Is That a Wand in Your Pocket?

In this third and final installment on magic systems, I’m looking at magical items. These include everything from the One True Ring to the Elder Wand and all the little cloaks, rods, and potions in between. Some of these are disposable, others mere conveniences, while some are artifacts of unspeakable power. Fortunately, none are real, so I can talk about them all I want.

First I’d like to make a top-level division between two types of magical items. The first type are what I call focus objects. They help a wizard cast spells but are not of much use to non-wizards. The second type are what most people tend to think of when I say “magical item”. These items are intrinsically magical and can be used to good effect by anyone, regardless of their magical talent.

To clarify this distinction, let me use a couple of examples from Harry Dresden. Our dear Harry has a shield bracelet and a magically enhanced duster. He can use the shield bracelet to create an impregnable barrier, but to a non-wizard, it’s just a bracelet. His duster, on the other hand, has been layered with so much protective magic that it’s effectively bulletproof. It doesn’t matter who’s wearing it – the bullets stop anyway.

So first, let’s talk about focus objects. In Harry Potter’s universe, this would be the wizard’s wand. In Harry Dresden’s universe, it would be his staff or his blasting rod. For Gandalf, it would have also been his staff. You know, in writing this, there seems to be a certain phallic commonality to all these focus objects, so lest we fall into giggling jokes about “focusing my power” through such an object I’ll remind you of Harry Dresden’s shield bracelet as well as the silver pentacle he wears on a chain around his neck.

The necessity of the focusing object varies from system to system. In Potter’s world, the wand was a vital necessity. There were a few exceptions, but mostly the rule was: No wand, no spell. For others, it’s more of a tool than a crutch. Dresden can send out a lance of fire from his bare hand, but he can channel the power through the rod with greater ease and accuracy than he can through his own flesh.

Usually there is some magical affinity between the focus object and the wizard. In Potter’s case, we were often told that the wand chooses the wizard, and using another wizard’s wand is never terribly effective. In Dresden’s case, these focus objects were almost always made by Dresden himself, infused with the flavor of his personal power. In the case of Babylon 5’s technomages (which used a VERY different magical system), the mage’s staff was infused with an organic component in a once-in-a-lifetime moment, making the staff irreplaceable. All of this makes sense, of course, because these focus objects are acting as conduits of the wizards’ will. They must be attuned, or they simply wouldn’t work.

This, of course, leads to all kinds of havoc when the wizard is separated from his focus object(s). In Potter’s world, disarming your opponent essentially defeats them. Take away Dresden’s blasting rod, and he’s fighting with one hand tied behind his back. And woe is he who fails to take away poor old Gandalf’s “walking stick”.

Much like magical specialties, this kind of thing helps bring wizards back down to the mortal plane. Disarm him, and a wizard is like a cop without his gun or nightstick. He’s far from helpless, but at least now you’ll last longer than a snowball in hell.

So now let’s talk about the other kinds of magical items, ones you might even arm yourself with if you had to face one of these dreadful wizards. These all have magical powers and effects, but their magic is self-contained. They do not require you to do much of anything but sit back and enjoy (or curse) the ride.

The simplest of these are potions, and I see these pop up across all kinds of magical systems, from books to movies to games. They are the magical equivalent of a can of Red Bull, but in this case, they really can give you wings. They might also give you strength, invisibility, a different appearance, even luck. Potions can do some amazing things, but just like that Red Bull buzz, they don’t last forever, and when the magical caffeine wears off, the crash afterwards can be nasty. “I just don’t feel myself tonight – I spent all day being Severus Snape.” The rare exceptions to the temporary nature of potions are those that heal or poison. You don’t become reinjured (or resurrected) after a few hours. Those tend to be permanent.

Moving up the scale are the permanently-enchanted day-to-day objects. I remember back in my old D&D days, one of the first magical items we ever used was a stone of continual light. No more torches for us. Then there were the bags that were larger on the inside than the outside, cloaks to render our movement silent, magical super-glue, and so on. These were all pretty useful but hardly epic. These show up in fiction as well, from Dresden’s duster to Potter’s broom.

We also see a fair amount of magical weapons and magical armor. These seem to run the spectrum from those that are so well crafted that surely magic must have been used to create them all the way to those with powers to be invoked on command. Somewhere in between are those that are not only magically well-crafted, but they also make you stronger, healthier, or impervious to arrows. So, equipped with your spear and magic helmet, you can finally kill that pesky wabbit.

At the top end of the scale come the artifacts. These are singular objects of great power, crafted by ancient evil or the gods themselves. The One True Ring from Lord of the Rings is an excellent example of this. The Deathly Hallows from Potter’s universe are another, not to mention the Black Staff of Dresden’s universe or the terrible coins of Denarius. I always liked the Twelve Swords of Saberhagen’s fantasy world, forged by Vulcan himself and quenched in human flesh. The two things that seem to bind all of these artifacts together are their incredible powers and their fantastic and often dark origins. While they are often sought after, possessing one can often be a curse all on its own. These should appear in fiction only for very good reason, lest they be reduced to MacGuffins.

So whether your world is rich in magic or among the magical beggars, there are probably a few magical items rattling around in your wizard’s pocket. Were there any that I missed?