Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Inevitable “Yes, I’m Alive” Post

There’s several half-finished articles lurking about. A Magic Hat for 4e. A walkthrough of a delightful D&D heartbreaker called “Of Gods And Men”. The start of what I think will be a great general utility article, 99% systemless, for adding flavor text and descriptions to magic items. An assortment of editorials. There’s a few general impediments to productivity:

My current work assignments don’t include a lot of “run a test for an hour” tasks.I’m spending a full day, every day, single-stepping through a maze of twisty little Java classes, all alike, trying to inhale a program that spans literally thousands of classes without any documentation about how they interact and many of the programmers who worked on it no longer with the company.

I’m running a GURPS 4e game, and a lot of my creative efforts are focused on that, and I don’t like revealing stuff I’m working on to my players, and I don’t know if the imaginary readers I have even care about GURPS. Otherwise, I’d be posting some of that.

There’s a sad feeling of pointlessness in working on 4e stuff, especially since I’m no longer even running it. (My original plan was to get back to my old game when WOTC produced more support for epic-level games. Yeah. That’s going to happen. 4e is going to become a case study in how to cripple a good game with bad marketing, bad presentation, and desperate, rapid, shifts in product positioning and plans that leave your customers confused, distrustful, and inclined to support your biggest competitor, which understands the market and game you created better than you do.)

Worst of all, I sat down today to write up a bunch of monsters I’ve thought of for Earth Delta. The Tentacrab! The Psiclops! The Mentatic Overlords! I had a major computer disaster back in April, and needed to reinstall everything. I hadn’t gotten around to reinstalling Monster Builder. Turns out, WOTC no longer allows downloads of the old Adventure Tools. Well, no problem, I have my old hard disk with everything on it. Unfortunately, without a proper installation, it’s not working right; it only sees my custom monsters, and all it has from them is the names, the stat blocks are gibberish. So I need to either figure out how to dig around in the registry files stored on my old hard drive (tough to do, regedit wants to work with the ‘live’ registry only), power up my old laptop (it might not even work on that, there’s a rumor it self-destructs when it connects to the server now), or find some other way to make 4e monsters — an easier task than making 3e/PF monsters, true, but also harder to format well. (The online tool doesn’t save as RTF, so it’s utterly useless for ED.)

I’ve been doing professional game writing, and that tends to trump free game writing.

So, that’s why there’s been a paucity of posts. Sorry.

Magical Descriptions

Magical Descriptions

So, in my post on magic, or somewhere else, who can keep track of this anymore, I sure can’t, I posited that there should be good guidelines and idea pools to help DMs describe magical items in ways that made them flavorful and memorable from a fluff perspective, regardless of the mechanics. It thus then occurred to me that I could provide such a service myself.

First, let’s discuss the kinds of things a DM should think about, before delving into a catalog of mental kickstarters. The below material doesn’t contain specific mechanics, but describes mechanics conceptually, so a DM can translate them to their game system of choice with ease.

Basic Concepts

So, you’ve got a +1 sword. Now what? Please note, the below questions and guidelines can apply to all items, not just weapons and armor, though they’re less applicable to disposable one-shot items like scrolls and potions, though not wholly so.

Who Made It?: I don’t mean the name of the smith or wizard (or do I? Yes, I certainly might), but the culture. In an age before mass production, all items show some signs of cultural origin, sometimes obvious, sometimes not. If it’s made by a particular nation, it may contain the symbol of that nation, or the choices of decoration may reflect the animals, gods, plants, and so on of that nation. Remember that non-humans aren’t monocultures; while you can get away with saying “It’s forged in the elvish style”, it’s much cooler to day, “It’s forged in the style of the Grey Elves of the Western Woods, as you can tell by the use of the silver ash leaf as a decorative motif.” Except for items from lost, forgotten, etc, cultures, it should generally be an easy check on an appropriate History or Knowledge skill, or a freebie to someone with the appropriate background.

When Was It Made?: This ties slightly into the above — cultures have eras and periods, and there are usually signs of when an item was made, based on the style of art, the craftsmanship, materials used, and so on. Symbols rise and fall in prominence over time, and craftsmen learn new techniques, or forget old ones. The purity of an alloy, or the width of a hilt, can all give clues to the age of an item. Generally speaking, it is a trope that older items are more powerful. While sometimes illogical (would you rather have an ENIAC or an iPad?), it can make sense in the weird context of D&D-style games. For a sword to survive in a usable form for thousands of years in a dank dungeon, it’s probably got some potent enchantments on it. Furthermore, a newly-made +5 holy dancing vorpal flaming dragonbane sword is probably still in the hands of the person it was made for, not lost twenty levels underground. For a very powerful item to be lying around waiting for someone to claim it, it needs to have been lost so long ago most people have given up looking for it. Less powerful items, more easily replaced, are more easily abandoned when they’re still new.

