Designing Deeper Adventures

No, this article isn’t about dungeons or caves. It’s about a design lesson that I only learned as an adult. As a kid, I skimmed through the Dungeon Masters Guide and the Monster Manuals countless times, planning adventures or just perusing all of the intriguing stuff within. Though this wasn’t playing, it was still magic. I think the sheer number of choices in those books led me to litter each of my adventures with a wide variety of monsters and magical treasures. There were so many interesting choices, and I wanted to use them all (or at least a LOT of them).

Even those mildly interested in mythology can recognize the various cultures from which many stock fantasy monsters derive. From the Greeks, our fantasy games get their centaurs, chimeras, dryads, gorgons, griffons, harpies, hippogriffs, hydras, lamias, medusas, minotaurs, nymphs, pegasi, sphinx, titans, tritons, and others. From the Arabs, we get efreet, djinni, marids, and ghouls. Northern Europeans gave us bugbears, bogles, dwarves, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, trolls, and others. You get the idea. In my younger years, I mixed and matched these monsters without a second thought, dropping them into my various adventures. Most were a glorious mish-mosh of foul creatures. When making an adventure, I probably based my monster selection as much on novelty (those that my players had not yet encountered) as on a suitable environment (heat-loving creatures near volcanoes, cold-loving creatures in frozen tundra, etc.). I can admit that I gave no thought at all to atmosphere or mood. Monsters existed so PCs could kill them (or occasionally negotiate with them). They were stat packages with important tactical differences. The chief villains in most of my early adventures might as well have been the ‘United Nations of Monsters’.

Some of you may be thinking, Isn’t diversity good? Isn’t variety the spice of life and all that? Though diversity can be great, I suggest that the frequent (even constant) blending of so many monsters and treasures can actually rob an adventure of some flavor, much as blending six flavors of ice cream dilutes the flavor of each. In recent years, I have tried to cut back on both the variety of monsters and the variety of magic items in a given adventure. I now try to add richness to a smaller number of monsters and magic items. My suggestion is to make the goblins (for example) in your adventure the most interesting goblins that you can imagine. Make your players walk away from the adventure saying, “Woah! We never saw goblins like that before!” Likewise, dispense with generic magic and stun your players with the richness of those few items that they do find. In short, aim for depth, not breath.

Cover Illustration of I6: Ravenloft (1983) by Clyde Caldwell

With regard to monsters, perhaps some of my needless blending could have been avoided had I paid attention to one aspect of the game that DMs frequently overlook, namely ‘frequency’. According to the Monster Manual, PCs are 65% likely to encounter Common creatures, 20% likely to encounter Uncommon creatures, 11% likely to encounter Rare creatures, and only 4% likely to encounter Very Rare creatures. Unfortunately, it seemed like most of the exciting monsters that I wanted in my adventures were Rare or Very Rare. Noting that Gygax wrote somewhere that the rules were really just guidelines, I simply ignored frequency. Every one of my adventures in those days featured some assortment of vampires, death knights, demons, liches, dragons, mind flayers, orcs, hobgoblins, mummies, etc. Many of my friends seem to have done the same thing in their games over the years. This tendency may be so common that it is even considered normal. The result is an adventure that is so packed with high-powered monsters that each gets only a brief time in the spotlight. Without realizing it, I was short-changing the very monsters that I loved so much. Like putting too many plants in the same small garden, I did not allow them to develop properly. Each remained only a stunted version of what it could have been.

