Saturday, 3 October 2009

campaign branding: making magic items memorable

There are ways to make a game come to life.  Campaign branding is about making a particular game have it's own distinctive feel. Whether it's the flash on your magic, the genre conventions you're working with or down as deep as explaining where all the diamond and silver dust comes from, essentially setting fluff that impacts directly on the characters that help make a setting memorable. So let's start with a popular one.

Gamers lament the generic nature of magical items (given how most RPGs treat them, this isn't surprising) and have correctly identified a little detail goes a long way.  Doing it is it's own artform.  Which do you prefer?

A +1 long sword with a ruby in the pommel
A black +1 long sword with hazy red edges and a glowing ruby in the pommel.

Six more words.   Mechanically identical, aesthetically different.  Keep additional fluff to fewer words than the original description and use enough to make a difference or three from the base item. Short words help to sell this idea and as someone once said, if you can't show, then tell but do it quickly.

You're right - I prefer ostentatious magic.  Having seen sword smiths working and the effort it takes to make a normal blade, why not give magical blades cantrip-level bling?  Do you want them to know it's magical? And magic need not be glowing.  They can emit a bitter scent, twitch like rat's noses or even scream when wielded.  And that's just weapons.

Armour may shift through many colours, robes may be seamless, rods may be inset with gems that twinkle like stars.  Exotic materials may be used in construction (and if magic is involved usually are) or manufacture and this is the beginning of the level of customisation you can aim for.  That black and red sword can have a lot more about it than just being a magic sword with a Sith colour scheme.

Additional decoration in the form of maker's marks, insignias, religious markings, mystical runes and more suggest additional stories as well.  This is before we get to decorations like dragon's head pommels which can be applied to non-magical weapons as well.  Stories you can use to give the game new directions - triggers for bringing a game to certain parts of the campaign world even...

Those craving subtle magics can find them and use them if they so wish.  A nondescript dagger may reveal lethal magics only spotted by those looking for such. As long as form follows function it makes some sense.  A dagger makes a good assassin's weapon, a flamberge less so (even if it's effective, sheer size makes concealment tricky) - it depends on the enchanter.

You can omit mechanics and reveal the modifier only if someone thinks they've missed.  Doing this in isolation or solo play is fine.  Doing this for a group of four to six people with different weapons may slow things without some preparation so it comes down to preference, adjusting player combat rolls or more gameplay with players who know what they're doing. I prefer the latter myself.


  1. I think just adding a few descriptors to items makes for a solid point. Even an innate characteristic that gives the item some personality goes a long way. Little details like this really gets the group's imaginations running. And typically I find if the DM puts effort into making a descriptive world, the players will reciprocate.

  2. Thanks for the comment! Getting the balance right is one of those things that makes a good game great. I think it's something MMORPGs do very well and tabletop games are learning. People talk about the importance of making the game your own but aren't so vocal about the how of it...


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