351 – Magic Items in a Magic System
Everyone loves a good spell, but what if you put that spell… in an item? What would happen then? Our topic for this week is how enchanted objects fit into your magic system, be they rings that turn you invisible, cauldrons that produce zombies, or keys that set things on fire. We discuss where magic items come from, how they can feel contrived, and the best ways to introduce them. Plus, Wes discovers an eloquent way to describe things.
Generously transcribed by Raillery Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Intro: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Wes: I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is…
Wes: We’ve talked about magical items and such on this podcast before, but that was useful information like what role can magic items play in your setting and other somewhat reasonable takes.
Today I just want to be unreasonable and point out that the very presence of magical items in your world is throwing everything into chaos! And I might actually prefer that, but I still want to complain about things, so here we are. Welcome!
Chris: I definitely have seen it before where somebody will create a very nicely planned-out magic system where they know how it works and everything is rational and it makes sense. And then they want to add in like magic items that just do anything. I was like ‘Wait, I did these from?’
Wes: It’s fascinating because we do talk a lot about magical systems. Are they arbitrary? Are they rational? But the presence of the item flies in the face of so much of that. It’s not that the items can’t be helpful to the story. Magic items are novel. They can be tempting. They change the plot in specific ways. They give less powerful characters things to do. That’s great and if you’re doing good things with them, by all means, go ahead. But we want to point out all the questions that are raised when they just show up and do weird things.
I messaged Chris and Oren and told them ‘I watched the first season of Locke & Key and I’m just angry.’ I was angry because these kids move into this house and they find these magic keys that do very specific, very powerful things. And nobody asks ‘Where’d they come from?’ They’re like ‘Oh, it’s a really old house and I guess these magic keys just exist.’ Come on. If there’s a key that lets you unlock someone’s brain to go walk around in their memories, is there a witch in that world that can cast that spell? I need to know this. I just need to know these kinds of things.
Oren: Look, you can’t start asking those questions, okay? We got to explore this old house.
Wes: …and don’t forget your angsty teenage problems. Those are obviously more important.
Oren: Yeah. My main problem with that show was how much time they spent on high school drama that was completely unrelated to the magic stuff. Obviously, you can mix high school drama and magic stuff, but they should actually be mixed.
In one part of the show, we are dealing with a high school bully or dealing with not doing well in chemistry class. Then in another part of the show that’s completely segregated off from it, we’re dealing with life-or-death magic-key stuff. In the latter case, I just don’t really care about the high school stuff now. You have to make those part of the same story.
Chris: It sounds like the issue that Wes had with the keys was that not only do we not know they we come from, but that nobody’s asking about them either.
Wes: Yeah. It’s a graphic novel that they’re sourcing from so I could assume that in season two, we might learn more about these keys. But I sure would have loved it if, in the first season, at least somebody was saying ‘Where did they come from?’ But, no. Nothing about that.
Oren: The keys aren’t very well themed either. This means there isn’t really anything that suggests itself because the keys seem to have very random unrelated powers. Some of them open doors, which is very key-themed, such as the key that opens someone’s mind. Okay, keys open things and that’s reasonable. But then there’s a key that sets things on fire.
Wes: It sets anything on fire.
Oren: What is that about? That’s just such a random un-themed effect for a key to have. Why is that even a key? Who decided that it needed to be key-shaped?
Chris: I want to get into the explanation for the keys. They were made by different people to serve their own desires. For instance, one of them was made by a woman who wanted to go off to war. She made a key that will make her into a man so that she could go off and fight a war. She had a key that was very powerful and this is what she decided to use it for.
Okay, but who really wanted to set something on fire that they couldn’t normally set on fire? Who wanted it so bad that they were going to do this really dangerous procedure? ‘Look, I just will not be satisfied until water burns!’ Because for anything else, you can find a way to set it on fire.
Oren: Again, why is it key-shaped? Was someone really into keys and was like ‘No, anything magic has to be key-shaped. That’s the rule.’
Chris: It would’ve made more sense if they all had to work in like the locks of the doors in the house. They are associated with a specific house, but aren’t really tied to that house in any way, except for the fact that the person who owned the house was also the person who made the keys.
Wes: Oh man, I’m just realizing that the lighter key doesn’t have a keyhole. Everything else has a keyhole except that one.
