Magical Mondays: The Mystery vs. The Metagame   Leave a comment

I was on Reddit a few weeks ago, and I saw a conversation in the Loremasters subreddit that I thought spoke very well to a lot of the core issues that I get into in these articles.  So I contacted the creator of the conversation thread, asked if I could reference it, and was happy to hear that the answer was yes.  So, even if you don’t read this article, I recommend reading this.  Go ahead, I can wait.

(Don’t you love it when bloggists asks you to read something else, and then say they can wait for you?  Those smug jerks, they know that they don’t have to wait.  You’re reading this days, weeks, maybe decades after they wrote it down, and they claim to be waiting patiently for you.)

Anyway, there’s a lot of stuff in that conversation, and a lot of good points were raised on different sides.  I think part of the core issue is that you have some people who just want to play the game as a game, and others who want to experience the story as it unfolds.  We can’t have it both ways, at least not easily.  Some people want to be able to go to a store and buy Plus-One weaponry, while others want to be able to discover Plus-FUN Weaponry.

…I apologize for telling that awful joke (in my defense, I almost made it the article’s title), and also for implying that being able to go to a Magic-Mart and buy a weapon with a known value of magic awesomeness isn’t actually fun.  I mean, clearly it is, otherwise we wouldn’t have so many people wanting it to be doable in that way.  How can we satisfy both types of fun for both types of players, though? Well… you can’t easily, probably not with a single rule, but I think that if we apply some heuristic guidelines you might be able to find something that works for your group.

One option is to take away the numbers.  This is the most basic suggestion, and it amounts to a can of paint or whitewash that covers the mechanics a little more effectively.  Instead of a +2 sword, you get told that it’s a sword with a magic even greater than the standard mystic blades of the elflord’s armies, or whatever.  The obvious issue (one pointed out in the Reddit conversation, in fact) is that people can figure out from context what the non-numeric descriptors mean numerically.  Another issue I’ve discovered from doing this: when you’re a player who wants this and your DM wants to go along with it and you get to that moment of talking about the magic items, it can become a little awkward for both of you to roleplay through a term that you both know but are refusing to say.  I love doing this myself, but I can’t deny the fact that it’s a little awkward when I improv my way through saying things like that (fortunately, my DM is pretty good at this, so the other side of the exchange is normally well done.)  If you go this route, it’s definitely doable but it takes practice.

As a GM, I’ve occasionally been tempted to “cheat” a bit by homebrewing weapons and monsters that go together and say a bit more about where the +1 or +2 comes from.  In a campaign world where all magic is derived from the four classical elements, I might decide that a weapon only gains that +1 or +2 bonus if it’s a correspondingly opposing weapon (so a Mud Man from the Neverswamp might be a creature of both Earth and Water, and it could be wounded through Wind or Fire themed weaponry.)  In a more expansive setting I might limit that to certain organizations: the weapon only gets its legendary magical bonus (which I won’t tell players is merely +1) if it’s wielded by a member of the order of knights that it belongs to, or used against an opposing faction of warriors historically opposed to the kingdom that these knights serve.  (What if I decide that both of those eventualities stack? What if it wasn’t a +1 bonus, but a +1.5 bonus?  If a person finds this weapon and becomes one of these knights and uses the weapon against an enemy of the kingdom, I’ll know in my own notes that it’s a +3 item in that situation.)  This kind of thing looks better from the players’ point of view, but I need to stress that it takes extra work and preplanning.  The rewards are definitely worth it, but you’ll have to invest yourself a bit more, and you’ll have to keep track of which weapons your players use so that you can know when to add the secret bonus numbers that they don’t know about (a headache, and one that’s possibly not worth it all the time as much as I love the idea.)

Ultimately, I think approaching the problem with this mindset leaves us with two pieces of advice.  First, stay away from numerical bonuses (or at least numerical bonuses that you tell the players about).  Second, as a GM you may be ready to “level up” and do more behind the scenes work.  This part’s hard, but it’s so necessary: YOU have the decision to decide whether or not the crossbow in the treasure pile is a +1 crossbow, or one of the Oakspear Bows that sets orcs on fire with successful hits.  It takes extra work, and it’s scary to swim in the deep-end where no pre-existing charts show up to make sure that you’re staying balanced, but you can do it.

The other issue is players.  What do you do when they have the money required to buy a magic weapon?  If you want to avoid a Magic Mart, how do you help your players?

As with all things, I recommend turning this problem into a story hook.  In larger cities it might be reasonable to have very basic weapons (+1, say) available from the most skilled blacksmiths or popular wizards and magicians.  Dwarfish and elfish smiths may live on the edges of cities, and know how to make “magic weapons.”  The question of “Is it plus one, or better?” probably won’t mean anything to them, and it may wind up turning into a game of My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours, but with swords instead of hand to hand combat.  However, when the players start wanting better weapons… introduce living legends.  Have your players roll Gather Information checks or Knowledge (Arcana) checks or Bardic Knowledge checks.  If they don’t succeed, they can’t find anyone yet… but try to give them some hints.  If they succeed, though, come up with an amazing, legendary item maker.

“Torus the Chainlord is said to be a mighty dwarfish wizard… he has a tower not far from the city, and most choose not to go there without need, for a tower seemingly made of chains is unsettling to see.  If you dare to approach this master of artifice, he may be amused by your request… indeed, he may have one of his legendary chain-hilted blades for sale.  I don’t know if he sells them for coin, though.  He might ask you to do something for him.”

“A potion that can make you smarter?  Well, Pothec Draughtbrewer is a centaur in the forest.  If you can find him… and not be chased away immediately… you may be able to barter something in exchange for his weird alchemical medicines.  Don’t tarry too long at his parties, though… more than a few adventurers have lost years off their lives after being distracted by the fair lords and ladies who gather to dance ‘neath his brewing tree.”

“You want an enchanted shield that will move itself about you, freeing up your other hand?  Heh, no, no I don’t have anything like that, no one does.  No one except for Gerol Bluescar, that is.  Rode in from the coast after retiring from some ‘merchant ship’, and had it strapped to his back, gold and blue and shining in the sun.  I don’t know if he was a pirate, or if they found it in some other land, but it definitely gave him an edge when he started his own ‘legitimate businesses’ in town.  Take out Gerol and I don’t think anyone would mind if you took that shield.  Well… don’t tell anyone on the watch, they’ll probably look the other way if they can’t prove you stole it.  Especially if you don’t collect the full bounty on him.”

Wherever it is… try not to make it something they’ll have to go four or five sessions to get.  While it’s generally good advice to keep players hungry in terms of their magical resources, if it’s something they could buy on their own then it won’t hurt to give it to them as a quest reward instead.

I don’t think that these suggestions will solve all your problems… and, again, you should always tweak such things to find what’s most fun for you and your group… but I think if you start working with things along these lines,  you should be able to turn those Plus-One items into Plus-Fun items.  Ha!  I said it again, and no one stopped me!  And you know how I apologized the first time? I didn’t mean it at all!  I’m GLAD I made the Plus-Fun items pun!  I’d do it again!  In fact, I *did* do it again!  Ah-hahahahaha!  You’ve not seen the last of me, Pun Police… I’ll be back next week for another Magical Mondays!

And, uh, the rest of the week with more normal, less scheduled blog posts.  …I don’t know what happened in the end of that paragraph.  It’s… late.  I should go to bed.  Happy Monday, everyone!

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