D20 and the Lyre of Building

And today it’s another question – and an examination of a very classic item; the Lyre of Building.

While it’s not quite feasible at his current level, I’d expect that Zhan (Levels -2 to 2, Levels 3-8) would benefit greatly from purchasing Siddhisyoga and using it with a Lyre of Building.

Of course, it’d be a bit awkward to have to make a Perform (string instruments) check with an absorbed magic item, but at worst that would necessitate taking Finesse – probably specialized and corrupted – to change it to a different sort of Perform check (ideally the one used in conjunction with Mystic Artist). Given that it’s easy to pump up skill bonuses, it’d be simplicity itself to get it high enough so as to never fail the DC 18 check. At that point, the sky’s the limit with regards to what can be made.


The Lyre of Building is really hard to pass up isn’t it? A mere 13,000 GP and a reliable DC 18 Perform check (Say… 1 SP, +4 Charisma, +3 Pathfinder, and Specialized Mastery (3 CP) to “Take 10” if your game master won’t let you do so normally – and you can reliably do this at first level) and you can perform rather a lot of work per hour.

Lyre of Building: If the proper chords are struck, a single use of this lyre negates any attacks made against all inanimate construction (walls, roof, floor, and so on) within 300 feet. This includes the effects of a horn of blasting, a disintegrate spell, or an attack from a ram or similar siege weapon. The lyre can be used in this way once per day, with the protection lasting for 30 minutes.

The lyre is also useful with respect to building. Once a week its strings can be strummed so as to produce chords that magically construct buildings, mines, tunnels, ditches, or whatever. The effect produced in but 30 minutes of playing is equal to the work of 100 humans laboring for three days. Each hour after the first, a character playing the lyre must make a DC 18 Perform (string instruments) check. If it fails, she must stop and cannot play the lyre again for this purpose until a week has passed.

Faint transmutation; CL 6th; Craft Wondrous Item, fabricate; Price 13,000 gp; Weight 5 lb.

Er… Exactly how much work? Is it skilled work? How skilled? Is it done as if with tools? Are materials needed? If materials are needed, can they be raw materials as available in the surrounding area or do they need to be ready-to-use? How do you convert work-time into actual construction? And is there much of a point? After all, in d20 from the middle levels on up (where you might have this item) a standard medieval castle is only a little more defensible than a circus tent.

A large part of this is because the Lyre of Building is an early first edition legacy item – from before there WERE skills, or much of any rules about materials, or buying magical items, or wealth-by-level. It was also rather more limited in first (and second) edition; you got thirty minutes of construction per week, and a roll to see if you did it right – not a roll to see if you could keep on going after the first hour. It still didn’t translate well into the building system though, since that was based on costs and didn’t really mention the size of the work crews save for a note under digging ditches.

First edition did make it clear that “a day of work” was always eight hours long though, which at least gives us one figure – 2400 hours of work per half-hour, 4800 per hour.

That’s still a big, BIG, multiplier.

How skilled? It IS a powerful magical tool dedicated to a particular function – so I’ll presume that it gets a generic +5 bonus (since it’s a lot more expensive than a cheaper device that can simply summon swarms of unseen servants) and always takes 10 – giving it a check of “15″ unless the user opts to use his or her own (and presumably superior) skills instead.

For materials, stuff materializing out of nowhere is overpowered (who wants to build a platinum castle?), but calling for ready-to-use stockpiles pretty well eliminates most adventurous or military uses – so it looks like it should be able to use available raw materials, turning trees into lumber, outcroppings of stone into blocks, clay into bricks, and (in about the worst case) dirt into adobe. The work of doing so does count against the work it can accomplish though.

If you want to do anything too elaborate, you’ll need to either be, or consult, a competent architect and/or engineer. If you have no such skills you can just rely on the Lyre’s automatic “15″ check, which is enough to design serviceable basic structures.

That still leaves us with a major rules chasm between us and actually getting something done though; there really aren’t any rules for how many man-hours it takes to accomplish something except for Crafting and the castle books for 2.0 and 3.0 – and 3.0, at least, intentionally tried to downplay using magic for construction so that strongholds would still be money pits.

That’s not too surprising given how incredibly situational (and rarely useful) any kind of man-hour estimate is, but it’s still a problem.

Well, we shall work with what we’ve got.

According to the rules for Crafting… We can set the DC at 5 (the basic labor of building is pretty straightforward), so a +10 makes it 15. With the Check at 15, you get 225 SP worth of progress towards your goal per “week of work” (presumably 40 hours). That measure says that the basic “value added” rate for the Lyre is 2700 GP per hour. Sure, you’ll need to increase the cost of what you’re building by a third if you’re having to harvest and process raw materials (since those cost a third of the projects cost) – but that takes us to an effective (rounded down) 2000 GP per hour for creating buildings starting from nothing but locally available resources.

Taking that as the baseline, from the SRD’s building costs you can build two Simple Houses* per hour, a Grand House in two and a half hours, a Tower or a Moat with a Bridge in a day, a Mansion in two days, a Keep in three days, a Castle in ten days, and a Huge Castle in twenty days – presuming that you’re undead, or a construct, or otherwise have no objection to playing for twenty-four hours a day.

