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Last weekend, I ran my 7th session of 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons (“1e“). We spent over one hour shooting the breeze before diving into the game, and that was as much fun as the game itself. One topic that came up was magic items and how many modern gamers don’t take them seriously. One particular instance threw me off. Erik says,
In a game I was playing, we found a headband of intellect, and no one cared. They all pointed out that they weren’t intelligence-based characters, so it didn’t matter to them.
But that’s exactly why you should want one! You can become an intelligence-based character, which matters for skill checks and role-play in general!
Erik agreed and noted that his low-intellect ranger now has a 19 intelligence. The reaction of the other members of his gaming group isn’t a surprise to me. I’ve encountered this as well. While a ranger would probably prefer a +5 vorpal longsword for mechanical reasons, the headband opens up more avenues for role-play. Why doesn’t that appeal to people? Obviously, this is a generalization not backed by science, and even if accurate, it may not apply to you. That’s not important. What’s important is that 1e makes magic items more valuable, minimizing players’ disregard for them.
I’ve already discussed how boring magic items affect the game, but this is a little different. That said, this post and the other one have a synergy to them.
In 3rd Edition, you need to-hit bonuses in order to keep up with the increase in monster power because those bonuses were built into the math. That is, the power curve for a monster was steeper than that of a PC because it was assumed PCs would gain such magic items. (I’ve talked about how stupid I think that is despite how universal that is to game design.) In 4th Edition, the same math applied, but you could forgo magic items by using “inherent bonuses” that have the same effect. You simply add a cumulative +1 to your rolls at set levels in your advancement. In 5th Edition, you should probably get better magic weapons as you advance, but as long as you can get just a +1 weapon (or, like a monk, treat your attacks as magical even without a magic weapon), then you’ll always be able to hit creatures immune to mundane weapon attacks (e.g., flesh golems). These approaches to game design lessen the impact of magic items or make them altogether unnecessary, and usually make them boring (again, as I’ve discussed).
None of these are the case for 1e. First, an anecdote. In last Saturday’s session, PCs hid themselves in small room to avoid an unnecessary combat. They followed the elven ranger and magic-user who found the secret door to that room, which meant those two characters were at the back of the room. Neither elf found the secret door at the other end of the room, so when the zombies opened up that secret door, suddenly the magic-user found herself in what was now the front of the room engaged in melee with three zombies with the BBEG high priest behind them.
The magic-user wanted to cast Sleep, but I warned the player (the aforementioned Erik) that it was possible the spell would never go off. For those of you that don’t play 1e, long story short, a combat round is divided into ten segments, and each round a single initiative die is rolled for each that sets the segment in which each side goes. Because the die is a d6, that means everyone starts during the first six segments of the round. Also, Sleep requires 1 segment to cast, which is relatively quick but not a guarantee of success. So, even if the PCs win initiative, if the zombies go on the segment immediately after the PCs, the zombies will get to attack the magic-user before she’s finished casting Sleep. If even one of the zombies hits the magic-user for even one point of damage — likely to happen considering how poor the magic-user’s armor class always is — then the spell is disrupted, and it’s lost for the day. This means that it’s exceptionally difficult to cast spells in combat, which is worse for spells like Fireball (3 segments to cast) or Time Stop (9 segments to cast). (I’ve previously discussed how much I love this, because having more useful spells require longer casting times assures that different players will choose different spells for their casters, and that material components can be another way to achieve this goal.)
How is this relevant to today’s topic? Well, using magic items (e.g., scrolls, rods, staves, wands) is often instantaneous. In fact, their powers take effect before any melee attacks are resolved regardless of initiative. That means that many magic items allow a caster to cast their spells without fear of having them disrupted. At least for casters, magic items therefore become far more valuable, and isn’t that a common trope within the fantasy genre? That’s one more way in which 1e succeeds where some supposedly “evolved” editions fail. Nowadays, all innovation in game design means is that you’ve mashed together new combinations of existing mechanics from prior games, so don’t attempt to ignore the past when designing yours. Whether you adopt the precise mechanic of a prior game or not, at the very least it may provide inspiration for the feel and tone of your end product.
Magic items should matter.
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