Posts Tagged ‘magic items


Curse You!

Loke was angry as the dwarf had been, because he had perforce to part with the magic ring, and ere he went his way he spoke fiercely to Hreidmar, saying: “Thou hast received gold enough now, and my head is safe. But thou shalt never prosper, nor shall thy sons prosper after thee. Take thou with the gold the curse that follows it.”

— Donald A. Mackenzie, “Teutonic Myth and Legend, Chapter XXV: The Doom of the Volsungs”

Taking a page from Grognardia, let’s use Friday the 13th—that ill-starred day!—as an excuse to discuss curses in D&D.

The longest-term D&D character I ever played was Martin the Green, a “watch-mage” from an academy of magic patterned after the school on Roke Island in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea stories. Taking it upon himself to destroy a powerful necromantic artifact—the spellbook of an undying centuries-old necromancer of his own order—he found his flesh slowly rotting away. He grew morose and withdrawn, stating more and more often of his own inevitable doom. It was a dark story made darker by the curse, but that just made his victory all the sweeter when I made that last saving throw for Martin to endure the chill of the Negative Material Plane just long enough to destroy the book and cripple the necromancer’s power, albeit at the cost of his own life.

In my current Red Box game, a PC cleric perused a stack of scrolls acquired from a magician’s abandoned workroom, only to discover one was cursed. He found himself with a constant, terrible sense of being watched; I kept telling him that “there is something on your back,” though neither he nor anyone else could see anything there. Aside from healing more slowly as the curse sapped his life force, he had trouble sleeping and suffered terrible nightmares. Alas, the loot from the workroom sufficed to procure a remove curse spell from a temple elder.

The PCs have also looted the altars of two Chaos cults, only to discover that the jeweled altar pieces were cursed. In both cases, the character carrying the loot was able to hold off the curse long enough to reach a temple and have the curse removed. Had he failed his saving throw, the fact that he’s the highest-level fighter in the group with the best magical weapon would have resulted in his single-handedly slaughtering the rest of the party and offering up their souls to the Chaos gods!

And in Tavis’s White Box game, we’ve had a few items that might be regarded as cursed, such as the Chaotic intelligent sword that turned our elven ranger to the service of Chaos, and a sentient fish-shaped amulet with an unfortunate habit of talking far too loudly while we’re adventuring.

“If you are so cursed wise you should know already,” growled the Argive, unmollified. Then his gaze clouded as he cast back over his tangled trail. “Some magician has cursed me.” he muttered. “As I rode back from my triumph over Erech, my scar-horse screamed and shied at Something none saw but he. Then my dreams grew strange and monstrous. In the darkness of my chamber, wings rustled and feet padded stealthily. Yesterday a woman at a feast went mad and tried to knife me. Later an adder sprang out of empty air and struck at me. Then, this night, she men call Lilitu came to my chamber and mocked me with awful laughter-”

— Robert E. Howard, “The House of Arabu”

Here’s some forum threads and other online resources that deal with D&D curses. (Some are for later editions but should still be useful for old-school play.)

Best Curses
Bestow Curse
Lesser Curses (D&D)
D&D 4th ed: One Hundred Curses
20 Curses (3.5e Other)

“Greeting, O Maranapion,” replied a grave and terrible voice that issued from the maggot-eaten lips. “Indeed, I will grant thee a sign. Even as I, in death, have rotted upon my seat from the foul sorcery which was wrought in the vaults of King Gadeiron, so thou and thy fellows and Gadeiron, living, shall decay and putrefy wholly in an hour, by virtue of the curse that I put upon ye now.”

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Death of Malygris”

So, how have you used curses in D&D? As a DM, have you handed out cursed items and scrolls, used curse spells, or levied a slain foe’s dying curse upon the PCs? As a player, have your PCs been cursed? What sorts of curses have you encountered in play?


Trinkets Ahoy!

Of course, all treasure is not in precious metals or rare or finely made substances. Is not a suit of armor of great value? What of a supply of oil? a vial of holy water? weapons? provisions? animals? The upper levels of a dungeon need not be stuffed like a piggy bank to provide meaningful treasures to the clever player character.

—Gary Gygax, AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide

Old-school adventures are full of junk. Treasure troves don’t just contain precious metals in thousand-coin increments! There’s all sorts of other valuables: furs, furniture, jewelry, silverware, casks of wine, wheels of cheese, and any number of other knick-knacks, many of questionable value.

This smorgasbord of variably-valued valuables serves two functions. The obvious one is verisimilitude; an interesting array of treasure helps make clear where the dungeon came from and gives a sense that the treasure is there for a reason. But many old-school play groups aren’t concerned with simulating a living world! So why should they bother?

