30 June 2014

Weird Magical Items and Narrative Reactivity

So, to take a break from podcasts or talking about Assassin’s Creed I recently caught up with an article on io9 called “The 20 Most WTF Magical Items in Dungeons & Dragons”. The intention of this article was to poke fun at some of the more apparently ridiculous items to be found in D&D’s extensive back catalogue of quest minutiae. I don’t know quite how this all works, as in, I’m not sure how these ideas come to be included in official D&D stuff.

Are D&D coast wizards constantly scribbling down ideas for these things in notebooks they keep close at hand day and night? Or do they, in fact, create new items in their own campaigns and then submit the best ones for inclusion in whatever volume of stuff they’re currently compiling? I tend to think the latter as the vast majority of insanely detailed plots, locations, NPCs etc. rise out of play sessions, response to, you know, actual players and the like.

So I guess that we can be comfortable in the notion that these things were not just summoned wholesale from the basement of imagination, made, as it were, from whole cloth. While some of the items seem, quite clearly, to be cursed objects intended to provoke a particular howl of simultaneous disbelief, horror and delight from players others, maybe, bore the marks of a thing I’m going to call “Narrative Reactivity”.

What is this new thing that I have created? Well, it’s less of a creation and more of an observation really. It’s about the nature of lazy creation when it comes to problems where your characters won’t behave in a story. Many times when this happens in role play it comes from the feeling the host has that managing the demands of the players is somewhat akin to herding cats. Maybe that feeling demands some more time in another post at another time, but right now we shall move swiftly on.

In writing the same thing can happen, and is possibly more upsetting for featuring characters dreamed up within your very living brain itself as opposed to being centred in the brains of other people who might be forgiven for not psychically understanding what you want to achieve in the story world you have built for them.

If the characters who come from your own mind start misbehaving, though, that can be, well, troubling. It puts forth the notion that you are not quite in control of parts of your mind, that people you dreamed up can have their own agendas. There’s something dark and mystical about your characters engaging in acts of sabotage against your story. In those cases you might find that the solutions the inexperienced or desperate author comes up with to fight against the tide of mutiny are more desperate, leading to the lazy introduction of plot-hole tearing technologies and surprise deus ex machinas and the like. So my hope with considering a few of these D&D items is to reveal something of the wiring under the board with regards to such incidents in the hope of guarding against such lazy story making.

Exhibit One: The Ring of Contrariness This “forces the wearer to disagree with everything anyone says” the author of the linked argument concludes that given the difficulty of forging magical artifacts this represents “a prime example of some wizard wasting his time.”

This is actually quite an easy one to unpick. It smells like a GM consulting on a D&D expansion met a player who was quiet and unassuming, someone who just appeared to tag along behind in every session. So in a GM ambush this player ends up with this ring on their finger and is magically required to stir up trouble, the peacemaker has become the agitator. Was this fun, or torture, for the player targetted? We will never know.

So, yes, the idea of a wizard inside the narrative bothering to make such an apparently useless artifact is troublesome. So much so that the meta-purpose of the item appears for more clearly than an in-story reason for someone to forge such an irritating artifact. However, the existence of such an item would appear to be a great opportunity for a budding story teller. How did this ring come to be? That is a tale to be told.

From a gamer’s perspective, of course, the item is a curiosity, leading to some sort of game outcome of no major import. If the reasons for its inclusion were indeed as stated above it may have arisen out of a misplaced desire to see all players fully participate in the game. GMs feel that if someone seems not to quite be in the game that this is necessarily a problem in need of resolution when, in reality, some people just like to be along for the ride.

The up front way to deal with a player who doesn’t appear to be participating to the fullest would be to just ask them if they’re happy with the way things are going and only try to change things if they are not. Of course, role playing is a particularly delicate form of social contract so your mileage in such circumstances may vary.

Exhibit Two: Bell's Palette of Identity
Bell the Wizard [made] this magic art palette, which, when used to paint a self-portrait, allows all status effects — basically anything you'd make a saving throw for — get transferred to the portrait instead. Users of the Palette must carry their self-portraits around wherever they go; if they don't have the paintings literally on their body, its powers are useless.
The linked article’s author speculates as to why the portrait must be kept in the possession of the character, tied around their left leg with fishing twine or whatever (rolled up around the inside of a knee-high boot?). The conclusion is that the Wizard Bell was just a bit rubbish not to have fully embraced this offshoot of the Picture of Dorian Gray.

There is, however, a simpler explanation for the item’s strange properties. Firstly, D&D characters have no real homes, they live in campsites and sleep in taverns. The party must never be split and must never stop moving. So the idea of an item that only works when placed on a shelf in the character’s home might lead to some awkwardness.

Also, what is the risk of an item that will make someone immune to whole swathes of rules in the game that cannot be accidentally ruined by a sword slash in the wrong place or accidentally landing up to the waist in swamp water? The properties of the magic palette are a quite obvious trade off of utility and plot convenience.