With regard to monster frequency, we can look to favorite myths, tales, and novels for inspiration. The Greek hero Theseus slew the feared minotaur. It was not a mere monster in Room 19, one of twenty-six in an overcrowded dungeon complex. It was THE monstrous beast that was devouring Athenian prisoners near Knossos. Likewise, the Greek hero Bellerophon slew the fire-breathing chimera, which had been terrorizing an entire region of Anatolia. It wasn’t a random encounter. The terrifying creature was the focus of his quest. The Greek hero Perseus, as the result of a rash vow, embarked on a long quest to slay the only mortal gorgon, a deadly snake-haired creature named Medusa. In later Anglo-Saxon lore, Beowulf journeys from Sweden to Denmark to slay a hideous monster named Grendel (and then he slays its mother). You get the idea. In modern times, Irish author Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, in which an entire party of skilled men and women marshal their considerable resources to defeat a single vampire and its minions. For a modern RPG example, inspired by Stoker, consider I6: Ravenloft. Tracy and Laura Hickman were frustrated at how RPG writers often threw a vampire into an adventure as just another mindless encounter. Thus, the couple wrote their own adventure, which placed a vampire in its proper setting and focused entirely on the designs of that one monster. The resulting sense of atmosphere and mood is overwhelming. I still vividly recall playing that adventure over thirty-five years ago. When you give an adventure depth, your players are bound to remember it for years.

Many authors in recent decades have made an attempt at verisimilitude, and this can seem like depth. For any unfamiliar with the term, verisimilitude simply means the appearance or feel of reality. Obviously, your campaign world is not real in the true sense, but when it resembles reality as we know it, it is easier for players to envision the action within it. This often leads to more vivid game sessions. Anyway, those authors striving for more verisimilitude often consider ecology. How do the monsters feed themselves? How many monsters could survive in this particular area, given the resources? Do they have a water source? While some have criticized such authors for ‘overthinking a game’ or for ruining the ‘hack and slash’ fun, I support their endeavor. As long as players are not burdened with figuring out ecological details, then I think such DM forethought pays dividends. True success here is not marked by players shouting, “Cool! That was so realistic!” Instead, it comes when players leave the session without uttering questions like, “How long were the thirty fighters hiding in the dark behind the curtain in the sealed tomb before we entered the room?” or “How can a chimera, a red dragon, a minotaur, and a wolf pack all live in the same cave?” Verisimilitude is certainly laudable, but it should not be mistaken for depth. For example, one can ensure that there is enough space between the lairs of the chimera, red dragon, minotaur, and wolf pack in your adventure. Each can sit atop its own food chain in its own biosphere. Yet, if each is just a set of stats for PCs to kill, there is little depth in actual play.

At the risk of sounding terribly arrogant, I suggest that even a great story like The Hobbit seems to fall into this trap. The book focuses on an epic journey that spans about 1000 miles (roughly the equivalent of walking from London to Berlin, if that were possible). Even though Bilbo and his companions encounter trolls, elves, goblins, worgs, Gollum, giant eagles, a werebear, giant spiders, more elves, and a red dragon, the world still feels real. Indeed, some praise J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a role-model for verisimilitude (and I agree!). Yet, the fact remains that most of the monsters within are not developed much. The focus on the journey requires movement, allowing for only a brief interaction with most monsters. Without a foe that follows them along the way or one that always lurks in the distance, the structure makes it tough for the author to flesh out the monsters much. While this is ok (it was a children’s story, after all), contrast this with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Though this too has an epic journey (or two), Tolkien allows the readers to learn a great deal about the Ringwraiths as they stalk the members of the Fellowship over the course of three books. They are terrifying. Moreover, through them and other minions, the readers also learn a great deal about the distant, but ever threatening dark lord, Sauron. Tolkien also develops Gollum a great deal, from a creepy thing in the dark to a tortured and pitiful soul. Thus, while there are occasional monsters that come and go (barrow-wights, the Watcher in the Water, a Balrog, the ghosts of the White Mountains, etc.), many are rich indeed. Many suggest that it is Middle Earth’s depth that gives it such staying power.

