Everyone knows that the real treasure of any adventure is the friends that you make along the way.
That's all well and good, but as a game master, sometimes it's nice to give your players actual treasure. You know, something shiny to make up for all of the horrible suffering and mental anguish that you put them through.
I don't want to just dump a bunch of nondescript magical items on my players though.
That's no fun.
I want each and every magical artefact to have a story.
Like these ones.
If you're planning on playing through the Dungeon of the Mad Mage and want to go in blind, this blog post sort of spoils some things? I mean, it doesn't spoil much because it's mostly me making things up, but still, you have been warned.
Are You All Treasure Hunters?
The old man floated silently in the centre of a darkened chamber, beard drifting about his head like a grey and white halo. His robe billowed around him, at odds with everything else, the eyes embroidered into its cloth spasming violently.
His own eyes twitched frantically, scanning across some great stream of information. Sorting and filtering. Ordering and categorising.
Far away, through the immeasurable weight of stone and earth that made up the bulk of the complex known as Undermountain, a small battle between two diametrically opposing forces was taking place.
A group of brave adventurers had hunted a servant of Lolth to its lair. The half-spider, half-elf abomination had once been a devoted priestess, but was now a deranged remnant, a plaything for her cruel mistress.
The old mage's eye's stopped convulsing, focusing in on the scene.
The adventurers fought well, but the spider-entity was unrelenting. Things seemed bleak, the group barely holding it together and the creature was poised to kill one of their number, a barely conscious dwarf.
The half-orc dove between the dwarf and the deranged priestess, narrowly averting the killing blow, and drove her back and off-balance. Then, the red-skinned tiefling darted forward on leathery wings and smote the horrible thing with an unholy blow.
The seemingly decrepit wizard opened his eyes and gave a small, almost imperceptible nod of respect, a tiny smile crawling across his face as an idea occurred to him.
To any other mind the workshop would have been unfettered chaos. Towering stacks of raw materials were scattered about the cavernous room, interspersed with half-finished creations and bizarre tools and equipment.
The old mage sat on a simple wooden stool in front of a workbench that was surprisingly free of clutter, a magnifying glass over one eye.
Arranged on the table in front of him was a dizzying array of parts. They started simple; cogs, springs and wires, but then got progressively more and more complicated and arcane until they were unknowable to anyone but their unhinged creator.
His grey beard was slung over one shoulder to keep it out of the way and he hummed quietly as he worked, picking up each of the parts in turn and fitting them into a brass housing.
As he fit one particularly odd oscillating crystal, there was a subtle shift in reality, and all of a sudden there were two old men perched on identical stools, sitting next to each other.
They nodded wordlessly and continued the work, two sets of hands weaving intricately together.
Another shift and a third figure appeared, standing on the opposite side of the table. The same man, but younger somehow.
He began to chant, and some of the mechanical bits and bobs floated up of their own accord, flitting toward the housing and locking into their expected places.
More and more figures appeared, each subtly different to the other, though fundamentally the same. They worked together flawlessly, each one knowing its part in the convoluted dance taking place.
Finally, the first figure fitted the last of the many arms of the timepiece into the facing and the rest of the old men disappeared like they were never there.
It was just him, alone, sitting on his stool.
He wound the watch and listened contentedly to the soft ticking coming from within.
The unfathomable depths of the Plane of Water were a dangerous place for anything that required air to breath.
The mad mage had prepared appropriately though, and was safely ensconced in a bubble of magical air as he hung motionless in the infinite abyss, watching intently.
Searching for something.
Then, a flicker of movement. An indistinct form slithering through the water, faint iridescence glowing.
He carefully unstoppered the water skin he was holding, palmed the cork and began to gesticulate wildly, fingers rapidly contorting into complex patterns and shapes.
A high-pitched bubbling emanated from the creature gliding through the water as it was pulled violently toward the bubble. Panicked, it lashed out in every direction but was unable to escape no matter which way it turned.
The wizened hand holding the water skin pushed the opening forward until it just barely touched the shimmering surface of the bubble and as it did so, the water elemental screeched in terror.
Then, it was gone. Ripped out of the comfort of its home and imprisoned for purposes unknown.
The mage fitted the cork into the opening of the water skin and then held it aloft and sloshed it about, listening to the liquid within.
Something gargantuan stirred in the depths below the fragile bubble, reaching up towards the interloper but it was too late.
The bubble popped and the mage was gone, his goal accomplished.
Roiling discordant chaos.