Oren: You just stab something with it and then it catches on fire. I guess you also have to turn it after you stab, which makes it an ineffective weapon as well. It operates by knife rules. If I could stick a knife in someone and then twist it, they would probably also be dead.
Chris: That gets into the question of when there’s a spell-caster casting magic and there’s an item that has magic, how does the magic end up in the magic item? The keys in Locke & Key go with the idea that the material it is made out of is inherently magical.
Chris: Convenient. Of course, if you have an actual magical world where you have lots of magical plants and animals, or magical crystals and such, I suppose those could have inherent magical properties. For a lot of these things, they feel like perpetual motion machines. If we have an item, especially in a magic system where otherwise you have a spell-caster who’s putting energy of some kind into the spell, and this thing just keeps casting the spell forever and ever and never runs out, it feels like perpetual motion.
Oren: It’s either that or you start talking about how many ‘charges’ it has left. I would much rather have the perpetual motion machine. Early in my fantasy reading career-
Chris: You have a fantasy reading career?
Oren: Yeah, well, it’s work. Anyway, I was reading an early D&D novel, Dragon Lance, I think. Some people came into town and they had this wondrous healing wand. Then they had to describe how it had a limited number of charges and, for some reason, that killed it for me. I just didn’t care anymore.
Chris: Having a battery doesn’t feel mystical. That’s one of the reasons they’re usually perpetual motion machines, so they don’t feel too mechanical.
This is why potions are often more practical. The general idea with potions is that they’re either one-time-use or bottomless. You drink the potion and a thing happens, which is similar to casting a spell for a thing to happen, except for it’s as though you cast the spell in advance. And then later when you actually want its effect to take place, you drink the potion.
Oren: The downside to potions is that it’s harder to do the whole ‘This is a magical item from an older time when we had more powerful magic.’ That’s a pretty common magic item trope that is used because you want to have one instance of a character who can throw lightning bolts, but you don’t want to have lightning mages running around. [old man voice] ‘This is the Wand of Lightning Throwing made in the time of the lightning mages. And they’re all gone now. So don’t think about making another one, young whippersnapper.’ Make sure you say it in that voice.
Wes: ‘There’s no reverse engineering in this world.’
Oren: ‘Yeah, we don’t do that here. We don’t truck with that kind of talk here, sir.’
Now there’s obviously no actual rule of fantasy that says that potions have an expiration date. So it could just be a really old potion from the Time of Lost Potion-Making.
Chris: I like that. It’s like ‘I found a really old potion. Is it expired?’
Oren: ‘Is it still good?’ In general, the expectation is much higher that you can still make that potion. Most potions are made in the story, as opposed to finding an ancient relic.
Chris: Unless Aslan gave you the potion.
Oren: Aslan does what he wants. It doesn’t matter how bad the damage is to the story. Aslan can do it, it’s fine. Or Santa shows up and gives you a magic healing potion. Why not?
Wes: The low-magic setting brings to mind Lord of the Rings. When I started thinking about it, it confuses me when Bilbo finds the One Ring and Gandalf chides him about there being many magical rings in this world and none are to be trifled with. I thought that was a bit rude.
Chris: ‘But I want to, Gandalf!’
Wes: The ring makes him invisible, which is fun and great. There’s no indication that there’s any other way in this world to become invisible that I am aware of. And, no, I’m not going to go read all the obscure other things.
Oren: ‘Um, excuse me, The Silmarillion!’ I have no idea. I also have not read The Silmarillion.
Wes: As we see in the scenes of Sauron in the past, the ring just makes him big and strong and he has added force damage to his mace attack, but he doesn’t turn invisible and that’s odd. I find the jealousy compulsion enchantment interesting, but that could also be a spell. It’s just something to consider: if this thing exists and does this thing, could other things do that thing? That’s the most eloquent way I can put that.
For example, whatever elves made Bilbo’s sword, Sting, do they have a Detect Orcs spell? I need to know this. This is very important to me because it glows blue. Can they cast it without imbuing it into weapons?
Chris: If nothing else, you’d think they could have a little pendulum that glows blue.
Wes: Yeah, something like that. Why did it have to be a sword?
Chris: Why not a little perpetual motion machine for on-the-go?
