Magic Items Should be Magical

Once again, Creighton Broadhurst has made a post that has touched on one of my complaints with some Role Playing Games.  Magic Items aren’t magical anymore.  This is one of my many complaints about 3E and 4E D&D (see paragraphs 4 and 5).  Magic items in these games become tools, like those that one may purchase at a hardware store or thrift shop.  Magic items become less magic al because there is nothing “magical” about them.

When all magical items can be codified and cataloged and any relatively aware person can look at a magic item and know its workings, then such things become no different than the often glossed over pitons and rope at the bottom of an adventurers backpack.  Magic items should have an air of mystery about them, a mystique that make even hardened adventurers and their players just a tad wary of them.

Way back in the days of 1E, I often played fast and loose with magic items.  You probably didn’t find much more than potions before you reached 4th level, but after that, watch out!  I loved weird magic; things that the Players wouldn’t expect.  Instead of dropping a ring of invisibility into a game, I’d drop a cap of invisibility or a sword of invisibility.  My players might find a ring of fireballs, instead of a wand of fireballs.  One of my favorite magic items was the lightning stone.  It was an electric blue crystal that would build up and discharge a blast of lightning ever 500 turns (a turn was time unit equal to 10 minutes in those days).  It could be discharged early, by throwing it against a hard surface, resetting the build up time.  If my Players went several days in game time without discharging the lightning stone, I would start counting down from some random number under 20.  They would panic and start shouting at the Player whose character was carrying the stone, “Throw it!  Throw it!”  Magic Swords, I loved magic swords with unreasonable powers.  Once I gave a player a sword that could cast a 100 d6 fireball that was a mile in diameter; the catch…ground zero was the sword.  Then there was Narnfriend, a dagger that could be used to cast a power word: Kill spell.  The only problem is that the caster had to make a Saving Throw or die, too.  Magic items were fun in 1E and 2E.

Magic items lost much of their fun after 2E.  In my 3E and 4E games, most magic items were nothing more than stat enhancers.  With Feats and Skills that allowed PCs to craft, modify, or completely remake magic items based on their spell selection, 3E made it very hard to make “magical” magic items.  The rules didn’t even, really, allow a GM to make items that had curses or quirks.  There were exceptions.  Raven Al’Bari, a PC in my Divlos campaign, crafted a series of Rings that had non-standard powers.  I let a Player get a Red Cap’s red cap.  So you know, a Red Cap is a type of murderous fairy; after it kills its chosen victim, the Red Cap soaks its cap in the deceased blood.  In my game, a red cap also granted a special form of invisibility called fairie invisibility, but for the cap to retain its power, it had to be regularly soaked in the blood of the wearer’s victims.  That made for a slightly morbid scene from time to time.  That cap reappeared in my 4E game with an additional power that allowed its wearer to phase thorough material objects.  It could be done, but the rules didn’t encourage it.

My 5E games are proving more “magical” than my previous games.  The characters in my Zentlan campaign have reasons to slay the fey lord Doresh, Lord of the Fading Dream, but to do so, they need a special sword.  The crippled storm giant Gormagon forged them a sword that can damage Doresh, whether he is in Dream or in Reality.  Last game, the aquagith swordsmith, Ja’Ruhl tempered the blade so that it is silvered and does psionic, as well as, slashing damage.  The characters will need to continue to seek out famous smiths and get them to enhance the weapon until it is truly a blade worthy of fighting a Lord of the Fae.  I, also, dropped a load of items of adaption on them, but what they are going to do with those rings, torcs, and bracelets, I’m not sure.  In my Bazarene Circuit game, my Players have found a slew of elemental crystals.  They are not magical in themselves, beyond their soft glowing, but they are useful ingredients in various magical spells and items.  They have also found two Masks of the Smoke Dragon; they may need to be wary of them.