Such groups can get mileage out of the other reason, which is that unusual treasure poses a challenge for the players. Any dunce of an adventurer knows to take the gold coins and leave the copper ones. But which is more valuable, the silver-chased coffer or the mahogany chair? The fancy porcelain serving dish or the collection of scrimshaw? You can only carry so much, so what do you take and what do you leave to be despoiled by the dungeon’s other denizens?

More importantly, unless the DM adds a selection of minor valuables, the major ones shine forth as blatantly as diamonds on black velvet. If every trove contains nothing but gold, gems and jewelry, the moment the PCs find a carpet, censer, girdle, horn or mirror, they’ll know it’s some sort of miscellaneous magic item. Don’t just give the show away with such transparency. Make them use precious spell slots to prepare detect magic!


Don’t Make Me Remember that You Have Magic Armor

Another house rule we’ve recently adopted in the White Sandbox is that instead of affecting your armor class and thus your chance to be hit, each +1 worth of magical protection gives you a 1 in 10 saving throw against the effects of the hit.

Let’s say that Caswyn of Apollo is wearing one of the Gray Company’s namesake +1 cloaks of protection when he is struck by a medusa’s dagger. Caswyn’s player Eric calls out two numbers on a d20 and rolls it. If either of Eric’s lucky numbers come up, Caswyn’s cloak of protection has stopped the blow; he takes no damage and doesn’t have to save vs. the poison on the dagger. If Caswyn also has a +1 shield and +1 platemail in addition to his cloak, Eric gets to roll three d20s; of his lucky numbers come up on any of them, his gear saves him from harm.

The idea behind this house rule isn’t to change the statistical benefit of magical protection. Some rough analysis suggests that a 1-in-10 armor save helps you slightly more than a +1 to AC when you’re facing a high hit dice creature, and slightly less against a weaker enemy whose base chance to hit you is small. I see this as a nice side benefit, but the point is to change the way that magic protection feels. (For example, even if both are statistically equivalent, I think there is a very different feel in older editions when the target of a charm spell makes a saving throw and avoids its effects, versus in 4E when you make an attack roll for the spell and miss.)

A guiding principle for this house rule and the one about not rolling your hit points until you’re hurt is to take aspects of the game that normally get resolved off-screen beforehand and instead make them happen at the table as the spotlighted consequence of a dramatic event.

As the DM I roll to hit the PCs many times in an average session. When one of those blows would have landed if not for the protection of Fred the talking magic amulet, it’s obvious only to me. Even if I use this fact to narrate the monster’s miss, it doesn’t seem as real to the player as if I say “The minotaur’s axe slices you for six points of damage” and they get to respond “Not so fast, let’s see if Fred can save the day!” Owning a magic item, and being able to survive a lethal blow, should be remarkable. Highlighting these with a separate resolution step in play makes sure they get remarked upon.

It’s also extra work for me to have to figure out why a roll misses someone due to magic items. The armor save house rule unloads some work onto the players. One of the things I like about “three little books” OD&D is that AC can be directly translated into armor type. When we don’t use modifiers to AC from Dexterity or magic items, I simply track whether PCs are wearing leather, chain, or plate and then figure out AC from there. If AC is instead a complex composite of factors I have to remember both what a character’s AC is and also what armor they’re wearing, with all the other things that implies.

Another great thing about OD&D is that there’s a narrow range of AC. Even in magical plate and shield, a fighting man needs to worry about being hit by a lowly man-at-arms 20% of the time. I like this because even if a PC’s magical protection will stop a blow most of the time, I want to make the players sweat in the interval between when I announce the hit and when their magic save comes through for them! Also, when I have dozens of men-at-arms in the combat it’s much easier if I can just roll a handful of dice and count all the 17s or above, knowing that such rolls always have a chance of hitting any target.

Two final notes to put this house rule in the context of the original rules and in actual play. The text about magic armor and shields in Monsters and Treasure says that “Armor proper subtracts its bonus from the hit dice of the opponents of its wearer. If the shield’s bonus is greater than that of the armor there is a one-third chance that the blow will be caught by the shield, thus giving the additional subtraction.” Rather than try to reconcile the Arnesonian, Chainmail-based proto-D&D implications of that with the alternate-combat-system under which we normally roll, I’ll simply appropriate the idea of the probabilistic protection of a magic shield as support for the spirit of this house rule.