Ringwraiths from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954-1955)

On a separate note, good adventures often feature some degree of logic or story, and this too can seem like depth. I am not referring to the immensely plot-driven adventures that came into vogue in the 1990s, such as the Dragonlance modules (Can anyone say railroading?) Those were far too much like scripts or ‘choose your own adventure’ novels for me. When I mention good adventures having story, I mean only that those adventures never feel like a random assortment of monsters and locations. There should be some reason for the existence and activities of the monsters. Why is a chimera living in this cave? Why are the wolves attacking the nearby human towns? How did a minotaur come to serve the red dragon? A fine example of an adventure series with plenty of story is Gary Gygax’s classic G series. Because giants are raiding human settlements, the local rulers finally assemble a force to strike back. After trashing three giant lairs in G1-3: Against the Giants, the PCs learn that some sinister force is behind the raids. At the behest of their employers, the PCs delve deep into the earth in D1-2: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, battling Kuo-toa, mind flayers, wererats, drow, purple worms, a lich, undead, sphinxes, trolls, bugbears, troglodytes, and wyverns. In D3: Vault of the Drow, the PCs finally locate the drow home city and confront the drow priestess behind the raids. Lastly, in Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits, the PCs have a chance to travel to the Abyss to confront the drow goddess, the demoness Lloth. This series has enough story to give it an epic feel, and there is a ridiculous abundance of action (talk about target-rich environments!) The connections between the various monsters seem to give it depth, and in that sense, it does have some, but the very zoo-like atmosphere cannot help but detract from the richness of any given monster (realize that I write this as a fan of the series). Perhaps it would be fairer to judge each of those adventures separately, for G1-3 does indeed focus on giants, and D3 does focus on drow. I find them both far superior to D1-2, which throw a bewildering array of creatures at the PCs. I think the author would have been better served there by focusing on the Kuo-Toa and omitting several others. I do not imply that each adventure must have a single monster type, but I suggest that aiming for that goal will bring you much more depth than your previous efforts.

Ok, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Other than choosing monsters that fit your intended atmosphere/mood or simply reducing the number of monsters, how can we develop them more to gain depth? Consider the following possibilities.

Give each monster a goal. This works best with sentient creatures, of course. If a monster is not sentient, at least give it a reason to exist. Here’s a weird example. For my own gaming group, I recently adapted Tracy and Laura Hickman’s fantastic desert-themed adventure, entitled I3: Pharaoh. I wanted to retain as much of the original as possible. In one room, there awaits a lurker above. In another room lies a trapper. These stock monsters are fun, though somewhat silly. What do they have to do with a pharaoh’s tomb? Absolutely nothing, of course. They seem designed solely to surprise unwary PCs. I decided to leave them in, but I tweaked them. I skimmed the internet, looking for a possible connection between these weird monsters and anything Egyptian. I finally decided to make them essentially magical traps, invoked by the ancient priests to protect the tombs in the pyramid. I called the lurker above the ‘Hand of Geb’ and the trapper the ‘Foot of Geb’ (Geb being an Egyptian earth deity). Inscribed on the stone-like bodies of these creatures were hieroglyphs that suggest their magical nature. As magical constructs that animate when a living creature nears, they have no need to feed. Thus, I gave each a reason-to-be and simultaneously eliminated the need to figure out what these things ate when adventurers were absent from this isolated and abandoned ruin. For another example, look at I6: Ravenloft, in which the vampire has a clear goal, one that you pre-determine by means of a neat mechanic that mimics fortune telling. The means are secondary, however. Having a clear goal is the key. The vampire is supposed to be a genius, and the DM can play him accordingly because there is a clear goal in mind.

