February 2009

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4 - PART 5

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 2nd, 2009



Prelude 2: The Awakening - Dominic

In this installment of the campaign journal, you'll find some custom-made, Latin-esque spell names and a prayer to Vehthyl, the God of Magic. Both of these were created by Dominic's player, who simply spun them out of wholecloth during our PBeM sessions.

I really appreciated him doing this.

I know from personal experience that releasing some of your control over the game world can be difficult for a GM to do. But this type of player-initiated world-building should be encouraged for a number of reasons.

First, getting the players to care about the game world is actually quite difficult. Lectures rarely get processed. And even the focused world-briefings I hand out before a campaign rarely make much of an impression. (In the case of Ptolus, I have -- on multiple occasions -- been able to treat information from the pre-campaign handouts as mysteries that the PCs have to track down information about. The players haven't noticed. In another instance, events in the same handouts were effecively retconned when I realized it would be more interesting for the PCs to play through those events. At this point, I would actually prefer it if the players didn't read this and try to track down their copies of those handouts.)

But if the player creates the information themselves? That's something that they'll remember. That's a thread that you can weave into the wider tapestry -- and if they follow that thread that they've created, then they'll have a chance to see part of the bigger picture.

Second, you can use this material as a pretty solid indicator of what the player cares about. If he's designing rituals and heraldry for the order of knighthood his character has joined, you can pretty quickly identify the order as being important. That means that hooks and scenarios involving the order will be effective.

Third, no GM has an infinite amount of time on their hand. If your players are willing to be a resource, you should be willing to take advantage of that. Someone has mapped out the floorplan for their liege lord's castle? Awesome. When assassins break into the castle, the player has already designed the scenario maps for you.

And won't he be surprised to discover that there's a secret passage in that castle that neither he nor his character ever knew about!

Which leads me to my next point: In most roleplaying games, it's still the GM's world. And for a large variety of reasons, the GM still needs to be able to exert some control over it. Which means that some ideas may need to be vetoed.

But I'd recommend using a "soft veto" if at all possible. If someone cares enough to put the time and the effort into creating something original and unique, then I think it's worth your time to try to figure out how you can make it work for them. I have two varieties of soft veto:

THE SOFT VETO: "This looks good, but can we change X and Y?" For example, I remember a campaign from years ago where a player wanted to run a Scottish highlander. Now, my D&D campaign world at the time didn't feature anything even remotely resembling the Scottish highlands. We took an underdeveloped kingdom on another continent and worked it over until it gave her what she wanted. She didn't get the kilt that she wanted, but she was able to play the character that she wanted to play.

THE SOFTEST VETO: Sometimes I allow a "questionable" element into one campaign only to drop it from the game world after the campaign has been completed. This is for stuff that doesn't quite mesh with my vision of what the game world looks like, but isn't so problematic that there's any good reason to reject it for a player who wants it.

But the truth is that player-created content is often pretty awesome. At some point I'm going to be able to properly utilize the element-worshipping Talbarites -- a religious sect given its genesis entirely by a PC named Talbar (who, in a different campaign, was played by the creator Agnarr the Barbarian).

February 3rd, 2009


Several months ago, Kynnin Scott sent me a very nice e-mail requesting that I change my RSS links for the website so that they point to the archived versions of the articles. I put that on a checklist of things to accomplish and promptly procrastinated it to death.

And then a few days ago Jalapeno Dude posted a comment pointing out that some RSS readers (including his) didn't recognize the anchor-based links as being distinct links -- instead it noted that Jalapeno Dude had already read "index.html" and marked each new feed item as already read.

Jalapeno Dude asked me to have the RSS feed link to the individual articles on separate pages. This, unfortunatley, isn't technically feasible at the moment. Most of these daily entries simply do not exist as individual webpages.

But what I can do is finally get around to implementing Kynnin Scott's request. So, as of yesterday, the RSS feed links now point to the permanent archive pages. I'm afraid those of you with readers similar to Jalapeno Dude's will still have multiple entries show up as "already read", but you will at least get pinged whenever a new archive page is initiated.

However, since the RSS feed will now be pushing readers into the archives (instead of the front page), the new archive pages will feature increased advertising. (Roughly equivalent to the front page.)

Which allows me to address another semi-frequent topic of e-mail: "How can I support the site?" or "Where's your Paypal tip jar?"

