Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Artifact Rant

The future of Gothic Greyhawk
Here's how the 1E DMG describes the artifacts:

Each artifact or relic is a singular thing of potent powers and possibly strange side effects as well… Those artifacts and relics which you bring into play should be so carefully guarded by location and warding devices and monsters that recovery of any one is an undertaking of such magnitude that only very powerful characters, in concert, and after lengthy attempts have any chance whatsoever of attaining one.  [An artifact] is a super-weapon that is certain to blast the whole campaign to smithereens, unless it is given proper limitations (and also a nemesis creature in some cases).
--1E Dungeon Master's Guide

You get the gist of the sentiment.  Artifacts hold game-warping power, so the official advice is to gimp them by the difficulty of finding one, consigning artifacts to the end-game.  A slew of drawbacks and side effects afflict the owner, ensuring artifacts are a self-limiting problem.  Alternatively, they show up as mere plot devices and macguffins.  The 4th edition took it a step further, having the artifact literally disappear after a short while (I'm not kidding - they bampf!). 

I hate the mentality of dangling something amazing and then yanking it away before anything meaningful happens.  (Horrible side effects, I can live with).  It calls to mind all the things I dislike about bad sci-fi or fantasy.  "Let's introduce something amazing and cool, a one-shot silver bullet or magic pill, and then remove it before the status quo is permanently affected".

Quite a bit of sci fi or urban fantasy can be analyzed in this manner.  Indy recaptured the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis used it to change the war, but the authorities can't have that magic box running around; better hide it in a massive warehouse with all of the other unmentionables.  Powder dies, ET phones home and hops on a ship, John Travolta with all his mind powers gets killed by a tumor, and pretty much every episode of Star Trek included a MacGuffin that disappeared at the end of the episode.  The aliens always melted into green goo before Mulder and Scully could get their proof of extraterrestrials.  The truth is still out there.

Don't get me started on the comics.  The worst offenders at dangling untold power and world-changing stories, only to reset everything back to the status quo, are those jokers writing the comics.  My criteria for a good comic series usually involves the degree to which main characters get wasted and the world gets messed up.

Progressive writing allows the setting to move forward, for better or worse, and explores or alludes to the changes in the coming new world.  The cure for cancer is real, or nuclear fusion works and the world has an endless source of renewable energy; the old regime crumbles away.  The aliens discovered at the bottom of the sea stop World War 3 when we're at the brink of destruction.  Things will never be the same again.  It's much more interesting to imagine how that new world looks, than return again and again to the way things were.

This is how it needs to be with artifacts and truly powerful magic items. You don't come back to town with a Staff of Wizardry or a Holy Sword or the Hand of Vecna and act like nothing happened.  If a group finds a campaign warping item or artifact, let the campaign get bent and warped.  Oh man, I just had an epiphanous moment - I'm basically coming at this the same way as James Raggi a few weeks ago over on LOTFP - one important ingredient for weird fantasy is total disregard.

Yes - I am most definitely advocating total disregard.  The next phase of Gothic Greyhawk involves a quest for some world-breaking artifacts, and I fully intend to let the campaign get warped and bent out of shape if they get recovered.  The players are already squatting in Strahd's old million gold piece castle and we'll be dealing with the ramifications, both positive and negative, of what it means to win a kingdom (or at least a remote mountain barony).  They destroyed their previous home area by unleashing a horde of zombies and ghouls; the post-zombie world is certainly more interesting than it was as "medieval mundania".  Blowing shit up is fun.  Don't be afraid of letting the party win the lottery, and then watch them figure out how to handle the problems brought by too much money.  When the party is presented with a plunger attached to a big chunk of dynamite, you need to take off the safety switch and let things explode.  Failure *is* an option.  Kill your darlings, as the writers say; Mary Sue needs to die, and you need to stop being a slave to the campaign's status quo.

--This PSA brought to you by Dreams in the Lich House is more of a pep talk and manifesto for my upcoming campaign, than sound advice for any of you, but any discussions of dead Mary Sue's and world-breaking super weapons in the comments would be much appreciated.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree. My players are just about to enter DFD and I'm looking forward to see how it turns out :), especially as they have a keep that they have acquired back at the base village.

  2. Funny about dead Mary Sue's. I wrote a short adventure for a contest over at Tower of the Archmage which involved searching for and saving a little girl. One of the possibilities is that the girl dies and her blood is used to make the party's opponent stronger. I waffled at the end, and gave an alternative to that ending. But here's the adventure in total:

  3. "It's much more interesting to imagine how that new world looks, than to return again and again to the way things were."

    I'd normally ignore it, but using "then" reverses the meaning of the sentence. That said, I agree with the message.

    It might be worthwhile to take a look at all the different things which have ruined good campaigns over the years. You'd have to filter out campaigns which weren't good to begin with, and maybe separate ones that just petered out.

  4. No worries on the grammar, I fixed it.

    I understand the fear of Monty Haul, and I suppose a campaign could be ruined by freebies. But the most memorable campaigns are the ones without a safety net, where big changes happen, consequences are real, and there is no reset button (barring a powerful Wish, itself a major item).

    Maybe a follow-on post will ask about specific artifact usage in folks' campaigns. I've had some through the years.

  5. This is why I don't waste much time watching or reading contemporary fantasy/sci-fi anymore and why I keep coming back to RPGs. I get sick and tired of watching awesome ideas squandered because we have go back to normal. With RPGs, I get to actually see what happens when something radical happens — for good or ill. Seeing how consequences play out — asking what if — is the reason I got into fantasy/sci-fi in the first place.

  6. I agree about not hitting the reset button, however often a post-change game world is unplayable, or at least far less interesting than before. In those cases it's best to end the campaign.

    If you don't want to end it, don't bring in maguffins that will render it unplayable. In particular, avoid 'save the world' plots unless you're prepared to have the PCs fail and then to either end the campaign or play on in the aftermath.

  7. My most enjoyable D&D campaign started as a one-shot where I let each player roll on a Major Magic Items table for their starting equipment. We had the Cubic Gate and the Deck of Many Things in the party right from the off. Batshit craziness ensued.

    Nice blog, by the way. Just stumbled in here.

  8. I love that Deck of Many Things. You'd be right at home in my home game.

  9. This is why I loved Fringe: all the super-science the mad-scientist pulls out to stop the monster-of-the-week persists for the rest of the series. That, and it's comic-book Silence of the Lambs with a mad-scientist instead of serial killer.