RPG Blog Carnival — Fantastic Creations

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

Keith J. Davies was running the RPG Blog Carnival again about a month ago and invited me to toss my hat into the ring, but I ended up waffling on writing an entry because I’d been unable to decide what makes a creation “fantastic” when one of D&D’s basic tomes is full of examples of “fantastic” creations: swords, rings, books, potions, dusts, oils and paints, even machines, and so forth. All of which have amazing effects and powers. (Referring, of course, to the Dungeon Master’s Guides and their treasure lists, particularly in 1st Edition.)

Perhaps what we are looking for is, instead, a solution to +1 swords and [things] of [spell effects]; that is, to the problem of magic items being perceived and treated like eminently disposable accoutrements.

I suspect this attitude arises due historical and modern computer RPGs and fantasy adventure games where one grinds along constantly replacing their characters’ equipment for better (ie: more mechanically advantageous) gear, and using up charges in magic items until the next item comes along.

Part of this simply has to do with the nature of the game: D&D-like games are built around a constantly increasing power-curve and supply-and-demand tactical economy (ie: should I use my Potion of Strength to overcome this challenge now, or save it until a potentially more difficult challenge later? Should I spike this door shut, or is it safe to leave as is? etc).

So the problem comes to be: in a game with a constantly increasing power-curve and a strong buy-and-spend tactical element, how do we make items fantastic?

One way this has been handled historically is by creating a situation of scarcity: where magical items are few and far between, so any item with any sort of magical bonus is automatically an item worth hanging on to, regardless of how little benefit it might provide. Items of permanent enchantment become extremely valuable, while one-shot items are carefully hoarded, and often go unused entirely “just in case”. This has both benefits and drawbacks, as it messes with the in-built mechanical assumptions of D&D, though it means every item is “special” and “fantastic”.

I, personally, have found this an unappealing and rarely effective solution, as magical and interesting items are gained even more rarely than one might imagine and play of the game as writ, in terms of what D&D is “about”–having adventures where you go about fighting monsters and surviving/overcoming dungeons–becomes uninteresting. It also leads to significant “eternal hoarding” of one-shot and limited-use items, and can lead to the world itself seeming rather mundane, rather than fantastical.

Thus, to avoid setting-mundanity, sometimes the opposite route is taken, making magical items common, such that everyday peasants utilize the fruits of magic, or even spells, in their daily lives. The Dark Sun AD&D setting states magical items are rare and magic is outlawed, but turns around and makes magical items common, excepting that such items are actually crafted by elemental priests, servants of the sorcerer-kings, and most especially psionically-enchanted items, as well as (seemingly) making many fruits and liquids and such inherently magical (given their relative scarcity and rarity).

The problem, of course, is that a preponderance of magic would seem to lead to magic not being fantastic, but mundane, as it is when magical items are found in every hoard and looted treasure. Though one may attempt to mitigate this by having only certain commonly available magical items be of limited or singular use, while more powerful permanent items are of excessive rarity.

As an example, in one of my RPGs, At the Dawn, elfin crafters place portions of their own essence within the things they create, and are whole themselves only as long as they keep close what they have made. Magic is thus common-place, yet there is no market for the sale of such items, and each piece is valuable and desirable. This game, however, does not function along a power-curve as does D&D, nor does play share in that game’s nature.

Another solution, historically, is to tie magical items and their powers directly to the characters using them in some fashion: the Earthdawn RPG made it so a character’s magical equipment “leveled-up” along with the characters, growing in power as they did. So magical items might be common, but their effectiveness is limited outside the provenance of the owning character.

This is certainly one way to handle the situation, with new powers and mechanical pluses being added to an existing item over time as if it were a character, right along with the owning character. There are numerous ways to handle such a scenario in the specifics, which I won’t go into here, but it means each item ends up having a personal history with a specific character and players theoretically become less willing to part with them upon discovering new gear. It does not help mitigate the effects of scrolls and potions and similar being perceived as commonplace and less-than fantastic.

In another of my (in development) RPGs, eXpendable, the effectiveness of equipment is measured in terms of the number of extra dice it contributes to the player’s roll. However, not all equipment is the same, even if it is the exact same item of equipment; certain items that have special meaning to the character therefore count for dice (or more dice) where other items of the very same would not. Thus even previously “mundane” equipment can become meaningful during the course of missions.

Yet another oft-utilized ‘solution’, that has little impact mechanically and thus may be wholly ineffective depending on the group, is simply making each item unique in terms of color and campaign background, regardless of actual mechanical effect: every item is given its own story and history making it likeable and desirable, like a collectors’ item or important piece of setting history, perhaps even with small benefits due that history (a highly recognized king’s sword, for example; or a specially-designed ring that announces one’s membership in a particular guild; and so on).

In the D&D games I ran in late high school, in a pseudo-Arthurian setting where arcane magic and wizardry was considered pagan heresy, priests would bless blades in their god’s name, and even the lowliest +1 sword had a history behind its enchantment. I combined the ideas of rarity and color in an attempt to lend a touch of the fantastic to even low-benefit magic, though I do not know that it was entirely successful.

In the forthcoming the words RPG, the various items characters use and carry can only grant a bonus of more than 1 if the character has done some truly incredible and horrible things with it, literally sacrificed part of their soul to give it power. This makes “magical” items exceptionally rare, even though sorcery has become rampant in the world.

A solution seen much more rarely is to have items with magical effects that are not easily graded along the power curve: magical items that don’t have straight bonuses or combat-ready/obviously applicable powers, but have interesting, game-bending effects not otherwise achievable, that allow for creative utility on the part of the players. The DMG is full of these sorts of items–consider a set of paints that cause any pictures made with them to spring to life.

Interestingly, many mundane items fall under this category, and old school players in the 70’s were well known for using common items in highly creative ways (the inestimable 10′ pole comes to mind). However, such solutions when coupled to magic require creativity and care on the part of the designer, as it is too easy to unintentionally create an all-in-one, go-to solution, or even one that has almost no value or benefit. It can easily backfire, as well, with players who are less-than-creative or who are specifically desirous of character enhancement (especially when such enhancement is necessary as called for by the system).

It would seem to me the best mileage to create unique and fantastic magical items within the paradigm of D&D, without sacrificing the balance or nature of the game and its mechanics, can be had by combining some of the above. Common-place magic of small effect and limited utility, alongside items of any power level and quantitative benefit that also hold interesting effects that can be used creatively.

As an example, one of my short stories begins with a child becoming the leader of a tribe only after his father passes and the deceased’s bones are crafted into a blade by a man who sings them into their shape, catching the soul of the departed within and therefore allowing the father to continue to impart knowledge and strength to the child.

The sword, while enchanted and nigh unbreakable, with proper preparation and ritual, can also summon the ghosts of ancestral spirits for discussion or whatever aid a phantom may give, and who may, at rare times, simply whisper things of benefit or of trivia to a bearer of the bone’s bloodline.

I suspect, no matter how weak or powerful such a sword was mechanically, a player would be loathe to replace it in their inventory due the other properties it holds: an unbreakable material can be useful in myriad situations, as could the help or advice of a spirit. Both these effects strongly support the idea of the fantastic, rather than merely magically mundane, item. Additionally, that the item is an important symbol of leadership, which could be utilized for some kind of non-mechanical benefit and purpose, is of great value. The strong personal link to the character in the form of a family relationship is of similarly significant (though not over-riding) value to a player.

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