Magical Mondays: Stop Using Wondrous Items!   Leave a comment

Friends, I’m going to say something unpopular in this week’s (month’s?  I took a little vacation) installment of Magical Mondays, something so shocking I had to say it in the title of the article just to warm myself up for this paragraph.  Here it is: we should stop using the Craft Wondrous Item feat in d20 games like D&D and Pathfinder.

Now, hold on there, put down the torches and pitchforks.  Hear me out, and I think you’ll find that I’ve not gone mad.  There’s a time and a place for this feat, but I believe that if you’re of the sort who reads articles like these then you are beyond the need for this feat or, at least, the need for the feat in the way it’s so often used.  Let’s begin by looking at the benefits of the feat.

Incredible Invention of Alexander Woodmouse

Wondrous Items: The Purpose and The Problems

(By the by, if you ever have a chance to read the book I’m using as the image header for this part, you should.  It’s awesome.  Anyway…)

Craft Wondrous Item is, in some ways, the biggest asset to anyone wanting to get into the Magic Item Creation game.  If your idea for an item isn’t covered by a pre-existing item feat, then Craft Wondrous Item lets you make something else.  Seriously, your only limits are the mechanics of the game world and your imagination.  And this is great… for new players.

See, once you’ve been a player or a GM for a while, you start to poke at the edges of craft wondrous item.  Why can’t you just recreate the power of a Ring with a Wondrous Item? Or recreate the power of a Rod?  If I want to make a skull that shoots spells, can I make it with Craft Wondrous Item instead of Craft Wand, and make it only have twenty charges?  You can make things for a lot less money this way, after all.

This feat also provides a benefit… and problem… of theme.  If a player wants to make a magic hat? Craft Wondrous Item is the way to go.  If they also want to make magic cookies in addition to their hat? Sure, Craft Wondrous Item.  What about a player who wants to make stunning magical hats, magical food, magic books, magic inkwells, magic boats, magic tobacco, magic shoes and magic money? …well… okay?  The thing is, though, you’ve now created a character who can create just about any kind of mundane item that they want as long as they make sure it’s a “magic” item.  Usually this isn’t an issue, especially for newer players.  But over time… well… power creep starts to edge in on the corners of your game world’s mind.

The plug-and-play nature of magic item creation is a double-edged sword.  You’re taking the actual magic away from magic items if you do it this way.  What starts as a bright-eyed player asking if they can make a set of shoes that will let them walk up walls turns into a jaded player deciding that it’s no trouble to spend X money on an item that provides a permanent spell effect, just as long as they restrict it to elvish wizards for the cost reduction (and, hey, I happen to be an elvish wizard, look at that…)

Making magic easy is tempting, and sometimes it’s the right choice.  I also don’t think you can create a magic system in a d20 game where someone doesn’t eventually figure out that they “just” need X, Y, and Z to achieve some mechanical benefit.  However, I think that Craft Wondrous Item is at the root of a lot of this, and with just a few tweaks to it and the way you let magic work in your game you should be able to have your cake and eat it to.  Consider these three changes: Boost the other feats, fill the niches, and add long-term prep to wondrous items.  Let’s go over these in more detail.

Black Playing Cards

Boosting the Feats

Your answer to the next question can’t be Craft Wondrous Items.  It’s not allowed.  Ready?  Here we go.

What item creation feat do you use to make a magical deck of cards?

The default answer would be Craft Wondrous, yes, but we’re not allowing that answer.  Cards are obviously not potions, and unless you’re in a really weird game they wouldn’t be armor or weaponry, and there’s really no way to imagine a standard deck of cards as a rod or scepter.

Thematically, Scribe Scroll might work because it’s basically tiny pieces of paper with writing on them, but then we get to a problem with mechanics: Scribe Scroll, according to the feat, lets you create a magic item that is activated through the act of casting a spell, and the spell effect comes as if it’s being cast.  Mechanically, then, Scribe Scroll  is only the way to go if these playing cards are mechanically no different than standard scrolls, but the feat’s all wrong if the cards have any other effect.

My answer (no surprise) is to use Scribe Scroll, but an expanded version of it.  Mechanically, Scribe Scroll isn’t the way to go, no… but thematically?  Thematically it’s perfect.  My recommendation is to do this for all the specific items: give the mechanically focused ones thematic application, and give the thematically focused ones mechanical application.

The first of these two is easy.  Take a feat like Scribe Scroll or Brew Potion, and make THEM the feats you need for magical writing and magical liquid making IN ADDITION to being the feats for making one-use spell completion items and one-use use activated items.  Scribe Scroll can create crumbling parchments that contain mostly-cast Fireball spells, AND it can create Blessed Books, Manuals of Gainful Exercise, and enchanted playing cards.  Brew Potion can create pre-cast spells in liquid form AND it can create Elixirs of Love, Keoghotam’s Ointments, and magical tiles that release spells when you break them (shout out to you, readers of Unearthed Arcana.)

