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November 26, 2005, 5:27 pm

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Cheka Man

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'The Speed Limit is ' - about Magic Items


I have to admit I HATE the number of casual magic items that appear in the average fantasy game, D20 being the worst. The amount of magic is being reinforced by the rules and the treasure chart. They are just “power ups” of the video game nature. They don’t add anything to the game except requiring bigger and badder bad guys.

The speed limit is….

I have to admit I HATE the number of casual magic items that appear in the average D20 fantasy game. The amount of magic is reinforced by the rules and treasure charts.  If someone casts detect magic in the vicinity of an average group of adventurers, they should go blind from the glare (They might of fixed that in 3rd ed, but run with me here.)  It is like the characters are just not powerful enough to do things without said magic items, that there skills and abilities are nothing and only magic can resolve issues. The presence of the items is what makes the characters cartage animals for their items.  There is just no limit as to their magic and that bothers me. 

Any source of power needs some kind of limits or breaks upon it, even technology. If there are no or few limits upon a source of “power”, then there is no way for the GM to create tension or drama in the game. Think about how often the Star Trek Transporter went out or broke or was otherwise unavailable. If it didn’t break ever so often, so many interesting episodes would of just been boring as the transporter magikally solve the problem. Check out this fantasy game example of the same principle:

“The Orc Horde comes towards you. The Dust rises, the Stench is….. Players: “Sigh. We Dimension Portal out of the way. We throw the chain lightingbolts from the wands through the portal before it closes, just for fun. We portal back into where the leader was, where the paladin will protect us from Evil and his shield will protect us from all missile attacks. Arnie will then fireball with his staff the Evil Orc Lord until properly toastie.” Three rounds later, the GM states, “Well that was an exciting.”

The magik/ technology that makes life/ adventures so easy tends to make it so there is no adventure in life.

Magik will sometimes replace characters. After all, why do you really need a theif for sneaking about, when you can get a cloak of invisability and boots of Elvenkind/ quiet sneaking? If you were the thief in the party, other than finding traps, what good would you be when the fighter with said magik items takes your nitch AND can kick sword butt. (Now these items are perfectly fine, but I personally would not let them into my world very easiliy if I had a thief in the party).

There is the ever present Arms Race that occurs with large numbers of magic items. If you have X amount of mystic might, you really can only be threatened by someone with X or X+1 amount of said mystic might and resistance. Your troupe generated items so they can take on the next great threat. Now the “next great threat” must be that much better. Eventually the players get more power to defeat one of the next great threats, and now the NGTs must be bigger/ badder/ more X+1ish. It just gets bad if magik is how you generate X. If you apply diversity to the type of dramatic conflict (Well yes you have a +20 sword, but you can’t use it on the Evil Cardnal without being excommunicated and the king having to eject you from court and possibly exile you from the country…) Certain elements of magik make other scenarios easily defeatable (fine we put the item of truthfullness (it was actually a curse on a belt of strength) in everyones hand and ask them if they did it)

Now this issue is not restricted to magik. The same thing can be said for technology (more annoying because you just can’t say “no”) or super powers. A clever player with some technology skills can make things that will make any scenario a cake walk (You created an EMP Bomb?.. You created a laser refractor. ... You created a 3D disguise imager?. You McGuyvered What?). A technologist with some parts and a little time is vastly more unbalancing to a game situation than any magik user. Add replicators, nano technology, and other sci-fi elements and it all goes south. Super Powers are the same things, except the GM just has to be careful when allowing them in. Screaning them for all their potential uses (A simple low level power with a great special effect can be devestating, as it is flexible and can be leveraged into many events).

There is a little voice that comes up and says, “So why not give them weaker magic/ technology/ powers instead of less magic/ technology/ power?”

Less technology and powers sort of bend the rules of their respective realities.  If you don’t have them, you do certain genre required things.  (You need nanites to explain your bio-engineering and medical technology. You need mental powers for the world background to work, though you don’t want them in you campaign.) The genre conventions aside, there are reasons that it is not the answer. 

There is an old saying (or some variation upon) found in many books in the occult section of your bookstore: There are two ways to divert the course of a mighty river. The first is to dump tons of rocks in the deep banks. The second is to put a rock in the slow trickle at the source, changing that flow. The meaning… if you work it right, a little effort in the right place can have a greater effect than a huge effort in another place.

I take bit of sorcerous wisdom to heart. There was a pixie in a campaign I know of. This little pixie had unlimited cantrips… tiny magiks. It appeared to be a nothing when compared to the mighty heroes of the campaign, so the GM let it in. Fool, I say, for I knew the player.

