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why do wizards need to be rare?

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 14:26

In most fantasy universes in which people cast spells, magic is a talent that few are born with. No matter how much they study, some people will never be anything but muggles, while other people are born with the Talent or the Gift or a high midichlorian count or whatever.

There are a number of reasons why this choice makes a fictional setting more coherent and focused.

  • A world where magic is common is super bizarre and unfamiliar.
  • Magic is rare to make your wizard protagonist special.
  • Wizards are super powerful: if everyone could learn magic, everyone would.
  • However, these reasons don’t really apply to D&D, which has never had any pretensions at being a coherent and focused fictional setting.

    D&D is a world where magic is common. Most of the D&D classes are spell-users to some degree. Most of the monsters have spells or magical abilities. You might assert that offscreen, within the borders of civilization, magic is rare, but the players’ game experience don’t really speak to that assertion one way or the other. The fact is that in D&D as it’s played, the world is chock-full of magic knapsacks, resurrection magic, and fireballs.

    Your wizard isn’t special. If you come up with some demographics that specify that, say, only one in every thousand people has an arcane gift that can be nurtured, you fall afoul of the fact that nearly every D&D party has a wizard, or a variation like sorcerer, warlock, or bard – not to mention the clerics, paladins, rangers, monks, and druids also in the party. I’ve been playing D&D for decades, and I’ve seen a lot of wizard characters, and if they’re all rare and special, they’re the most common rarity there is. When a wizard character dies, we know we can go back to town and pick up another one if we want. We might claim they’re rare in the campaign setting, but they’re not rare in the game. Furthermore, most players don’t want their wizard characters to be feared, or hunted as witches, or even venerated as demigods every time they come to a new town. Every game session of D&D doesn’t have to be the X Men mutants vs. the world. Just leave me alone and let me do my shopping! Therefore, a blase attitude to spellcasters is pretty common among NPCs: the sort of attitude that comes from familiarity.

    Your wizard isn’t super powerful – at least not at first. In any edition, a first- or second-level wizard isn’t any more powerful than a fighter, and might be significantly weaker. Sure, a first-level wizard can drop a fighter, and a crowd of commoners besides, with Sleep or Burning Hands, but a fighter can drop a wizard with one hit. It all comes down to who wins initiative. And besides criminal assault with Sleep and Burning Hands, what can a novice wizard do that’s any use? They might be able to get a middle-class job as a repairman (Mending), a mortician (Gentle Repose), a locksmith (Knock and Arcane Lock) or a charlatan (Charm and Disguise Self). They might rightly be regarded with suspicion, but not necessarily with awe. Being a low-level wizard might be kind of like being a grad student. It takes years of study, and might lead you to a respectable career some day, but no one’s really jealous of you right now.

    There’s one more reason to avoid the “some people have the Gift” trope, at least for the 5e wizard class specifically. It steps on the sorcerer’s toes. The sorcerer’s story is all “I have a special inborn gift that lets me set things on fire.” Sorcerers are not much of a foil for wizards if the wizard’s story is “I too have a special inborn gift. Mine lets me set things on fire after five years of school.” I much prefer the more democratic message that anyone can go to school, make something of themselves, and learn how to set things on fire.

    1st-level wizard spells for the masses

    Given all this, I say: Open the arcane floodgates wide! Let anyone into the Arcane University, PC or NPC, from muggle or wizard family, so long as they can pay the tuition. The real limitations on wizard power are more insidious: not everyone has the wealth and leisure to attend wizard college, and, as is true for any other character class, most people stay low level. Few survive, or care to brave, the dangerous adventures required to become even, say, third level and unlock second-level spells.

