Use What’s in the Book

I flip through pages and pages of magic items and I see these mechanics that are clunky or useless in the game. I get that everyone plays a different game and an item in yours might be amazing, but in mine worthless; one man’s trash, etc. My problem isn’t the variety, it’s how many items are just reinventing something that’s already a mechanic.

For instance, I find it pretty amazing that any character can use a Heal check to force an ally to take their second wind. Or they can grant them a save, or just provide them a +2 to their next saving throw. It’s built into the system already, no need for extra powers. Now, the conditions on that ability are kinda harsh: you have to be adjacent, and it’s a standard action. Eesh. Well, why isn’t there something out there to facilitate that? In all honesty, there are some things similar to this, but they all fall rather flatly. Then, of course, there is Healing Word which is twice as good as any Heal check, and clerics get that at 1st level. Not to mention the bevy of powers and feats that help grant saves or force second wind. Uh, but what if you don’t want to be a cleric, or a warlord, or you don’t have the prerequisites for that feat? It seems like with 4e’s versatility of propping up hedge classes, it would be a no brainer to start with something available to all classes and offer options to improve those options over the course of a character’s career. All of this while never quite stepping on the toes of those who are masters at such tactics.

For instance, I first envisioned a feat that would allow one to use the First Aid mechanic of Heal as a minor action. Oh wait, there’s one right here I see in the compendium…Combat Medic. Wait, stabilize the dying? That’s it? Okay, I see the +2 to Heal checks, thanks, but what I really want is to just use all faculties of the First Aid action as a minor action—stabilizing the dying happens so rarely. Why is this feat so poorly written (for me)? Can I make something that isn’t broken that serves the purpose I’m after?

The Power is in Your Hand

I actually enjoy how rings are rather inaccessible until low paragon tier. They should be the ultimate powerful items in the game, they always have been. It’s just so darn tempting to build one that is just within reach of heroic tier that doesn’t break the bank on abilities, mostly because each character gets TWO slots for rings—it’s like they MAKE you want to decorate that xmas tree.

Anyway, I was thinking about the properties of each of the item slots and how the ring really does symbolize power and magic as it rests on the end of our pointers and manipulators and feelers and clenchers. Hands are where the power is, and a ring seems to magnify that. The power is already there, in the book with rules that provide each character to make use of their skills, despite being trained or not. Any character can make a perception check, not just the ones that are trained. Any character can make a thievery check to disarm a trap or steal something from an unwary person. It’s sad to me that players, given this freedom, don’t take more chances on things they don’t have a bazillion skill points in, or that they stack themselves with items that boost their bazillion skill points by 2 more to make them unstoppable in one or two departments, literally being unable to fail a Hard DC of certain skills.

The Right Skills

I know I am not wholly innocent in proper skill use; one of my characters has Arcane Mutterings, a 2nd level utility skill power that allows him to use Arcana for any Diplomacy, Intimidate or Bluff skill once per encounter. I find that to be a unique way to twist the game’s mechanics in his favor; I have forced an enemy to surrender several times now using Arcana, and I believe (I hope) it has been for the ease of our party’s adventuring.

I’d love to see that adjustment to skill use manifest in other ways. The point here is to empower the PCs to make decisions they normally feel are too risky for an attempt, or that those decisions disarm them from the stuff they really want to do. If you wanted to be a “combat medic,” you’d be using Heal all the time, bouncing from ally to ally keeping them alive. There’s already a cap on how often you can use your Second Wind, and saving throws are dicey enough already, so this mechanic doesn’t seem broken to me.

If you had the power to not necessarily improve your odds, but make the rules that are already in the book a bit more palatable, would you? Adding a +2 to Stealth isn’t doing anything for our most powerful items in the world, it’s making the world a math game, and a math game already has its outcome determined. Try these new items on for size and let me know what you think.


