Sunday, September 13, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 6: Dedicated Weapons

It's been a spell! But there's a slight chill arriving on the evening breeze, and the time has come to discuss curses once more. To review past entries in this series, click here.

This time we tackle the subject of Dedicated Weapons, (often intelligent) magic items created to fulfill a specific mission or to combat a specific foe. This is a broad subject, so we'll discuss loyal retainers and crusaders this time, and traps and haunted possessions next time.

Part 1
It's a dark time for Evenwald. The stony mountains surrounding the valley kingdom have shrieked with the fury of the trolls all winter, and everyone knows that as soon as the snows melt they will fall upon the humans as they did a hundred years ago. Only Berglancer, the ancient sword of the Evenwald kings, offers any hope for the isolated folk, for no troll can behold the baleful glare of its blade and live.

So Berglancer, the legendary blade of the Evenwalds, totally rocks, right? If you’re a lord or paladin of the king’s line, no troll can defeat you while you’re wielding it. But what if you’re a troll who finds it by looting an Evenwald tomb? What happens if you decide to unsheathe it and take on some humans? Or, to shift to a PC-centric point of view, imagine an intelligent sword forged by the drow to detect and slay the hated humans of the sun-lit lands. How would she feel about being discovered and claimed by one of the despised humans?

To the point: What happens when you try to use an item that has an agenda, either sentient or by its nature, that conflicts with your own? Perhaps it is merely loyal to a previous owner or master and wishes to be rescued. Maybe it’s on a mission and attempts to force your aide against your will. Worse yet, maybe it was created to destroy you or someone, anyone of your race, alignment, or allegiance.

Loyal Retainers
And the giant sat down, and his wife brought up a whole sheep for his dinner. When he had eaten it all up, he said, "Now bring me my harp, and I will have a little music while you take your walk."
The giantess obeyed, and returned with a beautiful harp. The framework was all sparkling with diamonds and rubies, and the strings were all of gold.
"This is one of the nicest things I took from the knight," said the giant. "I am very fond of music, and my harp is a faithful servant." So he drew the harp towards him, and said, "Play!"
And the harp played a very soft, sad air. "Play something merrier!" said the giant. And the harp played a merry tune.
"Now play me a lullaby," roared the giant, and the harp played a sweet lullaby, to the sound of which its master fell asleep.
Then Jack stole softly into the giant's room and seized the harp and ran away with it; but as he jumped over the threshold the harp called out, "Master! Master!"


Loyal retainers are enchanted items that owe allegiance to someone the characters are at odds with. This is certainly the case with the golden harp from “Jack and the Beanstalk”. It works actively to prevent its theft.

Not all loyal retainers are as outwardly proactive. Sauron’s Ring, a more extreme loyal retainer, is seemingly passive and inert. However, it is, you might say, tricksy. It too desires to be reunited with its creator, but it does so subtly, by tempting, corrupting, and consuming its bearer—slowly if he lacks ambition, more speedily if he craves power. Its use is addictive, and the bearer finds it increasingly difficult to cast it aside or even stop using it—even knowing it will destroy his soul. One might debate to what extent the Ring possesses self-awareness, but that’s beside the point. It knows enough to slip off fingers when it’s ready to move on, when to inspire dark temptations, and when to slip on fingers when doing so brings it closer to discovery by Mordor’s allies. Now, that’s a dedicated item with a curse!

The sky’s the limit on wondrous loyal retainers. Let your imagination run wild. A household the characters are breaking into might contain a pair of self-lighting candlesticks that scream if removed from the dining room by strange hands, for example. Or a lamia’s prized magic mirror might reveal false information to those who steal it to enable its mistress to recover it (perhaps it chooses not to reveal that the characters are being pursued even when asked).

Crusaders and Avengers
“Strike him down. By the blessed Shutra, you must do it.”
“Shut up.”
“If you do not slay him, he will continue mocking nature with his unnatural life, long after your bones are dust. Even now, he defiles the earth with his footsteps and his accursed shadow. He and his kind must be cut from the earth’s womb for what they did to the servants of the most beneficent Kaudra, blessing be upon his get.”
“That was a thousand years ago; who cares?”
“Then let us speak of the present. You and I did most of the work in bringing down that medusa, and yet the wondrous dagger it guarded was claimed by one who did not even sully himself with close and honorable combat. Why divide what is rightfully yours with one who will live forever? Is immortality not reward enough?”
“…”
“You cannot trust the elf, my friend. He wants the fruits of your labor, and he is clever enough to get them with you none the wiser. Thank Shutra I am here to look after you and teach you the wisdom of the Holy Order…”


What’s not to like a +1 scimitar (+2 vs. elves)? I mean, even if you don’t whack elves with it, it’s still got a lot going for it. Its only real drawback is that, when it isn’t attempting to convert its wielder to the unpalatable religion of its maker, it’s explaining why the elf in the party and every other elf in the realm needs to die a painful and immediate death. If the sword has a low intelligence it can be played for laughs. If it has a high Egoism rating and can dominate its bearer… well, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

As we noted in the opening, intelligent magical items created to serve as weapons against certain races, civilizations, or classes are likely prone to hating that which they are created to destroy. One might encourage his wielder to continue his crusade, while another is content to serve her original masters by concealing her true allegiance and using her gifts to lead her wielder to his doom (or to her masters, if they still exist). Still another might convey some disadvantage to those who refuse to seek out its enemies (and we’ve covered lots of disadvantages in past installments).

Some items might be perfectly stable most of the time, only revealing a personality defect in certain situations. For example, a weapon made by some traditional enemy of the PCs (racial or species enemies like goblins or drow, not personal enemies) that falls into their hands may feign loyalty unless put into a situation where through treachery, it might return to its true masters.

Even unintelligent weapons might be a threat in certain situations. Imagine a +1 axe that puts its user in a berserk fighting trance when facing its hated treant foe.

If the item is intelligent, it might be a while before you realize that it's working against you. The prospects of betrayal by a resource you rely on in times of peril puts the dedicated weapon (or other sort of magic item) well into the danger zone of our continuum of cursed items.

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which we touch on trojan horse magic items and magical traps (nice puzzle box!).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Yet Another Pocket of Whimsy

Five more eclectic links to wile away the Sunday hours.

The Walled Cities: Keeping Out The Joneses: A collection of ancient walled cities that are still inhabited. A great leaping off point for additional research and photos if you'd like to develop your own.
Wilderlands: Imperial Town of Tell Qa: A ready-to-play imperial town designed and approved for use with Castles & Crusade. On sale for $1.98 for… not much longer!
The Nostromo Restoration Project: Remember that great, greeblie-festooned spaceship from Alien? Well, the model got left out in the rain for a decade or two, and now a dedicated team of model builders is restoring it inch-by-inch. Follow along on Youtube as they go, and watch interviews with the original builders. A diverting hour or so if you, like me, love the old school space opera starship designs.
The Dirdy Birdy: I'd guess this is about how quite a few courtships don't happen...
A Survey of Fake Asian Harry Potter Novels: These aren't just illegal translations of real novels; they're fanfic passed off as the real thing! (Plus a non-scary look at a Japanese HP dojinshi, or fan manga; and yes, there are plenty of scary ones out there.)

Things have slowed down a bit with the summer months here at Tales of the Ink Knight, but more anon!

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Gods of Javarta

I had some time this weekend to develop some thoughts on the gods of the East this weekend. I haven't fleshed out a pantheon yet; I'll probably thumbnail something soon and then see how it develops over time. The komikai are my name for Japan's yōkai . I may go with the real-world spelling in the end, but for now am shying away from using real-world words like kami.

The Gods of Javarta
The gods worshipped in Javarta are largely the same beings worshipped in the Eastern Empire under different names. There are of course some regional variations based on local tradition. These beings are not, strictly speaking, themselves gods, any more than the celestials of the West are. They are rather members of the Celestial Court, created beings of great power who serve and worship the Great Celestial Emperor. However, in the mind of the simple peasant, such theological distinctions are rarely observed, and Sorako, Lady of the Tempest, and Bentaro, the Lord of Luck, are prayed to and worshipped as much as the Celestial Emperor.

