The Oil of D&D – Residuum as a Natural Resource

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 28, 2012

Oil. In the real world it is one of the most precious resources on the plant. Those who have it are rich for possessing it. Those who don’t have it are willing to buy it and kill for it. In an industrial world run on oil there’s nothing more valuable. But in D&D oil isn’t important. After all, very few game worlds are mechanized and those with any industry use a more abundant resource: magic.

In fantasy role-playing is there an equivalent to oil? Something so precious and integral to society’s prosperity and advancement as oil is in the real world? Again the most likely answer is magic. But magic isn’t a limited resource. After all, magic is, well, magic. It doesn’t have any real tangibility and certainly doesn’t have to follow any rules or logic. It can be whatever the game needs it to be. But that’s not to say that a campaign world couldn’t be made more interesting if magic was a finite resource.

In this context we’re looking more at magical items rather than spells like the ones Wizards and other arcane characters use during combat. We’re looking at a tangible, physical embodiment of magic. Using what’s in the rules as written for guidance I suppose we’re actually talking about Residuum. In D&D Residuum is basically magic dust (or as we often joke in my home campaign, Pixie dust). It’s the byproduct left over when magical items are disenchanted. Residuum can be used to make new magical items and perform rituals. So in the fantasy settings of D&D Residuum is probably the closest thing we have to oil in terms of physical valuable commodities.

I have yet to see anything that suggests Residuum is in limited supply. I’ve always made enough available in my campaign to advance the plot. But if we assume that there is some kind of limit to the amount of Residuum out there it could open up a whole new set of motives for adventurers. As today’s real-world super-powers send troops to parts of the world where oil is abundant, so to can DMs send PCs to those areas of the campaign world where Residuum is abundant. The only problem is that none of these details are documented.

Have you ever thought about where Residuum comes from? Is it a mineral that is mined like ore or gold? Perhaps it’s grows naturally like a flower or plant? In a world with magic any explanation is possible, but for Residuum to take on the importance in a campaign world to the extent that oil is important in real life these details need to be fleshed out.

I’ve actually give this a lot of thought and I think that in a fantasy world Residuum should be in some way connected to the elements that make your game world fantastic. I’m talking, of course, about Dragons. Like the mythical Elephant Graveyard, I think a Dragon Graveyard should be the source of Residuum. Raw Residuum is created when the scales and bones of dragons decompose. Dragon scales have always been coveted, but now there’s an even better reason to collect them after defeating a wyrm.

By tying Residuum to Dragons you eliminate the possibility of any lesser beings stumbling upon a random field or Residuum plants and suddenly becoming a power base in your campaign. That’s not to say that some ingenious kingdom hasn’t found a way to capture and breed dragons to harvest Residuum, but it makes the possibility highly unlikely.

Dragons are intelligent enough to set aside petty differences to protect the remains of their ancestors. I just don’t see Dragons allowing the races of men to ravage their graveyard and claim Residuum. If Dragons understand the value and power that is literally in their bones they’re likely to keep their final resting places secret and will protect them from would-be thieves and common adventurers.

Tying Residuum to Dragons is just an idea. If your campaign world doesn’t have Dragons or such creatures are exceptionally rare (Dark Sun, for example) then this idea would need to be adjusted. I still think that it should be tied in some way to the organic aspects of the fantastic elements of your games. Perhaps anything that is not found in the real world will break down into residuum when it dies – everything from Elves to Goblins to Unicorns to Beholders. However, looking back to oil as a comparative resource, it should take a considerable amount of time for any of the more common elements of fantasy to produce any useful amount of Residuum. This is why I liked the Dragon example. Given their rarity having their remains become Residuum more quickly (if not immediately upon their death) doesn’t seem like it would break the game mechanics.

Of course, Residuum isn’t the only magical commodity in D&D. In Eberron Dragonshards are already as important as oil. Everything that we would use oil to power in the real world is powered by magic, mostly dependent upon Dragonshard, in the Eberron campaign setting. Wars are already fought over Dragonshards, but imagine how much more bloodshed would happen if the Dragonshards became even rarer.

By creating a physical, tangible commodity that powers your game world you provide new motivation for the PCs adventuring within it. The aimless wandering by random adventurers can be focused towards more significance aspects of the campaign setting. If Residuum is your game-world’s oil then everyone will want it. If it’s tied to Dragons then these fantastic creatures will become even more revered than they would be otherwise.

Changing the way an entire campaign setting works by making magic tangible is a serious proposition and shouldn’t be taken lightly. I see this more as an idea for experienced DMs and players looking for a way to add something new to their game. It opens the door for a lot of political intrigue and open conflict. DMs running campaigns in such a world need look no further than recent real-world history for adventure hooks and plot arcs. Each adventure can easily be “ripped from the headlines” replacing conflicts for oil with battles for Residuum.

Do you think that having a resource as valuable as oil in your D&D campaign would change things for the better? Do you think that Residuum is the right choice for such a resource or should magic just be unlimited?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Taed March 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm

That could be a pretty interesting plot line. The hook is when they go into town and discover that magic item prices have doubled overnight due to the recent scarcity. Recognizing a hook when they see one, the adventurers soon discover that an evil empire is buying up all magic that it can get its hands on… for reasons unknown… Perhaps creating a new Warforged army? To drive the engines of industry (the start of that world’s industrial revolution)? To corner the market on the power of magic?

2 Sentack March 28, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Pretty neat idea. Residuum is a neat resource concept but you are right. We as players and DM’s just forget it’s there and it could be a very good hook for a varieties of plot lines. It’s funny how well it works as an oil analog and it also can help explain why the streets aren’t filled with people full of +1 swords and boots of acrobatics.

3 Anaxim March 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm

My setting uses a similar take on this.

Dragons and Dragon derivative animals and monsters (like ocean dragons, or wyrms [I always figured wyrms were simply 2 legged dragons with bad temper]), their skeletons slowly turn into a type of tough, magical gold aptly named Dragongold. Integral for magical circuitry and most magical items and also used as clean currency for big trades – in the way platinum is used in D&D.

4 donalbain March 28, 2012 at 4:05 pm

this would be very contraversal for my campign im making and think about how crazy mages would go for the stuff.

5 B.J. March 28, 2012 at 5:07 pm

We actually have an adventure in our regular campaign going on right dealing with a cave poisoned by residuum.

6 Wazl March 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm

I’ve been running a campaign set in a country where residuum is a natural resource for the past couple months now, and there are TONS of hooks to be had with this idea. My favourite being how eager other great powers will want to get their hands on it.

7 Alton (Marc Talbot) March 28, 2012 at 9:27 pm

I would honestly say that the use of residuum in this way would greatly depend on your group’s style. Groups that are hacknslash will not care for the implication of residuum, yet those who are into intrigue against the ‘oil tycoons’ of the D&D world would use this interesting tidbit.

8 Sunyaku March 29, 2012 at 12:56 am

I kind of enjoy throwing rust monsters at the party every now and again… try to gobble up a magic item or two (if they aren’t smart enough to put them away), but then residium can be harvested from the monsters afterwards (which I generally make into a random die roll… some function of d10s).

9 Artsy Wumpus March 29, 2012 at 10:33 am

You could also go the Final Fantasy 6 route and make it distilled magical race X. The world would be far more perilous for you if some folk out there are willing to kill you just for your body. The trick being, like a good wine, you get better with age/experience.

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