Common Items and Milestones

So Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium was released not long ago, and with it came many a new rare item and not so many a new common item. If you have any interest how WotC is reacting to that subject, I would point you to their community board. Now that they have thrown all this material out to the masses, it would appear that they want us to figure out how it should work. Perhaps professional sports teams will soon be calling me to play for free, but still make me pay for a seat in the stands. I digress.

I have mixed feelings about the new item rarity system that was put into place with the creation of Essentials. As a DM, I love it! As a player, I hate it! I am assuming that is a general gut reaction for most people in one of the two roles. As both a player and DM, I was really hoping that WotC might print (or again redefine) some more common items. Currently it is pretty depressing if you start a game beyond level 1 and try to find anything to suit your character. Currently available (according to the Compendium) there are 3,449 magic items in D&D 4e. Of those, 161 are common items. Ouch right? It gets more upsetting when you consider that of those 161 items, 41 of them are consumables or alchemical items.

Common In Value Not In Presence

So common that they make up less than 3% of all of the items in the game? Other than this very annoying fact, I can actually get on board with item rarity. I believe it affords a DM and players the chance to make items quest worthy and certainly a little more likely to put your life on the line for an uncommon item, let alone a rare item. Indeed, I think you can even make the goal of item creation into a potential story building effort between DM and players.

That said, one thing did take an undeniable hit from the item rarity system: milestones. Don’t get me wrong. I love action points. I would gladly do some disturbing tasks for extra action points, but with unlimited daily item usage now the only way to fly, milestones look like Pan Am (the defunct airline or soon to be cancelled tv series, take your pick).

Two Birds With One Stone

My main complaint would be bad cliches, but my second biggest complaint would be that milestones are not really that milestoney any more. There are still rings to look forward to, but you will not see one of those until paragon. That is a real shame I think. If there is something I have to give kudos to, it is the designer of rings for 4e. Great design choice. And while I understand they wanted to do something unique for rings, I do not believe this particular milestone tie-in property should be exclusive to rings.

Rings are unique enough without milestones, in that they are (or should be) a little more powerful than other items of their level and their abilities should extend beyond typical “slot roles.” In slot roles I mean how waist slots often apply to fortitude and strength while head slots focus on will and mental attributes.

I do believe that common magic items could have a milestone tie-in property to make them more appealing, yet simple enough to be even handed compared to other items. Plus since the item’s true power would not yield dividends until later milestones are achieved, I think you can balance the powers relatively well and keep it a common item. Here are some that I came up with (excuse the cheesy names, also all of these were generated with, great program check it out):

Cursed Items, Part 2

In my previous post about cursed items, I discussed how curses and cursed items need to accomplish three things: one, they must be used at least once (which translates to the fact that they cannot remove the item immediately); two, the curse or item will usually cost some expense but also offer some compensation; and three, curses and cursed items need to be fun for everyone, so don’t design anything that basically gimps your players. After that I revealed a mechanic that was built in stages, increasing in detriment and power as the stages increased or decreased. The mechanic hinged on an ability check that was the means to controlling the item’s stage so that, even though the check is based on a die roll, a successful check allowed a player to choose whether to continue being cursed because the boon was so strong, or overcome the curse and removing it. Failure on the check gives the player no choice but to accept the high risk / high reward upper stages.

It’s a decent idea, and though there is only one example as of yet, there’s always room for improvement and exploration of the idea. A cursed item like Stigalda’s Ring is a little more complex than maybe some players or DMs may want to get into. It could very easily have a longer lasting shelf life in a game than might be preferred, though the Remove Affliction ritual could do wonders to nix it entirely if a player was hating it. Regardless, it’s good to keep learning and providing new and unexpected challenges to the players in the world of curses, so I want to point out a few ideas I’ve seen lately that are very related and are beginning to gel nicely with the foundation of D&D 4e mechanics.

