Sunday, April 12, 2009

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?

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