Tuesday, 13 June 2017

"I’ve given my party a powerful magical item and now my campaign is ruined."

I’ve given my party a powerful magical item and now my campaign is ruined.

This is one of those complaints that I see all over Internet forums and on Podcasts and in blogs – that they’ve given too much agency to their players and their players are gleefully shitting on the setting you’ve carefully constructed.

Traditional advice ranges from a mature discussion about campaign expectations (what did that ever solve?) to magical theft abetted by DM fiat to restore the apparent balance of power. These are solutions that go against then spirit of the game in my view, and I would advise simply that you embrace it and build it as a seed for future adventures.

If they have time travel, cool, your campaign is some kind of murder-centric Quantum Leap. If they’re immortal, rad, so are a tonne of other people. If they’ve set themselves up as kings, being a kind is not fucking easy.  In a world where the potential power level of a being ranges from Goblin to Godhead, there will always be challenges. (Whether D&D remains the system of choice is debatable).

If it’s a single player-character resource (you gave the party Barbarian a really powerful magic sword and now he’s wrecking everything and overshadowing the other players) that can be more difficult, but there are challenges that a magic sword can’t fix that a barbarian won’t be much good at.

Here are three examples of grossly overpowered things my players ended up with with potential game-breaking consequences:

A fucking castle.

My party – The Company of the Noose – are movers and shakers. They have an island fortress named Soltenpet and their own Warship named Destiny’s Edge and they’re not even level 10. They are upwardly mobile socially aspirant murderers. This comes complete with feudal rights over some unlucky peons and a small army of their own to command.

Now, this could elevate them beyond the petty concerns of dungeoneering, but for two things:

1) They’re obsessed with upgrading their castle.
Now, normally my story-focussed group are a bit beyond lucre as a motivation (despite that being the standard assumption of the whole game) but they’re obsessed with a paranoid desire to make themselves unassailable my building siege engines and holes. They have struck a deal with pirates to launder their ill-gotten gains through their ports, and are going to expand their dock accordingly. They’re seeking an arcanist to repair magical artefacts they’ve recovered. This has created a whole host of castle-related quests hunting monsters and plundering tombs and politicking with pirate-kings – standard fare.

2) Baddies have castles too.
This should be self-explanatory.

A maguffin that makes them immortal.

The Company recovered The Hourglass of Ages, a device which allows you to siphon life from one person into another. Capture enough hobos and orphans and you can live free from the vicissitudes of time. This is obviously much desired by various morally dubious personages. If they got it into their heads to flog it, the Kings and Emperors of the world would offer a pretty hefty price. Technically, this is an enormously powerful artefact, but a basic moral principle prevents them auctioning it off, and player characters don’t die of old age, so they can’t use it personally.

A really powerful magic sword

 My players were given Voidwalker, an epically powerful sword which was pretty obviously bad news.

Greatsword * 2d6
The sword is a single hilt of bone. The blade is not visible. When held aloft in darkness, a series of glowing runes are visible on the blade. In Infernal, they read: THE GREATEST WARRIOR FIGHTS AS THOUGH ALREADY DEAD. 
 On a critical, Voidwalker works as Power Word Kill unless the target has over 80hp.
Stillness: Once per day, the wielder of Voidwalker may use his move action to make an additional attack with Voidwalker.
Brightest Candle, Longest Shadow:  If the wielder of Voidwalker hits 0 hit-points, they may instead choose to stay standing at 1hp and gain a random curse. 

Arcana (22) Voidwalker is cursed and will compel the owner to accept any offer of a duel as though under the Geas spell. 

A History (25) will reveal Voidwalker to have been the sword of Musashi, who founded the Dameshti Swordfighting college that offers the swan-pendant for excellence in combat. Musashi was gifted Voidwalker by a representative of Dispater after triumphing in 66 duels to the death. A great reward would be offered if it was returned to the College. 

Vaina Moynen, our barbarian-fighter and resident killing machine, rampaged across every combat encounter using this thing. The avalanche of half-Orc, Reckless Attack criticals would decimate mooks in most encounters, and the party felt grossly outmatched as he sliced through most boss fights too.

This bred a touch of resentment, until an end-of-story-arc boss used the curse to force a single duel (the player obviously felt I’d never use that) to slaughter Vaina. When there’s an obviously powerful weapon, I always accommodate choices (ie a one-off nova ability with a trade off) as these make the weapons complicated. When Vaina was duelling, the players weren’t quite rooting for him…

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