Give your monster a unique form of attack. In an old Dragon magazine article entitled The Wild, Wild, Wilderness (Nov 1992), David Howrey suggests that wild animals in AD&D are not terribly well developed. Compared to most monsters, they seem tame. Looking at their statistics in the Monster Manual, they are rather tame. Even veteran soldiers would avoid fighting a bear or a wolf with hand-held weapons. These animals inspire fear for a reason. Howrey therefore devised several custom abilities for a range of wild animals. I adopted these long ago and tailored them to my own liking, much to the horror of my players. In my games, bears can toss you like a rag doll, pin you, and maul you. Wolves tend to knock you prone when they attack. Crocodiles can drown you. You get the idea. A different example of a unique attack relates to goblins in my current monthly campaign. I wanted them to be much different than the players expected so I made them alien, feral creatures, created from sewage by their alien masters. They do not speak, wear clothes, or have families, as all of these tend to humanize them and make them less scary. Yet, mechanically, they are still goblins. To rectify this, I decided that whenever they shed the PCs’ blood, or whenever they took damage, there was a chance that they would go berserk. This often involves them dropping their weapons, grappling with their victims (no roll needed), clawing their way up the victim’s torso (standard hit needed), and trying to bite their necks or faces (free attack with bite damage if it hits). Though this deals little damage, it can change the dynamic of a fight. My players were expecting cute little humanoids that they could swat with relative impunity. When these creatures dropped their weapons, charged, and latched onto their PCs’ backs or torsos, the players raised their eyebrows. When I explained how one jerked aside the aventail on a PC’s helm and sank its fangs into the PC’s neck, they recoiled and gasped. It didn’t matter that it did only 1d4 in damage. For all they knew, they lucked out with a low damage roll. This behavior was unknown, and that can be scary. A unique attack can be magical, but it need not be. When creating unique attacks, realize that they need not be powerful to be effective. Their value lies in being different.

Aliens (1986): How do you attack something with acidic blood?

Give your monster a unique defensive ability. It could be biological or a spell-like power. Perhaps it can assume gaseous form or become almost invisible when in serious danger. Perhaps it can curl into a ball and become as hard as rock. Perhaps it is immune to normal steel weapons. Perhaps certain types of weapons (piercing, slashing, or bludgeoning) only do partial damage. Perhaps the monster’s ability is as simple as the ability to see in the dark, which hinders the PCs’ attacks on it and also makes it easier for the monster to escape. What you want to avoid, however, is a mere mathematical bonus (+2 to AC), for players and their PCs will never notice that. Consider a defensive power that I gave to the goblins in my monthly campaign. Inspired by the Aliens franchise, I made it dangerous for PCs to hit them. No, I did not give them acidic blood (how cruel do you think I am?) Yet the foul black ooze that runs through their veins is diseased and highly infectious. Whenever a PC deals more than 6 points of damage with a melee weapon, the goblin’s wound spurts black ooze. The player must roll 1d6, and on a roll of 1, the ooze spatters into the PC’s eyes, mouth, or nose. Immediately, the PC must save against poison or be infected. Even if he saves, his chances of contracting a disease that month go up considerably (did you know that in AD&D, the DMG suggests that the DM roll for disease for each PC each month?)

For a monster that wields magic, especially a chief villain, consider giving him unique spells or rituals. Unique spells are a double win because a PC wizard may have a chance to obtain those spells afterwards. If you haven’t made spells before and are hesitant to do so, know that making unique ones is less difficult than you might imagine. For starters, you can keep the same basic stats for a spell and simply change its appearance. For example, burning hands could become wave of frost, not only doing cold damage but potentially giving frostbite to exposed flesh. You can also create a spell variant by tweaking just one aspect of the spell (duration, range, area of effect, number of creatures affected, damage, etc.) Better yet, consider giving the monster a ritual that only it can use, and one that fleshes it out even more. Several years ago, inspired by stories of the infamous Russian mystic, Rasputin, I created a villain that posed as a chaplain but dabbled in forbidden blood magic. If he obtained a sample of a person’s blood, he could perform a rite that enabled him to use that person’s senses. With another rite, he might even dominate that person for a round or two. In our game, his minions poisoned a few of the PCs, and, seeing as he was the highest-ranking ‘clergyman’ in the valley, the unsuspecting PCs sought his aid. He cared for them over several days, negated the poison, and gained their trust, but when they awoke, they had tiny red marks that they could not explain. He had used leeches to collect their blood (easily explained away by citing outdated theories of medicine). Later, when the PCs came close to revealing his wicked operations, he used his unique blood rituals to spy on them. Imagine my players’ surprise when their PCs were camped by themselves at night, discussing strategy, and one of the trusted NPCs began to stare blankly at them in silence. The players and their PCs began to get a creepy feeling, but the behavior passed. Then a few minutes later, the same NPC quietly grabbed his composite bow, nocked an arrow, and shot a PC full in the chest at point-blank range. Blessed chaos ensued at both the gaming table and the campfire. Players and PCs remained on edge for weeks after that. The secret was simply doing something that they never expected, but the episode was more than a surprise attack. It later gave them insight into the nature of the villain’s powers. They became horrified as they pieced together many clues and realized that he was manipulating them, draining the local rulers of their life energies, and using the rulers as puppets to control the whole valley. To date, that wicked chaplain was one of the most interesting villains that I’ve created.

