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.
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.”
“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.)
I think the “feel” of magic items that their trying to re-capture can be summed up by the Brazier of Fire Elemental Control from the BECMI Expert book. “A brazier? Wtf’s a brazier? A container for holding fire, weird. Oh, we can summon a fire elemental, awesome! Oh, if we lose concentration it will try to kill us…” That might just work for me but I think that’s the feeling they want from 5e magic items.
Magic item rarity? Sure. A Monty Haul campaign, sure to that too. Depends on the group and their preferences. Flavor text for magic items? Yeah the players are only going to write down “Greatsword +2, etc.” but I’d still like to see the flavor text for ideas and fun reading.
If the game isn’t scaled taking magic into account I’d actual be okay with, even prefer, that. But, realistically I think the game I run and my players general lack of interest in magic items, or any treasure for that matter, isn’t the norm. Why do they seem to ignore magic items? I don’t know. I can’t imagine my campaign story is that captivating. I think they just enjoy killing things. Maybe it’s what they need after a hard week of work. I digress, anyways…
Yeah, so scale the game assuming characters will have some magic items, then just drop a note in the rules for those of us with low magic item games and how we should adjust. And put the flavor text in with the magic items so folks can use it if they want, or ignore it if they prefer. Everyone’s happy.
The problem with trying to recapture any sensawunda you had when you were 13 is… you’re not 13. No matter how mysterious brassieres may be to 13 year olds, or braziers for that matter, you reach the point where you have a pretty good idea what to do with them. You can’t code that into the rules. Deliberately making rules ambiguous doesn’t create mystery; it just creates arguments.
Exactly how much flavor should go in the rules is pretty much art, not science. I prefer suggestions, guidelines, and examples to hard-coding item flavor. Instead of describing a flame tongue sword, describe aspects that a fire item might have: Brass and bronze metals, rubies and other red gems, flame patterns, writing in Ignan or fire Giant, a bright glow, warm to the touch, fires seem to light more easily within 10 feet of it, or burn brighter and faster, creatures of fire react to it — perhaps positively (“He bears the blade given by the elemental king to his human champion!”) or negatively (“He bears a blade which enslaves an elemental spirit!”). Do this for all of the item properties — cold, keen, bleeding, aquatic, whatever. Provide lists of thematic gems, colors, plants, and so on. I should be able to look up “water” and see water-related gems, water-related weapons, water-related colors, water-related adjectives, and so on. Given this, I should have all the inspiration I need to turn a +2 Trident Of Sahuagin Slaying into a wall of flavor text that attacks for 4d6 damage. What I don’t want is a single, static, description of the weapon. Give me the tools, don’t build everything for me.
I come from the future, where 5e is mine and many people’s favorite edition of D&D, but….
It is really dumb how WOTC handled magic items. If you run 5e as written, using the guidelines and random tables in the DMG to generate loot, the result is a game world where magic is ubiquitous (10/12 classes have access to spells; the barbarian and monk to not, but they have different magic powers) but magic items are fabulously rare. It feels very, very off.