Monday, March 29, 2010

Musing on Magic & Technological Items

Traditionally in D&D & derived rpgs magic items and technological items are interchangeable. In a fantasy game what may be called a wand of fireballs, whereas in a sci-fi game an item with the same effect could be called an incendiary micro-grenade launcher (aside from the class requirements for many magic items in standard D&D).

In Empire of the Petal Throne the line is further blurred, with magical and technological items being treated interchangeably.

While working on the treasure & item material for the Planet Algol material, what really struck me is that many classic D&D magic items such as healing potions, flying carpets, wands of lightning and the like not only can easily be presented a technological items, but when their functionality and "reliability" are concerned they come across as virtual technological items. A magic-users suite of magic items could easily be some sort of advanced technician's supply of advanced equipment.

When one considers how magic items are treated in much of the "source fiction," they are generally more mysterious than D&D magic items. Enigmatic, possibly dangerous artifacts of lost-lost eldritch forces. Generally not the "utility items" that most D&D magic items are, but instead "Artifacts" similar to those of the Artifacts of classic D&D.

The conclusion I've come to while considering such matters is that in the Planet Algol setting as I present it, technological items generally should be the "generic, utility" items such as contragravity harnesses and medical nano-injectors whereas magical items generally should be "Artifact-ish." Powerful, mysterious items of legend such a the orichalcum encrusted skull of an ancient sorcerer infused with his knowledge or the ritual implements of an extradimensional sage.

My goal is to present an array of standard technological items as well as both a selection of example "weird, classic sword & sorcery" magic items and the tables for generating such items.

Now I would like to include some allowances for minor charms and amulets created by contemporary sorcerers, but I would like to avoid magic items being something that are created by nowadays sources, instead being the remnants of lost civilizations or from distant spheres and dimensions.

One motif in many science fantasy settings, such as China Mievilles Bas-Lag milieu (which is a big influence on Planet Algol), is techno-magical items. Although I enjoy the way such items are presented in the Bas-Lag novels, in my interpretation of the Planet Algol setting I would like to avoid such magitechnology, as I would like to keep magic items weird and mysterious, and also with access to technological items such magitech is somewhat redundant.


  1. After reading your post, I looked up Planet Algol. I found a post explaining Algol's history. That was a cool read!

    Is this a homebrew, indie, or mainstream game? Sorry for my lack of knowledge.


  2. I suspect that D&D's treatment of magic items as being similar to technology comes from its wargaming routes.

  3. Sounds like a good approach, particular given the "weird" nature of Algol.

  4. Nice take Blair. Gives you room for both monkeys paws and radium guns.

    One way of reconciling the science/magic dichotomy is Clarke's Law 'weirdtech'; the kind of bizarre alien, voodoo and/or fringe science devices you see in Delta Green, or Fading Suns, or in the "Carnacki" stories.

  5. I completely agree with you Bliar, and this is pretty much how I roll, too.

  6. If you can buy an item and "equip" yourself or your hirelings with it--- whether it be living plate armour, an amulet of protection, or a jet-pack-- it's technology. But if it is something you can get only through a quest, say, or from an old wizard ("This is your father's light-saber...") then it is magic. There has to be something preventing the local Magick Mart from selling wondrous items, or players from saying, "Oh, it's just a Rod of Petrification. No big deal."

    Verification word: rupsych. Descriptive of Soviet Mind Control.

  7. A useful post - I KNEW there was a reason I have you on my reading list.

    I think if it works too much like tech, then it might as well be. Perhaps the more powerful the magic item, the more quirky or fragile it is.
    +1 sword stick it in your scabbard and use it to chop wood.
    +10 sword, carry in a special orc-skin wrap, and never unwrap it except to fight.

  8. Sound plan, Blair. I think a key aspect is using tables to generate the unsual/unique items rather than just giving the DM a list. One thing, just like technology, I think using magic items should have consequences and possibly side effects. This stops them being a tool, more something to use (once?) in times of dire need or at the vital moment e.g when they try to f@*k up the Controller

  9. Very intersting take and, as always, I look forward to seeing what develops from this.

  10. I'm having difficulty with related problems in the X-Plorers setting that I'm working on, albeit not referring to magic.

