Thursday, May 28, 2015

4E Setting that never was

There's a lot of things I liked about D&D 4th Edition and a lot of things that I don't like about it, but I think one thing I had wrong was trying to make something of the game that it didn't want to be. One thing you can say about it is that its exactly the type of game its meant to be, take it or leave it.

I was thinking about some issues I had running 4E years ago and realized I could have embraced some things rather than fight them. There are lots of OSR blogs that look into the earliest rules of D&D and try to extrapolate how the world is supposed to work from that, rather than try to "fix" things.

So: magic item economy. I wasn't a huge fan of how that worked at the time. For one thing, having a glut of magic items, mostly hand-picked by the players, seemed to make magic less special. For another thing, I don't like the exponential gold piece price of higher level items, where a +5 flaming sword might be worth more than a small kingdom. But how can I embrace this?

One thing D&D does is make a clear difference between mundane weapons, made by a simple blacksmith, and MAGIC weapons which are ridiculously expensive by commoner standards and super special even at low levels. For example, a magic javelin probably glows at command and can return to its wielder after being thrown. Imagine how something like that would have been the most amazing thing ever to a primitive hunter, and in 4E it would only be a +1 weapon that most low-level characters would only turn into residuum to get 1/16th closer to buying the thing they really want.

Historical blacksmiths weren't separate from wizards, they WERE wizards. Most people didn't know how to work with metal and thought it was a mystical process. Even blacksmiths thought it was mystical, they used lots of rituals as part of their process. [Aside-its constantly intriguing to me how we don't understand how people in other times thought about things. We either assume they thought like we do, or that they were ignorant savages.]

Even outside of metal, other weapons were still carefully crafted in ancient times. We see a wooden stick and think of a club. An ancient crafter knew which part of which tree to use wood from for different weapons, knew how to carve it to make it balanced properly, could cut an edge that would draw blood like an axe, etc. No decent weapon was made quickly and cheaply, that came with the industrial revolution.

So...ALL weapons are magic. Anything that isn't an improvised weapon has been made with enough care for it to count as magic. Weaponsmiths pick the right materials, pray to their gods as they work, and produce something of quality or they're not worth their salt.

To exaggerate this, the setting is a mythic prehistory. The Dawn War is barely over, the land bears marks of destruction and even fallen primordials. The mortal races are only a few generations old, still exploring the world. Everything the heroes do is shaping the beginning of the world. Their deeds will echo through history.

*Cue borrowing heavily from Scarred Lands, Exalted, and Imperishable Fame*

So weapons, and armor too, are always magical. Nobody is minting coins, the main currency is residuum. Precious gems and materials will have value because they can be used to make magic items. PCs trained in Arcana or Religion can craft magic items by paying the required amount of residuum. Rare items require some special ingredient or circumstances to craft. I don't see on a practical level how this is different from "assume a merchant has the item your characters want to buy next time they're in town."

This has all been brainstorming, I'm still not sure about a couple of things. It seems like all mundane gear should have some magical properties too. And it could create a glut of magic weapons if all NPCs have magic gear. As long as their gear is low level I think it could be managed--everybody will turn their gear into residuum at half price, I just have to make sure they don't have too much "money" from that. Also, there's a different perspective. Weapons aren't just laying around, they're carefully crafted and guarded. Those bandits aren't just lowly criminals who found some short swords, they're warriors with magic weapons who have been outcast for some reason. That instantly has more flavor, and seems a more serious threat.

I like this idea because I feel it gives greater meaning to the magic items in the world without doing away with the basic way they function as characters adventure and level up. Here's some tables to flesh out magic items:

What's special about this weapon's construction?
1. Starmetal--taken from a meteorite
2. Strange alloy of metals that's stronger than their base components
3. Forged in complete darkness under the earth
4. Carved from a tree that was struck by lightning on a clear day
5. Metal was quenched by fresh blood during forging
6. Forged from ore to finish during the passing of an eclipse
7. Carved from a flawless jade stone
8. Inscribed with runes of its crafter's entire lineage
9. Mementos of a passed loved one were added to the metal while forging
10. Forged in the bonfires of the village's annual feast day
11. Buried in earth one year to honor the primal spirits
12. Made from the bones of a creature killed by the crafter

I imagine the Disenchant ritual being more of a ritual offering of a magic item to a spirit or deity. For example, the Celts and Norse would twist swords in half and throw them in a lake for the water spirits. Magic items could also be buried, burned, shattered, eaten by animals, etc. The residuum would be some token or magical material that could be used to create more magic items. Trophies of fantastic monsters could be residuum (the horn of a gorgon, the teeth of a hydra, the eyes of a medusa). It could also come from special occurences, like a meteorite or flawless gem like above.

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