The story revolves around an enemy army coming to take the capitol. You see the mighty characters could not risk fighting an entire army. They would, eventually, die, and enough of the opposing force would complete their mission. They knew that for sure because said army had nearly kicked their butt last time. This tiny creature did what the big party of adventurers could not do, bring an enemy army to its knees. How? With the simple and well timed application of tiny cantrips (sneeze and push to get people in fires, snuff to make people go restart fires, spoil and a few other ones to destroy their supplies, a few bits of ventriquism and they were attacking themselves in the dark). Within the day, they were returning back home with their tail between their leg.

So tiny magiks can have big effects if you think about what you are doing. The morals of the story? Never underestimate any character. Never underestimate the power of any magik (or technology or skill).

So weaker magik can solve part of the problems I mentioned in my previous post. It delays the arms race, scaling it down to a manageble level. It can make things more manageable for a time. However, lots of little powers can add up to a LOT of trouble down the line.

I admit I have such a passionate dislike for rampant magic/ technology/ power because we have seen it happen and know the results upon a campaign. Unlike the transporter, magic items don’t seem to break or stop working very often.  They are always an issue that must be addressed.  That is why I play with, and advocate for, smaller amounts of weaker magik, as I try to make the characters important, rather than their equipment. (as well as avoid hassles down the line with trying to design new challanges and the arms race).

Sure this tact makes more work for the GM.  They have to be more careful on what scenarios they set up and what rewards they give. They can no longer resort to applying more magic to solve the problem.  But isn’t the continued health of the campaign worth it?  

And it is more work for the players.  They have to outwit their problems rather than just raming their magically enhanced weapons/ items through them.  Sure, it is harder on the players.  If they are any good at gaming at all, they should be able to take this challange without a problem.

It is always more fun to find a way around any limits, to superceed them. The more limits a campaign has in terms of power/ effect/ and social restrictions, the more challanges there are for the troupe to conquer, without having to resort to bigger, badder, NBTs. 

So as long as there are some limits, there is some drama, and some drama makes for a better game.

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Comments ( 16 )
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November 26, 2005, 12:15
On reading this I want to say I agree that there is to much of an abundace of magical items in the gaming systems and worlds. As Moonhunter stated, unless it has been fixed in 3 - 3.5e of D&D but that in itself is too late.

The world I have created and the system I run has a very low magic thresh hold for magic items. They are rare to say the least. The reason being is the creation of said magic items has been lost through the ages and is not known anymore. Now this doesn't solve the entire problem it does curtail it some. There are no amazing +5 Holy Avengers, or Vorporal Swords. Every magic item is extremely basic and has a simple function, nothing extreme.

True, the party of PC's have an X amount of magic at their disposal. That goes without saying that whatever the PC's have the baddies should have as well. Only bigger and better. This leads to the domino effect of having to impliment more and more magic to contend with stronger baddies.
November 26, 2005, 12:15
I admit that I like lots of little magics (or other genre specifics), even though I agree that cart-loads of powerful magic items can lower the enjoyment of a game, as it can devolve into an arms race. With the pixie example, I would not see that as a bad thing. In this instance, the player was using his or her mind, rather than dully pulling out the magical equivalent to a BFG.

One option to use, is an idea created by Chris Magoun for Runebearer. Magic items' powers are based in part on the abilities and experience of their wielder. Thus, the players may have found the Sword of the Ubermensch, but it's a rather low-powered item in their hands. This not only serves to reduce the arms race issue, but adds to the history of each item (Runebearer magic items are unique), and encourages characters to keep items with personal history (can you imagine Elric ditching Stormbringer because he found a sword with one more "plus" on it?), which serves to further limit the number of magic items in a campaign--the GM doesn't need to upgrade the players' equipment with newer & ever-more powerful items.

I run a rather low magic world. In Midian, there are two types of magic items. There are more common & utilitarian items, and unique magic items. The former are rather limited in scope, and some of these would likely not be considered magical in our world. For example, the Vicious Claives found in the Farreaches & Heldannic lands is simply a basket-handled jagged knife, magicked so that the wounds it causes heal more slowly. In another example, a self-lighting & self-trimming lamp is bronze-age technology to us, but is a wondrous technomantic item for the people of Midian. Unique magic items are much more fun. I have found that a well-written history (especially one well-integrated into the campaign) can more than make up for a lack of powerful magic. For example, the Lotax's Armour (properly called the "Meteoric Plate Mail of Chaos") was essentially just a very thick breastplate with spiked shoulder pieces. However, it was highly sought following Lotax's death, in more than one campaign. This was due less to the actual utility of the armour, than it was to the "coolness" factor given by the item's history, description, and integration into the campaign.
November 26, 2005, 12:16
I like RuneBearer's System.

