Fantastic Creations: Devising Fantastic Creations

I posted a few new magic items last week a couple weeks ago (I’ve been too busy to take part in the RPG Blog Carnival I’m hosting, how sad is that?), and got some favorable response to them.  I thought people may be interested in how I devised them.

The process is fairly simple.  I use the same Entity Definition template I use for setting and scenario design to store the important bits (what the creation is, why people care about it, and so on) and the more or less freeform ‘Mechanics’ section for the boring part.

To populate each section, I ask myself various questions.  I rarely answer all of them because I like to leave room to fill the answers in later.  Perhaps more honestly, I don’t like working hard to find an answer — the ones that come easily tend to work well, but I find the ones I have to struggle for… not so much.

The questions asked are derived from several sources.  In order of my discovery (or writing) of them:

Devising a Fantastic Creation

The first question to ask is “what is this thing?”  Contrary to Johnn’s method, I am more likely to derive the name of the item from the answer to this question than the other way around.  Apart from that, the questions get asked and answered in whatever order it occurs to me to do so — if my thoughts are flowing in a particular direction I am likely to pursue that than try to stick to any particular order.

However, two questions are always applicable (and come from the Challenge, Response, and Secret article, which is why I included it):  “Why?” and “What happened?”

Any time you find yourself trying to describe something and can’t come up with content, ask those two questions: “Why?” and “What happened?” and you can probably get things going again.  (the other Ws and How? are more likely to be prompted by these two questions than the other way around, I find, and “Why?” is often a very easy question to ask… just ask anyone with a four year old kid).

I’ll be using some recent fantastic creations as examples through this process.

Name

Technically this is actually missing from the Entity Definition template, even though it is probably the only thing an entity really must have.

Most often when devising a fantastic creation I take key words from the theme of the creation and toddle off for some quality time with Google Translate.  I enter a name based on the keywords of the theme and start translating from English to other languages until I find something I like, or that is close to something I like that I can tweak to fit my ear (and mouth!  I have to be able to pronounce it!) better.  For instance, Beobachten came about when I translated “the dragon watching” into German (“der Drache beobachten”).  Drop “der Drache” and capitalize, and I was done.  Palavirea was “the burning green” in Finnish (“palava vihreä”, smoothed for my speaking).  Kaiho-sha was “The Liberator” in Japanese (“Kaihō-sha”) — as soon as I saw how it was spelled and heard it pronounced, I locked on Japanese culture and I had entire swathes of ideas jump into my brain (and my wife Yumiko was a big help coming up with names for Kaiho-sha’s other relationships).

It may be kind of interesting that once I find a strong theme and name, I tend to think of the creation by name rather than generic ‘item’ or ‘weapon’ or what have you.  This personalization is when I know things are really coming together for me.

Of course, if I’m trying to devise creations from a particular culture, I would likely to pick the language first and tool around with ideas for names until I found one I liked the sound of, then build up from there.  The process is far from prescriptive.

Campaign or Scenario Role

What purpose does this entity have in the campaign or scenario? Why do we care about it?  There are three primary elements here.

Theme

The theme captures the inherent nature of the creation.  Everything else tends to hang off this and supports it — or stands out as an oddity or mystery.

Beobachten was originally in my mind as a dragon-shaped sword.  I liked the idea of it warding its wielder, then came up with the theme that it is in fact a dragon bound in sword form.  Palavirea is an alternate wand of fireball (I don’t much like how wands and staves work in D&D 3.x, so I wanted something with a little more flavor).  Kaiho-sha came out of a story I’d read that included a former slave who had a sword forged from the chains he’d been bound with — I wondered, if a magic item were made of it, what it would do.

Without a theme, I find it very difficult to come up with the rest.

Threat

What threat does the creation hold?  What threat does it stand against?  What threatens the creation?  Any of the three is a good place to start.  Answer “why is it that way?” and you get a lot more to work with.

