Do you ever wonder where some of the basic concepts for how magic items work in tabletop games come from? Sure, some of it came from more modern fantasy, but early folklore and fairy tales influenced those stories. In the story, “The Wishing Table, the Gold Ass, and the Cudgel in the Sack,” we can discover some of the ideas about what magic items should be like. Specifically, we can see command words with all three items. While there are probably much, much earlier stories where a command word was used to activate a magic item, we certainly can see that some of the concepts we find in games these days are not nearly as new or fresh as we might first believe. That is just fine because looking to the past for inspiration in the present to create the future means that we will always have a proven and solid foundation to build upon.
“The Wishing Table, the Gold Ass, and the Cudgel” is a great example of how to use folktales to give magic items a history. If you are playing a game system that uses a great deal of magic items, you shouldn’t rely on tales too often, but if they are rare, or if you are using artifacts in your game, a folktale is a great tool for adding flavor to them. Short tales are even more useful when you want to emphasize an item’s importance and don’t want to see it sold off in the next trip to town. Maybe it is a MacGuffin or an item that is very helpful in specialized encounters that the party normally isn’t prepared for. Tales for items will also allow you to tell players how each one works and what it does in a flavorful way, breaking up what can be a monotonous chore of reading off a list of mechanical rules. Adding that little bit of flair can bring a touch of excitement and magic into the game, build your game setting, and provide a little more reason to hang on to an item.
When creating a shot fairy tale about an item, consider that folktales will always make them seem more powerful than they really are. In nearly any game, having a donkey that spews forth gold on command would throw off the balance, since unlimited wealth not only discourages adventurers from seeking treasure but it would allow them to buy anything they desire. A table that sets itself with great food and drink isn’t nearly as powerful, but maybe the food isn’t as grand or limitless as the story makes it out to be. The cudgel in the sack certainly could beat down common people, but the story says nothing about how effective it is against trained foes and monsters.
In a folktale, exaggeration is part of the story, and the items can be made to seem to be a bit more powerful than they really are. For example, maybe the donkey isn’t the bottomless pit the story makes it out to be. Maybe there is some type of component or item that you have to feed to the donkey to create gold. Maybe it can give only a limited amount, like 100 gold pieces, which, to a common peasant, would seem a fortune but to an adventurer would be pocket change. The point is you should stretch things a bit in the tale, let the players know that you are only telling a tale inspired by the item, and let them figure out limitations and truth.
I love how the items in this story are ones that even adventurers would use, and today we are going to end with the items statted out for the Pathfinder RPG so that you can use them in your game.
The Gold Ass
Aura faint transmutation; CL 3rd
Slot none; Price 5,000 gp; Weight —
This donkey is utterly and completely useless. It refuses to pull or carry anything, never doing what it owner desires. The donkey has a unique talent that makes up for this. It can be fed both magical and mundane items, consuming and destroying them in the process. The donkey converts these items into gold equal to half the item’s value, but stores this gold until it is commanded to do so with the appropriate command word, expelling it at a rate of 10 gp a round from the rear. It cannot store more than 1,000 gp, and any amount over that is lost.
Craft Wondrous Item, make whole; Cost 2,500 gp
The Wishing Table
Aura faint conjuration; CL 5th
Slot none; Price 5,400 gp; Weight 10 lbs.
This table looks like an ordinary table that is small enough to easily carry. Once per day, the table can be commanded to set itself, and it expands to become a larger table suitable for five people. It is set with plates and pitchers full of good but simple food and drink, equaling an average meal that can be bought at a good tavern. The plates and pitchers will refill themselves for 1 hour, after which the table reverts back to the small size and the plates and pitchers disappear.
Craft Wondrous Item, create food and water; Cost 2700 gp
Cudgel in the Sack
Aura Moderate abjuration; CL 11th
Slot none; Price 10,000 gp; Weight —
This appears to be a simple sack with something within it. The sack itself is very sturdy and can carry and store anything a normal sack can carry. Inside the sack is a cudgel, which looks like a common wood cudgel carved from a tree branch. Upon command, the cudgel comes out of the sack and flies through the air to attack anyone the owner of the sack designates. It has a +12 modifier to attack and deals 1d6+4 damage, attacking once a round. The cudgel flies out of the sack to engage a foe even if the sack is full of other gear. The sack also has a command word to guard the items inside so that if anyone besides the owner opens the sack, the cudgel will fly out to attack the thief.
Craft Wondrous Item, animate objects; Cost 5,000 gp