Jesse Heinig (trekhead) wrote,
Jesse Heinig

Running Dark Sun: Memorable Magic Items

Magical treasures are a mainstay of Dungeons & Dragons games. After all, they're the means to acquire special bonuses and powers that your character might otherwise never have -- and for players interested in building their character stories, every magic item is a piece of the character's history, a reminder of past adventures and a glance backward into the world itself (after all, someone had to make that magic item).

In DARK SUN, magical items sit on an awkward position of the reward hierarchy. Characters typically pursue metal weapons first, then hope to improve to enchanted metal weapons, but this isn't a sure thing. A 5th-level fighter with a +1 obsidian broadsword is still pretty fearsome, as the magical bonus on the weapon helps to ameliorate the drawbacks of obsidian. Essentially, for low- to mid-level DARK SUN characters, an enchanted nonmetal weapon might have parity with a mundane metal weapon. For nonweapons, though, the utility of magical items stays the same, or is even better. When you're stuck using bone-studded leather armor, a +1 ring of protection is a pretty big deal!

To match the setting's emphasis on damaged, second-hand, and worn-out gear, magic items in DARK SUN should have some kind of story or heritage that fleshes out their individual histories. This is good practice for magic items in any Dungeons & Dragons game, but in DARK SUN it's particularly useful to underscore the ancient history of the world. Here's an example from the oft-overlooked DARK SUN game, Shattered Lands:

Obsidian Bloodwrath: "This looks like a ritual sacrifice item of the templars of Tectuktitlay. Its blade is magically sharpened to better pierce the hearts of the dragon king's victims."

This is just a +1 obsidian longsword, but this nice little description explains where it came from (some templar made it in Draj for ritual sacrifices) and this gives it a bit of history. How did it get out of the hands of the templarate? Will they recognize it if they see a character carrying it? Built-in story development!

Since magical weapons in DARK SUN may well be made of obsidian, bone, or wood, you might extend this principle to other items as well. You could give the players a +1 ring of protection that is made from twisted knots of agafari wood, but it loses its enchantment for a day if the character is struck by a metal weapon. (Avoid the temptation to specify that its +1 bonus doesn't work against metal weapon attacks -- these kinds of situational modifiers that have to be applied on the fly to individual attacks are hard to remember.) Or, give a +1 cloak of resistance that's made from dyed erdlu feathers with solar patterns on it, enchanted by a para-elemental Sun cleric, but it only grants its bonus in daylight. A suit of +1 studded leather armor might be made with bulky pieces of hide that also give it extra weight or grant the wearer a penalty of some sort on various Strength and Dexterity checks (the implementation of such a penalty being dependent upon your edition of the rules). This way, you can give magic items with edge-case bonuses and drawbacks, just like magic weapons.

As noted with the cloak mentioned previously, the style of an item can also reflect the nature of its enchanter. A neutral defiler might make a wand of magic missiles out of simple teak, but an evil defiler might make such a wand out of a thigh bone wrapped with a rough leather grip and inscribed with tiny dart-like sigils. A set of boots of striding and springing enchanted by a druid could be in a sandy dun color that blends well with the desert, while ones made by an elemental priest of Air might be of white leather with blue trim.

Naturally, as the characters reach higher levels, they'll acquire or enchant weapons and items with better qualities, perhaps taking that extraordinary metal sword from an earlier age and placing their own spells upon it to make it even more powerful. As a rule of thumb, the bonuses for items should hover around a +1 bonus starting at 4th level, and going up by another +1 for every four levels thereafter (+2 at 8th, +3 at 12th, +4 at 16th, +5 at 20th). This might vary depending upon your edition -- in 3e or 4e, weapons with special properties tend to be more common instead of higher bonuses, and they may show up somewhat earlier -- but this general guideline indicates that your DARK SUN characters will have their low-quality obsidian or bone weapons when they start, get slightly better weapons at 4th or 5th level, then around 8th they will start to see enchanted metal weapons or powerfully-charmed weapons of inferior materials. You can and should, of course, break this progression if you feel that the players have earned an exceptional magic item, or if you want to saddle them with something beyond their level of ability and make them a target because of it. (Going the other direction is painful because there's already so much stacked against DARK SUN characters, but it might make sense in a city-heavy game of gladiators and thieves who don't need special magic weapons to fight their humanoid adversaries.)

Why go to all of this trouble? Because when your magic items have these extra bits of description, this descriptiveness helps to set them "in the world." A +1 sword is more than just a sword with a bonus: it is an object with a history, that was made by someone, went through various hands, and eventually wended its way to the players. The item not only has a past, but it reinforces that it came from somewhere, and that the world itself has myriad events and people in it that the players' characters may not know or have met. This provides versimilitude both to the item and to your world.

This bit of advice wouldn't be complete with a few tables to help inspire you with ideas for your own special magical items!

Age (1d6)
1. Ancient -- This item is from an earlier age of Athas. It is possible that it has only survived to the current age due to its enchantments. If it is artistically embellished, the artwork may reflect creatures or settings that no longer exist.
2-3. Old -- This item is from the current age, but it was created decades ago -- maybe even a century or more. The creator, if human or humanoid, probably isn't alive any more. The item probably doesn't have a reputation, unless it was used for a notorious deed in some place (a knife used for a series of killings in a city-state, a wand carried by a defiler who murdered several druids and terrorized a specific feature of the landscape, etc.).
4-5. Recent -- This item was created in the last few years, possibly by a local enchanter, or maybe it made its way to the area after its creator was robbed, killed, or sold the item. People who knew the creator might recognize the item; it could have a local reputation in some areas.
6. New -- This item was created very recently. The creator is probably only one or two steps removed from its falling into the hands of the player characters. It probably doesn't have a reputation yet, but if its creator was well-known the workmanship might be familiar to people who knew the creator.

