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Magical Items as Set Pieces

by Jae
Magical Items as Set Pieces

Sitting in a tavern after raiding a lost ruin near a swampy settlement, the group divides up their loot. The leader parcels out what they recovered: old coins, a few gems, and what appears to be a magical ring.

As per tradition, the member of the party with the most monster kills chooses their pile of loot first. This time, the group’s fighter fared well against water logged zombies and so they take the small stash of gems for themselves. The wizard goes next and takes a pile of coins, then the group’s leader picks up a small statuette for themselves. Finally, the rogue is left with the magic ring. What could it do? What is it worth?

A Day Passes

Rather than pay the appraisal fee and lose any value they may have gotten, the rogue decides to slip the ring on. It goes on easy and can be removed, so no obvious major curse. Over the course of their day they try to puzzle out what it does. They don’t have much to do while they wait for their companions, so they head to the tavern.

In the tavern they find a table and sit down. A barmaid asks them what they’d like to eat and they have a eureka moment: they’re not hungry. Not even a little. Perhaps this is the magical effect of the ring? They decline a meal and figure they’ll see if they’re right.

Hours roll by, but their hunger does not budge a bit. They’ve finally acquired a useful item, something to keep their belly full while adventuring! They’ll save a boatload on ration money.

Hunger Made Clear

As the evening sets in the rogue’s never seen the tavern so full. Their party arrives shortly after the dinner rush and joins them at the table. The party orders food as the rogue tells them about the magical properties of the ring. The wizard, initially concerned, decides it can’t be too dangerous as long as they keep an eye on it.

The party eats and chats and drinks and laughs. The rogue, abstaining from food of any kind, chuckles like it’s a parlor trick at this point. The evening stretches on and tavern remains full and mirthful.

After a while, the other party members order seconds, then thirds. The tavern is more crowded than usual at this time of night. Some people are eating standing up since each table is full. The cooks are working furiously in the back as orders continue to come in. A man who’s been here as long as the rogue has is on his 7th plate. The barmaid can be seen sneaking scraps at every chance.

The wizard in the party, peering over their 3rd stein and 4th full dinner sighs; they’ve noticed a pattern. “Are you all still hungry?” they ask as the party nods, barely stopping to look up from their plates. A fight in the bar has now broken out over a drumstick and someone else is yelling for more food.

The wizard looks over at the rogue. “Take off the ring.”

The rogue, realizing what’s going on, sighs. Not a lucky get after all. The ring slides off their finger and the crowded taverns suddenly calms down. The party stops eating, suddenly feeling sick as others in the tavern realize how gluttonous they’ve become. The wizard takes the ring and quietly drops it into their bag of holding and the rogue’s stomach rumbles.

Ring of Famine/Ring of Hunger Magical Item

The magical item in this story is a simple example of weird magical properties you can apply to items in your game. The Ring of Hunger is a simple ring that when equipped projects the hunger of an individual to the people around them. This person feels no hunger themselves and will unintentionally starve themselves because of it.

The ring does not have to bind on equip like many other cursed objects would, but it easily could, which would compound this problem when used in any game. This is an example of a magical item that can be used as a storytelling focus in any simple session.

Magical Items as Set Pieces

Magical effects like this can make for great centerpieces in any story. This ring might have been a tool used in ancient times to control a kingdom, or it could have been created to spite a single person.

There are so many histories that can be applied to an item like this. Each possible past an item could have is a new story for you to tie into your game’s current events. Not only is a magical item with disastrous effects an interesting thing in and of itself, it also acts as a small self-contained mystery for your players to unravel.

Something is Amiss, Things Could Get Out of Hand

In our story, the characters come to understand what the ring is doing rather quickly. The rogue makes some assumptions about the initial effect and is relatively close. The wizard, being more perceptive, puts the bigger picture together and is able to solve the problem at hand. Things can go very differently with less perceptive characters, or more accurately, less perceptive players.

