Adventure Design Fumbles
Copyright © Robert Wenner 2003
Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion
This fumbles issue deals with magic items. These can spice up a campaign or
even be essential -- imagine Elric without Stormbringer or "The Fellowship
Without A Ring"? Nah... Let's stick with magical items and dive right into
the possible traps.
Role-playing is always inspired by literature and films. Avoid copying too
obviously, though. If your players have to drop some very special ring into
some volcano to save the world, the campaign will quickly become boring. Exchanging the
ring for an amulet doesn't help.
If you must recycle ideas, make sure your players don't know the original source.
Ask them not to read the book or watch the movie in question.
It is far better, of course, to just recycle parts of the book or movie. For example
have a magic ring that is sensed by its real owner. There is no need for a
curse or an earth-shattering climax - the adventure may simply revolve around preventing the
old owner from reacquiring the ring. Or the player-characters may want to find the true owner,
while the ring guides them to every former owner.
How many times have you encountered items whose names consist of "insert most silly child's
nickname here" "insert some adjective here" "insert item type here"? Items like "Lullaby's
riddle-rooted horse shoes" or "Spookey's funny Flask of Water"?
In most gaming systems, it takes a potent wizard to create magic
items. But what potent wizard retains a name like those above? Even if his
parents did call him Spookey or Lullaby, any serious wizard would replace that name
with something more respectable. Could you quit laughing if Mickey, the
Marvelous Magician, argued with Saruman? And how many demons would treat a Lullaby with anything other than scorn?
Some people tend to make their silly-named wizards members of some "cute"
race, like gnomes or fairies. That is equivalent to labeling a whole species as silly.
Besides this, even if a fey wizard appears cute in human terms, he won't get much
respect from his kind with such a name.
Having dealt with the creator's name, consider whether the whole item
does need a name. Imagine you crafted some exquisite item, or did a great
artistic work, for example a statue. Would you need to name it? In some cases, the answer
will be no, e.g. a craftsman's masterwork might be "my self-made long bow". Artifacts, however, should have names
as they are likely to accumulated history and legends across the years.
Items with fancy side-effects or exaggerated effects on improper use usually fit
the Silly names category as well. My instinct is that beginner GMs
usually create these to play tricks on their players.
More specifically, these items do something completely different if used too often or used the
wrong way. Examples include magic potions which will make the drinker's hair
fall out or turn green if taken twice a day, or a magic wand that creates
a meal if properly used and spoils all food in 100m radius if improperly
Note that often these side effects are even more powerful than the
intended effect. How is that? Has the alchemist spent more time developing ways to
frustrate the user than working on the real task?
Usually, when you operate a device incorrectly, either nothing happens at all or
you get poor results. For example the second potion is less powerful, the
created meal is smaller or less tasty, etc. If you need a bad effect, then why not have the
potion cause a stomach upset? Rarely should an item have dangerous or potent side-effects, unless
magic in the system is dangerous and unreliable or the item has been deliberately booby-trapped.
Items without a spell for that effect
Have you ever wondered where all these items come from? How are they made?
In many RPGs, you often won't find how to create the most powerful items.
Sometimes you won't even find out how to create simple items, like potions.
If your game system does not provide such rules, you can make them up for
yourself, or recycle some other system's rules. Alternatively, you can just
claim the items have been made by someone who knows how to do it, but player-characters are
not allowed to create items ever.
If your magic system does allow item creation, take a close look at what is
required in terms of skills and spells. Some simple witch doctor may be unable to create
this or that item, and you distort the magic system if you permit it.
The moral is to keep item creation consistent with your world and the rules.