Magic item development

I’m a really big fan of the concept of magic items which are created or strengthened as a result of great heroes doing great deeds with them rather than (solely) because of a wizard deliberately enchanting them. And some thoughts about how to do that using the tools provided by ACKS came to me today:

The campaign chapter provides rules giving requirements in money, monster parts, and time for wizards to enchant items. All of these could be easily converted to a more organic form.

  • The money requirement can be spent on thematic activities which provide no other in-game benefit, such as making donations to the local church to have the item blessed or buying drinks at the local tavern while you tell everyone about the great things you've done with the item.
  • The special components requirement is, rather obviously, covered by monster XP earned while using the item.
  • Time, for the most part, is time, so this requirement can be carried over directly - the gold must be spent and the monsters must be killed over a period of time at least as long as it would take to enchant the item normally.

When the requirements are fulfilled, the GM chooses a new enchantment appropriate to the way in which they were met and applies it to the item. I would do this without telling the player what the new ability is (or even that there is a new ability), leaving the new power for them to discover while using the item, but others may choose to inform the player immediately. For example, a character who uses an unenchanted blade to slay an ancient dragon (8400 XP) and another 1600 XP worth of monsters (10,000 XP total) and then spends at least 10,000gp on spreading tales of his battle against the ancient wyrm may discover that, a couple weeks later, the sword is +1 vs. dragons and, in two months, that it’s +1, +2 vs. dragons.

Since these things can be done by anyone, not only by high-level spellcasters, some balancing will obviously be required. Some balance is provided by the GM choosing enchantments based on how the item is used and its owner’s behavior rather than allowing the player to design the item to his precise specifications, but it may be necessary to also increase the amount of money/XP/time required to avoid making the enchanting abilities of high-level spellcasters meaningless. On the other hand, after the first time a caster performs a given enchantment (or if he’s duplicating an existing item), a high-level spellcaster can do it at half cost, so perhaps that’s already enough of an advantage for “traditional” enchanting.

I’m particularly uncertain about the XP requirement, since deliberate enchanting requires the full XP value to come from a specific creature or type of creature (e.g., the example Sword +1 requiring 36 ogre or hero skulls rather than 5,000 XP worth of anything you happen to kill). However, this is offset by needing to slay those 5,000 XP worth of monsters personally (rather than hiring low-level adventurers to collect skulls for you) and using that specific weapon (rather than pulling out your +3 Hammer of Annihilation and mowing them down). Overall, I’m not sure which way the balance falls on that.

At this point, all of the above is completely untested - I haven’t even really thought it through that thoroughly beyond simply typing up this post - but I’d be very interested to hear anyone’s reactions or thoughts on balancing it.

in the case of the slain dragon, it has a high probability of having another magic item in its hoard. In such cases, it could be that rather than finding a new item, the existing item is imbued with new powers. You might have to cook up a balanced way to allow upgrading of weapons though, how much cheaper is it (if anything) to turn a +1 sword into a +2 sword?

Good point - changing “magic item in hoard” to “upgrade item the players already have” is also a viable option.

Creating a +2 item costs an additional 10kgp and 10k XP worth of monster parts on top of the cost of creating a +1 item and it takes twice as long.

Two concerns I would have with this - FIrst, gold spent frivolously typically goes towards Reserve XP as a function of injecting gold into the economy and attracting higher-level adventurers to act as replacements. Does this frivolous gold have the same effect, or do you have to declare that it’s for magic item creation, or … ?

Second, as a DM, tracking time-to-upgrade and secretly tracking magic item modifiers is a huge pain in the posterior, and not something I would be willing to do.

As regards replacing magic items in hoard with upgrades to existing items, my players and I did tend to accumulate great piles of +1 swords, which were then distributed among the henchmen and the two-weapon fighters and kept as backups in case of rust-monster-attack. We derived significant utility from having spares which I am not sure we would’ve derived from having fewer +2s instead.

Good questions!

