In this week’s Legends & Lore I was pleased to see something that I could praise. One must understand, Monte Cook’s writing is difficult to praise, and difficult to critique. Unfortunately, it is far too easy to criticize. So today I’m going to take this opportunity to praise what is deserving of praise as I analyze this week’s Legends & Lore column.
If you haven’t read Magic and Mystery by Monte Cook, take time now to read it. Pay special attention to the poll results at the end of the article. As you might have guessed if you read my article, Tip of the Iceberg here on Dungeon’s Master last week, I didn’t like Cook’s proposed new skill mechanic and I fell into the 12%.
The Expectation of Magic
D&D instantly conjures fantasy tropes of magic and mystery in a setting with notable parallels and stark contrasts. In such a setting the grand power of magic is expected; so too is the presence of magical items imbued with extraordinary powers. Yet we, as gamers, often look upon such wonders as commonplace. Cook has his own theories about why and chose this as his topic for the weekly column. He sees a flaw in the advancement of characters that require magic items to supplement character stats. He sees player entitlement belittling magic items to a form of currency. He also describes a loss of fascination due to the flooding of magic items in player-centric publications and descriptions of settings or adventures. In each case he is absolutely correct.
As I learned to DM, I also recognized similar concerns. When I began to present campaigns and adventures, I learned that magic items can be a potent reward and still maintain their special properties if I practiced my presentation. Magic items can serve well in other purposes also.
One tool for removing reliance on magic items as an advancement requirement is by using the Inherent Bonuses described in the DMG2. It gives an option to remove or reduce magic items with less concern for the math falling behind. There’s even a check box in Character Builder that allows players to turn this feature on or off for their character.
Another resource is the monster builder tool among the adventure tools or customizing a monster by hand. The DM can adapt a monster’s HP, defenses, attack and damage numbers, in addition to other aspects, to be more suitable for the party it’s about to face.
Although the core story of D&D has grown far beyond the limits of dragon slaying and dungeon looting, the excitement that comes from a thrilling adventure remains one of D&D’s most appealing qualities for new and experienced players. A good DM engages the magic and mystery of storytelling to incorporate characters and players in a lively setting with paths to adventure. The magic items which characters acquire can be used to shape the precedents and prospects of the campaign setting. Players may customize their PC, but the DM has tools to influence how characters act and deal with obstacles by selectively placing magic items in the treasure they find. Also, the DM can place treasure according to the logic of the world, rather than the requirements of the game system.
Players are encouraged to engage in collaborative story-telling to enrich the gaming experience. Their characters have goals, motivations and emotions that come to bear on the world around them. They may specifically seek out items which they need to fulfill their quests. This sort of cooperative campaign building heightens the value of magic items by tying those items to class features, damage types, monster weaknesses or iconic powers.
Much of this is spelled out in the DMG and DMG2. There are also countless resources available online and in right here in the Dungeon’s Master archive.
Learning by Doing
A DM must learn the craft through practice. Anyone can spend time reading the books, blogs, and forums, or discussing with others, listening to podcasts, and borrowing ideas from literature or film. Yet, nothing will serve quite as effectively without practicing the art-craft of storytelling as a DM. Cook goes so far as to say that providing a DM with guidelines arms a DM with knowledge – free to do what is fitting. I’ve referred to some options above.
For this I have to give Cook some well deserved praise. He learned what many of us have learned through our own process of growing into the shoes of a DM. Ultimately, the heart and soul of D&D still burns brightly in 4e D&D; it was not lost. A DM that learns to design both setting and adventure can make the rare, mysterious and fascinating magic items a driving force in D&D. I say kudos to Monte Cook for learning this and sharing his experiences with us.
What resources do you use when building encounters? Do you rely more on pre-published material or do you prefer to create as much as possible yourself? When it comes to magical items do you let the players choose their own loot or do you assign it randomly? Have you rewarded your players with any of the new items from Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium?