Tuesday, March 8, 2011

From Under A Rock - Hiding the Magic in Magic

Some game systems take the approach of magical items to be automatically detected and the character to automatically and instinctively know how to use them while others take the approach that you need to learn more about the item before you can unlock its secrets. Depending on the campaign setting and flavor you are using Dungeons and Dragons can be either of the first or second variety or perhaps a combination of both.

The question is does it matter if a player automatically gets to know all about a magical item? What are the pros of this approach? Well first they could put the item to use almost immediately and second they would not have to spend time 'in game' learning the secrets of the magical item. What are the cons of this approach? In my humble opinion automatically allowing a character to have all the knowledge of a magical item, especially powerful artifacts, takes away the fun of roleplaying the research and investigation into the weapon.

A game I used to play a while back called Earth Dawn took a novel approach to this very question. In Earth Dawn a character has the ability to learn about the item and as they gain experience they also gain knowledge of the magical item. So as a for instance, Roadblock my Ogre Skyraider found an axe that seemed to have had only minor magical properties. He spent some time learning the item's name (yes they all had names) and reading the lore about the item so that he was familiar with some of the basic properties of the magic. After a while he was able to unlock some of the more legendary powers of the item and as he grew so to did the power of the item.

Let's take the approach most commonly found in D&D - one size-fits all magical items. Say Roadblock finds that same axe but really shouldn't have the ability to use all the properties of said axe from level one. The problem is that since the campaign setting is an all or nothing magic discovery setting the super powers of the axe will ultimately unbalance the game.

What can be done? In my games, and I know I refer to my games a lot in these posts, I allow this to happen in two ways. One way is through slotted magic items. Say you want to get a custom built sword for your fighter and you want to keep it throughout the campaign. Well in my games I have an additional charge for what is known as 'slotted items'. This basically gives the player the opportunity to add additional magical properties to items that would otherwise not be able to be added. For instance, a +1 sword that later gets the glammered magical property of armor and maybe becomes an Efretti Bottle as well. What this represents is that the player 'sought knowledge of the item' as they progressed. It does not represent the player purchasing additional magic for the item but instead unlocking magic inside using lore.

The other way I allow this to happen is through the use of leveled powers. Say that axe has powers that are only unlockable when Roadblock hits level 3 and then level 5 and so on and so forth. Taking the above example, he would get the +1 at level 2 or 3 and glammered at level 5 with the Efretti Bottle effect occurring when he hit level 10 or so.

Another nifty trick is to put magical items out there with the spell undetectable aura. Most games have some form of this spell whose purpose is to hide a magical field from the wizard so that it appears as an ordinary item. As an aside, it can be a handy trick to put nonmagical auras on your weapons and armor if you are ever up against something that would inherently shrink back from magic weapons. I remember a game in which a vampire was none to happy when he learned that the holy avenger he thought was a normal masterwork sword ended his existence...


  1. You know how I feel about balance - for me that overpowerful axe is just fine, and it might even be fun to have the thing be too powerful, with nasty side effects for the user.

    I like your general approach though very much. The idea of the full potential of the character and sword emerging over time is not only practical in game terms, it's a very natural idea, and one that rewards thought and development.

    It makes me think of the Sommerswerd in the Lone Wolf novelisations, and the idea of tool and wielder being bonded. In this respect, it needn't even be a case of the wielder seeking lore, but more the item and wielder opening up to each other.

  2. I find that sometimes it is important to keep some semblance of balance in the game just for the sheer factor of it not being fair to the other players. It is similar to some Forgotten Realms games that I've played in the past under other GMs who like to let the players do some of the work and then come in with uber NPC legendary Elminster types and do the 'important stuff'. I think that the PCs should do the important stuff!