Thursday, June 3, 2010

Awkward Magic Items

Posting about the South Pointing Chariot reminded me of the idea of awkward magic. I don't like the idea of charges for wands, staves, and rods. Charges seem too much like rounds in a gun and they are too hard to keep track of. I think for some items enough awkwardness might fulfill the same function as charges- to limit the outright power of an item. So here are some thoughts on ways you might make magic items awkward:

Physically awkward: heavy and bulky like Branwalather's Bridge, or tall- too tall to get through certain tunnels. Maybe it's like a big tarp that makes something invisible only when unfolded and thrown over the object.

Physically fragile: It could be very small and prone to be lost if dropped-- Earring of Gem Detection?-- or easy to break-- an Egg of Holy Protection?

Awkward to activate: Maybe it requires three people holding hands to give you a sense of which direction the strongest magic in the area lies, or maybe it takes a whole day for the brass figurine to dig enough to make a passwall-like effect. Only works in silence? Only works when the user sings a certain song. Once a day use is more granular than normal charges and may be easier to keep track of, maybe even 4e's once an encounter and just say the rest of the time it's doing some abstract kind of ambient recharge.

Requires Fuel: This is very similar to charges except easy to keep track of-- make it usable each time you use a piece of valuable fuel. Similar to Dowd's Lanthorn from the Caverns of Tsojcanth, (although it burned fuel in a bookkeepy kind of way, I'd rather say 1 gem gives you 1 fireball). And because that lantern running out of fuel meant death that makes me think of . . .

Consequences: Sure, use the wand of frost as much as you want, you just age 5 years each time. Makes me think of the wizard in the Sinbad movie. Once a DM let me pluck some wish-giving leaves from a tree, only later did I find out each leave plucked meant someone had died. I felt guilty, your players might not care. But that makes me think of . . .

Creepiness: Okay, your players may not care, but if npcs keep seeing them dribbling fresh blood into the Golden Guide, it will effect how npcs interact with them and thus force them to care-- if they want to buy, sell, or rent anything anyways.

Any other ideas?


  1. Fragile and Consequences combined immediately made me think of nitroglycerin. And maybe your last post did too... I keep seeing some scene from an old Western where these guys had to transport nitro in a rickety wagon. Dungeons need more nitroglycerin, especially abandoned dwarven mines.

  2. In my campaign, there are magic-missile-shooting guns, but they work with quartz "bullets" that are prone to misfire. There's also one fireball-launching version, but if any dirt gets in the barrel it will blow up in your face.

    Which, I guess, is taking rounds in a gun and then making them awkward as well. I like it better than charges, though, because there are fewer uses before you have to get them reloaded (6 and 4, respectively) and there's more chance for entertaining disasters.

  3. Saw your hand off: Magic items that replace body parts are certainly awkward in all but the cheesiest of hackfests.

    more consequences: Potions and such that cause one to be inebriated after use.

    it's got a fuse: simple enough the item requires one to light a fuse and wait for the result. Seems simple enough but there are lot's of situations where one doesn't' have a source of fire to set the fuse alight handy at the moment. The more spectacular the more obvious (and slightly longer) the burning of the fuse could take drawing everyone's attention to the impending activation.

  4. Great additional ideas! Thanks.

    The fuse idea made me think of a clockwork that will function only as long as it's kept wound.

  5. Probability: it only works with a successful roll of some kind. Or, it could be a random different effect each time: fire wands can cast fireball... or burning hands, produce flame, etc. That way it's not an automatic 8 dice of fireball damage every time.

    Or even, combined with consequences, it fails drastically on a certain roll result.

    One option for awkward is that the item has several different abilities, but they must be used once in order before you can reuse the first again.

  6. This is a post that I've gotten a lot of use out of when creating items for my games. Items that are awkward, and/or with a mini-game attached to them, seem to be a much bigger hit with my players than an item that causes them harm as a drawback.

    Would love to see this post expanded on, especially interesting "Awkward to Activate" techniques. The animal transforming amulet mentioned in the Undertavern Reflections post with the player mini-game of coming up with descriptive words for the animal they want their character to become is one of the most wonderful ideas for an item I've seen.

  7. Thanks. Yeah, one of the big realizations I had when I came back to D&D, was that you didn't have to find those few players that new the game, you taught anyone you knew how to play, that the game could be for everyone.

    And that makes you start thinking about things that are fun to do sitting around in a living room. Like parlour games, apples to apples, pictionary, the metal folks in our hobby might not consider them cool, but if they make people laugh I'm interested in looking at a way to incorporate their idea into my D&D game.

    The tough part is that most parlor games are built on a few simple ideas - describing something to someone else, trying to trick someone else- etc. I will think about this some more.