versatile enough in the hands of creative players that the enemy has to be pumped up to withstand it. This eventually leads to a new, more powerful item, and it escalates from there until the players get it into their heads to challenge the gods.
How, then to make magic special without escalating an arms race?
The first and simplest way is to limit the number and power of magic items. If a longsword +1 is a rare find, the players will come to respect it.
If one of your players is a wizard, however, sooner or later they’ll decide to make their own magic items. One way to limit this is to make the process so involved, complex, expensive and/or risky that only wizards who desperately need an item will undergo the task of creating one, perhaps crafting a simple magical sword requires a pact with a demon or the sacrifice of a female albino teenager with six fingers.
For the groups without a mage, the task is simpler –keep them from getting their hands on magic. There are no magic shops anywhere. The dragon’s lair contains, perhaps, the sword of a legendary hero, a longsword +1, which wasn’t enough to keep him from being eaten by the dragon.
Another possible solution, suggested to me by Johnn, is the existence of a guild of some sort who snap up any magical items they find, limiting the number of items floating around. Perhaps there is more than one guild, in constant conflict. If they’re the only magic-heavy groups around, the devastation caused by some of their battles could seriously sway public opinion, limiting the creation of new magic items and what can be found abandoned or stolen from unwary agents of the guilds. This puts the matter firmly in the GM’s hands as to what might be available.
Another option is to make magic illegal. One common theme in fantasy is a court magician. Those magicians might persuade the current ruler to ban all magic not officially permitted by noble ruling. This would nicely secure the court wizard’s position, and put any magic-bearing PCs in hot water. Sure, the ring of invisibility might be handy right now, but if a guard sees it, the entire party will go on the kingdom’s Most Wanted list quickly.
A final possibility is to have magic gradually wear out. If even permanent spells wear out, eventually the legendary sunsword of the vampire slayer Von Dalchin will be nothing more than a rusty relic of bygone times. While none of the PC items should have a high chance of wearing out during the game, the fact that it happens means there are fewer items floating around, and if the party gets an item they’re abusing too much, the magic will wear out eventually.
Some players will feel cheated if they don’t get to deck their character out until he glows with magic, however. For players like that, there are other solutions.
If your players demand magic, one solution is to give them magical items with quirks. You can use major and minor quirks.
Minor quirks can be amusing or annoying, but rarely have any impact beyond making the items unique and unusual. The horn of blasting amplifies all the sound around it, constantly causing an ear-grating humming unless it gets carefully wrapped in sound-dampening cloths. Maybe the potions of healing leave you ravenously hungry, burning up your body’s calories to heal you. You still might die…of starvation!
In essence, a minor quirk is something that causes, at worst, a small inconvenience. In the examples above, most players will have food on hand, especially if they know healing potions make you hungry, and a tunic can serve to muffle the horn.
Major quirks have significant impact. Perhaps the power of the sword is tied to the phases of the moon, with a full moon giving it the most power and the new moon making it weaker than a common iron blade. Perhaps those potions of flight actually turn you into a giant parakeet for the duration. (A nice GM will let the equipment polymorph with the character. A more evil GM will rule on damage to the equipment if it falls and breaks.)
As a general rule of thumb for this way of handling magic, the more powerful the item, the quirkier it should be. Potions of healing make you hungry, but the Rod of Resurrection kills all plant life within a mile!
Some sample quirks:
- The item is linked to the lunar phases; during the full moon the power of it is enhanced, and during the new moon it functions as if it were a cursed item. (Major quirk)
- Potions of flight that transform you into a giant bird, probably something utterly strange such as a parakeet. This seriously limits the stealth potential of a flight potion, to say nothing of the strange looks a giant parakeet will get. (Major quirk)
- A single weapon that has two different sets of powers, depending on if the sun is up or not. Preferably, the powers are opposite from each other. There’s nothing like fighting a troll with your flamebrand, then when the sun sets you’re suddenly waving around a frostbrand instead…. (Major quirk)
- While most of the item’s powers work as advertised, one randomly fluctuates – probably the most useful power. Every time the wielder tries to use it, there’s a chance the power will fail to work. (Major quirk)
- The item’s powers occasionally mutate randomly. Perhaps the longsword +1 you had when you fell asleep is a flamebrand this morning, and then it’s a cursed longsword of fumbling at lunch! (Major quirk)
- Whenever the owner uses the item, it attracts normal insects of some kind. While not particularly major, it is irritating to have a swarm of flies and wasps descend on you in the middle of a pitched fight with an orc chieftain…. (Minor quirk)
- The item glows. Constantly. The glow will radiate through anything used to try to shield it. This is a nuisance as the character can never hide as long as he has the item on hand. (Minor quirk)
- The item hums all the time. It can be either a vague droning sound that gradually gets on everyone’s nerves, or it can be humming a tune, but it only knows one tune, which can drive people crazy faster than the atonal humming would. (Minor quirk)
- As long as the owner carries the item, small plants and animals around him will fall over dead. This quirk could rapidly lead to accusations of demonic origins, necromancy, etc. (Minor quirk)
- The item has an aura around it that subliminally convinces people that they know the owner from somewhere, even if they’ve never seen him before. While this won’t predispose them for or against the owner, it will result in strange looks and weird expressions…. (Minor quirk)
Many game systems rule that an intelligent magic item can have a will of its own and is able to disagree with its owner or refuse a task. This doesn’t have to be so. Some magic items may just be intelligent and like to talk. Which is worse, a taciturn holy sword that refuses to do anything that won’t further the cause of Good, or the dagger in your belt that just won’t shut up, especially when you really need it to? Maybe the item says the wrong things at the wrong time….