I don't have a Paypal tip jar (and probably won't have one any time soon), but thank you for asking. If you want to send me a tip, it's just as productive to buy one of my products linked to on the left. Dream Machine Productions features RPG supplements and audio books ranging in price from $2 to $20. And it's even better than tipping, because you get a nifty RPG supplement out of the deal!

If you don't want any of my books, but you still want to support the site, then you might consider clicking through my Amazon associate links. Many of the books I talk about get linked to through associate links. (For example, if you were to buy a Kindle through my associate link, you'd be taking care of my hosting fees for half a year or more.) But even if you aren't interested in the specific books I'm linking to, if you click through the link before completing any order with Amazon, the site garners a small commission from the sale.

Okay, that's enough site maintenance jabber. Tomorrow we'll pick up with more content that you actually care about.

February 5th, 2009


(1) The first step on the path of maturing as a human being is the acquiring of a sense of self -- learning the distinction between Self and the Others around you.

(2) The necessary precept of the tribe also necessitates our ability to identify ourselves as a member of a larger group, creating a sense of Us versus the Other.

(3) This sense of community has resulted in many good things -- its the basis of cooperation and civilization. However, it also a darker side: The origin of all prejudice lies in the instinctual elevation of the individual's immediate community (Us) above other communities (Other).

(Some of this is an outgrowth of our natural competition as a species. But part of it is an unhealthy tendency to elevate oneself not through personal achievements but by denigrating others: The poor pale-skinned southern farmer can feel good about himself because he "knows" himself to be superior to those with dark skin. The abusive husband mitigates his own failures in life by destroying his wife. And so forth.)

(4) Cultural or systemic prejudice sets in when the other becomes subjugated -- either physically or ideologically -- into accepting the elevation or "superiority" of the other group.

(5) The natural first step in attempting to liberate the oppressed and create a proper equality between two separate communities, therefore, has been to increase the pride of the oppressed group. Blacks must first be willing to have pride in themselves before they can fight for their rights. Women must have pride in themselves before they can leave the feminine mystique of "housewife".

(6) However, there is a trap. First, and most obviously, the search for pride can often tap into that same instinctual elevation of the individual's immediate community. Thus, it's not enough for women to claim their rightful place as human beings... all men must become rapists. It's not enough for the slaves to be set free... the slavers must be made the slaves.

(7) The more insidious trap, however, is that be emphasizing the need for pride, the civil rights movements deepen the sense of identity in the community. But it is the very distinction between communities which allows the racists or the sexists to flourish.

When there is a legitimate basis for the community, the possibility of prejudice against that community is unavoidable and must simply be guarded against with constant vigilance. For example, a Jew or a Catholic or a Republican all have a legitimate community.

But what about those communities which only exist because of prejudice? Why, for example, are all those with dark skin grouped together into a single community whereas all those with blue eyes or red hair are not similarly grouped together?

These illegitimate communities are, fundamentally, part of the problem. Ironically, however, they have also been made part of the solution: By creating a sense of pride in a community which, by all rights, shouldn't exist, the illegitimate community is perpetuated and the fundamental foundation on which all prejudice is built remains intact.

At some point, therefore, it follows that the illegitimate community must be discarded entirely and the foundation ripped away. But here the trap snaps shut: In order to fight back against prejudice, the civil rights movement has fostered a sense of pride in the illegitimate community. In doing so they have turned that community into a force capable of effecting societal change... but it has also led them into a cul-de-sac. Such a movement can effect great change, but -- like a man trying to pick up the board on which he is standing -- it will find itself fundamentally stymied in attempting to rip away the foundation in which the prejudice it fights takes root.

The question then becomes: How do you escape from this pride cul-de-sac? How can a community voluntarily -- and positively -- disassemble itself?

February 6th, 2009


Following on the heels of Jhereg and Yendi, Teckla was a completely unexpected -- and thoroughly pleasurable -- suprise.

There is a unique pleasure to be had in discovering, as you're reading through a series of novels, that an author has suddenly reached a higher level in their craft. And Teckla is the point at which Steven Brust raised his personal bar of excellence.

Everything positive I had to say about Jhereg and Yendi remains true: The seamless mixing of high and low fantasy. The addictive nature of Brust's prose. The intriguing suggestions of a non-linear meta-narrative. The unique take on familiar scenarios.