I also like magic items that are simply skill foci. If you have the item you can cast the magic effect. The ability to cast is to based upon the character's skill.
January 5, 2006, 21:34
The issue of BOOKLOADS of magic items has not been fixed in 3.5, and I don't see it going away anytime soon because people tend to like big flashy things that get 27 pluses. I'm trying to make a low magic setting for DnD following Runebearer and other examples but getting the dificulty fixed is kinda hard due to the fact that DnD was set up to have magic items falling out of the sky.

An Example: For fun I set up a 1st lvl mage in 3.5 that got something like +10 to his defense from spells. So already I had a mage who couldn't be hit except on a natural 20. Those are both 1st level spells to. You give him the -15 att +10d20 damage sword you found and with another 1st lvl spell he's getting +5 on attacks with it. Your fighter has just been replaced, until the mage runs out of spells.

That is how bad the arms race can become. You could have an entire party of mages who did that, replacing the rest of the party.
Voted Mourngrymn
January 12, 2006, 11:18
I never did vote on this, why I don't know. I stil lagree on it though.

My system requires a cost to use said magic items. You can't pay the cost it is a useless tricket to you and nothing more. No more Holy Defenders +5 crap from D&D, mundane magic items exist but are not you typical run of the mill right out of the factory box type. Evens things down and requires players, like Moon said, to use their abilities and skills more often.
Voted Cheka Man
January 18, 2006, 18:05
Too many magical items in a world make mages/witches unnesscessary.
Voted Ancient Gamer
January 19, 2006, 9:29
This is an important lesson that most GMs learn the hard way. I did and I still remember the hours I spent trying to come up with a solution for the problem. The players loved their items and their items made my day miserable. So I had thieves steal their items while they slept, and the players rebelled. So I had the items fade with use, but their mages refuelled them.

In the end I was thankful to end that particular campaign and start a new one. Now the problem became this: There was too little magic for the players tastes. They were accustomed to having at least a couple of mighty swords and now they had to strive to find even one semi powerful one. They had to earn all their stuff and they were not pleased. This was back in the early 90's and luckily the times changed. Now the players appreciate any magic they earn, and each item is a story in itself, and a source for new plot hooks and so on.

Take heed GMs

By the way: My magic items need essence, mana if you will, to fuel their magic. This magic can be stored in special containers and exist in every living being. When a character is low on essence he/she begins to shiver and sweat. His/hers forehead goes cold and he/she begins to swoon. With sleep their energy is restored. An effective and nice method to limit the use of magic. No more "All your charges are used up and your wunderbar wonderwand is destroyed, a crackling slow fire consuming it until naught remains".
Barbarian Horde
March 15, 2006, 17:58
Its not a problem of having too many magic items, its a problem of having too easy opponents. D&D is much funner and more challenging against a few strong monsters rather than many many orcs. If your characters are powerful enough to have all those super-powerful items, than they shouldnt be going against an orc horde. They should be going up against dragons. If your PCs are making extremely advanced technology weapons, you, the DM, should be able to raise or lower the DC to make things, and even say that making some things are impossible. You aren't going to allow a PC to make a Dell 400gB, 5gHz laptop computer, so they shouldnt be able to make lasers. Dont withold magic. Instead of handing them easy kills, try your hardest to kill as many of the PCs as you can during combat, and be helpful afterward when thier cleric is dead. While in real life the PCs would still have to fight orcs from time to time, but D&D isnt real life. really try to kill your players. they may hate you, but its funner to play an intelligent foe who will use his brain to try to kill and win, but its no fun to play someone who just tries to kill the closest person.
March 25, 2006, 17:39
Tougher monsters is part of the Speed Limit. More and More monsters vs the PCs. Grosser monsters vs the PCs. The NGT (Next Great Threat), must be more and more powerful to challange them.

As a GM, it is easy to kill characters. In fact, it is so easy to do it, with the player's help even. Your main job is trying to keep them alive. Thus throwing really tough foes at your crew until they break or nearly break is a serious balancing act.

Magic, if kept to the right combinations, can be nearly unstoppable. Most games did not design in game balance in certain items in combination, just the item itself. You may not forsee the killer combos (to use the CCG term) until after they have been unleashed in your campaign.

The problem also stems from aggigate parties. If everyone is of the similar power level, then foes are easier to gague. It is when the party is not even, and the wrong PC ends up against the wrong foe (oh darn that monster was for Gonthar the Strong, not Elchie the Nimble), that characters die off. Thus goes the balance of your party... then they either retreat and have a more seriously aggrigated party or the hole in the party cascades into more serious deaths and injuries.