Most intelligent items will have names, and egotistical ones may like to hear it a lot, even if they’re the one saying it. “Did I ever tell you about the Battle of Sun Peak? The hero, Glong, had the magic sword Sunbreaker -that’s me – and he….” This can get frustrating in no time at all, but if the weapon has a useful power, the party may need to keep it with them, suffering the incessant chatter with gritted teeth and cotton in their ears.
We all know how irritating it is to get woken up early in the morning by missionaries coming to your door. Picture a mace or shield that used to belong to a powerful priest – now, the intelligent item tries to convert everyone in earshot, using any method it can think of: shouting everyone awake to ‘view the glorious dawn created by Pelor!’, singing hymns and paeans late into the night, shouting insults at priests of opposing faiths….
Give the PCs an item with personality, no matter how weak the item is, and it will stick in their minds and remind them how magic is strange. After all, which is cooler, a warhammer +1, or a warhammer +1 named Crusher, which grumbles incessantly about ham-handed idiots who can’t swing a hammer to save their lives?
Some sample personalities:
- A sweet, naive, pacifistic personality. This is especially appropriate for a non-lethal weapon, such as an enchanted net or lariat – or fittingly ironic for a powerfully enchanted sword.
- A power-mad megalomaniac who seems convinced the party is going to do what it wants and makes dire threats if it gets disobeyed. Not that it can’t actually do anything, but having your sword tell you what it intends to do to you for sparing the villagers can be creepy.
- For some reason, the item believes itself to be a dog. It barks at passing strangers, pants after a long fight, and howls at the moon.
- A lazy, apathetic personality that doesn’t want to be bothered, and which will complain loudly if it gets used.
- A weapon that refuses to speak any language the players can understand, but which will talk loudly and at length in foreign tongues.
- Steadfastly loyal to an ancient empire, which, it seems, has outlawed just about everything the party likes to do. The item will routinely try to get the party locked up by screaming things like ‘Help! Thief!’ when around guards.
- A stalwart, heroic personality that likes to keep morale up, often shouting cheers and encouragement to the wielder. It’s like the annoying sidekick, only without the occasional, useful backup.
- A quiet, taciturn personality, who gradually gets used to the party; eventually, while never becoming talkative, the item will defend the party against anyone trying to slander them.
A Dragon Magazine once had an article on too many magic items having strange effects around each other. If your players like to carry around a lot of magic items, this may well cure them of the problem.
What’s the point of wearing plate mail +2, carrying a flaming longsword +3, wearing a ring of regeneration, invisibility, and warmth, and a cloak of flight if having more than three of items causes effects like glowing purple (even while invisible), speaking in a high falsetto voice that makes dogs howl, and having your shadow lag about three seconds behind you?
Two kinds of side effects are possible: ones resulting from permanent magical items like cloaks, swords, and the like, and ones from temporary items like wands, potions, and powders.
Permanent quirks may or may not remain after the items are removed. It’s the GM’s call, although the first ruling should set the standard. If they’re completely permanent, a Remove Curse spell may be needed to free the victim of the effects.
Permanent quirks can do just about anything: change the way a character looks, the way he sounds, the way he sees things…. Picture the poor sap who gets a mother-in-law illusion only he can see!