But unlike Yendi, Teckla raises the stakes. In my reaction to Yendi, I wrote: "The first time you show me a rocketship? Awesome. The second time you show me a rocketship? Nifty. Now, what are you going to do with it?"

In Teckla, Brust uses the (metaphorical) rocket ship.

Perhaps the most dramatic improvement in Teckla is the depth with which the characters are drawn. In the previous books, Vlad himself was a great narrator and quite a few members of the supporting cast were interesting people. But in Teckla, Vlad basically walks up to you and says, "Hi. I'm a real person." There's no single, clear-cut example that I can point to with that -- but the difference is palpable.

The supporting cast is similarly drenched with utterly believable characterization. And Brust is impressive in his ability to write characters with radically different personal philosophies while still having them ring completely true.

I was particularly blown away when I realized, halfway through the book, that I was frequently in vehement disagreement with Vlad... and yet I still sympathized with him and had no problem being inside his head for the duration of the novel.

That, frankly, is not easy to do.

And because Brust manages to pull it off, Vlad's personal journey -- a journey that actually transforms him in deep, meaningful, and utterly non-contrived ways -- really pops off the page here.

I can contrast this directly with the love story in Yendi, which was supposed to be a similarly transformative experience for Vlad... but was instead a fairly flat and unbelievable "love at first sight" and "burning loin hormones" affair that I was really only able to buy into because I had previously seen the couple's later married life in Jhereg (which had been drawn with some legitimate affection and detail).

Here's the meat of it: At the heart of the novel, Teckla is the story of a failing marriage and a man's desperate quest to find peace with himself. It manages to be both heartbreakingly true and upliftingly hopeful, without riddling itself with either maudlin pathos or cheerful relationship porn.

Wrapped around this story (and playing into it), Brust weaves a complicated tale of gang warfare which ties into a social uprising... all of which is told from the POV of a man who understands the former, but doesn't understand the latter at all. The effect is incredibly evocative, and Brust takes full advantage of not having an omniscient viewpoint form which to tell his story in order to get you really living the story right down at street level.


February 7th, 2009



Prelude 2: The Awakening - Agnarr

In which our hero awakes on the softest bed and pillow he's ever laid his head upon. (Could it really be stuffed with feathers?)  And many other astonishing sights and sounds are to be seen and heard.

One of the advantages of using Ptolus as a setting is the wealth of graphical resources available for the setting. The big book itself is packed full of full-color illustrations, maps, symbols, and all manner of such things.

For example, there's the Ghostly Minstrel -- an inn and tavern specifically designed to service delvers, wanderers, and adventurers of all sorts. Here's what it looks like:

Illustration from Ptolus: City by the Spire

It's located in Delver's Square, a plaza of small businesses dedicated to profiting off the gold-rush explorers of the caverns and complexes beneath the city. It, too, is illustrated. And so, when Agnarr looked out the window in this week's installment, I was able to show his player:

Illustration from Ptolus: City by the Spire

I also spent $5.00 to pick up the Ptolus: Deluxe City Map supplement, so if I wanted to I could print this out as a handout for my players:

Illustration from Ptolus: Deluxe City Map

(When snipped out of the deluxe map, that defaults to a 7.5" x 7.5" image.)

And since I was planning to use the Ghostly Minstrel as the initial homebase for the campaign, I also spent $4.50 on Ptolus Adventure Maps: Ghostly Minstrel. This wonderful product gave me beautiful, miniature-scaled maps of the Ghostly Minstrel. Since the campaign has moved to the table-top, these maps have proved ridiculously useful over and over again -- whether the PCs are getting ambushed in their rooms or surprising gangsters in the entry hall.

And most of the time, it's not even about combat: Being able to show the crowded common room by actually showing the crowded common room is delightful. And just having this kind of visual reference, I think, helped to make the Ghostly Minstrel feel more like home.

It also meant, as the PCs were waking up in strange rooms with no memory of how they had gotten there, I could pretty much instantaneously prep handouts like this one:

Agnarr's Room

"Here's what you see. Now, what do you do?" That type of handout immediately raises questions. What's in those dressers? What's beyond the door? What can I see out the windows?

