Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Terra Incognita - Worldbuilding Part 2 (Magic Items)

Welcome back to our (hopefully) short series on the worldbuilding and core assumptions behind Terra Incognita. We've looked a little at supernatural creatures ("races" in the terminology of D&D), and now we'll take a look at another component of D&D that is... let's say "different" -- in the world of Terra Incognita: magic items.

Magic items are a staple of D&D, and many other fantasy roleplaying systems (and especially computer RPGs/Diablo clones/MMOs). Who your character is often depends as much on the gear they're carrying around as their race, class, and background -- and that +5 Defender Longsword is likely to come into play a lot more often than the fact that you're an elf or that your father beat you as a child. This is something that I, as a player and especially as a GM, have never really liked. For one, I like giving my characters an iconic look and items that are important to them -- I don't want my hero to look like a patchwork quilt because my matching boots absolutely need to be replaced by "boots of the wind" that only come in the wrong color. One of my favorite D&D characters, an ex-paladin named Arvor, carried with him a +1 Bastard Sword that had a name: Jaeger ("hunter" in German, which in that game represented Dwarvish) -- and I was very worried that one day Arvor would have to replace Jaeger for purely mechanical reasons. As a GM, I hate figuring out what kind of magic items my players "need" to have in order to match the monsters' threat level (I also hate dealing with treasure and PCs buying new stuff, but that's a different story). In short, I don't much care for D&D-style magic items.

Interesting, D&D's style of magic items doesn't actually have much in the way of history. In myth and legend -- hell, in fantasy literature and film -- heroes almost never have some generic magical items, their artifacts are almost always unique and distinct (and often named). King Arthur's Excalibur, Perseus's helm of darkness, Thor's Mjolnir, Bilbo and Frodo's Sting, Captain America's shield, and while Harry Potter doesn't have an iconic magic item himself, he spends the whole last book looking for the "Deathly Hallows." These kind of distinct and unique items exist in D&D, known as "artifacts" -- the Hand of Vecna, the Wand of Orcus, but they are by far the exception and not the rule.

My solution in most games I run has been to minimize the importance and availability of magic items, keeping the PCs fairly mundane (unless they're spellcasters, of course). This will not work for Terra Incognita. There are two primary goals for the heroes, one given to them by Polyphemus, and the other, that sets them out on the initial quest, is to make alliances and gather items of power for the glory of the British Empire. So magical items have to play a fairly large role in TI.

However, the way they do so is likely to be very different from D&D. In TI, most of the magical artifacts are likely to serve primarily as MacGuffins, that is to say objects that drive the plot but are ultimately unimportant to the audience (in this case, the players). In the original TI campaign, the PCs collected such things as Nuada's Silver Arm, Clarent (the Sword in the Stone). and the Sefer Raziel (a book which contains all knowledge), none of which were much use to them except in that they presented them to the Queen. They also quested for Excalibur and Beowulf's armor, creating several adventures despite the fact that they never got either piece. In fact, many legendary items are far too powerful to allow in the hands of ordinary PCs, so a canny Terra Incognita GM will find ways of keeping them away from the PCs or require them to hand them over to a monarch or other NPC straightaway.

Of course, some of the majesty of the hidden magical world might be lost if the heroes don't get a chance to claim and keep a few items of power. Perhaps a powerful warrior might get his hands on Durendal, or a mage the Key of Solomon -- but only once they've truly earned that right. Additionally, there are some mythical materials that would make good opportunities for PCs to "upgrade" if the GM wants to go that way: Orichalcum, Adamant and such, or the PCs might go to legendary smiths like the Norse Sons of Ivaldi or Greece's Hephaestus to forge entirely new magical artifacts just for them.

Whew! Way too many citations for one post! See you next time as we discuss magic and spellcasting in the world of Terra Incognita.