Artistic Decor (1d6)
The nature of an item's artistic decor will reflect the preferences of its creator. A druid is likely to use pictures of natural spaces, animals, and natural phenomenon, a cleric will depict his or her patron element, a preserver might work arcane shapes into pictures of plant life, and a defiler might use symbols relating to death and terror.

  1. None -- The item is purely functional.

  2. Subtle -- The item has some sort of artwork built into it, but it is not apparent without close inspection (a pattern in the grain of wood or the fibers of cloth, a small number of colored spots that are out of place, a fresco that is so finely hewn that it can be felt but not seen).

  3. Minimal -- Item has a single rune, picture, or piece of embellishment.

  4. Decorated -- The item was made with several artistic choices, influencing its choice of material and also its form. The item is made of materials that may have some intrinsic value, specifically carved/woven/dyed/tanned/shaped to have a pleasing aesthetic, such as a wand with a smooth finish and tapered point that has an embedded ring of obsidian just under the tip, or a set of sandals with colored tassels on the ties and buttressed with polished pieces of petrified wood along the front to protect the toes.

  5. Whimsical -- The item is decorated with patterns and symbols that might be representative of an idea, but are not necessarily a specific shape of a creature or other object (tiny stars all over its surface, a stylized flame picture, a bolt of lightning with lines radiating from the point of impact, a picture of a cloud).

  6. Symbolic -- The item may be made to resemble a specific other object or creature (a wand that is shaped like a slender cactus, or a ring shaped with carved feet to look like a mekillot), or a natural phenomenon (a shirt with patterns in the dye-work to make it look like rain against a dark sky, a flask twisted into the shape of a sandstorm dust devil).

Quirks (1d20)
Only roll quirks for items that you want to be limited in some fashion. In general, you can think of a quirky item as one that has a bonus equivalent to an item one "plus" lower -- a +2 sword that only functions in daylight is roughly similar to a +1 sword in terms of its value, unless your game happens to always or never take place in daylight.

  1. Item only works for a specific period of time (day, night, during the waxing of one of the moons, half of the months of the year, etc.)

  2. Item is powerless when exposed to a specific element (e.g. if wielder is next to a fire at least the size of a bonfire, item loses its magical bonuses)

  3. Item has powers only after exposed to a specific element for an hour (e.g. wielder must immerse the item in water for an hour in order for its power to become active, item must be left unattended in the sun for an hour, etc.); lasts for one day

  4. Item only functions for characters of a specific race (thri-kreen, mul, etc.)

  5. Item's power does not work on one class of enemies (beasts, elementals, undead, etc.) or one specific social group (templars of Nibenay, clerics of Fire, etc.)

  6. Item works for a given owner for one week, then works only for a different owner for a week. Must be traded to resume functioning. If traded back, remains inert until the current owner's week expires.

  7. Item's power only activates when wielder is at 1/2 maximum hit points or less.

  8. Item's power only activates when wielder is at more than 1/2 maximum hit points.

  9. Item "turns on" by activating it with 5% of the user's psionic power points (minimum 1). Lasts for 24 hours. If item is dropped or given away, it becomes inert again.

  10. Item "turns on" by activating it with the user's blood -- 5% of the user's hit points (minimum 1). Lasts for 24 hours. If item is dropped or given away, it becomes inert again.

  11. Item radiates magic with triple normal strength and radius.

  12. Using item's power causes defiling as if casting a spell of level equal to item's bonus (e.g. +1 sword causes defiling as if casting a 1st-level spell every time it hits).

  13. Using item's power causes water sources to dry up. Calculate range as if defiling and destroying plants, as entry 11. above, but this causes water sources to completely dry up and become empty instead of destroying plant life. This still causes pain in living creatures (due to dessication).

  14. Item is fragile and subject to breakage like a normal item of its type, not as an enchanted item.

  15. Item has immediately recognizable characteristic or legendary history and many people will recognize it instantly (especially other magicians).

  16. Item causes a penalty on certain skill checks. Choose two skills. Item causes a penalty on those skill checks equal to its bonus (2nd/3rd/4th edition) or grants disadvantage on those skills (5th edition) as long as it is carried or worn.

  17. Item irritates psionic creatures nearby. Unintelligent psionic creatures seek out and attack the wielder to try to break the item. Range is dependent on item power (a good rule of thumb is, if the item could be detected with detect magic, it can be sensed at that range by a psionic beast.)

  18. Using item's power angers elementals nearby. Determine range as entry 17., above, but with the added effect that clerics carrying the item cannot regain spells (as their elemental patrons will not respond to them). Could be used as a shackle for an imprisoned cleric...

  19. Item temporarily loses its powers if it is in area of defiling magic. Powers are suppressed for 1 round per level of the defiling spell.

  20. Using item's power within a city-state alerts sorcerer-king to its presence.

Have fun with your +2 bone sickle of the scrublands, a druid-created weapon that bears a carving of the scrub plains and mountains west of Tyr, made a hundred years ago by a druid who eventually died in his guarded lands, but not before passing it on to one of his students, who took it on her journeys into the world. Or your +1 cloak of tears, a +3 cloak of resistance that looks like a limp gray length of cloth with a silvery threaded lining around the neck and shoulders, which only functions while it is damp with water. And may your weapons never break!
Tags: dark sun, game design

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