The gold is definitely separate. When you enchant an item the traditional way, the gold spent on the enchantment is consumed by the process, not passed on to a future character’s XP - you either spend 5k on making a +1 sword or spend 5k on getting 4500 XP for your next character, not both. If this method let you spend 5k once and get both benefits, then it would clearly be better than what high-level spellcasters can do, which would be a Bad Thing. Given that the regular way of creating enchanted items is limited to certain classes and requires you to be 9th level before you can do it, any system for giving items gradually increasing powers through use must be less powerful/useful, not more so. (And it just occurred to me that enchanting things the traditional way requires a Magic Research roll and you may want to dump in a few extra tens of thousands of gp for bonuses on that roll, so the gp involved in this method would definitely need to be higher.)

The tracking would definitely be significant added overhead for the GM, no doubt. I don’t particularly mind that sort of thing, but I know others do. Alternate suggestions for how to regulate it are extremely welcome.

As far as the utility of spares, that’s orthogonal to what I’m trying to accomplish with whatever system may come out of this discussion. I want to make it possible for a level 14 character to have a +3 sword which is the same sword as the +1 that he was using at level 5 and, ideally, it should also have some extra effects beyond just being +X which reflect its in-game history instead of being a static item whose abilities are determined solely by its GM-written backstory.

I will make a note that this will significantly reduce the power and utility of high-level wizards.

Less of a reduction if this is an addition instead of a replacement (that is, if high level wizards can still make magic items the normal way, it hurts them less), but it will still reduce the class’s power.

You may say that’s a good thing; high-level wizards are incredibly powerful. And I would certainly agree that high-level wizards are powerful, but that’s why their XP costs are so high and they are weak at low-levels.

I don’t know exactly how much to reduce it off the top of my head, but I’d consider reducing the base XP cost of the arcane value (and thus, wizards, elven spellswords, and elven nightblades from the core book) by some amount to reflect the power loss involved.

Well, when you start adding effects like flametongue, that’s wholly separate from the +1/+2/+3 track, so you might have some leeway there. Essentially, some fictitious magic item that only exists to have the flametongue effect would cost the same and have the same chance of failure regardless of if you were making it alone or adding it on top of an existing magic item. This is balanced by each effect requiring a magic research throw, but that penalty isn’t considered when handing out treasure as part of a hoard.

Therefore, it SHOULD be balanced to have, for example, the magic item that scores the killing blow on a red dragon to be imbued with a flametongue effect or thereabouts. Obviously there is some added utility of having lots of effects stacked onto a single item, but this would be offset by the utility one would have from getting a new item and having the option of giving it to anyone or even selling it.

As for the tracking of kills portion, I personally don’t see a problem with letting the players in on that knowledge. Let’s say they find a +1 sword, Trollkallar, famously wielded by the rulers of an ancient kingdom that regularly fought with trolls. Every time the sword kills a troll, the troll shrivels into nothingness (no harvesting of monster parts). Tell the players to track the total XP of trolls killed with Trollkallar. Instead of spending money on boasting, just have dead troll parts pay for the entire process, this is already comperable to divine item creation, which can be done exclusively with divine power and thus having no GP cost. When they rack up a big enough total, it becomes +2 vs. regenerating creatures, eventually +3, then maybe other effects like fast healing or vorpal vs. trolls.

shrug I guess I just don’t see maintaining sword continuity as something worth doing paperwork for. We had our share of storied blades that were passed down from adventurer to henchman, or which came back into active service when a more powerful weapon was lost (disarmed or dropped when mortally wounded and left behind during retreat, taken as ransom by orcish chieftain to release paladin, rusted, or so forth). Admittedly, we only ran about 3rd to 8th rather than 14th, but I feel that with the large-party structure of ACKS, it’s very possible for low-bonus weapons to remain in active use even into the mid- or high-levels.

" Instead of spending money on boasting, just have dead troll parts pay for the entire process, this is already comperable to divine item creation, which can be done exclusively with divine power and thus having no GP cost."

Rules as written, this is not actually true.

