Magic Items: role and drama - Part 1

Players love their magic items. I've been converting the magical equipment and weapons that a D&D party gained over the course of their career, into similar items for the game I'll be running - and it got me thinking about the topic in general terms.
This is a big topic! I started writing what I thought would be a short post about magic items and my concerns with the darned things - and found that I need to do this in two parts.
In this part, I'll ask what are "magic items", what role do they serve, and why do most fantasy games seem to fail at delivering the exciting and amazing magical things that fable and literature abound with?
In part two, I'll  stop complaining and talk about what might be done to solve the issue.

What are magic items?
Magic items are just that: items of some sort that have some magical property. The One Ring from Lord of the Rings, the Sivalinga in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the flying carpet in Arabian Nights - as well as lesser tools, such as the magical trickery of skiving lunch boxes in Harry Potter, or d'Artagnan's healing salve in The Three Musketeers - are all magic items.
In literature and myth, magical equipment, weapons, armour and jewellery are special things, maybe even central to the plot.
In RPGs, magic items tend to be routine - and that is what has been bugging me.

What's wrong with the way that RPGs deal with magic items?
For a start, the name isn't great."Magic items" is a deliberately bland term - making dull broth out of awesome sauce.
By being generic, they become a standard issue bit of equipment, losing that magical quality like a folding shovel: "You don't have a Bag of Holding? You call yourself an adventurer!"

Why is this a problem? A proliferation of magic items in your game makes it hard to use a magic item as a McGuffin - players are not interested unless the item is very powerful, and then unless you explain the dread significance of the One Ring, tend to be only covetously interested.
(Even knowing the "drawbacks" of the One Ring, many players would tend to think that being the Dark Lord of Middle Earth would be awesome, thank you very much. Clearly, that's not the drama that the Professor intended when he wrote Lord of the Rings.)

Also, we tend to end up with uninterested players if there are too many magic items in a game. I recall a joke in one player group about high level characters having golf caddies to carry their magic swords around for them. "Another magic sword? Yawn.... Put it with the others."

History of RPG items
It's worth looking at how the gaming industry has developed this modern relationship with magic items in the RPGs.
In early RPGs, magic items tended to be relatively rare - or at least the intent of the game-writers was that they should be relatively rare. Let's look at the chances of finding magic items in an early edition of D&D, and in a later edition.

In the Basic D&D, the chance of finding any magic item at all in a treasure horde is about 27.5% (there are ten treasure types, each with a variable percentage chance of having one or more magic items).
These chances remain fixed throughout the game, at all levels of play - however, at low level, the monsters you face tend to be the ones without magic items, whereas at high level the tend to be ones with more.

In 3.5 Edition D&D, the chance of a treasure containing magical items increases with level:

  • Low level: 5% to 50%
  • Mid level: 50% to 90%
  • High level: 75% (varies)

Strangely enough, the chance of a magic item being present in a treasure at high levels actually drops to around 75% or so (with some aberrations in the treasure table - 19th level, for example), but the power of those items is generally increased.

It's not a big increase to be honest - can it be responsible for the plethora of magic items in modern RPGs?
I doubt it.

Shopping is not heroic
Aside from the slightly increased frequency of finding magic items as part of a treasure, there is another significant change that has appeared since the early RPGs: the magic item market.
In the first D&D rules sets, magic items were listed in the Dungeon Masters Guide - that is, away from the players. There were no prices listed for magic items, either - the rules merely hinted that some non-player character might be found through advertising, and persuaded to buy unwanted magic items. Costs could be derived from the section about creating magic items - and even the least potion would be an investment of thousands of gold pieces.
Jump forward to the 21st Century, and in D&D 3.5 we've got magic items starting with values of 25 gold pieces, and a listed price for each, together with rules for how many magic items (based on cost) one is supposed to have at any given stage in one career.

So our heroes go shopping for magic items. There are so many trivial little magic trinkets to choose from too - stacking up all those tiny little bonuses to optimise your "hero"...

Now, I'm having great fun with Bethesda's Skyrim still - I tend to play games like this over and over - but I find that as much as I enjoy the adventure game, I get so annoyed with the damn shopping. I have trading fatigue. A hero's life shouldn't be bogged down with running around between traders haggling, or making potions to make her better at haggling. This is all stuff that won't make it into the epic tale of the Dragonborn when the bards tell it, right?
It's because there are so many tiny little footling bonuses that you desperately want to stack together - "Must buy more magic thingies!"

Did Frodo and Co go shopping in Rivendell? Did Conan spend all his money on necklaces of natural armour and belts of giant strength?
No, they went boozing and blew their loot on whores, and sang songs with the elves and ate big feasts.
(You can figure out which did which.)

Next: I solve everything
We know what's wrong (or what I think is wrong) - too many trinkets, not enough excitement, and far too much shopping - so what am I going to do about it?
See the next part, coming soon!


The Wisdom of Elders

Years ago, I was trying to write an essay of helpful stuff about RPGs, when I found that as I did my research, I wasn't really able to better anything that had been said before by the essayists I respect.
So here are a few links to blog posts and essays by others on RPGs that I've found influential over the years. All credit to the authors of the originals!
Tucker's Kobolds
An essay by Roger E Moore on making encounters difficult - and fun.

Many high-level characters have little to do because they're not challenged. They yawn at tarrasques and must be forcibly kept awake when a lich appears. The DMs involved don't know what to do, so they stop dealing with the problem and the characters go into Character Limbo. Getting to high level is hard, but doing anything once you get there is worse. ...

