Magic Items as World-Building Tools: Magic as Magical

Inspired by this article, Magic and Mystery by Monte Cook

In these Legends and Lore articles, Monte is wrestling with the conventional wisdom of D&D, particularly 3.x and 4.0.

I don’t particularly like magic that is sold in shops.  It rubs me the wrong way, seems to take the magic out of the magic.

A curio shop that sells junk and other assorted bits brought in by adventures with dirt and moss from the dungeon still on it?  Sure, okay.

Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe that will sell the the adventures the appropriate items so they can safely venture out and adventure?  Eh, not so much my thing.

I don’t have to wrestle with the conventional wisdom of D&D and here we are, talking about magic items.

They can also be tools for world-building.  In our Houses of the Blooded game, a player acquired a ring from a Puzzle House, I believe and it opened any door for him.  He found out later that when the Sorcerer-Kings ruled, it had been a High Servant’s ring, allowing that servant to go into any castle and serve its master without being barred.  Of course, it has other uses.

When the player put it on in the capital of Shanri, the Hub of all Revenge, his character could catch glimpses of Shanri as it had been under the Sorcerer-King’s reign.

In our Burning Wheel game set in the Forgotten Realms, the players uncovered an artifact and held it against an ambitious Red Wizard and her Gnoll shock troops.  The artifact they got was the Burning Wheel itself, viciously powerful if in the hands of a wizard or priest with Faith but to the Dwarven and Elven player characters, it wasn’t useful.  This made it really interesting because they got to decide where to store it, who got to use it and who to leave it with when they went adventuring.

In the end, Khelben Blackstaff used it to rain hellfire down on Skullport while they were slaying Old Snarl off in the east.  Good stuff.  So, magic items can also be political leverage.

There is a sentence that comes up when RPG discussions of magic occur.  “I like my magic to be magical.”  I totally hear that.  The first system that provided that magic for me was Ars Magica.  As the editions rolled on, the magic became more and more codified and, to me, it lost some of that raw magic that it had even up to the 3rd edition.

Don’t Rest Your Head and Houses of the Blooded have magic that allows the character to break the rules.  Magic doesn’t make you better.  DRYH allows the character to break the rules of reality.  Houses of the Blooded has magic that allows the characters to break the rules of the very codified ven society.

Burning Wheel’s Emotional Attribute magic (Orc blood magic, elvish songs, dwarven crafts) is more of an exploration of that stock.  The human sorcery is very D&Dish, actually with calls for tough choices and sacrifices all the way.  I’ve seen sorcerers in BW successfully cast their spell to break free from prison but pass out due to the strain.

Magic Items in BW are more rare, campaign tilting affairs.

Thanks, Monte, I’m thinking about magic a bit.

Thoughts on magic for the comments?

19 thoughts on “Magic Items as World-Building Tools: Magic as Magical

  1. Yeah, I found that magic item fetishism to be annoying and even more difficult to extract when I ran D&D than alignment.

    Another vote for making magic magical: Brennan Taylor’s Mortal Coil.

  2. I can’t agree more with your Ars Magica comment. I still love the game, but the recent edition and the very mechanical (base effect + range + duration + target = level) makes magic feel almost scientific. The universal formula, which has to work for every combination of Technique and Form) has replaced the hand-waving fun of spell creation.

    I dislike magic items that aren’t named. A sword +3 doesn’t seem magical at all to me. Excalibur does. So does Durendal, Tyrfing, and Caladbolg. Ars Magica lets players pour a lot of creative juice into enchanted items, determining specific powers and triggers and lots of cool stuff, and the formula mentioned above helps players do this. In the end, the item feels very magical. I don’t know if other games let players do this; I imagine they do.

    Like in legends, I’ve always thought that magic should be rare and powerful. I haven’t found a game yet that perfectly hits that mental mark. But then again, I’m currently reading the 2003 HeroQuest core rules and my mind is pretty scrambled as a result.

      • HeroQuest: excitement and puzzlement. I’m unclear how the Core Rules actually work, but another few passes with that chapter should clear it up. I like how Homeland and Occupation are key elements in making a hero, and instantly gets my creative gears spinning. Glorantha doesn’t do much for me, yet, but the idea of transporting the system to another fantasy world is super sexy. It would be a lot of work, creating world-specific Homelands, Occupations, Common and Specialized Religions, etc., but a ton of fun at the same time.

        I thought of your post as I read the entry, “Special and Magical Items”. Essential, a magic item gets a score like an ability, and gives a character a new “cool thing to do”. Like an ability, it can increase in power, which results in the hero discovering more powers as their relationship with the magic item intensifies. Sample magic items are: a trained bat, boots that let you walk on water, a knife that can cut anything, and a wooden medallion from before Time that makes elves friendly to the wearer. Easy to make Excalibur or Mjolnir with this system.

      • I am remembering a Heroquest book that was made for the kind of setting hacking that you are describing but I’m drawing a blank at the moment. Will send a link to you if I find it.

        I’ve played HQ but I don’t remember it, other than I liked it, found the descriptive way to make characters really interesting.

  3. “The human sorcery is very D&Dish, actually with calls for tough choices and sacrifices all the way.”

