Designing Magic Items for 13th Age

13th Age Roleplaying GameWhen DASTOW does the design work on a book in the Escalation Series, we generally start with the talents and powers—the core of the book, both literally and conceptually—then work forward (toward the backgrounds and One Unique Things) and backward (toward the magic items and NPCs). The NPCs are by necessity done last; we need to know what all the options are before we build those characters.

That order of operations means we save one of the most fun parts of the design for the end: the magic items. Each Escalated book has roughly a dozen magic items, generally one for each “chakra” body slot, some utility items, and an extra weapon or two. They’re basically like dessert for the designer. [Editor’s Note: They’re really more like cilantro, where Dave loves it and Stacey hates it. Your mileage may vary.]

Here’s what’s on our minds as we do the initial design:

Know what each chakra does. Because 13th Age shares a lot of DNA with 4th edition D&D, the key chakras are those that add to attack rolls or increase your defensive stats. That means armor, weapon/staff, cloak, and helmet. Those magic items don’t need to do a lot, because the inherent bonuses are so good. They’re a good place for simple, situational, or otherwise minor-league effects.

Go broader, not deeper. Magic items can show up in a campaign at any given moment. Other forms of character advancement happen only at the moment a character levels up. That means magic items are a great way for characters to cover a gap in their arsenal based on the more permanent changes they’ve made. For example, you might have a champion-tier fighter who hasn’t picked a maneuver that can be used with ranged attacks. A simple magic spear or throwing axe is perfect, because it broadens the fighter’s repertoire. Conversely, keep a close eye on items that deepen an existing specialty. The number-one place where characters go off the rails is when similar benefits stack to game-breaking levels.

Word the quirks carefully. The vast majority of quirks are mental/behavioral, and theoretically they evoke something of the item’s nature. But phrases like “always picks fights” or “cannot say no to a drink” are recipes for disaster when given to a literal-minded player. Trust the player to do the roleplaying and provide a direction, not a straitjacket. The idea behind a quirk is that it’s a constraint, and it’s occasionally annoying. They did bring this on themselves by wearing too many magic items, after all. If quirks seem like they’ll continuously frustrate other people at the table, though, dial them back.

Make sure you’ve got the GM’s back. Magic items are more freeform than talents, spells, and other class-based abilities. Unlike other games with a d20 heritage, there aren’t economic guidelines or level-based benchmarks to fence you in. That freedom is great, but it means that you have to be extra careful to specify frequency of use and duration of effect because there’s no default answer elsewhere in the system. Whenever you make a magic item, imagine your likely user triggering it as often as possible. How often is that? How long does it last? Is there a cost? Questions like that are best answered in the design process, not in the fourth round of a battle against the Headless Cyclops King.

Finally, break the rules once in a while. Magic items are the least constrained game element in the 13th Age Roleplaying Game. (One Unique Things are unconstrained in method, sure, but their scope is constrained and you get exactly one, period, at the beginning of the character’s life.) The GM has total control of when (and if) a magic item shows up in a game—and a big say in how long it sticks around. If you want to experiment with a game mechanic or cool effect, a magic item is the place to do it.

After all, any GM worth her dice can think of a dozen ways to separate PCs from their loot.

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