    What I want is a system of rare "alien-tech" items whose origins are shrouded in mystery, but for the forgotten race in question were objects of everyday/military use. These items can be carried around by primitive races/monsters as "trinkets" or other hoards, so they don't neccessarily know the correct use of them. (If anyone reading has read "Dhalgren" by Delany,I particularly like the idea of these exclusive, mysterious items later turning out to be the equivalent of a commodity to a forgotten race or group-like the light shields and optical chains carried around by the Scorpions that then turn out to be found en-masse in a redundant warehouse somewhere later on.)

    I'm fine with making some random tables for this weird alien weaponry and ornament, but I'm not sure what the criteria should be for the "levels" of equipment contained in each. Level of antiquity perhaps?

    In line with what Sean Wills says above, maybe the older and more powerful an item, the more chance it has of going wrong? eg on table 3 the Cellular Degenerator does and extra d of damage than from table 2, but has an extra 15% chance of melting your fingertips or something.

    At the moment my wandering monsters have a stat like "15% chance of alien tech" but it seems like too much needless crunch to have a set of stats like "10% level 1 alien tech, 5% level 2 alien tech" etc...

    Apologies if these are all obvious or vaguely related musings, this will be the first time I have run an OS type sci-fi rpg, and I'm loving random table creation, I just worry about making them all total info splurge.

  11. Aleister Clark, or was it Arthur C. Crowley? One of those guys (both?), basically said that any technology worth a damn was essentially magic and vice-versa, especially if you're not wearing your glasses or can't find your fingers after doing shots with a group of mercenary interior decorators. Magic is a technology, sometimes a 'soft technology,' and people who've been strong advocates of science and technology like Tesla and Edison (Wizard of Waverly Place, might as well have been magicians for all the weird experiments that they did or were alledged to have done. I just don't see the distinction as being useful, personally. If you have no idea of how the black box works any explanation is as good as another. Just as long as you figure out which way to point the thing. Boom.

  12. Maybe the way you interface with the device is the key part - some items may draw on the power/life force within the user - things that are more tech draw upon other power sources. Having played Dark Space a while back I'm going to use it's softtech grafts for ancient Fleshweaver tech.

  13. Thanks for your feedback everyone!

    Tourq: Planet Algol is the campaign setting for my AD&D campaign. I'm planning on publishing a booklet detailed the settings with supplemental rules, but one could run a Planet Algol campaign solely from the material on this blog.

    The Recursion King: Oh definitely, the chainmail magic-user is a fantasy proxy artillerist.

    Chris: That's a good point, and something to keep in mind when dealing with the science-fantasy genre. I guess what I'm trying to do here is to mechanically differentiate between magic and technological items as a matter of "flavor." And there is definitely a space for ancient weird mysterious technological items that function like ancient weird mysterious magic items!

    Dave: The more potent technological items aren't widely available for sale, but that is an excellent distinction! As much of the true art of sorcery has been lost in the long degeneration of Planet Algol, magic items are definitely not far sale as opposed to arquebuses and stillsuits!

    Zornhau: "If works too much like tech it might as well be" - that's the conclusion I came to while examining the gamma world and AD&D item lists. Wands of fireballs are redundant when panzerfausts are available.

    Sean: Random Tables go! Yeah, consequences/side effects are one of the aspects I want to apply to magic items...much like the old OD&D/AD&D magic well as those intelligence magic swords with ego scores! Giving all magic items some variety of "sentience/ego" might very well be part of the solution.

    Andrew: Muse away, That's what this sort of post is for! Empire of the Petal Throne has some "magic items" that were ancient everyday tech devices. I would just have the higher level items rarer on the random item table. Higher level creatures generally have more special loot and therefore a higher chance of possessing powerful/rarer items.

    Netherwerks: Very true and a good point, I may be wasting my energy on a semantic tangent! Part of this exercise is to differentiate between the everyday, common ancient tech items such as flying cars and medbots that perform somewhat "mundane" tasks as opposed to weird, mysterious, somewhat-uncontrollable artifacts throbbing with strange energies. It's also due to me wanting to avoid "utility/mundane" magic items that are to Planet Algol as dinosaurs are to The Flintstones, if that makes any sense?

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. PS Blair I could be going progressively blinder and missed it but is there an e-mail where we can contact you regarding Algol questions and the like, or have you decided to remain strictly blog-based?

  16. I just finished reading Eyes of the Overworld and magic on the Dying Earth seems to be basically technological in nature.

    That said, I dig your approach. Giving magic items personality - if only in the form of wants and desires - is my answer to the "strange magic" problem.


  17. Andrew: Certainly, you can contact me at Planetalgol AT gmail DOT com