The second of these two is harder.  How do you take thematically focused feats and give them mechanical application?  This one’s more of an art than a science, but you can do it.  Take feats like Forge Ring or Craft Rod.  A Rod and a Ring are both very powerful items, but they don’t actually have any mechanics listed in their feat descriptions, apart from a vague suggestion that they can be used to make items “like” the ones in the DMG and CRB.  Generally, though, I see rings as providing permanent effects while worn and rods (or scepters as I call them) either as items that create permanent effects while held aloft or repeatable effects that could play a part in some magical ritual or bit of arcane craftsmanship.  This isn’t quite a mechanical rule, but it’s given us something to use as a guideline.  So, if a player asks me if they want an amulet that can give them a permanent Vigor effect, I require it to be a ring instead.  If a player asks me for a wondrous item that they can hold up to give everyone in a certain radius a Hide From Undead effect, I require it to be a rod instead.

Incidentally, a player did ask for the Vigor effect, as an in-game justification for the character’s story-based immortality (I didn’t know about the Wedded To History feat at the time, but I did offer a homebrew feat for it, something he didn’t care for.)  The player wasn’t sure why I was trying to make the magical amulet be a ring, and it took some persuading on my part.  Know that when you make this kind of change to mechanics to boost the other feats, you can also weaken Craft Wondrous Item.  I’m personally fine doing that, but know that your players should have some warning before they make that kind of character creation investment.

Winnie The Pooh In The Door

Fill The Niches

This one is easy, but can have long-reaching consequences.  Basically, you take a cue from Forge Ring and Craft Rod to find some other feat.  I recommend making these custom things based on the needs of the player, though.  For instance, a player who wants their character to be a magical chef could have a feat called Prepare Magical Food, and a bardic player who wants to get some extra mileage out of the effects that their music produces could have a feat called Enchanted Luthier (or “Craft Magical Instrument” if you want to be boring (and, technically, a luthier only makes or repairs stringed instruments…))

A danger with this approach, though, is that you can wind up making too many options.  Try to tie it to a particular flavor or family of magic before making a feat like this so that you’re not overdoing it.  Weave Wondrous Apparel would be a good name for a feat related to making magical clothing, but I’d want to tie it to some culture known for making amazing clothing.

Also, try to make categories that will have broad approaches.  Don’t limit a feat by saying it only makes magical shoes or magical hats when magical clothing will do.  Similarly, making boats and making wagons are very different practices, but a single “Craft Magical Vehicles” feat is probably sufficient.  Don’t make your players jump through too many hoops.  If your craft-loving player is taking more than two crafting feats of your own invention and they’re *not* an artificer or alchemist, you should probably revisit how their feats work and give them a shot to remake their character with altered feats.

Gnome Engineer

Adding Long-Term Prep

This is the option that will let you do the most toward keeping the rules that you already have, but I recommend using it as a supplement to the first two options instead of as opposed to the first two.  Otherwise, there’s almost no point (and it comes very close to what Pathfinder’s item creation rules already suggest.)  Basically, this option says that you still use Craft Wondrous Item… but you need to perform mundane skills to make it work.

Think of the typical fantasy-world engineer or clockmaker.  Imagine those steampunk goggles, the gaslight-era vest that’s designed to hold dozens of tools, the custom-designed obligatory wrench… those things all have purpose.  If they don’t, it means that your character is just cosplaying as him, her, or itself.  If your character isn’t using tools or specialized knowledge in conjunction with Craft Wondrous Item, then the feat really isn’t any more than the plug-and-play magic that we’re trying to pare away.

If your player wants to use Craft Wondrous Item to make a magical pocket watch, make sure they have ranks in Knowledge (Architecture & Engineering).  If your player wants to create a magical wine?  Ranks in Profession (Vintner) are called for.  Demand more than just ranks in the skill, though: make them roll the checks.

Don’t be a jerk about it, of course.  It may be an act of mundane crafting, but if it’s reasonable to make something in a day (A pocket watch for a highly skilled character, a bucket for a relatively unskilled character) then allow it to happen in a day.  Set it up like a standard week of mundane crafting, but with a mundane cost reachable in  day by a decent check (100 sp isn’t too bad for simple things, but up the cost if it’s something like gem cutting.)  Even if the skill required is a Profession or Knowledge check, treat it as if it’s a Crafting skill for the purposes of this exercise.  If it’s something that realistically needs to take some time (Magical Wine, for instance) give it the time.  If your player wants to know why you’re requiring a full month of time before the magical wine is ready, remind them that mundane wines can take literal *years* to get just right (again, though, most of that time is hands-off.  They won’t have to be busy for eight hours a day every day that month.  Maybe two or three full day’s labor in the month, periodically taking a few five-minute checks on it.)

And please, whatever you do, unless the item in question is an item of pure magical energy, don’t just use “Spellcraft” for the skill.  That’s a cop-out and you know it.  I’m lookin’ at you, Pathfinder.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays.  It might not be easy to alter your rules for this kind of thing quickly.  Take your time, and as always do what’s best for your personal campaign world.  See you next time!

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