Avoiding the Hazards of Intelligent Magic Items

Intelligent magic items can serve a lot of roles in a storyline, particularly in a roleplaying game. Unfortunately, with their advantages come disadvantages, particularly the world-altering variety that so many GMs, myself included, tend to default to. While they aren’t insurmountable, it’s best to be careful, particularly when you’re dealing with a magic item that serves as a plot device in its own right.

What can go wrong?

  • Balance. This one’s pretty obvious; the introduction of any item, particularly a powerful one, may requirement adjustment both for the PCs compared to each other and for the world compared to the PCs, in order to keep things from favoring one side too much. Needless to say, this one isn’t so much an intelligent item issue as a powerful item issue in general, but it bears mentioning. There are, of course, workarounds beyond loading everyone up with power or ratcheting down the item. What’s to say that use of such an item can’t incorporate its own hazards? It might steal health or magic, mess with aspects of the wielder’s innate capabilities, or do something more abstract or insidious. Perhaps it’s just a beacon that draws down even more enemies when used (needless to say, this works better in games and with groups where the XP earned isn’t calibrated to the number of opponents defeated/challenges overcome). Or maybe it’s only useful in certain situations. The balance issue can be mitigated in part by giving the item to a member of the group who’s already lagging behind; it won’t completely nullify the impact, but it’ll soften it a bit. And of course, there’s just not making it powerful enough for this to matter.
  • Plot balance. This is the biggest risk of almost any one of a kind item, particularly one that’s important to the storyline. Essentially, every unique and plot-important item comes with the risk that its wielder will be more important to the plot than the rest of the group. This doesn’t bother some groups, since their players tend to either adapt to uneven roles or eke out their own to match. For others, it’s more difficult; players are, after all, human, and humans are illogical creatures. Even if you’re trying to achieve complete alternation in plot focus, having one PC holding the limelight (or appearing to hold the limelight, for that matter) might lead to accusations of favoritism even from the person who held it last time. Optimally, one could work around this with a plot thread for each character, but that has its own challenges.
  • Interaction balance. The magic item is almost guaranteed to talk more to its owner than to the others. That’s to be expected. But that can get irritating to the other players, particularly if you’re running face to face rather than online; who wants to sit around watching a guy talk to his sword all day? And that’s not even taking into account what happens if the item can only communicate with its owner. You’ll want to find some way to spread the interaction out a bit so that people don’t get testy—or make sure most of the interactions are offstage.
  • Plot holes. Yes, plot holes. Obviously, you’re going to need to make sure none of your plans can be ripped apart easily with clever use of one of the item’s powers. But you’re also going to want to consider what happens if the players decide to take advantage of the fact that this is an intelligent magic item. If the item is known to have been used in a certain battle, or against a certain enemy, odds are the players will ask about it. They’ll probably ask about its last few wielders, and they’ll almost definitely ask about its powers. They might even attempt to bypass one of its limitations by making a deal with it. You don’t have issues like that with normal cursed items. So you may want to plan ahead, figure out what it knows, what it doesn’t know, and what that might do to your plot.

Despite these, magic items can make excellent auxiliary characters. Have you ever had problems with them? How did you work around them? Are there any other ways you’d work around the issues above?

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