Wednesday, December 31, 2008

An Idea: The Price of Magic in a Dangerous World

In a sandbox campaign, there will be (and should be, else what's the point of a sandbox?) creatures and challenges that characters can stumble upon that they can't overcome... at least not without another level or three on them.

The entire fun of a West Marches style campaign (if it works and there are multiple groups or cliques within the one campaign) is that coming back after you've leveled up just might not be an option if someone else decides to make a run at this more-challenging situation and gain the (hopefully) commensurate loot that goes along with it.

So there just might be the occasional mass PC slaughter as underpowerful characters make runs at the big prizes. Who dares wins, yes? And in the end there might be success, as a lone survivor (or a couple, or whatever) gain a great magical treasure, paid for with their companions' sacrifice.

Magic shouldn't be treated as lifeless technology. "Anyone that operates it just so should gain the benefits." Nope! I think that "living magic" is a principle behind class-specific magic items in D&D, and the question is always how to make magic items more unique and really weird.

So here's an idea that players should be taking notes on: How about one of these hard-won magical treasures requiring a command word that is not a static, constant thing. Perhaps the command word will be the names of the characters that died in the battle to gain the item!

This works best when research (and sages and the appropriate expenses) is needed to learn command words, and the information about how to activate an item isn't given in the same session in which the item was gained.

... and suddenly, you have to remember the names of the deceased PCs from two sessions ago, which might have been weeks of real-life time ago... characters who might have been created that day, who might have been replacements for characters that died earlier that night and had a life span of 45 minutes of real-time, played by a guy you just met that night and haven't seen since.

Can you bestow upon your fallen comrades the grand and glorious honor of remembering their names, or do you now have a magical item of fabulous power that might as well be a stick enchanted with Nystul's Magic Aura?

And if it's a high mortality campaign, this might be a good incentive for players to continue to give their characters decent names. Who wants a Staff of Power activated by the invoking the names of Fighter Bob the Fifth, Shorty the Dwarf, and Gandorf Conway?


  1. Jim-

    Recent lurker here. Your ideas about living magic are making me rethink how I'm going to do magic items in my next fantasy campaign. It also reminds me of a way a college buddy used to do it: every non-potion, non-scroll (I guess you'd say non-consumable) magic item in the world was unique; you didn't find a +1 long sword, you found *the* +1 long sword, one of five magical long swords in the entire world. Players kept their magical items under wraps and didn't use them frequently, lest the word get out that they had the only Boots of Elvenkind or Mace of Disruption, and have to deal with headhunters and thieves who wanted it or were hired to get it. Nobody wanted to be loaded down with magical items because it made you a walking bulls eye.

    Keep up the good work...I'm enjoying this blog immensely.

  2. That's the good way.

    Actually, it's very evil. It's the kind of thing that keeps me stealing from LotFP all the time.

  3. I agree, but in a different way. Magic has to have a price that explains why it doesn't take over the world. Why even have peasant farmers when Create Food items could feed everyone?

    That's the first problem any gameworld has to explain. My explanation is the World of Prime - where magic is fueled by eating people's souls.

  4. I explain it by making spellcasters very rare to begin with. My current group can't even find somebody to cast Remove Curse for them, and that's what, a third level spell? (actually, there is someone to cast it but they haven't asked the guy. Maybe they think it's a cleric-only spell? :D)

    As to your specific question... well, why would anyone bother to cast a spell when there are peasant farmers to do the same thing? (You don't much hear about famine happening in game worlds, so the effects of Create Food seem to be assumed anyway...) It could certainly keep armies in the field easier (again, how many campaigns detail the supply train and such for armies? Seems to already be assumed...)

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