Few gods have their own temples. Rather, several gods central to local life are represented by great statues (size indicating relative importance), placed either in a great central hall or in dedicated rooms. Rumiko, the goddess of the arts and comedy, is highly regarded in temples placed near urban entertainment districts and houses of learning, while she is eclipsed by Lady Sorako in fishing communities—or anywhere else, for that matter.

Members of the Celestial Court are organized and ranked in a complex bureaucratic order which is reflected in the human civilization of the Eastern Empire. It is said that one banquet attended by the entire court took a thousands years to begin, as all present worked out the proper seating arrangements.

The Komikai
Minor spirits known as the komikai are everywhere—in the forests, in the lakes and springs, under bridges, on roads, in rice fields. The komikai are not worshipped, but feared and respected. It is supposed that a truly great komikai can ascend to the Celestial Court; many of the mountain and great river gods are just such beings.

The komikai vary in power. Some might appear to be relatively weak with respect to humans while others are nigh as powerful as members of the Celestial Court. Some, like the fury-driven Well Girl of Mount Oshima, are unique. Others, such as the funa-yurei (ship-ghouls), while thankfully rare, have common appearances, powers, and habits.

At tempting as it might be to characterize all komikai as monstrous beings bent on evil, they are more ambiguous than this. Many are dangerous, some merely mischievous, and a few benevolent; all are forces of nature best avoided when possible and placated when not.

Traveling into the wilds ignorant of the methods of placating these beings can be perilous—just try to cross a rope bridge without paying homage to its spirit—and knowledgeable guides are crucial to any expedition setting out into the wilds. Unfortunately, many of the wilder types can’t be appeased by ceremony or incense; the only recourse available to travelers facing a hostile komikai is to stand and fight or run for their lives.

The komikami do not, as a rule, often show themselves in settlements dominated by Westerners—at least not in their natural forms. It is likely that komikai with the power to shapeshift walk among the colonials. Indeed, one cannot mention the name of Lady Anne Harcroft in Javarta without hearing the curses of those deceived into accepting a three-tailed kitsune into high society. The wily fox-woman delighted in using seduction to sow discord in the colony—seven died in duels or at the hands of their spouses before she was unmasked and beheaded.

Totems
Humans and other mortals living in lands occupied by the komikai have learned to placate their spiritual neighbors by showing respect. The most physical manifestation of this custom are the thousands of totems and idols carved into living bamboo or tall poles driven into the ground—pretty much wherever mortals live or travel. These idols are, according to the nature of the komikai depicted, kindly, grotesque, terrifying or benign in mien and depiction.

Another sign of respect are the festivals and superstitions that have grown up around local komikai. These vary from place to place, as one moves from lands dominates from one cluster of komikai to those claimed by another.

Design Notes
The komikai offer an opportunity to feature monsters and present challenges to the characters without placing the local ecology under undue stresses of implausibility. Most of them aren't monsters like orcs or giant spiders, but spiritual beings manifested on the material plane. It's a distinction with a difference. It means, for example, that I can introduce a Japanese unicorn to the game without making room for an entire species of them. Rinse and repeat…

I've flagged a few inside jokes I tossed in for my amusement. I'd likely kill them for a professional publication, but I'll let them stay for now, since this this is a hobby effort. Heck, an adventure featuring a D&D version of Sadako would be pretty cool to run.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

RPPR's New World Campaign Primer

Ross Payton and the folks over at Role Playing Public Radio launched a new 4e campaign not long ago featuring the exploration of a New World. It has a lot of features in common with my Javarta setting, including a variety of human and nonhuman tribes (including ogres), animistic lesser gods, and a network of ruins from a fallen civilization (most New World settings would, I imagine). In any case, I'm interested to see how they approach things. One major difference is that the characters are in on the first wave of colonization, while Javarta has been around a few centuries.

The RPPR crew has wrapped up their setting in a nifty and free pdf, which can be downloaded here. I may follow up with a more detailed review; for now it's a new discovery. You can also follow along in their adventures via podcast.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Free City Design Supplement Updated

I gave a shout-out to Ravells' A Guide to the Creation and Depiction of Fantasy Cities - Part I a few weeks ago. Good news, he's expanded and fancified it. Check it out here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dungeon Map Design

Enworld member Melan posted an interesting essay analyzing dungeon layouts in a variety of classic dungeons a while ago. He discusses adventure flow for each one and plots them out in simplified tree diagrams. A good read if you're a dungeon designer.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Javartan Mixed Nuts

I haven't posted much about my nascent colonial campaign recently because I've hit that stage where most of what I'm developing can't be seen by my players… yet (plus I've been pretty busy lately). Still, here's a grab-bag of entries to give you an idea of how things are going. 

The Timoran Merkingdom
An undersea nation of lithe, almond-eyed mermaids claim the Timoran Sea, a kelp-choked stretch of water between the Koatung Straits and Cape Lucknow, as their own.

The mermaids (there are only mermaids, no mermen) believe themselves to be superior to land dwellers. They trade with humans and ogres alike at certain designated islands at the edge of their waters, but are very aggressive at protecting their territory.

The ogres respect their desire for privacy, but humans (especially merchants and pirates) have a history of attempting to intrude in their domain. This, in spite of the tendency of the kelp to foul rudders and becalm vessels.

Such intrusions has slacked off in recent decades, since humans intruding in mermaid waters uninvited began to disappear without a trace, their ships found months later, empty and deserted, some distance away. The mermaids themselves offer no explanation for what befalls the crews, but firmly remind the inquirer of their isolationist policy.

The Kwaichow Wall
The great Kwaichow Wall, also known as the ‘Door of the West’ and ‘Barbarian’s Gate’, straddles the entirety of the Kwaichow Peninsula. On the east side of the wall lies the outer boundaries of the Eastern Empire. On the west side lie the lands of the lowly barbarian. By writ of the holy emperors, no outsider may cross into the Empire without express permission of the emperor or his duly appointed representatives.

According to legend, it was built by the Celestial Court, but no one really knows who build it or why. It has certainly been around as far back as known recorded history goes.

The wall, fashioned from seamless grey-blue stone of unknown type, is some 50 feet tall, and inclines from either side from a 20-foot base to a razor-thin edge on the top. It has two interesting features: it cannot be scaled by any known agent human or inhuman, and it has no opening of any kind.

It does, nevertheless, have a gate. An emperor long ago set his men to digging under the wall, and now each side features an elaborate gatehouse with a broad tunnel that runs some 15 feet beneath the wall. Only three centuries ago, when the Eastern Empire began to discover signs of a world beyond its traditional sphere of knowledge, it built ramps, towers, and walkways on the eastern side of the wall, enabling defenders to man its ramparts.

Being caught within 2,000 feet of the wall on the western side carries an instant death penalty unless the encroacher can produce proof that he bears the emperor’s permission to trespass on Imperial soil. For most Imperial merchants and travelers, this is a standard traveling document issued by the government before they pass through the gate on the east side. Humans and ogres are, by definition, outsiders, and will be executed on the spot if they do not bear a travel visa. Even having a visa merely stays a death sentence by a few hours in most cases, since most are forged—the government issues very few such documents for foreigners in any given year.

Sung Chen “The Bountiful Rain”
Sung Chen hails from the mainland of the Eastern Empire. He was once a captain in the service of a regional governor, but was outlawed when he helped a musician and her family escape the clutches of a corrupt official. He now wanders the islands stealing from wealthy merchants on the road, drinking himself into a stupor, singing to the moon, and brawling. When sober he is an astounding swordsmen, and even when inebriated can hold off most comers. Indeed, he remains at large chiefly because those charged with his arrest fear to draw near, and because his sword Jade Dragon strikes hands from wrists and arrows out of the air with equal alacrity.

Sung occasionally remembers himself when presented with injustice, and in such times intervenes to correct some perceived wrong. He is known by his nickname “The Bountiful Rain” due to his famed generosity to peasants and the downtrodden.

The Dead Cat Gang
Mister Edward Hobbs and his bully boys Robbie Doyle and the hulking Krieger brothers ruled the Narrows, a maze of stilted alleys flanking the Eastside Docks in Barclave. Caught in a crackdown on the waterfront criminal syndicates, the survivors of the Dead Cat Gang were packed on the convict ship Amanda Gale and promptly forgotten by their erstwhile associates and enemies alike.