Even if I had the artistic chops to pull off this kind of work on my own (and I don't), it's still incredibly rewarding to have this kind of graphical panoply to draw upon. To be sure, the Ghostly Minstrel is an exceptional example of what Ptolus offers as a gaming resource -- but the detail of the Deluxe City Map alone (which may be the best $5 I've ever spent) is enough to guarantee that, if I want it, there's no place in the city that I can't give some sort of visual reference for.

February 8th, 2009


When I was first asked to return to my alma mater to direct a play as part of their 2008-2009 season, I started reading plays. And reading plays. And reading plays.

And the play I kept coming back to was The Seagull.

It was a play I had periodically considered producing on my own for several years. It was also an appropriate fit for the technical goals of the program (providing an installed set piece along with period props and costumes). And, given its history with Stanislavski's acting methods, it was a perfect match with the acting workshops that were being planned as part of the rehearasal process.

So I stopped reading plays and I started reading translations. And reading translations. And reading translations. And reading translations.

This proved to be a much more frustrating process because I wasn't finding a suitable translation. As a general rule, the translations I read fell into two broad categories:

First, there were the literal and accurate translations. These featured dialog which was as faithful as possible to the original meaning of Chekhov's Russian. Unfortunately, these were mostly written by Russian scholars, not playwrights. As a result, the English was also stilted and unnatural -- lacking the true rhythms of natural speech.

Second, there were the colloquial translations. These sought to make the language flow naturally. (Many of them were written by actual playwrights.) Unfortunately, they tended to achieve this effect by only roughly summarizing or even re-writing Chekhov's lines.

In the end, I didn't want to compromise in either direction: I wanted a faithful translation and I wanted natural language that wouldn't impose an additional barrier to journeyman actors. Eventually I concluded that, if I couldn't find it, then I would write it myself.

Of course, there was a slight hitch: I don't actually speak or read Russian.

So I engaged in a process I lovingly refer to as "proxy translation": I obtained as many different translations of the play as I could and started looking for the intersection. In the end, I worked from the original Russian text, a literal translation mediated through Google's translation service, and more than fourteen other translations.

Many of the translations I was working from were proxy translations, as well.  Some clearly labeled themselves such -- like Tom Stoppard's excellent rendition of the play -- while others could be identified through the clearly traceable lineage of certain passages.

I first encountered the art of proxy translation while watching my mother collaborate with John Lewin on a version of Faust that was being workshopped by Garland Wright at the Guthrie Theater. (This project eventually evolved into a full adaptation of the Faust legend into an original play.)

(John Lewin, by the way, was a true master of the art. His proxy translation of Oedipus Rex -- which, sadly, has never been published -- remains the finest rendition of they play I have ever seen or read.)

It should be noted that proxy translations are sometimes referred to as "adaptations". While I agree that such translations are distinctly different from those rendered directly from the mother tongue (hence my coining of the term "proxy translation"), I think the use of "adaptation" in this sense is poor terminology. "Adaptation", in the context of playwrighting and screenwriting, is a term of art and its use here is usually a distortion of what's actualy being done. Tennessee Williams adapted The Seagull when he re-wrote it as Trigorin's Notebook. But that's not what I was doing.

Perhaps the best way to explain the work I did is by example. Here's a line from the play in the original Russian:

Вы, рутинеры, захватили первенство в искусстве и считаете законным и настоящим лишь то, что делаете вы сами, а остальное вы гнетете и душите! Не признаю я вас! Не признаю ни тебя, ни его!

Tom Stoppard translates this line as: "You hacks and mediocrities have grabbed all the best places for yourselves and you think the kind of art you do is the only kind that counts -- anything else you stifle or stamp out. Well, I'm not taken in by any of you! -- not by him and not by you either!" 

On the other hand, Elisaveta Fen translates it as: "It's conventional, hide-bound people like you who have grabbed the best places in the arts today, who regard as genuine and legitimate only what you do yourselves. Everything else you have to smother and suppress! I refuse to accept you at your own valuation! I refuse to accept you or him!"

So I look at these and twelve other translations like them, and then I look at my literal translation which reads (in somewhat broken English): "You routiniers have captured the championship positions in art and consider legitimate only that which you do yourself; everything else you yoke and supress! I do not recognize you! I recognize you nor him!"