Divine power can replace GP for the purposes of special components and for precious materials, but the cleric (or cleric-like class) must still pay the base cost in gold pieces.

ah, sure enough. i guess when i first read that second bullet point about divine power it made sense as covering the gp cost of the item. And here i was thinking divine item creation was way easier than magic item creation, turns out it’s only a little bit easier (I actually think collecting a specific monster part is difficult unless the DM has put a lot of thought into how one finds out where specific monsters live)

My players once happened upon a scroll of wish. Their wizards thought long and hard about uses for it, and upon examination of the sample rules, decided that duplicating it would be a wize course of action. When informed that genies were the operative monster for parts for this, their angry response was “Where the hell are we going to get a pile of genie scrota?”

They never did use or manage to duplicate that scroll.

We tend to use leave thematic creativity in monster part use partly in the hands of the players, who try to find uses for the parts they happen to come across. “Hmmm… we just killed a bunch of trolls. Is there any chance we could use troll blood for making healing potions?”

Yep, definitely noted, which is why I’m concerned with trying to find a way to balance this idea in a way which would minimize the impact on high-level spellcasters. In my ideal world, the ability of high-level casters to enchant items normally would not only remain present, but also be much more useful (whether by virtue of being easier, more predictable, more controllable, or in some other fashion) to offset the ability to “grow your own” magic items for other classes and at lower levels. But I’m uncertain about the extent to which that can be achieved in the real world.

“As for the tracking of kills portion, I personally don’t see a problem with letting the players in on that knowledge.”

Agreed as far as that goes, but your Trollkallar example is still based in the static idea of “This is a trollslaying sword. It slays trolls and, in time, gets better at slaying trolls.”, while I’m trying to get at a more dynamic “I picked up this mundane sword and killed a lot of trolls with it, so Something Happened and it got more powerful.”, where “got more powerful” could mean a bonus against regenerating creatures… or that the wielder regenerates in combat… or that, after taking out a pack of hellhounds (which are not-trolls), it spontaneously became a flametongue… or anything else that seems appropriate to how it was actually used in-game. Simply tallying up the number of trolls killed doesn’t achieve that because it could be used for other things aside from fulfilling a pre-written destiny of trollslaying.

So I have thoughts here, in the form of questions.

1 - Do you think that all weapons should have the ability to be enchanted through combat, or should it be reserved for special weapons?

If it’s reserved for special weapons, that can cut down on bookkeeping significantly. Perhaps Orcrist, the Goblin-Cleaver was nothing special until it slew a Goblin King, and after that, it gained the ability to power itself up by slaying goblins, and then over time it slew so many orcs and goblins it enchanted itself multiple times.

2 - Should this mechanic be restricted to weapons, or can other items gain power through combat?

You probably don’t need wands or staffs to gain power through combat, but what about shields and armor? If non-weapon items can be enchanted in this fashion, what mechanic is used to determine the XP split? (That is, if the player has a weapon, shield, and armor that all might be enchanted, and he kills a dozen trolls, how is their XP value applied towards the enchantment on the various items?)

  1. Yes and no. Every item should have the ability to become special, but it would also need the character using it to recognize its potential/think of it as special first. Generic Sword #347 would forever be just a sword, no matter how long you used it, if you just thought of it as “a sword”, but, if you picked up a blade off the floor, shouted “This Goblin-Cleaver shall end you!” and struck down the goblin king, then it could become something special. Giving the item a unique name seems like a good marker for “significant and could become empowered”, but there may also be other possibilities.

Your “Perhaps Orcrist…” description is basically what I’m going for.

  1. Any item that seems appropriate to the situation. Weapons, armor, canteens, rings, hats, whatever. Off the top of my head, the only things I think I would exclude are one-use, charged, or otherwise “disposable” items. (Or, maybe… perhaps this could rationalize an item getting a one-shot use of a spell-like ability in a desperate situation?)

Rather than splitting XP in advance, I think it would work better (…or at least less-poorly) to track a single pool of “monster-killing XP” and then, when a situation arises in which it would be appropriate for an item to be empowered, the GM first determines what empowerment best fits the situation, then decides which item that ability should be applied to.

