Thursday, February 18, 2016

That which we acheive too easily, we esteem too lightly - Questing for magic items.

Of course it's a good idea!

                A few articles back, I talked about giving players quests in order to have them gain magic items. A question was posed to me in the comments which asked how I suggest game masters go about such a task. This is something that I had to think about, because, primarily, what can I suggest that has not been talked about by other people? As always, the best I can do it to present some solutions with which I have had success in my own campaigns. With that in mind, here are the (admittedly limited) methods I have used successfully. As a caveat, while most of my ideas are used in the low-fantasy, sword and sorcery settings that I am personally obsessed with, it stands to reason that these should work well in any setting. And remember, as always, tweak these ideas like there is no tomorrow.
              Before I dive in, I would encourage you to read my other posts on magic items in a low-magic setting. The ideas laid out in those posts directly inform the strategies I will discuss here and are, in my opinion, necessary components thereof. In case you don’t have time/don’t feel like going back and reading articles on magic weapons and alchemical items, allow your humble servant to give you the tl;dr version: 1) Magic items should have names because they are special; 2) magic items should not be easily acquired for they are rare; 3) rarer still is the person who can craft such items; 4) items should have properties beyond bonuses “to hit” and damage; and 5) the more magnificent the item, the more costly (not necessarily monetarily) it should be to obtain it.

Hand wave it

Sometimes the easiest way to get something done is to just do it yourself. Players can be downright unpredictable, and if the storyline you have written (or a character’s long-term goal) hinges on the possession of some item or another, it is easiest just to hand wave the thing and simply give it to the player character. I am not, however, suggesting that the item be found in the treasure hoard of some normal (or even deadly) encounter in the course of the normal adventure. That would undermine the very idea of magic items being difficult to come by. Rather, the Game Master could construct a narrative in which the acquisition of the necessary item is described.

There are, I think, two ways of doing this. The first would be to write a well-thought through piece of prose wherein the event is described in evocative detail. The other way to hand wave this process is by simply summing up what happened as a short expository speech. This all depends on the play style of your gaming coterie. Either way, hand waving may be more efficient, but it is usually not very satisfying.

Blue booking

Similar to hand waving, blue booking allows the player character to acquire the item in question while allowing the main narrative of the campaign to continue. This method is especially useful for groups that are not able to meet often. In order to blue book successfully, parameters need to be set for the manner of the interaction between Game Master and player. There should be a time frame established, as well as an agreement on the depth of writing involved. After all, it is never fun to be the person contributing a disproportionately large amount of effort.

Blue booking should begin by the Game Master writing a prologue that involves some information about the quest itself. Then, the player can contribute a short explanation of his/her initial actions. After this, the game master explains the first encounter the player faces. The player writes how his/her character would deal with the situation, and then the Game Master writes up the next encounter. The key is to not get bogged down trying to write encounters on a turn-by-turn basis; that way lies madness and frustration. Because blue booking can take weeks or months at a time, it may be useful to give the player character the item, advance the main game by an appropriate length of time, and continue on with the whole party while you and the PC in question hash out the details.

One-on-one sessions

Assuming you have the time, a one-on-one session is my preferred method for having a single player go on a quest for a magic item. Adventuring parties conceivably need to split up from time to time, and the competent Game Master can come up with plenty of activities for the various members to do. After all, everyone should have a fleshed out enough backstory to enable their characters to have goals outside of the main plot. Perhaps the fighter is going to clear that land for his keep, the magic-user may actually have time to research that new spell, or the thief may have the opportunity to get in good with the local Guild. A series of short adventures could be constructed for each of these characters in order to pass the time, or (for things like clearing land or spell research) blue booking provides a suitable means for getting characters through the “down time”.

The main reason to have a one-on-one session is when the majority of the party wants to keep adventuring, but the the quest of a certain character is one that is either of a highly personal nature, or one that other members of the party simply have no interest or personal stake in. If something like this happens, my advice is to simply allow it. For instance, in my AD&D game, were I to send the paladin on a quest for a Holy Avenger, the rest of the party (made up almost entirely of chaotic, murder-hobos) would have no interest in going along. In this case, I would provide a separate adventure for the remainder of the party, and have them establish a rendezvous point for when they are ready to return to the main plotline.


The easiest way to incorporate the quest for a magic item into your game is to simply use it as a sub-plot. Need to get to Sigil? Perhaps the party must first find a gate key of some kind. Summon a demon? Have an adventure wherein the player characters quest for the necessary ritual components. There is not really a wrong way to do this. I, however, tend to stay away from item quests as sub-plots because, most of the time, the item being sought after is only important or, ultimately, usable by one character. If you drag everyone in the party along, there is a good chance the players might get salty about not receiving magical items of their own. Of course, this is only a significant problem if you are a low-fantasy junky such as myself.

Strong on his mountain (er…at his desk),

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