Character death is not so bad, if you are playing dungeon time, with a revolving crew of characters. However, if you are running a more story orriented campaign, one premature death can completely tank the story line.

So just throwing tougher foes is part of the problem. Eventually, you run out of things in the books and rationalizations for the existence of new things to challange the party with.
Voted valadaar
February 26, 2007, 8:40
An excellent discussion and an important one...

Perhaps the point which is the easist to implement is:
"Unlike the transporter, magic items don't seem to break or stop working very often."

This strikes me as the best place to address this! No item should be 100% reliable. There should be cavets to their use, costs and unforseen consequences. How many magic items in folklore were bug-free or 100% safe?
Voted Wulfhere
February 26, 2007, 15:02
All of these things depend on personal taste. If you want a game that basically boils down to Medieval-technology superheros, where mighty wizards and warriors challenge the gods themselves, boatloads of powerful magic is almost required. In a game of this sort, a horde of orcs is merely a chance for the PCs to show off how "bad" they are. They aren't in danger, so they can show off.

On the other hand, if you want a game where the PCs function on a more human scale, magic has to be "amped down". I recommend that GMs never give out any item that doesn't have a detailed history and role in the game. Creative players will eventually find a way to make use of even the most trivial of items, so be careful to build limits into each item, so that it can be dealt with if it becomes a problem.
Barbarian Horde
September 21, 2007, 11:24
Maybe if every time the players fought and struggled and sacrificed to gain a single level or a single skill whereby to make themselves EFFECTIVE, the DM DIDN'T instantly upgrade all his grudge monsters to +1 more CR than the players could handle, the players would stop going into monster overkill.

Or perhaps if the DM threw challenges at the characters that required-- and rewarded--- ingenuity rather than massive firepower.

I have a DM who has this problem. We are playing a campaign where the party is, literally, a band of thieves, operating in a medieval city. Great formula for stealth, cunning, ingenuity and MacGuyver-level problem solving, right?

Wrong. Because no matter what the mission is, no matter WHAT, the DM invariably throws a Grudge Monster at us, ten feet tall and farting thunderbolts-- and all our skills and plans go straight down the flusher as our band of thieves ends up hacking away like a rabble of over-armed Gonad the Barbarians. And said Grudge Monster will be precisely one level higher than anything we've encountered before. We have an infestation of rats, we buy rat-killin' sticks-- and suddenly the city is overrun with bengal tigers.
September 21, 2007, 11:33
Sounds like you need a new GM...
September 21, 2007, 11:40
You all need to follow one of the basic rules of gaming: "If you are not having fun, why are you doing it?"

Your DM has an ego problem. You all need to get up, in mass, and leave that game. A GM without players, is a player with delusions of grandeur. Find a new GM out of your pool of remaining players. Start a new game. You might invite the bad DM back as a player. Remember to keep him as a friend, just let him know that you did not enjoy any of his games.

If you are not willing to take the easy route in solving this problem outlined above, talk to your GM. Tell him that you are tired of being smeared by grudge monsters that magically appear out of the woodwork any time the group seems to make progress. Tell him that his monsters are WAY out of line with the kind of game he said he was going to be running. Talk out the issues with the DM, with the entire group there, what you don't like about the campaign. If you think you made progress, stick with him. See if things get better. If not, then vote with your feet.
September 21, 2007, 11:40
val finished his befoer I could finish mine.
August 15, 2011, 13:06

Having spent far too much time in 3.5 I will mention that there are ways of tricking-out baddies without actually giving them items. There could be a misguided Vow of Poverty druid, a cleric or warlock who buffs him/herself a great deal at the start of the day, and my personal favorite Incarnum characters. In fact, there is no reason for an obscenely wealthy noble to not Permenancy a number of buffs on himself instead of walking around with magic items that totally clash with his outfit. None of the aforementioned will drop any magic items when they die either so you can tailor their power without worrying about the characters becoming inflated by magic. If you really want to get your players acting smart give them a bunch of one-use potions or limited-use wands. After all, what average thug can invest in a +4 belt of whatever for the one or two battles he'll have in a year? The players will have to act fast and smart because a prolonged battle will mean less booty when they win. 

Random Idea Seed View All Idea Seeds

Sword of long term deadlyness

       By: Cheka Man

Held in a lead sheath the blade of this sword is tipped with uranium and any wound from it, even a tiny one, will go cancerous, although the effects may not show up for months or even years.

Ideas  ( Items ) | May 7, 2007 | View | UpVote 1xp

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