Oh it’s happened to me and I’ll bet it’s happened to many of you out there as well. The DM gives out a magical item and one way or another it completely railroads the whole adventure. It might unexpectedly render a character useless at the most horrible moment, or it might make a character so powerful they are no longer controllable, or it might be so fascinating that all other concerns for the party and the adventure are lost. No matter how it happens, the DM immediately wishes they could take it back and the player(s) are lost in its powers.
So rather than me lecturing all of you on how to avoid disaster, I’d prefer to give you three strong examples of what I mean so you can see for yourselves. For most of these, I’m talking from personal experience; however, I have no doubts that there are a dozen or more items out there that could make an equally nasty mess of things.
So, without further ado, here are three culprits that have kept many a DM up at night:
1. The Deck of Many Things
Am I right? As a DM, when you hand one of these suckers over to the PCs, you may as well be asking for your campaign to be hijacked. And, for those of you who don’t know what this Pandora-like deck of magical cards is capable of doing, please allow me to enlighten you with the 3rd Edition effects:
- Balance - Changes the character to a radically different alignment.
- Comet - If character single-handedly prevails in the next hostile encounter, the character attains the next experience level.
- Donjon - Character is imprisoned and loses all gear and spells are stripped from the victim in any case.
- Euryale - Causes a permanent penalty on all saving throws.
- Fates - Changes reality to allow the character to avoid even an instantaneous occurrence if so desired.
- Flames - Causes an enmity between the character and an outsider.
- Fool - Character loses experience points and is forced to draw another card from the deck.
- Gem - The character gains significant wealth.
- Idiot - The character's Intelligence score is permanently lowered.
- Jester - The character can gain experience points or two more draws from the deck.
- Key - A major magic weapon appears out of nowhere in the character's hand.
- Knight - A fighter appears from out of nowhere and serves the character loyally until death.
- Moon - The character gains a number of magical wishes which come true.
- Rogue - This card causes one of the character’s NPC friends to turn against him.
- Ruin - The character immediately loses all of his wealth and non-magical possessions.
- Skull - The character must defeat a powerful undead creature alone.
- Star - One of the character's ability scores increases.
- Sun - The character gains a beneficial magic item.
- Talons - Every magic item the character owns or possesses disappears permanently.
- Throne - The character becomes more charismatic and gains a small castle.
- Vizier - The character gains an answer to solve any single problem or answer fully any question upon request.
- The Void - This card sends a character's soul to some other desolate location, leaving his body in a catatonic state, requiring the adventuring party to find a way to rescue the soul.
After an inspection of those cards, it’s easy to see how they can unbalance everything. Even if you limit the pulls each character is allowed to just one, the chaos caused by this item can easily be a game changer. Sure, it seems like a fun way to shake up a dull story; but my question would then be: If the story needs this magic to shake it up, why not just start a more interesting one?
2. Wish Spells/Items
Hey, this worked for Aladdin so it should work for my adventure, right? Wrong!
When it comes to wishing for things, players instantly turn from timid and innocent little bunny rabbits into greedy and diabolical storm giants! I don’t know what it is but instantaneous infinite power seems to breed temporary insanity (no wonder Wall Street has so many issues!). As a DM, that thing that you were hoping the players would use it for will usually be ignored, or at the very least included with something else.
On the few occasions that I have used them, they were reserved for the end of huge adventures where their powers were desperately needed to undo terrible wrongs. And even then, I’m sure I spotted that little twinkle of chaos in my player’s eyes. I’ve seen witty DMs turn a greedy wish against the players, twisting their words for an undesired outcome; but in my opinion, a smart DM will avoid wish spells altogether.
3. Time Travel Spells/Items
Okay, let’s get one thing straight, this is D&D not Dr. Who! There are loads of other RPGs out there (including Dr. Who) that will allow you to go zooming through the ages, witness the end of time, or go back to try to hook up your mother and father so your existence is assured. With respect, if you want to play that kind of a game, go fill your boots! But, in my opinion, that should not be a central mechanic for a D&D campaign and I’ll tell you why: Firstly, as a mortal DM, it is almost impossible to imagine what effects the choices your players make in the past/future will have on the timeline. You are going to be quickly overwhelmed when your players make decisions that change everything and usually in very bad ways. Secondly, there are so many unknown factors to resolve where time travel is involved that you’d better have a quantum physics degree. If someone kills you as a child, do you disappear immediately or slowly? If a previously fought war is now avoided, does your character from the future suddenly forget about it? I think I feel a headache coming on.
Honorable mention goes to cursed items with very difficult cures. These can turn characters to stone, feeblemind, permanently polymorph, change alignment, or even kill. While they can make for interesting plot twists, be sure that if you use them you always have the remedy available where the players can find it. Honorable mention also goes to intelligent weapons. My experience with intelligent weapons has been mixed at best. Depending on how you want to play these NPC-ish items, I find that characters usually go to one of two extremes. Either they fall in love with the weapon and become the weapon’s henchman/woman rather than the other way around, or they ignore/dislike the personality of the weapon and it becomes a kind of comic relief. Why not just have actual henchmen and let weapons be weapons? I have used them in past, but usually for some plot purpose and not as a reward.
At any rate, I’m certain that there are reasonable ways and situations where every single magical item in existence can be used with moderation and grace. I just haven’t encountered it yet (lol). The fact is, introducing any random or unforeseeable variable into a roleplaying equation can be fun but also distracting. My advice to the players and DMs that use these unpredictable items: be prepared for anything!