Give your monsters some minions. For high-level monsters, minions should be automatic, but even a moderately powerful monster should probably have some guards, henchmen, slaves, cultists, and/or pets. Even a lone black knight would likely have a squire to assist him. As for a wizard, he can always have an interesting familiar, and why simply go by the book? Be creative and think of a strange and interesting familiar. Quasits and imps are fun, but you can also try your hand at making your own minor demon. In AD&D, a magic-user can also work with an alchemist to create a homunculus, but the version in the Monster Manual is only one possible form of the creature. In a paperback that I read decades ago (I cannot recall the title), construction workers uncovered a skull that turned out to be that of a homunculus. When blood touched the thing, it slowly regenerated, growing into a seven-foot-tall, blood-sucking monstrosity. Of course, there are also inanimate guardians as well, such as a golem. Of course, a vampire may have a few vampire slaves and possibly a human henchman to watch its lair during the day. Even low-level monsters, like a pack of goblins (minions in their own right), may have some pet worgs. The possibilities are myriad. When done well, these minions provide extra firepower without stealing the spotlight from their masters. In contrast, if a young red dragon has a chimera and a minotaur as minions, the players may have trouble discerning or remembering who works for whom. The encounter may well feel like a battle against a random array of creatures instead of a battle against a red dragon and its minions. Again, minions should enhance the presence of your monster, not diminish it.

Give your monster a special weapon. For low-level monsters, this may be simply a new type of weapon, if not unique, then perhaps very rare in the campaign thus far (or at least new to the players). For higher-level monsters, why not create a unique magic item that really enhances the presence of its owner? We’ll discuss magic items in more detail below.

Talos: The Bronze Colossus in Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Give your monsters an interesting weakness, beyond those given in the book. After all, customizing your monsters does not simply mean making them more powerful. As mentioned above, try to ensure that your weakness is not just a matter of mathematics (for example, goblins that suffer -2 in sunlight instead of the standard -1). Players would never notice that. One possible way to create interesting weaknesses is to borrow weaknesses from other creatures. Perhaps your wraiths, normally impervious to physical attacks, except by silver or magical weapons, also have a mummy’s vulnerability to fire. After all, didn’t Aragorn chase off the Ringwraiths with two flaming brands at the foot of Weathertop? Perhaps your customized goblins suffer damage from a light spell as if hit by a fireball. Again, your imagination is the limit. However, strive to tailor the weakness carefully to the monster, perhaps revealing something of its nature or origins. My mind goes to the Greek tale of Talos, the bronze automaton that Hephaestus built to guard the island of Crete. Its ‘blood’ was a molten ichor that animated it. Though immensely strong and impervious to most attacks, it had only a single bronze nail in one ankle to keep the ichor inside. When the Argonauts dislodged it, the creature exsanguinated. Note that its weakness, aside from offering the heroes a chance of defeating it, reflected its divine nature and origins. It seems fitting to note here that weaknesses also make an adventure richer by encouraging the use of rumors and lore. Weaknesses are of little use if the PCs are unaware of them. Take several opportunities to drop lore into your campaign and allow the players to capitalize on it. They will likely pay closer attention once they notice that some of the legends are true. Notice that I wrote ‘some.’ Always keep ‘em guessing.

