by Lash Vance
This column represents a different sort of voice for the Ludus — it’s the voice of a player, rather than the voice of a DM.
Do you remember the very first magic item that your beloved Dungeons & Dragons character ever received? What was the result of all of that blood, pooled in lost hit points and severed limbs at your feet? Of all those dead orcs, of the frantic search for spell components? Of all that time in the barrow mound of the elders? What magnificent prize for rifling through the Slave Pits or searching for the Lost City?
For me, it was a +1 ring of protection.
I would like to say that my first, very first, magic item from my early days as a gamer was something spectacular, unique, and memorable. But as with so many firsts, it seemed a bit drab. This is not to say that I snubbed that +1 ring of protection as too lowly for my disdain. I knew Elric wasn’t delivering a giftwrapped +5 vorpal Stormbringer to me any time soon. No, I hoarded that lowly magic item as any proper gamer ought to do. And it’s not to say that there was anything wrong with the power level of the item. A +1 bonus to saves and AC is great. Indeed, much ink of the current and previous editions has been spilled trying to keep those +1 bonuses from stacking up into over-powered combinations.
My disappointment with that first item had everything to do with its mystique.
It didn’t have any. And so, for me, it didn’t have any magic. Just power.
Where Is the Mystery?
Magic of any kind or strength should be shrouded in the mist. It should emerge (or seem to emerge) from an ether realm where forces beyond our ken rage and burn in the tumult, barely constrained by the veil that supposedly separates us from power, faith, and conjuration. Magic items are rare artifacts that took skill, power, and treasure to assemble. And our characters who channel arcane forces, or who call to demigods in time of need, will always find a mere “+1 ring of protection in a chest” jangling and discordant.
In the same way, spell-use should never be automatic or mundane. How does an NPC druid transform herself into an animal? If the GM simply says that she “wild shapes,” that’s a missed opportunity. Maybe it requires squatting on the earth, thrusting both hands into the soil, and imploring the spirits for welcome into their midst. The ritual itself belongs to you, but any ritual you come up with will add to the game in significant ways.
Two Scenarios: Reality Meets the Enigmatic
To do this right, it’s not really enough just to richly describe the magic. A richly described world itself becomes more magical to the mind’s eye. And if the GM leads in description, many players will follow. After all, they’ll have a richer world to interact with. Let me illustrate by describing two scenarios: one involving magic as dry declaration; the other, magic as the mystical, strange, uncanny.
Magic as Dry Declaration
GM: “You walk into a 10×10 prison cell. There are bits of dirty straw bedding on top of a bed and a man in a loincloth. He seems to be mumbling something. He lunges at you with a cudgel. Roll for initiative.”
Player: “An 18 on dice.”
GM: “He rolled very low. Your turn.”
Player: “I hit him with my staff. An 8 on dice and an 11 with bonuses.”
GM: “You miss. He misses with his cudgel.”
Player: “I cast magic missile. Eight points of damage.”
GM: “Missiles hit him. He’s dead.”
Player: “I search his body. I search for secret doors. I search for traps, etc.”
GM: “You find a gold ring on his hand.”
Player: “I cast identify.”
GM: “It’s a +1 ring of protection.”
Magic as Mystery
GM: “You smell the room before you unlock the door: molded feces and stale sweat that has turned to vinegar. You open the door. Even with your torch, it’s hard to see, but the space is almost completely filled by a lopsided, wooden-framed bed in the corner.”
Player: “I take a tentative step into the room, holding my torch up high to draw out the shadows.”
GM: “You hear your other party members, Torlak and Veram, clanking around in the cell next to you. They make an eerie echo.”
Player: “I creep forward, slowly.”
GM: “Your eyes adjust a little to the dark. You hear a low muttering from the dirty straw-covered blanket. It says, ‘No. No. No. They took it.’”
Player: “Is it moving? Is it human? ‘Hold creature! Your wretchedness will not save you from my wrath!’ I ready my staff.”
GM: “Under the dirt, the blanket, and the straw, you see a terribly wrinkled man. He stops his mumbling when he notices you and scrambles out of the bed toward you. Your eyes barely make out that he has a piece of a bedpost in his hand as he lunges at you. Roll for initiative.”
