Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reading Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - Part 34

Placement of Magic Items

Just as giving player characters too much money can cause serious imbalance in a campaign, so, too, can be over-generosity when it comes to magic items.  Players love to acquire magic weapons, armor, rings, cloaks, brooches, bracers, and any other kind of magical doo-dads that you can imagine.  In a D&D world, magic items are the equivalent of the newest iPad (or, in my case, the Asus Transformer Prime).  They are the gadgets with which adventurers are chiefly concerned, obsessed, and upon which they are often dependent. A set of bracers and girdle of giant strength can turn a weakling fighter into a monster of a hero, and losing them can have the reverse effect. As one can imagine, being overly generous can create serious problems in a campaign.  For example, giving a second-level thief a cloak and boots of elvenkind will quickly turn him into a master of stealth--unfortunately, his hit points are still going to be settled around eight or so, and his AC perhaps 5.  It's still a one-shot, one-kill scenario.  At first this would seem a good balancing factor for his hyped-up skills, but it creates a difficult situation for a DM to address--how to challenge the characters with such a wide discrepancy between abilities and the punishment which they can withstand?  Any enemy that remains a challenge for PCs with the skills that the cloak and boots provide, will be far too great a challenge for the PCs to face in any manner other than those enhanced skills.

Unfortunately, as Gygax points out, it's a lot tougher to deal with a magic item glut than it is to deal with giving out too much gold.  You can't tax and tariff away magic items (well, you can try, but it's like to get pretty ugly).  As he says, "Thoughtless placement of powerful magic items has been the ruination of many a campaign." (92)  Gygax actually blames himself for what he considers an oversight in OD&D, not stressing the importance of moderation.  One imagines that he must've received many e-mails and stories of wild and gonzo campaigns with Balrog and Dragon player characters wielding mighty intelligent swords and artifacts as they swept across the world.  OD&D actually encourages this type of play, to a degree, even stressing that there is no reason whatsoever why a player shouldn't be permitted to play a balrog or dragon, an attitude which is expressly reversed in AD&D (See my earlier article discussing his "The Monster as Player Character" section--Part 6 of this series).

Gygax also takes a moment here to address the killer dungeon idea--the concept that somehow DMs are in vapid competition with their PCs and that some tak perverse pleasure in creating dungeons that slaughter hapless PCs by the gross, using impossible-to-solve traps and puzzles to brag to others about just how tough they are.  Few of these, Gygax says, survive to infamy because they quite frankly are a bore to the players who move on to better things.  This is an interesting statement, as one has to imagine that Gygax considered his own "Tomb of Horrors" one of the infamous ones. But the real danger with Monty Haul games and Killer Dungeon games, as Gygax points out is that newer players may not realize "the perversion of their DM's campaign," and could give up on gaming altogether. 

Solving this problem, Gygax claims, requires careful forethought on the part of the DM. Here we get back into the world design theme that permeates the entirety of the DMG--this entire book is dedicated towards building a milieu, something that later game master's guide books have lost.  Gygax himself would go on, in the d20 era, to author or co-author an entire series of books released by Troll Lord Games that dealt with various aspects of world, setting, and cosmos design. These books are now out-of-print and a bit hard to come by, but are well worth it for anyone who wishes to pursue the path of being a fantasy GM.

In this particular case, Gygax recommends that any important magical items that exist in the world be placed and detailed before the campaign even commences.  This could seem to clash with the earlier assertion that a campaign should start small, with a single village or base of operations, and grow out naturally, but it's easy enough for the DM to simply describe the item and its surroundings, such as, "resides in a cave to the north, guarded by a tribe of ogres and their demonic god." Then, when such time comes in the game when it is appropriate for such an item to come into play, the DM details the caves, tribe, and god, including this early descriptor in his notes.  The point is that a random table should not be the means by which powerful items are distributed, and even, truthfully, less powerful items.  A +1 sword to a first level character, after all, is quite the reward!  Gygax recommends that when stocking a dungeon, instead of using random tables to determine magic item placement, the DM pick and choose what items will be placed where.  Random tables are fine for later on, when higher level characters who have no use for +1 weapons may find such things in treasure hordes, though at this point one must keep in mind the effect of introducing such items into the milieu's economy.

The one issue that this section, unlike other similar sections, does not address the issue of what to do when the DM does inadvertently issue items of too much power into the game.  Off the top of my head, thieves and assassins spring to mind as ways to solve this issue.  Nobility is another potent factor--a local lord will be very interested in that +3 frostbrand longsword that the Paladin carries.  He may demand the weapon as tribute, and would be within his rights to do so inside the borders of his land. Of course, in these situations, DMs must be prepared to change the entire tenor of their campaign, as PCs will not lightly part with such items once they have them, and could quickly become hunted fugitives.  Such a situation can derail an entire game, and so it is always better for the DM to take great care in placing magical items.

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