Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Refining the Cloak of Elvenkind

The following is Open Game Content according to the Open Game License.

In the hands of a crafty gamer, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' first edition version of the Cloak of Elvenkind was so powerful that it was a game changer. Back in high school a good friend of mine played a ranger to whom I awarded the Cloak, and it was as if I had doubled his character's level overnight. Suddenly adventure modules designed for multiple-player parties of 8th-level powers were being absolutely devoured by a lone, 4th-level ranger. This was because the adventures, as written, just didn't take into account that a solitary character, unencumbered by visible and relatively unstealthy companions, would be content to simply slink through, moving slowly and quietly, ignoring as many combat encounters as possible. I had to get downright sneaky, and I manufactured often bogus countermeasures to make the game a challenge for him, and the truth is I didn't do a very good job of that. In fact, I was so thick-headed that it was some time before I even realized that it was the Cloak that had so unsettled everything. By contrast my friend, a very quick study, instantly understood the potential and capitalized on it to maximum benefit.

As a result, I have kind of a love-hate relationship with the Cloak of Elvenkind. Yes, I came to regret giving it to that character, mostly because I felt stupid that I hadn't thought through the impacts the item would have on my campaign. I could have found a way to destroy it or take it away, but my friend was so happy and identified so closely with the Cloak that either of those actions would have made me an instant jerk. I didn't want to be that kind of DM. And at the end of the day, I had to admit the Cloak was an exceptionally cool magic item. I still think it is, really, and therein lies the problem: I would like to be able to hand out one of these things again one day, but how do I do so without unbalancing my game?

Option one is to play it by the new rules: Pathfinder RPG (and D&D 3.5 before it) define the Cloak as one that just gives a +5 bonus to Stealth roles. I suppose that makes some sense, but where's the magic in that? I have to agree with James Maliszewski in his blog entry that there's something magical missing when an item is reduced to a simple mechanical benefit. Besides, characters these days can get +5 to Stealth in their sleep. I may not want the Cloak to be unbalancing, but I do want it to be powerful. Can I have my cake and eat it too?

It's Mother Nature to the rescue! Check out this video, at the 4:22 mark. The video shows an octopus engaging in camouflage (actually, the video shows the octopus leaving its camouflage), and the camouflage is so complete that it seems almost magical. A friend of mine showed this to me, and as soon as he did, I realized that I had the answer, an answer consistent with my core philosophy for magic items in my game: all magic items are cursed.

I'm betting something like the following has been done before, but I'm too lazy to look.

The Cloak of Elvenkind

From here on out in my games, Cloaks of Elvenkind will not be made of fabric: they will be living organisms. Parasites, in fact, found only in the deepest recesses of the Sylvesse, the primeval forest wherein dwell the mysterious elves of Nimoriél. In ages past these parasites could be harvested, grown, and shaped to fit as cloaks through arcane arts known only to the elves of Nimoriél, arts that may well be forgotten now that that fabled city's few surviving inhabitants have succumbed to a cruel dementia of unknown source. The Cloaks were made long before that tragic descent into madness - but during desperate times nonetheless - to aid Nimoriél's brave defenders as they ventured out into the wider world to root out an insidious, rising threat.

The parasites, whom I shall now name flej by randomly picking some consonant and vowel sounds out of mid-air*, slowly feed on the dreams or energy of the wearer: dreams if the wearer is asleep, energy if the wearer is awake (all effects, positive and negative, of wearing the Cloak, only occur while the hood is drawn over the wearer's head). I'll cover the energy drain first. For every minute the Cloak is worn while the wearer is awake, there is a cumulative 1% chance that the wearer will be affected by energy drain (according to the Pathfinder rules on energy drain). So after 10 minutes, there is a 10% chance that the character will gain a negative level, to use the parlance of 3.x rules. The GM will roll d% every minute. A full night's sleep (without using the Cloak) resets the base percentage to 1%. Clearly this is a magic item whose power you want to use only sparingly to mitigate risk.

If you use it to stay hidden while you sleep, there are several effects. For starters, you do not dream (more precisely, you do have dreams, but the flej eats them), and you wake up feeling fatigued (because you tire as you subconsciously fight to retain them). If you use the Cloak while awake the next day, your base percentage chance of being drained of an energy level starts at 10%. Consecutive nights of this make you exhausted, and the base rate climbs to 20%. Additionally, each time you sleep while using the Cloak, there is a cumulative 5% chance of descending into the flej's dreams. Should this occur, characters must make a DC 15 Will save (as against enchantments) or never again rise to consciousness. Need I point out that the dreams of the flej are nightmarish to their hosts? There is no way to reset this cumulative percentage, by the way, because you and the flej get more and more in tune with each others' sleep patterns.

Also, if you fall asleep wearing the Cloak but you don't don the hood, don't worry: the flej will attempt to pull itself over your head! Isn't that thoughtful of it? I'll leave it for another day to work out the mechanics for that, but my instincts say it's a better than even chance it will succeed.

Now, to the benefits. The flej is an excellent (and magical) mimic and is not limited to appearances from its native habitat, so no arguments over what constitutes "natural" need apply. The camouflage when the wearer isn't moving will be absolute, as though the wearer is invisible. If the character is moving, stealth checks will be at +10 as long as the character moves at 1/2 her normal rate. Maybe an extra bonus will be awarded to the player if they call out that they're timing their movements with any other movements going on in the area, such as lighting effects (see an earlier portion of the octopus video described above). Also, if a character survives a night in the creature's dreams, she'll be granted a limited ability to draw on the fractured memories of previous wearers. I see this last benefit playing out as a way for the GM to get things moving with a bit of suddenly remembered arcane knowledge that the player wasn't even aware she had.

Naturally I wouldn't spell out all these pros and cons to the player prior to her character donning the Cloak's hood for the first time. Vague descriptions of how draining it feels to wear it, accompanied by frequent, conspicuous rolls of a d20 behind my GM screen, should be sufficient to warn a player of the danger once use of the item commences.

And of course, Cloaks of Elvenkind will be exceedingly rare. Nobody knows how many Cloaks were made, or how many survive, but I'll never let them run rampant and unchecked in my world again.

* The 'j' in "flej" is a soft j sound, as in déjà vu.

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