Thursday, December 25, 2008

Magic Items Should be Magical

Grognardia is is right "Serendipity seems to strike a lot in the blogging world." Besides that there is 6d6 Fireball's Branded Magic and this question from some old guy.
This and the related accompanying magic item posts (which will be posted over the next ten days) are updated and edited content from two articles I wrote for Fudge Factor a, sadly, defunct FUDGE e-zine .

Make it a personal goal that every magic item your players pry out of you will be notable and prized by the player who obtains it. It will have a name, colorful description, history, previous owners, secrets and above all it will be mystical, wondrous, and exciting. Invest as much time detailing items as you do on NPCs. After all it is likely that non-expendable items and the character will have more interaction and a longer relationship than the character will have with most NPCs.

Make Items Special
Create a 3x5 note card for each item to give to the lucky new owner (keep a separate card or notebook for secrets about the item the player has not learned yet). Providing something tangible that the player receives, can hold, point to, wave in the air, throw across the room when it fails, and is missed when taken away is a bit of psychological trickery. But trickery I know from personal experience creates heaps of fun. Unfortunately, it takes no small effort esp if like me you draw pictures too. But Mike Mearls is doing it so it must be awesome!

The cards also provide space for descriptions, pictures, history and what not. Occasional additions to or outright replacement of the card should be made as the player discovers the item's secrets. Reserve the back of the card for player notes; where they keep it, thoughts on how it works, great deeds accomplished with it, whatever. In manager speak you want to facilitate player "ownership."

Never flat out tell the player what an item does. Know how the scariest of scary movies only hint at the BBE, similarly the awesomest of awesome magical items are slowly revealed. Provide one detail in an epic floor-to-ceiling mural on the temple facade in which the item was found. Another in a song the players hear several sessions later. Do not include mechanics in your descriptions, do not break immersion. Do not even later state the mechanics out loud for the whole group to hear, provide them privately. Allow the player an opportunity to roleplay item's explanation and usage.

Even if you want the players to know everything upfront don't just blurt out "It's a Horn of Blasting, can demolish doors, walls, small structures and does 6d6 to constructs." At the very least say in you best fabulous voice "Aha! You have found the legendary Trumpet of Droog. A single note of which shattered the stone guardians of Thool. A sustained blast will crack and crumble city walls and demolish lesser structures." Pass the game mechanics to the owner in a note, or hey on that 3x5 card you made for this item.

Alternatively, tell players everything but not how to make use of it. A cache of 5-10 potions, elixirs and rare alchemical components along with their carefully scribed labels all in a pile at the base of the potion rack. The players know what they got, but not what is which and of course one of labels is the skull & crossbones symbol of poison.

Some rules expect there to be plenty of accessible "plus items". Which really makes it hard to maintain the mystic of magic. I recently read an excellent way to handle this. Items that simply provide a plus bonus aren't magical! They are instead legendary masterworks. This idea rocks so hard. It takes a boring, immersion sucking, game mechanic, the ubiquetious +1 sword and transforms it into cool ass flavor. "Whoa I recognize that makers mark. You hold a Santoya Blade forged at least 300 years ago in the golden age when Caliphs still ruled Spain." I guess you could keep them magical and do the same thing. But to me it "fits" better. +1 hit/dam seems like the effect of a master craftsman, somthing magical should be so much more...

Make Items Unique
When describing an item the characters have found describe that particular individual item. Describe in specifics, don't neglect sounds, tastes and smells the item possesses or generates. Depending on how magic & morality work in your world there might be other detectable emanations. "Before you is a 5' long smooth metal staff capped on one end by a large translucent bluish-white crystal. It crackles with arcane power as you grasp it." Not "Found a Staff of lighting, they are from 5-6 feet long and often have crystals incorporated in their construction."

Create and focus on one or two signature details. Not just "a crystal" but "a large translucent bluish-white crystal." Consider making items other than scrolls and potions literally unique. It's pretty awesome to know there is exactly one Helm of the Ancients and your character gots it.

If a player asks a leading question "What's in the crystal?" Never respond with "Nothing it's just a translucent bluish-white crystal." Instead, roll with it! "The multi-faceted crystal captures your attention. Within its depths the torchlight's feeble orange light is reflected and amplified into the purest white. You drift off into pleasant memories of moonlight sparkling off the frost white snows of your long missed homeland." Maybe that's too fluffy... but, you get the idea.

Getting your players accustomed to specific traits being associated with particular magics creates opportunities for atmosphere and immersion. For instance, from frequent past usage everyone knows that invisibility potions smell strongly of lemon. While in the Dungeon of Dark Despair the scout makes a detect hidden check. Instead of blurting out "There's an invisible bugbear behind you." lean forward, sniff the air and whisper "Something familiar, a smell you can't quite place. As it gets stronger, you know this smell. It's lemon! From behind you and quite close."

