What I Bring to the Table #4: Magic and Technology
The fourth part of a series of "How-I" articles. This specific article covers what I (as a GM) determine regarding magic and weapons, before the players get their hands on the issue. If you cater to power-gamers and munchkins, this is not for you. If you think your last campaign got shorted becasue of the firepower available, this might help the next time around. "How-to" implies that there is a best way. There might be, and this might be it, or maybe not. This is how I do it.
High Tech Arms Race
As a general statement, I do not care for Science Fiction games. More accurately though is the statement, "I do not care for many sci-fi games." I actually have nothing against the setting, but I've seen too many munchkin-y games turn to manure. Since before Dirty Harry uttered the words "most powerful handun in the world" PCs have been packing them. By itself, this is no big deal. Handguns do more damage than a sword, sure, but not by orders of magnitude (usually). The problem starts when armor enters the scene.
If armor is available, PCs will use it, whether it is a heavy leather jacket or "Diamond-coated, neutronium-matrix, combat infantry dress with optional force field". Because most GMs are willing to give NPC's equivalent equipment to the PCs, soon everyone wears DCNMCIDFF and no one gets hurt because the paltry handguns wont penetrate it. So the weapons get upgraded to BFG3Ks. The end result is that injuries never happen. Either the victim is unscathed due to his armor or he is picked up with a sponge or dustpan.
Sadly, many players are not interested in kinder gentler space gaming. It is largely about body count. Firefly, Star Wars, and Star Trek are 3 of the most popular franchises in science fiction history and none of the protagonists wear armor and relatively few of the antagonists (stormtroopers excepted) wear it. In all 3 worlds, injuries rather than splaterooni occur.
I guess my point is to try to keep reasonable weaponry in your game. Do not allow rocket launchers, plasma cannons, and such to become commonplace in your game. If the Boss for a given scenario requires it, allow it, but arrange for the weapons destruction in the battle. The auto-cannon on Serenity is destroyed in the crash landing. The heavy weapons in Star Trek are seldom broken out. The light saber is likely the most powerful weapon in Star Wars and it is a hand weapon. One of the keys to keeping this crap out of the players hands is to not let the NPCs use it either, or ensure ammo is limited. In "Road Warrior" the head of the gang has a .50 cal pistol, and only 4 bullets which he loads one at a time, to conserve them, because he can't get more.
Up a nearby road is the issue of characters trying to improve what they have to make it badder (I am aware that this is grammatically wrong, but worse is not the word for the intended meaning). Allow it, but include a malfunction chance for every shot and make sure that when it happens, it hurts. It also helps to make the weapon heavy, hard to wield/aim, or an obvious target for foes.
Akin to high tech weapons increasing the rate of corpse production, magic weapons tend toward the same effect. While there is a certain glory to owning a matched pair of "Blessed +34 Longswords of Monster Processing (think food processor, not word processor)", the possession of these will dramatically change the landscape of a campaign world. In many games PCs are able to sell magical +1 swords by the barrel, but in a world closer to fantasy novels and further from Diablo, the +1 sword should be a rare item, and a +2 should be the find of several lifetimes. While the arms race of the high tech game is not as likely in the fantasy game, as the improved weapons and armor must be enchanted (usually a slow process) rather than mass produced, the same effect does happen.
In many fantasy games, PCs often become fantastically wealthy. Even after paying taxes, retainers, and other job related expenses, most characters still have enough cash remaining to purchase their coveted +4 Defender or have it made. If they intend to purchase it, where from? The local "Ye Olde Magick Shoppe" is unlikely to have invested it's relatively small amount of capital in this one item, assuming the proprietor was able to find someone willing to sell it. If the owner is a retired adventurer, keep in mind that this item is the find of a lifetime and most would be unlikely to part with such an item, if nothing else, for sentimental reasons. A more likely place to purchase such a thing, would be at an estate auction or from a peddlers cart, mistaken by the dealer for an ordinary or even cheap weapon.
This brings me to a peeve. PCs enter a store and look for a "plus (some value) (item) of (description)". These are meta-gaming references and it bugs me. I'm much more a fan of giving weapons more elegant names such as The Singing Sword, Green Destiny, The Widowmaker, or Shieldbreaker. While I acknowledge that this makes more bookkeeping for the GM, I believe it adds some flavor. If Bilbo Baggins had a "short sword of orc detection" it would have lacked the class that "Sting" bestowed. I disrespected Diablo earlier for providing a plethora of magic weapons, but in full respect, each weapon is named and largely with cool names, even if the name does correspond with its ability.
Like their High-tech counterparts, highly powered weapons (and other magicks) can and possibly should have some drawbacks. Sting (as mentioned before) undoubtedly possessed some magic beyond its orc detection enchantment. This was offset, in my opinion, by the fact that when the sword detected orcs, it gave off light, allowing orcs to find the wielder much faster. Stormbringer took the lives of everyone close to Elric, but it kicked serious heiney. Magic armors and weapons can draw attention to themselves or have other flaws which the PC need not know about. Perhaps the ring of scrying causes a visible disembodied eye to appear. The subjects may assume its a hallucination or undead, or they may know what it is.
This leads to cursed items. In the PC game "Nethack" cursed weapons weld themselves to the hands of the wielders. In Iron Gauntlets, characters may take cursed relics which always find their way back to the owners. One of my own gurps characters used "hex" to permanently mount a silver tip on his horns for fighting supernatural critters. These are common curses, but needn't be the only ones available. Armor that emits an aroma of blood might draw all manner of creatures. Swords of darkness 15' radius might deal huge damage if you can ever hit your target. In a campaign I was in, a talking shield knew all the languages of man, but translated into the rudest version available. "You may go" became "Get the (expletive) out!"
In closing, it is my opinion that (matured) players prefer to barely win over walk-in-the-park bloodbaths. I realize that not every group fits this ideal, but it's easier to dole out more power than take it away.