It is a good idea to tailor the side effects to the items. If the character is wearing something like a displacer cloak, a ring of invisibility, or boots of stealth, perhaps he becomes permanently invisible. This might seem like an advantage at first, but picture how hard it’ll be to do anything normal. Shopkeepers won’t want anything to do with him, guards will be convinced he’s up to no good even if he’s just trying to visit a friend, and most anything that can see him will likely be hostile anyway. If he’s the only thing to turn permanently invisible, his clothes and gear will seem to be animated, or controlled by a ghost!
Temporary effects should result from temporary items – wait long enough, and they’ll wear off. Someone who drank too many potions of flight in too short a time might not be able to land, constantly drifting up to bump against the ceiling like a balloon. Effects wearing off can be hazardous too.
Mixing different kinds of potions can be dangerous. A potion of flight, a potion of healing, and a potion of strength might intermix and result in the character temporarily turning into a small roc, or they might explode as the different types of magic fight for dominance. They might just give the character a horrible case of indigestion, complete with belching rainbow clouds of fumes.
Some examples of temporary effect:
- The character grows useless batwings, which refuse to go away. This makes wearing a cloak and armour difficult, and the character will likely be accused of being a demon anywhere he goes.
- As a result of too many fire-magic items, the character’s hair turns into a corona of flames. While they don’t harm him and aren’t hot enough to really hurt anything, it makes sleeping on anything flammable a bit tricky.
- The character’s hair starts growing rapidly – a full inch per hour. While not fast enough to be immediately dangerous, letting it go for a few days without cutting it can be trouble. On the other hand, an enterprising character can make a fortune selling hair to wigmakers and rope-weavers.
- A phantasmal image follows the character everywhere, hovering on the edge of the character’s vision. Disturbing things regularly manifest, such as the glint of light off a scythe’s edge, the crackling of bones moving without flesh, or the rustle of a thick black robe.
- The character attracts ravens. Everywhere he goes, they’ll flock to perch on things and stare at him. Often he’ll wake up to find two or three sitting on his chest, peering at him with dark eyes. If ravens are known for something – bearers of ill luck, messengers of the gods, familiars of evil wizards – this can be amusing to play out.
- The character temporarily develops a reverse chameleon effect. His skin perfectly mirrors whatever happens to be on the other side of him, but in precisely the opposite colors.
- The character’s use of too much temporary flight magic (shouldn’t have drank that last potion of flying right after using the dust of airwalking) leaves him temporarily weightless. Even a mild wind can blow him away, although, unless he gets trapped against something, he likely won’t be hurt by any attacks.
- The character begins to glow, radiating light equal to a good candle. This makes him exceptionally easy to find in the dark.
- The character attracts the attention of every spirit, faerie, and magical beast within a five-mile radius. This can get frustrating quickly.
- The character’s size begins to fluctuate, depending on his mood; the happier or angrier he gets, the bigger he grows; the more somber or tired he gets, the smaller he becomes. However, his mass doesn’t change. Picture a 20-foot-tall dwarf who weighs as much as a four-foot-tall dwarf!
The best way, however, is to simply make items memorable. Give the +1 sword a description and history. Make it unique, with a place in your world’s background. How will the thief feel when he finds out his magic dagger once belonged to the noble barbarian hero-turned-king Dalmont, who fought the same demon lord now menacing the land again?
While it may be more work for the poor GM, the rewards can be great. One of my own favorite magic items remains a simple sword with a bluish blade; it has a habit of talking to itself in strange tongues, and has a raging hatred of water and water elementals. It used to belong to the pirate Havarin, who used it to destroy the elemental guarding the port city of Pearl. In game terms, it’s nothing more than a simple sword +1 with a minor intelligence, but to my character, it’s a historic legacy.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Magic Items Series Begins
This issue begins a three part series about making magic items interesting. Way back in 2004 I had requested articles on this topic. Right around then I changed jobs and moved to a new city.
As requested, several folks sent in outlines of their articles first, for approval and reservation. However, a number of industrious readers sent articles in during the following weeks without notice. The submissions were all very much appreciated! However, this created a dilemma of having several repeat and overlapping articles and tips.
Procrastination and time pressures for other things soon set in as I debated how to handle the issue. However, thanks to the recent addition of Leslie and Isaac as e-zine co- editors, this project has finally been wrapped up.
My apologies to all the writers who waited two and a half years to see their magic items tips in the e zine! I dropped the ball on this one.
Over the next three issues, we’ll feature several tips from different authors. Then keep an eye out for a magic items supplemental issue with all the tips and articles received in one huge file.