One of those ideas I found digging around a great little book called Soldiers of Fortune by Matt James published by Open Design. James does a great job in the supplement for coming up with mechanics and hooks for war time adventures and challenges in 4e, but tangentially, I found an item within that is cursed in a very elegant and streamlined way, see below. The mechanic for the curse is simply one line, it puts its removal all in the hands of the Remove Affliction ritual, but gives the cost of the removal a bit more risk by adding the level of the item as a penalty to the ritual’s check (kudos Mr. James—the lack of scale and scope with many restorative features and rituals in general can be deftly fixed by simply tacking on higher difficulty proportional to the risks the party is currently facing—another topic for another post though). The “curse” to the item is simply its mildly gimping property, which, along with its other more useful property, makes a nice little recipe for a simple, empowering, yet risky cursed item. This is a great way to bring a cursed quality onto any item out there: just add a mildly negative effect to an otherwise powerful item, and copy paste the “Cursed” feature from the Deserter’s Boots to provide a means for the player to be rid of it should they wish.

From Soldiers of Fortune by Matt James

The other idea that has sprung up lately because of its newness is the Deck of Despair from The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond boxed set, now available. The Deck of Despair has everything I’ve just been writing about in a simple, easy and conveniently collectible form. For more on the Deck of Despair I turn to a good review of the book at Loremaster blog. The writer, Squach (of The Tome Show), has favorable views of the boxed set, but goes into a bit more detail on the Deck of Despair within as it has brought on a feature to the game like the awesomeness of the madness mechanics from Call of Cthulhu. Squach goes on to tout the excellence of the Deck of Despair because it not only provides a means to present the players with challenge through detriment, flavor the scenario of adventuring in a dangerous and alien environment, but the key feature being that once the card is overcome, there is a particularly useful boon for the player. This does a lot for how the game is run: one, it inspires the players to continue adventuring as Squach points out, reducing the popular one combat workday; two, it colors a player’s natural negative reaction to detriment by adding a light at the end of the tunnel; and three, it doesn’t pin the process down to resource management (read: a ritual can’t simply wipe the condition) and therefore there is an unexpected and risky quality to the feature.

Squach is keen to see how this new deck can be ported out and used in other ways other than adventuring to the Shadowfell in your game, and I’ll leave his great ideas for you to read over there. But talking about it further, “despairs” are simply another word for “curses” and their immediacy and randomness is quite close to the tenants I’ve outlined so far: the players are afflicted, the players have something to gain from the affliction, and deciding the risk/reward of the affliction can be fun. The Deck of Despair just puts those tenants in a different order than Lady Stigalda’s Ring—requiring you to overcome the despair before actually capitalizing on the boon. Fine with me, it’s the same principle, and I look forward to trying out the mechanic for myself.

I still think the curse I’ve developed is pretty tight and I want to keep toying with it. After all, once the skeleton is in place, it’s a matter of changing the boons, penalties and dependent abilities for overcoming the curse that changes. Further, as any monk can tell you, a curse doesn’t necessarily need an item or weapon as a host in order to affect a player. Just as a ki can be anything or nothing, a curse can and should affect an item, or a person. Though it’s a lot cooler to say that a player’s *soul* has been cursed than just tell you that the boots your wearing have been cursed. Come to think of it, for some real visceral designing, why not curse a player’s body or body part and let the fun of squirming with the curse being *too* close begin.

So here’s the crunch for this installment that I hope you’ll steal and enjoy. The Greedy Hand Curse might be the spirit of a wronged powerful merchant or mercenary. It could be that it lingers on in life through a series of deeds that continue to trade blood for money. A PC might have a difficult time deciding when it is worth the coin to dole out drastic damage, or might even get away with paying very little for their abuse of the Greedy Hand. Either way, the Greedy Hand Curse can be interesting to drop on different kinds of players in certain scenarios. Consider, when introducing it in your game, the pacing in which you hand out coins; if the player has enough coins on their person they will probably consider the usage of the power worth it, but if coins become scarce, especially at higher stages of the curse, the trade could be detrimental.

Remember that the point of all this is for the player to have fun, so bait them with the mystical and mysterious nature of curses, but if they really hate it, give them the tools to get rid of it, and move on to the next thing. Either way, I hope you get a kick out of this bit of crunch for your game at home. Enjoy!

