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?