Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Magical Success Story

I was living on a cattle ranch during the summer of 1992. From sunup to sundown we irrigated the fields, worked the cows, rode horses, and did manual labor. The truth is, at the time, I spent all my summers on the ranch but that particular year was slightly different. Every evening during that summer, seven nights a week, I played a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game with two friends who had joined me at the ranch. Kevin Free and I played our wood elf characters under the watchful eye of Chad Wyman (the gamemaster).

I choose to relate this story because that campaign was the first time I experienced a magic item in a fantasy roleplaying game which felt truly magical. Chad gave a free magic item to each character at the start of the game. The elf wizard received a magic sword and the elf targeteer had a mithril (+1) breastplate. We didn't even know what the sword could do but assumed it was a generic +l equivalent item. Experienced Warhammer players might also notice that we started the game with a free advancement through our random basic career and into an advanced career (outlaw to targeteer and wizard's apprentice to wizard, level 1).

Casting battle magic spells in combat is very difficult in the Warhammer game. While casting a spell, the wizard "may do nothing else during that combat round (including move), and is considered to be prone for the purposes of attacks (ie, is hit automatically and suffers double damage)." The spell is interrupted if someone "wallops" the magician and the magic points required to cast the spell are wasted. These details are by way of explanation to say that the wizard was forced to fight in melee with the magic sword. Throughout that first battle, Chad evocatively described a distant sound of hammer on anvil heard by the wizard (wielding the magic sword). At a pivotal moment in the fight, glowing blue runes flashed into existence (etched along the sharpened blade edge) on the sword and turned a miss into a strike. The wizard struck down the key enemy in that combat. The fatal blow was landed, the blue runes faded, and the wizard no longer heard the faint hammering noise. In future battles, each time the cutting runes were needed to land a blow they flashed with a bluish light and the wizard heard the crystal clear ring of a single hammer strike as if from a forge.

The story of the wizard's runesword doesn't end there. Two additional powers were unlocked from the sword. It could be a flame attack sword (flaming with glowing red runes inscribed along the spine of the blade) or a bane weapon against Chaos creatures (with a golden glowing hammer carved into the blade just above the hilt and guard). Chad created a renewed sense of wonder and awe each time a new ability was unlocked from the sword. He did this with effect, language, and story. The first time they were used the flame runes hurt like hell, the wizard couldn't drop the sword until the runes deactivated, and they permanently burned a brand (of a hammer) into the palm of the wizard's delicate hands. The GM was a master storyteller at describing the scenes involving the sword's power and in foreshadowing that something magical was about to happen. While the anti-Chaos rune was active there was a painfully loud and consistent drumbeat of hammer on anvil heard in the wizard's head. It was so thunderous, in fact, that it cost the wizard in physical stamina.

We never considered trading the magic sword around like a commodity to the character that had the highest weapon skill attack bonus. The magic was mysterious and seemed powerful. Magical abilities of the item were unlocked as part of the ongoing story and tension of the game. There was a visual element to the magic that let you know that something special was happening (and an auditory element as well). Even after the second set of runes was revealed, I never suspected that Chad has saved just enough space on the blade for yet a third power to be revealed later.

The majority of my experience was due to the fact that Chad is a fantastic Dungeon Master. The rules might have helped. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a system that relies almost entirely on randomly generated characters. The elf wizard's sword could have been easily generated (page 188) by rolling a 91 or better on D100 for determining how many special abilities the sword had. Then rolling 26-40 Characteristic Gain (plus rolling 01-09 Weapon Skill +10% or 82-84 Weapon Skill 1d3 x +10%), 51-60 Bane Weapon, and 61 Flame Attack.

The rules also feature the following tidbit about magic items.
Using Magical Weapons: Characters who find a magical weapon may not simply pick it up and use it. The weapon has a will of its own, and will not readily accept a new owner. The character must make a successful Will Power test in order to master the weapon - if the test is failed, the weapon will not cooperate, and the character may not use it. Characters who persist in trying to use the weapon will find it will use its abilities to hinder rather than help them.
Is this a good rule for Dungeons & Dragons? I'm not sure but it could have given Chad something to work with as he unveiled new abilities requiring successive Will Power tests by the wizard. The wizard was definitely better equipped to succeed at Will Power tests than the targeteer (who had a pitiful Will Power attribute in the low 30s range on a 01-100% scale).

Magic items present a challenge because you want to capture a certain magical je ne sais quoi but the game rules can't replace the effort and skill of a DM. King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was intrinsically tied to his story and was bound up in his fate. No one but Mjolnir's owner could even lift it. Famous weapons of myth and legend do seem to possess magical qualities. They are also assumed as part the story of the character wielding them. Sure there is a story of how the magic weapon was first acquired but, unless the weapon itself is the goal of their quest, the acquisition of the item is just background to the hero's ongoing adventures.

A +1 sword in D&D that conveys a +1 to hit on attack rolls and +1 to damage is not magical. It may be powerful, depending on the rules of the game in which it appears, but it doesn't break any laws of nature or normality as would be expected of magic. On the other hand, I can't remember seeing a flaming sword at local SCA event and I've definitely never seen a blade seemingly formed from a shard of the star-filled heavens made solid.

That's magic.


* Note: I played the archer (targeteer) and my best friend played the wizard with the fantastic sword.

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