Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Magic Items as Gygaxian Building Blocks

One of the cool things about D&D, and probably why it's survived so long, is that you can tinker with different subsystems without breaking the whole. Classes, for example, are a lot easier to plug-in or cut out than reshaping a whole skill system.  Septimbrini called these parts you can fiddle with Building Blocks (I first heard of this at Jeff's).  The traditional magic items are great examples, and they've been that way from the beginning. I've been trying to spotlight how within the building block of magic items are sub-blocks that serve different functions-- have done potions and rings so far. I thought I might pull back a little and think about the whole field.
Here, I made a matrix with number of uses mapped against who it effects. I think the magic items tend to fall into these categories rather nicely. The single-use other hasn't been used quite as much, but oils, powders, and dusts fit here. Scrolls of control would fit here too.

I don't know why I put scrolls for charges/self, that seems wrong now, and there must be some room for exploration there.

I think most, if not all, of the magic apparel would fall with the rings. I think the wands can be broken down into two types, at least, the spell guns and the dowsing rods. I'm thinking about doing a one-page on the latter because they are pretty easy to define and describe-- detect enemies, magic, gold etc. I'm not sure I can come up with 20 different types though.

These simple categories aren't the whole picture.  In looking at potions, I realized they existed to be short-term dungeon tools, too.  Potions provide a toolbox that gives players choices in how to approach dungeon hazard/obstacles.  And rings, because of their always on nature, turn out to be good defensive items, defending even when the wearer isn't prepared (feather fall).

I really like examining the magic items like this because it's possible we might discover another type of magic item that hasn't really been used to its potential.  Also, If we're clearer about what makes the types unique we might be able to invent new items along those lines (like my idea of a ring of Force, though I'd be happy with a clearer name).


  1. Don't forget about the retributive strike option for staff breaking!

    Monte Cooke did something like this with Arcana Unearthed/Evolved.

    Magic items were divided into spell trigger (spellcaster aids; staffs/wands), spell completion (scrolls), single use (potions & some misc items), and and permanent(everything else).

    There are other categorizations to make, and corner cases to consider.

    Casting staffs, spell-gun wands, and scrolls are usable only be magic-user types. Dowsing wands, protection scrolls, potions, and most other items can be used by anyone, or by certain classes.

    Some permanent items don't have an automatic effect but have command words or are otherwise turned on/off. Some permanent items have use per day/per week limits.

    Other items with multiple powers have a charged spell-blasting or other function, and other effects are permanent effects that last as long as any charges are available.

  2. There's no need to force each list to reach 20. If there are only 12 (or 8 or 15) good ideas, then use the extra whitespace for fun optional rules or big picture stuff, no reason to clog the system with weaksauce just to hit a quota.

    For wand-like devices that anyone can use that aren't dowsing wands, I think another piece of low-hanging fruit is the idea "wand of illumination::torch".
    What other 'wands' could be magical replacements for depletable mundane gear, the wand has the advantage of low-/no-encumbrance burden and near perfect reliability, but is a dearer penalty if you lose it.
    Wand of illumination: Torches
    Tenser's Disk: A hireling to carry stuff
    Chime of Opening: Thieves Tools
    Wand of Mage Lock: Iron Spikes
    A wand that grows/shrinks: rope & grapple or 10 ft pole.

  3. Thanks a lot for the comments.

    Yeah, an important angle is class magic. Fighters have swords, heck, even Moldvay gives magic swords 2+ pages. Wizards have wands/staves. What do clerics have? Thieves, probably cloaks and boots (though the more I play without thieves, the less I miss them).

    Command word on/off is something I missed on the no ring list. Something you have to talk into or at could work. I don't like the permanent power with charges. I know a lot of the detect wands are that way and to me it is yet another thing to keep track of. I'd rather they shoot off like ammo, or last as long as you are able to wear it.

    I know they don't all need twenty but the symmetry of it is enticing to me :). I'm trying to think of interesting optional rules for detect-type wands, all I got so far is things that interfere with what they point to, or better yet ways you have to initiate their search mode: sacrifice something etc.

  4. It's zeroth edition or so. I'm a 3rd level fighting-man and am 75 experience points away from Level 4 and "Hero"-dom.
    The only ways I know how to get xp are fighting monsters and getting/spending treasure. I'm low on hit points and all the way down on dungeon level five and want to avoid conflict.
    Most monsters don't carry much treasure on them, and some treasure troves are unguarded.
    My best risk/reward ratio is to find unguarded troves.
    The most important thing I'm interested in "dowsing" for is treasure and enemies.
    Traps (which also hurt like enemies and sometimes guard treausures) and secret doors (which open up 'new content') are the next things I'm worried about finding.
    According to the stocking charts in B/X the only other thing to find in a dungeon is a 'saturday night special' anyway.

    By the end of the Third Edition, there were 15 'detect' spells.
    Detect Metal & Minerals (Treasure)
    ... Thoughts (wandering or emplaced monsers)
    ... undead, favored enemies, animals or plants (kinds of monsters)
    ... snares and pits (natural traps)
    ... poison (a kind of trap)
    ... secret doors (can you believe that this spell survived until 2008?)
    ... Magic (important for identifying treasure)
    ... Scrying
    ... Chaos/Law/Good/Evil (Alignment)
    ... Crossroads (detect 'fey' crossroads in Faerun)
    There was also; Find the Path, Find Traps, Locate City, Locate Creature, Locate Node, Locate Object, and alot of other divination/knowing spells.

    The new 'detect' spells were for more specific varieties of hazards, enemies, and exploitable terrain/obstacles.

    Any attempts to create dowsing rods for specific varieties of hazards/enemies/terrain gets away from the generic and towards the specific.
    If I tell the players they can find wands of detect evil/good, then I create the expectation on their part that the distinction is important.
    If I don't make the distinction important in play, then I am confusing the rest of the players and clogging the item chart with things that aren't going to be used.

    So, what other kinds of thing do dungeoneers, and wilderness explorers, and planar explorers, want to find in order to kick ass and take names but are still generic?

    Detect Treasure/enemies/traps/secret doors/magic (traditional choices)
    Detect Exit Find me a way out of level 5
    Detect Lock/Key For dungeons with a key for every lock
    Detect "Special" Find me the nearest room with something wierd in it.

    Detect Water Traditional dowsing rod.
    Detect Treachery Not the same as detect enemies/thoughts. How to tell which hireling has been replaced by a doppelganger
    Detect Civilization? Which way to the nearest village/town/caravan/lost city/road
    Detect Passage Which way to the bridge/tunnel/ferry/ford/gryphon post over/under/around/through this obstacle?

    Detect Portal Find me a way out of the Abyss
    Detect Ley Line Find magically active locations

    And traditional hermetic dowsing is said (by Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dowsing to be used for finding "ground water, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites,...as well as so-called currents of earth radiation (Ley lines)..."

  5. Thanks, this was helpful, especially the spells. I didn't include civilization, but I like that one, probably more interesting depending on the campaign.

  6. I think this might be a good line to cross over into player engagement:

    Magic items that activate only when a player puts a finger in a nostril and tries to blow out. The magic effect of the bracer/gloves/rock only lasts as long as the player is able to keep his/her hands stretched above their head.

    Creep factor: Detect hair or fingernails. Weird monk-types remove these and keep them with their treasures. Impoverished crazies use these to make traps. And of course Swedenborg-like demons which only consist of these things.