The Bite Radius is Too Small: Foreshadowing in Jaws (1975)

Lastly, get more bang for the buck by foreshadowing the PCs’ encounters with your monsters. Consider the popular movie Jaws, now a classic example of effective foreshadowing. The director has you worrying about the shark for more than an hour before the main character comes face to face with it, and even then, you only a get brief glimpses. He puts you in the main character’s shoes and then builds suspense with music, lore from books, testimony from experts, red herrings (false alarms), failed attacks, and successful attacks on minor characters. He makes matters even worse by equipping the main character with an undersized boat, a half-crazed captain, and, of all things, a fear of the water! Well, RPGs are different than movies, but we can borrow many of these ideas. Use plenty of legend and lore, as relayed to the PCs by barflies, kinsmen, eyewitnesses, survivors, sages, theologians, etc. Allow NPCs to go missing. Throw in signs of the monster’s depredations, ranging from dead livestock to burned villages. With the aid of modern electronics, you can even add carefully selected mood music. Yet, be sure not to reveal too much at once. Tease the PCs (and the players). Build tension and then release a bit. Repeat this several times, making sure that the tension level is rising overall. The goal in all this is to get more mileage out of each monster. Perhaps the encounter will only take 15 minutes. With proper foreshadowing, a skillful DM can have the players on the edge of their seats by the time the encounter begins. Such foreshadowing will certainly make the encounters—and the monsters themselves—more memorable.

There is another side benefit to developing rich monsters. They are often ripe for sequels. Sometimes you may have one planned from the start, but occasionally things just work out perfectly to allow for one. When my friend ran me through I6: Ravenloft several decades ago, I had no idea that there would be a sequel or that the adventure would inspire an entire product line. My PCs were pressed to their very limits, and after a desperate battle atop the battlements of Castle Ravenloft, my characters finally impaled the vampire and cut off its head. So frenzied was the battle and so frayed were my nerves that my lead character took the head and hurled it off the battlements with a scream. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, not realizing that, by failing to fill its mouth with holy wafers first, we allowed the creature to regenerate. It meant nothing at the time, for we left that village in a hurry. Yet, three years later, when they released I10: Ravenloft II, my friend was quick to pick it up so he could engineer a rematch. Though hesitant to face that dreaded vampire again, I was very eager to play. Contrast this vampire lord in Ravenloft to a drow vampire named Belgos, found in the very popular and quite good adventure, D3: Vault of the Drow. Did you have a chance to play that module? If so, do you remember the vampire? If you’ve forgotten him, go easy on yourself. He was used as a speed bump to guard the rather unimportant encounter area

Belgos the Vampire in D3: Vault of the Drow (1978)

R247. Though described as a ‘master of bats and rats.’ with a succubus for a consort, poor Belgos is entirely forgettable. One of the best monsters in the game (a vampire) was used as a mere speed bump. Avoid that at all costs!

Richer magic can add depth to your campaign as well as richer monsters. One way to add richness is to cut back on the sheer number of magic items. Standard D&D characters (at least in my experience and that of my friends) are often decked out with magic items like Christmas trees. As a kid, I was guilty of handing out WAY too many items. We used to joke that our PCs probably needed caddies (“Hmmm… a dragon. Ok, I’ll go with the sword +3, please”). Now to an extent, the game itself may be partially responsible for the power creep that many players noticed in the game, even back in the early days of the 1980s. Higher-level PCs are expected to fight higher-level monsters, and survival requires a better Armor Class, a higher attack bonus, a higher damage bonus, and lower saving throws. Forgoing such mechanical bonuses for the sake of story depth, while noble, would be suicidal. Yet, I think we still overdid it. A careful look at several tournament modules (such as those in the Slaver series) show that the pre-generated PCs do not have many magical items at all. While others are available for the taking in the adventure, the number is limited. Magic was meant to be rare! It’s a very basic concept, but it’s true: value is inversely proportional to frequency, which is just a fancy way of saying that we value something more when it is rare.

