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The Peanut Gallery Presents: Harry Potter and the Magic Item Mill

pg_titlecard_028Hello everyone, and welcome back for this month’s Peanut Gallery! Last Month we – *ksssh* – hey what’s go – *ksssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssh-sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssh*

-rry Potter sighed as he glanced down at his breakfast in the Great Hall of Hogwarts. At 13 years old, he was already famous among the Wizarding World. But the pressures of schooling at Hogwarts, dealing with his classmates, and You-Know-Who were taking their toll.

‘If only there was something other than magic that could defeat him…’

Harry’s musing was cut short as Hedwig delivered the daily mail. All to often, Harry had fan letters, interview requests and junk mail and this round of mail seemed no different. But, as he prepared to throw the pile away, the final brochure caught his eye.

‘Dark Lord’s got you down? Need help surviving spells? Then come on down to Earl’s Magic Item Emporioum!’

Quickly, Harry snatched up the brochure,  wondering of a magical item of power could help him defeat the Dark Lord. Perhaps some armour to defend against Killing curses? Or some magical weapons? Maybe even some – *ksssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssh-sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssh*

-re we back? We’re back? Right. Magical Items. Artifacts. Weapons of power, forged by ancient civilisations and destined to be wielded by the Chosen One. They’ve existed since the dawn of time, reaching back to the myths of King Arthur to the contemporary fiction of today. And in Tabletop Gaming, you can’t clear out a burrow or root through an old hole without finding something magical.

But something occurs to me as I muse about the proliferation of magical items in the fantasy gaming  world as compared to literature. Why are there so many of them?

Seriously, amongst the average motley crew of Dungeons and Dragons characters, there is likely to be:

  • A piece of armour per person.
  • A weapon per person.
  • At least one amulet.
  • a pair of boots, if not more than one.
  • a shield.

And that’s not including the incidental artifacts, implements and tools that they carry on their person. Meanwhile, in the entire Wizarding world of Harry Potter, there are eight items that count as enchanted above and beyond their function.

  • The Sorting Hat, which is mostly just a hat.
  • The Mirror of Erised.
  • The Philosopher’s Stone.
  • The Goblet of Fire, which is used to randomly determine competitors.
  • The Marauder’s Map.
  • The Elder Wand, which is mostly just a really powerful wand.
  • The Resurrection Stone, which allows you to speak to the dead.
  • And finally, Harry’s Invisibility Cloak, which is counted because, while there is more than one, this is the only one that won’t stop being invisible after a time.

Almost every other item that is named or enchanted in the Harry Potter books is designed to perform a single function, temporarily.

Another example. Gandalf, of Lord of the Rings, carries one of the three rings of the Elves, the royal sword Glamdring, and his staff. Frodo has four magical items himself: The Phial of Galadrial, enchanted to shine at the user’s wish, an Elven cloak enchanted to blend into it’s surroundings, The One Ring, and Sting, whose power is to glow blue in the presence of orcs (perhaps simply a function of the sword’s forging, rather than a power in and of itself.)

Drizzt Do’Urden, star of R.A Salvatore’s D&D novels, on the other hand?

  • Two named scimitars, one with an enchantment to better defend the wielder, while the other is enchanted to absorb flame and deal frost damage.
  • A unique figure of wonderous power, used to call to his panther companion.
  • Bracers of Blinding Strike, which he wears on his legs.
  • A spider -silk shirt, which could somehow augment and protect against blows. This is worn over enchanted mithril armour.
  • Agatha’s Mask, a plain mask that would be used as a disguise, since it is enchanted to alter the wearer’s form.
  • A ring of elemental command.
  • and finally a piwafwi, a cloak that is enchanted to be stealthy.

That’s a lot of magic items.

What is it about Dungeons and Dragons that makes magic items so plentiful? Well, I’ve got a couple of reasons, each of which I’m going to share.