A Mask of the Smoke Dragon grants its wearer darkvision and makes him or her immune to the effects of smoke and other airborne contaminants.  It’s not too powerful of an item for a 2nd level character.  It will let a PC move through a darkened room filled with poisonous gas without any inconvenience.  End of story, right?  I have a few questions for you all, Dear Readers.  1) Who made the masks?  2) Why were the masks made?  3) What is the Smoke Dragon?  4) Is the Smoke Dragon a real entity or a magical effect?  5) What were/are the aims of the Smoke Dragon and/or its creators?  6) Are there additional enchantments on the masks that the PCs do not know about?

Until next time, Game On!

Why do I Master Games?

So, a few days ago, I posted an old review in response to a Creighton Broadhurst post.  That post led my best friend to suggest that I start a blog wherein I review old gaming material.  I started working on a post for this potential project.  While I was working on that blog post, I realized something…I don’t remember why I got started GMing.

Granted, it has been over 30 years, since I sat down and started GMing, but I do not remember the steps between my first experience playing D&D that Sunday afternoon in March at Davy’s house and sitting down at my parent’s kitchen table drawing Lungold…I mean, Mythgold.  I know that I must have played D&D more than that one time.  I had an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual that my parents gave me for Christmas.  So, what led me to wanting to create my first dungeon?  What led me to craft an overland map that led the PCs to Mythgold?  What set me on this path that I will not willingly leave?  I don’t remember.

I remember long hours of playing my cleric Gregor O’Dragon nee The Gaunt, but a fair number of those hours happened after I first ran Players through parts of Mythgold.  I remember being fascinated by the descriptions of the rooms in the module B1In Search of the Unknown.  I remember stealing ideas right out of that module for Mythgold.  I just don’t remember why I wanted to DM.

Our gaming group, in the early days, consisted of Davy McMillian, Michael McMillian (Davy’s cousin), Stephen Goff (my cousin), Clyde Smith(Davy’s friend), and Mark Inabinette (my cousin).  Davy started out as DM, because he had the books.  Shortly, thereafter, Davy and Clyde began taking turns at DMing.  I don’t remember what happened at most or any of those games, but it was during those early days that I must have begun to desire to sit on the other side of the DM’s Screen.

What if my memory is faulty?  What if I am wrong about which AD&D book my parents bought me for Christmas?  What if I started drawing Mythgold before I had any D&D books of my own?  It doesn’t really matter, because the truth of the thing is that I wanted to create.  I wanted to make a dungeon.  I wanted PCs and their Players to interact with the monsters that I had placed within it.  I just don’t know why?

Even if I do not remember why I started GMing, I know why I do it today.  I do it today, because I am a poor player.  I have a hard time sitting on the far side of the Game Master Screen and not think about how I would run the game different.  I enjoy creating.  I get a great joy spending time designing maps.  Working up NPC personalities gives me great satisfaction.  Writing secret cards helps me to think outside of the box and fuels further creativity.  Running games makes all the creative work I do worth the effort and time that goes into creating.  Being caught off guard by my Players and having to maintain composure, think on my feet, and give the illusion that I had everything already planned out gives me a thrill that outweighs the glory of creating.  Watching a story unfold, a story that I could not have crafted on my own, is like watching a flower bud open.  It is a thing of beauty.  Seeing Players getting caught up in the moment gives me energy to go deeper and draw forth more better encounters and adventures.  It helps me make my world a more real place, at least for a short while, than the rest of reality in which we dwell.

So, why do you Master Games, my Good Readers?  What draws you into the bright darkness that requires us to fill crannies full of goblins and sow the seeds of dragons?  Until next time, Game On!


Free RPG Day 2016

Hey!  HEEEYYY!  Did you know that this approaching Saturday is the 10 annual Free RPG Day?  You do know what Free RPG Day is, right?  I’m getting the feeling that some of you don’t know about Free RPG Day.  Fine, here we go.

Free RPG Day is a day where many local gaming stores give away free RPG materials.  Yeah, I know, it’s crazy.  Businesses are giving stuff away.

