Magic Items Should Do the Impossible

I recently discovered the awesomeness that is Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series. One of the many mindblowing things that happens in the first book, Wizard War (US) / The Wizards and the Warriors (UK), is that the protagonists find a green bottle in a case with a pair of rings. When its wearer twists one of these ring, he and anyone he’s touching is transported into the bottle. The interior is as large as a castle and crammed full of provisions for a siege, ancient tomes, and all manner of things the wizards who stocked it felt might be useful to have inside one’s magic bottle.

This is a cool magic item in its own right, but Cook’s invention really kicks into high gear when one of the characters winds up trapped in the lower levels of the green bottle without the ring to let him exit. Locked behind a portcullis and taunted by his enemy, he finds a red magic bottle with its own ring – which would seem only to let him escape one sealed bottle for another until he realizes that he can toss the red bottle past the portcullis, enter it with his ring, and then twist it again to emerge on the far side. Having the bottle lets you do things that would otherwise be impossible, and the rest of the book inventively explores some of those implications.

Justin Alexander and Ben Robbins have written great essays on how to making magic items feel magical by linking them to the backstory of your campaign: This isn’t just a +1 sword, it’s the blade of the Shamed King, or evidence that one of your rival adventurers was here before and lost their weapon. Likewise, Hugh Cook’s magic bottles certainly say interesting things about the history of the world that created them.

But their use also shapes the future of the world in dramatic ways, because now the protagonists can do things that were previously impossible. This role for magic items is one of the glories of original Dungeons & Dragons, but each edition that’s followed has increasingly swapped it out for items that let you do much the same kinds of things you could before, except with a numerical bonus that has no discernable effect on actual play unless you’re subjecting your PC’s performance to rigorous statistical analysis.

Example: A new player joined my White Sandbox campaign, bringing in a character named Ookla the Mok who had reached 3rd level (where our native PCs start, as per Gygax’s OD&D house rules) playing another AD&D campaign back in the day.  Ookla had a pair of +1 swords, so I said “I’m fine with you having these, but you should be aware that in this edition all magic swords are intelligent – depending on how I roll them up, trying to wield them might kill you or leave you dominated.”

He decided to take the risk, and survived the damage when each of them turned out to have an opposing (single-axis, three-valued) alignment. Roleplaying the subsequent interactions was fun, and different from other social interactions in the campaign because the ego rules provide a mechanical basis for resolving conflicts between sword and wielder that’s more detailed than the reaction roll for conflicts between PCs and NPCs. But it wasn’t until he managed to win some cooperation from his longsword that I really understood how substantially old-school magic items can impact a campaign.

Ookla still isn’t able to wield his sword, which would mean that it was useless  to him in any other edition. But one of the abilities OD&D randomly assigned to this weapon is detecting secret doors. As near as I can tell, nothing else in the game lets you do this automatically, so a fighting-man’s ability to wield magic swords thus has a huge implicit potential to let the class do the impossible. The effect on our game has been amazing. Paul Jaquays filled the with hidden areas, reachable only by secret doors in places I never expected the players to search and thus could never imagine them finding. Ookla’s sword has thus opened up vistas previously unimagined by the adventurers, suddenly multiplying the richness and potential of the campaign. Even knowing it was there all along, I’ve vicariously felt the thrill of a discovery that shatters the limits you thought were there, like Warren Robinett’s easter egg in the Atari 2600 Adventure cartridge.

Pfaugh on magic items that fulfill their designed role with 30 finely gradated levels of numerical sufficiency! Give me magic bottles and portable holes;  I want to haul goods, carry passengers through inhospitable environments, and create a last-ditch improvised extra-planar explosive device with the addition of a bag of holding!

3 Responses to “Magic Items Should Do the Impossible”

  1. 1 aromero5
    September 30, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    As a fellow player in that White Box campaign, I cannot overstate the CRAVING that I have for my comrade Ookla’s swords. My character is lawful and could wield them without harm. I am Ookla’s constant companion, an instructor in the virtues of Law, and have spent considerable gold helping him butter up the local Patriarch as he tries to become lawful. All so that when Ookla drops dead (as characters are prone to do)I’ll be there as the natural inheritor of those swords. they want to be with me, they even told me so!

  2. October 1, 2009 at 2:06 am

    I wonder if part of the problem is that low-level D&D is so heart-stoppingly fragile. at least as far as combat goes, that you crave any mechanical advantage whatsoever. You’re right that a Shield +1 is embarrassingly unimaginative, but if I’m a player scrambling to survive I don’t really care that it pollutes the fantasy atmosphere with its naked mechanics-mongery. You’re right that these sorts of items are only of value from a statistical standpoint–but only someone who spends a lot of time behind the GM’s Screen would sneer at that. Something needs to keep me alive: either re-jigger the system or give me some magical uppers.

    The other issue is that in most editions of D&D, low-level magical gear is pretty prosaic. All the “good stuff” is reserved for the mid- or end-game, which I for one have never survived long enough to see. “Doing the impossible” is generally not the sort of things that low-level guys can expect.

    Tavis, would you have this objection if these sorts of prosaic advantages aren’t so much magic as simply lucky? Ookla’s +1 sword wasn’t enchanted, just a notably better sword than others. It’s an approach D&D 3e takes with its masterwork weapons, which are so well manufactured that they have a mechanical edge.

  3. 3 tavisallison
    October 1, 2009 at 11:29 am

    I like the idea of lucky weapons – e.g. you pick a number from 1-20 and if you roll that number, the weapon always hits; that’d be awesome because you could do other things with the lucky number idea, from abtruse numerology to special effects when you fought that number of opponents. I also think it’d be cool if a plus-to-hit weapon instead let you re-roll a missed attack once per day; that has more of the feeling of doing the impossible, and is a dramatic event when it happens.

    Maybe if my Red Box characters had ever found a magic anything I’d sing a different tune! I do sympathize with the idea that, low-level play being what it is, even the most prosaic magic item is doing the impossible if it keeps you alive…

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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