Thursday, August 4, 2011

Interesting Magic Items

"It is not the sword, but the hand that wields it."

A significant portion of Trailblazer's analysis of 'the spine' is motivated by the desire to prove that "The Big Six" items are not necessary for game balance.  For those unfamiliar, the Big Six are magic weapons, magic armor and shields, rings of protection, cloaks of resistance, amulets of natural armor, and ability score boosters like the belt of giant strength and the headband of intellect.  These items are all distinguished by 1) requiring no actions to activate and 2) applying bonuses to the core combat stats of a character (mental ability score boosters are an odd case, in that they increase the save DCs for spellcasters, but are significantly less useful for noncasters).  As TB's analysis shows, these items contribute significantly to a character's power, especially in regards to defense; of the big six, three exist for the sole purpose of boosting AC, while only one exists solely for boosting attack and damage.  Further, the cloak of resistance is critical in boosting poor saves to a reasonable rate of success, especially as character level increases.  Poor saves grow at 1/3 of character level, while monster special ability save DCs grow at 1/2 of monster hit dice.  As monsters of CR n often have greater than n hit dice, and sometimes as many as 2n hit dice or more, player character poor saves are rapidly outstripped without some kind of extra bonus (namely the cloak).

Trailblazer uses its analysis to suggest that there may be alternatives to using the Big Six, namely Combat Reactions, Action Points, and similar.  Though I don't remember seeing an explicit motivation for this move, I have inferred several.  First, getting rid of the Big Six combats the "Christmas Tree Effect", namely that player characters are so decked out in shiny magical items that they look like Christmas trees done up in tinsel and glowing ornaments.  This is a problem both because it generates downright silly character portraits (see some of the art from the Epic Level Handbook, for example), and the concentration of wealth involved stresses the economics of the campaign world.  Removing the Big Six also eliminates magic item turnover.  We've all seen it; you find a +3 sword and all of a sudden your +2 sword, companion for many long adventures, a named and storied weapon, falls by the wayside.  The final complaint that I see about the Big Six is that they're boring.  They're uninteresting and don't feel magical.

So I thought to myself, "Hey, let's follow Trailblazer's lead, get rid of the Big Six, and make some magic items that are interesting."  I've got a couple ideas along these lines.  TB suggests items with spells per day; I'd actually done this before reading Trailblazer's suggestions in this regard, by giving a party a Cloak of the Cat, which allowed the wearer to use of Cat's Grace and Catfall each once per day.  That was kind of interesting, though to be fair it was a bit underpowered at the level I gave it out.  I'd probably make some such 'buff items' usable as swift actions, so that as with the Big Six, they don't have a huge impact on the action economy of a combat.  I also considered various conditional save boosters, like an amulet that grants a bonus to saves against poison, or a bonus to will saves, or a bonus to just your poor saving throw(s).  Again, less bland than normal, and not complex enough to bog down play.  Magic weapons with spells per day that gain charges under certain conditions, like a bloodthirsty weapon that gains a charge when you slay a living foe with it, or one that gains a charge on a critical threat, might also work.  A little more complex, but they're primarily a tool for melee classes, whose gameplay and choice sets tend to be simpler than those of casters.  If we can trust a caster with a pile of wands, each of which has charges, it seems reasonable to trust the fighters similarly.

But this post isn't really about those interesting magic items.

Because I realized, as I went to write that post, that nearly every fantasy RPG blogger and their brother has a post like that, either lamenting the lack of interesting magic items, suggesting how to make magic items more interesting, or giving a few examples of their own.  Likewise, all those interesting things slow down play, confuse new players (or if they're situational bonuses, like a bonus against poison, they're forgotten and wasted), and increase book-keeping.  Plus, it's possible those guys playing fighters wanted to avoid the kind of resource management that casters have to do, and really don't want to deal with spells per day or charged swords.  It's all fine and good for the DM to be handing out interesting items, but it's the players who have to deal with actually using them.