    Therefore, first-level wizards (and clerics, and bards, and other learned spellcasters) might be as common as educated people in our own medieval or renaissance times. Imagine a Shakespearean England where every Oxford scholar can cast Shield but not Suggestion, every vicar can cast Cure Light Wounds but not Lesser Restoration, and every minstrel can cast Charm Person but not Detect Thoughts. Would it really be that different from the standard D&D world?

    low-level spells and society

    Would this turn your world into Eberron, where magic is commercialized and ubiquitious? Not really. In fact, it’s surprising how much first-level spells resist the assembly line. A world where first-level spells are common actually resembles the medieval world that medieval people thought they lived in. You go to your local cleric for healing, blessings, and the detection and turning of minor demons. You go to the local witch for curses and curse removal. Really, Create Water and Purify Food and Drink are the only first-level spells we’d think of as being economically exploitable, and they’re small-scale.

    Second-level spells offer a bit more room for altering society. I believe that lighting cities with Continual Flame is a classic Eberron move. Detect Thoughts and Zone of Truth could change the justice system. Lesser restoration – LESSER restoration – cures all nonmagic diseases, making a 3rd-level cleric better than the best 21st century hospital.

    If third level spellcasters are dirt-common in your campaign world, you might stray a bit from the standard D&D pseudomedieval assumptions. But I don’t think you’ll do your campaign world any harm by allowing a Magic Missile-toting scribe in every village and a Cure Wounds-casting cleric at every roadside shrine. If anything, you’ll bring it more in line with the actual high-magic D&D gameplay that I’ve experienced, where no one blinks at the arrival of a traveling wizard, and someone in town can lift the curse on your fighter – for a price.

    Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

    how the “odd detail” can make D&D traps way more fun

    Tue, 12/17/2019 - 17:11

    Traps are kind of an unsolved problem in 5e D&D (of course, I said this before about 4e). On the one hand, you can’t leave traps out, because they’re an integral part of the dungeon delver fantasy. On the other hand, the way they’re usually used in 5e is not fun. Your stock 10-foot-pit trap is (if your passive Perception is high enough) a piece of scenery hardly worth mentioning, or (if your passive Perception is low) an unavoidable hit point tax, or (if your DM doesn’t use Perception) a guess-what-the-DM-is-thinking game, or (if overused) an incentive to play in a laborious and dull style involving ten foot poles.

    Even the writers of 5e don’t have a lot of faith in traps. Consider their advice from Xanathar’s Guide:

    If your encounters or adventures are sown with too many traps, and if the characters are victimized over and over again as a result, they are likely to take steps to prevent further bad things from happening. Because of their recent experience, the characters can become overly cautious, and you run the risk of the action grinding to a halt. Traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise, not when they appear so often that the characters spend all their effort watching out for the next one.

    I think this is wrong. Call me naive, but I think traps can be fun. Don’t be stingy. Slather them on! Run an all-trap dungeon. Run an all-trap adventure! If you’re willing to put a little extra work into it, there are ways to make each trap into an entertaining encounter.

    I’ve been the victim of many traps in my years of playing D&D (and also inflicted a few as the DM). Sometimes, defeating a trap can feel extremely satisfying, and even falling victim to a trap can be a hilarious table moment. It all comes down to warning the players, implicitly or explicitly, that they might be walking into danger.

    Here are the setups of some of the traps I’ve enjoyed most as a D&D player. We’ll get into the trap solutions later on.

  • In the dungeon corridor ahead, a glowing dagger floats in the air.
  • A glass tube extends from the floor to the ceiling. Inside the tube is a statue holding an apparently magic weapon.
  • A room contains 4 rotting sofas, several throne-like chairs, vases, and urns which are dented, chipped and broken, stands, small tables, and braziers, all jumbled together.
  • player skill vs character skill

    The traditional trap dichotomy is between old school “player skill” style and new school “character skill” style.

    The “player skill” school holds that characters should perform certain intelligent actions to avoid traps – prod every floor with a pole, throw a coin onto the metal floor, pull the lever with Mage Hand while standing across the room.

    The “character skill” style relies on die rolls. Your characters are more competent adventurers than you are – a character with high Perception shouldn’t miss an obvious trap because their player didn’t guess what action the DM expected them to take.

    In most D&D situations, player skill vs. character skill is a false dichotomy. If you want to get up a cliff, you can either use an Athletics check or do something clever with ropes. If you want to convince a guard to let you pass, you can make a Persuasion check or you can say something reasonable. There are many solutions to any problem.

