Monday, January 2, 2017

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Explanation of Magic Items

This section starts with a paragraph on how to identify magic items: by experimenting with them. In other words, you need to risk exposing your character to curses or possibly death in order to be sure of your magic item's abilities. And you need to take the risk. If you have a hireling or retainer do it, they'll keep the item since they took the risk.

Of course, you could also ask a high-level NPC magic-user, but you'll need to fork out cash or complete some service first. This is a good thing, of course, because it provides a hook for adventure. If your magic item is cursed, it's a spur to adventure (at least until higher levels when a party Cleric or Magic-User can take care of that for you). If you want to take the safe (and slow) path of asking an NPC to ID the item, you'll need to complete some sort of adventure.

The next short paragraph just explains that some magic items are permanent and others temporary. Then, there's a slightly longer section on using magic items. Items that require concentration to make them function have a caveat that is important, but I often forget due to it not being a factor in more recent editions: when you use the item, "the user may not move, cast a spell, or take any other action during that round" (p. 42). Wands aren't like in Harry Potter, where they're a magical replacement for guns (or more accurately, Green Arrow/Hawkeye quiver of arrows). No John Woo stunts allowed.

Finally, we get a short explanation of charges in magic items. The rules say there's no way for the character to learn how many charges are in a charged item, but I always found this difficult to rule in play, especially since in the earliest days my two best friends and I co-DMed the same world. I've always just been open with players about how many charges were in their magic items. Not telling them makes them less cavalier about using them up, and while it might be kinda fun for them to gamble with their magic items, letting them know how many are left allows them to make informed choices about their use, which I think can also be fun (and probably more fun for the player). Oh, and there's a note that charged magic items cannot be recharged. I've recently overruled this for my games (not that it's easy to accomplish) because it can be a good spur to adventure if it's possible.

We get some basic information first. The 'plus' adds to hit rolls and damage rolls. Some of the swords get a better bonus against specific opponents. Weapon restrictions for classes still apply. Then, we get information on the two swords that can cast Clerical spells, with a note that other Cleric or Magic-User spells may be placed in swords. It's a nice way to let the Fighter, Thief, Dwarf or Halfling have a bit of magic. Oh, and then we are told that most magic swords are normal swords, but occasionally short swords or two-handed magic swords will be found, and the DM can select the type as they like or roll randomly.

Swords can, of course, be cursed. There's a 15% chance any sword will be cursed (roll 1-3 on d20). The cursed sword will appear to be the type rolled until used in combat. According to a strict reading of the rules, no matter what type was rolled, as a cursed sword it will be a sword -1. It doesn't mention if special powers, like additional bonus vs. specific types or spell casting ability still functions, but the implication is that they don't. One thing I have often overlooked is that a cursed sword, once uncursed, reverts back to the type rolled originally. Getting a cursed sword isn't screwing the player over that badly, as they can go on a quest to remove the curse, and then have whatever sweet swag they were expecting to have. Delayed gratification is a good thing, right?

Other Weapons
 This is a short section, as other weapons pretty much follow the rules for magic swords. For players who do prefer other weapons besides swords, there is a small silver lining (I mentioned in the previous post how the chances to get other magic weapons are much lower than swords). Other magic weapons are only cursed 10% of the time (1-2 on d20).

There is a chart for magic armor that is somewhat unnecessary. Since only armors of +1 value are given in this set, though, instead of explaining how the plus lowers your AC, there's a chart that shows the AC for non-magical armor, magical armor, and an encumbrance adjustment for wearing magical armor. The encumbrance adjustment is really the only useful part of the chart once you move beyond the Basic rules. And since shields can get a +1 or +2 enchantment, Frank had to explain the system for magical AC adjustment anyway. Maybe the chart is a hold-over from the days when the Chainmail combat system was standard, and AC had a slightly different meaning.