The Sunken Temple of Sanputra Swamp
Long ago it was a thriving place of worship and knowledge, but the dark waters rose and the dead inside their burial cisterns began to stir. There are treasures here, to be sure, but it isn't wise to venture into its dank halls, not at all, unless one is either a second Sung Chen or under the protection of a minor kami. And few kami of a mind to offer protection to lowly mortals approve of stealing and looting…

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Hammer of the Prophets (A Bajoran Cruiser)

It's not all fantasy around here. In honor of the Star Trek relaunch, here's a ship I created for Last Unicorn's Star Trek Bajoran sourcebook. It never got published because LUG lost the license between the time I turned in the work and the print date. I may put all of the material I wrote for this sourcebook and the unpublished Klingon Sourcebook out on the web eventually, just as S. John Ross has.

Hammer of the Prophets
Class and Type: Refurbished Cardassian Kavlar-class Cruiser
Commissioning Date: Unknown
Hull Characteristics
Size: 7 (650 meters long, 30 decks)
Resistance: 3
Structural Points: 140
Operations Characteristics
Crew/Passengers: 490/1,960
[7 power/round]
Computers: 3
[3 power/round]
Transporters: 3 personnel, 4 cargo, 4 emergency
[5 power/round]
Tractor Beams: 1 ad, 1 fd, 1 fv
[2/rating used]
Propulsion and Power Characteristics
Warp System: 4.0/7.0/7.8 (6 hours)
[2/warp factor]
Impulse System: .5 c/.75 c
[5/7 power/round]
Power: 155
Sensor Systems
Long-Range Sensors: +1/14 lightyears
[6 power/round]
Lateral Sensors: +1/1 lightyear
[4 power/round]
Navigational Sensors: +2
[5 power/round]
Sensors Skill: 4
Weapons Systems
Spiral-Wave Disruptor:
Range: 10/30,000/100,000/300,000
Arc: All (720 degrees)
Accuracy: 4/5/7/10
Damage: 12
Power: [12]
Disruptor Wave Cannon:
Range: 10/30,000/100,000/300,000
Arc: Full aft (540 degrees)
Accuracy: 4/5/7/10
Damage: 16
Power: [16]
Type II Photon Torpedoes
Number: 300
Launchers: 1 ad, 1 fv
Spread: 8
Arc: Forward or aft, but are self-guided
Range: 15/300,000/1,000,000/3,500,000
Accuracy: 4/5/7/10
Damage: 20
Power: [5]
Weapons Skill: 5
Defensive Systems
Cardassian Deflector Field
Protection: 44/60
Power: [42]

Description and Notes
The Kavlar-class Cruiser was once a workhorse of the Cardassian fleet. It is still commonly encountered in the heart of the Cardassian Union, but is not usually seen on the front lines, having been supplanted by more powerful ships built in the aftermath of the Cardassian-Dominion alliance.

The Guran’tal was thought lost by the Cardassians during a skirmish with a Bajoran resistance group during the final days of the Occupation. In reality, its self-destruct system failed, and it was captured intact. Amazed by their incredible luck, the Bajorans killed all of the Cardassian survivors and smuggled the vessel to their base in an isolated and uninhabited star system.

There it remained for several years, as first the cell members and later Bajoran Militia engineers worked to forge it into a weapon to use against their oppressors. They rushed to get it into service before the end of the Cardassian/Dominion conflict, but were unsuccessful.

A few months after hostilities ended, the renamed and completely refurbished Hammer of the Prophets warped out of the secluded system on its shake-down cruise. It remains a secret weapon hidden from both the Cardassians and the Federation. The Hammer of the Prophets Campaign

The Hammer of the Prophets is an excellent platform for a Bajoran campaign set in the post-Deep Space 9 era. It is capable of taking on a wide variety of missions, and can hold its own against hostile forces.

Life aboard the Hammer is hard. Accommodations are spartan, and shore leave nearly non-existent. The crew itself is made up of Bajorans who dwell in the black shadows of secrecy at all times. “Hammers” are members of a small, tight-knit and silent fraternity—even service records do not record their duties aboard the ship that once served their enemies.

Here are a couple missions the Hammer might undertake:
  • A strange anomaly has been detected in space a couple of lightyears from Bajor. The Hammer is dispatched to investigate. The anomaly might be a simple astrological curiosity, a temporal rift in the time-space continuum, or the manifestation of an alien presence.
  • A long-dormant resistance cell has started to pirate trade ships to fund its war against the Cardassian Union, which labors to rebuild its shattered economy. Embarrassed, the Bajoran Navy orders the Hammer to take out the cell’s two starships; because the Hammer doesn’t officially exist, Bajor hopes to rid itself of the cell without enraging hardliners
  • A dramatic turning-point in a Hammer campaign would center around the first action in which the Hammer’s existence is revealed—the military and political fallout which follows might lead to all sorts of interesting adventures. An interesing possiblity is that the government promises to return the ship to the Cardassians: if the captain refuses to obey, what do the characters do?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Make Your Players Beg You For Cursed Items

As we work through the various types of cursed items in our Curses series of articles, our focus is on providing possible histories and contexts for such items that make their existence in your campaign possible. How’s this for a challenge: Make up a legend for a cursed item so compelling your players will be clamoring to own it. 

Can it be done? Let’s give it a whirl…
The Dragon’s Eye 
The wicked dirk, known as the Dragon’s Eye due to the orb atop its hilt, was once the most feared sight among the influential elements of Rhire and surrounding kingdoms. It was always discovered in the same place—buried in the heart of a diplomat, noble, or high priest. And always, it vanished almost immediately, no one knew how or where.
Naturally, precautions were taken to thwart the mysterious assassin who stalked the rich and famous. Both the high and the low were searched for weapons before being admitted into manse or carriage, and enchantments alike prevented anyone smuggling in magic items without an alert going forth to the master of the property.
But the death count mounted, and still the Dragon’s Eye taunted those charged with security from the corpses of it victims.
This item—it may not be a dagger—has appeared in every edition of DnD since the dawn of the game. Its powers are consistent with what is described above in several editions. Can you guess what it is?



Market it right, and you too can have your players demanding to own a simple -1 cursed sword (dagger).

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 5: Terrible Blessings

The cursed items we have discussed thus far are not entirely irredeemable. Quirky items present some drawback to using an otherwise useful item, while dark gifts seek to exert a hold on the users while imparting some advantage. Flawed items are messed up, but they weren’t meant to be.

Terrible blessings have no such excuses—they are meant to betray and destroy. To accept such a malefic boon means the end of your life as you have known it, whether you know it or not.

We enter at last the realm of the true cursed item, and it is well-trod ground indeed. It’s becoming a refrain, but it’s worth restating: cursed items always have a story behind them. And in this installment, many of those stories originate in Hollywood.

Do you remember what you were doing when you first witnessed a cursed item being created by a powerful mage? Playing D&D? Reading The Fellowship of the Ring? Naw, before that. Unless you grew up in Tibet, I know exactly what you were doing: watching Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:
“One taste of the poisoned apple, and the victim’s eyes will close forever in the Sleeping Death…”
These are the first words of the Sleeping Death spell as cast by the evil queen, and the deadly apple that resulted is a terrible blessing if there ever was one.

Snow White presents another fairy tale meme we might appropriate for terrible blessings—that the agent of doom is presented as a gift by someone thought to be a friend. In this case, the queen in her disguise as a harmless market woman presents the poisoned apple to Snow White as a wishing apple that will bring the consumer her heart’s desire (last year’s Enchanted used a similar trick with a magic well). Keep this meme in mind when concocting a suitable tragic origin story for a terribly blessed item you intend to unleash on the characters.

The story of "Snow White" is a widespread tale with many cultural variations, and the curses don't end with apples. “Myrsinathe”, the Greek version, features a poisoned ring that inflicts a living death. Then there’s “Giriococcola ”, the Italian version:
"But the sisters and the astrologer weren't about to give up! Here came the woman with an embroidered gown for sale, the most beautiful gown you ever saw. Giricoccola was so charmed with it that she had to try it on, and the minute she did, she became a statue."
Don’t neglect petrification as a curse effect. Because it doesn’t appear in the SRD rules set, your players may not be looking for it.