Congrats to the ENnie Nominees
Kudos to Joe and Suzi over at Expeditious Retreat Press, and to the great folks at Tabletop Adventures, for getting nominated for Gen Con ENnie 2006 awards! Look for their ads in this issue. Don’t forget to vote online: July 17-30. http://www.enworld.org/ennies/2006-1.html
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Game Time Savers
Time savers I use when getting ready for a game:
- Word Processor – Bold text is to be read to the players. Italics are events that are triggered. Plain text is DM’s description. Hypertext launches links to other docs.
- YoYoDyne’s Monster 3.5 – Creates stat block web pages in seconds for SRD monsters. Save them to a folder, and link to them from the Word Processor document. Use Firefox or another tabbed browser to read them. Change the template if you like.
- d20srd.org – Give them the $15 and get the downloadable version. It’s worth it. I keep multiple copies of this up anytime I’m gaming.
- Graph Paper – Nothing beats graph paper for speed in dungeon design, except maybe pre-printed maps.
- Visual Aids – Each player gets a Tupperware box for their character. If they find a potion they get a numbered dram vial. If they drink a potion, they hand it over. I run a spreadsheet with all the vial numbers and their contents. Ido the same with scrolls (flat bobbins), and other magic items (index cards). Once this is set up, it runs very gracefully, and disorganized players usually only drink the wrong potion once.
Character Creation Doesn’t Stop When The Game Starts
From Jonas Dorn
For the type of RPG I play, which tries to emphasize role- playing over roll-playing (while still providing ample opportunities for the heroes to kill or be killed), preparation is the key prerequisite for a good game.
If the DM takes or invents an unimaginative scenario, or if the players arrive with bland characters, it will be difficult to have the group create an interesting story. This means a DM should not only think about the setting and its surprising twists and turns, but also be involved in character creation.
Don’t be afraid to say no to an idea, but be flexible enough to adjust your setting or the story to accommodate creative ideas. For example, a player wanted to be a vampire in my D&D campaign. That was a problem because of the level adjustment, and because of the evil nature of vampires. We talked about it and came up with a vampire-afflicted template, where the otherwise normal character gets some of the vampire’s qualities, but will wake up in the middle of the night with an irresistible urge to drink blood from the closest living being if he fails his will save.
Even if you are starting up a campaign with experienced players, but more so when having players who are new to the game, this process of figuring out the character takes time. I allow at least two weeks for that, even though I would love nothing more than to start playing the moment I have my group assembled.
One additional advantage of talking with players about their characters is that you can point them to skills or spells that aren’t covered by the group yet (if you roll high on your personal diplomacy check, you will be able to do it without them ever noticing :). If they really would like their cleric to be a maestro with the flute, let them do it and provide them with an opportunity sometime later to use that skill.
In one of my campaigns, I have a player who wanted to play a unique character, while at the same time, he wasn’t creative and knowledgeable enough to actually build one. Worse, at first he did not want me to interfere. In that instance, it helped a lot to allocate enough time for character creation, because once he had finally made up his mind about the character, and showed me a horrible character sheet two days before the first session, I could see where he wanted the character to be going, and could explain how he could achieve the goals for his character with somewhat better balanced stats. Now he has a character he’s happy playing that I would actually love playing myself, which, in my opinion, should be the DM’s goal for character creation.
Once you’re off on a good start, I believe every session should be equally important. This means the characters should be given opportunities to show their facets, and they should learn something more about the world every single session, even if all they do is fight an epic battle. And remember: character creation doesn’t stop when the game starts. It’s just called development.
The Most Important Session
From Dave Bray
What is the most important session?
This is a tough question. I could not decide until I made a distinction between most important and most entertaining. Thinking like this, the first session is the most important. The first session sets the tone and introduces the characters, the plot, and the setting. It’s like opening night at the theater.
Use Consistent Visual Aids
From Ian Toltz
Visual aids are always a nice addition to any game, but one problem can be finding aids that are consistent. Thus, I suggest using the artwork from Magic: The Gathering. Regardless of how you feel about the game or its art, for over 10 years they’ve been taking great pains to ensure that each block maintains a distinct and consistent visual flavor (I’d say starting with Mirage block, although Tempest is when it really got tight).
On the downside, it requires you to have a little bit of knowledge about Magic so you know what to look for. Still, I think it’s well worth the trouble.
You can search all the cards and see their pictures at [ Gatherer – Magic: The Gathering ].
As an added bonus, sometimes Magic can prove a good source of inspiration. For example, I’ve based a group in my world, called the Vodak, off of a guild called the Simic from the most recent set of magic, Guildpact. The Simic are a collection of researchers and wizards who conduct experiments in altering organisms, sort of a sci-fi genetic engineering thing in a fantasy garb.