What’s It Made Of?: Leaving aside explicitly magical materials, the composition of an item can be interesting. Is it made of crude, impure, metal, or highly tempered and refined steel? What kind of wood is the bow made of? Is the leather on the grip made of dragonhide or human skin or good ol’ cow? Is it made of multiple substances, perhaps woven together in an unusual way? Again, culture is likely a key here, but this is also a good chance to show how an item is unusual:”The markings and runes are all very clearly of the Dwarves of Brasshammer’s Forge, but they’re known for their work with steel and adamantine. This shield is made of crude bog-iron, or so it seems.” Alchemy, Appraisal, or any kind of military or weapons knowledge skills are used here, and identifying common materials is likely to be an easy check, but rare materials — or realizing a common material should be uncommon for an item of this type — can be moderate or hard. Scrolls can be on papyrus, on refined paper (for higher tech cultures), on rough cloth, on segmented folding metal or slats of wood, or on vellum made from all sorts of creatures.  Potion bottles might be glass, or metal, or clay, or varnished wood, or stoppered drinking horns. Ivory and bone can come from dragons, demons, liches, or sheep.

What Does It Look Like?: Well, duh, it’s a sword! (Shield, chain shirt, wand, ring). This question sort of relates back to the others, but go further. Is the ring made of twisted and interlocked braids? Does the sword have writing on the blade, and on both sides, or one side?  What does the writing say? What language is it in? Is the blade straight or scalloped? What condition is the armor in — shining and clean, or battered? Are the decorative bits, or does the item reek of pure functionality? Has it been dyed or colored in any way? Are there small details — if the grip of a wand contains a carved ivory skull, does the skull have tiny sapphires for eyes… or perhaps the skull has horns, or fangs.

How Does It Feel?: This is a good time to consider the kind of magic the item has, and how it might manifest. Is the armor unusually light or flexible? Does it seem to instantly fit the wearer? Does it itch, or radiate warmth, or is it always cold? Is the sword so well balanced it almost seems to move on its own? Does it vibrate a little when it’s held? Does the wand twitch a bit when you first grip it, seeking a target? Do you find you always nick yourself on the blade when you draw the weapon, now matter how careful you are, and does the blood sink into the very metal of the sword?

Is It A Thing Of Legend?:Most items were made for a reason. You don’t make magic swords — not even boring +1 swords — to keep them in stock in case someone comes in wanting to buy one. Perhaps a powerful ruler commissioned a dozen such blades for his elite guard, all identical, but finding one of the King’s Own Twelve is still a noteworthy achievement. This doesn’t mean every blade is fabled in song and story. Most of the time, the backstory is relatively trivial — a wand carved by a wizard for a favored apprentice, a ring made by a runesmith to be a gift to a loyal adviser, and so on. Knowing this history is often simply a fun thing, but it can be useful, especially if anyone involved, or their descendents, are still around and even marginally interested. It can open some doors… or attract some enemies.

Oddments And Oddities: Magic is a chaotic force, even under the most carefully controlled conditions. Some believe the chaos is innate; others, that the chaos represents a lack of knowledge about all the factors which might be involved. In any event, most items have some slight quirks to them. An axe forged by dwarfs might cause its wielder to curse in dwarfish, no matter what language he is trying to swear in. The wielder of a wand of fireballs might find he can’t abide any meat that is not seared to nearly the point of charcoal. Armor may clang resoundingly when it is struck, or it might bleed black oil whenever the wearer is critically hit. The design on a ring might shift to show the phases of the moon, or the gem on a magic staff becomes the birthstone of whatever wizard is holding it. A cloak woven with a pattern of roses might give off the small of roses… or it might occasionally produce, from nowhere, a few petals, which simply drop off.

The Inevitable Caveats

It’s best to have only one to three interesting aspects for any item; don’t go whole-hog, especially if the item isn’t the centerpiece of a campaign or intended to be the signature item of a character.