Use of the word ‘Enchanted’

The first, and most obvious reason is that everything in the world of Dungeons and Dragons is ‘magically enchanted’, rather than simply having extra properties. Drizzt Do’Urden’s mithril shirt is simply better at protecting him than a normal shirt because it’s ‘enchanted’. Meanwhile, the Sword of Gryffindor isn’t ‘enchanted’, its goblin-made.

This sounds like semantics, and in a way, it is. But, because of this change, we have a crucial element of world-building. Now, all blades created by goblins have the special properties of the Sword of Gryffindor, which is significant because of its name, in addition to its properties.

The same thing can be seen in Lord of the Rings, where Bilbo’s, and eventually Frodo’s sword is named Sting. But this name was given by Bilbo, and while it glows blue in the presence of Orcs, this is a function of blades forged in the Goblin Wars, not the ‘magic’ of Sting itself. There can even be an argument that Sting isn’t magical at all.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter also uses enchanted, but in a different context. ‘Enchanted’ is a magical shorthand that replaces ‘designed to’ for most items. Howlers, De-Luminaters and other items are magical, but could just as well be technological in nature.

Dungeons and Dragons, in contrast, enchants things to add properties beyond their function. A flaming sword is still a sword if it’s not magically on fire. Magical armour with no particular other function is still explicitly better at protecting you than ordinary unenchanted armour of the same material.

Number of perspectives

This one is a simple difference between games and literature. Literature has a tendency to focus on a single person, or close group of people, while games, especially of the tabletop variety, share their viewpoints among many.

Since so many people are part of the party, there isn’t one single ‘hero’ character. Rather, each of your characters has their own unique story, along with weapons, connections, and emotions. It would be fair to say that a long-running campaign is several books worth of content, so it’s no wonder that after a few arcs, people have multiple, magical items to their name. An arc that focuses on a single character’s story still rewards others in the party with an item or two, and since all items are ‘magical’, the inflation is pretty quick. Which really, is my third reason.

Narrative Focus

Perhaps the largest reason for the spilt is simply the differences of the genre. In Literature, introducing a new MacGuffin or item for the hero to solve a problem is bad writing. It’s quite simply better for the hero to either develop a new skill or utilise an item or skill in an unorthodox manner to achieve victory. If every situation was simply solved with another item, there would be no narrative tension, and no reason for the book to exist.

In comparison,magical items are an integral part of games. They are so important to games like Dungeons and Dragons that monsters and obstacles are designed under the assumption that you are using magical weapons that make you better at fighting and harder to hit. The tension is provided by the players, with the items themselves being a planned part of most encounters, as compared to the narrative levers they are in literature.

That’s all that we really have time for, but I’m interested in the applications of each differing approach. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach?

  • Magic items are very interesting in the context of Legend of Zelda, because unlike the examples you gave, the story focuses on a single character, but still ends up with Link seemingly hording a lot of magical items. If you take the land of Hyrule and extrapolate it out to the much larger size that it should be, rather than the size it’s represented as in game (much like how The Legend of Zelda Wii U is going to be.) then quite deceivingly, you actually have a rather small number of magical items, scattered over the land of Hyrule, and the reason why Link ends up with most of those items and other people are not simply stumbling over them, is because as an adventurer and hero with a mission, you are also actively looking for them. Compare that to Lord of the Rings, and Frodo isn’t on a mission to save someone, and needs to collect sacred items along the way, he needs to go to a place and do a thing. His journey is a quest of endurance rather than bringing medallions or crystals, or sages together. So going to secret temples and hidden magical locations is not on the agenda for the likes of Frodo.

    That’s also a big difference too, having a game in which the aim is to walk from here to there, avoid as much combat as possible, and sneak into a place, sounds incredibly boring. It works as a book though, because going here, then there, then there, then maybe here again, is incredibly repetitive in that context, so it’s better to start them off with the limited magic items they need, and tell them to use the magic wisely.

    Just a thought.