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.
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
First, getting the players to care about the
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.
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.
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:
"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
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.
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).
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
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
Okay, that's enough site maintenance jabber.
Tomorrow we'll pick up with more content that you actually care about.
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.
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.)
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.
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
These illegitimate communities are,
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
At some point, therefore, it follows that
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
this pride cul-de-sac? How can a community voluntarily -- and
positively -- disassemble itself?
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
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,
raises the stakes. In my reaction to Yendi, I wrote:
first time you show me a rocketship? Awesome. The second
time you show me a rocketship? Nifty. Now, what are you going to do
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
meaningful, and utterly non-contrived ways -- really pops off the page
I can contrast this directly with the love story
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.
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
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.
book itself is packed full of full-color illustrations, maps,
symbols, and all manner of such things.
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:
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
(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
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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.
of the translations I was working from were proxy translations, as
well. Some clearly labeled themselves such -- like Tom
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.)
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,
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!"
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
In this literal translation, I notice two
things: First, the odd word "routinier". Second, the use of the word
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
because they just keep repeating the same things over and over again.
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).
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:
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
Now, take that same process, repeat it a few
hundred times, and you end up with a script.
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.
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
Player: We search the trolls' lair.
DM: You find a +1
goblin-bane longsword and a +3 longsword.
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
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
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
With that thought in mind, here are a few
methods for spicing up your magic items.
DOES THE MAGIC WORK?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.