I think they think it works like those people who give away free candy.  You’ll try it and then you’ll get hooked and have to buy it.  It didn’t work on me.  No, sirree.  I discovered Free RPG Day by accident 5 years ago and I’ve gone back every year since.  But, I’m not hooked.  I’ve only bought a couple of Goodman Games products, since I found a free module 4 years ago.  I’m only going to Free RPG Day this year to pick up Paizo’s We B4 Goblins, because I’m a completist…I swear that it has nothing to with my use of those modules in my gaming.  My wife is hooked.  She bought extra dice, after she found a free dice tower, one year.  My brother-in-law ran a quick play D&D 4E module for family, the year he found it at Free RPG Day.  So, I know that it can happen.  People can go to Free RPG Day and discover new game systems, new adventures, or even new friends and fellow gamers

Hey, I can’t encourage it enough.  Find a local gaming store that is participating and go check it out.

Free RPG Day!

A Review: Return to the Keep on the Borderlands

Creighton Broadhurst wrote a nice article on the advice Gary Gygax gave to Dungeon Masters and Players in the module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands.  This reminded me of a review that I wrote for a now defunct website.  It has been 17 years, since this review has seen the light of day.  I’ve fixed a few typos and grammar errors and added a few hyperlinks and here is the review for your perusal and enjoyment.

A Return to Games Past

Was it really nineteen years ago that I first read The Keep on the Borderlands and thought, “What a lousy module?”  Yes, I guess it was.  As you may be able to guess, I was not the most sophisticated of gamers, when I was sixteen.  I had already played the module In Search of the Unknown, designed, and ran my own multilevel dungeon (that involved a wilderness adventure) by the time that I was given The Keep on the Borderlands.  I did not need a module to tell me how to DM nor did I want a place with a whole bunch people running around that were not monsters.  Boy, was I foolish.  Now that TSR has released the Silver Anniversary module Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, I have a chance to redeem myself and prove that I have grown as a gamer and a Dungeon Master.

Return to the Keep on the Borderlands does an incredible job of updating a powerful module.  John Rateliff matches the format of Gary Gygax’s original module, by dividing Return into four sections: the first is on Dungeon Mastering, the second is about the Keep, the third section is on the wilderness outside the Keep and finally there is the section on the Caves of Chaos.  Rateliff has carefully expanded and updated each section, adding material only when needed.

Rateliff’s advice to Dungeon Masters is very good.  He rightly points out that players and Dungeon Masters sometimes need to “re-invent the wheel”.  After reading this section, I was somewhat saddened to be running a game already in progress with characters well beyond first level.  I could really hone my skills as a DM by running lower level games again.  Rateliff points out many things that can be great role playing challenges, things that I seldom, if ever, use.  I had forgotten to use bad weather it isn’t always late spring and sunny.  Dungeons and cavern complexes are dark and first level characters cannot afford continual light spells I don’t remember the last time my players relied on torches.  Sometimes the monster is just too big and you have to run away – my players cannot remember when gnolls where dangerous.  It is easy to forget the basics, when you are running a campaign in a world that you have been building for twenty years.  While I did not want advice on DMing, when I was sixteen, I see how I still need it when I’m thirty-five.

One of the things I hated about the original module was the all the space spent on the Keep and the people in it.  When The Keep on the Borderlands came out it in 1980, it was twenty-eight pages long and half of it seemed to be filled with information about the Keep (a place that players really could not explore) and the Keep was filled with people (things that players really could not kill).  Now in 1999, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is sixty-four pages long and the Keep and the people in it are the best part of the module.  The new release does more with the people of the Keep than its predecessor did.  Each of the NPCs has a name in Return and that is a grand improvement over the original.  As a DM, I hate having to come up with names for NPCs.  Mr. Rateliff names the good guys, the bad guys, and the dead guys.  (Do you remember the name of the lord in The Keep on the Borderlands-No; you don’t, because it was never given.)  There are connections between each of the NPCs in the Keep; some are married, some are related by blood, and others are just friends or regular customers.  With all of this information, the DM can really set up some good encounters and have something to fall back on when his or her players suddenly decide to the unexpected while staying at the Keep.