Oren: I wrote an article about how Sting is cool specifically because it’s a sword that does a thing you don’t expect a sword to do. You can’t just start beefing on Sting right now, okay? Think of the consistency of the messaging of this blog.
Chris: I do like the items in Lord of the Rings better than most fantasy items because they feel under control. Sting has a useful ability that you can actually notice during the story and it’s not over-powered.
Wes: I think the appeal of the One Ring turning someone invisible is good. That is an immediate way to convey power. It just wipes somebody out from being perceived. That is very strong.
Chris: It does have an explanation for what the invisibility is actually supposed to be that adds some context to it. The idea is that you look like you’ve turned invisible to a witness, but actually you’re being drawn into a shadow realm.
That’s why you get these really cool scenes in Fellowship where Frodo puts on the ring and suddenly the Nazgul look more vivid. The Nazgul can also see him better as well. Therefore, we could imagine that when Sauron puts on the ring, he’s just already in the shadow realm, so there’s all sorts of questions about how exactly the shadow realm technique works.
But I love the One Ring and its cool power. I genuinely like cursed item was better because they add conflict to the story instead of just giving the heroes power that can break things.
But I do have to ask about cursed items. Lord of the Rings is one of the better ones because we have an explanation of some kind. Sauron put part of himself into the ring so that when he made more rings, he could compel other people as well. But in lots of other settings, there’s these curse items hanging around. Who is making those and why? Imagine of all of the products that you can purchase in this world, how many of them are deliberately designed as traps for the person using them?
Oren: Well, when was the last time you tried to navigate around DRM in a video game?
Wes: When we were talking earlier about the perpetual motion machine, the thought that came to mind was the witch that has spent X number of years learning to cast lightning bolt. And there’s a magic item that just does it and some novice can just pick it up and be like ‘Pew-pew-pew! Lightning!’ Maybe that’s it, Chris. Maybe curse items exist because of spell casters who worked really hard. They’re sick of these perpetual motion machines making magic so easy for everyone. So the answer is spite.
Oren: So if you’ll give me a moment to continue harping on the One Ring for a second. It corrupts you less because of a curse and acts more as an anti-theft device. Because it works fine for Sauron. It’s just a problem for anyone else who picks it up. So don’t steal Sauron’s ring, guys. It’s like the tag they put on clothes that sprays a bunch of ink on them if you steal the clothes. That’s all that’s there for.
I feel like the invisibility bit is clearly a holdover from the Hobbit. It would probably not do that if Tolkien hadn’t decided that he wanted his ring in Lord of the Rings to be the same one that he had included in this little children’s story he wrote about ten years earlier. In that one, Bilbo needs to be a burglar, but he has no burglary skills. ‘So here’s a ring that can make him invisible and so now he can be a burglar.’ That’s the only reason the ring does that.
But then Tolkien decided ‘Okay, so that ring is going to be the same one as my ring of power so that I can link those stories together and get my Tolkien Cinematic Universe started. But I should probably try to link that with the whole Sauron thing. I guess it pulls you into the shadow realm? Yeah. That’s why it makes you invisible!’
Chris: I like it. I will say though that Bilbo is absolutely a cheater. He cheated at that riddle contest. He should not have won the ring.
Oren: Yeah. Well, he’s not the nicest man.
Wes: It is funny that you lay it out like that, Oren, because I remember reading the Hobbit and then reading Lord of the Rings and I hated the ring’s new effect. I was like ‘What is happening? I hate this. He should just be invisible, but everything bad is happening to him.’ Of course, I was about twelve at the time.
Oren: In The Hobbit, using the ring is cool and good because it’s like a reward Bilbo gets for being clever and cheating, being a rotten cheater.
But we’re clearly supposed to sympathize with him because Gollum is gross. Then in Lord of the Rings, using it is bad and that’s a bit of a surprise if you were really into The Hobbit. And then you switch over to the Lord of the Rings and it’s like ‘No, don’t use the ring!’ It scolds you for using it. ‘But I liked using the ring! You told me using the ring was cool in the last book.’ It’s like ‘Actually it’s bad and you were a bad person for doing that.’