Cursed armor works similarly to magic weapons, in that a cursed item is -1 (adds 1 to AC). There's a slightly higher chance to get cursed armor than other weapons, but slightly less than magic swords (1 on d8).

There's a bit of description of potions first, then we're told how long they last (typically 7-12 Turns), and only the DM should know for sure. If you want to ID a potion, take a sip. To activate the potion, chug it! Also, unlike in AD&D (1E for sure, maybe 2E as well), there's no fun potion miscability table, just a note that if you drink a potion while another is in effect, you get sick for 3 Turns (no save) and neither potion has any more effect. Healing potions are exempt from this as they have no duration.

The potion of diminution is interesting in that it specifies that while shrunk down you cannot damage creatures bigger than 1' tall (you're not Ant-Man). It doesn't specify how you damage small creatures like that (roll damage normally? Do minimum damage?), nor does it mention hit point adjustments. It does say it will negate a potion of growth, so there's one exception to the "no mixing potions" rule.

The potion of gaseous form is specific in that gear is not made gaseous. It also notes that while gaseous you are AC -2 and only magic weapons or spells can harm you.

The potion of growth, unlike its counterpart above, does let you know that you deal double damage while giant size, but your hit points don't change. The exception to the sickness with potions of diminution is noted again here, as well.

Invisibility potions have an interesting optional rule which if you're going to use it for this potion, you might as well use it for others as well. At the DM's option, players may split the potion into six doses which each have effect for 1 Turn. That's nice for setting up an ambush, or group escapes.

Finally, potions of poision, even if just a sip is taken, can cause instant death! Yes, you get a save, and similar to the previous advice on poison, there's a note that the DM can have the potion deal damage instead of causing death instantly.

We get a bit of description of scrolls and how they function. There's a not that only spell-casters of the appropriate type can cast spell scrolls, but any character can use a Protection scroll or treasure map... but this forgets that characters of low intelligence have trouble reading, or can't read at all.

For spell scrolls, there's a 25% chance the scroll is for Clerics, otherwise it is for MUs and Elves. The scroll can have one to three spells, and at this level the spells may go up to third level (due to there being some higher level Cleric/Magic-User spells in the book. Especially for MUs/Elves, since they need to collect spells for their spellbooks, this is a good thing, because it adds a bit of tension to having a scroll and never using it so that it can be added to the spell-book later, or use it when it may be of help.

Cursed scrolls affect you just by looking at the scroll, so unlike magic swords, weapons and armor, the removal of the curse does not revert the scroll to a beneficial magical one, it just ends the effects. There are some curses suggested, and the fourth one is level drain "as if struck by a wight" with a note to avoid using this item in a situation where the characters are 1st level as level drain would kill them.  I think if this were the curse, I'd give a saving throw or something. Even a poison potion allows a saving throw.

Protection Scrolls are one of my favorite magic items. I'm not sure why, but I think it's the fact that any (literate) character can use them, and they have some useful effects. There are only two in the Basic Set, Protection from Lycanthropes and from Undead. There are more in Expert (don't remember off hand if the Companion Set added any), and even more in AD&D (Unearthed Arcana/2E at least). They create a 10' diameter -- as a kid I interpreted it as radius, but it says "10' across" (p. 44) -- moving circle of protection that prevents a certain number of creatures from entering. The number affected is rolled randomly, though, so if you roll low, or there are just a lot of that type of creature, some can get through. Still, when fighting lycanthropes or undead, preventing the whole pack from mobbing you is still not bad, although keeping them all away is best.

One thing that is unclear is how to rule the effect if there are more than one type of the creatures together. So if there are werewolves (1-8 affected) and weretigers (1-4 affected) together, do some of both get hedged out? Only the weaker? Only the stronger? DMs can determine it as they wish.

Treasure maps -- I mentioned before how I think these are kind of out of place -- may lead you to normal or magical treasure. You as DM should also prepare treasure maps ahead of time, which is a good idea, if you have plenty of prep time and your players really need accurate visuals. Frank suggests that foreign languages may be used on the map to make it difficult to read the map without magic.

