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December 14, 2005, 10:00 am

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Cheka Man

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Magical Magic Items


A little advice on magic items reposted from the Runebearer website.

A little advice on magic items reposted from the Runebearer website:

GM: “In the treasure hoard, you find an ornate sword, its is finely etched in gold with a design that makes it look as if a vine has wrapped around the blade. In the pommel, there is a single sapphire”
Mage PC: “I cast Identify All Magic Items Absolutely on the blade.”
GM: “Perhaps I ought to finish my”
Thief PC: “Save the color text, monkey boy. Just give us the stats.”
GM: “But I… Oh all right. It is a +1 sword that casts a light spell 3/day.”
Fighter PC: “Bah, another +1 sword. That’s the third one this adventure.”
Thief PC: “Perhaps we could sell it at Ye Olde Magic Shop. I could use some new +2 leather armor.”
Mage PC: “I toss the useless blade into my Bag of Carrying Ludicrous Amounts of Stuff and we continue on.”
GM: “I don’t suppose anyone cares about the legends surrounding the blade?”
PCs: “Huh?”
GM: “Oh, forget it.”

Ok, perhaps this scenario is a bit on the silly side. However, I am certain that many people reading this article have run or played in a game where magic items were just another reward or tool. You found them, identified them, distributed and used them. They were coveted and useful, but not particularly interesting in and of themselves.

This is a shame, since magic items have the potential to be a wondrous, mysterious and vital part of a campaign world. This month, I am going to discuss how we can create truly “magical” magic items.

Make Items Rare

The relative rarity of magic items in a campaign will seriously alter your players’ perception of how “cool” the items are. If every hoard contains a magic ring, then magic rings are commonplace. Getting one is similar to buying a new weapon or learning a new skill - useful, but not terribly exciting.

The first thing I would tell you is to make magic items scarce. Take magic toys out of the normal reward structure of your game. Every enemy does not carry a wand; every treasure pile does not have a magic sword. Save magic items for the truly nasty opponents, who will use them against the PCs. Perhaps a PC might be lucky to own 1-3 magic items in his entire career.

Making magic items rare increases the players’ interest level in the items they do find. If magic swords are easy to come by, then they can easily be obtained, disposed of and then replaced. If enchanted swords are very difficult to find and dangerous to obtain, then finding one is a special event. The PC who obtains the weapon will have a tale to tell and a unique advantage over his foes.

Realize that some games and worlds make it hard to keep magic items from the PCs. In these games, what you own is nearly as important as what skills and powers you possess. In AD&D for instance, many creatures can only be hit with magic weapons. In addition, many NPCs in printed supplements have fairly formidable lists of magic items. It is obvious that owning magic items is factored into the power structure of the game. This is not necessarily a bad thing - but it will have to be changed if magic items are to be rare. Change some of the monster listings; revise the villain descriptions and absolutely alter the treasure listings in published supplements.

Of course, you can overdo it and never allow magic items to fall into the hands of the PCs. Keep magic items in the game by occasionally floating rumors and sightings. Also allow certain types of items to appear more regularly than others. For instance, magic swords and rings are very rare in my games. However, potions are commonplace (alchemy is a science in my world) and “weapons of quality” (slightly lighter, more accurate or sharper than normal) can be purchased. There are also items that have very limited charges or utility and I allow these to appear with some frequency.

Make Items (almost) Unique

This goes along with the idea of making magic items rare. If an adventuring group only finds one magic item in the game, then by definition, it is unique for that campaign. However, this is not what I mean.

By unique, I mean that each magic item is the only one, or one of a small set (ok, I really mean almost unique) in the campaign world. In addition, each item should have a well-thought out set of powers and limitations that is different from all other items in the game world.

This makes each item interesting, as players can be sure that they have never seen this item before. Players will not rattle off an item’s stats (from the GM’s Guide). When they see an item in the hands of a villain, it will be an unknown factor and will invoke much more fear and caution than a simple +3 sword. When they hear a rumor of an item in a dungeon, they will know that it has powers they have never seen before and is thus worth investigating.

It also protects against mental laziness on the part of the GM or adventure designer. If you force yourself to create a new item and powers each time you wish to introduce a magical artifact in the game, you are more likely to fully detail the item and consider its effects on the game world. It is also a fair bit of work, so it helps enforce rarity.

Make Items Part of the Game World

As you are designing your objects, give some thought to their history and purpose in the campaign. Who created the item and why? How did the item come to be at its current location and in the possession of its current owner? You do not have to write pages of material - a paragraph is sufficient.

