June 9, 2023

Magic Locations As Treasure

Maybe you’ve noticed. Maybe you haven’t. But, my articles usually come out on Fridays. Here we are on a Monday, so what gives? Well, I just moved to a new place. Of course it’s an exhausting process, and I just didn’t have it in me to be creative through all the struggle and stress of a move. But in all the boxing, cleaning, loading, and unloading, I was reminded of an RPG concept I first encountered in D&D 3.5’s DM’s Guide II. Specifically, it came to me while emptying out my basement.

I didn’t much like the house I just moved out of. It was sort of a last resort as our previous home was being sold by the owner, and there isn’t an overabundance of places for rent that were okay with us having two cats and a dog, so we made do for a year until we could find something better. When we first arrived, it was a wreck. Not only was everything coated in a layer of grime, the owner left behind a bunch of things. Along with chipped plates and various chachkies, there was still food in the house, which caused mice to come exploring leaving no shortage of droppings behind.

We came to find the neighborhood was in similar shape. Piles of trash accumulated in the gutters and on street corners. At night, rats the size of small cats scavenged the refuse. I remember realizing one day while working in the backyard that I had never seen a honeybee here, but flies and wasps were plentiful. The last week we were there, fire crews were dispatched on two separate occasions to revive overdose victims on the sidewalk a street over. Needless to say, we were happy to leave.

Last on our minds as we gathered our things, was clearing out the basement. It wasn’t anything fancy. It was unfinished and poorly ventilated with an earthen floor. We figured it was the perfect spot for storage. We put our Christmas decorations down there along with some old documents and a few other odds and ends. The last time I had been down there was early October to store some camping equipment after a trip. Last week I was tasked with retrieving some cardboard boxes from below. As soon as I opened the basement door, I was greeted by the complete skeleton of one of the aforementioned rats. From tip to tail, this specimen was likely around 18 inches in life. In death, it was half submerged in mud and picked clean by long gone decomposers. I quickly realized at some point during the winter, water had seeped in and essentially destroyed every box that was touching the ground. Our slow salvage effort through these moldering boxes began. It was then that I realized I had found the heart of it all.

The basement was a fetid, metaphorical center of all the corruption of our soon to be former home. All the chipped baseboards, the uneven molding, the pitted floorboards; they were manifestations of the fallen soul of the house. It was emblematic of all the decay in our neighborhood.

Aaaaand here’s where the RPG stuff comes in.

In The Dungeon Master’s Guide II, the seventh chapter introduces the concept of magical locations as treasure. In short, these are places where some momentous event or arcane happenstance has imbued the site with a lasting effect. Some of the examples they list are a bridge where dwarven warriors made their fateful last stand against invading orcs, an altar that contains the very essence of dreams, and an ever-burning flame with a connection to the elemental planes. If adventurers can brave these mythic locales, they can claim a magical boon to aid in their travels.

I was reminded specifically of the Terrible Cyst. The book describes them as, “an oozing, cancerous blemish in the earth itself. Each cyst occupies only a 10-foot-by-10-foot area, but its horrid stench extends much farther. The vegetation in the affected area lingers in a state of rot, and the ground itself reeks of carrion. The whole area glows with a dim, sickening red light.” Evil creatures can draw power from them and any character who drains its aura gains the ability to smite good for as long as the user lives.

Magical treasure often carries the risk of being redundant (how many +1 shortswords do you need?), unusable, or suspiciously bespoke. For example, I’m nearing the end of Ravenloft, and my battleaxe specialist fighter never found any suitable magical weapon. His party found various items, but nothing that fit his build. However, a magical location bonus might have done the trick.

Rumors of these wondrous places serve as great adventure hooks as well: Maybe your BBEG is a fearsome dragon and the party wants a critical advantage in the climactic fight, or a wizened traveler in a bar might let them know of an underground fountain constructed on the site where a dreaded black dragon was bested by a great hero. A single sip from the fountain could provide them with protection from breath weapons for a week or two.

To pull off this concept you need a few basic elements. First, the place should have dramatic and graspable lore. These should be places where great triumphs, failures, or sacrifices occurred. For example, the temple where a pious priest ascended to godhood or the mansion where a wizard finally glimpsed the unthinkable nature of the universe and became one with it. Alternatively, these could be places where primal, elemental essences manifest. Perhaps you could have a deep scar in the land that spawns all earthquakes or a great whirlpool several miles outside a harbor that contains power chaos energy.

Second, there should be some challenge associated with claiming the bonus. The journey itself could be treacherous, it could be guarded by a cult of devotees either suspicious of the players or outright hostile to them. If the site itself is too available, it loses part of its impact as a treasure. Gaining whatever bonus or blessing should feel like the players are planting their flag. It should be a momentous occasion and make them feel worthy of the storied history of the location.

Lastly, the benefit should be quantifiable and usable. The prize should be a material and observable and have a material impact. If the boon is too esoteric or situational, it ends up effectively being the same thing as the +1 dagger you never use. Of course, this will vary based on whatever system you’re playing, so use your best judgement. We here at Charmstone try to stay rules agnostic wherever we can.

Now that I’ve conquered the Basement of Corruption, I’ve noticed a bonus to my mood and have an advantage on all vermin related checks. Clearing out that wretched chamber nearly bested my fiance and I, but as we closed the door for the final time escaping with our most prized possessions, our hearts swelled with accomplishment. If you include magical locations as treasure in your next adventure, I know your players will feel the same way. Infused with hard won enchantments, it will mean more to them than a pile of silver coins and odd gems they can’t wait to sell.