    Traps don’t have multiple solutions because they often don’t present themselves as problems – by the time you know there’s a trap, the encounter is over. Traps exist outside the usual D&D action loop, which is described in the PHB as:

    1. The DM describes the environment
    2. The players describe what they want to do
    3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions

    The trap action loop is more like this:

    1. The players blunder without warning into a trapped area
    2. The DM compares passive perception to static DCs and describes the PCs avoiding or triggering the trap
    3. the players write down damage on their character sheet, or take some trivial action like walking around a pit or stepping over a tripwire

    That’s why the trap-sprung-without-warning doesn’t work very well. When you remove the player’s ability to react to a situation, D&D becomes a game about comparing passive DCs or about performing methodical danger-avoidance routines – and the game begins to fall apart.

    Traps work best when they’re telegraphed.

    The odd detail

    Remember the list of my favorite trap setups I gave above? The common thread: they all include an odd or mysterious element that invites exploration.

    The odd detail can be an obvious clue to the nature of the trap – rubble on the floor below a collapsing ceiling trap, or a dead thief near a poison needle trap – but it can also just be a specific detail that cries out for investigation: a chalked arrow on the floor, or a door painted with a woodland scene. It doesn’t matter much what the detail is, just so it stands out enough to attract the players’ interest.

    It might seem like telegraphing every trap makes it too easy on the players. After all, players can just choose to ignore or steer around anything with a suspiciously lush description. Not to worry! Odd details are like catnip to D&D players. Characters come from miles around to stick their heads in the sphere of annihilation trap.

    The odd detail is the missing piece of D&D traps because it indicates to the players that there’s something to actively investigate. Without it, traps are just something DMs inflict on characters. You’d much rather have traps be something the characters inflict on themselves!

    investigating traps

    How do characters deal with traps? Once you’ve indicated that there’s something that may be worth investigating, the players can choose their own course of action. All the DM has to do is react. This brings traps back into the classic D&D paradigm from the PHB: the DM describing a scene, the players stating their actions, and the DM adjudicating the results. As an added benefit, players can organically choose between using old-school player skill and modern character skill, just as they can in other open-ended D&D scenes.

    Given a suspiciously odd detail, players will generally act in one of three ways:

  • call for a general perception check. “I examine the lacquered cabinet and its surroundings,” or just, “I make a perception check.” The player is choosing to use character skill, not player skill, here, and that’s fine. On a success, the player spots the trap trigger but doesn’t necessarily learn how to disarm it, or even what it does (though it may be obvious.) On a perception roll failure, the character has to try something else. Note: if several characters make nonspecific perception checks, use the rules for group checks! Otherwise, success is all but assured in the most boring way possible.
  • examine something specific, or ask a specific question. “Does the cabinet seem to be locked or sealed in any way?” I tend to reward specific inquiries with automatic success. “No, there’s no lock on the cabinet.” If the player wants to engage the trap using their player skill, I want to honor that choice by putting away the dice.
  • blunder forward because they weren’t paying attention to the DM’s hints. In his article The Flow of Trap Detection, Sly Flourish notes that half the time, D&D players aren’t understanding the DM’s description. That’s such an important point that it should be printed on DM screens. Let’s call it “Sly’s Law of Comprehension.” Frequent misunderstanding is a fundamental part of the medium, and usually neither the player’s nor the DM’s fault.

    So when a player inevitably misses a hint and walks into a trap, does that mean that they deserve to be spanked with inevitable trap damage? No! Here’s where passive perception finally comes into play. If the character ignores hints and blunders towards a carefully-clued trap, the DM can use their passive Perception to give the character a chance to spot the trap trigger.

  • countermeasures

    Once players are aware that they may be in the presence of a trap, they have two choices.

