Monday, August 4, 2008

Grognard's Challenge #1: Devil's Eye

Given how tightly-knit the old school community is, I think it was inevitable that the winner of Grognard's Challenge #1 would be someone I knew, either professionally or socially. However, I am nothing if not a man of my word and I said, firstly, that the contest was open to anyone, regardless of their connection to me, and, secondly, that I would judge all contestants by the same standards. I also said that I would explain my reasons for selecting the winner, both as an aid to contestants in future challenges and to talk a bit about old school gaming philosophy as I see it.

I was amazed at how many entries I received for the first challenge and I hope the second one generates as much interest. Almost all of the entries were written for OD&D (or Swords & Wizardry), which I think says a lot about the general readership of this blog. Likewise, most of the entries were for monsters rather than treasures, which I also think is significant. The quality of the entries was very high and it was tough to choose a single winner, particularly since the one that finally won me over was written by Kevin Brennan, an old and dear friend of mine (and best man at my wedding, in the interests of full disclosure). I was in fact probably harsher in judging his submission than I was on most, simply because I wanted to be sure I was fair in my final assessment. Of course, as old schoolers know well, this is the job of a good referee and it's one I took seriously.

Consequently, I have no qualms about saying the magic item he submitted, the devil's eye, was my favorite, for reasons I'll explain. First, here's the item in question:
This monocle reveals fell intent and impure motives, but it is also intended to sow discord and eventually violence among those who rely too much on it. The wearer can tell when any person he sees is lying to him. However, there is a 1% chance that the monocle will cause the wearer to believe that a person is lying when they are in fact telling the truth. This chance increases by 1% each time the monocle is used. If this chance increases over 25%, the effect will persist whether or not the monocle is in use.
There are several reasons why I liked this submission, but chief among them was that it's a useful cursed magic item. The devil's eye struck me as quintessentially pulp fantasy in its inspirations, which I love. It's the kind of item that reminds you that magic isn't something to be trifled with and that every boon it grants might come with a price. More to the point, there's an actual temptation to use this item, because the boon it offers is a good and useful one. It's a screw job that players will seriously consider using rather than just a game mechanic designed to emulate a screw job (like cursed swords). The devil's eye also includes an escalating random element to it, which I love. Randomness is key to old school feel, as is a "gambling" mentality. Being able to play the odds is an important part of player skill and it tickles me to consider how even a player who knows the curse of the item would try and use it in the belief that, because he has only used it a few times previously, the odds favor its working properly this time. Finally, this is an item whose mechanics are simple, require no special rules, and -- most importantly -- generate fun situations. The devil's eye is the kind of magic item that doesn't just sit there and do what it does on your command; sometimes it does what it wants to do and from such things are good adventures made.

Congratulations to Kevin. He's got his copy of Monsters & Treasure and I hope he enjoys it. I also hope that I get as many super entries for Challenge #2 as I got for this one. There are lots of great old school ideas out there, it seems, and I want to see more of them!


  1. Cool... aside from basic potions and scrolls, none of the magic items in my current campaign (not that the PCs have seen a single one after three sessions), or in my upcoming (at some point :P) adventures, are wholly beneficial.

    A great way to keep people on their toes and prevent players from even wanting to be decked out like a Christmas tree.

  2. Great item. I am thinking of using it in my 3.5 campaign.

    One question: Does it reset? By that, I mean, if it convinces the user that a truthful person is lying, does the chance of this happening go back to 1% and start climbing, or does it just keep climbing until it reaches 100%?

  3. Does it reset?

    That's for the referee to decide -- another old school quality I like. Personally, I'd have it climb until either it reaches 100% or until remove curse is cast upon the user, which would reset it to 0%.

    But that's my choice for my own campaign and each referee can make his own choices.

  4. That's a sweet magic item! I also like magic items which carry a risk or a detriment to their use.

  5. Very cool item, and a great contrast to the "if players don't receive a constant supply of magic items appropriate to their level, you won't be able to keep things balanced!" scolding of 4e.