Excerpts Archive | 8/29/2011
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Story Items
Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium Excerpts

Story items are unique, named magic items whose creation or existence cannot be explained by the normal laws of magic. They are the province of myths, legends, and fairy tales, functioning as key components in the most fantastical of stories. Unlike traditional magic items, story items do not have levels and employ few game mechanics.

Story items enable you to use fantasy effects that fall outside the normal mechanics of the game and allow for scenarios that might otherwise be impossible within the rules. A story item is designed to unlock one part of an adventure’s saga and then pass out of the characters’ ownership.

How They Work

A story item requires a story obstacle—a challenge or condition within the adventure that would be difficult to overcome without the story item that fits with it, just as a key fits a lock. Invulnerable monsters, impassable portals, and dangerous spellcasters whose magic imposes permanent effects exemplify story obstacles that might require a story item to resist or overcome.

A heart-shaped silver stone that grows warm and pulsates whenever Bloodreaver the werewolf lord draws near is a story item. It interacts only with Bloodreaver (the story obstacle) and isn’t generally useful beyond the current adventure or set of adventures, but it adds an element of suspense when the powerful lycanthrope lurks nearby. The stone doesn’t give the characters any mechanical bonuses, or even necessarily require an area of effect beyond what is appropriate in a given scene. It simply alerts the characters to events unfolding in their vicinity when it’s important for them to know.

Adding this kind of item to a standard treasure trove gives the characters something to think about and investigate. The discovery of a story item acts as a hook, encouraging the characters to solve the mystery of the item’s true purpose—smoothly drawing them into the heart of the adventure.

Story items aren’t meant to last forever—an adventure or two, a campaign arc, or even a tier of play, and they move on—although, at your discretion, a fun or compelling story item that does not unbalance play might last longer.

Designing a Story Item

When designing a story item for your game, consider the following questions.

What does it look like? A story item should have a recognizable shape, but what it does might not be obvious from its appearance. If you want the characters to readily discern what the item is for, use its appearance as a clue. If you want the item’s nature to be less obvious, put a spin on the “form follows function” principle. For example, a dimensional gateway in the shape of a key tells the characters something straightforward about how the item is employed. The same item in the form of a stick of chalk (for drawing the outline of a door) might not be as easy to figure out, but it’ll be rewarding and fun when the characters do get the hang of it.

What does it do? A story item needs to accomplish something fantastic within the story. In fable, myth, and saga, fey spells can put creatures to sleep for hundreds of years, genies can grant wishes, straw is spun into gold, an enchanted arrow slays a mighty dragon, a bucket of water destroys a witch, and so on. How is your story item meant to interact with its obstacle?

What are its limitations? The characters should be curious about a story item and will try to find ways to use it, perhaps in a manner you did not anticipate. Although story items can be fun, make sure their lack of precise mechanics doesn’t cause them to be abused. Reward clever thinking by expanding an item’s utility, but if you’re uncomfortable with the characters using the object for something other than its intended purpose, don’t be afraid to say no. Always keep in mind that story items and obstacles exist only to make the game more colorful; they should stop short of granting the characters or the monsters unfair mechanical advantages.

What happens once it has accomplished its purpose? Invent an exit strategy for a story item before you introduce it. Ultimately, a story item should exist until it has fulfilled its purpose and then move on. If the characters fail to use it, it will leave their ownership one way or another. This removal can be as simple as the individual who gave them the item asking for it back once it has achieved its purpose. Or perhaps the item’s magic is spent, or it just vanishes. A character could even retire the object by placing it on his or her mantel as a memento of the adventure. Story items are as difficult or as easy to destroy as you want them to be.

Item Descriptions

Each story item description consists of three elements.

Story Obstacle: The challenge the item ties into or overcomes.

Property: The manner in which the obstacle and the item interact.

Form: Although a story item can take any physical form you desire, this entry offers some suitable examples.

Miraculous Item

Story Obstacle: Reality has become a twisted nightmare or a hostile setting for the heroes, who require great support to survive or to defeat their mighty adversaries.

Property: This item holds the captive spirit of a powerful entity (such as a genie) or puts the characters in contact with an immortal creature that bestows a single wish. This creature is not required to grant wishes, and does not grant selfish wishes, except possibly those that would punish an unwary wisher. The entity refuses to kill for the characters, but it will aid them in a single endeavor on their quest, such as transporting them to a desired destination or lending them an item that will help them defeat their foe. This item yields story results, not mechanical results. At your discretion, a wish can provide temporary boosts, items, status, or anything else the players can dream up, but all of this fades once the adventure ends and reality returns.

Form: Bottle, holy relic, magic lamp, ornate box, ring.

Box of the Seven Demons

Story Obstacle: At the dawn of time, the god Tharizdun created a golden box containing physical embodiments of the greatest mortal evils. Before the other gods chained him, he used the box to unleash chaos and misery upon all that they created. Now the box travels randomly throughout the planes, its beautiful exterior tempting mortals’ curiosity, and leaving horrors in its wake. Only one creature can own the box at a time. When its owner opens the box, a level-appropriate demon emerges and attempts to possess a creature other than the owner. If the demon succeeds, it forces the creature to exemplify one of the evils embodied by the box to horrible extremes, or else the demon simply engages in brutal violence. If the demon drops to 0 hit points, it immediately possesses a different body or re-forms within a day and continues its spree. Each time a demon drops to 0 hit points, the owner can open the box again to release another demon into the world (maximum seven).

Property: When a demon from the box drops to 0 hit points, any creature holding the box can command the demon back inside as a minor action. As long as this is done within 7 rounds of the demon’s defeat, the demon is bound within the box once more. The instant all seven demons are bound within the box, it vanishes.

Form: A beautiful golden box engraved with seven scenes of mortals enjoying romance, food, wealth, leisure, righteousness, friendship, and fame.