Many years ago I decided to give DMing a shot and created my own homebrew campaign world. I was thinking it might help some people doing the same to go over the process I went through. I am certain that I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but the setting survived a pretty good number of long-term campaigns over the last 22 years so I think some of the things I learned might still help people wanting to give it a try.
At the time of deciding to create a world I’d been reading a lot of fantasy (the Forgotten Realms/R.A. Salvatore in particular). I liked how the characters in the books usually only had a few magic items, but the magic items were interesting and had noticeable impacts upon the characters and the adventures. By this point, I played in a few of the Monty Haul-type games where you had piles of magic items. This was something I hoped to avoid if at all possible. My goal was to have the players really excited about a magic item and not the whole, “Oh look, a magic sword. I toss it in my bag of holding with the others” reaction.
The campaign also needed a hook. My hook was pretty simple. The general populace hated and feared arcane magic. They had a reaction similar to Salem and witches. Very negative. Player Characters got to decide how their characters felt about arcane magic, but the average person on the street would have a very bad reaction. This ranged from running in fear, screaming for the group that hunted down arcane magic users (the Black Watch) or mob panic/attack. Divine magic was tolerated because shunning healing is kind of impractical but any divine magic that looked too flashy was distrusted.
The reason for the hatred of arcane magic was a cataclysmic event happening roughly 600 years before the campaign was set. Pre-event, the world was similar to a 19th century steam punk kind of society technology-wise, with arcane magic providing the power instead of steam and gears. There were flying ships, gates that allow you to travel across the world in a few steps, etc. The world also a bunch of minor, quality of life type items like boots that were always warm and dry and shirts that were always clean and never stained. The Event involved the source of arcane magic being severed from the world causing all magic items everywhere to stop functioning. It also had a rather negative effect on a lot of wizards and other arcane magic using creatures. It wasn’t always fatal, but many of them suffered mental damage and more than a few went crazy. Not long after the severing of magic from the world, the effect cutting off the magic ended and all of the arcane magic rushed back into the world. This caused many of the magic items to fail catastrophically. The failure usually involved an explosion or warping of some aspect of the item or the local environment. The same for many of the arcane spell casting creatures. Items and arcane spell casters did survive, but only a small fraction compared to the near-ubiquitous magic from pre-Event.
In the aftermath, with many people killed and the old magical lines of communication and trade abruptly cut, society in general blamed arcane spell casters for all the problems. As a result of this, a group (called the Black Watch) gained power and pushed an agenda of persecution of the surviving arcane spell casters and collection of the surviving magic items “to protect the people”. This lead to further increasing the scarcity of magic items.
From a practical standpoint, I wanted each player, very early in the game to have the opportunity to acquire a magic item that would work well with their character and be something that could maintain usefulness throughout their adventuring career. If you read any R.A. Salvatore then you know that Drizzt only had a handful of magic items, but each of these was powerful and useful on a regular basis. Coming up with these items was tougher than I originally expected. I was ok with the fact that the item would be a bit overpowered for lower levels. Adventurers are supposed to be exceptional, and having one (and only one) overpowered item doesn’t cause too many game balance problems. Since I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about someone getting magic armor, weapons, shield, helm, rings, boots, I could beef up the one character item. Here is an example of one of my first few (this is from memory, so it may not have been exactly this, but it was very close):
Elizar’s Staff – (+3) This staff could change shape. It could shrink to a one foot rod, up to a 60 foot pole. It could also produce a blade on the end (like a spear), function as a quarterstaff and shrink the handle and produce a blade to count as a long handled dagger. None of these transitions were fast enough to be a form of an attack. Each change counted as drawing a weapon. The staff could also store one spell. Use of this spell was considered an activation of the magic item and not the casting of the spell. [Note: this item was during the 1st/2nd edition era]
In the case of the item above, having a 1st/2nd edition wizard with a +3 weapon at lower levels isn’t too game breaking. If he ended up in combat, things were bad and he could use every bit of help he could get. The ability of the staff to change shape provided a bit of utility and flexibility. The spell storage was an effect that scaled very nicely as the higher level the character got, the better spell he could store.
Being the DM, I had total control over what items were in the game. To help enhance the “specialness” of magic items, I did my best to never have an item that functionally replaced an item a player already had. In the staff example, I never included a better staff that would be an upgrade. A dagger that would be a weapon upgrade would be ok but never anything to make an existing item obsolete for a player.
In the next post I’ll take a look at how I created a little excitement and frustration when it came to magic items.