Magic items: role and drama - Part 2

Continuing from part 1, I'm going to look at what we can do to make magic items more awesome and interesting.
But first, I need to talk about consumables and artefacts - because magic items aren't always infinite, permanent things, and that is a significant difference.

Consumables versus artefacts
Consumable magic items of one sort or another are a near-ubiquitous trope in fantasy fiction: various powders, foodstuffs, liquors and salves that are used up each time they are applied, and grant special effect to the consumer - they allow the hero or villain a one-time chance to magically cheat.
In part 1, I mentioned d'Artagnan's cure-all salve, but let's also consider literally consumable magic items - fantastic foods like Lord of the Rings' lembas elvish way bread, and Thomas Covenant's aliantha treasure-berries; or potions like Getafix's strength potion, and Oberon's love potion.

(Incidentally, after some digging around, it appears that the now common idea of one-shot magical scrolls first appears with Vancian magic (from Jack Vance's Dying Earth, later stolen paid loving tribute in D&D). Magical writing prior to that appears to be thought of as permanent - which makes sense, really, given that this is what writing is for: permanence.)

Anyway, back to the topic: the drama of consumable magic items is that they run out. The hero cannot always be saved - and in some instances, reaching the precious item becomes a point of tension itself. Remember Popeye straining to get to his last can of spinach?

Items that are used up are in effect sacrificed. The magic is called up by the destruction of the precious thing (even if it is only precious because of the magic it will invoke - let's not get bogged down in circular argument, though). Token objects have been found at temples sites by archaeologists - sacrificial items to invoke magic. So we have a long tradition of one-shot magic, where the magical item is exhausted in the act.

Compared with items that never run out, this is a significant difference of drama and narrative in itself. If Excalibur only worked once, the whole story would be radically different.

So let's draw a line between one-shot and permanent magic items.

What to do about it?
In part 1, I hope I made it fairly clear that I think magic items should not be the common tools that they have become in our hobby - and in this part, I hope also that I've shown there is a distinction between two broad types of magic items: the one-shot consumable, and the persistently magical artefact.

Here, then, is my core aim: 
Magic items should START awesome, and STAY RARE.

By which I mean that the tool box of mundanely magic items should all but go - no more stacks of trinkets providing small bonuses here and there - leaving only the powerful and exciting magic items. So the first time a permanent magic items shows up in the game, it should be an awesome item. There should be no lesser items in the game.
These powerful items should remain rare, so that the discovery of each one is a memorable event.

The tool box need not completely vanish of course - that's why I pre-ambled for so long about consumable items. Consumable items can replace the myriad mundanely magical trinkets (look: alliteration - literary!) - potions, oils, paper bombs and other one-shot items can make up an adventurer's utility belt.

But permanent magic items should never be reduced to tools.

How we can actually enforce such a concept on our games will depend on the rules we're working in, of course. We can use increased thresholds for crafting magic items, changed probabilities on  random treasure tables, and the like.
I have in mind (for example) the idea that the special materials in the d20 OGL rules should become cheaper - these are materials that grant special properties to things made from them, but are not inherently magical. The special properties are impressive (adamantine cuts through most objects, for example), but are not magical.
However, as the rules currently stand, these special materials are so expensive that it is cheaper to make an item magical than it is to make it out of one of the special materials.

As for permanent magic items, some maths modelling is probably needed to work out an optimal way to encourage awesome item creation (again, depending on the game system you use)  - but the GM can simply veto dull items (the kind that grant +2 to this, +1 to that) when creating treasure, replacing such things with single-use of limited charged items.

What is awesome?
Your mileage may vary, so to speak, but generally a clear and overt spell effect is awesome, whereas a numerical bonus is a little dull. A flaming sword, arrow-repelling armour, a ring of water walking, or an invisibility cloak - these clearly awesome.

This is not to say that improving abilities can't be awesome. In old editions of D&D there were magical items that literally doubled your character's weapon damage, for example. A massive bonus like this is certainly in the realms of awesomeness. What we should be avoiding is a +2 or +4 here and there, and favouring a +8 or +10 instead.

In short, awesome magic items allow the user to do something they could not normally do - not by improving their abilities, but by giving them new ones.

What is rare?
I'm thinking that any character should only have one or two permanent magic items, plus a plethora of one-shot tools, at the peak of their career.
These permanent items should be signature items that are as famous as the hero or villain wielding them. The tool belt of one-shot items can be pretty cool in their own right, but they shouldn't be things that the character relies on and uses in all encounters.

What does this do to the game?
Permanent magic items become more impressive - both from their rarity, and their (hopefully) inherent awesomeness. Characters may become associated with their awesome artefact - such as Thor's hammer, or Arthur's sword.
Limited magic items become a resource to be managed. Those potions and scrolls won't last forever.

Ultimately, I think adventuring will be more dramatic - without the mundane magical shopping trip, the golf-bag of enchanted swords, the bag of holding with half the Gamesmasters' Guide treasure list stashed away in it.
Heroes will have to rely on their own skills and abilities more, with only one or two signature magical items.
Villains will wield significant artefacts that can be the target of the heroes' plan (steal the Evil High Priest's Staff of Horrors, and he's nothing but a mortal man).

How to mechanically achieve this balance of magic items will depend on the game you're playing - I still have plenty of work to do to make magic item tables for my own game. When I'm done, I may post another article showing the workings - but don't hold your breath....

There's no reason why we can't just wing it - it's a lot less work! But ultimately, to show fairness in action, it helps to enshrine those principles in the rules.
Of course, like many things in RPGs, it is often far easier to think of a general principle and aim, and use GM judgement to apply that principle, than it is to make rules to reflect it.

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