Archive for April, 2021

Adornments and The Practical Enchanter

April 17, 2021

Unique magic items have always been part of the fantasy tradition. Thor wields his hammer Mjolnir, not a generic hammer of thunderbolts. King Arthur is the rightful king because he commands Excalibur, not because he has a +5 holy sword. This continues into modern fantasy as well, where even among ubiquitous magic items, heroes will have special versions found nowhere else. Just look at what we’re told about Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility in “Deathly Hallows” for an example of this in action.

As the above card (from the 1992 set of AD&D Trading Cards) illustrates, D&D used to do this fairly well. While the magic item lists in the Dungeon Master’s Guide described generic versions, unique twists on “standard” magic items were not uncommon. While these were sometimes mysterious artifacts of great power, more typically they had a few unusual twists that helped drive home how this particular item was unlike any other.

However, the push for normalizing magic item powers via gp costs is not without merit either. Regardless of the issues surrounding “Wealth by Level” in game-play, having a comparative scale with which magic item powers can be measured is useful. We shouldn’t need to ignore that in order to add distinctiveness to magic items.

The Practical Enchanter introduced the idea of “flourishes,” where any permanent magic item worth 10,000 gp or more had small abilities too minor to grant any sort of game bonuses, such as self-cleaning or having soft-glowing symbols. These come at no extra cost, since the abilities in question possess no actual powers in terms of mechanics. But what it we expand on this a bit? Consider a package of minor abilities, allowing for some random elements that are collectively minor enough that we can cover them all with a small surcharge.

We’ll call these “adornments.”

Adornments: Adornments are suites of abilities that may be added to any permanent magic item. An adornment costs 2,000 gp, and can only be added to items worth at least 10,000 gp. If the crafting process involved materials of unusually high quality, an extremely high check result when creating the item, or some other improvement over the normal enchantment process, then this cost may be waived, and the item receives the adornment for free (though its market price is still treated as being 2,000 gp higher).

A magic item with an adornment receives the following improvements, which are always tied to the theme of the item. An item may only have one adornment, with its abilities functioning at the item’s caster level. The specifics of each adornment are always chosen by the Game Master.

  • One 1st-level spell that can be used at will, but always has a limitation beyond that of the normal version of the spell.
  • A +3 circumstance bonus to 2d3 different skills. A particular skill may have a bonus as low as +2 or as high as +4, but the average should still come out to +3 per skill. These bonuses will only apply to certain uses of these skills, rather than all checks involving them.
  • 1d3 0-level spells, usable at will.
  • Has the functionality of 1d4+1 pieces of mundane equipment, typically with small upgrades (such as being usable slightly faster, increasing a bonus to an ability check by +1 over what the base item would offer, etc.). These will never be as per weapons or armor, though the base item may have those functions normally.

Here’s an example of an item with an adornment:

Staff of Sol Invictus: This staff is a (Pathfinder-style) staff of fire with an adjusted market price of 20,950 gp. Its adornment grants the following abilities:

  • The bearer of the staff is continually protected by endure elements, but only aboveground and during the daytime. Water deeper than 200 meters counts as being underground for the purposes of this ability, as does being in outer space or in a realm that does not naturally receive sunlight (such as the Astral Plane, the Elemental Plane of Air, etc.).
  • The bearer receives a +3 circumstance bonus on the following skill checks: Diplomacy checks against creatures with the fire subtype, Intimidate checks against creatures with the cold subtype, and Spellcraft checks to identify spells with the fire descriptor.
  • The bearer may use dancing lights, light, and flare at will.
  • The staff can start fires as per a flint and steel from a distance of 5 feet, and may generate heat (but not light) as a candle, inflicting 1 point of fire damage by touch. Both of these require a standard action that provokes an attack of opportunity.

Normally, the cost of the individual benefits that make up an adornment add up to more than 2,000 gp. A 1st-level spell that’s usable at will (presuming the caster level is 1st) would cost 2,000 gp, with an ad hoc multiplier of x0.6 for the restriction, totalling 1,200 gp. Likewise, a +3 circumstance bonus to a related group of skills, also with restrictions, would cost the same. An at-will 0-level spell (with an average of two on a 1d3) would cost 1,000 gp each. Finally, equipment functionality costs the same as the equipment in question, with a small surcharge for the upgraded usability (call it +50 gp per item).

