Instead of “standard” magic items (swords +1 and the like), characters in my Black City campaign have been discovering eldritch artifacts. I’m using the guidelines from Realms of Crawling Chaos to create strange and alien items. In my opinion, the “Random Artifacts” appendix of Realms of Crawling Chaos is worth the cost of the book alone.
Instead of working from a set list of magic items, the referee first rolls percentile dice to determine what magic or technological powers the artifact has. So, for example, a roll of “69” yields a device that “when connected to the head of a severed human, it allows the user to speak with the dead”.
Next you roll for the object type. A result of “66” gives a “Mask” – which works perfectly with my first roll! The last step is to determine what strange property the artifact has. A roll of “94” is “shudders or squirms when touched”.
So we end up with a “shuddering mask” that permits the user to speak with dead when placed on a corpse. I’m going to say that the mask resembles an insect and is actually constructed of living chitin. Doing a quick Google search yields the following image:
This example was actually pretty awesome; I rolled it up while writing this post and you can really get an idea of how the random tables can inspire creativity. I’m definitely tossing this item into my game!
The book notes that “this list might produce a result that seems inconsistent”, but admonishes that although “the [referee] is free to re-roll or choose a different characteristic”, they should try “reconciling all three results into an unnerving package”. I think this is really good advice.
Index Cards & Sticky Notes
Before the first session, I rolled up a number of eldritch artifacts. I wrote the full details for the item on a recipe/index card, then provided a brief description on a small sticky note (which I stuck to the card). Each card/sticky was indexed to a particular number (so I could match them up again later). When the characters encounter an eldritch artifact in play, I ask “who wants to keep it?” and give that player the sticky note – which they must affix to their character sheet.
This approach had the unexpected benefit of making players very nervous about picking up eldritch artifacts. Instead of calling “dibs!” they instead glance nervously at one another before deciding “we’d better let the henchman carry it”. Which is awesome.
The other thing that I like to use in my campaign are Brain Teasers to figure out the weird artifacts discovered in play. ACKS has the Magical Engineering proficiency which allows a character to recognize common magic items, but this doesn’t really work for weirder eldritch items. It’s really hard in ACKS to identify a unique item: a high-level mage needs to spend 2 weeks and 1,000gp to identify a magic item through magical research.
Of course a character can try to figure out an item by fiddling with it in play. Perhaps they place the “shuddering mask” on their face, only to have it grip them uncomfortably. (More likely they force a subdued foe or cajole a henchman into trying it on.) This approach, though dangerous, can provide results if the players are lucky or clever.
I wanted to give my players an additional method, though, and decided to use “mechanical puzzles”. At the end of each session, the player who has been carrying the item gets a few minutes to try and figure out a puzzle. I intentionally stress them – pester them with questions, withhold some pieces of the puzzle for the first minute, comment on their progress – but if they do figure out the puzzle I allow them to read the “referee card” for their item. It’s like a free “Identify”, but based on player ability – not character stats.
(This has only worked once so far. One of the players – the same guy who deciphered the mysterious inscriptions – figured out his puzzle, and learned that the platinum armband repels ghouls. And this actually mattered in the last session, when I rolled up a pair of ghouls as a random encounter.)