Beobachten was forged to bind a dragon and remove its threat to the region.  At the same time, if that binding is broken you may immediately have a rather excited old red dragon on your hands.  There are those who want to get their hands on the sword to use its powers.  Others who want to unleash it.  There are any number of ways this could cause disruption to an area.

Palavirea is a relatively simple threat, especially since it is a relatively simple tool.  It is not itself a threat, but I can easily imagine a struggle over control of the wand, and how it has been used to cause trouble.

Kaiho-sha is entirely about threats to the status quo.  While not itself an intelligent weapon as Beobachten is, Kaiho-sha is strongly dedicated to disrupting and destroying oppression.  Not only does it immediately threaten oppressors in a big way, but being as it is there will be people looking out for it to capture and hopefully destroy it.

Reward

Why would someone seek the creation out?  What does it offer?  What could you do with it that you cannot without?  Why would someone want to stop others from getting it?

Beobachten is a moderately potent, if not necessarily cooperative, item.  As it has the casting abilities of a low- to mid-level sorcerer there is some reasonable power there.  It is an intelligent item and thus has knowledge of its own that it may be willing to trade.  There is the potential of gaining a powerful ally, if not now then when the dragon is freed.  Or someone might want to just do that in order to release an angry dragon.  Or someone might want to prevent someone from doing either of those things.  In any case, there are probably a number of people who want to get their hands on Beobachten, and probably at least as many who would like to prevent that.

Palavirea is a convenient source of fiery death and is relatively easy (compared to core rules) to recharge.  A very useful tool for anyone who might have a use for such things.

Kaiho-sha is immensely useful in the right hands.  It is symbol of freedom and vengeance, and as with the items above, useful.  If a rebel leader or victim of oppression makes it known that he has Kaiho-sha it raises the morale of his followers and frightens his enemies, even above the sheer utility of the item (not an item power, just a natural reaction when a leader has a suitable power to help him reach his goals).  Similarly, to be able to make it known that the wielder of Kaiho-sha has been captured and executed, and Kaiho-sha captured and destroyed, would have a powerful demoralizing effect on the oppressed.

Relationships

What other entities does this creation connect to?  This one can potentially be immense.

Who created the item?  Who used it?  Who did it help?  Who did it harm? (this gets into the ‘weal and woe’ questions Johnn poses).  What events was it involved in?  Where did it come from?  When was it made, was it in response to a specific event?  Why was it made, is there a specific goal or target?

Beobachten was forged by a wizard [entity] by binding a dragon [entity] to make a region [entity] safe and gain that valley as a demense from a Duke [entity].  There are four relationships to other entities right there, even without getting into events it was involved in, current wielders, and so on.

Palavirea doesn’t have a lot of links yet.  It was presumably crafted by someone [entity, not identified], it is made from material from the Burning Wood [entity], and was apparently involved in the death of a noble family [entity].

Kaiho-sha’s is a tale of betrayal and vengeance.  A noble lord [entity] was assassinated by a traitor [entity] and his position usurped.  A loyal vassal [entity] refused to swear fealty to the usurper and was enslaved to deny him an honorable death.  After he escaped [possibly an 'event entity', if it ties into a major event -- which it feels like it should] he had his chained forged into a weapon [smith might be an entity in his own right].  The bloody vengeance taken on the traitor (or the wielder’s ignominious failure and death) might be another event.  The various wielders and insurrections Kaiho-sha was part of since then could be entities as well… I get the impression there is a long and bloody tale here.

Description and Identification

This section indicates how players can know or identify the entity.

Description

In some ways description is pretty easy.  It can even be somewhat random.  I try to include at least three senses (see the Rule of Three for why).  “What does it look like?”, “what does it feel like?”, and “what does it sound like?” are three questions that are usually pretty easy.  It is not necessary to stick to common senses, however.