If the rogue hadn’t figured out what the ring was doing initially the wizard would not have had the thought to assume the ring was a problem. If things had gotten out of hand, the rogue might slowly starve, but everyone around them would continue to be under the effects of amplified magical hunger.

Depending on how dark your game is, this can get very ugly very quickly. I’ll leave some of the details here up to your imagination, but what if these very hungry adventurers run out of food and are driven mad with hunger…

How this really matters for you as a DM is in the pacing at which events take place. The effects of any magical items that cause the story or session to move forward have to be controlled with your best judgement.

You might need to speed up or slow down your pacing to give your players time to see effects take place or work out what to do in any situation. These kinds of scenarios are similar to combat, where ten rounds of combat is only 60 seconds in game, but may take an hour in real life to resolve.

With this in mind you can also consider that players might take a more straightforward approach to any magical item as well. The story above is about a carefree rogue who just tries the magical item on. But players in your game might want to take time to test all the effects of a magical item before anyone equips it for the long haul.

Magical Items and the Scientific Method

When using magical items that need to have their effects teased apart you will want to be obvious whenever you need a character to understand what an item does. If a character is experiencing a magical effect that would be obvious if the player were experiencing it, it’s okay to tell the player that they understand what is happening and outline that for them.

When players are in the process of testing something, the matter changes entirely. Some of our players love when there is a problem that can be tested repeatedly. Some of them hate it. In these instances your descriptions shouldn’t give the whole thing away, but instead be very matter of fact.

This lets your players try things, take notes, and work out a solution. If your player’s character would get the solution based on the facts they have learned already, it is okay to give hints or even outright tell them to avoid confusion and keep the game moving. Since some players hate these brute force guess-and-check puzzles, try and limit the duration of these if any of your players experience puzzle fatigue.

What’s a Curse Anyway?

In our example we have room for players to acquire a magical item, figure out what it does, and possibly have some consequences for not figuring things out in time. What we don’t have is lasting permanent consequences for guessing wrong. The ring is not binding, so players who simply slip it on don’t get stuck with it. The effect ends when the ring is removed. These effects are important for gameplay, but they likely defy some logic in the world.

If you were actually making a cursed object, you’d want it to stick to the person, have lasting effects, and be very hard to get rid of. This might be something your player encounters that has happened to someone else, but it shouldn’t randomly happen to your players.

It’s not that it couldn’t happen to your players, but it simply isn’t fun to have the DM force bad luck upon them. The only time you should enforce sticky cursed items or lasting effects is if the players know about it ahead of time and are being incredibly bold (or stupid).

Even in popular video games this is frowned upon. Dark Souls, one of the most brutal video game series out there, has moments where the player will just die or befall some other horrible fate just because they didn’t know about it. The only reason it works for Dark Souls is because its respawn mechanic is incredibly forgiving and dying is part of the learning experience.

Don’t subject your players to unforeseen or random bad effects unless there is a really good way to rectify them through player action.

Trying Out Magical Items as Set Pieces

A magical item of any variety can fill up an entire session with lots of fun, challenging, or even silly experiences. The example we used today is on the darker side as it is based around unnatural hunger. But a magical item could just as easily make everyone’s hair fall out, scramble everyone’s speech or writing into anagrams, or create a creature that only the drunk can see.

The great part about these kinds of sessions is that the whole thing revolves around magic with some set functionality and your players get to work out how to fix whatever situation they’ve got themselves into.

These kinds of sessions work great so long as you stick to a few simple rules. Be clear with description and don’t be too cryptic. Control your pacing so players have room to solve magical mysteries. And finally, don’t punish your players randomly or force bad luck on them, it’s not fun.

With these rules in mind, you’re ready to set up a simple magical item session that your group is sure to love. These can nest easily in any campaign as a one off, or they can be the mainstay of larger campaigns with new items each session. Try out a magical set piece and see what happens!

As always, Happy DMing!

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