The old mage stood on a small patch of order amidst the bedlam, holding a bulging sack in both hands.
He dropped it onto the ground and then squatted down and started retrieving the objects inside, throwing them carelessly into the air, where they were caught by an invisible field of force.
He continued to throw objects from the bag into the air, and the ones already floating aimlessly in the air adjusted appropriately, forming a sphere around him.
Each of the objects was a medallion or amulet of sorts, marked with the symbol of a god. Familiar deities like Amaunator, god of the sun, order, law and time, floated silently next to faded immortal beings forgotten by all but the most devoted of their servants.
Mystra, Etar, Cyric, Dhades, Bane, Vomagi, Myrkul, Idlous, Lysander and Sinter. Gods of all types; good and evil, vigorous and decrepit, powerful and trivial.
The bag empty, the old mage stood and clapped his hands together and then began to move his fingers rapidly in a series of incredibly complicated gestures.
The air rippled around him rippled with barely restrained power.
His hands stopped moving and he reached into his robe and pulled out a featureless disk of metal attached to a thick cord.
Holding it aloft he began to call out the names of the gods, one by one.
With each name a holy symbol flew from the swarm and struck the disk in his hands, merging into its surface.
Sweat beaded on his face as he called each of the names until finally, the sphere was gone.
The medallion is his hands quivered quietly, shifting and seething like the chaos that surrounded him.
The decapitated head sat on the workbench, glaring silently with all eight of its eyes at the old mage.
He was off to the side, looming over a large cauldron of bubbling liquid, stirring it gently with a wooden stick. As he stirred, he added strange alchemical reagents to the broth, building an esoteric soup of sorts.
With a final drop of viscous fluid from a jet-black vial, the liquid in the cauldron emitted a burst of purple smoke and then settled into a vicious looking red, seething malevolently.
The old mage picked up the head and placed it roughly into a wire cage, then submerged cage and head both into the cauldron.
The liquid hissed and churned, throwing glowing sparks into the air as it did its dark work.
The hissing petered out, and with a satisfied grunt, the old mage drew out the now shrunken head and carried it over to a nearby altar made of stone.
Taking a pot of thick silver liquid from a nearby table, the mage painted a complex series of runes and symbols onto the altar, surrounding the head.
The summoning circle complete, he stepped raised his arms, hands twisting rapidly through a series of enigmatic shapes.
The mage's consciousness spidered out across the planes, looking for something.
His mental webbing threaded out across reality and traced it's path, starting from the moment that it was so violently separated from its flesh.
A brief period of unwilling servitude on the mortal plane.
A judgement from the god of the dead.
A return into the horrible embrace of the queen of spiders.
An eternal punishment in a vast web of failed servants.
The old mage reached out delicately with the strands of magic and plucked the soul from the great web of the spider goddess, a smile crawling across his face as he did so.
Then, he bound it into the preserved head, to serve a different purpose.
An intricate pocket watch.
A bulging water skin.
A flickering holy symbol.
An arachnidan severed head.
The four magical artefacts were arrayed on a plain wooden table and the master of Undermountain surveyed his work carefully, ensuring that each item met his exacting standards.
He paused as he got to the end of the line, a confused expression spreading across his ancient face.
Something was missing.
The half-elf! He'd forgotten to make something for the half-elf!
Time was running out. The magical weaves that permeated the dungeon were already shivering with anticipation, trembling at the promise of what was to come.
The old man sighed quietly to himself and reached down toward his robe. It tried to recoil from his hands, knowing his intent, but he was too quick. He snatched it up and violently ripped a small piece of fabric off.
The eye embroidered on the fragment blinked at him in pain and confusion.
He threaded a piece of rough cord through the scrap to create a makeshift amulet and sat it next to the other items.
An improvised necklace.
Halaster gathered the items together into his robe and then closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
A series of rapid arcane pulses rippled through the dungeon, washing over him.
His eyes snapped open, and he smiled a deranged smile, then dropped through the solid stone floor like it wasn't there.
More Like Treasure Protectors
I like it when magical items feel magical.
It can be fun to have a world where magic is commonplace and everything is lightly enchanted, but I think that sort of thing gets boring after a while. When everything is enchanting, nothing is.
From my point of view, if I'm going to give my players something shiny for surmounting a challenge or making a discovery, I want it to be meaningful and memorable.
I want whatever they find to have a story, a reason for existing.
And it's fun for me as well, because I get to put a little bit of the world into the items in question, making everything feel just that little bit more fleshed out.
Even though it's not.