Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Fluff vs. Crunch: Magic Items

"Fluff" and "Crunch" probably require definition, because I don't want to assume all my multitudes of readers know both terms.

Fluff, here, is basically description from an in-game sense. "Opening the chest, you find a sword with a gilded hilt, wrapped in leather that seems untouched by time. The scabbard is made of bent and polished pine, inlaid with sparkling gems. Drawing the sword out, a dim glow runs along the length of the thin adamantine blade. Your arm immediately feels energized and stronger."

Crunch is description from a game rules sense. "In the chest you find a magic sword. It's Adamatine and plus two."

Now either way works, of course, and for most situations you need a touch of both. For instance, the top description is fun for opening a chest. It provides a neat but also somewhat loose description of the sword, from a visual and tactile sense. It places the sword as fairly obviously magical and probably plus-something, but you don't know what it is exactly. It's a little mystical and full of unknown. That works, it's good. The problem is, the mage says "Ok, I'll cast Identify." Suddenly, the DM is faced with an issue. The spell tells the party what the sword is. The sword, as an item, is exactly a +2 Adamantine Longsword. The problem is, that is exactly what goes down on the loot sheet. The party fighter will take the sword you just lovingly described, and write it down exactly as a +2 Adamantine Longsword. Next week/month/whatever, when you play the next session, no one will remember what the sword looks like or feels like.

If you start with "It's a plus two adamantine longsword." then that's what you get. It kills any fun in opening chests that isn't present in a videogame. Your players will look at the stats of the weapon and decide if it's worth keeping, and simply throw it out if it isn't. They'll listen to treasure hoards with bored mathematician's expressions, doing mental math to see which item is better and which item is vendor junk. Items that you thought were interestingly crafted or at least a somewhat amusing mental picture come out as stat blocks that the players promptly ignore and forget if it's not immediately useful (Although I did get a "Loincloth of Venom Spitting" randomly generated in a videogame at one point, and I suppose I still remember that ten years later).

What is the solution here? Is there one? I've tried a few things in games and also given some thought to other solutions, so I'll list a couple here and also open the doors for feedback.

The first idea is to just deal with it. Magic items are mystical and unknown exactly as long as it takes the players to cast Identify or whatever your favorite game system calls the spell. This has the advantage of being easily written down for impatient players, as well as working to give the DM a chance to write flowery descriptions. The fighter can write down "+5 Vorpal Sword", but he may still have the memory of picking it up, feeling suddenly as though he had practiced with the sword for years, and deftly slicing the head off of the training dummy later.

This works so long as you can tolerate seeing the players gloss over during descriptions, waving their hands dismissively and interrupting with "Yeah, shining blades and crackling wands and whatever. I'm spending the next six hours casting Identify on everything."

Another idea I've toyed with is removing Identify and it's brethren from the game, or at least making them high level spells. This means that the players will have to experiment with the items and listen to the descriptions for clues. In the dust, on the floor of the ruined cathedral that the party is exploring, the halfing rogue finds a small ring. The ring is made of silver, and engraved with a feather motif. The rogue, having no magical rings currently equipped and with the mage's decision that the ring is magical, decides to wear it. The next day, scaling the walls of the cathedral to get at the shining gem in the eye of the bronze image of Erythnul, a bit of old stonework breaks away and the rogue slips. Instead of careening downwards at nearly ten meters per second per second, he floats gently down and lights on the ground without any injury. He deduces that perhaps the ring is one of Featherfall.

The obvious advantage here is one of atmosphere and experimentation. The party encounters magical items in much the same way one encounters a strange room in a dungeon. They are described, and the party has to decide what to do with that. Dark blades that drip blood and glow with an evil light can't just be filed away as a "+3 cold iron sword with will checks to avoid domination". They suddenly represent an unknown danger, and that makes magic item treasures that much more interesting. The down side is that the loot sheets get silly after a while, with a dozen unidentified rings that had no obvious effect, and the DM has to keep track of who all has what and when it would affect them. It also means that past about level ten in the old 3.5 parlance, no one knows what the hell their attack mod is anymore. It's all mysteriously affected by items that are unknowable.

Since it's good to do things in threes, I'll mention a sort of compromise between these two that I've considered in the past, and seen implemented with some success. Now, this takes cues from a videogame, so bear with me. In Diablo, a game that any gamer has heard of, you play a Fighting-Man, Magic-User, or Thief. Of course they use different names, and a different ruleset, but the game is as close to old-school endless dungeon sort of play as possible. Anyway, magic items you find while tromping around in the dungeon are all unidentified when you get them. In the game, you can't use them until they are IDed, but eh. Anyway, the core concept is that there is exactly one NPC that can identify items. He stands around in town and charges you for the service. This might work for D&D as well, particularly if travelling back and forth from dungeon to town is nontrivial. The party finds magical items, but can't ID them by themselves, in the dark of the dungeon. They can use them and try to work it out, but they can't just cast the spell.

Back in town, at the Order of Cuthbert, the identifier guy can do it. Why can he cast it when the party can't? Stretch those DM fiat muscles! Perhaps there is a large, immobile spell focus. Maybe a caster needs a place sanctified by one of a few specific gods to be able to ID items. Perhaps the identification isn't magical so much as research in grand tomes that catalog specific types of magical emanations and pulses, that cannot be memorized in a sense that provides any help whatsoever. In any case, a group of combat-based adventurers just can't solidly identify items in the wild. This approach encourages a longer period of experimentation before the identification, and also allows the players to eventually condense their loot sheets to a more readable form.

Tell me, what do you guys use? How do you handle this issue? It's not exactly a huge show-stopper for general play, but it's still interesting enough to hear about.

1 comment:

DocBadwrench said...

Excellent post. Personally, I make low-level (and consumable) items relatively easy to figure out. But for anything special I turn it into something that requires research and/or experimentation. I am blessed with a group that enjoys discovery - and I never get an earful about rules, they just run with it.