  • Make a skill check to disable the trap. This is putting their character’s survival in their character’s hands. It’s probably the most common approach in 5e, and it’s probably the safest as well.
  • take a specific action which seems logical to them at the time. Players can use their “player skill” to take methodical, brilliant, or wildly ill-considered actions. Such actions should usually either succeed or fail depending on what seems logical given the trap setup. No die roll is required. If Chewbacca chooses to grab the suspicious trap bait hanging from the tree, he ends up triggering the net trap. (He still gets a saving throw, though.) If Indiana Jones throws sand on the invisible bridge, he, or anyone else, can cross it without making a Perception check or taking a leap of faith.

    Sometimes, the DM’s “odd detail” will clue players in to act cautiously. Other times, the details will act like bait, suckering them into dangerous actions. And that’s OK too. It can be fun to disarm a trap with your brain, and sometimes it can be just as much fun to disarm it with your face. Everything’s better when you have agency.

  • What I’m suggesting involves work for the DM. Basically, every trap becomes a micro-puzzle. D&D is flexible: players who don’t relish puzzle-solving can roll a few dice to have their characters solve it. But whether the players take a new-school or old-school approach, every trap is the better for a few memorable, specific details.

    trap solutions

    Here are the “puzzle solutions” to the traps I mentioned at the top of the page.

  • “In the dungeon corridor ahead, a glowing dagger floats in the air.” This happened in Mike Mornard’s game. My thief heedlessly reached out to grab the dagger and ran into a gelatinous cube. I felt that the encounter was fair because I inflicted danger on myself by acting incautiously. If there had been no floating dagger, no clue to the gelatinous cube’s presence, it would have just felt like DM fiat.
  • “A glass tube extends from the floor to the ceiling. Inside the tube is a statue holding an apparently magic weapon.” My buddy John ran this as part of an all-trap dungeon, a museum where the traps themselves were the exhibits. Most were from Grimtooth’s Traps.

    In this trap, the glass tube is filled with poison gas: break the glass and get a faceful of poison. I suspected something of the kind, so we summoned some kind of canary-like creature into the tube to prove that it was poison, and then broke the glass and grabbed the treasure from afar. Mage Hand was involved, I believe. We had a blast and felt really smart solving this one.

  • “A room contains 4 rotting sofas, several throne-like chairs, vases, and urns which are dented, chipped and broken, stands, small tables, and braziers, all jumbled together.” This one is from the original Tomb of Horrors, which has some unfair traps, but this, I think, is a fair one. After a few minutes in the room, the floor will start to jump and buck around, tossing the furniture and characters wildly, and inflicting minor damage on the characters. The Pop-O-Matic action of the trap is a great explanation for the bizarre state of the room.
  • training your players

    Players need to learn that every trap will be marked with a clue. No matter how many traps you spring, that will prevent them from wasting their time searching barren rooms for traps. “You’re in a ten by ten room. Door to the left, door to the right.” There must NEVER be a trap in a room described like this! There’s nothing interesting or off-beat that signals that this is an investigation scene.

    Players also need to learn that there can be benefits from interacting with weird elements in your dungeon. Otherwise, every suspicious scratch on the floor will make your players run the other way. Luckily, D&D has a strong built-in slot-machine-like reward system. Treasure! In standard 5e D&D, about 1 in 5 monster encounters come with a treasure hoard, and lots more carry some incidental treasure. Treat traps just like any other encounter. It’s easy to litter treasure around a trap:

  • The trap was set up to guard the treasure! Guarding valuebles is, after all, one of the most likely uses for a trap.
  • A previous victim of the trap has a sack full of treasure! Nothing says “search this area carefully” like a dead thief.
  • The treasure is the trap’s bait! The “odd detail” is the treasure itself, clearly in sight, although all is not as it seems.
  • traps in the Inspiration app

    Of course, my Inspiration app is chock-full of traps. I’ve got something like 80 trap types, from the basic pit trap to the rolling boulder to the demon-possessed item, and each trap is further detailed with 3 or so “odd details”. That’s something like 250 unique traps. None of them are very complex, but I hope they’re just puzzling enough to give your players a moment of uncertainty.

    Here’s how I construct the traps, and here are some samples for use at your table today.

    trap template

    I use a modified version of the trap template presented in Xanathar’s Guide.