Which brings us to the crux of things - D&D is a game that we play for fun.  "Are the Big Six items fun?" is, in a sense, a more important question than whether they're interesting or boring or balanced or anything else.  Likewise, are 'interesting' magic items fun?  Sure, it's nice to have an oddball magic item now and then, as Tim's use of the Stone of Alarm, Horn of the Tritons, and Forn of Hog showed in the sequel campaign.  But I get the feeling that if every damn magic item operated like those, it would get kinda overwhelming...  unless you had fewer magic items.

Which led me to the conclusion that the best way to handle the Big Six is to make them inherent / innate bonuses.  I'm considering two schemes, but they both work very similarly.  In the first, when you level, you get a budget of astral gold pieces that you can 'spend' on inherent bonuses.  In the second, you spend literal gold pieces while carousing, and this boosts your inherent capabilities.  If you're boosting your Constitution, it might be that you literally drank thousands and thousands of gold pieces worth of ale, and your liver has turned to steel, rendering you more resistant to attacks.  Natural armor bonus from expensive ritual scarifications, Intelligence bonus from concocting expensive elixirs which boost your brainpower, Wisdom bonus from sacrificing gold to your deity in exchange for guidance, attack and damage bonus from getting into many many barfights and paying for damages, and so forth.  Gold gets spent, you get permanent enhancement bonuses to things at the same rates it would have cost you normally.  Pros and cons of these inherent bonuses:
  • On the plus side, they can't be stolen from you.  On the minus side, when you die, the other PCs can't take them off your corpse (which, in turn, doesn't screw with party wealth when people die.  So it's really a plus, from my perspective, but players might be less happy about it).
  • On the plus side, they apply regardless of what weapon you're using or armor you're wearing, increasing your versatility in that regard.  On the minus side, they can't be changed once chosen - if you invest umpty thousand gold pieces in boosting your strength, but realize later that you should've gone with dexterity, you can't just swap your gauntlets of ogre power with the rogue's gloves of dexterity.
  • On the plus side, they can't be dispelled - they're part of you.  On the minus side, they don't stack with buffs or any Big Six magic items you might find; if you have +4 to strength by this scheme, it's a +4 enhancement bonus, and Bull's Strength does you no good at all.  Likewise, if you have a +2 weapon bonus, a +1 sword is no help (should you happen to find one, which is unlikely).
  • On the plus side, you get to choose whatever you want, rather than finding a +1 ring of protection when everyone in the party has +2s, and you can choose to specialize in unusual ways.  If you have a melee mage, you can get the +3 weapons without stepping on the fighter's toes.  On the minus side, you only get these things between adventures; you no longer have the possibility of going "Ooh, I grabbed a random wang from the dragon's hoard, and it's +n!  I stab the dragon with it!"
  • On the minus side, you can't take these things off of dead NPCs.  On the plus side, this gives me an excellent excuse to hand out tons and tons of gold pieces.  When was the last time the dragon's hoard was actually enough gold for the dragon to sleep on?  Those days are back, baby.
And finally, it lets me give out magic items that aren't awesome because they're +n, but because they have interesting properties.  You might find a flaming sword.  It's just flaming.  That's it.  And it'll grow with your fighter, because you keep boosting your personal enhancement bonus.  Sting?  Just an orcbane shortsword with some history.  Excalibur?  Holy vorpals, batman.  Also expect to find wands, potions, staves, and wondrous items that aren't Big Six.  And maybe some of the interesting stuff I mentioned earlier will work its way in.  But the really neat thing, to me, is that this scheme should let a high-level character, naked and armed only with a rolling pin, kick an amount of ass comparable to the amount he would kick if properly armed and armored.  Yeah, he'll miss the +5 armor bonus from his breastplate, but he'll still have a high enough AC, to-hit, damage, and saving throws to have a chance against a high-level foe.  He doesn't need a ton of bling to do his thing, because he is badass.  Did Conan need armor to kick ass?  Didn't think so.  Why should your barbarian?

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