Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Encyclopedia Magica: A Project

There are a number of things in this world that I love. One of them is awesome magic items. Another is the awesome Monstrous Manual project done by noisms. I have decided to combine these two things.

I have the Encyclopedia Magica. This was one of the swan song projects at the end of the life of AD&D 2e. It purported to collect every magic item from every TSR publication, including sourcebooks, setting books, Dragon articles, and even modules. It is a staggering cornucopia of the amazing, the bizarre, the wondrous, and the downright silly.

The project? Go through the whole thing, all four volumes, and do a post on each item. What it is, ideas on how to use it as a player, ideas on how to use it as a DM, and assorted related wackiness. As a side note, I'd like to eventually get to the point where I can even out the gold piece rating of the items, so that a DM can simply hand her players the books and a budget and let them go crazy. (We did this once for a high-level campaign. One of the players quickly found a bracelet of three wishes valued at 300 gp. We had to abandon that notion.)

We will begin with one of the true classics of any fantasy campaign...


This device is a simple wooden frame, about 8 by 10 inches. Several heavy wires are strung across the frame, parallel to one another. On each wire are 10 wooden balls. When mathematical formulas involving numbers (adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing and simple operations) are spoken near the object, the balls shift about and the answer is spoken aloud by a disembodied voice.

Er, wait, what? This isn't a classic! This barely counts as wondrous! And that, gentle readers, is part of the beauty and tragedy of this collection. It is just plain wacky.

So, it's a calculator. This definitely falls into a class of objects that are designed with ordinary folk in mind, not adventurers. I can see a court exchequer commissioning this from the court mage very easily. I don't really see too many heroes salivating over it, though.

I'm not starting off on a good foot here, because I am honestly having difficulty thinking of good ways for a PC to really get good use out of the item. It would mostly be useful for its trade value. Any NPC who deals with large sums of money would be interested in this, and those are always good people to get on your side. I could also see this being a wonderful gift to something like a pixie, who would be entranced by shouting numbers at the abacus and hearing other numbers get shouted back.

Similarly, this isn't likely to be a good driver for a DM plot. It would be a fabulous color piece to have clicking and clacking in the background of a moneylender's shop. It could serve as a very handy MacGuffin for a classic quest set-up. The problem with many "go to the ruins, fetch the magic item, and bring it back to me" quests is that the magic item at the center of it is either powerful enough that the players might want to keep it for themselves, or trivial enough that they wonder why the NPCs are paying them to retrieve it. Having an item that is simultaneously powerful enough to warrant a large bounty but also useless enough that no PC would fight to keep it strikes a pretty awesome balance.

Another possible use would be the key to some sort of puzzle lock/trap. The lock was designed by some mage or priest of knowledge capable of doing impressive calculations in his head. (In medieval times, there were competitions among mathematicians to do crazy arithmetic with large numbers in their head. I'd say it's fascinating, but some people aren't impressed by that sort of thing.) The lock is a combination lock with something like a six digit combination. Written on the wall is a series of numbers and operations to calculate the combination, so that the mage didn't have to remember it. The abacus could be a loan from an NPC to help you get through.

That's pretty much all I've got. Any other ideas?


  1. Perhaps a situation where a set of resources has to be divided equitably among a group prone to violence? The abacus could be used to make it seem more impartial.

  2. That's possible, but feels more than a little contrived. Of course, roughly as contrived as some of my examples.