Most games give little thought to the history of an artifact. In a world where items are ubiquitous, this makes sense. Would you detail the history of a normal sword? A rope? An iron spike? No, you would not. Since magic item rich worlds essentially use them as super-tools, why detail them any more than the more common tools in the game? But I always wondered, who was making all this stuff and why weren’t they keeping better tabs on it?

Detailing the history of an object makes it more than a tool. It becomes part of the storyline. A magic item with history will have a purpose; previous owners; people who wish to see it destroyed and perhaps even special powers. As you create the details, you might think of ways to integrate the item into the current storyline as well as adventures that deal with its acquisition and subsequent ownership and use. Previous owners might want an item back. An item might be ‘programmed’ to perform its purpose (with or without its owners consent). Owning certain items might make you an enemy of those who wish to destroy it.

Make Items Mysterious

Mystery is important to the feel of your magic items. Veteran fantasy gamers have seen a lot of monsters, scenarios, puzzles, plot twists and items in their time. In other words, you will not often surprise them. Once they have information as to the powers and history of your item, it will become a known entity to them. This is bound to happen sooner or later and is a good thing. The more your players know about the game world, the better. However, the item loses some of its flavor once it is known, so you should leave them guessing for at least a while.

Much of this happens naturally by making items unique. Every item starts as an unknown. I would suggest one more thing to help: get rid of the easy (identify an item and all its powers) spells. Make these spells hard to get, expensive or take them out of the game altogether. Replace them with some means of identifying an item’s capabilities gradually. I use an artifacts skill in my games, as well as some detection spells.

Make Items Follow Some Rules

Though this seems to fly in the face of a few of my other pieces of advice, I like the idea of having all magic items follow some set of rules. In my game world, each category of magic item (weapon, wand, jewelry, etc.) follow a set of rules governing how they gain their powers, how the powers are invoked, how they recharge and so on. This gives the players some knowledge upon which to base their investigations of an item’s properties. When they find a wand, they do not know what it does, but they know that wands are invoked by calling out a word of power and recharge by ‘eating’ some type of mineral.

As an example, here are the common artifact types and some possible rules:

Weapons are made of a meteroric metal called spirit iron. Weapons forged from spirit iron have the mysterious property that they bind themselves to their wielder and feed from his life energy. Over the course of years, the weapon gains legendary abilities based on the deeds of its users. In addition, certain races have learned the secret of embedding gems into these weapons and binding spells to the gems. This gives the weapon more “mundane” magical powers, usually of limited uses.

So a weapon might have spell gems that cast light 3 times/day, or a bound spell that detects secret portals. However, because it was wielded by a fighter who parried a potential death blow with it (possibly in a previous campaign), it now has the legendary power to parry the first death blow the user would have received in combat.

Wands are either unique or created in small sets. They generally gain power by binding spells to them, or by trapping elemental spirits inside them. All wands are activated by one or more power words and they all recharge by consuming minerals. The exact mineral and amount depends on the wand.

Jewelry  is created from spirit iron and thus operates by feeding off the life force of the wearer. Thus, though they provide some power to the user, they also have a deleterious side effect that corresponds to their purpose. The side effect is usually significant (though not enough to make the item useless) and continues for some time after the wearer removes the item.

Miscellaneous items are things like figurines, ropes, bags and so on. Power is bound to them by a mage. The range of effects is unlimited (though the power level is usually less than the other categories). However, all these items have a counterbalancing effect that occurs when they are activated. This is an opposite and slightly random effect. For instance, a figurine that causes a small creature to appear, might have to draw the life force from the living thing closest to it when it is invoked. A bag that makes items inside it lighter, might make an object outside it heavier.

And finally, a more specific example taken right out of a campaign:

First Blood

Legendary Powers:
* First Parry: In any combat, First Blood always parries the first attack against its wielder that would have done damage.
* Immobilize Demons: When fighting creatures of demonic origin, First Blood will immobilize them on an attack where the wielder rolls an 11 or 12 on his combat dice and hits his opponent. The demon gets a SPI save vs. DL 25. If it fails, the demon will remain paralyzed until the sword is removed from his body.

Spell-Like Powers:
* Light: First Blood can cast light within 10 hexes of its wielder. The light lasts 1 hour and can be cast 5 times a day.
* Detect Secrets: First Blood will vibrate softly when it is within 3 hexes of a secret door or compartment.

First Blood was originally forged during the War of Unification to protect Dovid from his enemies in the Tunderrim and Ander tribes. Copied from The History of the War of Unification written by scholar Timmaeus Madelin:

“As Dovid and his warriors rested and regrouped in the hills and caves, a corps of Ander tribesmen worked their way through the mountains to cut the Bost off from their homeland. Their leader, Yaelin Ander, possessed a powerful sword called Grunderkin. The legend of this weapon dated back to the tribal period. It always struck true against the leader of the enemy group. As Dovid’s men tried to escape, Yaelin charged Dovid, attacking him with the fabled weapon. Dovid was felled, but miraculously, he survived the blow and was saved by his men.

