Tuesday, February 19, 2013

If I Had to Do It Over...

...I do not think I would have included enchanted weapons and armor of power greater than +3 in my B/X Companion.

At the time I was writing it, I was still in the mindset of culling "the best of D&D" for the thing, and still hanging onto the conceits found in the later books of AD&D...+5 Holy Avengers and Hammers of Thunderbolts and the like. After all, you need a +5 weapon to harm the Tarrasque, right? Even though I was basing MY version of the Tarrasque on mythology rather than the MM2...

In retrospect, the end result means a gradual power inflation to the B/X game which, while not nearly as terrible as in D20 or even AD&D, does a lot to undermine the heroic simplicity of B/X. It's not that it renders some monsters/obstacle obsolete, after all (in B/X even the lowliest creature can damage your high falutin' character with an attack roll of "20"). But the presence of such items in the game creates an expectation in players: 'Hey, I'm a 23rd level thief! Where's my +5 leather armor?'

I don't dig on that.

In fact, if there's one thing I can't stand about D20 and later editions (well, there's a lot more than ONE thing, but only one thing regarding the topic at hand)...*ahem* If there's one major thing about the topic at hand that really irritates me regarding the latter editions of D&D, it's the assumption that part of character development revolves around the acquisition of things. That part of the process of increased character effectiveness assumes a certain amount of "stuff" (in the form of enchanted items and apparatus) will be discovered for use by the PCs.

This is gaming of the lowest common denominator. This is a video game mentality. This is Diablo or World of Warcraft. I've played both those video games, and they were enjoyable fun in their own mindless sort of way, but that is NOT what I expect or want from a role-playing game. Requiring the acquisition of stuff, in order to achieve the proper level of effectiveness for challenge, is just about the worst possible part of a reward system one can dream up.

Why? Because it makes the game less about player achievement (can the players manage the proper risk-reward factor to overcome the given challenge in this gamist-facilitating RPG) and more about proper "seeding" of "loot" during the course of the campaign. Which types of magical treasure to provide, in what amounts, depending on artificial game need.

Why bother to "level up" or measure experience at all? Solely for the sake of hit points?

[no, of course not...wizards who can't use magic arms and armor measure spell power based on level; though it seems only a short step o logic away from imposing WoW-style level restrictions on equipment use: "oh, your paladin cannot use the Holy Avenger sword until you're at least 15th level"]

Bollux on that. As a DM, I have a LOT more important things to worry about than not allowing a +3 sword to fall into the hands of a 2nd level character...or making sure the 9th level magic-user has found a staff of power or the requisite wand of lightning bolts. Must every halfling thief acquire a ring of invisibility at some point in their career? If so, why do they even bother to practice their hiding in shadows craft?

And so here I sit, currently working on 5AK (which will be play-tested this week, hope-hope-hope) and looking at the "magic items" section of the document, still blank. And wondering what the F I want to do with it. Because one thing I do NOT want to do is build a game with an expectation that magic items (and their acquisition) are in any way necessary or integral to the process of the game. BUT, at the same time, I don't want to leave the reader/player/DM with NO info...I don't want to just say, "hey, create your own enchanted artifacts as circumstance dictates." I want to give folks some guidelines. I like random tables, and even more so I like making the DM's job easier, not more difficult.

It's enough of a burden just drawing a map and coming up with a monster roster that makes sense for a particular adventure scenario.


I really haven't figured out what to do yet. The above published gripes don't even discuss what it is I want the game to model, namely the fantasy literature and mythology found in books pre-D&D. It used to be that magic was feared and respected, and that most every magical item found by a hero came at a price...no one just picked up a +3 sword out of some bandit's treasure chest and found themselves super-tough ever after. Real fantasy doesn't work like that. A powerful weapon was usually designed for a specific purpose like killing a demon-dragon...and when that purpose was served the thing usually "went away," perhaps dissolved in the acid blood of the foe it was designed to slay. Items' powers rested as much in what they represented (like Aragorn's blade Anduril or Arthur's Excalibur) than in their particular sharpness or whatnot.