While we’re on the topic of fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty introduces an interesting variation: the curse that would be much worse but for the intervention of a friendly agent who provides partial relief. Recall that the evil fairy’s curse was that Sleeping Beauty would die when she pricked her finger on a spinning wheel. One of the friendly fairies modifies the sentence of death into one of, well, sleeping death. She also thoughtfully places everyone in the castle under the same curse and protects the castle with an impenetrable hedge it until the curse could be lifted.

We can apply a similar concept in our fantasy campaigns. Consider the possibilities of a cursed crown forged by an evil regent who does not relish relinquishing authority when the young crown prince comes of age. While the crown is supposed to slay the lad outright during the coronation, the court wizard has just enough time during the ceremony to evoke a limited wish that changes the nature of the curse. Perhaps, in keeping with the above examples, it causes the prince to fall into a deep sleep until the curse can be undone. Alternatively, it polymorphs him into a shape that enables him to escape the immediate danger, or one that negates his claim to the throne (a child, orc, pixie, whatever)—neatly preserving his life while removing the threat to the regent. In any case, the crown might still be around, its modified curse intact, for characters to dig up in their adventures and try on.

As suggested above, the terrible blessing often takes the form of a gift that conforms to the target’s interests. This isn't to be wondered at: one’s guard is down when being presented a charming present by a trusted figure. Witness the fate of the Sultan of Basra in the Thief of Bagdad, a foolish ruler with a passion for magic puppets. When the traitorous Jaffar offers him the Silver Maid, a marvelous mechanical girl, the sultan is transported with joy. He is soon thereafter transported to paradise when his new magical toy plunges a stiletto into his neck.
The venerable Necklace of Strangulation seems a likely candidate for a terrible gift. Was it a key element in an assassination attempt against a wary merchant lord? The present of a jealous queen to her husband’s lover? The heirloom of a legendary dynasty of spymasters, passed down from father to son as a precious tool of the trade?

The old bait and switch is another popular terrible blessing, as Donovan discovers when he drinks from the false Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He didn’t get eternal life as promised, that’s for sure.

Let’s cook up a bait and switch backstory for a common cursed item. Perhaps the ambitious younger brother of the king commissions his mage to fashion a duplicate of the king’s heirloom bracers, and the unsuspecting liege rides out to battle wearing what we might know as bracers of defenselessness or gauntlets of fumbling. A switch back to the proper items when the king’s fallen body returns to the castle and the regicide is chalked up to a bad moment in battle. Meanwhile, what becomes of the cursed items? Two hundred years later they might be discovered in a forgotten chest by the younger brother’s descendant, worn into the Dark Doom Wars, and wind up in a night hag’s hoard awaiting the arrival of our heroes.

Thus far, our examples have centered on rulers and various relatives, but terrible blessings don’t have to be political. There is a more base reason for creating terrible blessings: protection. While there are many ways to protect, say, a manse, temple, or royal tomb, this special form of protection beguiles the intruder or attacker before striking.

Imagine a fine painting of a ship tossed in a stormy sea hanging in a wealthy merchant’s study. Thieves breaking in to ransack the place are drawn by its artistry and gleaming gold frame. If they touch it, they are drawn into the painting and trapped there. (Yes, I steal from C.S. Lewis, and with pride.)

How about a collection of five enchanted daggers of incredible design that teleport themselves and their thieving bearers into the locked basement of a warehouse owned by the daggers’ rightful owner a few hours or days after they are stolen. That might make for an interesting turn if the daggers are discovered by the characters centuries later and a thousand miles away from the basement—which is buried under lava rock!

Or… ever seen the splatter flick Hostel? Say you have this ring of decadent nobles who get their kicks torturing arrogant adventurers, or making them fight one another. So, same daggers, same basement in the same warehouse, only the daggers are out there as bait, waiting for the right greedy fool to come along and grab ’em. That could be the start of an interesting adventure.

What about those scarabs of death ? Great tomb guardians. I think we’ve all seen The Mummy and know what a couple dozen of those buggers can do. And I can imagine a dragon placing one or two rings or helms of contrariness in choice spots on her hoard as her last revenge against foes who kill her and explore her piles of treasure. It's really hard to split an immensely valuable haul peaceably when folks are busy being violently contrary!

Well, we’ve barely scratched the surface, but this is getting rather long, so let’s wind it up here and brace for next week, when we meet crusading lances, macabre masks, and singing harps. That is to say, Dedicated Weapons. The problem with some of them is that they have wills of their own…
Gelia’s Tears
Gelia’s Tears is an extremely valuable necklace fashioned from high-grade silver and large diamonds. It was originally the heirloom of the ruling House Leomonde, by tradition passed down from the crown mother to the king’s new wife on the wedding day.

It was last received with joy by Princess Gelia, who came from a southern kingdom known for its cypress forests, ziggurats, and blood magic to cement an alliance with King Meda of Leomonde. Queen Gelia wore it happily for several years, until the dark whispers began—she had yet to produce an heir.

As more years passed, the whispers grew louder. The queen, who loved her husband, refused to take a lover, which might have resolved the issue. At last, when the talk turned to replacing Medas with a rival brother who had a ready heir, the king reluctantly ordered his wife sealed alive in her quarters until death took her.

It took her two weeks to die, and long did she cry and curse her faithless husband and whatever broodmare might have the misfortune to join with him. When the servants unsealed her apartments, they found her sprawled on the floor at the center of a great circle of mystical symbols written in blood. She was wearing only her necklace.

The king took a new wife, and when the necklace was placed on her neck on her wedding day she asked if anyone else could hear the faint strains of a lullaby. None could. She bled to death a few weeks later.

Necklace or no necklace, no Leomonde male or female ever produced an heir again. The family ceased to exist a few short decades later.

As for Gelia’s Tears, it claimed a few more victims before being cast aside in fear. Before it vanished from history, it reappeared one last time, when a certain skilled jeweler was pressed by his noble sponsor to remove the previous stones. It is said that upon removing the first stone, the jeweler heard his wife’s wail. Their two babies lay dead in their crib…
Gelia’s Tears. This cursed necklace has lost some of its potency since its creation, but is still destined to break the heart of any man or woman who wears it. When first worn, the faint strains of a lullaby from the victim's own childhood can be heard as the curse takes effect. The necklace can be removed and put on as desired and no further harm will come to the wearer. But the damage is done—the cursed individual is forever barren or impotent. Only a limited wish or remove curse spell can restore him or her to health.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 4: Flawed Creations

We were going to look at terrible blessings next, but since we’re working up the ladder from mildly cursed items to the dread artifacts that consume souls and worlds, we’re not quite ready to step up to such malignant items. So this week, let’s look at flawed creations instead.

Like quirky items, flawed creations were created to be beneficial magic items. In both cases something went awry: In the case of the quirky item the defect is (relatively) minor. In the case of the flawed creation, it is more serious. (And it must be said that not much separates the two categories; the transition between one and the other is pretty fluid.)

Accidentally flawed creations are probably quite rare, for two reasons. First, accidentally cursed items are a very small subset of the items a competent mage enchants over his career. Rules for failure during magic item creation vary from system to system—or are non-existent—but in the creative spirit let’s say three percent. Thus, a remarkable mage who creates one hundred magic items in a very long career might expect maybe three to go wrong. Most mages produce far less. So fatally flawed items are rare because the failure rate is low.

Second, most mages are not eager to circulate their failures. Who wants word to get out that his magical creations have the potential to harm the user? What ethical mage could knowingly unleash a cursed item on an unsuspecting world? Most mages destroy or carefully hide their failures as soon as their flaws manifest themselves. So now they're even rarer because, of the small number produced, most are disposed of before they can hurt anyone.

In the end, of course, some flawed creations escape into the world. Items can be stolen by thieves or lost to storms or war. Hidden caches of flawed creations may be brought to light by descendants or tomb robbers. Something as simple as a lost or misread will might result in flawed creations being auctioned off in a wizard’s estate or passed on to unsuspecting relatives and colleagues.

Some mages, who after all have invested quite a bit of time and effort into creating their flawed items, may elect to sell them to recoup at least the material cost of producing them. Of course, in most cases, only the most unethical sort of wizard would essay such an action. Flawed creations disposed of in this fashion might be discovered by the characters anywhere, from tombs to citadel armories to the stock of a fencer in a major city.