In balancing the need for more bonuses against the need to keep magic rare, I have discovered at least one trick (though I cannot take credit for the idea)—evolving magic items. Rather than throwing a series of magic items at a character as he progresses in level, consider giving his signature magic item additional powers. This effectively gives him added magic items, but instead of the additional items diminishing the importance of the first, they enhance it. For example, perhaps you notice that a PC fighter with a magical sword is always badly damaged because the party lacks a cleric. Instead of constantly throwing healing potions at the fighter, as if they were Gatorade, consider allowing him to discover that his ancient blade can heal wounds once per week. Flesh that out a bit to add more depth. Who made the sword? Why did they make it? What enemies was it designed to slay? With this in mind, you may decide on other powers to introduce later. A sword designed to kill trolls may have the ability to flame or it may magically stop regeneration in those that it wounds—at least for several rounds. The aforementioned healing effect may work three times per week if curing wounds inflicted by trolls. A sword designed to slay ghouls may cure paralysis once per day. You get the idea. The possibilities are endless, but all of these extra features add richness to the weapon and depth to the game. In the old days, we routinely sold our surplus magic items to obtain bags of gold (Ugh, a sword +1? Sell it! A dagger +2? Sell it!) Add a unique feature or two to the PCs’ favorite magic items and see how reluctant they become to sell them!

Using the above advice, give an important villain an evil magic item that reflects the villain’s nature and origin. I like to give an item a primary power or two, in addition to several minor powers. The latter serve more to add richness to the game than power to the villain. Moreover, if the villain is of supernatural origin, I often have the item permeated by the evil that powers it, bringing a curse of some sort to any foolish mortal that would dare wield it. Consider a recent example that I created for a custom adventure, featuring a band of sahuagin and a deserted tropical island. The sahuagin maintain a hidden shrine in some underwater volcanic caves. The sahuagin lord is a four-armed monstrosity, and one of its weapons is a magical trident. It started as a simple trident +3. Thinking of sahuagin, which occasionally come onto land, I added that the trident can allow its wielder to remain on land for twice the normal duration. To give the villain more firepower, I decided that the trident can superheat a sphere of water (10’ in diameter) thrice per day, dealing 6d6 in damage to anyone within the sphere (half if they save against rods). Moreover, the user can cause the ball to rush at a chosen target up to 60’ distant. Used out of the water, the burning trident deals an additional 3d6 if it hits. Thus far, I’d tapped into the volcanic aspect of their shrine, using heat. I decided that the trident should also reflect its evil creators. If a good PC grabs the weapon, he will immediately get a foul shuddering sensation through his whole body, suffering 1 hit point of damage (a friendly warning from the DM). If the PC holds it for more than one round, the weapon produces the effects of a paralysis spell, as if cast by a 6th-level cleric. Thus, the good PC must save against spells or suffer paralysis for 1d6+6 rounds, which may result in drowning, of course. Just for fun, I added that anyone that perishes in this fashion and remains unburied for 24 hours transforms into a special zombie (‘drowned one’), for the trident will gate in an evil spirit to possess the bloated corpse. This is just one small example. The same sahuagin lord also wears enchanted armbands that provide several protections. Yet, if a human uses them enough, he can trigger an irreversible process that transforms him over several weeks into a sahuagin (this is my nod to H.P. Lovecraft’s fantastic tale, The Shadow over Innsmouth). Again, when tweaking magic items, the possibilities are endless.