    Trap Name: The best trap names end in “OF DEATH”, but I leave the prefix up to you.
    Challenge Rating: D&D 5e traps don’t have a challenge rating; instead they have a level band, like 1-4, and a degree of severity, like “moderate” or “deadly.” I think this is a mistake. It’s insufficiently granular – even a moderate level 1-4 trap will probably kill a first-level character – plus challenge rating is a tool we already have from monster design! Combining trap recommendations plus my 5e Monster Manual on a business card math, we come out with the formula that a single-character trap should do about 5 damage per CR, while a multi-character trap should do about 3 damage per CR.
    Description: A sentence to sum up the trap.
    Clues: This is where you put the odd detail that will get the characters’ attention. No trap is complete without one! In my case, to increase the usefulness of each trap in the Inspiration app, I’m providing three possible clues per trap. I hope that this will make the same pit trap feel different if encountered again.
    Investigation: What can the characters learn by investigating the trap? I try to include both normal search check results (what the characters learn with a Perception check) and specific, guaranteed-to-succeed actions that will automatically net a clue.
    Trigger: What action causes the trap to go off.
    Effect: What happens when the trap is triggered.
    Countermeasures: What actions the players can take to avoid or disarm the trap. Again, when I can I include both skill checks that will disarm the trap and specific actions that will automatically defeat it.

    Here are two examples:

    Name: 30-foot-deep locking spiked pit trap
    Challenge: 6
    Description: This 30-foot-deep pit has a cover which snaps shut to seal its victim inside. It has wood or metal spikes on the bottom.
    Clues: A trail of faint footprints abruptly end. (DM note: In this case, there is a corpse in the pit.) OR: an arrow is scrawled in chalk on the floor. (DM note: The arrow points to the pit. It was drawn by a denizen who was worried about forgetting where it was and falling in.) OR: The center of the room is dusty; the floor at the edges of the room is clean. (DM note: The clean area is well-traveled and safe to traverse.)
    Investigation: A DC 14 Perception check reveals that foot traffic avoids the pit cover. A DC 14 Investigation check reveals the hidden pit trap. A DC 19 Investigation check not only reveals the pit trap, but discovers a hidden lever, loose brick, or catch which opens the pit lid. A character who taps the floor notices that it sounds hollow.
    Trigger: A creature steps on the trap cover.
    Effect: The trap cover swings open like a trap door, or swings on a pivot. The victim falls into the pit, taking 10 (3d6) falling damage and 11 (2d10) piercing damage from spikes. The spring-loaded (or weighted) cover then swings shut and locks. The cover can be opened with a DC 18 Strength check; from inside, with a DC 16 Dexterity check using thieves tools, assuming there is sufficient light; by breaking the cover, which has AC 20 and 20 hit points; and sometimes by finding a hidden lever which opens the pit.
    Countermeasures: Once the pit is detected, an iron spike or similar object can be wedged under the cover to prevent it from opening, or it can be magically held shut with Arcane Lock. Or you can walk around.

    Name: ice-breather trap
    Challenge: 12
    Description: This trap breathes a blast of cold whenever someone speaks the word “ice”.
    Clues: The room is cold. A ten-foot-tall statue of a barbarian or frost giant dominates the room. The statue appears to be made of ice. (DM note: The ice is magical and does not melt.) OR: The room is cold. There’s a carving of a polar bear on the wall. On the bear’s head is a rune. (DM note: The rune says “ice” in Giant.) OR: The room is cold and contains a marble statue of a fur-clad elf. As you enter the room, a Magic Mouth spell animates the statue’s mouth: “Speak not my name at any cost: a river’s skin in the season of frost.”
    Investigation: A DC 15 Perception check reveals that the mouth is nearly clogged with snowy ice crystals. A spell or other effect that can sense the presence of magic, such as Detect Magic, reveals an aura of evocation magic around the statue.
    Trigger: The trap activates when someone speaks the word “ice” in Common.
    Effect: The mouth releases a 30-foot cone of cold. Each creature in the blast must make a DC 17 Dexterity saving throw, taking 38 (7d10) cold damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
    Countermeasures: Placing an obstacle in front of the mouth deflects the cold blast. A successful Dispel Magic (DC 15) cast on the mouth destroys the trap. Not saying “ice” also works.