But not all mages who dump their failures on the market are necessarily unscrupulous. What better way to confound one’s enemies or rivals than saddling them with a passel of cursed items? To take a Forgotten Realms example, imagine a Waterdeep mage selling a supply of flawed -1 shields to an arms merchant known to supply the Zhentarim. If this happened not long ago, the characters may acquire the shields from defeated Zhent warriors. If it has been awhile, again, they could be anywhere, perhaps in the hands or grave of someone with nothing to do with Zhentil Keep, or locked away in a strongbox in some Zhent stronghold.

And you know, this works the other way too. Mayhap there's a drow sorceress down in the underdark somewhere looking to ditch some cursed rings in the hated city of the humans, or—let's hit a little closer to home here—even an enemy of the characters who desires to slip them a present or two via an unsuspecting intermediary. (Oh, but we'll get to terrible blessings soon enough, and that's a much more promising road to travel if that's the sort of thing you want to do.)

So, having thought a bit about how flawed creations escape into the wild, let’s take a closer look at what form they might take. In many ways, this is a no-brainer: most of the “generic” cursed items we all know and love qualify as flawed creations. A survey of the tables offered in the SRD will generate many ideas for curses.

It's probably best not to get too exotic with the powers of flawed creations. In most cases the curse should have some bearing on the effect the enchanter was attempting to achieve. Most likely, he produces a version that does the opposite of what he desired. A mage creating a +1 blade or a potion of giant strength might inadvertently produce a -1 blade or a potion of weakness. This category best accounts for the majority of cursed magic items without a specific history: the 1- axes, the -2 suits of chainmail, and so on.

Cursed Items of Opposition are especially appropriate as flawed creations. The Cursed Item of Opposition is my catch-all term for the plethora of cursed braziers and chimes, pipes and scarabs to be found in various editions of the DMG that look just like similar magic items that provide some great power. I wrote a little essay not long ago theorizing on the design origins of these items, but now is our chance to make sense of them in a campaign context.

Take a look at two brooms drawn from the original DnD rules and Supplement I:
Broom of Flying: This device allows the owner to fly at Dragon speed (24"/turn). The user must know the “Word of Command” to make it function. The Broom of Flying will come up to 24" when its owner summons it with the command word. It will carry two persons but its speed is reduced by one-quarter.
Animated Broom: A broom which exactly resembles a Broom of Flying, but when such an attempt is made the broom will attack the user, beating him severely about the head and shoulders with the bald-headed end of itself. Only destruction of the broom will make such abuse cease.
Hey, even a bald-headed broom of flying rocks. What student of witchcraft or wizardry wouldn’t want one? Probably more than can safely pull off the enchantment. Thus did animated brooms (a.k.a. brooms of attack) enter the world.

You can go down the line of published cursed items and pick out many other examples: the bowl of watery death as a failed bowl commanding water elementals, a loadstone as a failed luckstone, a chime of hunger as a failed chime of opening, gauntlets of fumbling as failed gauntlets of dexterity, and so on.

Of course, equipping flawed creations with an oppositional power every single time gets a little old, so what else can we do to stir things up? Some flawed creations may actually work as designed—to a point.  The chime of hunger is an example of this type: it works as a chime of opening a couple of times before horribly malfunctioning. What are some flawed items that might make for an unhappy party should they suddenly stop working as designed? Flying carpets and wands of teleportation come to mind. Oh, yeah, teleportation. What could possibly go wrong? Remember this? I'll admit it; I had me some nightmares before Christmas in 1979.

Some items may just warp the creator's original intentions in unexpected ways. Cue the chime of hunger again. What would happen if a rod of resurrection went wrong? Nothing good, I'm pretty sure.

Why bother to decide that your dust of sneezing is a flawed creation rather than a generic cursed item? As a spur to your creativity, of course! It’s the first step in developing a backstory for the item, and this in turn spawns adventure ideas. Consider again our example of the cursed shields sent to the Zhentarim. If the ruse was discovered in Zhentil Keep, it may put into motion a retaliatory plot that draws the characters into the feud. Thus the provision of the shields form the backstory to the present adventure, which may feature nocturnal assaults on inns in Waterdeep, attempted kidnappings on the coastal highway, and perhaps the reappearance of the shields themselves in the hands of a band of thugs hired to attack the characters.

For a fully realized example of how a flawed creation forms the backdrop of an adventure, refer to the Judges Guild adventure the Corsairs of Tallibar , in which a potion created to increase the power of the corsairs instead drives them mad.

Of course, cursed items with a history can also form the basis for a quest. Suppose a wealthy collector has learned that one of Alleon’s prized Swan blades (see below) was spied being purchased in a bazaar in a far-off city by a certain slave trader, and will pay the characters a princely sum to acquire it for him. Only if they succeed do they realize that it is one of Alleon’s forgotten flawed creations and not the mighty blade that he made famous…

Next week we’ll pick up our discussion with terrible blessings. See you then!
Alleon’s Swan Blades
Alleon was reknowned for his great skill in producing elegant enchanted daggers for the nobility of his day. Most of the daggers engraved with his trademark swan emblem are priceless heirlooms still jealously guarded by the families that commissioned them. Very few have found their way into the open market, and they are highly sought-after collector’s items.

As great and careful a wizard as Alleon was, he had his share of failures. During his long career, he produced seven cursed daggers, each a result of error or imperfect craftsmanship. Unwilling to destroy his creations, he kept them in his workshop as a reminder to himself and his apprentices of the need to strive for excellence.

When Alleon neared death, he resolved to hide his failures from the world lest they find their way into the hands of an unsuspecting public. Ever the artist, he created a fitting final resting place for his wayward creations—a stout strong box constructed of oak and lined with fine green felt.

He entrusted his remaining apprentice with the task of burying the chest where no one would find it. The apprentice obediently carried out his master’s instructions, but Alleon’s gardener, who had discovered what the chest contained (but not their nature), followed the man and watched him bury the box in an isolated grove. Returning after the old man’s death, the gardener unearthed the chest, and carrying it to a large city, sold off its contents to a purveyor of fine weapons.

Over the centuries, the cursed swan blades have mingled with the genuine items, and scattered across the known world. One resides in the collection of a prominent grand duke, another lies in the watery lair of a giant turtle deep beneath the waves of immense Lake Collan. Through misadventure, most have been thankfully lost to the world. Until, of course, some enterprising adventurers come along to rediscover them.

Every swan blade, cursed or otherwise, is a gleaming jewel of a weapon, both beautiful to behold and a joy to handle. Each is finely balanced, suitable for hand combat or throwing. The blue steel blade is engraved with the mark of Alleon’s swan, and speaking his name causes the mark to glow faintly with a magical light (an effective measure against common non-magical counterfeits). Every swan blade is a unique creation, with a hilt customized to suit each client.

Even as cursed items, the swan blades are valued to certain collectors. Most can fetch a handsome sum in the right market. However, characters must consider the ethics of unleashing a cursed dagger on the world, and realize that even if they warn their buyer of the curse, such knowledge might not be passed on to the next owner. Characters of lawful alignment, particularly priests and paladins, must be extremely cautious in who they entrust such a weapon to.
Alleon’s Flawed Swan Blades. Four of Alleon’s seven cursed daggers are -1 blades and two are -2 blades. Their curse merely renders them unreliable in combat; unlike some cursed weapons, they may be freely discarded when their faults are discovered. 
Alleon’s Dagger of BackbitingThe curse on the remaining dagger is more potent, because Alleon was attempting a more ambitious project. It is a +2 throwing dagger, but each time it is used in melee against a foe and the attack roll is a natural 1, it damages its wielder instead of his intended target. When the curse takes effect, the dagger twists in the hands of its wielder, automatically dealing the damage to the wielder. The curse even functions when the dagger is hurled, and in such a case the damage to the hurler is doubled.
Previous Installments
Part 2a: Another Quirky Cursed Item: Maldric’s Cloak of Flying
Part 3: Dark Gifts 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Free Urban Adventure Resources

I've always loved urban adventure (I blame Fritz Leiber and Robert Lynn Asprin), and some of my earliest non-TSR purchases were city settings (namely here, herehere, and here). I want to cover urban adventure game resources at length at some point, but for now a quick post to profile some free resources that discuss the theory of city design: one you may already have heard of, and one you probably haven't, since it's buried in a forum.