In this literal translation, I notice two things: First, the odd word "routinier". Second, the use of the word "yoke".

So I start with the word "routinier". I head over to a dictionary and find a definition: "A person who adheres to a routine; especially a competent but uninspired conductor." The root of the word is clearly similar to that of "routine", and with a little bit of research I find that similar words are popular expressions throughout continental Europe (particularly eastern Europe). In fact, the Russian word is "rutinier" -- it's literally the same word. But the word is, obviously, not popularly known in English. "Hack" is probably an adequate translation, but what it lacks is that particular sense that they are hacks specifically because they just keep repeating the same things over and over again.

Then I turn my attention to the phrase "yoke and suppress". This phrase has been various translated as "crush and smother" (Frayn), "smother and suppress" (Fen), "stifle or stamp out" (Stoppard), "sit on and crush" (Hingley), and the like. But in all of these I feel that something is being lost from the sense of "yoke" -- the idea of "chaining" or "tying up" other types of work is clear; but there's also something terrible and evocative about the image of taking young, creative artists and yoking them to your own bankrupt artistic forms (like a great playwright forced to waste his talents on a trite sitcom).

It should also be noted that, although the word is literally translated as "yoke", in Russian it does carry a specific connotation of "choking" -- which is where words like "smother" are coming from in the other translations. The point here is that Chekhov has chosen a word with a rich meaning that simply has no clear analogue in English.

What I eventually rendered out of this conceptual gestalt was this line:

You slaves of routine have seized the premiere positions in the arts, and you only sanction what you do yourselves! Everything else you enslave or suppress! But I don't acknowledge you! I don't acknowledge you and I don't acknowledge him!

The idea of "enslave" is not a precise fit for "yoke", but it seems to capture the richer sense of Chekhov's meaning. I lose some sense of the art being "choked", but I think at least some of that sense of that destruction is still captured in the word "suppress".

This use of the word "enslave" also resonates strongly with the phrase "slaves of routine", which I've used earlier in the same passage in an effort to capture the meaning of "routinier".(Before taking this route I actually attempted several versions of the line in which I just used the word "routinier" to achieve a completely literal and accurate translation. Unfortunately, no one had the slightest idea what Kostya was talking about.)

Now, take that same process, repeat it a few hundred times, and you end up with a script.

Of course, this is a rather extreme example featuring two difficult semantic puzzles that needed to be solved. Most of the time the process was the much easier one of simply trying to figure out how to get a particular passage to flow naturally and beautifully off of the tongue.

February 9th, 2009


D&D -- and roleplaying games in general -- have always struggled with magic.

Elrond knew all about runes of every kind. That day he looked at the swords they had brought from the trolls' lair, and he said, "These are not troll-make. They are old swords, very old swords of the High Elves of the west, my kin. They were made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars. They must have come from a dragon horde or goblin plunder, for dragons and goblins destroyed that city many ages ago. This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongues of Gondolin; it was a famous blade. This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Gondolin once wore. Keep them well!" -- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien


Player: We search the trolls' lair.
DM: You find a +1 goblin-bane longsword and a +3 longsword.

Less nifty.

Some would conclude from this that D&D just doesn't do magic very well. After all, what's magical about a +2 bonus to attack rolls or a +5 bonus to Hide checks?

But let's consider this problem from another angle.

He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him. This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters. His cheap tunic could not conceal the hard, rangy lines of his powerful frame, the broad heavy shoulders, the massive chest, lean waist, and heavy arms. His skin was brown from outland suns, his eyes blue and smoldering; a shock of tousled black hair crowned his broad forehead. From his girdle hung a sword in a worn leather scabbard. -- "The Tower of the Elephant" by Robert E. Howard

Also nifty.

DM: Someone taps you on the shoulder.
Player: I turn to look. Who is it?
DM: A 3rd-level barbarian with a sword.

Similarly less nifty.

What are we supposed to conclude from this? That roleplaying games are just abject failures? That they suck all the life and mystery and grandeur from the world?

Well, they certainly can do that. If you let the numbers become the game world, then that seems to be the inevitable result. But I think we're only looking at half the story here. In my opinion, the numbers inherent to a roleplaying system are only a means to an end. They shouldn't be confused with the game world -- they are merely the means by which we interface wtih the game world.

