Sunday, 22 May 2016
How to make magic weird again
Posted by Scott Malthouse
When did magic stop being so...magical? I'm talking about how in new D&D and Pathfinder magic items are often little bundles of mechanics. A medallion that gives the wearer a plus three to Fortitude, some boots that allow you to make a 5ft step in difficult terrain, or the heap of boring that is the plus one sword.
Many items are suited specifically for combat, which makes them an attraction to min maxers who want to reach peak character. I'm not saying that min maxing is the wrong way of playing, but I personally find it tedious.
Because of this focus on mechanics and combat, players often discard magic treasure that doesn't fit their character, which is fair enough but it leads to uninteresting role-playing. Magic needs to be weird as fuck.
The difference between boring magic and wonderous magic
As I mentioned before, the plus one sword is probably the laziest piece of crap magic item out there. There is no difference in saying that the sword gets a bonus because it's magic or because it's a bit sharper than regular swords. While not all magic items are like this, many share 'sword plus one' traits.
Here's the thing: mechanics are the bane of magic.
If you create a magic item with the goal to increase dexterity then your item is going to be dull and uninspired. If instead you think of a cool effect, regardless of mechanics, then you're on your way to making something worthwhile. This is the difference between making something boring or something wonderous. Which sounds better: Elven boots that give a plus two dex bonus, or Elven boots that allow you to leap as high as an adult oak in a single bound?
Magic is a toy that can be used at any time
The best magic can be used in a multitude of scenarios. It can be combined with other magic to make something truly special. Magic should not only bend the rules, but annihilate them.
Even the most subdued magical effects can add to the role-playing experience. A blow gun that lets you snuff out a torch from a mile away. An eyepatch that makes people see you as an old childhood friend. A ring that causes anyone who shakes your hand to fall sick in the next 1d4 hours. These aren't your min max bow of firefucks, but they're the items that will pepper your game with great, memorable moments.
By far the worst magic items are the ones that only offer anything good in combat. Those whose mechanics only apply when fighting rather than when role-playing. A good magic item can be used by crafty players no matter what the scenario.
Nobody gives a shit about the 'how'
If you want to make magic seem mysterious then don't treat it like a science. Magic needs no reason - it just 'is'. The effect is the only thing that matters - not the item's history, who made it and how. Magic should be a bizarre, irrational thing that shouldn't need an explanation.
So let's stop littering our dungeons with 'plus one swords' - min max collectables that are only useful in combat. Instead, let's make magic weird again. To hell with balance. To Hades with mechanics. Let the bizarre reign supreme in your game. Let's make magic magical.