The One You've Heard Of
Expeditious Retreat Press' City Guide from A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe. It's free and it's an excellent guide to city design.

The One You Haven't
Hie thyself over to this thread of the Cartographer's Guild forum and download Ravells' A Guide to the Creation and Depiction of Fantasy Cities - Part I. This tutorial is crammed with great thoughts on designing your city from both an in-world perspective and from an artistic one.

You may have to sign up to the forum to download, but you won't be sorry. Check it out:

Another look:

So there you go: two free city supplements!

Oh, you want another one? Okay, how about a complete, somewhat seedy neighborhood ready to plug and play:
Eastside City Block
(The Lia-Kavair, by the way, are the local thieves guild.)

I know, I know, it could always be better... have a froggy evening!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 3: Dark Gifts

Dark gifts, like quirky items, promise naught but good, but conceal drawbacks that undermine the user. Unlike quirky items, however, which are merely annoying, dark gifts ultimately seek to control the users. Terrible blessings, which we’ll cover in our next installment, are similar, but seek to destroy.

As mentioned in the first installment of this series, cursed magical items are too much of a bother creating without a specific use in mind. Who is going to spend a decade cranking out generic rings of clumsiness or boots of dancing? Cursed items created as either dark gifts or terrible blessings should have a history. Someone was highly motivated to have them made—why? Revenge? Jealousy? Ambition?

The nine rings Sauron gave to the Men of Middle Earth are undoubtedly the most famous, and probably most extreme, example of a dark gift. These precious rings confer upon their owners immense powers, but also at length corrupt them until they become slaves to the Lord of the Rings. Their maker had a very good reason for creating them.

One motivation for creating dark gifts is to provide servants or allies wondrous items that increase their utility to their master but also contain a controlling element. If you’re the evil high priest of the land, a mace of blood is an excellent way of ensuring your chief lieutenants lay the smack down while staying firmly in your court.

Or imagine a +1 sword that charms its wielder into loyalty to its maker if he doesn’t successfully save versus spells each time it kills? How about a wily dragon who has a few weapons like this tucked in her hoard, which she generously offers as the first fruits of victory to the heroes who “beat” her in some contest of skill or wits?

What would happen if such a weapon was found in some treasure pile centuries after its maker and cause vanished? Would its seduced wielder become obsessed with reviving the lost cause? Resurrecting its leader? Seeking out a contemporary group with similar aims?

There are other ways of controlling a user. How about a potion of giant strength or speed that’s addictive, or provides a temporary antidote to a poison or disease already inflicted on the target via a previous dose? An evil high priest or merchant lord may appreciate giving his honor guard an edge in combat while discouraging the freelancing ambitions of its members by letting them know that only another dose within a day or so will hold the mummy rot at bay.

A variation on the theme of positive magic items with a creator-inflicted drawback is the magic item that fuels its enchantments with the user’s life energies. The Call of Cthulhu RPG and supplements are replete with magic items that siphon off the magic points of users to enable another person to cast powerful spells. Perhaps an unscrupulous enchanter has discovered that she can take short cuts in creating a potent item by tapping into the user’s vitality. Obviously, such an item shows a callous disregard for one’s servants and allies, but to a wizard morally flawed enough to create such a monstrosity, no one matters but herself anyway.

Such an item might take the form of, say, a lens of true seeing that depresses the wearer’s intelligence by one point as long as it is worn. Or perhaps a suit of armor that when worn offers its wearer +2 protection by lowering his Constitution by 1 point. (To balance such items, you might establish a cumulative chance that the loss is permanent or that the ability score penalty increases over time.)
Thus far, we’ve discussed cursed items that the creator regards as well, cursed. But a curse is in the eye of the beholder, and if the creator considers the cursed state to be an improvement over any other, the dark gift may be provided as a boon, not a burden—however the recipient may feel about it. Fairy tales warn visitors to fairy courts and revels not to accept any food or drink offered, lest one in accepting fairy hospitality be unable to leave their realm. Fairies, of course, do not regard this as a terrible fate.

Or what of Llorio the Murthe in Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, who plots to turn an enclave of wizards into witches to serve as her entourage? This misandrist sorceress regards such an enchantment as a singular honor, however much her ensqualmed victims might disagree while in their right minds.

Magic items that enable the user to assume the shape of an animal—perhaps a wolf or great eagle—but also carry the potential for making the change permanent if used too much or too often—are fairly common in RPGs. The user may or may not know of the danger before it makes itself known.

Certain artifacts created by, say, a centaur, dryad, or lizardman mage may turn its users into a member of its race in exchange for certain powers. Perhaps the powers the item provides can only be used by a member of that race, so the user must take on aspects of that race for the item to be effective (such items may fit better under “Dedicated Weapons,” more of which in a future installment).

Perhaps such items are the ancient remnants of a colonization effort or even provided the origin of the species: “There weren’t no such thing as harpies before the Oil of Ollander began flowing into the waters of the temple baths that ill-favored spring of long-ago…”

Or maybe they were created to “convert” specific people, but have over the centuries gone on to inflict their enchantments on others. Many fairy tales talk of men taking non-human wives (like the swan maiden), and one can readily imagine the creation of a jewel that would confer humanity on her for the sake of her lover. One can as easily imagine a jewel that makes a drow out of a human for the same reasons.

Speaking of forced conversion, where might helms of opposite alignment come from? There might be a number of such helms knocking about the world, each a remnant of a past event or power struggle. It’s easy to imagine such an item tipping the balance in some political or actual battle—in such cases the expense of creating a cursed helm may be justified by what is perceived to be at stake.

In the case of an actual war, perhaps a wizard general besieging a city feigns surrender, and plies the “victors” with weregild—among them magical helms for each of the opposing commanders… Renewing the siege with ready-made traitors commanding the enemy troops makes for a short fight!

So there are some thoughts on dark gifts. Next time we’ll take a look at their close cousins—terrible blessings. Unlike dark gifts, terrible blessings are not meant to control, but to kill—or at the very least, to betray.

But before we go, let’s put a new face on an old classic. And here’s a challenge for you: select a cursed item from any edition of the DMG and provide it with such a compelling legend that your players will be eager to find and use such an amazing artifact.

Armor of the Stone Queen
The archmage Astrophel dominated his age, and due to his thirst for conquest and capacity for cruelty had enemies without number. The greatest of his generals was the medusa Vashti—the Stone Queen. She rode at the head of her mighty army, and few could face her and live.

Indeed, most opposing troops, seized with great fear at her approach, avoided her vanguard entirely, striking out at lesser units. This greatly displeased Astrophel, who enjoyed watching his hill giants smash the statuary that littered the battlefield with their immense hammers as they marched.

One day, Vashti appeared at the front of her army clad in gleaming plate armor—adorned with glowing, writhing dragons—created by Astrophel himself. The veterans who in past battles had fled from her were filled with a righteous anger at the sight of this abomination wearing the armor of a nobleman. They charged her vanguard, filled with renewed determination and courage. As they neared, Vashti raised her helm and they fell rank after rank, petrified at the sight of her flashing eyes.

Again and again this scene repeated itself, and the legend of the Stone Queen and her infamous dragon armor grew as army after army recklessly charged her, only to fall before her fatal gaze. Bards say to this day that none so much as marked her armor with blade until the coming of the warrior king Dungeld.

It was he who at last cut down the Stone Queen and her dread master. Her legendary armor, however, survived the final battle, and was taken in victory to Dungeld’s royal city, Austerlitz. Dungeld, who had no female knights, never found a use for it, and it was lost in the sacking of the city centuries ago. It lives on in a famed sculpture in Austerlitz’s main square, which depicts the final struggle between Dungeld and the medusa, clad in her distinctive armor.

