"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Variable Magic Items

I am not a huge fan of static bonus magic items - the sword +1.

A simple formula I work with when developing a magic item is:

1. What benefit does the item provide?

2. When does it provide this benefit?

3. What does this benefit cost?

Some examples:

- The Sword of Final Death - This sword has a +3 bonus to attack rolls against undead. It also always does maximum sword damage (8 + any strength bonus) against undead. However, the wielder of the sword also takes the same amount of damage when an undead creature is hit as the negative life force of the undead creature is absorbed into the wielder's body.

- The Night Helm - Anyone wearing this helm has a 99% chance of hiding in shadows and moving silently when outside at night and the command word is spoken. However, each time it is used the wearer must make a Constitution check with a penalty equal to the cumulative number of times the Helm has been previously used by the wearer. If the Con check is failed the wearer is turned into a Shadow.

Both of these magic items give the user a benefit under certain circumstances but also introduce an element of risk.


  1. So The Sword of Final Death does 8 points of damage to the undead and 8 points to the wielder? Every Time?

  2. Something like that. It was just off the top of my head.

  3. Nasty.

    I would make that 8 dmg to the wielder from the Sword of Final Death occur after they had killed a certain number of undead. Maybe cumulative by creature or per level?

    I can see it particularly effective at high levels, but the steepness of the learning curve as to how it works might make it seem "cursed" to lower level PCs, and therefor would get junked.

    But the whole cost/benefit deal is definitely one I like.

  4. You also have to balance this against the player's desire to have tools that he can use to interact with the game world, that actually won't destroy his character.

    The Night Helm is pretty much a 50-50 chance of death for an average character every time. I assume you wouldn't let the player continue to play as a Shadow - but even if he could, it would kind of suck.

    The sword is, likewise, pretty useless even when fighting Undead. Even if someone wants to be heroic and sacrifice himself to kill the creature, he could probably be better off just hacking away with anything else. Sure it might take twice as long to kill it, but you're able to survive longer because the sword isn't killing you every time.

    I like where it's going. But the downsides are just too harsh. People might use these for new characters that might easily die anyway. But who would use it for a 3rd or 5th level character they've been playing for some time?

  5. In general terms I agree with your outlook on magic items. I attribute most common functions (e.g. +1 to hit or damage) to craftsmanship, material or both. In order to bring some wonder and caution surrounding "magic" items back into the game I've done the same thing you've done.

    Quick question though, while those two items have rather nasty side effects, do ALL items of power have similar negative attributes as well? In other words, would a legendary sword of a long-dead paladin, hero, etc. have such a steep price of entry? I could see requiring "something" of the bearer...but if your previous two items are any indication, NO item is really worth messing with in the long run. Maybe that's what your striving for though?

  6. I agree that the magnitudes of the penalties in these two examples are likely too steep but they were just off the top of my head when I wrote the post for illustration purposes.

    I don't mind if players view all magic items as being cursed in some way.

    As for a Paladin's legendary sword - I would likely make it an intelligent sword with a special purpose and have some drawbacks - maybe it makes anyone that wields it Lawful and go "berserk" and unable to flee any time they encounter undead. Not good when the 5th level Paladin comes across a Spectre!