Cursed Items, Part 1

Curses were written about in Dungeon 182 in September 2010 by Peter Schaefer, and although I applaud Wizards for breaking out of their usual mold and suggesting that there are plenty of things out there they want to play with but have not written official rules for, I have to say I was a bit disappointed with their outcome to one of my favorite aspects to the game. I’ve always enjoyed curses, but even more, I’ve always loved cursed items. Cursed items go way back into the history of D&D and at one point I remember them being so prevalent that a player was practically paranoid of powerful-seeming items when they collected them for fear they would backstab them in some way. But we’ve evolved, and here we are with books and books chock full of items, all with unique powers and all that are ready and willing to bolster your characters no questions asked. There are a few ideas that have been presented that add more than standard flavor to your treasures, primarily artifacts, first introduced in the first Dungeon Master’s Guide, but artifacts are different, as I feel they should be, because they are plot items. Schaefer also believed that curses should be plot techniques and he built his idea of them being dispelled or complete when plot points were satisfied. Now, this is certainly a viable option (one could easily have a cursed item that is also an artifact), but I just don’t see why we need to bring the story into this. Further, if the party finds a cursed item, it’s a great means to bring in a skirting story or aspect to the campaign in the light without affecting the important story line at all.

What’s the Difference?

So here I am, looking for a means to bring cursed items into D&D again without their being any story involved (in the mechanics!) so we can watch our PCs squirm with both trepidation and hopefully a little delight. To do this, we have to figure out what makes an item cursed? I don’t mean what causes the item to be cursed, that’s up to the DM and there are one thousand ideas there from the get go. But what’s the difference between a regular magic item and a cursed one? In my opinion, a few things:

1/ A cursed item should not be allowed to be removed or denied without some special circumstances or aid
2/ A cursed item should grant exceptional power, but require exceptional expense
3/ A cursed item should be fun

That last one is a no-brainer of course for all things we’re making here at Rules As UNWritten, but I felt it was important to reiterate in this circumstance, mostly because the history of cursed items comes with it some sort of reputation for pain or punishment to the PCs, and delight merely to the DM. That’s hogwash, and completely not in the spirit of the game, so it’s important to remember that everything, EVERYTHING, developed for the game should be fun for everyone, even if it is at the detriment to the players. That’s a tough challenge though because players hate to lose. As a DM, I don’t want to see them lose, I don’t even want to see them struggle, but I do want to see them challenged, because overcoming a difficult challenge brings more delight than overcoming a cake walk. With that, it’s important to find a balance with dangerous encounters, formidable villains, and in this case, even a treacherous item. We need to make the item challenging, but also make it fun.

You Can’t Take it Off

So I’ve experimented with a new mechanic for cursed items, and here’s where I’ve discovered that balance. The first rule to cursed items is that whomever dons it, picks it up, or uses it (depending on the kind of item it is) is connected to it. The DM informs the player if they should want to take it off or put it down that they cannot, that they feel unusually bound to the item. This may incite a bit of panic for the player, especially if they picked up a dagger and they usually use a two-handed long spear. That’s okay, don’t gimp the player, that’s not good gaming. They can put the dagger in their belt, they can stow the mirror in their bag, etc, but the conditions to the item still apply. Implore the player, however, to use the item, as the benefits of using it should be on par with or even outweigh the use of their usual facilities. But no matter what rituals or spells in the world you use, you cannot remove the item until it has been used, at least once (details on that later). Use discretion in handing out items with curses that you believe none of the players could or would want to even use—again, that’s not good gaming. This is the same discretion you would use to not drop an incredibly powerful shield in a parcel for a group of adventurers who have no one in the group who uses shields.

No Really…How Do You Remove It?

