Magical Mondays: Branding the Brew (and Beyond)   Leave a comment

Potions

In this week’s Magical Mondays, I’d like to ask how you differentiate the mechanical terms for items within the story.  If you’re playing a D&D or Pathfinder game, you almost certainly know what you mean by a “+2 Sword”, or a “Cure Light Potion”.  And your players obviously know enough to be able to buy these things, or identify them as such when discovered using skills, abilities, spells or paying other people to figure it out.  It’s pretty obvious that your characters don’t say “I’m tired of my sword being a +1 sword… time to make it a +2 sword!”  We don’t really have any pointers for what your characters might say, though… it’s glossed over in the rules, and it’s glossed over by most players and game masters.

This is fine.  You don’t need to know every detail of a fantasy world, there comes a point where too much information can stop the game from being fun.  However… if you’re looking for a good way of making the world feel more magical, this is the kind of gap in the world’s lore discussion that you can exploit.  And one of the easiest ways to exploit them?  Brand it.

potion store

Branding Potions

Potions will be our first stop, because potions are one of the most frequently purchased items for small parties (ignoring the argument among optimizers about what the most efficient method for healing is.)  It can be assumed that spells really do have names like “Cure Light Wounds” or “Cure Serious Wounds”, but even among those spell names there can be variation.  What makes Cure Light Wounds different for first level potions and fifth level potions?  Here’s a few different options.

Borvo’s Spring           Cures 1d8+1 points of damage, 50 gold.  Made from holy water drawn from enchanted springs.
Medicine By Minerva Cures 1d8+2 points of damage, 100 gold.  Brewed overnight with a special blend of rare herbs.
Healer’s Delight          Cures 1d8+3 points of damage, 150 gold.  A simple mixture, seen as the industry standard.
Soldier’s Courage      Cures 1d8+4 points of damage, 200 gold.  Military grade health, made by clerics of deities of war.
Macheon’s Mixture    Cures 1d8+5 points of damage, 250 gold.  A very rare mix, made by the master healer Macheon.
Bitjet’s Blood             Cures 1d8+1 points of damage, and delays poisonous effects for one hour.  175 gold.  Made from the blood of a primal type of monstrous scorpion, very rare.

Note that the Bitjet’s Blood potion actually has two spell effects.  I get the price from first calculating the full price of the second level spell, and then fifty percent more than the first level spell (both spells cast with a caster level of one in this case.)  The effects of these different potion names can be deduced with a DC 15 Knowledge (Arcana) check or a DC 10 Bardic Knowledge check if the potions are labelled.  Now, in a fantasy setting like Greyhawk or Faerun, massive chains of stores selling one “brand” of potion aren’t very common, so the odds of finding a bottle of Borvo’s Spring when you’re on the other side of the continent from where the adventure started are slim.  To identify potions from their brand names in a region you don’t travel to often, increase the DC by 2.  To identify potions in this way in a land with an incredibly different culture (such as medieval England-ish characters going on adventures in lands like Russia, Africa or Australia) increase the DC by 5.  (At a certain point, it may be easier to just identify the potion through traditional means.)

Don’t think that you need to create a potion for every possible caster level gradient, either.  The Jump spell, for instance, effectively has three different tiers of power.  At first level, it grants a +10 bonus on Jump checks (or on Acrobatics checks in Pathfinder), while at fifth level it grants a +20 bonus and at ninth level it grants a +30 bonus.  Theoretically, a sixth level version of a Jump potion is better than a fifth level version because it will last six minutes instead of five (and because it’ll be incrementally more difficult to dispel), but all you really need are those three tiers for the Jump spell in a standard Magic Shoppe.  I mean, is it really worth fifty more pieces of gold for just one more minute of having a +20 bonus to jumping?  Maybe in some very particular cases, but for the most part an extra minute here or there won’t make too much of a difference.

