Monday, October 3, 2011

Of Magic Items, Customization and Character Powers

I’m reading for the first time many classic D&D modules. Last week I finished Keep on the Borderlands and now I’m half way through The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.  While giving a quick pass at the Book 2 of the last module and seeing its “new” magic items, it occurred to me that – maybe until AD&D 1st-2nd – these items made for many characters what today is modeled through feats, skills and such: customization.

This “realization” may sound painfully obvious (or dumb) to most people, but it make me think on how of late I’m more inclined to an open-ended character structure instead of “fixed” mechanical-dense progressions.

The idea here is basically that:
-Magic items are a source of character customization, helping to define a character’s power and place inside a campaign;
-The function of magic items could be incorporated directly into a character in a way to make him more unique (or more faithful to its creator’s ideas).

Let me try to illustrate it. Suppose that each character class in D&D/Pathfinder was only the base skeleton of that concept. In this regard the old editions (pre-AD&D 2nd) are good guidelines – fighters get better attacks and more HPs, clerics get healing and protective spells, wizards get potent damage-dealing and versatile dweomers, thieves are exploration experts. These are their archetypes “skills” if you like. You really don’t need any more rules to strength their concepts. Things like Skills, Feats, Character Traits (or Themes in 4th Edition) and Prestige Classes are there just to entertain the players; to give a feeling of “progression” and “evolution” to the game. In the first editions this “customization” was done – in a certain way– solely by magic items.

Think about it: many of our early player characters (at least in my experience) were defined either by: 1) how long they survived; 2) their deeds, success and failures; 3) their magic items.

If there is one good thing in the 4th Edition (specially the Dungeon Master Guide 2) they are the rules for boons. Making it short boons are basically inherent mechanical benefits – they are magic items effects incorporated in the character. I already commented on a previous post how this approach appeals to me.

Now imagine if instead of tons of skills and feats each player could work with his Gamemaster to pick a “boon” (a power derived from a magic) item at every level (or every odd level etc.). Let’s suppose that the chosen boon should be proportioned to the level of the character. The origins of each boon would be “skinned” to the character concept: a thief with invisibility could have fey blood or birthmark that gave him this power; a fighter with haste could be a dervish or berserker; a cleric immunity to diseases could be a minor saint etc.

In more “dense” versions of D&D (like the 3rd Edition or Pathfinder), where removing skills and feats can be too much work, perhaps boons could be given every 5 levels (or any other progression to better suit your campaign). Perhaps boons would only be granted based on story reasons – after a master duelist was found; a grimoire recovered from a dungeon; a holy quest to a forlorn location accomplished etc.

I don’t know if I’m making much sense here. I don’t desire to further increase the game “crunch level”. What I mean is that a free-form system of powers and abilities can easily be a better candidate for certain types of campaigns instead of the classical “magic item progression” normally used in D&D. These boons would fulfill the same niche of magic items (i.e. keeping certain players interested and, in some editions, helping to balance the game).

In fact, in more light games (like OD&D, Castles & Crusades and many retro-clones; maybe my Pathfinder Lite) boons can be used easily by the Gamemaster to give a “personal” touch to the campaign.

Anyway, this was just the random thought of the day.

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