“Beobachten is a 4’9″ bastard sword made of steel with reddish highlights.  There is a slight curve to the blade (a little less than that of a katana), but the truly distinctive element is the handle — it has a warm, scaly texture to the touch, the guard is a pair of draconic ‘arms’ with open claws, and the pommel is a dragon’s head facing the direction the wielder would hold the blade.”

I probably could’ve included something about a lingering smell of dragon’s breath (somewhat sulfurous, as appropriate for a red dragon) or the sense of unease people feel around the blade (I’d overlooked the Frightful Presence ability of dragons — it’s not enough to make people actually shaken or panicked, but enough that people can feel intimidated in its presence).

“Palavirea is an 18″ long piece of fire maple (something like sugar maple in eastern Canada, but the leaves are almost always red, even when not burning), very pale gold in color and always warm to the touch.  There are seven ‘buds’ on the wand, one large one on the end and six more spaced irregularly along and around the wand.  When fully charged, each bud is replaced by an emerald.  As charges are consumed, the buds unfurl into red leaves and then dissolve into smoke.”

I also mention how the fireballs produced are a vivid green and smell of burned maple syrup.

“Kaiho-sha often takes the form of an apparently poorly-made and ill-used katana.  The edge is somewhat wavy, the blade has an irregular surface, and instead of the normal striated pattern seen on properly-made swords, whorls and loops can be seen.  This is deceptive; Kaiho-sha can also take the form of similar blades (wakizashi, tanto), or any one of a number of chain weapons such as the kusari-fundo or manrikigusari.”

Kaiho-sha is an adaptable weapon, often looking crudely-formed and maintained (which is a consistent element) but can change to other weapons as needed.  Part of Kaiho-sha’s power is to be hard to capture or find, so while there are some consistencies in its appearance there is no fixed appearance.

Signature

I am proud of this element.  Signature describes how you might know the creation was present or involved in an event or place, despite possibly not being present when you look.

How does it work?  What marks or other evidence does it leave?  Some of the evidence might be fairly subtle, but the truly subtle signatures might be better left to other entities (“does it look like how he would have done it?” might work better for people — in one of the Vlad Taltos books Kiera the Thief realizes she gave away that she did a job by the simple fact that there was no evidence).

“When used in combat, there is often fire and spell casting involved, even when there is no evident caster present (Beobachten can act with some independence, as he gains power).  If a treasure is only partially looted, usually the most valuable items are taken first, and the protections against them defeated, either cleanly or forcefully.  He will try to arrange to be part of quests or missions to gather treasure, but information about Gidr Farnsehame (or his descendants and heirs) and the opportunity to wreak havoc and vengeance on them will be most welcome as well.  The accumulation of great wealth seems of greater immediacy; the ruination of Gidr’s line is a longer-term goal.”

There are some physical signs (scorch marks, lingering signs of spells cast).  The certain things will be taken before others is suggestive but more subtle.  Similarly, Beobachten may be involved if there are multiple events that fit the characteristics described (accumulation of wealth and/or vengeance on Gidr Farnsehame’s family).

Palavirea’s signature is fairly straightforward and limited.  A bright green flash in a distance, and you arrive to find a burned mess, a lingering smell of burned maple syrup, and everything is a little sticky?  It could be faked, but odds are decent it was Palavirea.  As an item with no real goal or purpose beyond “burn stuff” there is unlikely to be an underlying pattern to events it is associated with.  I suppose a series of thefts of jeweler’s shops that includes emeralds in all or most cases might be suggestive as well.

“The Liberator may have been involved if slavekeepers or prison guards have been found, probably dead, with marks from a mix of edged and chain weapons.  Bindings, locks, and other tools of captivity are open, cut, or broken.”

The signature here is largely in the type of action and the targets.  In some ways I suppose the presence of Kaiho-sha isn’t very clear, but hiding its presence is part of how Kaiho-sha has power.