Wes: I also like how in The Hobbit, Gandalf casts Magic Missile and just wastes six goblins. I’ll never forget that before they go down into the goblin caves, Gandalf doesn’t join them, but they get jumped by goblins and he’s just like ‘Brrrat!’ They dropped dead and then he just never does that ever again.
Oren: He only had that one spell memorized. He’s only a level-1 wizard but he’s a level-19 fighter otherwise.
Wes: Maybe he wasted all the charges on his staff and it just casts light now.
Chris: We should talk about The Golden Compass. It’s so, so broken. It tells you anything you want to know. At first, it’s supposed to be hard to interpret because it will only tell you in really cryptic symbols, but then instead of actually having to work out what it says every time, Lyra just starts to mind-read it. She just always knows what it means.
It feels like what happened is that Philip Pullman was like ‘You know what? I wanted her to get a clue from the compass and each time try to work out what it means, but I’m getting bored with this. So how about if she just knows so that I don’t have to write it anymore?’ But now she can get any knowledge she wants just by asking the compass any question.
Oren: That’s exactly what happened. Like most things that wrong with that series, it has to do with the second and third book because the series just goes completely off the rails after the first one. The first book is actually very well-balanced at first and Lyra has a really hard time with it. Then she gets better and better until the end when she can just interpret it with perfect, instant accuracy. That stage happens right at the end of the first book, so it’s not a big problem then.
It is an example of Pullman not future-proofing this item. It makes sense in the first book, but he didn’t think about what the implications would be after that one. I can sympathize because I actually think it would have been boring if Lyra had been just trying to figure out what these animal symbols mean for the entire three-book series. I agree that that would have probably been boring. He should have found another way to limit it, but then he couldn’t do that because the compass is Lyra’s direct line to Dust, which is this universe’s version of God. Actual God in this setting is evil, but Dust is God and is good. And Lyra needs to be able to talk to it whenever she wants to.
Chris: I think you could have made the compass a nice foreshadowing tool so Lyra continues to have to be clever and make educated guesses based on when it said. I don’t think it has to be super tedious and she could still get better at interpreting it throughout the story. But yeah, obviously ‘Lyra just knows what it means now’ is not something that works for sequels.
Wes: At the end of the series, her special gift is stripped away and then she goes to study how to do this thing in earnest that she could just do naturally, which was a real eye-roller of a resolution. But I can appreciate the initial attempt, or the fact that these alethiometers exist. The people of this world identified that there’s this substance and so they’re like ‘Okay, there’s this thing. Let’s make this thing that can interact with that thing.’ See, I’m being very eloquent again.
‘And when the thing goes through our thing that we made, maybe we’ll figure something out.’
I like that the process is difficult. It has nothing to do with the main plot, but I like that approach to effectively constructing a type of magical item. It says ‘We’ve identified that there is something here and we’re going to make something to try to interact with it. And it might work, but it could just as easily fail.’ I think that’s a good example of saying that magic exists in this world and that some people have figured out how to make tools to interact with it because humans are physically incapable of magic.
If you think about The Chronicles of Prydain, the black cauldron features heavily in the book The Black Cauldron and also most of the series. That thing makes undead skeleton monsters. They never explained how it really came to be. It’s just a magic artifact, but I liked the notion that you could have magic in a world and a sorcerer who is capable of doing certain types of undead creation. Not on the level of Oren’s necro-industrial complex, but maybe that sorcerer worked really hard and was like ‘Yes! I can keep my dear sweet pet alive, forever. Just minor repairs every now and then. My body isn’t capable of channeling enough energy, but if I find a suitable metal, I could make a thing that could channel that energy better.’
I just want more origin stories. And I like that the alethiometer is an example of trying to harness something that exists. I want more items to try to incorporate power in different ways.
Chris: That’s definitely a way to get around the idea that it either has to have a battery that runs out or it’s something illogical like perpetual motion. There is some kind of power source energy magic in the environment that it taps into.
Oren: That’s basically the concept behind magi-tech. That’s kind of what we’re discussing here at this point. We’re talking about observing that there is some kind of natural force, which in this setting is a kind of magic because it doesn’t exist in the real world, and then realizing that you can make stuff that uses that force in the same way that light bulbs use electricity to create light. That’s a cool thing you can use to make some very novel settings.
Chris: It’s like the Force, except for we made it a little machine that can just plug into the Force.