The need for these house rules came from a newfound prevalence of protective items  in the White Sandbox campaign. This emerged because, until last session’s return to the Caverns of Thracia, we’d been looting nearby destinations in Jaquaysland, like the Fabled Garlin of Merlin (The Dungeoneer #2, editor) and Borshak’s Lair (The Dungeoneer #3, author), as well as one unique to the campaign, the workshop of the lich Patariki Van in the Nameless City. The consequent increase in bling was purposeful; I love the Caverns, but their distribution of loot doesn’t leave adventurers well prepared to face the stiff opposition in its deeper levels. (At EN World, Bullgrit has raised similar complaints about B1: In Search of the Unknown. Evidence of an anti-“Monty Haul” backlash taking place between 1976’s rich hauls and the spartan offerings of TSR and Judges’ Guild in 1978-9?)

EDIT: Maldoor’s comment below reminds me of another rationale behind these rules: players like to search for anything that’ll save their bacon when a PC’s life is on the line. In more rules-heavy games, the party goes modifier hunting: “Did you remember your temporary hit points? Did the monster hit even with its -2 to hit from bane?” Having a rule that kicks in at this tense moment will hopefully replace the urge to rules-lawyer and find ways to retcon it didn’t happen. Also, a game in which a character is never in danger because of their unhittable AC is boring; one in which that same character is quickly brought to the edge of death because they don’t remember to make their armor saves until it really counts is exciting!


Making Vancian Spellcasting Concrete

Over at the Eiglophian Press, G. Benedicto has a noteworthy series of posts about Vancian crunch, which is being discussed over at Finarvyn’s OD&D boards. I fully agree that the way that Vance describes spellcasting is much more evocative and inspirational than its presentation in any old-school ruleset. This, and later quotations in italics, is from his short story “Mazirian the Magician,” published as part of The Dying Earth (1950) – not the sole Vancian source for the concept of prepared spells, but a good and convenient one:

Later, when black night lay across the forest, he would seek through his books for spells to guard him through the unpredictable glades. They would be poignant corrosive spells, of such a nature that one would daunt the brain of an ordinary man and two render him mad. Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells…. Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere.

I think that G. Benedicto’s impulse to “clarify what’s happening in the wizard’s study” is an excellent one, and that it can usefully begin with looking to Vance to help imagine what a magic-user is doing when he or she memorizes spells. However, I take issue with two of his assertions.

Here we see Jack Vance contemplating whether to release one of the many spells filling his brain to capacity, which would cause many-colored stabbing lines to split your blundering body in a thousand places.

First, I disagree that the number of spells a magic-user is able to prepare is one and the same as the number of spells in their spellbook from which they can choose when deciding which to memorize. The OD&D thread shows there are folks who play this way, and not without textual justification. Like any holy text worth its salt, you can find support in the Three Little Brown Books for just about any position you want to take! However, Vance seems clear that magic-users may know many more spells than they can fit in their brain at any one time:

…at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.

Second, I think that the use of the term “crunch” is ill-advised, and not only because some old-schoolers don’t know that this new-school term of art refers to game mechanics that quantify the narrative fluff. However, it’s possible for both crunch and fluff to be completely divorced from gameplay, and in fact it’s a rational economic activity for freelancers who are paid by the word to spend lots of time fluffily describing and crunchily quantifying things that the PCs will never actually interact with during the game.

What I find really inspirational about the Eiglophian post is is the idea that Vancian spellcasting can be made more vivid and compelling by providing more ways for it have a concrete impact on play. In the comments, Booberry suggests two great examples – first the suggestion that, by  increasing magic-users’ focus and mental discipline, potions and elixirs might increase the limit on the spells that they could cram into their brain, and second that the death of a magic-user might cause these spells to come shooting out again! (Some honest-to-goodness crunch is provided for the latter – at 0 HP, the M-U must save vs. spells to avoid all remaining memorized spells firing off at random. There’s no attempt at a pre-ordained blanket quantification of what this would mean ahead of time, which I think is wise.) G. Benedicto also suggests the awesome idea of memory-stealing substances.

Before I suggest some additional ways to give Vancian spellcasting a more concrete presence in play, let’s look at the existing game consequences of the idea.