So, yes, the blade we found in the troll lair was, in fact, a +1 goblin-bane longsword. That doesn't change the fact that it is also Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver of Gondolin -- a legendary blade lost to the elves when that proud city fell to dragons and orcish hordes.

The numbers are only empty and meaningless if you leave them that way. If you fill them with meaning (or start with the meaning and work your way back to the numbers), the problem goes away. 

With that thought in mind, here are a few methods for spicing up your magic items.


Mechanically, a +2 longsword magically gives you a +2 bonus to your attack and damage rolls.

Okay, but what does that mean? Is the blade preternaturally sharp? Does the magical enhancement guide your thrusts? Does it grant you a moment of combat-oriented prescience at the moment you begin to swing your blade, allowing you to see the outcome of the stroke and adjust it accordingly? Is it perfectly balanced, yet light and lively in your hand? Does the edge of the blade morph from diamond sharpness (for piercing armor) to vicious serrations (to rip and tear at flesh) in the middle of a blow? Can you feel the tendril of its mystic energy reaching into your mind and there implanting the arcane combat techniques of the Obsidian Brothers -- techniques that you can scarcely comprehend? Does your arm grow in strength and speed when you hold the blade? Does the blade glow with a light that only you can see, but which seems to limn your targets in crystal clarity?

In my current campaign, one of the PCs has a ring of lockpicking (+5 bonus to Open Lock checks). The ring has a large ruby that can be slid to one side, revealing a nest of miniature tools. The wearer of the ring can mentally manipulate these incredibly precise tools (hence granting the bonus to their skill checks).

But you could just as easily have a ring of lockpicking that grants the wearer an encyclopedic knowledge of locks; or allows the wearer to psychically "feel" the mechanisms of the lock; and so forth.

The difference between a ring that grants an enhancement bonus in some vague and unspecified way ("'cause it's magic") and a ring filled with magically-crafted tools that you can control through the power of your mind is a vast gulf of detail and personality. And having a firm understanding of not only what the item does, but how it does it, can turn every use of that item into a flavorful and memorable event.


Nobody remembers Magic Sword #3419. But if I say "Sting", you probably think Frodo. And if I say "Stormbringer", you probably think Elric.

Naming an item immediately makes it unique. It also gives the item an identity, which means that the item will immediately begin accumulating lore to itself -- every time something interesting or memorable happens involving the item, it has a name that can be latched onto that event.

There are basically two ways for an item to gain a name:

(1) Lore. Like Glamdring or the Ruby of the North, the item may have been given a name before it ever comes into the hands of the PCs. This lore-born name can be imparted to them in many ways -- perhaps the ogre wielding the weapon cries the name aloud; or the item whispers it in their ear when they first claim it; or a loremaster identifies it; or they were questing for it; or they know it themselves (from a successful skill check).

(I just made up the name "Ruby of the North", but it made you wonder what it was, didn't it?)

(2) New. Encourage the players to name items that are important to them, or seize opportunities to immortalize memorable events in the game by naming the items responsible for them. When a sword becomes Gnoll-Render because of the PCs ripping out the entrails of the gnoll chieftain... well, that's pretty awesome.



If magic items look generic, then they'll be treated generically. If +2 longswords just look like every other sword (or even if every +2 longsword just looks like every other +2 longsword), it doesn't matter how rare they are -- they're still going to be treated as nothing more than a stat block.

For example, several months ago one of the PCs in my campaign went down to the local magic shop to buy a magic sword. What could be more generic, right?

When they first arrived in the shop and started talking about weapons, the shopkeeper showed them several magetouched weapons that had recently been recovered from the depths beneath the city. But when it became clear that they were seeking something a little more notable, he smiled enigmatically and went into a backroom.

He emerged with a long, slim blade. The steel was filigreed with gold and the hilt was of finely curved silver. He ran his hand gently down the length of the blade, as if caressing a lover. "The markings here upon the blade are not merely gold, but taurum -- the true gold, mined from the Mountains of the East. And there is a thin core of it in the heart of the hilt. The enchantment worked upon this blade sings from the taurum, and its name is Nainsyr."

At the word, blue lightning sprang from the hilt and rang along the length of the blade -- crackling with a vicious smell of ozone.

"It's an elvish word. It means, 'Let there be lightning.' And, indeed, the blade is old. It shows the marks of an elvish craft that I have rarely seen."