Conan may be a "high level fighter" in D&D terms, but you don't find him running around with a vorpal blade and plate mail of etherealness. Is that because he lives in a "magic poor" world? No...there is plenty of magic and sorcery and supernatural foes and items (review Howard's story People of the Black Circle story). But magic is something to be respected and feared, as likely to turn on you as aid you, and if you can get by without it (as Conan often does), you're better off.

Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone owns a magic sword for the majority of his career...but it is a bound demon that often acts on its own accord, slaying friends and loved ones as eagerly as Elric's enemies (more eagerly...often Elric encounters monsters and foes against whom the blade is partially if not wholly ineffective). Yes, it gives him great strength and power...at a price. And his reputation as a swordsman is good even without the blade (only his cousin Yrkoon is said to be his equal in swordplay).

How to capture/model this kind of thing in my game...while still making it as easy as a few random tables for the DM? Maybe I need three tables:

  • one random set of items
  • one random set of bonuses/benefits
  • one random set of drawbacks/problems

Again with an eye towards giving players the choice of what they're willing to risk for a particular benefit. Ugh...it sounds, good, by only have a couple pages of space in which to get it done. And how does that work with magicians and magic item creation?

*sigh* (again)

I guess I better just get back to work on the stuff I've already got sorted out. For the play-test Thursday, I'll probably just end up using magic items from other editions. Or not. I don't know yet. Ugh!

All right...talk to ya' later.


  1. Here are some of my own thoughts on the topic, as I have considered this as well for my own game:

    "Magical" weapons in my game are not "plussed," but are required to kill or hurt certain kinds of monsters. For examples: "True Dragons" can only be hurt with "Supernatural" (my word for Magical weapons) weaponry, attacking them with anything but this kind of weapon will do no damage. "Lesser Demons" can not be killed with mundane weapons and reducing them to 0 HP without Supernatural weapons will cause them to run off (disappear into smoke, break into tiny spiders than hide in the ground, etc.) only to return shortly after -- 24 hours or less, if the party takes a Rest.

    I have replaced the "plus" with the following characteristic: All Supernatural weapons automatically hit with a Natural-10, in addition to the Natural-20 of all attacks. (There are no default effects of a Critical hit beyond automatically hitting in my ruleset.)

    More powerful Supernatural weapons, instead of adding "plusses" instead confer one of two things: 1) extra effects on Critical hits, 2) special abilities available to Fighters who are Proficient in the weapon. For examples: Vorpal Swords do double damage on Critical Hits. Thundering Hammers Stun on Critical Hits.

    I think I have approached the issue of Magical Arms orthogonally and thought I would share it. Cheers!

  2. Magic item creation ideas:

    The mage specifies the power they're trying to imbue, creates the item, then rolls 3d3-6 to find out what they actually imbue (some power "near" the desired one, and 1d+1d10 to find out the associated drawback

    - if your bonus table is roughly in order of increasing "power", then higher level mages can roll higher up

    - the closer to their power limit they work, the more of a "bonus" the mages are stuck with on the drawback table

    - one of:
    - the more control they exert over the drawback, the less control over / less magnitude of the bonus, and/or vice versa
    - by choosing to work farther from their limit, mages can constrain the drawback

  3. I completely concur with you. I've moved away from that generic magic items anymore. If my players encounter a magic item they are just as scared to see it as excited. Some can have some pretty nasty drawbacks that are no always apparent. I works so much better for my game when they have that tinge of fear of an item of unknown origin.

  4. It seems the mentality of having ever more powerful items is embedded in all versions of D&D. Noticed how the Expert set has consistently more powerful items?
    d20 simply formalised things, so that at least a DM could sort out what's going into his game and when.
    4e followed a metagaming approach which is in a category all his own, but the basic idea of powerful character=powerful magic items is still there.

  5. I agree, but only partially. I don't like the numerical inflation inherent in the plus model of enchanted weapons. However, from the very beginning, use of found magic items has been a core part of D&D class design. In fact, a movement away from that original design is part of what started to break the original classes (allowing non-fighters to use magic swords, for example).