Descriptive and fluff text should have effectively no mechanical impact, except under extraordinary circumstances. Don’t make players suffer if their items are cool (for example, penalizing them on stealth if their items emit quiet sounds or odd smells), and, likewise, don’t let them try to turn a bit of colorful description into a way to snag an unearned bonus or modifier.

The Magic Of Magic

The Magic Of Magic

Once again, this a is reply to, and expansion of, some of the WOTC articles on 5e. Here’s the original article, and here’s my (two) original replies, and after this, we’ll get even more ways to say the same thing using slightly different words.

First off, let’s put a stake through the heart of the myth that magic items used to be “rare” or “mysterious”. Everyone had all the rulebooks and memorized them, as far back as the game existed. To the extent there was every any mystery, it was always for new players who hadn’t yet memorized the rules, and trying to reclaim that feeling is like trying to get back your virginity. Ain’t gonna happen. As for rare… two words: Monty Haul.

If you decide that you won’t build in the assumption that players will gain magic items, then, you basically break the game’s math, because they WILL gain them, in great profusion. If you scale monsters and difficulty levels on the assumption most players won’t have magic items, that’s like designing a video game on the assumption most players won’t go to hint sites or read guidebooks. It’s just not how things work, or how things EVER worked, and I’m really worried that people caught up in this nostalgia kick are apparently doing no research as to how games ACTUALLY PLAYED back in the 1970s and 1980s, and how most of the design decisions being rejected were the direct consequence of fixing actual old school play, not rose-colored fantasies of a playstyle that never was.

That said, having backstory and myth and cool minor powers attached to magic items is something any competent DM does all the time; it’s nice if this is mentioned in the rules and guidelines provided, but it’s hardly the sort of thing we’ve all been waiting on the rules to “let” us do. It’s baseline DMing, it’s what we do by instinct. Also, and this is important, it’s done for our own pleasure, as players either a)ignore such fluff, or, b)obsess insanely over it, warping the entire campaign over some off-hand bit of color, because somehow it’s got stuck in their minds that this is the key to EVERYTHING and the DM wouldn’t have put it there if they weren’t meant to pursue it at all costs.

Second reply:

Just to elaborate, here’s the reality of actual play:
DM:”You see an odd suit of armor. It is formed of battered dark iron, inset with many pieces of stone, all in tones of greys and blacks, such as smoky dark quartz and obsidian mosaics that form primitive, but intricate, patterns. There are signs that the suit has seen much battle,  as it is dented and scraped, although clearly still sturdy and wearable. The helmet for the suit is hammered into the shape of a bull’s head, and…”

Player: “Right, gorgon armor. +2, immune to petrification, yadda yadda. Page 125 in the DMG. Does anyone wear plate? Oh, and if he’s handing this out, it means we’re going to be facing medusae or basilisks or something, everyone make sure you’ve got Scrolls Of Protection From Petrification at the ready. Oh, I guess, technically, I should roll to know that… roll…. 24 on my arcane knowledge check, there, that’s done, what’s the next item we looted? It better be a +2 sword, I’ve been carrying this +1 piece of crap for three levels now. Cheapass DM!”

THAT’S the reality of play, from 1974 to 2012, and beyond, and nothing in the rules can change it.

Now, let me go on a bit…

Consider the following:

“The blade, known in lore as Restgiver, is a greatsword in form, the general style and artistry reflective of the Theatian culture which forged. The hilt is of bone, reputed to be of a lich, and carved with patterns of skulls deformed in seeming terror. The blade itself is of metal so pale as to seem almost white. Histories tell that it was forged from the fragments of blades taken from such beings as liches, death knights, and skeleton warriors, and it was tempered in both holy water and in the ectoplasm of ghosts bound to the forge where it was made. Its innate magics make it lighter, sharper, and faster than even the finest mundane blade, making it a fit prize for any warrior, but it shows its purpose when it confronts the undead, as it is designed to give them rest. When wielded against any once-living being still animated by foul magics, it is even deadlier than a normal blade of its ilk would be, and it cuts and bites into the faintest wisp of a ghost or a phantom as if they were made of solid flesh. While it has no true soul or spirit animating it, those who wield it report that they feel some sense of warmth or joy when the prospect of returning the dead to their grave is mentioned in its presence.”

And

“Greatsword +2 bane (undead), ghost touch”.

They’re both the same thing.

The rules exist to give you the tools to make the latter. Adding the former is up to you; the rules can’t give you that.

(Oh, and I just posted most of that back on WOTC’s boards anyway; so it goes. It’s not like anyone’s paying for this site.)