*Please note that a “simple house” is a good-sized stone dwelling with multiple rooms. If you are throwing together wattle-and-daub cottages for the peasants, or log cabins… what references I can find suggest about 80 man-hours and 200 man-hours respectively. That’s sixty cottages or twenty-four cabins per hour of playing – although they will be pretty minimal designs. to get fancy, just reduce the numbers.

How reasonable are these results? Well, buildings vary a LOT, but basic Motte-and-Bailey “castles” are surprisingly standardized – and according to some classical accounts 50 workmen could build a Motte-and-Bailey castle in about 40 days. That’s about three and a half hours for the Lyre. But it’s not like that figure has been well tested; it’s based on a scattering of notes from historical accounts from varying locations, situations, and structures.

Is there something that IS being tested? We’re in luck there! There is indeed!

Project Gueledon is using 13’th century techniques to build a 13’th century style castle, with a dry moat, curtain walls, corner towers, and a tower keep. It’s expected to take 50 workers a total of 25 years. I’ll presume they’re doing a modern, full-time, schedule; medevial workmen probably worked longer days, but they also had to take more time off for malingering, holy days, illnesses, injuries (a VERY big factor), and similar issues. Secomdarily, castles are only worked on during good weather, which lets out a third to almost half the year. So… 50 Workers x 25 Years x 250 work days per year x 8 hours per workday x 60% of the year = 1,500,000 hours. That’s 312 hours of playing, or about 13 days

Given the number of approximations involved in those calculations that’s really remarkably close – certainly close enough for game purposes.

So we have a reasonable approximation; the Lyre accomplishes about 2000 GP “worth” of work per hour of playing.

So how will that work out in whatever setting you’re using?

The next major problem with the Lyre of Building is that third edition turned it from a near-unique wonder out of legends into a common – and relatively cheap as far as magic items go – tool. After a certain point (and not even a particularly high level one) there’s little reason to build things in any other way unless you want to install some special magic or have other exotic methods available.

And that may be a good thing. Europe is full of structures that are many centuries old, and still standing. In a d20 world, on the other hand, there are adamantine blades, stone-smashing techniques, dragon attacks, stray elementals breaking stuff, iron golems wrecking the roads while walking about, and a thousand other menaces. Given the likely rate at which the infrastructure gets destroyed in a d20 universe it’s quite possible that the populace needs access to some Lyres of Building just to keep up.

From that point of view buying yourself a Lyre of Building may simply be a way of purchasing a lifestyle:

Lyre of Building: Characters who purchase this item get to live in very large and fancy houses or small palaces, in clean towns with nice buildings, little risk of fire, roman-style streets, aqueducts which provide fresh, clean, running water, drains which carry away the stench and the sewage, an adequately housed populace, and have many small luxuries, such as some competent servants. In addition, their holdings, dependents, and properties can be assumed to automatically survive the occasional dragon-raid, firebombing, earthquake, and similar disaster, entirely intact.

Why is that? It’s because a Lyre of Building means that “all inanimate construction (walls, roof, floor, and so on) within 300 feet” can be rendered invulnerable for half an hour each day.

Invulnerability. For half an hour. In a three hundred foot radius. Go ahead, let the epic Wrath of God spell rain down 500d6 of annihilation over the village. As long as everyone stays indoors they’ll all be fine. Are your shutters latched? Then the latch, the shutters, the hinges, and the wall around them will stand up to that rampaging dragon for half an hour.

How many other 13,000 GP items can accomplish THAT? Even if it is a bit special purpose? About the only comparable item in the game is the Rod of Security at 61,000 GP – and it can only affect 200 people, who must be holding hands, and only works once per week. Even then, it involves fleeing to a pocket dimension – and “not being there” has always been one of the best available defenses.

Most d20 battles are a lot shorter than thirty minutes. D20 is, after all, the game system that brought us “Rocket Tag”, “Scry-and-Die”, and many similar tactics.

Bridging at least a part of this disconnect is actually pretty simple though: just note the fairly obvious point that – regardless of the purely theoretical cost of building a major structure the old-fashioned way with hand labor – it’s actual cost is going to be based on “how much do the people with Lyres of Building want to charge?” – and that’s generally going to substantially less than the cost of getting your own Lyre and doing it yourself, although those few constructs and undead who can play straight through may get a premium for speed on larger structures.

They may not though; no one says that you can’t hire four guys with Lyres and quadruple your speed – or find a serious expert with better skills.

Either way though… that means that the towns are likely to have walls and citadels (they may not be very effective, but they’re nice and cheap!), oversized drains that rogues can hide in, basic water systems, and more. Even if those walls and citadels aren’t really much use, they’re cheap enough to get them anyway just for those rare occasions where they ARE useful.

Now if we want a more reasonable version…

Rod of the Imperator (CL6, 12,000 / 6000 GP, Moderate Transmutation, Craft Rod, Fabricate).

