Behind the Screen
What is it? It's my NEW THING!
By Jason Nelson

David arrived a little early for the night's game and sat next to Eddie with an expectant look on his face. "Okay, Eddie, you know how Rashean Bantecou went up a level last session?"

"Yeah," Eddie replied. "What about it? Did you level up between sessions?"

"Well, mostly," said David. "But for my new 3rd-level spell I wanted to see if you'd let me pick one that isn't in the Player's Handbook."

"I'll think about it. Where'd you find it?"

"I didn't find it anywhere -- I sort of made it up."

"Good for you." Eddie smiled. "Of course, I gotta look it over. What gave you the idea to try something like this?"

"Well, you know Rashean Bantecou is pretty much on a quest to become the P.T. Barnum of the Western Marches. So I figured this would be another way to help get his name out there."

"How do you figure?"

"Well, not to be too grandiose -- since from Rashean's perspective it's not possible to be too grandiose -- but I figure that Rashean can start selling his spell concepts, like magical songs, and pretty soon they'll get picked up and sung all over. Bards the world over will soon be itching to learn Bantecou's Bombastic Bard-Booster!"

WORDS TO THE WISE

Should you encourage invention of new spells and items? Probably not, but do your best to nurture it when players show an interest. Of course, you can introduce new things for NPCs any time you like!

2. What does the new thing do? Make sure the player can fully explain what the proposed item or spell can do, including any "little quirks" that might pop up later.

3. How does it compare to existing things? Is it comparable in power, scope, and flavor to what is already allowed for the class or campaign? Don't force it to be inferior to existing material -- there is nothing wrong with PCs having something good. Just don't allow it to be too good!

4. Why is the character making it? Where did this great inspiration come from? What does the character hope to achieve? Fame? Fortune? Filling in a deficiency in the character?

5. How will the campaign change by introducing the new thing? Will others try to get a piece of the action? Will the new spell or item be stolen or copied (or even noticed at all)? How does the new thing interact with existing spells, items, and abilities? (Beware of power-stacking!) Most importantly, what can the character do with the new thing that he couldn't before, and what does that mean for you as DM?

David has created Rashean Bantecou as an extrovert, a glory hog, a larger-than-life personality. He enjoys playing him with bombast and panache, someone who is really "out there." David does this in part just for the fun of it, playing a character who is such a character, but also partly because he wants Rashean to make his mark in the world. He wants to establish his character's fame, and he figures a little bit of shameless self-promotion can't hurt! Still, David is sharp enough to know that people in the game world may not take Rashean's fame as seriously as he does. If all he does is talk about how great he is, he might get dismissed by NPCs as "a legend in his own mind." If you want to really be famous, you've got to do something or make something that people will know, remember, and recognize as uniquely yours.

Fame is an archetypal motivation (and reward) for adventuring, and you might achieve it through legendary quests, great conquests, or just throwing a lot of money around. That kind of thing often gets you only local renown, however, and David has a plan for making Rashean's name known everywhere: Inventing a new spell and promoting it far and wide. If it gets picked up for popular circulation, maybe Rashean Bantecou can be like Bigby! How cool is that? To have other people cast a spell with your name on it!

Of course, this is only one reason a character might create a new spell or magic item. Others might be happy with incidental fame en route to their true goals. Others might be secretive and shun publicity or share their new invention with only a select group -- other PCs, or people of their religion or alignment. The point is that characters have a lot of reasons for wanting to create spells or magic items, and the DM has to take those reasons into account. Eddie knows what David's character is all about and why he wants to create a new spell, but he might be more suspicious of Samantha and her devious powergaming tendencies. In your own game, let players make their case without prejudging what they are doing and why.

As the DM, should you try to encourage invention? No. If players want to try new ideas, they'll come to you. If they're happy with the spells and items available in the game, stick with those. There are certainly plenty to fill any campaign with variety. Much item-making will simply be from players who want to make things for their personal use (or maybe for other party members): cure wounds wands, spell scrolls, stat-boosting items, magic weapons and armor. All things easily handled in the standard rules. This column is more about how to answer the call of a player with a new idea, either a new combination (e.g., an item that boosts several skills at once), a new modification (e.g., a standard item with a different "body slot" [see page 288 of the Dungeon Master's Guide]), or something entirely novel.

When a player gets the urge to try something out of the ordinary, you need to listen and see what you can do to make the idea a reality. Ask three basic questions: What does it do? How does it compare to what's already in the game? Why do you want to make this? The last question is really the first one to ask, because the answer to "Why?" may determine whether you bother going on to the nuts and bolts of the idea. The player should have some kind of in-game reason for why the character would try to make something like this new spell or item, or maybe where the inspiration for it came from. The vision may not actually turn out the way the player expects -- Rashean Bantecou's spell may never catch on as he hopes -- but the player gets to roll the dice and take his chances.

Of course, we know that players can be sneaky little weasels. So even if one has a decent rationale you may have to look closely at what the item or spell is and what it does to see the real reason behind it. Comparisons are especially important for spells to make sure they are in line with both the power and the general scope of spell lists for each class. You need a good grasp of what spells do in the rules so you can compare the different elements of the spell and see how the new idea measures up. Use the precedents in the rules and assess how the proposed idea compares to them.

Spells that cross over into the specialty of another class should be nixed, or at least heavily restricted, as should spells that go too far outside the bounds of what is laid out in the Player's Handbook. Bards just don't get spells like magic missile or raise dead, so players of bards shouldn't be able to research spells too similar to them. A spell that is similar to an off-list spell is in iffy territory, but should be different enough to really be different (not just switching the type of damage) and/or of a higher level.

More devious is the character who sets up a spell or item to stack with class abilities or optimize their use. Some supervicious items can be made cheaply by limiting their use to once per day, but if used in combination with other "once per day" abilities they can be devastating, especially at double-digit levels. Other powers should be only limited use or charged as items, less for combat-type abilities than for utility powers or permanent effects (e.g., arcane lock, fly, identify, invisibility, knock, passwall, silence, wall of stone).

You and the player might not agree on how a spell or item idea should work, and you should favor the integrity of the campaign over a new idea that you think is fundamentally broken. Work hard to avoid an impasse, though, because you don't want to squelch the creative impulse. Players will have more ownership and investment in the campaign if they can see their handiwork in it and that they can have a lasting impact. Plus, if they make it work once they may be tempted to try it again, and that's what you want.

Of course, you might get a real eager beaver who drops a dozen spell descriptions and five magic item ideas in your lap, making more work than you really wanted, but that's part of the gig of DMing. Your player has made an effort and you owe him your best effort in working with him. If it's too much, then you ask for patience in getting around to it. But at the end of the day if you want to sit Behind the Screen, you gotta be ready to take whatever comes and run with it!

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife Judy, his daughter, Meshia, his son, Allen, and his dog, Bear. He is a full-time homemaker, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social & cultural foundations of education, and is active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in another.


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