Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Magic Items: By Deed or by Craft

One of the great legacies of Dungeons and Dragons, a legacy continued by Pathfinder, is the strong presence of magical items. Ever since Gygax and Arneson first published their "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns," magical swords, helms, rings, and so on have been a staple of treasure hordes around gaming tables everywhere. These wondrous treasures have served not only as motivation for players to delve ever deeper into the dungeon, but have played a role as an essential part of character progression and enhancement. This has remained true even as games moved beyond the tabletop. Modern games, such as World of Warcraft, can often be simplified as a quest to get magic items, so you can engage in more difficult challenges, which result in better magic items.

In Pathfinder, most of the magical items available can be gathered in one of three ways. The most traditional way of acquiring such treasures is to find them; whether it's at the bottom of a dragon's horde, or resting on a pedestal in the tower of an evil lich. A character might also earn magic items, either by gold, or by deed. Finally, with the right skills, a character can simply make the item they desire. Pathfinder (and D&D 3.5 before it) provides detailed information on creating magic items, including the cost of raw materials, and the amount of time the work will require. All a character needs are a few prerequisites: ranks in a crafting skill, a few feats, maybe a spellcasting class, and they're good to go.

Some magic items which can never be crafted, regardless of skill. These exceedingly rare items are known as artifacts. The most common artifacts have perhaps a couple dozen iterations in existence. Most are even more rare than that, and many are one-of-a-kind. The exact reason why an artifact can't be replicated varies from item to item. Some are simply of mysterious origins, such as the Deck of Many Things. Others might be ancestral treasure, created in time immemorial, such as the Axe of Dwarvish Lords.

My favorite type, though, are the artifacts which are created by intersecting with greatness. Good examples of this tend to come from D&D, since Pathfinder's mythology is not yet well established. Take the hand and eye of Vecna, for instance. If a player were to cut the hand and eye from just any lich, and attempt to replace his or her own hand and eye with the lich's, it wouldn't work. Like as not, the character's shortsighted plan would leave him or her short handed. Alternatively, attempting the same thing using The Hand, and The Eye will work, and it will grant the character fantastic abilities to boot. These artifacts gained their power because they were once part of Vecna. Other items which gained their power through association with greatness are The Mace of Cuthbert, The Sword of Kas, and the Wand of Orcus.

I find these items so much more engaging than other magic items, or even other artifacts, because of the inclusion of a history. When my fighter hefts the Sword of Kas, she knows the blade was forged for one of the most evil swordsman in history. She knows the blood of countless innocents have run over the handle she now grips. That knowledge transforms the blade from a hunk of metal and a bonus to my attack roll, into something which my character cares about. That kind of interest in the game world is something which game masters should strive to instill in their players.

That excessive buildup brings me to the main point of this post:

What if all magic items were created by deed, rather than craft?

I've been toying with this idea for a couple months now, and I think it has potential. Such a dramatic shift in gameplay mechanics is perhaps best suited to an entirely new system. But I'm a Pathfinder GM, so I'll present it as a house rule (probably a campaign-specific one) for that game.

The immediate problem with this idea is one of supply and demand. Pathfinder is designed with magic items in mind, and a character without them is going to have a much more difficult time dealing with encounters of his or her level. That isn't to say that it's impossible, many people enjoy low-magic games where magical treasures are much more rare than they are in standard play. But even in standard play, a high level character is lucky to have even one artifact. Clearly, that gap needs to be bridged for the idea to be viable.

The obvious response is to simply lower the threshold of awesomeness required to transform a normal item into a magical item. I think it was probably clear from the start that we'd need to do this, but there's a danger in going too far. If we try to use this new method of magic item creation to simply supplant the current system without any additional changes, then killing five people will need to be enough to create a +1 bonus. That completely defeats the purpose of the new method, since the backstory for 90% of items will simply be "used by a nameless soldier for the three weeks he survived such-and-so war."

The best solution to the supply and demand problem is to meet in the middle. Any game using this method needs to be a low-magic game, where players can't expect to be able to find an upgrade in every dungeon they delve into. The threshold of awesomeness required to create a magic item will also need to be lowered drastically. Low enough so that magic items will be accessible starting as early as level 1 or 2, but high enough that the story behind the creation of the items will still be of interest to the player. I've given some possible examples below.

One other problem with this system is any kind of run-of-the-mill magic items which give simple bonuses. Items such as +1 daggers or +2 armor inherently lack flavor. In certain rare circumstances they may be appropriate (I detail a +1 bow below), but as a rule, magical equipment created through association with greatness should reflect the nature of that greatness more specifically than a flat numeric boost can.


Boarslayer's Blade: This blade grants a +2 bonus to attack and damage rolls when wielded against creatures of the Animal type. It was created by legendary human ranger Hassif Annandar when he was only 12 years old, and protected an injured playmate by slaying the boar which had attacked them.

Bow of Winning Accuracy: This is a +1 shortbow. It was created by a mysterious stranger who appeared at an elven archery tournament held annually in Mahgtinton Wood. The stranger won the competition easily, astounding the crowd by striking her own arrows in twain eight times on a target twice the normal distance from the shooting line. The stranger disappeared before she could be congratulated, but she left her bow behind. Legend says that the stranger was none other than the fiendish bandit of Mahgtinton Wood: Shora The Fox.

The Immovable Rod (as Immovable Rod, found on page 484 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook.) This unusual magic device was created when the kingdom of Queen Darsus was beset by demons. The queen led her servants and children into her bedchambers, and barred the door with this rod. For three days she single-handedly held the door closed using only her strength, and what leverage she gained from the bar.

The Devilsblood Blade This is a Flaming Burst Battleaxe. It was created during the battle of Obrent'Kel, when an army of dwarves fought off an invading force of hill giants. The giants had hated the dwarves for years, and made a pact with devils to finally wipe out the clan. During the battle, a lowly Axe Hand named Torel Anvilchest (who would later become a general in the clan's leadership) faced down and slew a horned devil after being separated from his unit.

Ring of Invisibility (as the item of the same name on page 481 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook) When master assassin Arcturus Iammad accepted a contract from the price of Galnar to slay his father, the king, Arcturus didn't know what he was in for. After sneaking into the massive Castle Galnar, it took the assassin no less than a month to finally finish what he thought would be only a night's work. The labyrinth of secret passages, illusions, and magic portals within the structure were enough to nearly drive him mad. But not once was he seen, and once he found the king, he finished the job he had been given.

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