Simple Tips for Wondrous Items and Magic

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival, over at Keith Davies’ blog, is on fantastic creations. Davies bases the carnival around one basic premise: that it’s harder and harder to find the wonder in magic items—and let’s face it, it’s been happening, both with items and with magic, in several systems.

So the first question is, how can we fight it, both in items and in magic in general? Here’s my take.

First, try for unique effects, or at least unique combinations of existing effects. I don’t know about most of you, but if I’m given a choice between something that gives me a straight bonus and something that lets me see everyone’s mental state manifesting as representative animals and their mental damage as physical injuries to such creatures—well, three guesses which one I’m going to choose. Items or magic with their own personalities can also give this effect, but those should be used sparingly; more than one or two in a party starts getting a bit improbable.

If you can’t make it mechanically unique, then at least make it look different. One of the things I think is pretty cool about Legends of the Wulin is that if you look at the various external kung fu styles, you’ll notice that at least three out of the five techniques of each is just some variation on a bonus to one of six stats—and that a lot of styles have different techniques that do the exact same thing, but the way they’re described, you’re going to get entirely different visuals. On the other hand, making it too obvious that two things are the exact same effect can really dampen this; one of my little niggling pet peeves about Exalted 2nd Ed was when they took two Lunar Charms that were admittedly pretty similar to existing Charms in the Solar and Dragon-Blooded arsenals and just renamed them into that—particularly the Essence sense, which in 1st Ed had been fluffed as being by scent rather than by vision. It loses a lot of style when two effects from entirely different sources manage to look identical.

Story, story, story! This one tends to work better for magic items, but it can be applied to magic in general with a little tweaking; what it boils down to is to recreate the wonder by giving whatever you’re looking at a unique history. It doesn’t even need to be all that dramatic; sure, some items were used for some world-shaking event, but some are notable just for who created them and how the wielder views that character, or who bought them for whom as a gift.

Leave them with a few secrets. There’s no mystery in a +1 sword or a standard grimcleaver; they always do exactly what the numbers say they’re going to do. But a spell that sometimes does something different, for some bizarre reason, or an item that occasionally manifests a new ability, that does what it does in a way that seems improbable, or has an off-the-wall requirement—that’s interesting. People start asking why; maybe they start experimenting, or start drawing their own conclusions about how the item or magic works.

Keeping the wonder in magic and magical items is tough work in a regimented design system, but it’s worth it.


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  1. Fantastic Creations: May 18, 2012 Roundup | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.
  2. RPG Blog Carnival: Fantastic Creations, Final Roundup | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

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