No doubt it lies in some forgotten tomb or ruin, awaiting the arrival of a lithe female warrior who can don it and discover what mighty enchantments Astrophel laid upon it to aid his champion.
Armor of the Stone Queen. This armor is similar in appearance to breastplate of command and functions as a suit of +1 full plate. However, when it is worn, the armor causes the character to take a –4 penalty to Charisma. All unfriendly characters within 300 feet have a +1 morale bonus on attack rolls against her. The effect is not noticeable to the wearer or those affected. (In other words, the wearer does not immediately notice that donning the armor is the cause of her problems, nor do foes understand the reason for the depth of their enmity.)
Previous Installments
Part 1: Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist
Part 2:  Quirky Items
Part 2a: Another Quirky Cursed Item: Maldric’s Cloak of Flying

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Look at the Eurogame

We're not all DnD all the time at Tales of the Ink Knight! If you're a boardgamer, especially with an interest in game design, you might enjoy Yehuda Berlinger's essay on the  features, mechanics, and themes of the Eurogame.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another Quirky Cursed Item: Maldric’s Cloak of Flying

I suggested we might have another look at quirky items in our last installment of our Curses series, and here it is: a cloak of flying that wants a little something in return. A lot of little somethings, in fact.

Maldric's Cloak of Flying is more developed than most items that will be presented in this series. But the level of detail, including the Tale of King Nides and his Flying Court and the details of the Maldric cloaks' debut show how an item might be integrated into a campaign, and suggest ways in which knowledge of its powers and drawbacks can be made known to PCs.

Maldric’s Cloak of Flying
Francis Maldric was known for decades as the miracle mage of Barclave, a figure of wonderment who would work a year and a day in his workshops to produce a limited series of exclusive magical items. One season he might offer exquisite music boxes complete with little animated figures reenacting popular operas, in another a series of magical waterclocks that warned of approaching storms.

Just possessing a Maldric original was a mark of distinction, and they were much sought after by members at Court. Until, that is, the year he offered his Cloak of Flying.

It was, in many ways, a bad year for Maldric. His wife had discovered all three of his mistresses and trashed his workshop before stalking out of his life. The five-month siege of Barclave was also an unwelcome surprise. In short, Maldric was behind schedule on his latest project, four remarkable cloaks of flying, which he had foolishly boasted of while in his cups—and were now eagerly anticipated by the royal family itself. The worst blow came just weeks before the debut—the king’s birthday—when he learned that the ship bearing the cloaks’ final and key component from the southern colonies—a bag of roc feathers—was lost at sea.

Desperately combing his archives, Maldric hit upon what he thought would be a viable substitute—giant bat wings. Daring a series of unconventional shortcuts in his enchantments, Maldric completed his cloaks with just days to spare, and in a series of limited test flights was confident he had pulled it off.

The king’s birthday dawned bright and clear, and it was with a cheerful heart and not a little ceremony that Maldric loaded the 12 wooden boxes containing his latest creations on the gilded wagon that would bear him and them to the palace.

The presentation of the gifts at the height of the party was everything Maldric had imagined it would be. The king’s delight knew no bounds, and donning his own cloak, he pressed the others on his family. Away they soared, now arcing high into the clouds, then swooping low over the harbor to the amazement of all below.

After an hour or so, when it seems that the king’s party must tire and return to the pavilion for refreshment, its members developed a singular game in which they took turns buzzing the grounds, passing through the orchards, and flying through the vineyards, all the while snapping their mouths in the most remarkable fashion.

At length the party began to return. First were the king’s daughters, who collapsed as soon as their silken slippers touched ground and began sobbing. Next to alight was the queen, who fainted dead away from exhaustion. Finally, the king alighted, and without a work of explanation, ordered the stunned magician seized. His head was removed from his body before the hour was out.

For a time the cloaks were stored in the palace, but they soon passed out of reckoning and who can say where they might be found? The ballad of Old King Nides and his Flying Court is well known in the taverns of the land, and it may be that some old gaffers can recall some details of that day long ago. What so displeased the king no one can rightly say.
Maldric’s Cloak of Flying. This fine cloak is fashioned from durable wool and topped with a clasp bearing the mark of the magician Maldric of Barclave. By holding the edges of the garment, the wearer is able to fly as the third level Fly spell. The wearer may fly as he will for 1d6 turns (this roll is kept secret from the players), after which the appetite of the cloak awakens. At that time, the user must save versus spells. Success means the cloak ceases functioning immediately, leaving the wearer to make his own way to the ground. Failure means the cloak continues to function, but the wearer is compelled to seek out and eat his weight in insects, an act that takes an additional 2d6 turns. Happily, the cloak conveys to the wearer a keen sense of where all bugs in the area are, making the task somewhat easier. After performing this action, the wearer is deposited to earth, now empty-bellied and exhausted. The cloak can be used just once per day regardless of the length of time spent flying.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Open d6 Coming

This isn't really news to those paying attention, but I wasn't and just learned of it: West End Games is converting its d6 System to an Open License. It was announced last autumn, and WEG owner Eric Gibson shared a few more details in a recent chat session:
"OpenD6 will be OGL, with the D6-specific trademarks released under an STL, much the same way as 3e D20 .... The copyrights, rules and everything else will be freely available. It is a share-alike license, meaning everything you publish under OpenD6 will be covered under the OGL as well unless you identify it as Product Identity. ....  
Unlike the D20 STL, there are no protected rules. The only thing the the STL will require is that you upload your OGL covered material to the OpenD6 website—thus we maintain a single unified archive of everything OpenD6."
Like the Legacy DnD movement, WEG is interested in harnessing the power of the web and POD publishing to showcase and move OGL content out to fans. Gibson says that while WEG doesn't have plans to publish a full generic ruleset for OpenD6, "the ultimate goal is for the user to construct their own rulesets and have it packaged and exported as a PDF. There may be way (no promises) for OpenD6 to interface with a POD printer such that a user can construct their unique custom rulebook and have it printed just for them with a few clicks." Even if users have to submit their pdfs to sites like Lulu themselves, the OGL should make that simple enough.
Here's a rundown on what the d6 OGL covers:
  • 51005 The D6 System: The Customization Roleplaying Game (a.k.a. the D6 Cookbook)
  • 51011 D6 Adventure
  • 51012 D6 Space
  • 51013 D6 Fantasy
  • 51015 D6 Fantasy Creatures
  • 51016 D6 Adventure Locations
  • 51017 D6 Space Ships
  • 51019 D6 Gamemaster Screen and Aid
  • 51020 D6 Fantasy Locations
  • 51021 D6 Adventure Creatures
  • 51022 D6 Space Aliens I
  • 51024 D6 Vade Mecum of Magic
I'm pretty fired up about this development for two reasons. Firstly, having another OGL game system out there with a pedigree is good for everyone. More sites of gaming content, more books being bought and sold on sites like Lulu, and more cross-pollination between d6 and d20 communities (including those developing Legacy DnD content).

Secondly, it's the game system I know better than any other. I started playing the Star Wars RPG in 1987 while in college, and used it fairly steadily throughout the '90s, both professionally and in private play.

Looking forward to learning more in the coming months.
UPDATE: Hat-tip to Stargazer's World for covering WEG's d6 development in detail.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Another Pocketful of Whimsy

Happy Easter, everyone! For the lazy Sunday afternoon after the big meal, a few links to enjoy:
  • Propnomicon: A talented prop maker documents his efforts in creating props for the Call of Cthulhu RPG and offers tips and resources on making your own.
  • GI Intelligence Dept.: A site dedicated to WII re-enactors. But the link takes you to a page of pdfs you can download that replicate military paperwork of the era. Very handy to have around if you anticipate ever running a game set in the late '30 through mid-40s.
  • Crazy Diamond Design Historical Fonts: If you're looking for medieval fonts to pep up your maps and player handouts, look no further than Crazy Diamond. They have some of the best historical fonts around. I used the 17th Century Print font to create the Tales of the Ink Knight masthead.
  • Lost Films: Photographs developed from film recovered from lost cameras going back decades. A fascinating look back into people's private pasts.
  • Brass Goggles: If you like steampunk, this is your blog.
  • Coraline Production Art: If you're a big fan of whimsical design, this blog delivers. Presents art from the film Coraline by one of its designers.

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 2: Quirky Items

Last week we kicked off a multi-part series of articles in which we take a close look at cursed items with an eye toward giving them a history and reason to exist in the campaign (see here for Part I ). This week we cover the first and possibly least life-threatening cursed magic items: the quirky item.

In the pantheon of cursed items, quirky items are fairly benign. In fact, they are usually very useful items to have around—they just have annoying side effects! Roger Rabbit's Singing Sword comes to mind; you know, the heroic-looking magic sword that bursts into song when drawn for combat. Puts a crimp in your holy smiting style if you're a paladin, but hey, it's still a magic sword; it'll hit those golems and other critters that take no notice of mundane weapons. Quirky items can be freely discarded, and do not require use of a dispel magic or remove curse spell.