Exhibit Three: Ring of Bureaucratic Wizardry
When a wizard casts any spell while wearing the ring, a sheaf of papers and a quill pen suddenly appear in his hand. The papers are forms that must be filled out in triplicate explaining the effects of the spell, why the wizard wishes to cast it, whether it is for business or pleasure, and so on. The forms must be filled out before the effects of the spell will occur. The higher the level of the spell cast, the more complicated the forms become. Filling out the forms requires one round per level of spell.
This must have seemed like a cracking gag when it was dreamed up. Indeed it is a very good joke, it works on both a narrative and a ludic level. The joke transfers through the intra-digetic up to the meta level and actually means more things the more levels on which you appreciate it. If I understand correctly the advantage of the artifact would appear to be that the spell being cast is not subject to failure, just to bureaucratic delay.

To make a super-powerful spell operate guaranteed if the rest of the party can just hold off the enemy whilst the wizard does the necessary paperwork is a fantastic mental image. This leaves only one question. How did this item come to be? As I noted I imagine the sudden appearance of artifacts like these is likely to be reactive.

Maybe there was a wizard who was pretty pedantic and always cast low-risk spells leading to a situation where they just weren’t pulling their weight in the party (plus annoying pedants are annoying). This item seems like a cracking way to help address the balance in a way that gets people laughing about the situation.

Exhibit Four: Druid's Yoke
If you're in a D&D campaign where you need to do any kind of farming, you have bigger problems than any magical item can fix. But this yoke allows characters to — when they put it on themselves — turn into an ox. Not a magical ox; a regular ox. Then you can till your field yourself! You can't do it any faster, because again, you're just a goddamned ox, but it does allow you to… do the horrible manual labor… instead of the animal you've bred for this exact purpose. So that's… something someone would totally want. The best part? Once you've put it on, you can't take the yoke off; someone else has to do it for you. Because you're a goddamned ox.
Of all the artifacts that seem to have been created in reaction to a particular situation this one would appear to be the most specific. I can picture a campaign where, in order to get access to a particular bad guy, the players had to get access to a cattle market but the entry is restricted to people who had something to trade. They have money, but of course, the only place to buy a cow in time for the market is, unfortunately, the market: catch 22.

So they do find this Druid’s Yoke thingie which leads to an argument as to which team member will be, er, beefing up, for the market. After all anyone who can’t see the clear downsides to this not-so-genius plan must be a bit dense.

Obviously the plan goes sideways, how could it not? Now the rest of the team have to fight to reclaim their en-oxened party member in order to remove the yoke. Meanwhile the ox itself is trying to shake the yoke, or get it removed, by any means necessary. Hilarity is all but guaranteed to ensue.

Anyone who doesn’t see the narrative potential of this item isn’t thinking very hard. All you need to do is manufacture a reason for someone to put it on and let the rest of the plot flow from that circumstance.

Exhibit Five: Puchezma's Powder of Edible Objects
Interestingly, this odd item is one of the few D&D magical items that does have a back-story; apparently the unfortunately named Puchezma was a cheapskate who inadvertently created a powder that allowed him to eat any chewable material while trying to make a spice that would allow him to eat cheaper and cheaper food. With it, people can eat anything from cotton to tree leaves instead of bread and salted beef! Now, I would say if you're carrying around cotton, you might as well be carrying food. I would also say that if you plan on your player-character eating tree leaves to save fictional money you are very much missing the greater point of D&D.
This, along with another item called “fish dust” seem most obviously created in order to solve a pernickity problem. How to expediate the delivery of food to the players in unusual circumstances or, without exhaustive checks for success in a given activity.

Fish dust is a dust you sprinkle on water and it stuns the fish it touches causing them to float to the surface. Essentially it’s a kind of quiet way of dynamiting fish.

I can just see, in either case, that a party were either a) able to fish but the GM did not want to waste time on having them do so instead of getting on with the story or b) wandering through an ancient tomb of stuff with no food and in danger of starving to death. In each case the GM produced an item which mitigated the immediate problem and allowed the story to move on. No big mystery.

Exhibit Six: Mirror of Simple Order
"When a character steps in front of this mirror, he sees a strangely distorted image of himself. … There are eyes, a mouth, and a nose, but all lack character. Although the figure moves as the character does, it is shorter or taller than he is, adjusted in whatever direction approaches the average height of the character's race. Any clothing worn by the character is altered as well. Bright colors will be muted, appearing to be shades of grey. Any ornamental work on armor, weapons, or clothing will be gone. … He retains his level and class, but is not as exceptional as he might have been. He is bland and boring. The character's alignment changes to lawful neutral, and he becomes interested in little else other than setting order to the world." So there's a magical item that turns you into a soulless bureaucrat. I guess that's whose making those damn rings.
This is a fascinating artifact as, like the Ring of Contrariness, I can see it having been created as a “trap” for a particularly flair heavy and flamboyant player character, but the implications of the device reach far beyond this one usage. In fact, coming to think about it I cannot help but wonder if this is a reaction to a group losing a player who turned in a “unique” performance as an extrovert exhibitionist with bags of charisma.

Not wanting to kill the character or pass it along to another player the Mirror accomplishes the job of leaving the character largely as was but removing all of their individuality. Possibly there was a chance that the player would return, making the restoration of the player’s “true” character a subject for a twist in the narrative.

Essentially, in game terms, this artifact would seem like the perfect tool for turning an individual character into a bland back-up NPC for an uncertain duration and for this reason it is an object that only has its true meaning revealed in its meta-purpose. Intra-digetically to the narrative, of course, the effect of this mirror would be a terrible, subtle and deeply unsettling curse.

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