While I think all of the information on the NPCs is great, I really like the section on “Potential Henchmen and Allies”.  Finally, someone has gone to the trouble to write up henchmen in a way that covers more than just the statistics.  These people have reasons as to why they might want to adventuring.  They also have pasts and that gives them more depth and character.  I have two favorite NPCs from this bunch: “Third” and Dubricus D’Ambreville.  Dubricus is a member of the D’Ambreville family which is found in the module Castle Amber, while “Third” is from the underground city in the module The Lost City.  As a long time player, I like these references to other parts of the original D&D world.  If a DM has these modules, these NPCs give him or her a great opportunity to pull them out and run them again.

While the layout of the Keep and the profiles on its inhabitants are the meat of the section on the Keep, it is sandwiched between two fine slices of bread: “History of the Keep” and “Adventures in Town”.  The “History of the Keep” is yet another excellent example of John Rateliff’s knowledge of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons product line and his logical use of that information and history.  “Adventures in Town” closes out the information on the Keep, by offering the DM three ways to expand Return to the Keep on the Borderlands after the players have exhausted the Caves of Chaos.  This is really good before and after stuff.

The information on the wilderness surrounding the Keep is very well thought out.  John Rateliff has kept most of the original information about the area and just updated it.  If you can compare the area maps from each module, you will see that they are the same.  One of the things Mr. Rateliff updated was the Cave of the Unknown.  What was listed as the Cave of the Unknown on the original map is now listed as Quasqueton-the dungeon from In Search of the Unknown.  The spiders that the characters might encounter now come from the Spiderwood.  It all makes a lot of sense and is fun to run.

Finally, I get to discuss the Caves of Chaos, what was most likely the most fun to the hack and slash gamers I knew back in the early 80’s.  The DM is once again given a map of the Caves with topography lines drawn on it, so he or she can gauge how far below the surface the characters have gone.  However, unlike the original map this one is brightly colored and coded for easy reference.

The information about the Caves and their inhabitants is divided into eleven different sections each one labeled with a letter of the alphabet starting with A and running through K.  Each area has an overview of what the players may encounter while exploring that section of the Caves.  Mr. Rateliff also offers hints to DMs on how to handle various encounters found in that section.

Of all the great stuff you can read about in the Caves of Chaos, two stand out for me: “Cave F: Former Hobgoblin Lair” and “Cave K: The Hidden Temple”.  I like Cave F because it has two unique forms of free willed undead: the skeltar and zombire.  It is so hard to have low level undead for characters to fight.  Skeletons and zombies are boring after the first few encounters with them, but thinking undead are a different story and the skeltar and zombire make excellent foes for low level parties.  I like Cave K because of the whole temple/religious setup.  While The Keep on the Borderlands had a temple of evil for the characters to destroy, it was never defined…it was just evil.  The Hidden Temple, on the other hand, is very well thought out.  The priesthood of the temple has goals and plans and even has a god to worship.  (They worship the evil god Erishkigal-for those that have to know.)  While there are nine other sections to the Caves, F and K are the ones I like the best.  The Caves of Chaos are probably eight to ten adventure sessions in themselves and each cave complex is interesting in its own right.

While I could talk on and on about the skillful way Mr. Rateliff wrote about the changes in Caves and talk about the neat tricks of the Labyrinth or the fun encounters with the parlaying bugbears, I won’t.  I can talk about how much I have been reminded of as a Dungeon Master, but I won’t.  I could even give you, fine readers, three more pages on the changes I have seen in AD&D over the last twenty years and how John Rateliff has carefully updated Return to the Keep on the Borderlands to reflect those changes, but I won’t.  I will end this review with these simple statements.  I have only good things to say about this module…no, they are adventures now…this adventure.  You really have to go get it and Return.


Please go check out Creighton’s post and give him thanks for a great blog and for inspiring me to dig up my past.  So, did you read and/or run either The Keep on the Borderlands or Return to the Keep on the Borderlands?  What did you like about them?  What did you steal from them?  Did you read about my misattempt to use them?  Until we meet again, Game On!