Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Greatest Magic Item Ever Crafted

The Warband

I was a hard-core Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master for around six years or so, beginning in the late 1980s. The DM is sort of like a combination of story narrator and referee – he determines the setting in which the players have their characters play, adding friends, enemies, events, and new locations based on what the players decide to do. He also adjudicates whether or not they can succeed at what they attempt, and he divvies out the rewards for their victories – usually in the form of experience points, precious metals, and items of magical power. For me, magical items were sometimes a challenge, and I finally decided to do something about it.

There are various types of magical items. Some are very simple and not terribly exciting, such as magical potions that, when drunk, impart temporary abilities on the drinker. Other items may be more potent and longer-lasting, but still not terribly exciting. For instance, you might have a weapon or armor that’s magically enchanted to be slightly more effective in combat – increasing your chance to hit an enemy or avoid a blow by anywhere from 5% to 25% depending on the potency of the magic.

As my players advanced through their fictional world, they acquired more treasure and their characters became more powerful. As such, they tended to come into possession of newer and far stronger magical items. But these items were supposed to be rare, very difficult to create, and nearly indestructible. So they would often seek to discover the history of these potent magical artifacts. That’s great, of course – it shows that they’re engaged and interested in the story. But it’s also a bit of a challenge for the DM to have to determine, often on the spot, the often lengthy history of these items.

Furthermore, some of the most amazing and impressive magical relics were semi-conscious, and able to communicate with their owners. Again, this made them fascinating plot devices, but it also meant that a player was likely to want to interrogate their new sword or ring to determine what eldritch wisdom might be contained within. Which, again, meant a LOT more work on my part as the DM. These were especially challenging. After all, if you were the owner of a magical item and its objectives (if any) aligned with yours, why wouldn’t it divulge whatever it knew that might help you? And it turns out that coming up with reasons why the item won’t talk to its owner is just as much work as just figuring out the answer to the player’s questions.

And so was born the greatest magical item I ever created – and the last sentient item I have ever made to this day.

The Warband is a 4,000 year old religious relic. It was created by the god of war as a gift for one of his greatest disciples in an era when warfare was an emerging concept and the new technology of iron was changing the battlefield forever.  After that holy warrior followed a succession of bloodthirsty but noble knights in service to the war god. They were known as The Reapers, and they were blessed with great skill at arms, powerful magics to defeat their enemies, and the wisdom to lead their armies to triumph. And each of them passed down to their successor the magic ring called the Warband. This ring not only symbolized that they were the one ordained Reaper, but endowed them with arcane energies to gain strength from their defeated enemies, to endure more harm than any normal man, to call upon the strength of the greatest giants, and to destroy creatures of darkness with a touch.

But its greatest power was to act as a spiritual home for each Reaper as he passed into the great beyond. The collected knowledge and wisdom and memories of hundreds of paladins were housed within the ring. True, some of the oldest were faint and hard to reach, and certain of the paladins had been mad at the time of their demise, but most were available to speak to the current bearer of the ring and had reasonably lucid recollections of their lives. And by “reasonably lucid,” I mean “fully documented.”

My old friend Bill Mehlem was playing a holy warrior dubbed “The Reaper” in my campaign at the time that I created The Warband. Bill was one of the players who was most inclined to consider every possible effect or issue with a magic item and then dig into it, learn all about it, and then use it to his advantage. It was an admirable quality in a player and certainly far preferable to a player who didn’t care to think about their character in any depth, but it could also be a lot of work as the DM to have ready answers to all of the likely and unlikely questions Bill would come up with. For this reason, I decided that Bill’s character would receive this item – the most detailed item that I (or, as far as I know, anyone else) ever created.

I scheduled what’s called a “solo adventure” for Bill. It’s a session where the DM and one or two players play the game alone, without the full group. It’s a good time to do really interesting or useful character development for one character without boring all of the unaffected characters to tears. In this adventure, The Reaper and his small squad of follower-knights were beset by a horde of orcs and ogres who charged down upon them and threatened to crush them or drive them into a river to be drowned. Of course, the noble soldier of the war god gathered his men and incited them to be courageous and to meet death with honor, but it was sure to be a massacre. But, just as the battle was joined, another figure in black-and-red armor and riding an impossibly huge black warhorse rode into the battle and cut a swath through the ogres like a farmer cutting down wheat. For, of course, this was the senior Reaper, who had come in the nick of time to pass the Warband – his legacy – on to the junior paladin. The old man tossed the sacred relic to his young counterpart, then waded back into battle, feeling the power of his deity coursing through him as he faced his final battle. He was, of course, slain in the end, but he slew such a vast number of enemies that the rest were easily routed by the younger Reaper and his minions.

And with the conclusion of the battle, I handed Bill an inch-thick, black 3-ring binder. On the cover was a hand-drawn picture of the ring, a piece of original artwork by my then-fiancĂ© who has since been my lovely wife for almost fifteen years. Inside it were more than 70 pages of typed text – more than 50,000 words in all – detailing the lives of scores of ring paladins throughout the ages. More, I had done my best to craft their lives into an interesting story – a diary, if you will - of the intertwined lives of these dedicated men who had pledged themselves to the service of their god and given their entire lives to carrying out his will. Virtually all of them were good and noble, and most of them achieved great things in their lives. A few failed to measure up, and several of them met especially grizzly ends. But woven through the text were places and people, objects and events that touched upon the lives and histories of all of the characters in my game at that time. Their surnames were seen again and again over the centuries, sometimes as peasants or noble lords, other times as evil tyrants or heartless villains. The same applied to known enemies and friends of the characters and famous figures they had already encountered.

I don’t remember how many weeks or months it took me to create this item, but it was quite an effort. I remember that I did it at the small desk in my bedroom in my parents’ house on a PC that was probably a 486 or a very low-end Pentium at best. It was created in Microsoft Word 5.x or 6.0 - I’ve had difficulty opening the docs a few times over the years when I’ve waited too long between versions. It appears that I originally printed it on a dot-matrix printer. That’s 70+ pages times two – as I needed a reference copy for Bill and a second one for myself, to use when he asked questions or drew on the knowledge in the tome (and because I wasn’t giving my girlfriend’s artwork away – Bill got a color photocopy).

I forget how long we used the item before the campaign ended, but I think it was a year or so. Several months at least. By the time I created this item, I was already starting to spend more time at school and with my wife than working on D&D stuff, and it only declined further over time. But it was glorious while it lasted. Got a question? It’s either in the book or the “ring-paladins” don’t remember. Don’t ask me, for crying out loud – that’s the point of this thing. The book provided some “hooks” for the players to follow into new adventures, and a careful read (which I knew it would receive) answered some questions for several of the characters, naturally raising new ones in the process.

The Candlemir campaign is long since over. The players have grown apart and even moved across the country. But I still have The Warband’s electronic file, as well as the original hardcopy in its black binder. I’ve thought about trying to do something with it, but what? I could try to find a publisher for it, but as it stands much of the significance of the characters and places mentioned in the tome is lost if you’re not familiar with my campaign world. I’ve considered trying to make it more generic, but it’s friggin huge and I could never quite figure out how to make it sufficiently generic without wrecking what made it really interesting and worthwhile. Perhaps someday I’ll run a campaign with my kids playing descendants of the characters in the book, and let them read what their dad (and mom) made all those years ago. But in the meantime, until I see a better one, I’ll continue to claim the title of creator of the most detailed magic item ever.

No comments:

Post a Comment