Anyone who's read or seen Aladdin or The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings knows what the first section tells us: that the ring needs to be worn on a finger to have an effect. The game does explicitly tell us that you're limited to only one ring per hand, two total, or they all stop functioning (except a cursed Ring of Weakness). Also, anyone can use a ring.

The ring of animal control is (for me at least) an overlooked gem of an item. Maybe I just never had a PC that acquired one, and if any of my old players did, they never took advantage of it. I know I haven't had any rolled up in my recent dungeons or other adventures. The ring lets you control 1d6 normal animals or a single giant animal, as long as they're in sight, for up to one turn. That can take care of a lot of deadly encounters with especially poisonous creatures with little or at least lessened risk to the party. The down side is no movement while concentrating on the control. Also, the rules are worded a bit unfairly -- only one 1/2 hit die giant rat could be controlled, while 1d6 sabertooth tigers or cave bears could be controlled by a strict reading. And when you get dinosaurs in the Expert Set... Obviously some DM judgment is required.

There's not really much to say about the rings of fire resistance, invisibility, or protection +1. The first two work like the spells (fire resistance permanently, invisibility once per turn), and the ring of protection +1 adds to AC and saving throws continually. Nice, but nothing unusual about any of them.

The ring of water walking leaves me with one question (and of course, it's up to individual DMs to decide the answer). The description says "The wearer of this ring may walk on the surface of any body of water, and will not sink" (p. 44). How is that controversial, you ask? Well, what about other non-water liquids? Can you cross a river of vinegar or a pool of oil? If you have glass slippers could you cross acid? Can you pour some water over a pressure plate, then walk on the spilled water without setting it off? Lots of potential for fun with this one!

The cursed ring of weakness is last. It lowers your Strength to 3 within a few rounds, and lasts until the curse is removed. And unlike magic swords/weapons/armor, removing the curse doesn't revert it to a useful magic ring. I may add other cursed rings that affect other stats, or maybe just roll randomly what ability score gets drained, or have it affect the Prime Requisite, because most of the time a Magic-User or Thief with this ring isn't usually overly burdened, except that they can only then use one useful ring at a time. A ring of feeblemind, or ring of sickliness would be a fun change up every now and then (although magic rings being rare, compared to other items, and there being lots of types especially by the Companion Set/RC tables, they wouldn't come up often).

Wands, Staves and Rods
This is the only class of magic item that doesn't have any cursed items (at least in the Basic Set...I'll have to check if later sets add some). We get a bit of description of all three types of item, and a note that at least for the items presented here, only MUs and Elves can use wands, only Clerics can use staves, and anyone can use a rod. Also, wands will have 1d10 charges only when you find them.

Wands of enemy detection (and later the enemy detection ability of intelligent swords in the Expert Set) always seemed like a fairly useless item to us when we were kids, because (as I've mentioned countless times in this series over the years), most monsters would just attack in those early games. However, there is an ability of this wand that actually makes it super useful even after combat starts -- hostile invisible creatures get lit up, so everyone can see where they are. Hidden creatures like thieves or troglodytes also appear.

The wand of magic detection is a great item to have, as it frees up a spell slot, or speeds up identification of magical loot, and occasionally can be used to confirm that locks/traps/strange things are magical or not.

Wands of paralyzation are nice, they shoot a ray 60' long, 30' wide at the end, and anything in it must save vs. wands or be paralyzed for one whole hour. If there were a spell that had the same effect, it would probably be 4th level, or maybe 5th, since Hold Person, which affects 1 to 4 humanoids only, is 3rd for a magic-user. In fact, compared to Hold Monster, this wand's effect would maybe be a 6th level spell... And here it is in the Basic Set.

The staff of healing is nice and simple here (it gets optionally much more complicated in the Companion Set). It can cast cure light wounds on any number of creatures, each once per day. Any army or settlement's Cleric would probably go to great lengths to secure one of these items, as it can take care of most of that community's injuries without resorting to spell slots.