  1. Memorizing spells takes time, concentration, and access to books. Of Mazirian, Vance tells us that “Midnight found him in his study, poring through leather-bound tomes and untidy portfolios“. Events in the game that disturb the magic-users’ study or deprive him or her to access to books will thus demonstrate the practical limits of Vancian spellcasting.
  2. Because preparation is lengthy and effortful, not every magic-user will have taken the effort to memorize spells on any given day. When Vance’s protagonist tells a Deodand “Answer my questions, and I undertake to feed you much flesh,” it sizes him up and replies “You may in any event, Mazirian. Are you with powerful spells today?” The fact that magic-users and knights both must gird themselves for battle, such that catching them unprepared gives an enormous advantage,  is highly significant to gameplay. (Note that by this analogy the 3E sorcerer, who never uses memorized spells, is as much a missed dramatic opportunity as a martial artist who fights only with his fists; the most awesome moment in many kung-fu movies is the point where the hero’s sword breaks and he continues to kick ass despite what would be a crippling disadvantage for a normal fighter.)
  3. The details of Vancian spellcasting determine when a magic-user is potent. “For all Mazirian’s magic he was helpless. The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain. In any event he could not have uttered the space-twisting syllables with that mindless clutch at his throat.” Being able to shut down a spellcaster with a silence spell demonstrates an aspect of the way magic works.

OK, now I will (finally) suggest some more ways that PCs could interact concretely with the concept of Vancian spellcasting during play. Many of these take their cue from the sense of spells as possessed of independent vitality and agency that comes from another story in The Dying Earth, “Turjan of Miir”:

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violet Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the solitude of the book. Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion.

  1. Memorizing the same spell more than once may cause the copies to fight in your brain. In the White Sandbox thus far I’ve discouraged this without further explanation, but on reflection I think it’s coolest to give players a choice between the reward of being able to end multiple fights with sleep and the risk of horrible Vancian consequences that are known but unlikely. At first glance it makes sense to have these arise while the spell is being memorized, but that tends to happen outside the focus of play. Players will be unhappy if dire consequences mean Blastum is found dead over his spellbooks before the day’s adventure even begins, while DMs will be dissatisfied if milder effects mean the adventurers just spend another day drinking in the tavern while their magic-user gets her mind untangled. I think it’s better if the ill effects come about at the time that one of the duplicate spells is cast. Perhaps there’s a chance that they have become stuck together and all come out at once when you utter the syllables hoping to release one of them, with unintended and likely adverse effects.
  2. Upon reading a magic scroll, the spell it contains floods into your brain and fills up all available space. If you have multiple empty spell slots, you inadvertently run the risks of memorizing duplicate spells. A lesser version would target only a single spell level, while a more versatile spell could put versions of itself into whatever level slots are open. An especially virulent version would replace the spells already memorized, either by causing you to forget them or by firing them all off randomly! This is a good way for DMs to have fun watching magic-users find creative applications for a spell too dangerous or whimsical for them to ever consider memorizing under other circumstances.
  3. A cursed scroll contains a previously undiscovered spell, the effects of which are tempting enough to entice magic-users to copy it into their own spellbook. This spell is unusually eager to flood into the magic-user’s brain, taking a tenth the normal time to memorize. It does indeed perform as promised when it is cast, but it becomes voraciously jealous when it is passed over in favor of other spells. Each time the magic-user prepares spells from that book and does not memorize the spell from the cursed scroll, over the course of the following day it copies its own runes over those of one other randomly selected spell in the book. Most likely, this is not discovered until the magic-user attempts to prepare one of the over-written spells.
  4. An arrow toxin causes magic-users to lose the discipline necessary to resist the pressure of the spells stuffed into their brain. For the next 1d4 rounds, they must  speak the syllables to cast one of their spells (of their choice or randomly determined, depending on the horribleness of the toxin), groaning with relief as each one is released from its confinement.
  5. Entering certain anti-magic fields causes some or all of a magic-user’s spells to escape from their confinement in his or her brain. This is not immediately apparent due to the suppression of the anti-magic field. When the effects of the field are removed, the result may be as if all the spells had been cast at once, or the spells may gain some independent existence of their own, such as the excellent concept of the living spell Keith Baker created for the Eberron campaign setting in D&D 3.5.
  6. A magical substrate such as an enchanted blank is so receptive a home for spells that on each round a magic-user views the page, he or she must make a saving throw to avoid having a randomly chosen memorized spell escape and take up residence in the new substrate. This could be a useful item for a magic-user who wished to simultaneously disable enemy spellcasters and enrich his or her own spellbook.
  7. A symbol or creature is so abhorrent to arcane principles that a magic-user in the presence of this provocation must make a saving throw each round to resist the demands of his or her memorized spells to be hurled at the offender. A magic-resistant character might want to paint such a symbol on a shield and draw fire away from more vulnerable members of the party (aka aggro, as K. Bailey’s comment here leads me to believe they’re calling it in these new-fangled graphical MUDs).

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!

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2023

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