How do they remove the item then? It’s not going to be too terribly difficult actually, but cursed items should inspire at least one attempt to use it, nay, they cannot be removed without using them. Cursed items come with a scale, very closely resembling Schafer’s model. You see, Schaefer was on to something with his affectation design: there should be levels of danger involved with a curse, in this case a cursed item. Bad things should either be affecting you, or happen to you when you utilize the item, but the fun comes when the player chooses to utilize the item for a greater benefit. Gimping a player straight out and telling them that they can shed the curse by finding an archon to grant them clemency is stupid. If you want to hook a player with an item, come up with something better than gimping them. Story hooks aren’t hard, there’s no reason you should tie a player to penalties to get them to find your archon.

Ability Checks

You get rid of the curse by removing it yourself. This is represented by an ability check. Before you gasp, this is precisely where an ability check is appropriate in this game: the cursed item requires you to break the curse in some way, internally or externally, by yourself, without help, because that is your destiny with the thing. That’s the concept behind cursed items, and no amount of book study on the feywild, wittily pleading with it, or even the use of powerful rituals (though they may help, details on that later) is going to make the mirror stop ringing in your ears. A constitution check, however, may be what you need to do—to outlast and out think the semi-sentient thing. But only if you want to, and only if you have tamed it so far.


So you’ve got stages with a cursed item, 1, 2 and 3. You start out at stage 1, and the risk reward is relatively low. You always want to lower a player down the rabbit hole, don’t toss them down there like a well bucket. While owning the item, or when they use the item, the player incurs a cost of some sort. I have found the most basic of costs is the taxing of hit points at the end of an encounter in which the item was used. After the player incurs the cost, that is when they get to make their ability check to determine how they deal with the item. There is an Easy, Moderate, and Hard DC to reach with the ability check. If the PC does not reach the Easy DC, then the stage of the cursed item goes up by 1. If the PC reaches the Moderate DC, then stage remains the same. If the PC reaches the Hard DC, they may choose to increase the stage by 1 or decrease it by one (removing the item if they are already at stage 1).

Remember that the trigger for this check is when they incur the cost or penalty, and the cost or penalty comes when they use the item. This means that the player must use the item at least once to gain a chance at removing it. This check also puts a bit of the power in the player’s hand. It is always best to put the well-being of the PCs in their own hands; if they want to dance with the devil, let them, half of this is their game and their story too.

It Can Be Useful Though…Very Useful

Using the item should come with some reward though. In my first example, below, you’ll notice that the item’s power doesn’t necessarily get greater (though the initiative bonus goes up), but the power is usable more and more times per encounter at higher stages. The power is pretty nice for any class really so it’s risk/reward should be an enjoyable choice for the player. After they use it once, they take the cost, which in this case is damage, and they make the ability check, which in this case is a Wisdom check. If they make the check and were unhappy with the results of the item, they can choose to release themselves from the cursed item and take it off. If they were happy with the result they may choose to upgrade to stage 2 if they make the check, but if they don’t then they may not have a choice.

In a design like this the DM is separated from directly doling out undo damage or penalties, and the player has somewhat of a chance to tailor their reaction to the item. Shown below is the item, which I’ve named Stigalda’s Ring, but feel free to call it whatever you like. In my campaign, Lady Stigalda was a practitioner of magic long ago, but something went awry. On her bony deceased finger the PCs find this ring, and after putting it on they might get a clue as to how Lady Stigalda died.

I’ll followup with another item next time and some more exploratory notes on designing cursed items. Until then, enjoy!

Laboratory: What is Alchemy?

Welcome to the Laboratory, a series I’m developing for Rules as UNWritten solely based on Alchemy in 4e Dungeons & Dragons. I hope to explore this aspect of the game for many reasons, the purely selfish one being that I’m currently playing an artificer in a campaign as we blog. The other reasons are based around improving the game, getting better at recognizing overall balance and specifically consumable items/resources, and because there just aren’t enough options out there for a burgeoning alchemist. The system should be versatile enough to allow someone captivated enough with alchemy to specialize in it while allowing enough good options for those wishing to merely dabble. Currently, I don’t think it’s all that well designed, though there is promise.

What’s the Difference?

