May 262010

I once introduced a magic item to the group, gave it a name, gave it a backstory, impressed how the item was somehow important, and then gave it to a player character.  Before the end of the session, the player was trying to get rid of it so that he could get two other magical items.

So, magic in 4E is plentiful.  I can dig it.  I do dig it.  It makes for cool customization, bonuses, and benefits.  4e’s magic items allotment has added something to the game, but it has also taken something away.  Now, magic items are practically everyday tools.  In your typical 4e game, every Tom, Dick, and Harry has a magical item.  No, he has several.

“Anybody need a magic sword? No?  Ok, I throw it in the Bag of Holding with the magical bow and wizard’s staff.”

Ok.  Moving on.

In the last three campaigns that I was involved in, we had:

  • one gnome
  • one shifter
  • one half-orc
  • one tiefling
  • two dwarves
  • two elves
  • two eladrin
  • four dragonborn
  • annnnnnd one human

Where are my humans?  Sure, most of the towns we enter are filled with humans.  Most of the NPCs we talk to are human.  They’re the most abundant race in the game world, yet practically non-existent in the gaming group.

“Oh look, we’ve come across a group of travelers – two shifters, a deva, a dwarf, and another half-orc.”

Ok.  Moving on, still…

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into a tribe of goblins, a band of hobgoblins, or a pack of orcs.  Not only are they all over the place, but they have their own societies, cultures, traditions, and laws.  And, they all have children!  Oooh, scary. They just don’t really seem like monsters.  They may as well be races for us to play.  Wait, they are.

“Well, let’s go talk to that minotaur and see if he has what we need.”

What it boils down to…

I’m sorry, but all of these magic items, all of these non-human races, and all of these non-monster monsters just don’t seem like my preferred fantasy setting.  When I think of the fantasy genre, I think of:

  • Excalibur
  • Willow
  • The Hobbit
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Conan
  • Beastmaster
  • Hercules
  • Sinbad
  • Clash of the Titans
  • Dragonheart
  • The Dragon Slayer
  • Red Sonja
  • The Sword and the Sorceress
  • and on and on and on…

All of the above movies belong to what I call “Classic Fantasy.”  Are there some magic items?  Yeah, a few, and they’re powerful.  Are there some non-human races? Yeah, a few, and they’re mysterious.  Are there some orcs? Yeah, a few, and they’re nasty.

I want my fantasy to be powerful, mysterious, and nasty.  I want my character to be a nobody in a vast world where home is relatively safe, and everything outside of that is unknown, wild, and dangerous.  I want my fantasy to be fantastic.

What now?

Classic Fantasy is going to be the first project here at Stuffer Shack.  I’ll be adding ways to turn your fantasy game into a classic fantasy game.

  • Many races are going to be converted into different types of humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings (with backstories and histories).
  • I’ll explain how to converge magic items into one powerful item, or how to make characters of equal strength without magic items.
  • And I’ll rewrite some of today’s watered down enemies into old school monsters – all mean and nasty-like.

I hope you find it all useful!

Chris Stevens

In Chris's opinion, the very best vices are dirt bikes, rock music, and gaming, while the very best medicine is fatherhood. If he could just learn to balance them all, he'd live forever. He's much more creative than intelligent, often wakes up belligerent, and ponders many things insignificant. Lastly, in an effort to transform his well-fed body, P90X, Roller Blades, and Food are all laughing at him. And the pain continues.

  9 Responses to “Classic Fantasy, Make Your Fantasy Setting Fantastic”

  1. Sounds great to me. I’m upgrading every one of my poisonous monsters to the save or die type poison to make them nasty again in my own campaign.

  2. That’s a great idea. I’ve always been bugged by the magic Wal-Mart concept. I don’t think Elric would have pawned Stormbringer. Arthur wouldn’t trade Excalibur for something better. Heck, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser has their own signature weapons and they weren’t even magical.

  3. @The Recursion King

    Exactly. When the player characters see the monster and say, “oh crap,” you know you’ve hit gold.


    Again, exactly. A magic item should be some aspect of the character that is cool. It’s not cool to have a head slot, neck slot, armor slot, waist slot, main hand slot, right index finger slot, left index finger slot, and feet slot. Ho hum. You’d think peasants eat pixie dust for breakfast to crap magic hammers after dinner.


  4. One of the reasons why I run Eberron instead of Forgotten Realms or even Greyhawk/Points of Light I guess is that because it turns race/class/alignment assumptions on its head, things remain mysterious.

    The elves worship the undead, but they oppose the necromantic ways of the Blood of Vol, the halflings ride dinosaurs, the goblins were once kings of the world and are rugged bad-asses while the citizens of the Five Nations rarely behave according to racial type.

    The only problem of course is that Eberron/4E takes it as a given that the PCs ARE more powerful/exceptional than the world, but whatevs. My point is that when fantasy loses its exotic value, I do fine just turn everything upside down. (Not that it resolves the magic item issue)

    Looking forward to the series! I like the inspiration sources you’re namechecking for this, and what’s common among them is that they are worlds with large untamed areas and political power is local at best. Kind of the ‘intended’ atmosphere’ of 4E’s Points of Light.

  5. @Matthew Arcilla

    Thanks Matt. I look forward to putting it out there. If I ever run another fantasy game, this is what it’ll be.


  6. I love the idea of making 4E more fantastic, in a literal sense, as it would certainly encourage my group to play it.

    However, rather than putting a lot of effort into making 4E something it isn’t, have you looked at the alternatives?

    How about FantasyCraft? Or GURPS? Or taking Savage Worlds without the arcane backgrounds, and giving magic weapons the powers instead..?

    I did read an excellent article in Dungeon (or Dragon?) magazine about making “levelling” magic items for 4e, in that they grew as the players did and their powers changed according to how well the PC’s actions pleased the item. That’s how I’d go in 4E: Take something cool from the Adventurer’s Vault, and make it a artifact.

  7. @Tom

    It’s funny you said that. I might have a chance to either run or play in a Warhammer Fantasy game soon, so that might give me what I want.

    However, I still love D&D 4e, with their mechanic, customization, and (especially) the online tools (I’m looking at you character builder and monster builder). I don’t know if I’ll ever play or run 4e again, but a lot of other people will, so this project will serve to satisfy my need for tinkering, and hopefully provide something useful to 4e fans.

    Thanks for commenting!


  8. It is a tough balance between the fun of getting magic items and the potential ‘devaluing’ of their magic.

    For magic item, I wrote about it here:

    Perhaps you will find something useful.

    Looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

  9. I agree with your whole classic fantasy setting concept. I think what you’re proposing makes the game a little less cartoony, and a little more real.

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