    Besides 5000gp of diamond dust, and the daily selection/spending of spell slots, what exactly are the tough choices in D&D? I guess there is the Deal With The Devil word puzzle with the Wish spell. But tough choices?

    Passing out from casting spells certainly isn’t from D&D (BW can, I believe, trace that back to its Shadowrun roots).

    • In D&D, to my mind, spell choices are often tough choices, especially when you have to memorize certain spells going into a dungeon and decide how to deploy those spells tactically. Spells are mostly a tactical series of choices, though. I hear ya.

  4. Here’s a thought about the problem of D&D shops full of magic (or easily created magic items): it means that every power that can be had by magic item is available to the players provided they drop the correct amount of money and/or time without necessarily risk.

    At least in random-roll loot drops, you get what you get and you have to make do with it- it’s not the same as walking into a shop with lots of money, and custom kitting your character by buying -exactly- what combos with their existing abilities.

    This is actually one of the things Diablo style games figured out- even if you can go into a shop and buy things, randomizing the shop contents keeps you from going straight to custom building your character using money.

    Mind you, that’s all from a game standpoint, and not even touching on the issues of what happens when flying shoes are as common as cellphones.

    • Interesting to use video game inspired techniques for games with magic shops. I wonder if cool tables could solve this problem for me.

      One thing I remember liking about 3e is the tables they had that stated how powerful the magic would likely be in villages, towns and cities of various sizes.

      • I actually randomly stocked my magic shop back in 1e, I think I even randomly decided when stuff sold to other than the PCs. The stock consisted of stuff the PCs sold, the random stocking, and (ok, this was bad), magic items my NPCs acquired from my test runs of modules, less anything the PCs bought, and if I did random unstocking, less that too.

        It allowed PCs to trade their heaps of +1 and +2 weapons for something more interesting, without allowing a PC to find exactly the items they wanted.

        In college I ran Cold Iron with magic shops where you could buy almost anything, however, there were no obvious combos, and other than +X swords and armor, permanent magic items were extremely expensive, and a very tough encounter probably consumed more charged magic items than it granted in treasure, so the magic item purchasing became very much a strategic part of the game. Not very mystical, but also not to 3e’s finely tuned character building either.


  5. I also hate the idea of magic as a substitute for technology. Magic items should be rare. Spells should be hard to cast. All those items required for wizards to cast spells–how many GMs actually enforce that?

    I’ve thought about a world where magic items are created and require a blood sacrifice from the wizard making them as well as the person for whom they are being made. This binds the magic artifact to the original creator or any blood relations (marriage doesn’t count). This could have really interesting consequences if played out to the logical endings.

  6. Although I never got the chance to use it, I was always fond of Orkworld’s magic item rules. Each item had a story that went with it, and certain attributes lingered. The magic items could manifest some of the happenings of their stories. It was pretty cool.

    For D&D, I’ve taken the lazy DM’s way out. I ask my players to provide me a list of magic items that they want for their characters. Then, I insert the items in the course of the adventures.

    If possible, I give the items to the monsters to use against the PCs, so they get to feel the sting of their magic sword before they can claim its might for their own. While this doesn’t necessarily make the items any more magical, it certainly makes them more valued by the players. They have a built-in story of how they found their +3 sword.

    • Michael, for some games that totally works. When I was playing 4e, that was what I wanted but when I play BW, I want more myth in my items. BW is the game that has more bang for my personal buck but the way you played it with your 4e game is how I wanted it when I was playing 4e too.

  7. I dig the notion of bringing wonder back to magic, and agree that a dependence on a certain amount of magical gear undermines that. Where I disagree strongly with Monte is when he comes to the notion that really, what we need to do is start keeping info away from 80% of the folks at the table again.

    Seriously, if you think it’d be awesome if your friend’s wizard summoned fire elementals, then tell your friend you think it’d be awesome if their wizard summoned fire elementals and talk about why. Or even better, ask your friend what they think would make their wizard more awesome, and then riff your crazy magic ideas off of that. (Aaron just did some of this in our Pendragon campaign, and came up with some very cool stuff.)

    I tend to like systems where the magic fits in with the general means by which characters express their awesome, like FATE, and I think DRYH’s Madness works so well because everyone has access to it. I’m also down with the notion of artifacts whose day-to-day enhancements are minor, but which can have big, world-changing effects when they’re the subject of a major storyline.

    But again, that’s the sort of thing that should be worked out at the table, not written in a book authored by someone not at the table and read by only one person who is.

    Jim (who may be rambling, because his coffee doesn’t seem to have set in yet)

    • I’m dying to hear more about Aaron’s technique you mentioned in the Pendragon campaign.

      “Where I disagree strongly with Monte is when he comes to the notion that really, what we need to do is start keeping info away from 80% of the folks at the table again.”

      I have to go back and re-read the article when I’ve had more sleep. Response forthcoming.

  8. I quite agree with keeping magic magical.

    Its the difference between a +1 Sword +3 vs Goblins and Orcrist, the Goblin Cleaver, forged by the elves for the Goblin Wars.

    When playing D&D I always preferred the notion that permanent magical items were relics from bygone ages when magic was common and plentiful but alas all but forgotten today. Crafting something new was a big deal and a sign of great magical prowess.

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