Overall, that comes out to roughly 4,500 gp worth of abilities on average. So why are we cutting it in half (and rounding down slightly)? Because of the notation that the GM always determines what powers an adornment consists of. This minimizes the impact that adornments have on treasure budgets for magic items that the PCs locate, ensuring that the “rule of cool” that these powers represent doesn’t come at the expense of utility, while still making sure there’s a measurable impact to what they’ve received.

Of course, an item with an adornment should have its own name, and possibly a backstory to it as well. Fortunately, those can be added for free.

Third-Party Support: Binary Poison Compounds

April 11, 2021

“Third-Party Support” is a series where I take a look at a particular idea, rule, or other notable tidbit from a third-party d20 product (i.e. not from Wizards of the Coast or Paizo) that I think deserves more recognition. While I won’t rule out looking beyond d20-based RPGs, expect those to receive the bulk of the focus.

Knowledge (Current Events) #2

Knowledge (Current Events) was a series of free PDFs released by Ivory Goat Press. Each issue was only a few pages long, referencing topics from recent headlines that it offered d20 conversions for. The topics were eclectic, but delightfully so, as they covered things from unusual diseases to private space shuttles to man-eating leopards, showcasing how they could be used as inspiration for an interesting bit of mechanical crunch. It’s a shame that it seems to have disappeared from the Internet.

One item that I found particularly noteworthy came in issue #2, where it covered the use of a binary compound as part of a terror attack, using it as a basis for the following rules for “Binary Agents”:

The concept of binary weapons began to take shape in the 1980s. Binary weapons refer to the concept of developing nontoxic precursors that can be loaded in munitions. Once deployed, the precursors mix and develop the nerve agent.

As a concept, it is useful even in fantasy settings — the chief benefit being that the binary agents are not themselves toxic, and thus are not detected by spells and effects such as detect poison and neutralize poison. You can also poison someone with a half now, half later strategy.

For any poison listed in the SRD or MSRD, an equivalent poison can be produced in the form of a pair of binary agents. This increases the Craft (poisonmaking or chemical) DC by +5. The poison costs twice as much as usual to purchase or produce.

The usual 5% chance that a character has of exposting himself to the poison whenever he applies it to a weapon is reduced to 1%, as the precursors are safer to handle. However, he still risks poisoning himself on a natural 1 on an attack roll.

This strikes me as being one of those “how did no one else think of it?” ideas. Poisons are an under-powered threat in most d20 games – largely due to them being downgraded so that they tend to work as a mild debuff more than something which can put characters in serious peril – so anything that gives them a boost (ideally without requiring characters to take feats, levels in a prestige class, etc.) is a much-needed boost. Moreover, this particular augmentation is fairly intuitive: most gamers, I’d wager, know what binary poisons are.

The one critique I have with the above, from a rules standpoint, is that it doesn’t mention how long a single compound stays in the body. If you manage to get one of the two poison agents into someone, how much time do you have to slip them the other half before it’s no longer viable? There are probably various factors that go into it, but for ease of play, I’d recommend that a particular compound is broken down and metabolized out after 24 hours.

That final paragraph, about applying binary compounds to weapons, warrants further examination. As the article correctly notes, the major game use of using two-part poisons is that they’re not subject to poison-specific effects until they’re combined, typically in the body of the target. While that’s good for avoiding detection (or neutralizing agents applied ahead of time), it’s hard to see why anyone would do that in combat.

That portion of the rules seems to assume you’re using both compounds on a single weapon, hence the reduced chance of poisoning yourself during the application but the standard chance of doing so in subsequent combat. An alternative idea, if you’re fighting with two weapons (or a double weapon), is to put each agent on a different weapon. In that case, you still have the 5% chance of poisoning yourself, but it’s checked separately for each application (meaning that you’d only poison yourself if you failed both rolls, effectively a 0.25% chance). Likewise, you’d need to roll a natural 1 with each weapon while in combat in order to be at risk of poisoning yourself.

Finally, note that the above rules don’t change the delivery method of the compounds. A pair of binary agents that create a poison whose normal delivery method is ingestion must themselves be ingested to take effect; you can’t have one part be ingested and the other be delivered via an injury. (At the GM’s option, consider allowing the delivery method of one compound to be changed by increasing the Craft DC by an additional +5, cumulative with the increase for making the binary compound to begin with, and increasing the cost to triple what the poison normally goes for. Only one agent can be changed in this manner.)

Hopefully this will make poison a little more useful in your campaign.