    Sign up for the Inspiration beta test!

    Read more about the Inspiration app

    Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

    on npc names

    Tue, 11/19/2019 - 13:47

    Some DMs have a gift for coming up with the perfect name on the spot. Others flip through Xanathar’s Guide or another name list. Then there’s me: given a minute to think, I can come up with a plausible fantasy name, but in the heat of the moment I might just blurt out a clunker like “Huckabear“.

    I’m working on a phone app for DMs called 5e Inspiration. It’s a tool for populating your game world with people, locations, maps, monsters, and treasure. Learn more!

    5e Inspiration has a random NPC generator with a massive name list built into it. I’ve been collecting fantasy names for as long as I’ve been playing D&D, and I’ve brainstormed a lot more for the app. Right now my name list has something more than 6000 NPC names – more than twice the number of names in Xanathar’s Guide.

    I’ve vetted all the names in the Inspiration app, which means I’ve said each one aloud to make sure it doesn’t rhyme with something dirty, and I’ve googled it to make sure it’s not a well known trademark or something. (The gold standard for googling a fantasy name: you come up with less than 50,000 hits, and on the first google page is a link to someone’s World of Warcraft character. Then you know you’ve got a keeper.)

    How many half-orc names are there?

    It’s easy for me to tell you that my name list has 6000+ entries: however, it’s quite difficult to count how many names are in any given category. For instance, how many possible half-orc names are there?

    Because Inspiration is an app, I can do more than just create a d100 name chart for each race/gender category. Sure, I categorize names by race and gender, as the Xanathar’s Guide list does – though more than half of my names are nongendered – and also by class. But there are also lots of crossovers and references: on the ranger name list are entries like “roll on the elf name list”.

    Inspiration also includes lots of non-NPC names. The app can be used to generate dungeons, treasure, encounters on the land and sea, neighborhoods, and overland maps, so there are big name lists for magic items, ships, taverns, villages, rare books, various categories of monsters, etc. These lists link with the NPC name lists too.

    The base half-orc name list might have only 2 entries: one “roll on the orc name list”, and one “roll on the human name list”. Drilling down one level to the orc list, we might have 200 entries, of which ten are like “roll on the evil magic item name list”, to get sonorous names like “Ur Kagal” or “Katak”. The evil magic item name list, in turn, might have a few rolls on the pirate ship name list, for entries like “Winter Wolf”, “Howler,” or “roll on the naval ship name list”. So it’s hard to count exactly how many orc names there are. Do I just count the core human and orc names? The 200 evil magic item names, each a twentieth as likely to come up as a core orc name? The 200 pirate ship names, each a hundredth as likely to come up?

    That’s not to mention the possibility of rolling an orc with a barbarian-style name, with all the different name formations that involves: X Y-slayer, X daughter of Y, X Ybane, X Yborn, etc.

    That’s all to say that if you use the app to generate 10 random NPCs per weekly game session for 10 years, you might see a random NPC reappear once, but probably not twice.

    In a further post I’ll talk about how I generate D&D-style fantasy names. Until then, here’s my orc name list:

    Orc Names Roll d20 to select a line. If the line contains 10 names, roll d10 to select the name.

