Driving to work on Saturday mornings is always the best. Not because I’m working a Saturday, obviously, because who the hell wants to do that? There’s nobody on the road and I can just cruise along, my brain going into auto pilot. Usually I take this time to listen to some podcasts or an audio book. This week, it was returning to The RPG Academy. The RPG Academy is a fantastic podcast that I can’t help but recommend to anybody who enjoys tabletop games. I have been a bad goober and haven’t been listening lately, but I figured this week was the week to come back.
Table Topics usually is the segment that grabs my attention the most, though their actual play podcasts are amazingly good. So, being a creature of habit, I saw a new table topics and decided to start there. This particular time, the topic was Magical Theory, and it really inspired me to write this post and talk about the same sort of things they addressed in the episode. The first thing they talk about is how Caleb and Michael have complete polar opposite views on how magic exists in the games that they run and how their first experiences with fantasy role playing shaped their views. This is what sparked my mind into searching itself.
They talk about 3.5/Pathfinder and the original D&D red box, which kind of made me think about my first gaming experience. It was 4th edition D&D and actually has zero bearing on how I run games today. The thought gave me a chuckle when it dawned on me. Hilariously enough, my GM/story style is totally derived from literature and film. My two biggest influences are The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. The two works are a little different so bear with me here as I elaborate a bit. Middle Earth has this strange not high magic but not quite low magic setting. There’s strange creatures and elves that have these sort of seemingly mysterious powers along with immortality, and of course, there’s the Istari, or the wizards. They don’t really use magic much in the piece but you know they can use it, and it’s kind of understood and accepted that it’s there. I like to think of Middle Earth as a “mid-magic” setting, rather than the two polar extremes. The same can be said about Westeros, magic exists and it’s somewhat rare but also accepted to a degree. Yes, more rare than Middle Earth, but hey. What I take from the setting of Westeros mostly is the political intrigue and shred of historical accuracy. That’s really what made me fall in love with the setting, the grit and grime of medieval Europe brought to fantasy. That idea really shines in my games, but in conjunction with an opposite element presented by The Lord of the Rings: heroism. That story is clearly about overcoming unimaginable odds and coming out triumphant, something I really love to bring to my games. If the players are kicked while they’re down and then rise up to overcome, it makes an emotionally gripping and compelling story that I love, with or without magic. Magic is a fantastic tool to create these stories, magic is not uncommon or feared but also isn’t the answer to everything.
To me, The Lord of the Rings is the perfect mish-mosh of politics, magic and heroism that I crave in my tabletop games. The flip side, these kinds of games usually take a good amount of prep and can be easy to lose track of. Every now and again, I get lost in my own story so I have adapted and learned to keep a lot of notes on hand at all times. I have a lot of NPCs that have bearing on the story and a lot of tiny little subplots that shape the future of the campaign. This paired with massively deadly but obviously fantasy combat makes me excited to play something. Invoking the fear of dying without actually making a PC die is an amazing art, and often times, magic can help find that balancing point. As for magical items, they can also function as an amazing tool to iterate these ideas. Magical items can be center points of political feuds between countries or cities. They can also make the PC’s a target for any given group that’s tied to an item they may have stumbled upon and kept. So I think having a powerful item makes for some good opportunities to create a more politically intriguing AND combat heavy story. The flip side of that coin is that a powerful item in the hands of the PCs can be problematic for the GM. My advice, personally, would be if you’re going to introduce an immensely powerful offensive weapon into your story, have a solution in mind. Maybe the big bad guy has some sort of tie to it making him resistant to it, maybe there’s a counter item. It does almost create that “nuclear arms race” that Caleb and Michael talk about in the episode, but if you can keep it under control, it can be an interesting plot device. Or perhaps the goal is to obtain the item and lock it away or destroy it in order to prevent this arms race mentality. World order can be useful.
Magical items obviously aren’t only for offensive and defensive applications, magic items are almost more famously seen for their utility. Think of a bag of holding or a ring of water breathing or whatever. Seemingly simple items like this can sometimes throw a stick in the spoke of your games wheel. If you want a specific scenario to be challenging, utility magic items can take that element away. Conversely, you can have a trick up you sleeve as well. Maybe the players think they have the situation in the bag, and that’s when you throw them a curve ball that can’t be fixed with the item they have. The room is filing with water, so all the PCs put on their rings of water breathing to swim to the bottom of the room and go out the door. Oops, the door collapsed, what now? you can be in here until you starve because you can still breathe, but now you need perhaps a non-magical solution. The magic item can’t save you at that point but it made the players be interested in what’s happening. Doing things like that all the time negates the point of having the item, but every once in a while it creates a moment of tension because something that has saved the PCs in the past is now nearly useless.
I still haven’t tried my hand much at creating magic items of my own, simply because almost everything I ever think of has been done better somewhere else, so kudos to you guys at the Academy! Needless to say, incorporating the Deck of Many Things into my main campaign created a myriad of political, moral, interpersonal and magical complications to the story that were absolutely glorious. those high profile magic items and be awesome to use.
If you haven’t already, check out The RPG Academy, they’re a great group of guys putting out some killer content and they even have their own con. Keep doing what you’re doing fellas!
Stay Metal \m/