Location

Location describes where the creation is likely to be found.  In some cases it might be very specific, such as when the item is closely associated with a wielder (Excalibur during the reign of King Arthur comes to mind) or is immobile (which are often treated as ‘places’ rather than ‘creations’, I suspect).  Most fantastic creations of interest in roleplaying games are going to be portable, so the ‘location’ is likely to focus on the type of person who would make use of the creation.

The Dragon Watching will ally himself with the most likely to serve his purpose.  This usually means strong enough to survive, but Beobachten has learned that he can be overpowered (as evidenced by his binding) and can work to guide his owner in this case.  If it really becomes a problem, guide his owner to his doom.

No set location, Beobachten will most often be found in the hands of a treasure-seeker or someone who would be willing to act against Gidr Farnsehame.

Palavirea’s current location is not established.  This is a highly transportable, convenient source of fiery pain, and could end up almost anywhere.

As described, no set location.  If the death of the Ducal family of Sal Foran was recent it might still be in that area.

It is not known where this weapon is, which makes many people in power nervous, and somewhat more liberal in their treatment of prisoners than they used to be.  Kaiho-sha is suspected to have been used in any number of prison breaks, and a fair number of assassinations have been attributed to its wielder.

Again, no set location.  If you want to find Kaiho-sha you might look for an insurrection or other struggle against oppression that has some chance (now larger) of success.

Since I wrote these items up in a generic way (it’s dead easy to replace the name, fairly easy to change most of the rest) I haven’t assigned specific locations to these items.  If I were preparing a scenario that included them I certainly would, but if I were just preparing setting background I might not — I like having things like this on tap in case I find a use for them.

Mechanics

If I had to bet, I would bet that this is the section most people would think of when I started talking about devising fantastic creations.

Honestly, this tends to be the least interesting bit for me.  I find fantastic creations that are simply a mechanical description tend to be pretty boring.  Instead I focus on the story elements above, then when I get to the mechanics section at the bottom I know what I’m building and where I want to go with it.  It is possible to go the other way, but I find that more difficult.

Use whatever mechanism you like to develop the mechanics of the item.  At this point you should now have enough information to know what you’re building and can follow whatever model suits.  For HERO System this probably means constructing the powers of the creation, in D&D 3.x it might mean assigning bonuses and weapon or armor qualities (and possibly construction details like cost and required spells; I usually don’t bother), and so on.

Closing Comments

I started creating magic items for my games long ago (going on 30 years).  At first it was simply choosing magic items from the DM book (not even the DMG, but the Mentzer red box), then adding powers to those items, then finding more and more things to add to them.  For the longest time I mostly tried making things cool through their mechanics.  Then D&D 3e came along and that got even easier… in a fashion.  While it was mechanically easy, and the items were useful, they were no longer fantastic.

I found that trying to do everything from a mechanical point of view made for usable items and a playable game, they really, really lacked flavor to me.  The advice to tack on a backstory and physical description (which I had been doing for a long time by then) was still considered secondary by just about everyone (including me).  By turning it around and building the item into the story first, before worrying about mechanics at all, I found that the items became more closely linked to the game world (at whatever scope suited them) and the mechanics devolved back to how it was implemented.  The items became interesting again because they gained significance in how they fit in with everything else.

A wand of fireballs is useful, but far from exciting beyond “we can blow up lots of things with this”.  Palavirea isn’t a really exciting item, but is at least interesting, especially if you know that it was used four times today… so if you catch up to its wielder fast enough he’s likely to be low on fiery painful death, and might even have a pouch full of stolen emeralds.

I may write another article on how I actually implement fantastic creations in my game.  This post is already almost 3500 words and that one is likely to be another fairly big one.  The other parts, what the creation is, why people care about, and so on is much more important for a GM to have in place, and can be applied regardless of game system used.

1 Comment to "Fantastic Creations: Devising Fantastic Creations"

  1. May 18, 2012 - 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Oh Boy! Damn you Keith, I need to sleep in a few… heh

    Interesting as all too. You are going to turn me into an insomniac ;)

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