Real Magic Items: why settle for banal visuals
I’m a little burnt out on Exalted right now, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) the fact that I am playing in two occasional campaigns. Mostly it is the system that gets me down about it. I love the visuals.
It isn’t the anime stuff. I can do without that. Instead, it is the simple fact that interesting visuals are important. Things in Exalted all have unique visual identities.
Here’s an example. Once upon a time, I ran an Exalted game. I decided to create a messenger god (I named him Kelef) who would contact the PCs. I wanted him to make an impression that said (1) This ‘messenger’ is someone who is itself important, (2) This is a god and is not remotely human, and (3) This is someone who you will remember.
Kelef, The Lord Messenger: Kelef appears as a large, muscular man with skin of flowing, liquid gold. Instead of a human head and neck, a mighty falcon, whose wings are often outstretched and whose lower body seamlessly flows into the god’s humanoid form, sits atop his shoulders. Kelef wears a heavy breastplate, upon which is a relief design of a warrior’s face. The face upon the breastplate is itself animate, and it is through this that Kelef communicates with those who speak the tongues of man and god.
Magical items in Exalted are likewise weird and unique. In D&D, we’re more likely to find magical items that are either visually indistinguishable from normal items or rather gaudy, covered in gems and such.
Why can’t I have a cloud of mithral butterflies that surround me, acting as magical armor – or coalescing into a magical sword upon command?
Why can’t my staff of the woodlands be a living branch that sprouts leaves on use?
Why does a robe of eyes appear to be a normal garment with scores of “eyelike patterns” on it? Why doesn’t it actually appear to be made of beaded strands of eyes when in use? (In particular, when in use by that evil necromancer…)
Why is an Orb of Storms a glass sphere? Why isn’t it an actual orb made of tiny storms?
Some of this is less concerned with item design and more focused upon aesthetic choices and GMing technique, but all of that contributes to the potential coolness of magic items.
It is easy to overdo this. You probably don’t want your PC to look like a total freak. On the other hand, you generally do want your PC to look distinctive – and if you have a cool item, why not have it be cool-looking?