Cover Illustration of Greyhawk Adventures (1988) by Jeff Easley

Allowing for magic items to evolve does more than reduce the sheer number in play. PCs might need to consult a sage, wizard, or priest to learn more about an item. The trip alone, depending on how far away it is, may be an adventure. Moreover, the authority figure may request a favor in lieu of payment (or in addition to it). This can take the form of a quest, giving the PCs yet another reason to adventure. A variation on this theme is to allow the PCs to create an evolving magic item instead of merely detecting an item’s existing powers. Here’s a strange example from my monthly campaign. One player wished to play a female magic-user that is certifiably insane. No, the PC is not a rampaging lunatic. Her perception of reality is different. She sometimes acts with a singularity of purpose, doing things that seem crazy. Her husband, Sir Edward of Winchester, died only a few years ago, and she firmly believes that his spirit somehow guides her. She had his bones cleaned, and she started the campaign with her husband’s skull in a reliquary that she carried on her back. At first, this was merely good fodder for comedy and role-playing. Yet, I eventually decided that she was not as crazy as people thought. For whatever reason, St. Cuthbert has allowed Sir Edward’s ghost to communicate with his wife (or perhaps it is just St. Cuthbert sending her dreams via a friendly voice). In any case, she eventually received dreams that instructed her to dip the skull in molten silver and then to mount it on a special staff. I outlined several small requirements. She followed them all, spending some coin and finding the needed craftsman to do the work. Finally, a cleric blessed the staff on a holy day. Thereafter, she gained the ability to produce effects similar to a light spell, with the light emanating from the skull’s eye sockets. Months later, she received additional visions. Following the directions, she had a silversmith engrave her husband’s coat of arms into the back of the silver skull. After a worthy sacrifice to St. Cuthbert and a cleric’s blessing (again on a holy day), she gained the ability to produce the effects of a sanctuary spell. You get the idea. I should mention that the spells are not random. I purposefully chose light because a common theme in the campaign is darkness, and many of the monsters are vulnerable to light. I purposefully chose sanctuary because the PC is terribly vulnerable. This gives her some added protection without adding much to the party’s firepower. It also fits with the narrative that her dead husband is somehow protecting her (which may or may not be true). I have several other tweaks planned for the item, which I now call the Reliquary Staff of Sir Edward. The player loves the idea. Such items are fun to make too, and they bring many small details of your world to the forefront—details that might easily remain unnoticed. For example, in trying to improve the staff, my players became acquainted with a local silversmith, became familiar with certain feast days of St. Cuthbert, and reacquainted themselves with the Winchester coat-of-arms. All tips for making memorable magic items. They all apply here as well, but I do not wish to rewrite those tips here. Instead, I will provide the briefest summary. First, avoid generic names at all costs. If nothing else, give a stock magic item (like a flail +1) a name, like ‘the Flail of Sir Ector’. Next, add a tiny tweak to its otherwise normal powers (perhaps it acts as +2 in certain circumstances). Also consider tailoring the item to work against a very specific enemy or for a very specific purpose. Furthermore, take the time to create a really detailed description of the item. This is especially applicable in the case of items for your regular campaign, as compared to a stand-alone adventure. Your players will really appreciate the time and effort that you put into their character’s items.

Last but not least, when trying to design unique magic items, go back to the books for some inspiration. The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide contains several unique artifacts. You can use these as templates for your own items, even if your items are far less powerful. Also, Greyhawk Adventures by Jim Ward contains over ninety unique magic items. Though I have never used any of the items as written, I often use them as starting points in my own design process. What makes many of these items so good is that the author tied them to specific people that were trying to accomplish specific goals in specific lands. These items capture the feel of many enchanted items from mythology and legend.

In conclusion, many DMs already have wonderfully rich campaigns. For newer DMs aspiring to such richness, or for veterans that just want to reinvigorate their own campaigns, consider using fewer monsters and magic items. Then, make those monsters and magic items incredible.

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