Of course, on the other hand, splitting the XP up front would certainly be effective at limiting the power of this method of getting magic items (thus preserving the position of high-level spellcasters), since a 3-way XP split effectively means that it takes three times as long for an item to get enough XP value on it to become empowered. But tracking XP (and, presumably, gp) separately for each item would cross my “too much pointless bookkeeping” threshold.

Oooh, this is a really novel idea, but like most of the posters, I have no idea how you’d satisfactorily implement it in a “hard” way without causing massive headaches.

My two cents:

The bookkeeping issue has already been discussed, but I think the book-cooking issue is also worth discussing; on the Autarch blog, they talk about how “Shields must be Shattered!” sounds mythic on paper but leads to the strange and immersion breaking habit of carrying massive numbers of shields around. Likewise, introducing a mechanic that rewards players for killing enemies encourages “Last Hit” management, provoking shouts like “Don’t kill that troll! Troll-Sword is only three trolls away from hitting +2!” which rather ruins any sense of immersion. (Also, I’m sure my players would start keeping a dozen swords each, one for each of the most common monster flavors)

Agreed on the book-cooking, which is a part of why I’ve been talking about basing it on XP gained from killing monsters (not counting kills or worrying about who landed the final blow) and having the GM decide when it seems “appropriate” for an item to gain a power and then choose both which item and which power (not letting players dictate “this sword will become +2 vs. trolls, while that one will be a flame tongue, and the other will be…”).

As the conversation has progressed, I’ve been drifting further and further away from even worrying about which items were used for which deeds - if you become famous for leading an expedition to wipe out a troll village, then your weapon may become a troll-slaying weapon (if time/money/XP align properly to allow it), regardless of whether it’s an ancestral sword you’ve been using for your entire adventuring career or if it’s a stout tree branch that you picked up just outside the village. (Actually, in the latter case, I might even make it more likely to become empowered because, come on… Wiping out a troll village with a tree branch is way more epic than doing it with a proper weapon!)

If we’re not attaching it to specific deeds, what about just making it a natural function of level growth? A X level, a character has become so renowned that one piece of equipment takes on mythic properties.

I stated that poorly. “Spontaneous item empowerment happens due to a specific event where that item was used” is the central idea that I’m trying to model. If you get to be high-level without ever accomplishing anything noteworthy or building a name for yourself, then none of your items would be spontaneously empowered because they’re not associated with any great deeds. So, in that sense, deeds are key.

What I was trying to get at with “not worrying about which items are used for which deeds” was that, in the example I used, wiping out the troll village is the only thing that matters. You could have already been a renowned troll hunter or it could be the first time you’ve ever seen a troll - tracking every troll you’ve killed and which weapon you were using at the time isn’t important because killing 100 trolls in a day (even if only as the leader of a mercenary company and you only slew a few of them personally) is a big deal in a way that killing a thousand trolls one at a time over the course of a decade isn’t. So it’s not just “kill N trolls and cash it in for a +1 vs. trolls”.

While I have also been talking about XP and money and bookkeeping and so on, that’s all just an attempt to maintain some degree of balance between the spontaneous empowerment concept and the existing system of high-level spellcasters deliberately enchanting items because I absolutely don’t want to make those enchanting abilities obsolete.

But, yes, on the other hand, if you’re level X in class Y, then you have Z XP and (in ACKS, at least) about 20% of those XP should, on average, be from killing monsters. So you could potentially tie it to level on that basis, using level as a heuristic for approximating how many “item empowerment XP” you have at any given time, but you’d still need to track how many of those “empowerment XP” have been spent on empowered items, since enchantments vary in the gp/XP cost to create them.

This is a really marvelous thread. The desire for a mechanic similar to this has been weighing on me as I develop Heroic ACKS rules. Aragorn’s blade in LOTR seems to be a classic example of this.

One mechanic I’ve been toying with has been that a character could name his weapon and thereafter allocate some percentage of his XP into it. When allocated XP equals the base + special component cost the item becomes magical or gains a magical power. But the math does’t quite work out…