    1: Roll on the Evil Magic Item Names table. (Examples: Ur Kagal, Katak) 2: Roll on the Scar Names table. (Examples: One-Ear, Crooknose) 3: Roll on the Fiend Names table. (Examples: Morzaz, Gall) 4: Roll on the Barbarian Names table. (Examples: Turz Son of Jarthak, Axa Wolfbane) 5: Zolgath, Ogranoch, Tethgoraz, Aramag, Suroth, Burok, Vorgath, Zugor, Garnek, Trollinde 6: Krail, Huzper, Gharol, Oodaga, Gnargol, Gnarg, Irongrim, Gromm, Kurgaroz, Screamjaw 7: Redtooth, Redfist, Redaxe, Blacktooth, Blackclaw, Blacktusk, Yellowtooth, Skulleater, Skulltooth, Borba 8: Blackscab, Bloodspider, Bloodnose, Bloodaxe, Bloodjaw, Bone Eater, Bonebreaker, Bilga, Skullsmasher, Duluk 9: Grimstalker, Brakka, Grimclaw, Firetooth, Firefist, Deathbreaker, Deathspider, Deathscream, Brokenose, Brak 10: Onetusk, One Eye, Scab Eater, Scabclaw, Blackblood, Blackrot, Scar, Scab, Skull, Boneripper 11: Grizzle, Gristle, Bloodeye, Spidereye, Braz, Slime, Mardak, Zardox, Urgoz, Blardo 12: Trollbreath, Offal, Guts, Gulnak, Guzzle, Gurg, Hench, Gristle, Brax, Aldox 13: Murg, Durshan, Argran, Rokat, Clarg, Berk, Lug, Spider, Thurk, Drin 14: Morak, Thar, Kuru, Klarg, Harthag, Grince, Stanch, Attig, Vargosh, Vargo 15: Anrath, Voran, Gorn, Katak, Keth, Resk, Rask, Gostak, Garn, Vosh 16: Thar, Resh, Varg, Yurk, Scrag, Glash, Kelud, Vorn, Velathger, Scrim 17: Gorag, Adrak, Graxx, Dath, Wolfbones, Slar, Gullet, Drorith, Torgameth, Brezremith, Thorgrim 18: Nokvot, Thern, Chargrin, Chack, Ogzuk, Ogmar, Murzalak, Ogluck, Garmog, Ezzil 19: Trollhide, Gozlag, Ugramok, Gergidol, Bazlag, Kegrokam, Suras, Duraas, Orcrimir, Ozzir 20: Gnash, Gulg, Kagar, Snaglak, Urgan, Knuguk, Durz, Gruk, Zurk, Bor

    Sign up for the Inspiration beta test!

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    Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

    inspiration: 22 magic item variants

    Mon, 11/04/2019 - 14:18

    As part of the Inspiration app, I’ve varied treasure by writing up alternate versions of the 350+ SRD magic items. I’ve come up with something like 2000 variants.

    I’m working on a phone app for DMs called 5e Inspiration. It’s a tool for populating your game world with people, locations, maps, monsters, and treasure. Learn more!

    My magic item variants can be divided into 3 types:

  • re-skinned items. The easiest way to mix up magical treasure is to take an existing item and change its form. I’ve talked about this approach here. A potion becomes smelling salts, a necklace’s powers are given to a shield. It’s easy; you can pack flavorful details into its description; it returns a sense of mystery to those players who have memorized the magic items section of the DMG; and it has a light mechanical footprint – it’s unlikely to introduce game-breaking bugs. Re-skins are best when they have logic behind them, but they work pretty well even when the logic is tenuous. A magic-mirror version of a crystal ball is pretty obvious, but you could just as easily reskin a crystal ball as a mug (truth can be found at the bottom of a glass) or a sword (sword of omens, grant me sight beyond sight!) or a pile of herbs (tea leaf divination) or nearly anything else you can kinda-sorta connect to the item’s powers.
  • curses or inconvenient items. The cursed items in the 5e DMG are all interesting, providing tough tradeoffs between power and inconvenience. For instance, the Shield of Missile Attraction makes you a pin cushion for friendly and enemy archery, but it gives you resistance against missile damage. Tough call! I’ve added more items in this vein. I’ve also added items which aren’t cursed, just a little more inconvenient than usual – a spell scroll on a stone tablet, for instance. When a player finds a cursed item, I want them to grumble about it, but strongly consider keeping it.
  • unique items. I’ve added many variant items which have an extra, thematic trait or daily spell. These items often have a unique name. I’ve done this especially often for underwhelming or generic items, which could use the help – but also for some legendary items, just to make them extra memorable.
  • Here are some examples of my magic item variants, for the amulet of proof against detection and location, broom of flying, and holy avenger.