Use props. Hell yes! Encourage artistic players to draw, sculpt, or craft their items. Bring a gong for the player to bang on. Use a tarot deck for the Deck of Many Things. Play thunderous sound effects when the Javelin of Lighting strikes true. Change the ambient light level/color when Sting glows due to nearby orcs. Get a bull's horn and spend a day with your kids decorating it, then the paladin will remember being presented the Trumpet of Courage. Use food coloring colored water/juice in tiny bottles for potions (be sure to announce the option for players to only pretend they drank your icky concoction). I know one DM that uses flash powder for fire based effects. You'll have to decide with your players what level of this they will enjoy/tolerate :). Some might think its hokey and distracting others will love it. Just ask.

Keep Items Important
Once a player has the item, don't let them forget about it. Reinforce how rare, magical and amazing it is. Peasants, followers, and hanger-ons will beg to see it. Collectors will try to steal it. The characters will hear songs or read tomes that mention it. Perhaps the heir of the original owner believes it rightly belongs to them and takes their claim to the authorities. Does it need maintenance? Perhaps a magical fungus starts growing on it. "Brave sir Hadley what is that fuzzy brown stuff on your Holy Avenger?".

If they carry it on their person it should be in danger; of being broken, getting rained on, pick pocketed, drained of magic, dropped into a volcano. Players keeps it safely stored "at home"? The place should be broken into and ransacked but the item was fortunately not stolen, this time. Let them overhear how a great conflagration burnt down the characters home town. Make them fret over whether or not their hoard is so much melted junk. If it fits the character, encourage them to roleplay misplacing it for a few days "Oh, here it is, in my other robes."

Don't make every event negative. It shouldn't be a constant burden just to own a magic item. Positive encounters persist even longer in players' memories. An artist or sculptor might desire to see it, even pay for the privilege. Perhaps a great wizard asks to study it. Having a wizard owe you a favor should be worth something. Events involving the characters' magic items shouldn't come up every five minutes either. Occasionally when you need a plot pick up or if the players complain about there not being enough phat lootz.

Design of Items
When designing magic items consider leaving some details of function undecided and flexible. Outline a concept and leave the particulars to be determined as they are needed. Old-school fans will notice and praise how many items(and monsters) in OD&D follow just such a skeletal approach. Although, this will create difficulties in writing up items for blogs and gaming magazines, it generates opportunities for DMing. Great for plot hooks, moving the action forward, enhancing the mystery of magic, and so forth. Players come up with great ideas. You should always be prepared to steal them as your own. When they say "Wow, I bet it's [totally rad and yet not game breaking idea here]." calmly respond "Damn you guys are good! It is [totally rad and yet not game breaking idea here]."

I always try to equip the party with an item like this for use when party, plot or game stalls. You would like the players to be in Fooberg so they can meet the smokin hot warrior princess blah, blah, blah. But the characters are content to waste away in the pub where they are hailed as heroes and their tankards are never empty. Until one of them overhears a rumor that the lab notes of the wizard who created the item they've spent the last month trying to figure out can be found in the Fooberg Academy of Magic archives. Never mind that they haven't been able to figure out the item because you don't know what it does, the action is moving forward and action is good. (ok, I don't suggest that. But, I can't say it's never happened) If you're smart, you could plan all this stuff out in advance. But, I is dumb. So, I wing it.

I'm a firm believer that random and/or flaky magic is the best kind of magic. Combining being unique, vague, and flexible. Best of all, players tend to come up with great ways to (mis)use these items (see Mimi's Wand of Armor). Bags in which random things are found. Robes with similar pockets. Items that amplify or are keyed to what the character is thinking, a ring of weather control which creates weather based on the wearer's mood. Items that change effects based on phase of moon or how close they are to some other object/entity. When you exhaust the (random) Tables for Fables site try this google search.

Final Notes
sirlarkens mentioned the "It's Sort of Like a Wand" article from Dragon Magazine. Looking it up I'm damn sure that some 17 yrs ago this is the article that got me started. Garry Coppa where ever you are I owe you one. More recently I've gleamed sage advice from the most excellent Roleplaying Tips newsletter. Oh hey, look what they have done there.

I'd like the items accompanying this post to have more detail, but it's hard to flesh out in a vacuum. Using them today I'd weave more details into the fabric of my campaign world and possibly connect them to party members' history and knowledge. I'd like to end with an inspirational quote:

"Cause, remember: no matter where you go"... wait no, that's not the one

"Imagine the hell out of it!" Fuck yeah <horn sign>

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