Upon return to their homeland, the armies of the unification were demoralized. Their leader had been struck down and their force defeated. The Tunderrim, heady with their victory, were planning a counterattack into the north with the Ander and their foul weapon in tow.

At this time, a Pelar mage named Fermandel entered the Zealots’ camp. He presented them with a weapon. It was a minor blade made with Borakki metals and had runes of skill and power. Into this, Fermandel had bound several minor spells. Still, the blade was far from powerful and certainly no match for Grunderkin. Furthermore, the powerful leader of the Bost armies was incapacitated.

A young warrior, Rehesse Jherod took up the sword and led Fermandel and a host of fresh Pelar troops to the south to meet the Tunderrim and Yaelin Ander. Before he left the northlands, an elder from the Bost church, Telerind took the sword and begged the Mother and Father to bless it, and its bearer in the coming battles.

When the two forces met, the battle raged for days. At one point, a group of Tunderrim, led by Yaelin overran a Pelar camp where Rehesse Jherod was resting. The two leaders met in battle. Yaelin strode forward, bearing Grunderkin. Jherod prayed to the Mother and Father that they would favor him. Yaelin attacked first and true to its legend, Grunderkin struck directly at the head of young Jherod. However, with the blessing of Aestra and Stratus, the magical blade provided by Fermandel moved to parry the deathblow.

With that amazing parry, Jherod momentarily had the upper hand and struck at Yaelin, killing him. The blessed blade was damaged, so Jherod picked up Grunderkin and seeing the lieutenant of the Tunderrim. He threw the blade at this leader and the foul blade flew through the air, piercing the chest of the enemy second in command.

With their leaders killed, the Tunderrim forces were in chaos and fled the field of battle. The forces of unification held the field. Grunderkin was lost in the chaos of the retreat, and a young Ander lieutenant, Vens Ander, retrieved it. He hid the blade and returned to his homeland. Fermandel took the damaged blessed blade and repaired it, but the force of Grunderkin’s blow destroyed the runes on the blade. However, it was considered very lucky by Jherod and his troops. To commemerate his battle with Yaelin Ander, he called the sword First Blood.

More recently, First Blood found its way into the hands of a young demon-hunter known as Zahn. His exploits are said to have given the blade great power against demonkind.

I hope you enjoyed the article. Please reply, PM, or email me if you have any questions, or comments.

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Comments ( 8 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted manfred
December 14, 2005, 13:03
We had already several talks on this topic, and this is a fine approach on an age-old problem.

Good work.
Voted Mourngrymn
December 14, 2005, 13:47
This is a wonderful tool as I have too having this same conversation with myself on the subject of magic items and their rarity. I really like the idea of the items attuning themselves to the wearer or the weilder by their actions.

That is a great and workable idea.
Voted Cheka Man
February 27, 2006, 20:29
This is really good to read, and helpful for world building too.
Voted valadaar
October 23, 2007, 11:56
Bump! Nice one!
Voted MoonHunter
October 24, 2007, 11:45
I missed this one when it was put up, a oversight that has been corrected.

I have to agree with this one. In the source material, magic is special. While enchanted things exist, they have an imbedded element to the world. They are part of the mythic and historical flow of the world. Thus they are special and powerful.

Okay, I can go on and on, on this topic. You have all seen my version 'The Speed Limit is ' - about Magic Items and Swords. Why does it always have to be swords?. So I want all you people reading this to take a good hard look at things in your own games.
Michael Jotne Slayer
October 25, 2007, 7:04
Great work. I really liked the consept and name of Spirit Iron.
Articles like these are always helpful to read, even for the most jaded GM.
Voted tinypoisonousfish
January 9, 2010, 22:21
Great article. The mystery aspect is very important, especially critical for the particularly arcane. Weapons (and other items) that change over time with epic events or the bearer is also great, so is special materials.

In my game there are special fabled swords called Kio blades, made from an alloy of meteoric iron. The Kio word for meteor is Yhkimejin, related to the term for (once mortal) male celestial warriors,the Yhkimijin, that battle chaos and demons to keep them from invading the Nine Boughs, reality as they see it. A meteor is really the dropping blade of a fallen Yhkimiji. A smith finds this rare metal and makes a Kio blade,so the warrior who wields it must always be true and virtuous; once they die, they replace the fallen celestial warrior, literally guarding the Nine Boughs from the end of the world.
Voted Murometz
December 6, 2012, 17:40
Very good!

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