(This isn’t truly necessary for the rest of the article, but it’s a quick thought.  People curious about the economics of games like D&D may appreciate the opportunity for capitalistic greed in a case like this.  An unscrupulous 7th level caster could sell a potion at the 5th level cost and still make a profit.  In an economically driven campaign setting like, say, Eberron, a game where item recognition and brand naming *does* come up a lot, this could be used unscrupulously.  A merchant could sell “superior” Jump potions for 250 gp when it costs 175 to make instead of the standard 125 to make.  It’s a smaller profit margin that gets more favoritism from the public, forcing the other potion maker to either reduce price, close up shop, or find a way to get a higher caster level for the Jump spells.  This kind of economic research isn’t usually in the scope of D&D games, but for a mystery setting there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes number crunching that could lead to intriguing situations.)

sword in the stone

Branding Weapons

So, what’s the difference between a +4 weapon and a +1 weapon?  (3, of course, but that’s a joke for another forum.)  The quick answer is that the better swords will look, well… better.  Knowledge (Arcana) checks are still useful, of course, but this may be an area where wizards with Knowledge (History) will pay off.  First of all, that sort of check may help someone to recognize a sword by its maker.  The legendary Ulfberht swords may be all the rage in one land, while Masamune swords will be the toast of the town in another.  It’s kind of like saying that a violin was made by Stradivarius; it might not be magical, but you know that you’re holding something special.  If you have a good name for the weapon maker (be it Lunarin the elfish axe smith, or Hrothgimar the dwarfish sword maker), you’re going to start off with the knowledge that it’s going to mean something to the players.  After that, descriptions of what was done to it can help a lot.

This is admittedly harder since brand-name recognition makes even less sense for the exact nature of a sword… you might know Hrothgimar as a sword designer, but how do you tell his +1 weapons from his +5s?  For this, you’ll need to get creative.  One method I might use would be to describe things in increasing scarcity.  A particular sword maker may always use the position of the Moon to help him make swords, so the +1 items might be made with lunar effects that happen every year, while +5 items might require special eclipses that only happen once every five years.  A “Five Year Blade” sounds more impressive than a “Plus Five”, in my opinion.  If you want a way to describe these items other than with mechanical terms but still want a shorthand for it, you could come up with a progression description (a “Tier Four” sword, or a “Delta Sword” would both describe +4 swords, for instance.)

fantasma magic kit

Branding Sundry Items

The basic suggestions we’ve started working with can help for anything where a player is trying to determine the distinct differences between magic items that generate the same magical effect.  If you have it in your campaign world’s backstory that giants made better time travel devices than elves, then perhaps your bard or wizard will know that the elfin-craft silver hourglass of finely ground sand of purest white will actually have a lower caster level than the oversized, hard to carry hourglass made of coarser stone with tiny pebbles in it.  In other words, the guy trying to sell the elfish hourglass for more than the giant hourglass is either trying to cheat you, or doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

(Note: I don’t recommend using this kind of detail to trick your players, at least very often.  The goal with this kind of item branding is to fill in the lore of the world and make it seem more wondrous and magical, not to make a player suddenly have buyer’s remorse.  Give the player’s what they’re paying for, unless you want to work in an actual plot about chasing an unscrupulous magic item dealer.)

The other option for this general-purpose branding is that you can use it to weave hints, cues and themes through the story.  How many times have you watched a movie or read a comic book where a certain villain or character or organization had an artistic theme or motif that represented their work?  If your players come to associate a symbol called The Stars Of Icarus as an artistic (or possibly even arcanically essential) element of the world’s greatest flight magic, they may realize that they’re suddenly in for a difficult time if they know that they have to catch a villain quickly… only to have the villain unfold demonic wings that are covered with the Stars of Icarus.  On the other hand, recognizing symbols like that can quickly be a saving grace; if you know that two squiggly lines with an eye between them means “cold” for some reason, that’s probably the hieroglyph you’ll push when the room you’re in locks and begins filling with molten rock.  Once your players start to recognize the “brands” of certain kinds of magic, they’ll start picking up cues on their own, where before you might have had to awkwardly say something like “Well, your Spellcraft check reveals that this is effectively a fire spell as cast by a seventh level caster.”

8bit Caster Levels

Anyway, use in-game reasoning to help your players understand the world and the weapons and potions within it.  Your wizards and bards will now be able to do more than recognize magical effects… they’ll be able to let players know how awesome the world’s history is as well.  And perhaps in time, their own contribution to magical lore and legends will be reflected in the items of others in future games.

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