Precepts of the Eclipse; Tinkering with Magic Items

Have you ever considered rules for tinkering with magic items? They are technology of a sort and yet tinkering does not appear anywhere in the core rules of any edition I have read. Upgrading, yes, but minor improvements and changes, no.


The idea is straightforward enough; you have a gun. You can add a laser sight, a custom grip, rechamber it to use more powerful ammunition, load it with special types of ammunition, add an extended clip, put in a biometric safety, and so on, It certainly seems like it would be reasonable to be able to do the same basic thing with that Wand of Fireballs – adding charges, raising the Save DC, extending the range or area, increasing the damage, changing the color, and adding special effects – but it would take a near-complete rewrite of the magic item system to make it happen directly; the basic d20 magic system is just too crude to support it.

There are a few existing rules that might apply:

  • According to the SRD the cost of upgrading an item is (New Cost – Current Cost) and how long it takes is apparently based on the net cost – which technically means you can “upgrade” a scroll containing Nondetection and Phantom Steed into a first level Wand of Sleep at no cost except for the minimum time requirement of one day. I generally recommend against allowing this sort of thing – but people who want to “upgrade” a Lesser Orb Of Fire wand into a Lesser Orb Of Lightning wand do have a better case.
  • The Practical Enchanter includes the “Flourishes” rule (on page 107) – allowing magical items to be given minor magical tweaks when they’re created – but that isn’t quite what you mean. Lightrods (under Glowstone Alchemy items on this site) let the user change the energy type that they project by swapping out their alchemically-prepared focusing gems at minor expense, which suggests some possibilities.

Unfortunately, the real problem with adding minor functions is that d20 generally doesn’t actually address minor functions; everything is rated in terms of game-mechanical quantum steps. A masterwork embroidery needle gives you +2 on Craft (Embroidery) for 50 GP. Things like “this needle is always easy to thread, never snags, and never pricks your finger” are simply too minor for the game system to represent. If they come up at all they’re presumed to be a part of the bonus – just like magic armor that fits anyone who puts it on. Just as importantly, there’s really no place in the game system for an improvement between “+1″ and “+2″ on an item that adds to your armor class; sure, you could start giving bonuses against particular types of attacks – but that takes us well into “bookkeeping nightmare” territory.

So lets look at the possibilities:

  • You can squeeze in fractional improvements in a few places. A weapon could conceivably go from +1 to “+1 to attacks and +2 damage” OR to “+2 to attacks and +1 damage” en route from “+1″ to “+2″, and it might be possible to go from “not flaming” to “+1d6 Flame” in incremental steps – perhaps a d2 and a d4. If the game master feels like putting up with this, each step costs (New Full Value Price – Original Price) / number of steps GP – and you’ll wind up with things like a “Cloak of Protection +2, +3 Reflex”. Sadly, the extra bookkeeping will – once again – be nightmarish and you’ll wind up with you players wanting to know if a sword +5 to attacks +1 to damage is priced as a +3 sword or is it 4x(Price of a +5 Sword – Price of a +1 Sword)/8? And what does it count as when you’re stacking special functions?

I don’t recommend this approach. D20 has enough formulas and calculations already. Unfortunately, that pretty much eliminates the “gradual, minor, improvements” approach.

  • You might get a secret compartment or something built in, but there are distinct limits to how many little mechanical gizmos you’re going to have any real use for – and quite a lot of people will find it more than a little absurd to go to the local smith to install a secret compartment in the hilt of their legendary sword or to have the hilt rebound with sharkskin to help prevent disarming.

Sure, in some cases this is possible – but it’s not magical and it lacks style.

  • You can take the “King of Bling” approach. That’s already been pioneered for you in the Magic Item Compendium with Armor and Shield Crystals. Just rule that each of your magic items can mount a gem or crystal with some minor auxiliary function.

Of course that leaves you inventing lists of trivial items, trying to balance them, and at least doubling up on the item bookkeeping. Not ideal.

  • You can take the “Fixed price add-on functions” approach – the standard “it costs this much to add this feature” – but this is going to leave you (once again) compiling a price list for trivia. If you want to take this route, it’s probably best to simply set a fixed price; perhaps 25 GP to add a specific, prestidigitation, effect, 100 GP for a second, and 500 GP for a third (the maximum). Perhaps your magical gloves change color to go with any outfit or your Headband of +2 Intelligence also always keeps your hair clean and neatly combed.

That’s workable, but still adds substantially to the bookkeeping.

Ideally, what we want is something that the PLAYERS can keep track of, that can be accounted for quickly, that won’t be a part of the treasure values to throw things off or be annoying for the GM to generate, that lets each player give a personal flourish to his or her character, and which will have an occasional, but rare, game effects.

Ergo, lets create Precepts.

Precepts: In a world of magic every peasant knows a bit of it. Adventurers often ignore such lore, but they don’t have to; if they care to bother each character can focus a bit of the magical power that surrounds them into manifestation. They may give three mundane items, and any permanent magic items that they possess, an additional minor function each. They may attempt to convince the game master to allow them to claim a +2 circumstance bonus for relevant noncombat checks, but he is not required to allow it.

For example, your boots might always keep your feet dry and warm, allow you to perform fancy hacky sack tricks, conceal a dagger in the sole, make your tracks look like those of some other creature, or help you tap dance. If you want your Eternal Wand of Burning Hands to instantly heat your teakettle, or to leave glowing lines in the air for a few minutes when you wave it, or to act like a cigarette lighter, or to smoke like a smoldering stick of incense, that will work too.

There are, of course, Greater Precepts. A character who takes Craft (Precepts) may devote ranks from his or her effective skill rating to tinkering with his or her magic items in a more substantial fashion, leaving those skill ranks committed to the item to keep his or her changes active. No more than three ranks may be reassigned in a day of work.

What can you do this way? That is, of course, up to the game master – but for an example, if you REALLY want to improve that Wand of Fireballs… go ahead. Add +2d6 Damage (2), +2 to the Save DC (3), make it more efficient (every fourth charge use does not count, 1), and make the fireball look like a giant floating skull filled with green fire (1), and let it perform cantrip-level tricks with fire at no cost (2), and there you go. In three days of work you’ve thoroughly pimped out your wand – presuming that you had at least nine unassigned ranks in Craft (Precepts) to devote to it. Of course if you had +12… you would only have committed nine of them to the wand and you could take another day and upgrade something else with the remaining three ranks.

That way the players get to propose things, and all you have to do is glance down their list and assign costs. Since each magic item and character is different, and such tinkering is intensely personal, it doesn’t matter if you’re not entirely consistent about it…

And you can give your villains some niftily-upgraded gear without having to worry about the player characters snatching it.

Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from SCIENCE!

-Agatha Heterodyne, Girl Genius


2 Responses

  1. […] shops are everywhere, to the point of being everyday facts of life, then it might make sense for Craft (precepts) to be a normal skill on the campaign’s skill […]

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