    amulet of proof against detection and location variants (roll 1d6)

    1: a heart-shaped locket scribed with the phrase “thinking of you.” It contains a portrait of the last person to try to magically detect or locate its wearer
    2: a necklace with a pendant that looks like an open eye. When found, the necklace’s power is inactive. If the Thieves Cant slang for “night” is spoken, the eye closes and the power activates. The Thieves Cant word for “day” deactivates the necklace and opens the eye.
    3: a necklace of 10 glass beads: one bead shatters each time it blocks a scrying or divination attempt. The necklace is nonmagical after all the beads are broken
    4: an ostentatious signet ring which once belonged to a princess who disappeared a generation ago
    5: a black hooded cloak
    6: [miscjewelry] bearing the sign of the god of trickery. This item can also be used as a holy symbol by devotees of that god

    In the above examples, I include an item with an extra story power (the locket which identifies the culprit behind divination attempts), and a re-skinned item (the cloak). I didn’t include a cursed version because the Amulet is only useful in a limited number of stories anyway; no need to make it any less attractive. However, since the Amulet is essentially a narrative item, I did include a variant with extra story hooks (the signet ring).

    A note on the holy symbol: My app replaces the tag [miscjewelry] above with a random type of jewelry, so you could potentially find an earring or bracelet of proof against detection.

    broom of flying variants: roll d8

    1: hobby horse with a unicorn head
    2: umbrella: its power operates when it is opened
    3: articulated brass hang glider
    4: winged crown
    5: flying horse statue which is activated by turning a brass key. The key may be hidden nearby or in the possession of a nearby monster
    6: variant: flying wild boar statue, as above
    7: flying shield that the owner surfs on
    8: flying throne

    I like the broom of flying’s power just as it is – I didn’t include any cursed or extra-powerful versions for this item, just reskins. It’s great seeing an armor-clad fighter astride a broom, but even better than that is seeing the entire party flying cross country via a motley collection of different flight methods – the wizard with a fly spell, a guy with boots of levitation who’s being towed by a griffon rider, and other party members on a broom, a hang glider, winged boots, and maybe Baba Yaga’s mortar. Flying is a cool mid-level power and there’s room for a lot of ways to get it.

    holy avenger variants (roll d8)

    1. named Gentle Correction. Once per day, as part of a hit with this weapon, the wielder may cast Command, DC 17, on the target
    2. named Angelis. This sword has a white hilt with an angel-wing crossguard. 1/week, the wielder can cast Conjure Celestial
    3. named Vow of Poverty. The blade resembles stained glass, and depicts knights giving money to the poor. When the wielder draws this weapon, all the coins they are carrying disappear, distributed among the poor of the world
    4. its name Blazing Justice is written in glowing gold on the blade. on a Smite, it does 3d6 extra fire damage and bursts into Continual Flame until sheathed
    5. named Crusader. This sword is sentient (Int Wis and Cha 16), telepathic with its owner, and hates demons. If the sword helps slay a demon of CR 10+, the sword learns how to cast level 1 Cure Wounds 3/day on its owner.
    6. black-bladed sword named Blackbane that exudes an evil aura. Attunable only by blackguard paladins, it does +1d10 necrotic damage on every hit, +3d10 slashing damage to celestials, and doesn’t do extra damage to fiends and undead
    7. named Cloudwalker; decorated with angelic symbols. An attuned wielder can cast Fly, self only, 3/day
    8. named Honor Bright and covered with binding runes and holy symbols: 1/day, if someone touches the weapon and makes a promise, that promise becomes a Geas

    With the holy avenger, I leaned hard into unique variants with extra powers. The holy sword is an integral part of the paladin’s story; a paladin doesn’t want an off-the-rack holy avenger, but a unique sword that was destined for the paladin’s hand. Since it’s a late-game, legendary item, I’m not too worried about slathering on some extra powers.

    A few of these variants, like Crusader, are inspired by historical D&D modules. Others are original. Vow of Poverty is drawn from my home game; as a DM, I’ve had a lot of fun with its associated “curse” (or convenience? depends on the paladin).

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