The Magic Placebo

It can be really cool to have magic items that corrupt your soul and control your mind in your game, but don’t start asking for will saves too soon. The minute the thing actually controls someone, everyone will be saying “alright, to the cracks of doom with it.” and safely evading any chance for drama. What is much more fun is to roleplay it. At my last-week’s session, I threw a magic item out there.

The idea is that it’s a golden mask connected to a black cowl (completely obscuring the head when worn) that is inextricably linked to the element of fire. The mask is designed to act as a focal point for the element, and its wearer is an emissary from humanity, appeasing the element and the beings connected to it. The wearer of the mask loses their identity, becoming nothing more than an avatar of fire, all distinguishing features simply melting away. The avatar lives forever, barring incident, hidden away in a temple in the mountains. If anyone kills the avatar, then the mask will form the same bond with them and they will take his place. However, a young wizard managed to steal the mask from the temple WITHOUT killing the avatar.

The mask is unable to spread its control so thin, so the defeated avatar sits in the temple still linked to the mask, waiting, and the wearer, while still largely losing their sense of self and their distinguishing features, is free to single-mindedly pursue whatever goals are most important to them personally while wielding the power of fire with no regard for safety or balance.

The mask was handed to my group by the same wizard who stole it in the first place, telling them nothing about it but simply handing them a map to the temple and telling them to return it. INSTEAD of having them make a will save right away, I just dropped hints as to its nature that could be easily construed as something else, and they just semi-assumed it was safe since none of them had been asked to make a saving throw.

For example, I made sure to mention that the wizard’s face looked remarkably average, with next to no distinguishing features (a sign that it was already beginning to take its toll on him), and described to each player the way it seemed to feel to them- I mentioned to my semi-Evil barbarian shaman that it felt much like the same raw power he used in his magic, I told the CN assassin that it felt open and beckoning her to put it on, and I told the LG paladin that it seemed welcoming, but at the same time reproachful, like a kicked puppy that just wants to play (Especially tempting, and set off some alarm bells- exactly the reaction I wanted).

After that, for the rest of the session I just had to sit back and watch mask-related drama ensue. At first, they weren’t so sure if they wanted to take the job, but the wizard had already left rather hurriedly- so they went and checked out the other available job. It turned out to be a semi-comical kind of Pratchettian adventure I had been working on for a while, with a flying pirate ship crewed by goblins, a bugbear, and an ettin (backup warriors- the captain was another goblin, just with unusually high mental ability scores). They took the job, and by the time the paladin realized he was the only LG in a CN-LE crew it was too late- the crew was specifically designed to be far too tough for the party to defeat without .gaining a couple of levels, .using good tactics, and most importantly, .working together, which definitely wasn’t going to happen since the other two players were perfectly happy with the way things were going.

Drama: the paladin is hanging out in his hammock while everyone else is up on deck waiting for the attack to begin (they are sailing over a city, preparing to sink below cloud level so that they can steal the king’s famous diamond bust, mounted way up above the castle gate). He puts the mask on, experimentally. I describe it as feeling ‘Heavy, and a bit hot and stuffy’ and ‘warm, like a mother’s womb’. he takes it off and puts it in his pack. Hears shouting up on deck, and races up the stairs. The pirates are just now sinking below cloud level, about to rain flasks of alchemist’s fire down on the city to create a distraction while they lower someone down to grab the bust from the wall. One of the goblins accidentally drops his flask next to one of the masts, and the paladin puts the mask on in the confusion, hoping to use it to conceal his identity while he does his best to sabotage the raid. Unfortunately for him, the other two see him, and the assassin grabs the mask from his head. He hits her non-lethally with his greatsword, unfortunately knocking her out and down to negative hit points (she was wounded from earlier that day, and greatsword plus 18 STR score hurts). The shaman grabs the mask and tosses it to his animal companion (a wolf), who runs away with it while he heals the assassin. The paladin runs after the wolf as the ship half crashes through the roof of the great hall- then it tosses the mask out a hatch and when he gets down to the ground he can’t find it. The shaman does find it though, hiding it away in his robe (this was kept secret from the other players).

Next session should include much more drama and player hostility.


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