It's a +1 shock longsword. And it was bought in a store. But it's his sword. The players remember who they bought that sword from. They remember the first time the PC used it in combat.

Another example from my campaign is a bag of holding elegantly crafted from black velvet that was given to the party as part of their payment for a job well done. This unique little touch might not seem like much, but not only do the players distinctly remember receiving that payment, the player who carries the bag of holding has actually passed up the opportunity to get larger bags of holding simply because they like this one so much.



Glamdring and Orcrist have a history to them. They existed before they came into the hands of the heroes. They are spoken of in tales.

Giving a magic item a unique history -- much like naming them -- helps to give the item an identity. It can also make the players feel like their characters are inheriting a meaningful legacy or a sacred trust. It gives the item meaning, purpose, and context. This item is not merely a tool; it is a thing of note.



Most of this essay has dealt with how to make magic items feel special and magical in spite of the mechanics. But you can also turn the mechanics to your own use.

For example, +1 shock longsword is not only mechanically more interesting than a +2 longsword, that special ability also gives you something to latch onto while using the other techniques described here. (For example, Nainsyr taurum filigree and name are all derived from its special ability.)

Items which feature an interesting package of abilities or a quirky side-effect can be notably unique. A ring of water-breathing that turns the skin of the wearer blue; an amulet of health that causes the user to exude a golden glow (with the effect of a light spell); winged boots that spontaneously generate a cloud of butterflies that flutter around the user; a fist-sized ruby that functions as both a crystal ball and a gem of seeing; and so forth.


All of this advice can really be boiled down to a simple maxim: Life is in the details.

The difference between a cold, lifeless stat block and a memorable myth is all about the living details that you imbue your game world with.

But supplying this detail can seem a little overwhelming. Do I really expect you to give every magical item a clever mechanism of operation; an interesting name; a unique appearance; and a fully detailed history?

No, actually, I don't. In fact, unless your campaign is extremely light on magical items, that would be a really bad idea. Not only will you end up overloading your players with details (to the point where they'll just start tuning it out), but when everything is special and unique nothing ends up being special and unique.

In a magic-rich environment, not all magic needs to be unique or clever. For example, in my own campaign there are plenty of two-bit wizards who lay minor enchantments and charms onto blades. These "magetouched weapons" (as I call them) are, figuratively speaking, a dime a dozen. They're magically sharp and strong, but they're not particularly remarkable.

The other thing to remember is that you don't actually have to do that much work. It's easy to over-think things, but there's really no need to prep a three page (or even three paragraph) description of a magic item.

Take Nainsyr for example. It has a little bit of history to it: It's an old blade of rare elven craft and it was found by delvers plumbing the cavernous depths beneath Ptolus. That type of detail is easy to improvise (and, in fact, it was improvised -- I didn't know they were planning to go shopping).

That may not seem like a lot of history to you, but take a second look at Gandalf's Glamdring: It seems to echo with history, but the only thing Tolkien actually tells you about it is, "It was worn by the king of Gondolin. It might have been taken by goblins or dragons during the sacking of that city."

Tolkien lets your imagination run wild with that. Feel free to let your players do the same.

And did you notice how Tolkien doesn't actually give the history of those weapons until after the heroes have already decided to wield them? Let the players tell you what they care about before you spend time working out the details.



As a a final word, let me point out that not all magic has to be usable. (Or, at the very least, usable by adventuring PCs.)

A small, well-worn stone that grows warm to the touch when you rub it. A poppet that moves and speaks when placed in the arms of a virgin. A skull that crumbles to dust when touched by living flesh, but then reforms itself over the course of 13 hours. A glass eye that rotates and spins when left unattended (in an eyesocket it rotates to perfectly mimic a living eye, although it conveys no gift of sight). A blindfold that can be seen through as if it wasn't there. 

Some such items might be assigned some sort of market value (and, thus, become part of the treasure -- albeit more interesting treasure than just X number of gold pieces). But their real function is to fill the world with a little bit of magic that just can't be boiled down to, "What can I do with it?"

Sometimes magic is just... magical. It's not there to be used as a weapon or beaten into a plowshare. It's just there for the sake of being.

And when that type of magic permeates your campaign world -- when wonders are there to be found... Well, that's when you get magic in your magic items.