First things first though, we’ve got to get to the core of what makes Alchemy different from other mini-systems in the game, primarily, Ritual Casting, since that set of rules is similar and often called out as a host for replacement with the Alchemist feat, as a class bonus feat, or otherwise. They should be different, and there should be a reason why. Well, right now there are some major differences:

  1. Alchemical formulas are generally less expensive to learn than rituals, and the component cost for a single foundation level item is also generally less expensive than casting a ritual of the same level. Costs go up though, and crafting higher level items starts to get very pricey, but so does the execution of higher level rituals.
  2. Alchemical items can be used in combat, but clearly not crafted in combat. You need to come prepared.
  3. Alchemical items can be crafted or purchased and simply handed off to another ally. This makes for good versatility, but I wonder how hard-pressed your allies would be to use those items as they are generally standard actions (that discussion is for another post). Rituals do, however, often benefit the whole team, but in less crunchy ways.
  4. Flavor wise, alchemy doesn’t involve magic, though the use of arcane or exotic components makes up their component cost.

That’s a decent contrast between Ritual Casting and Alchemy, but what gets to me is the suggestion in the Adventurer’s Vault, where Alchemy was first introduced, that Alchemy is an effective alternative to Enchant Magic Item (along with Disenchant Magic Item and Transfer Enchantment). It seems like Alchemy was built as a mini-system to replace this one set of rituals, not necessarily all rituals. I stand perplexed why Alchemical Formulas aren’t just simply rituals in their own right. Why tax players with a feat, or the replacement of a bonus feat, for wanting to spend tons more of their precious earnings for items that may or may not be helpful in encounters? Again, I digress into arguments that may be more suitable for entire posts on their own. It is more important that we recognize the differences between the feats as written, but expand and capitalize on their differences for better game play than to alter the systems altogether.

Defining Alchemy:

  1. Alchemy is not magic, but it uses arcane or exotic components to craft.
  2. The use of alchemy results in a consumable item that can be used at a later time.
  3. Alchemy, in general, has a variety of uses and therefore lends itself well to resolving specific challenges, but not necessarily to all challenges. (Alchemist’s Fire might be great against trolls, but not so hot against hell hounds, for example).
  4. As of right now, no alchemical item requires the consumption of any resources on a character’s part, i.e. healing surges, item daily powers, etc. This helps distinguish them from potions or elixirs, which are made through the Enchant Magic Item ritual, and puts all the weight for their power in how much gold is spent to make them or purchase them (I suppose you could consider the action used in combat part of its weight as well, since we all know those standard actions are precious).

With alchemy defined in a nutshell here, I’ve been itching to get into the guts of the system and try some things out for myself. Part of the reason I’m attracted to Alchemy so much is its ability to be very versatile. I’ve always found that versatility is a powerful force in D&D, and since the beginning of 4e I’ve found that many classes have capitalized on this aspect, making them a tad more like 3e wizards in the sense that more characters have more tools for different jobs, and every power they have has a distinguishing feature. Alchemy pushes this versatility further, but at the price of gold. Now, I have a lust for coin as much as any other dungeon diving adventurer, but I beg to question whether or not the investment in alchemy is worth its weight. Many might feel initially that the costs of alchemical items don’t balance with their yield. Instead of changing anything with the prices, I’d rather supply supplemental choices for alchemical items that feel like you are really getting your money’s worth, without unbalancing game play.

New Formula

Without further ado, I propose the following home brewed formula to get started on a new alchemical portfolio for my character, and for yours. The Dartsap has all the typical qualities of what I feel defines alchemical items: it’s consumable, it doesn’t use any resources other than gold and actions, and is particularly effective for a specific range of challenges or encounters. Dartsap might appear a bit like a poison, but why require the extra application action when the result is satisfying enough to use it as an item in its own right.

I hope to expand on Alchemy more in the upcoming weeks with more exploration from the Laboratory. Please let me know your feedback on these home brewed formulas and any other comments you have about Alchemy.