April 30th, 2002


The Book of Marvelous Magic

At Phantom of the Attic on Saturday, I happened across a copy of The Book of Marvelous Magic, a book of magic items for Dungeons and Dragons (not AD&D) from 1984. The price was right at $5, so I bought it, because I like unusual ideas for magic items.

I think I've gotten my five bucks' worth, but more from amusement value than from stuff that's useful to my campaign. The book is not nearly as useful as I might have hoped.

To begin with, there's no indication of any clue that some magic items are more powerful than others. The random generation table selects from all the magic items with more-or-less equal probability, and there's no prices or anything to suggest that one item might be more useful than another.

But that's really the least of the problems. The more serious problems are the DM-hosage items and the stupid joke names.

The cursed items are the most vivid example of items that demonstrate that the DM can just arbitrarily hose you. The book emphasizes in several places that there is nothing short of a wish spell that can identify a cursed item before the curse takes effect. And once it does take effect, it may require a remove curse spell cast by a 16th, 26th, or even 36th level caster. Now, I only had the Basic and Expert sets for D&D, but those caster levels seem wfully high to me. And it can be challenging to find a high-level cleric when you've got, say, a bench of encumbrance that you can't set down, or when you're stuck fast in an armchair of ugliness. And there are a lot of cursed items in this book; I would estimate that about 10-20% of the items are cursed.

But there's another type of DM-whimsy-with-nothing-the-PCs-can-do-about-it going on besides the cursed items. Let me quote from the description of the Lute of Bard Summoning variant of the Alternate World Gate:

When touched, each item/gate summons a being from an alternate world who appears within one turn. At that time, a door appears near the item (even if in midair), and a being steps through the door, grabs the item before the characters can react (even if it is apparently secured, stored, or held), and steps back through the doorway....
Lute: This thin musical insturment is 2 feet long.... The lute summons a bard from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game--a normal well-armed but unarmored human clad in green and carrying a flute. He may mutter something about incompatability, but will not otherwise converse.

Notice that bit about how there's nothing the PCs can do to prevent the bard from grabbing the loot and going back. And notice also the sheer pointlessness of the whole episode. In character, there's no good reason why the world couldn't have bards--the incompatibility is only an out-of-game concept. Bleah.
(Other sorts of alternate world gates might invite an agent from Top Secret, a security robot from Gamma World, an ace pilot from Dawn Patrol, a Yazirian from Star Frontiers, a sheriff from Boot Hill, or a thug from Gangbusters. For better or for worse, there are no crossovers with the other TSR RPGs Dallas or Rocky and Bullwinkle.)

And that leads me into my other point of ranting about this product: the stupid pun items. Some of these are actually items that would be cool and useful... but they're just to set up a bad pun name. Some examples:
- "New Leaf: This leaf can be used to negate one curse. It has no effect until removed, held over the head, and then turned over."
- The magical nets include the Net of Profit, the Net of Worth, the Drag Net, and the Hare Net.
- There's a self-powered magical oar. If a ship is propelled entirely by such oars, they can row the boat into the Ethereal Plane. This could be a nice magic item, but the item is called an Ether Oar. Feh.
- Perhaps the worst pun is a magic harp that can be used to leave an ineradicable mark on an item or surface (akin to arcane mark in D&D3). This could be vaguely useful. But the name is Harp of Marks. It's not even a vaguely good bad pun.

The big problem with these pun names is that they have no point in terms of the in-character game world. Therefore, responding to the joke requires that the player be out-of-character, and makes it seem that the out-of-character silliness is more important than in-character activity. And at least a quarter of the magic items in the book are this sort of stupid joke.

Reading this book has led me to pledge to myself not to include any stupid pun items into my D&D campaign. (I think, though, that I'e found an IC use for the zwieback of zymurgy.)