Word Up

From “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves” via Wikipedia

Here are a few ideas on incorporating magical (or at least powerful) words into the treasure tables in your game.

All of these words are potential replacements for the venerable treasure map (which itself is a great piece of treasure). If you’re playing a game without treasure maps on the treasure list, you might need to reexamine your life choices. Or, you could just add it to the list of magic scrolls.

Fechtbuchs
“Fechtbuch” is a German word for a book that teaches warriors how to fight with word and illustrations. The fechtbuch concept can be used for all classes, of course, and it occurred to me last night that the value of one of these books could be to grant a character an XP bonus, maybe +5% or +10% at the most, while they are earning XP to gain their new level. When the new level is gained, the book is of no more use to them – they’ve learned everything they’re going to learn from it.

The cursed version would do the opposite – a book written by a fool that makes true learning harder than it should be. Imagine trying to deal with a real hippopotamus after reading some nonsense in an old medieval bestiary.

Passwords
A password gained in one room might help one get past a trap or monster in another room, or even another dungeon. “Swordfish” is a classic from the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers, and who can forget “open sesame” (or “open sez me” if you’re a Popeye fan).

 

Passwords can be mundane – as in a word spoken to guards to permit passage past them – or they can be magical, as in a word spoken to disarm a magic trap or lock. Perhaps every lock and trap has a mystic password given to it by its creator during the act of creation, and high level thieves have a knowledge of such passwords. While they use their picks and tools, they also whisper these words to the lock, hoping to find the one that opens it.

The “cursed” version of this would be the word that causes bad things to happen, a’ la the infamous “bree-yark” in The Keep on the Borderlands.

Secret Words
Secret words are not all that different from passwords, I suppose, but with them the power of the word is definitely magical. Secret words work on living creatures, including non-sentient creatures. The words are tied to a particular type of creature and they have a single effect. The word can be used one or two or three times before it loses its power.

The effects of a secret word should be non-offensive, and could include making the creature friendly, stopping a charging or pursuing creature in its tracks, or undoing a special attack or defense of the monster (such as “turning off” a medusa’s petrifying gaze) for a short period of time.

The mystical word “Nee” comes immediately to mind.

True Names
True names are not terribly different from secret words, though they are potentially more powerful. The idea is that every creature from beyond the mortal realm, demons, devils, demodands, angels, elementals, etc., has a secret true name that permits the speaker control over them. The true name should probably be treated as a spell – thus once spoken, it is forgotten. Otherwise, you’re giving an adventurer a pet monster to sic on his enemies, and that’s a bit more than any adventurer should get. The word, when spoken to its owner, could act as a command, suggestion or geas spell – whatever makes the GM comfortable.

Rincewind by Paul Kidby, found at Wikipedia

The true name can be used in a summoning spell to bring that specific creature to you (rather than pot luck) and put it under control. If you know the true name but don’t know the owner, a GM could give a flat 1% chance that the creature you’re speaking to is the owner of the true name you have learned. After all, fantasy stories and fairy tales are full of such odd coincidences. Speaking the true name to the wrong creature, however, might be disastrous – the creature will know what you were trying to do and may resent it.

A good example of a true name is Rumpelstiltskin.

Words of Power
Words of power take things up yet another level. These words are, in effect, the power word spells (and maybe a few others, such as control weather) in a form that anyone can use. Again, you are allowed one use to a customer, and perhaps that use comes with ramifications, as the keepers of cosmic order do not care to have things disordered by irresponsible adventurers.

Conceptually, I’m thinking of these being like the powerful spell that lodged itself in the head of Terry Pratchett’s magic-user Rincewind. Have the word of power displace a spell that a character can normally prepare (even clerics) or a skill or maneuver a non-spellcaster can normally use. A thief, for example, learns the power word kill spell, but while it’s in her head she cannot move silently, hide in shadows or pick pockets, making her a very effective murderer, but a lousy thief.

The Greek word “logos”, from Wikipedia