Quirks can be intentionally placed on a magic item or creep into the design through error. Design errors that result in quirks are relatively minor mistakes (we'll discuss what might happen when more serious errors are made in the “Flawed Creations” installment). Think of them as bugs in an otherwise functioning application.

Accidental quirks need not make a whole lot of sense in terms of the item's intended function, though if you can tie both together and have fun item, go for it. Magic is unfathomable deep down, and who can predict what a minor mistake might tap into? Perhaps a short sword howls like a scalded cat when unsheathed (handy in those moments when you’re trying to sneak up on someone), or a ring of protection from fire puts out every open nonmagical flame within 20 feet as long as it is worn (the party doesn’t really need all those torches and lanterns to see in the dark). Note that these quirks do not interfere with the functioning of the item, and in fact everyone can readily imagine situations in which it would be wise to wear a ring of fire protection no matter what it does to the torches.

Deliberately created quirky items need some explanation, and perhaps a bit more logic, since there is a mind behind the quirk. Who would spend the time and money to develop such eccentric items? The cliché mad wizard puttering around his workshop is good for a few quirks. Perhaps it amuses him to produce eccentric designs. Maybe he is just too senile now to help it—old Professor MacCrowley has gone cracked and his Seven League Boots won't function unless the wearer is wearing a kilt.

A variation on this theme is the mage who is forced to enchant items against his will. A mage enslaved to enchant arrows and spears for the ogre king who ate his family might not be in a position to openly defy his master, but he can occasionally slip a quirk or two into the weapons he enchants to satisfy his passive aggression. Perhaps the magic arrow leaves a glowing arc in the air that reveals the position of the bowman. Maybe the spear causes less damage than it should, even if it finds its mark more often. Just maybe using that awesome two-handed sword causes its wielder to lose control of his bowels if he takes on more that one opponent at a time.

Intelligent weapon can also be quirky items, not through design or error, but because their personalities have developed eccentricities. Quirks held by such weapons are usually the annoying sort that can be used for great comedic effect. Like the afore-mentioned singing sword, or a blade that likes to stop by the side of the road and smell the pretty flowers, or go on long detours because it wants to see the view from a nearby hilltop. (For endless GM amusement, imagine Higgins from Magnum P.I. as a magic sword that has done and seen it all—and in the hands of what it claims are more worthy heroes.) Other examples include the cowardly mace that screams at the sight of blood ("Get it off, get it off!"), the magic bulls-eye lantern that’s afraid of the dark, or the haughty sword that is “allergic” to cheap sheaths.

Naturally, an intelligent item that isn’t humored will sulk and find some way of getting back at its intransigent owner, either by denying him its powers at the earliest opportunity, or making a general pest of itself. Generally, intelligent items won’t do something that will get its owner killed; they just like to nag. (Weapons loyal to someone other than their current master also have personality quirks, but they will be covered in “Dedicated Weapons”.)

The key to designing a properly balanced quirky item is that the PC should constantly gravitate between a need to use the item and an intense desire to throw it in the bushes and run. The seriousness of a quirk should therefore be somewhat relative to the benefits the item confers. If all it does is light a fire or shed a light, maybe emitting a noisome stench with every use is appropriate. If it, say, grants the power of teleportation, perhaps a quirk of a higher (lower?) order is appropriate. Like, it doesn't teleport clothes or supplies or hair—only living bodies.

There are plenty of ideas sprinkled above to get you started in designing your own quirky items, and the Hammer of Slaying below provides an example. Rich Stump developed a great list of quirks that might plague magic items in Dragon #163 (“Magic Gone Haywire,” portions of which are reprinted in various volumes of the Encyclopdedia Magica and perhaps other places). For a more recent source of ideas, try here.
Hammer of Slaying
The Hammer of Slaying is an artifact From Beyond, which, for reasons of its own, has taken the form of a throwing hammer on the Material Plane. Sentient but without means to speak or otherwise communicate, it makes its simple desires known by its performance, or lack thereof, in combat.

And its desires are indeed simple: it wants to be thrown at species it hasn’t killed before, and only those species. Toward the objects of its desire it is a potent weapon. In an encounter in which it targets a new species it willfully engages all members of that species, until the battle is over and it can savor and catalog its new experience.

However, once cataloged, a species is no longer of interest to the Hammer. Indeed, it is deeply insulted when someone attempts to throw it at a species it has already killed in past battles. The first few times it is so thrown, it circles lazily back to the thrower and lands in his hand with a stinging slap. If these warnings are ignored, it turns on its thrower when so thrown, even if it has previously slain the user's species.

Because it came into being on the Outer Planes, the Hammer's catalog of slain species can be eclectic, to say the least. It has yet to encounter many species common to the Material Plane, but is useless against some fairly exotic beings. (As GM it falls to you to select the species it has already encountered. Perhaps elementals and efreets, but not orcs and stirges. You might determine in advance which key species will soon oppose the PCs that it is no longer interested in. There ought to be at least one surprise in the mix…)

The Hammer of Slaying may be discarded at will, and indeed by the time a PC tires of it, the feeling is likely mutual. If not kept sufficiently amused by diverting new targets (e.g., held in "reserve" for special occasions while other weapons are favored), it may quietly disappear on its own when no one is looking.
Hammer of Slaying. Fashioned from a glossy dark green material of undefinable origin and well-balanced as a throwing weapon, the compact Hammer of Slaying is otherwise unremarkable in appearance and aspect. It behaves as a +3 missile weapon when targeting species it has not yet slain (treat as a hand axe), and continues to do so throughout the present encounter. It does 2d6 damage when it hits. It refuses to strike species it has slain in previous encounters, however and instead circles back to the thrower, doing 2d6 damage to him or her after the first 1d4 throws against a species it has no interest in (its count carries over from encounter to encounter, and does not reset between melees). The Hammer of Slaying may be discarded at will. It may also vanish on its own if not exposed on a fairly regular basis to "fresh blood".
So that's quirky items. Or nearly so. We may have another look at them before the week is out.

Next week we'll take a look at Dark Gifts and Terrible Blessings—cursed items that deliver beneficial powers, but are designed to control or destroy others. That Ring of Invisibility is certainly useful, but it has some strings attached, doesn't it, Mister Baggins?

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Few Thoughts on the Origins of Cursed Magic Items

In taking stock of the cursed magical items offered in the Dungeon Masters Guides of olde, I notice a certain tit-for-tat pattern, one that is seemingly an echo of the early days of the game where DMs and players engaged in a playful match of wits, each camp attempting to overcome the challenges posed by the other. One can readily envision how it started: 
Fighter: “This magical bag is amazing! I’ve already put three sets of magical armor in there, all the gold I used to store back at the keep, my two iron golems, food, torches, all my magic treasure … everything I own! No matter how much I put in there, there’s always room for more!” 
Magic-user: “Next time we go under Greyhawk, I’m gonna find me one of those.” 
Elf: “Me too. Why keep stuff at home when you take it all adventuring with you?” 
Nasty, sneaky, tricksy DMes: “Hmmmm…” 
 Ever notice how most of the cursed loot looks just like the sweet loot? Bag of holding, meet bag of devouring. Girdle of manly strength, meet girdle of Playtex. Go on, flip to the back of the classic DMG and take it right down the line—from braziers and chimes to pipes and scarabs, you won’t find many cursed items that don’t look just like the nice versions.

You can almost see the magic items tennis match taking place.
F: “That time we took out the monks at the Pagoda of Inverness? Gary set me up with this Gong of Amazing Blessings!”
MU: “Man, I thought I found one of those up north when we took out that toad temple, but Dave saddled me with a Gong of Horrible Nastiness instead. Looked just like yours. My dude is still deaf. Have you seen my Libram of Leveling Up?”
E: “Far out. Where’d you get it?!?”
DM: “Hmmmmm.”
Just why do most cursed items, at least to me, lack something in the way of personality? Could it be because they weren’t created to stand on their own, but merely as a return volley?

Tune in on Sunday for Part II of our Cursed Items series, in which we put a bit of personality on those nasty bits of glowing goodness.