The snake staff is another (for my old group at least) overlooked gem. It's a staff +1 in melee (and we get melee stats for a staff here before it's provided on the weapons lists in Expert), and on command changes into a snake that automatically (no save) ensnares the target of man-size or less. While it does have hit points in snake form, and becomes non-magical if killed, that's a pretty good way to take a creature alive.

The rod of cancellation is the item any character can use, and none of them want to! Why? Because it turns what would otherwise be your magical loot into a non-magical item. Kind of a last resort, unless you're using it to remove an unwanted cursed item. This description does give us the concept of "Touch AC" which was enshrined in 3E. To hit an item with the rod in combat, you only need to hit AC 9 (unless, as Frank notes, the item is currently being wielded, which should provide it a lower AC).

Miscellaneous Magic Items
In general, I'm also a big fan of miscellaneous items, many because again any class character can use them (at least of the ones here in Basic), and they all provide some fun effects, some of which can only be achieved through these items.

The bag of devouring is technically a cursed item, although there are no restrictions like being forced to keep it. It appears to be a bag of holding, but if you leave items in it for too long (7 to 12 Turns), the items disappear. So once it's determined that this is a bag of devouring, you need to empty it out once per hour and refill it. Unlike the bag of holding, however, it doesn't list a maximum weight limit (although many DMs would likely imply one from the bag of holding's limit). A strict reading, however, gives unlimited capacity, but just the need to empty it and refill it once per hour.

As just mentioned, the bag of holding has a size/weight limit of what can go in it listed here, and it tells us that when full the bag only weighs 600cn (so the same as a loaded large sack). Unlike in AD&D, there's only one size bag to worry about. A must-have item for any adventuring party, and since it's available from the Basic levels, it's somewhat likely a party may end up with one or two before they get too high in levels.

A crystal ball is (again, for me) another underused item. While it only works 3 times per day, it can give you an idea of what's happening anywhere you want to look. Great for scouting or spying.

The elven cloak and elven boots are nice, in that they make you almost (2~6 on d6) invisible and (2~10 on d10) silent, respectively. Great for sneaking around and surprising enemies. It makes me wonder about other sorts of demi-human attire that could be found with magical effects...halfling cravats, dwarven caps, gnomish knickerbockers...

Gauntlets of Ogre Power give you an 18 Strength. If you already have an 18 Str, they're more or less useless to you, although they do allow you to punch creatures for 1d4 damage at a +3 bonus to hit. Again, later editions have added other items to increase other stats, and that could easily be copied for Classic D&D based on the rules presented here.

The Helm of Alignment Changing is a cursed item, and once put on can only be removed with spells or other curse removal means. And it changes your alignment, randomly, to one of the other two. But since there are no alignment restrictions in Classic D&D, it's more of an annoyance than an actual hindrance.

The Helm of Telepathy is a nice item. While you need to concentrate (which means not moving or taking any other actions), you can have a mental conversation with any willing creature, even if you don't share a language. You can also snoop on their thoughts without having to send a message, if they let you or fail a save.

The medallion of ESP, on the other hand, is kind of a chump version of the helm. You can only read thoughts with it, and you have a 1 in 6 chance to broadcast your own thoughts to everyone in range instead of reading the target's mind. If you have a choice, take the helm over this one!

Finally, there's another staple item many parties crave, the rope of climbing. Like the elven cloak and boots, it takes its inspiration from The Lord of the Rings. It can also hold up to 10,000cn weight, but I don't remember regular rope giving a weight limit. I'll have to look it up later. Still, that's pretty good, as you can use it to climb (of course), grab items that are out of reach, and several other uses.

And that's it for magic items. Next up, Creating Dungeons, which will probably get divided into two posts, with the end matter (back cover) being included in the second post. Two more to go and this series is finished.

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