Friday, 23 October 2009

Dm interpreted magical items

One of the biggest problems with roleplaying games and magical items is that they are not really magical. They are more like appliances of science (e.g. technology) where the science behind the device is not known. Sort of like Arthur C Clark does magic items.

Magic really needs mystery to feel right. A wand of lightning bolts, for example, is infinitely cool and does provide some roleplaying possibilities, but it is too predictable and known to ever feel magical. In fact, its more like a sort of cannon that a wizard carries around with him.

Numerous attempts have been made in the past to address these issues, like for example nerfing the identify spell so it doesn't identify the mechanical attribtues of magical items. This is quite good, as the players do not necessarily know everything about an item; although knowing an item is a wand of lightning is pretty much all they need to know to figure out everything about it because they already understand the lightning bolt spell.

I'm wondering if the problem is not the players, but the source material. The item flows out of the pages of the rulebook to the adventure, the DM and finally the player. But what if the item text was very different?

Instead of saying a wand of lightning, what if it simply said a wand that hums with static? What does that mean? The onus would be on the DM then to create something new and unique. Does it throw lightning bolts, electrocute people, create loud noises like thunder, power devices ... or something else? The DM would be forced to make decisions, appropriate for the players, as to what the item does, what it is called and how much information identify can give about it.

Magical items might just feel magical and unique.


Norman Harman said...

This is the same concept I had in post about not naming spells, Personalized Magic.

Hadn't considered turning it around and applying it to DM.

I've given players magic items which I had no idea what they did. Provided detailed description. When players tried something interesting I'd make up rules/effects for it on the spot and say something like "Clever! You have unlocked the secrets of Foo!"

The Recursion King said...

Yes that is definitely one option. I would suggest not making up effects in play though, as it may make them too arbitrary and situation specific. Too many coincidences spoil believability and immersion I feel. 'Wow, this glowing rod gets us passed the door that we can't open! Who would have thought?'

Perhaps designing it ahead of time, based on just flavour text, would lead to better results. 'You mean the glowing rod doesn't open the door? But now I'm floating three feet above the ground? That was unexpected!'

kanoyams said...

I ran a campaign once where some items had "flip-sides" to balance out their strengths. The items were printed on cards.

The usual method of identification would reveal only partial glimpses of the true nature of the item. If the player made the appropriate rolls, a brief history would become available, revealing a subtle hint or clue (or puzzle) as to what the item's ability and curse would be.

I had a great deal of fun creating such items, but ultimately, found that the players preferred less complexity and greater volume of stuff.

The Recursion King said...

Actually that doesn't surprise me too much. When I read magic item descriptions in the computer game Baldurs Gate, I rarely read the historical section of the description but zoom right to what the item *does*.

If its an item I have used for a while and quite like, I might check out the history fluff but otherwise, I tend to skip it, like a player in your campaign.