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Magic and Mystery
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

D&D covers a lot of topics. My work with the game, then, can seem almost schizophrenic as I leap from subject to subject. You'll have to bear with me. There's no good transition for me to be able to tell you that last week I wrote about perception so of course this week I'll be discussing . . . magic items.

Magic items have been a part of the game since the beginning. Initially, they were one of the biggest ways to differentiate your character from the others. Two 6th-level fighters in OD&D were pretty similar, but if one had a flame tongue sword and the other wore a helm of brilliance, they felt very different in play.

Over the years, magic items have become something that most players simply expect. In fact, in later editions of the game, characters were balanced with expected encounters assuming a certain level of magical gear. While that might be accurate, it raises a couple of problems.

First, treasure ends up being a part of the characters' advancement track, not a reward. If the core story of D&D is that adventurers go down into a dungeon to fight monsters and gain treasure, the monsters and the treasure should be story elements, not mechanical elements. What I mean by that is that they should be driven by the logic of the world, not the needs of the game system. The characters should know that there are easy challenges and hard challenges out there, and should have a choice of which to face. And, generally speaking, the harder the challenge, the greater the reward. One might think that a 4th-level character shouldn't have a +3 sword, but if, through smart (and sure, probably lucky) play he legitimately overcame appropriate obstacles to get it, shouldn't he get it? Likewise, if a 10th-level character is still fighting crippled kobolds and half-strength goblins, he should have very little in the way of treasure, right? A +3 sword shouldn't just fall out of the sky for him because that's what 10th-level characters should have. Shouldn't rewards be, well, rewards? Under such a paradigm, dangling the promise of great treasure means something. Working harder really will get the PCs ahead.

Second, if magic items are assumed, they lose some of their mystery. Players talk about it all the time: "Magic in the game just doesn't seem, well, magical." And it's a fair point. I think what they're missing is the mystery. Magic should be weird and mysterious, and when it’s presented as a regimented list of carefully balanced and well-defined spells or powers, it's hard to retain any mystery. Anything presented in the Player's Handbook, almost by definition, isn't going to be mysterious for long. We actually expect players to have read through that stuff. This means that traditionally, DMs have had a better shot at making magic mysterious by introducing weird magic items into their games. Why? Because for most of the game's history, magic items fell under the purview of the DM. Players just never knew what they were going to get when they opened up that chest and found the various objects inside. A sword? Okay, we probably know what that's going to do. A wand? Could be any manner of magical spell inside. An amulet? A ring? Those could be anything. Which is great.

But if the players come to expect certain treasure items, or if they can just go to a magic item shop in a large city and buy what they want, there's no mystery there. This means that to restore mystery to magic, one great way would be to complexly decouple magic items from character advancement.

Yeah, you read that right. What if the game assumed no magic items? What if magic items really were just hard-fought-for treasure that made characters better? A DM could run as high or low magic a campaign as he wanted. Players who beat the dragon would just be better off than those that played it safe. As I wrote earlier, working harder really will get the PCs ahead. Those that succeed at greater challenges will be more powerful than those that don't. That seems to be a bit of the heart and soul of D&D that has somehow become lost.

Rather than a strict system telling the DM what the players should have at a given level, the game instead could provide a DM with guidelines and suggestions for what would happen if he introduced various kinds of items into his campaign. Thus, the DM is armed with knowledge, but free to do whatever he or she sees fit.

What kind of doors does that open? Interesting ones, I think. If magic items aren't something easily purchased and aren't carefully equated to character level, there's suddenly a lot more room for them to be stranger, more idiosyncratic, and in general more interesting. You could have a rod that works like a +1 mace until it is thrown into the pit of darkness in the Fortress of Lum the Mad, at which point it allows the wielder to open a portal to another plane. And you wouldn't have to agonize how to price it fairly as a game balancing mechanism. You would just assign a price logically. (And really, shouldn't the price of a magic item be its least important facet? It's certain the least interesting.)

A Tool for the DM

There's another aspect to magic items that doesn't get talked about much. Magic items also provide an interesting way for the DM to have a role in customizing characters. A good DM can subtly influence the way characters act and deal with challenges by what items he or she puts in the treasure hoards they uncover. For example, if the DM thinks it might be fun if the PC wizard summoned more monsters, he could place a brazier of fire elementals in the dungeon for her to find. If the DM would like to see more planar adventures in the campaign, the drow priestess the PCs defeat might possess a cubic gate. And so on. This means that the DM could place treasure (where appropriate) that he wants the characters to have rather than what the game system tells him they're supposed to have. And certainly not what the players are saying they're supposed to have.

Players can play a role in what items they acquire, but it's a story-based role, not a mechanical one. If a wizard player wants to have a robe of the archmagi, she can research where one might be, learn what challenges must be overcome to obtain it, and undertake that quest, hopefully with the help of her friends. Thus, whether it’s a decision to go to the deeper level of the dungeon to get the better loot in general or a quest for a specific item, magic items could return to their original role, which is to be a driving force behind adventures.

 Magic items should be...  
A reward given out by the DM.
A part of character advancement chosen by players.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 09/27/2011

What do you think of this approach to perception?
I like it. 56.9%
It has its strengths and weaknesses. 30.9%
I dislike it. 12.2%

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Fantastic article!
Posted By: Starfire69 (10/25/2013 1:01:04 PM)



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