Don't Prep Plots
An essay on RPG story design by Justin Alexander
If you're GMing a roleplaying game, you should never prep a plot.
Everyone's tastes are different. These matters are subjective. What works for one person won't necessarily work for another. Yada, yada, yada.
But, seriously, don't prep plots. ...

On the same topic: Justin Alexander's essays on Node-based adventure design can be found here.

Getting the players to care
Another essay by Justin Alexander

I think every GM probably has a story about the time that they spent hours carefully detailing some piece of lore or a particularly intricate conspiracy... only to discover that their players didn't really care. Or you complete a dramatic and powerful series of adventures featuring the unraveling of a conspiracy wrought by the Dark Gods of Keht... but three months later you mention the name "Keht" and are met by blank stares from the players...

Decide to React Differently
(extracted from "Making Tough Decisions")
An essay on role playing by Rich Burlew, from Giant in the Playground

Have you ever had a party break down into fighting over the actions of one of their members? Has a character ever threatened repeatedly to leave the party? Often, intraparty fighting boils down to one player declaring, "That's how my character would react." Heck, often you'll be the one saying it; it's a common reaction when alignments or codes of ethics clash. 
However, it also creates a logjam where neither side wants to back down. The key to resolving this problem is to decide to react differently. You are not your character, and your character is not a separate entity with reactions that you cannot control.

Just Giving

I've started a Just Giving page, to raise money for Asthma UK.

I've been asthmatic in one way or another since before my teens - and it's not held me back. I owe that to my medicine, and I owe that to charities like Asthma UK.

Please sponsor me whatever you can afford!


Marlborough 33: it's on!

Well, I'm committed. I've signed up and paid my entrance fee to the Marlborough Downs 33 mile Challenge. It runs on the 12th May (a Sunday). I've booked the Monday off, of course.
I need to get in a bunch of hill and distance training for this event - it's rather flat here in the Midlands, so I need to prepare for all those Downs. With that in mind, I've planned out some routes that climb some of the longest hills in the region.
Now I just need to bite the bullet and get out running in the snow tomorrow...


six20: It's on!

Finally, I have dragged myself into the mental place where I'm ready to run my game, and got most of the players to agree that they are able to meet for a game in 11 days time.
However, the local games club have double-booked, and the preferred RPG room is still under repair (it's been several weeks now) - so I'll be hosting the game at home.

It's a little daunting. On trial are my GMing ability, and my game system - and now, my hosting. We have enough chairs, there's a table... it's not really that which concerns me. And as I try to articulate what it is that concerns me, I realise that there really actually isn't anything.
A bunch of mates, wanting to have fun with dice and pretend characters on an adventure - what could go wrong? Scratch that - what could go wrong that wouldn't itself be entertaining?


Time on my feet

Putting in plenty of time on my feet is - apparently - just as important as getting in long distance runs, so I've been running short laps of the air field adjacent to work at lunch time, or if I'm working from  home, short hill runs.

On the days when I can't do that - maybe I've got customers in at work, or I'm working off site, or just too busy - I'm cycling on my static trainer at home. Just a ten minute routine: three lots of 20 seconds of INTENSE speed cycling, interspersed with cool off periods of a couple of minutes. Alternately, I do a ten minute boxing session with my heavy bag in the garage.

It all adds up to cardio work, which helps keep my stamina up, and avoids the dreaded lactic acid. The boxing has the added advantage of really working off a whole lot of stress!

I'm getting quite excited by the prospect of the Marlborough Downs run - the website now says "online entries opening soon".
I've checked it a few times each day since they put that message up on Sunday...


Booze & fatigue

Lactic acid is one of those things that can slow you to a stop. It's a waste product made by the inefficient burning of sugars in the muscles when you exercise them. It builds up in the muscles and it hurts.

I'm quite good at ignoring lactic acid for a while - but from experience, on my first attempt at a marathon distance - pushing on through can lead to collapse.
I ended up lying in the road in crying and moaning, intermittently struggling to my feet, and shuffling and staggering about, moaning like a zombie in sweaty running gear, before collapsing again. Some very lovely people at an old vicarage off the road let me lie down on their garden furniture for a bit, and gave me a lift back to town.
Now I treat the signs of lactic acid with a bit more respect. I try to make sure I'm well hydrated before I run, and take isotonic drinks with me, and energy drinks if I'm going for a long run.

Anyway, today, it seems that all the boozing over the holidays hasn't left me in good shape. I got about a kilometer into my run - I was aiming for a half marathon distance today - and felt my shins start to swell with the nasty nasty pain.
So, I turned back and only put in about 4km - a tenth of a marathon.

I suppose this means I have the opportunity to get on with more writing instead.


Happy New Year!

I'll be using this space to write a few things, at least weekly, about my running, and my gaming - hence the witty [sic] name.

I'm a role-player, and more specifically a referee of role-playing games (RPGs). I'm writing my own rules set based on the Lego of rules sets, d20 - I call my variant "six20", and I've run a few session with friends.

I also run relatively long distances (10km to marathons, and hopefully further), for fitness and fun. I've mainly run by myself, rather than in events, so far.

My goals for the new year are:

  • get the six20 RPG rules thrashed out through playtesting 
    • (that's with a bunch of friends at the local gaming club - we're playing a continuation of a  game that started under a "vanilla" version of the d20 fantasy rules, that I won't mention in full cause they're sensitive about copyright)
  • run the Marlborough Downs Challenge 33 mile race in May
  • post regular blogs about these topics, and others as the year progresses