Oren: With the Force, there’s no feeling that we could figure out new ways to use the Force. There are no Force researchers. No one is studying the Force to be like ‘How can we more efficiently choke somebody?’
Chris: Somewhere in the Star Wars EU there is a Force researcher.
Oren: That’s probably true. If you dig far enough into the secondary sources of Star Wars, you can find basically anything including Han Solo’s twin cousin. My favorite.
Wes: Oh my gosh!
Oren: I love Han Solo’s evil twin cousin!
Wes: It’s a shame that there weren’t Force scholars or something.
It wasn’t like a huge part of that video game, Dragon Age: Origins, but I always liked the dwarf who was in love with magic. She knew she couldn’t cast it, but she just wanted to study it. I just thought that was a nice touch. It’s like ‘Yeah, why wouldn’t people be into this? Why wouldn’t you just want to learn more about it?’
Oren: The reason is medieval status in fantasy. It gets awkward if you introduce the way people would actually react if magic was real. It’s all about which tropes you want to be using.
Wes: I think some other ways that you could bring some rationality to your magical items is if you have a favorite spell that you can cast on a th- I should probably swap out ‘thing’ for something else, but I’m just not going to.
Chris: No, it’s fine.
Wes: You have a favorite spell that you cast on a thing to do your thing. Over time, your ring simply becomes imbued, but it takes a long time. I think that’s like the notion behind most of these perpetual-motion magic items, but I like the idea more that it is such a part of a spellcaster that it’s theirs, which might bring into the cursed effect because their personality gets put into it. I like imbuement over time and not just that suddenly you have a wand of lightning.
Chris: I like your idea that cursed items are unintentional. ‘I really tried to create a nice magic item, but it didn’t work out so well.’ So they’re all accidents from really poor attempts to create something. ‘My magic item’s gotta be perfect. So I’m gonna get a gold bracelet and it’s gonna be really cool and fancy and I’ll put in my awesome spell.’
Although I have to say that for the gold bracelet from Voyage of the Dawn Treader, why wouldn’t you want to be a dragon? I mean, the one problem is the bracelet is too tight. ‘That’s a bug, okay? We can put a patch on that. We can find a way to expand the bracelet so that you can turn it into a dragon and then take off the bracelet and turn back into human again.’
Oren: ‘Or just resize the bracelet. Maybe we can put a hinge on it or something. I just feel like there are options.’
Chris: ‘We don’t need to get rid of that bracelet. It’s very useful.’
Oren: The whole concept of a magic item that becomes magic because it was used by someone really cool for a long time does have significant advantages. For one thing, it’s hard to mass-produce that, which is helpful if you’re trying to avoid flooding your world with magic items. It also means that magic items come pre-equipped with a cool, flavorful backstory, which can be nice. However, it does create some weird follow-on effects.
One of the things that’s always confused me about that is: what happens if someone takes one of these magic items, which is magic because a cool person did cool stuff with it, and then they do cool stuff with that magic item? Does it get more magic? Does it change its magic to be however that person is? Is it a multiplying effect? Or is this person passing up their chance to create a magic item because they want to have a +2 to their attack and damage? Who knows?
Chris: Or does it become a collector’s item and it never sees the field again because somebody has it in their gallery? It’s more valuable as a treasure to display than its actual effect.
Wes: It truly becomes the Wand of Supreme Chaos, which is the most coveted of all magical items.
I think maybe I shouldn’t end on the Wand of Supreme Chaos as much as I want to. I guess if you have magical items in your story, we chatted about trying to find ways to incorporate your magical items into your magical system, which is probably going to be hard, but it might be worth it. Revealing origins for the magical items would be cool, especially if they’re connected to the story’s through-line and not just pure backstory. Forgotten magic in technology: ‘It’s just forgotten. It’s fine. Everybody will forgive you.’ Or, hey, you could just not rationalize your magic items at all because people do like shiny trinkets and like handing them out, such as in D&D, and you can just do whatever you like with them. Just keep these lessons in mind and know that there are people like me out there who, every time they see a magic item, are saying ‘Who made that?!’
Chris: ‘Why can’t we mass produce these?’
Oren: ‘Think of the economic implications!’
With that, I think we’re going to go ahead and end the podcast. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Denita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.