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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.

Obviously stolen

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.

Silly names

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.

Fancy side-effects

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 used.

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.

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