If you haven’t read any of my previous
laments on Alignments, Spell Components, and Troupe Play, I would encourage you
to do that.
In the original D&D when a
player-character wanted to make a magic item, it cost EXP. EXP was used as a resource that could be
spent, not just accumulated. The idea
was, you were giving up a little bit of your power to make something more
powerful. This is very Tolkienesque, and
may in fact have been inspired by the creation of the One Ring.
I like the idea of EXP being able to be
spent on character advancement OR magic items.
It’s very primal in a way, and evocative of fantasy literature. It forces players into making a choice and
provides an alternate form of character advancement beyond the mundane level-up
rules. No doubt there were a number of
players who really liked this system.
However, there were many that
didn’t. As a result, as the editions of
D&D rolled out, it cost fewer and fewer XP to make a magic weapon. By the time DnD 3.5 came around, it became
insanely easy to make powerful magical weapons without sacrificing much at
all. Take a generic wand of fireballs
for instance. (I say generic tongue in
cheek) The XP cost to make a WoFB was
around 600XP IIRC. Unlike the olden days
when you would be excited to find a fireball wand with five charges, the 3.5E
one came with a whopping 50! With 50 fireballs to lob at anything that moves,
how long would it be before a character recovered those 600XP? No time at all. So the ability to make more powerful magical
items became less costly to the players, and therefore much less of a
As a corollary, less powerful weapons
became commonplace finds in many treasure hordes. Take the ubiquity of +1 Longswords for instance. They’re everywhere in D&D supplements
from the 90’s and 2000’s. There’s
nothing special or really magical about them at all. It didn’t cost anyone anything to get them;
it was just a result of normal adventuring.
As a result, they lost all their specialness.
But this is the system’s fault for
having so many darn creatures immune to non-magical weapons. Magically infused items are now required just
to play. Look, weapons are already
amazing enough on their own. By
cheapening the effectiveness of non-magical weapons, the designers of
contemporary fantasy roleplaying games cheapened the experience of having or
earning magical weapons. Especially in
4e where having magical stuff became part of a character’s expected
progression. The result is an arms race
where everything just spun out of control and nothing was special to anyone
Along the way, a lot was lost IMHO. Take weapons with personalities (Egos) for
instance. In the earliest days these
were really cool. Think of weapons like
Excalibur and The One Ring. Players and
DMs didn’t just roleplay characters, they could roleplay items as well. However, these things were very powerful, and
by the time the Book of Artifacts came out for AD&D2e, severe curses and
awful side effects were tacked on to sentient weapons permanently (even though
the book protested they weren’t). Oh the
potential that was lost! What about
sword cults? What about weapon
deities? What about cultures who were
led by an inanimate object with an Ego?
What about options for quests to free the soul in inside the sword or
mace or whatever? These things were only
explored in a most superficial way in D&D.
It’s a shame no other game took with the idea and ran.
One of my biggest problems with item
crafting in games in DnD4e and in Pathfinder is that they stick to what is in
the spell section. And I don’t expect it
to be much different in DnD 5e or whatever they’re calling it. It would be impossible to create The One Ring
in these systems. Why? I’ll tell you what I suspect. The new design ethos is to make sure
everything is so mathematically balanced that GMs don’t have to worry about
breaking the game. They don’t want to
harm the play experience by granting players the freedom to make mistakes and
learn from them. Yes, giving a player an
overly powerful sword can cause HUGE headaches.
But figuring out that you can take the sword form the player by using a
thieves’ guild, and thus give the player a new quest to retrieve the sword is
an awesome learning moment for young GMs.
So, my call to action is for someone to
design a game that makes magical items more purposeful and special than current
incarnations of fantasy roleplaying games.
Make them matter both mechanically and fictionally during play. A magic item must be more than something
immune to rust monster blood. It must be
an heirloom, a cause, an enemy, an ally, a calling card, and beautiful memory.