The Rod of the Imperator accomplishes construction and engineering work and provides simple services. It is capable of setting up camps, digging ditches, building bridges, cleaning, serving food, assembling locomotives, cleaning, fitting, quarrying stone, making mortar, harvesting trees, basic carpentry, mending clothing, mining and crudely smelting ore, helping men get their armor and weapons on (30 man-sized creatures or 10 horses may be so readied per action), repairing structures even as they are being attacked, and so on.

  • The Rod’s function has a range of three hundred feet. .
  • It can function for up to three hours per week. This use need not be continuous, but any usage is rounded up to the nearest full minute.
  • Each full action spent giving commands and pointing with the rod accomplishes ten man-hours of work if the user can make a DC 18 Perform / Oratory check. Failures accomplish nothing, but still count against the available time.
  • Such work is performed as if by a craftsman or servant equipped with the proper tools, using materials available in the area, and either “taking 15″ on any necessary skill checks or using the wielders relevant skill check. (Very complicated buildings may call for input from a professional architect).
  • If using a table of construction costs each round of use “purchases” 5 GP worth of work – although (if these are available in the setting) no one will be paying anything approaching that rate for any construction, any more than modern construction companies pay extra for moving earth by hand instead of using bulldozers. If set yourself up in a town or a city and can reliably make the necessary skill check you can reasonably expect to make 2d4 x 50 GP / Week – adding a d4 during times when such work is in great demand and subtracting a d4 during slack times.
  • Each round spent on performing repairs to structures or other inanimate objects repairs 5d6 points of damage
  • Variant forms occupy item slots (and usually use Craft Wondrous Item instead of Craft Rod), but may use other skills. For example, Architects Spectacles and Engineering Goggles both occupy the Face slot, but allow the use of Knowledge / Architecture and Engineering in place of Perform / Oratory.

There. That’s really useful and highly versatile – but it isn’t overwhelmingly world-wrecking or capable of defeating epic menaces. It will, however, set up a well-fortified camp each night, plug leaks in levees, dig tornado shelters in mere moments, perform swift repairs during a siege, and much more.

I may give Zhan something like that at higher levels, but not for a bit.


2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the fascinating analysis! It’s interesting to see exactly how much the lyre can be said to do in standard d20 games.

    I asked about this because I’d just finished reading Expeditious Retreat Press’ take on it in their book, A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe. They assign it as being worth 10,000 gp per hour of playing, but that’s because they presume that it can create materials from nothing, and because they utilize a very intricate cost-measuring system for constructing buildings, pricing out materials used, transportation of materials, labor costs, artistic style, etc. That makes it so that if you, say, build a palace out of platinum, that will inflate the total cost so much that it be somewhat counterproductive versus how much time you’ll need to spend playing the lyre.

    They also presume that someone will play it for 18-20 hours at most, and that because of just how much havoc this can wreak on the local economy, that it will be a tightly controlled magic item in a magical medieval society.

    (It’s interesting to consider how their extrapolation of the demographic rules in the 3.5 DMG, together with an overview of medieval Europe, suggests that a bog-standard d20 world won’t really be as high-magic as most people tend to think.)

    With regards to the lyre being able to grant short-term invulnerability to nearby structures, wouldn’t that be an area-effect version of moment out of time (The Practical Enchanter, p. 108)?

    • Oh, you’re quite welcome!

      Sadly though… A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe tends to assume a great deal of what it wants to justify.

      It does mention the chance of having higher level druids in country thorps, but never follows through on the actual calculations – which would show that Druids will utterly dominate pretty much any realm.

      It ignores the possibilities of people bringing in new crops, technologies, or similar innovations (potatoes set off an agricultural revolution all by themselves).

      It informs the reader that castles are functional fortresses, but never gives any rules that would actually make them effective defenses in d20 or give any reason at all why ANYONE would actually want one instead of spending that money on useful magic.

      It does not mention how mining might interact with subterranean kingdoms, or how you might negotiate with the storm giants for better weather, or give any reason why nonhumans with radically different psychologies should go along with a feudal arrangement.

      It notes that cities find it very hard to resist country lords forces without explaining how the country lords get around the fact that the cities have all the high level spellcasters (summon teleporting demon anyone?).

      It tells us that the population will find non-clerical healers strange, when – according to the DMG – clerical healers will be far in the minority and the rest have always been around.

      It does not explain how the network of false oaths that underlies the usual feudal tangle of loyalties doesn’t fall prey to the Inevitables.

      It does not explore monstrous overlords. Why don’t dragons and such claim domains?

      Overall, it’s a reasonably nice overview of medieval society – but it doesn’t develop it from the d20 rules; it just tries to throw the d20 rules over the top of an existing social order.

      As for the short-term invulnerability… Moment Out Of Time would work – but taking the target from “personal” to “three hundred foot radius” and the duration from “1d4 rounds” to “half an hour” would probably take the spell up to level 10+ anyway. Perhaps an effect that changes the local planar traits to make the scenery immutable?

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