    We have talked about this before, and disagreed then as well, when I claimed that scroll use (and magic item use in general) was one of the primary powers of the magic-user class.

    In Men & Magic, the kind of magic item that the various classes can use is almost the first thing mentioned (in the fighter's case, it is the first). That can't have been unintentional.

    Fighting-Men: All magical weaponry is usable by fighters, and this in itself is a big advantage.
    Magic-Users: ... The whole plethora of enchanted items lies at the magic-users beck and call, save the arms and armor of the fighters (see, however, Elves);
    Clerics: Clerics gain some of the advantages from both of the other two classes (Fighting-Men and Magic-Users) in that they have the use of magic armor and all non-edged magic weapons (no arrows!), plus they have numbers of their own spells.

    -- Men & Magic, pages 6 and 7

    I would go as far as to argue that if you're not using the treasure tables (and thus the distribution of magic equipment that they encode), you're missing (or at least modifying) a big part of the game. Changing those tables is one of the main ways, in my opinion, to mod the game.

  6. I distinctly remember having the same feelings when I started my girls off playing Basic D&D.. (Labyrinth Lord actually) And I came up w/ a system on the fly: (in truth it's very close to what Rev. Dane has also implemented)

    1. No "Plus" items: I've never really liked this rule from the standpoint of a role playing game. Now don't get me wrong, I like the benefits of course, and like you, I see them fitting into a certain sort of game. (Diablo is an excellent example)

    Instead I used the quality and material of an item as the modifier. A rare Illudium blade crafted by Garnak of Mu is lighter and keener than any steel to be found... (It infers a +1 to hit and damage upon the wielder)

    As you can see, there's still a mechanical impact on the rules. But it's not a "Long sword +1". It's not magic. It's just really well made. The most rare of material crafted by the most skilled can only EVER confer a +3. And that's RARE! (Girls never found such a thing in a couple years of adventuring.)

    Oh, and another idea I was playing with, the craft and material increase the dice type (or rolls...e.g. roll d6X2 and take the highest). When we started all weapons did a d6 (for simplicity's sake) and they ended up finding weapons that did damage up to a d10.

    No more rings, bracers and cloaks of protection. But I did come up w/ things like the "Cat Skin Cloak"... which allows a user a +1 on their saves on all dodging-type events as well as a re-roll of a failed save 9 times. And once that last save is re-rolled, the cloak loses all efficacy. Oh, and any time the wearer is in a city cats will follow them as if they smell of fish.

    2. There are no two of any item: (Unless they were crafted that way. e.g. Twin Blades of the Crescent Moon) All items are singular and unique. A piece of the mage is implanted in every one of the items they create. It's a "signature" of sorts. This also leaves an imprint of types. Everything has an echo of a personality and can affect a situation at any given time. How often and how strongly depends upon the item in question.

    The "stronger" or more powerful the item, the more an imprint it has. This can certainly be negative if so desired. I played certain items like NPCs when the time was right. Hints of Elric.

    3. Scrolls and Potions, were a bit more "common". It was the mainstay of the party and actually more attainable due the ability of hedge wizards and witches to craft some of the lower level spells.

    The downside was that it was a bit more work. But it was surprising how quickly I could come up w/ stuff on the fly. A couple of random rolls would have been awesome, but I just winged it. The only negative effects that I used were public perception (people din't trust most magic) and the "imprint" thing that I leveraged on occasion.

    I love role playing, and anytime I could insert some of that into a magic item I was pleased as punch. My girls had some great deals brokered with some of their items. ;-)

    Good luck w/ this. It's a tough nut to crack.

  7. I know this is a bit late, but it occurred to me that if you wanted to hard-wire the benefit/drawback thing (cf. Stormbringer), then you might say that each +1 adds 1 drawback (unfortunately, you then have to go make up that table :D ). Or, perhaps, every weapon with a +X also gets a -X in other situations (+3 vs. Dragons, -3 vs, Humans or maybe +4 vs. Cold-creatures, -4 Saves vs. cold-based attacks).