Player: “18 on dice.”
GM: “He seems groggy, as if he had been in a long sleep. You seem to have the upper hand.”
Player: “’Stop I say!!!’ I try thumping him in his chest with the end of my staff. An 8 on dice. That’s… an 11 to hit him.”
GM: “You bring your staff up very quickly, but it misses the mark. As it does, you notice something peculiar. You felt that your staff thrust was true, but at the last second some unseen force seemed to nudge the staff into the folds of the burlap sack the man is wearing. He swings wildly, hitting the wall with a hollow echo.”
Player: “Dropping the torch, I try to get out of his way while I reach into my reagent pouch. I grab some silver dust and, hurling it, I speak the words: ‘Aman Freya Doom.’ I launch magic missiles at his torso.”
GM: “With a slight puff of smoke, the missiles appear in midflight, slamming through the old man, who, reeling with the force of the blows, crashes into his crooked bed. He’s breathing, but just barely, and some blood seems to be pooling out where the magic missiles ran through him. He mumbles, ‘Eloise. Eloise. They found it.’”
Player: “I drop to my knees and feel at his wound. I put one of his dirty hands on his chest to apply pressure.”
GM: “It’s hard to see in the light as your torch is sputtering on the ground, but you feel the cold of something metal on his hand. The stench of unbathed, corrupted, gangrened flesh almost makes you retch. It reminds you of your time in the Slave Pits.”
Player: “Is it a ring? Can I take it off? What does it look like?”
GM: “As you start to pull it off, he protests, trying to swat away your hand, but he collapses back on the bed. Underneath all the grime and caked on feces, there is gold, a gleaming gold ring. It’s untarnished. When you hold up your torch to it, you can see that it has seven small shields engraved on the inner part of the ring and two letters: JD.”
Player: “I carefully unwrap my sliver of the archlich’s sundered gem of seeing and, with it in hand, begin drawing lines of augury on the dirty floor.”
GM: “It takes you longer than normal since you had to clean part of the cell. The old man keeps groaning in the corner, but he hasn’t interrupted your ritual yet. After ten minutes of careful drawing, you have made the diagram required for your Identify spell.”
Player: “I close my eyes and chant the words: ‘Let the dark be lit; let the shadows be chained in the light.’”
GM: “At first, there is only electrified mist. Then you see the blurry image of an armored man melting shields in a furnace under the direction of a robed figure. Using tongs, he carefully dips a gold ring inside the mixture as the robed one chants ‘Seven walls, seven shields; dying men, protection yields.’ There might be something else, but the fog swirls around the two figures as your ritual ends. For now, it seems to be a +1 ring of protection. But you sense there was something else there….”
A Tale of Two Rooms
I’m writing to GMs, but in truth everyone at the table is responsible if the magic becomes mundane.
In the first scenario, the 10×10 room is interchangeable with any other room, and the encounter is transmuted into a mechanical exercise: identify target, throw dice, and eliminate threat. It’s almost as if we were looking at to hit tables, dice rolls, and the statistical advantage afforded by a +1 ring instead of “role playing.” The second example, though, takes us to that dank cell. We smell it. We see it. We feel it. We question. How would a prisoner have a magic ring? Who is he? Why is he imprisoned? Who is Eloise? What else can the ring do?
Magic should be special, and it should be woven into the story as skillfully as Clothos, Lacheses, or Atropos might weave on their fateful loom. Small threads placed in the tapestry can become entire motifs; sub-plots can become their own adventures. In this brief scene, the ring has a backstory, a reason for existence. Why else would someone go through the expense and time to create it? This backstory can provide further jumping off points for other adventures, so it helps propel the plot and enables character choice. Perhaps the near-starved prisoner is J.D. himself? Perhaps Eloise is imprisoned someplace else? It’s up to the players to step up and…investigate.
A properly described world fuels the adventure engine. It creates motivations.
Another thing: Rules be damned; divination spells should never completely penetrate the mystery around magic. Identify may provide a glimpse at what an item does, a secreted look at a purloined letter, but it should be like looking through the bottom of a shot glass in the fog.†