Saturday, August 26, 2017

What Do Your Wands, Scrolls, and Potions Actually Look Like?

There are a lot of minutiae to keep track of when you're playing an RPG. How many weapons are you carrying, which are you swinging, what armor do you have equipped, what race is your character, how long does that spell you cast last, what bonuses do you have active... it's enough to make your head spin.

The unfortunate thing is that, as players, we can sort of miss the forest for the trees when it comes to our games. We might get so caught up in the mechanical function of something that we forget to take a step back, and to appreciate what its significance is in the world our characters inhabit, and in the story we're all collectively telling. Like how you might miss the complexities of morality happening with Albrecht Ironhand, who is trying to leave behind the brigand he once was while embracing a new life with his companions, if you just label him as "the barbarian" all the time. Or how you stop marveling at the roiling clouds contained in the black steel of the Stormspear, when you reduce it to nothing more than a +2 shocking burst lance.

I've talked about classes and magic items before, in posts like What's in a Name? How Your Character Class is Limiting Your Creativity and How To Keep Your Magic Items From Getting Mundane, but this week I wanted to talk about some items that get even less love, but which we use a lot more often; wands, scrolls, and potions.

No, the MINT one is the cure potion!

Single-Use Items in All Their Flavors

Take a moment to ask how many expendable magic items an average party goes through in the length of a campaign. How many healing potions do they drink? How many fireball wands do the use? How many restoration scrolls do they burn?

Now ask how you could make every one of those items a little more unique, and make it something players will remember, instead of just something they use.

So... how do I do that?
Well, the first thing you should do is ask what the item is made of. If it's a scroll, ask if it's written on regular parchment, ancient parchment, vellum, silk, animal hide, human skin, etc. If you're looking at a wand, is it made from wood? Bone? Crystal? Iron? In both of these instances, you should be asking what materials the particular crafter used to make the item, how old it is, and whether what it's made from has a bearing on the power of the magic inside of it. Because while it may be true that there is no mechanical bonus to necromancy spells inked onto the flesh of a virgin, or evocation spells kept in a wand tipped with volcanic stone, those are the details that will make these items stand out to the players using them.

What about potions, though? Well, what about them? As we all know it's possible to identify a potion by taste with a high enough Perception check (in Pathfinder, anyway), so ask yourself what different spells taste like. Are cure spells sweet, or do they taste like bitter medicine? Does the witch you bought the batch from infuse her expeditious retreat potions with coffee? Also, what do these potions look like? Are they thick and syrupy, or are they thin as water? Are they unusual colors, or filled with swirling patterns? Are they kept in glass bottles, or are they in ceramic jugs? What do they smell like?

By changing up these tiny details, even if you don't add mechanical backing to them, you make these basic magic items a lot more memorable. You can even add lore to them. If the party finds a scroll case in a troll's lair, and those scrolls are written in an older form of magic that the church no longer uses, then it may be possible to date when they were made. Different regions may have different potion blends, the same way coffee or tea will have a local flavor and style to it. And wands, just like swords, may bear maker's marks, or particular command words, making them unique pieces of craftsmanship that give insight to the person who made it in the first place.

It's the little things that often stick in players' memories, so make sure you sweat the small stuff.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it gives the DMs out there a few ideas, and gets you asking about the origins of these finite magical items. If you want to check out more gaming content from me, just head over to my archive on Gamers. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and to get yourself some sweet swag as a thank you.

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