I Dream of Dragons

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 22 October 2010

The dreams start in many ways. Sometimes they begin in my old college fraternity. Other times, I'm a hired sword of some sort and we are clearly in a castle or keep. Occasionally I am in the basement of some library and find a hidden passage. Regardless of how it starts, my mind tells me that I'm heading into some familiar territory for tonight I will be fighting a dragon.

But first, I must wind my way down a series of chilly, narrow corridors. Inevitably I face a ghost or three, a witch and anything else my brain decides to throw my way (Damn, she's a mean DM). Finally I arrive at my destination, a rather large, mostly destroyed cavern. Without seeing or hearing it, I know that a dragon lives here.

Sizing up the situation, it being me, my sword and, well, a f*ing dragon, I decide stealth might be my best option. Inevitably the dragon sniffs me out and we engage in a series of short battles which consist of me hitting the dragon with my sword and then scrambling to find cover. You see, my sword isn't your garden variety model. It is magical and quite powerful. When used properly, it will shoot forth a blinding and quite lethal white light, but then it needs to recharge. Until I can weaken the dragon enough to where I can go in for the final kill, that power is my lifeline and I need to give it time to reactivate. I need to keep moving.

Inevitably, I end up in some niche waiting from the sword to recharge and unsure where the dragon waits. Slowly his head comes into view and I know I'm dead. While I remembered my trusty sword, I have no shield. I wake up, usually shaken by the experience.

So what does this have to do with D&D? Well, I was reminded of these dreams by Chris Sims's article on magic items. This dream illustrates a weapon I would love to have in the game but one that is ill-suited for 4e's magic weapon philosophy. Is it a bit overpowered, especially for my level of expertise? Hell yeah. But it's also fun and it's the only magic item I have. No suit of armor that resists fire, heck, not even a shield to protect me from the dragon's breath.

4e D&D needs to get back some of that wonder. Everyone needs a magic item that fills them with awe, that they wish they could steal from the game and bring to real life. Something they care about and would hate to lose. It should call to them in their dreams just like my unnamed sword. I'm not sure yet what the solution is, but I guarantee it will involve story and plot and, well, pure concentrated awesome.


It isn't just magic items, it is the whole sense of ... I hesitate to use the term 'frailty' but that is part of it. In my opinion, in 4E you are playing a 'supers' game, which is a perfectly great way to play, but it isn't that game you describe in your dream.

Magic items being more, well, magical is always a challenge in games where they can all too easily be broken down into just mechanical tools. Description, legends and other things can all be tied into a magic item to hopeful make it more evocative for the players.

I discussed this problem at length here: http://seaofstarsrpg.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/putting-the-wonder-back-in...

The shine has come off magic items, there can be no doubt. At this point a magic item is little more than a 'bonus delivery device'. It isn't just 4E that is guilty of this though. RPG games across all platforms now seem to take magical loot as a given. Look at any video game, and 4E, and you see multiple equipment slots for a PC specifically created to max out the amount of magical gear you can wear. The Player's Strategy Guide gives clear instruction on how to select a balanced set of magic items when you are creating a character above first level, because you need them for game balance.

Does it steal the awe? Sure. Chris Simms is right when he mentions the absurdity of Sting suddenly becoming useless to Frodo. There is an arms race in gaming of all sorts now. So how do we reinsert the awe?

For myself, the choice is simple. Use the Inherent Bonus option for character advancement. This takes care of the math side of 4E. Even if a PC never gets a magic item, they have a fair chance of surviving any encounter. The next step is to put a premium on PCs creating their own items if they want them. This should be a rather involved quest, and should probably culminate in an elaborate ritual with a chance of failure. Having an Artificer as a party member or helpful NPC goes a long way to expediting this idea. Regardless, there is a basic crafting system in the rules and I think it could be exploited to help with this desire for awe. If a DM can ensure there is a rich plot and suitable tension around the process, I think players will feel much more invested in a single magic item they made themselves than all the items they could buy out of a book.

Ultimately, I think crafting just makes more sense. To put it in game-to-life terms, while you can buy a car in almost every town in the nation, Ferrari dealerships are much more rare. Thus, the idea that every one horse village in DnD has a magic item merchant seems a bit silly. It makes magic items seem disposable because they are so readily available.

I think a healthy dose of do-it-yourself, combined with very infrequent insertion of magical items/devices as plot points by the DM will go a long way to bringing back the, well...mystical sense a magic item should inspire.

I think the inherent difficulty in balancing magic items (which is the task that takes from their "wonder") is the concept of character levels. I personally don't like character levels, and I am hard pressed to find examples of them in a lot of traditional stories.

I mean, we have progression, but the powers scale so much at higher levels, it plays out that each tier is like a demi-god to the tier below it. If you were to just look at the stats given to NPCs and normal people in the world, a level 20 character could just go around destroying entire villages and small cities. When you have that kind of power ratio, of course you need items to match.

If we look at LoTR, Frodo and Sam do not grow in power alone (though they do become somewhat skilled as fighters), but rather it is the measure of their character that allows them to strive forward. That is part of the narrative in role-playing, not a mechanic.

When I play D&D it is just like Hogwart's, which Eberron really embraced: magic is just another utility. To really feel like a magic item is wondrous, I am convinced a different game is required.

I was just putting "keys to computer" and playing around with some house rules for magic item distribution in my 4E campaign, and came across this post from Sarah (via Twitter). This seems like as good a place as any to throw this idea out there:

Legacy Items: At 1st Level, all characters buy mundane equipment as per the normal rules. At each level obtained, they are allowed to "enhance" one item...in other word, give it a magical property (directly from the various magical item lists). The change is explained within the story. For instance, a character turns third level, after fighting many grueling battles with fire-based creatures. The longsword, passed down from the character's mother, and used in these many battles, might spontaneous become a +1 Frost Longsword (a 3rd level item). At 8th level, this same sword, after countless battles, could become a +2 Frost Longsword (an 8th level item).

To extend the example, a 5th level character might have the following equipment: a +1 Vicious Mace (2nd Level), +1 Sylvan Armor (3rd Level), Wavestrider Boots (4th Level), and an Ironskin Belt (5th Level). Each item would have a short reason why it had gained the property in the character's hands.

This wouldn't preclude the idea that treasure could be found, of course, and those items found could be equipped without penalty to the next level's advancement.

Any thoughts?


Yeah, I think this is a good way to build a story around item advancement. Another idea I've seen a few people put forth is to have magical items, whether they be potions or some sort of components, that you can apply to the weapons to increase them.

In Chris Sims's Dark Sun game at Gen Con, the PCs were kidnapped and their gear was all put into a vat that was used as part of a magic ritual by the villain. If you defeated the weapon and looked around for your stuff, you would notice that a number of the mundane articles were now magical or their magic nature improved.

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