Magic Item Equivalents in Modern and SF Settings

One of the things that I really enjoy doing in computer RPG games is tweaking and min/maxing my character. Yup, I admit it – deep down inside, I guess I’m still a munchkin who wants to play the ultimate, indefeasible übermensch. I tend to grind my characters until I reach a level cap, and then spend days figuring out the most unbalanced combination of magic items that would give me the edge over my opponent.

For example in Morrowind, I had a character with a set of items that gave her constant effect 75 chameleon. This meant that she could run up to the enemy, punch him in the face and then crouch (go into sneak mode) and virtually disappear off the enemy’s radar. They would just look around and then start running away. I also once made a suite of 100 sanctuary which made me invulnerable to all physical attacks (an being a Breton I was also 60% resistant to magical attacks). Not even mentioning my Boots of Blinding Speed hack which allowed me to increase my speed to over 200 without the blindness.

This was one of the reasons why I love that game so much. If your had enough money, and trapped souls (and I always did, thanks to the magic of the in-game console) you could create crazy combinations like that. Oblivion’s enchanting system was much more balanced (or nerfed) but I still found some amusing combos (enchant a dagger with Drain Life 100 for 1 sec, and some damage dealing spell – then run up to an opponent and start stabbing. You can kill just about anything in the game with this combo if you stab fast enough – you can sometimes get 2-3 hits before the initial effect wares off dealing upwards of 300 damage).

Of course, I would never subject the people in my gaming group to such a character when playing regular, pen and paper variety of RPG games. In fact, in most groups we would usually abandon high level characters after they became too powerful or reboot the campaigns if the company would become to famous or to wealthy. Single player Computer RPG’s however do not have a real live GM who could adjust the balance of the game on the fly and improvise. They don’t have other people who actually want to “role play” and have a good time. The game world is set in stone. So part of the fun is to create a character and see how far you can take him. You can unleash your deeply seated munchkin ueges and run with them. Part of the process of building up your character is of course gear management.

Most of CRPG’s have an astonishing variety of weapons, armors and talismans you can equip your characters with. If you play your cards right, you can easily end up with a nasty combination that gives you and edge in combat. The more complex the system, and the more effects are there, the easier it is to abuse.

This is why I was a little bit disappointed that Fallout 3 did not have anything resembling an enchanting system or magic. This is probably due to the fact that Bethseda was trying to be more or less faithful to the previous Fallout games, which is understandable. And I can’t really complain that much, since they did include a large collection of unique named items that are more powerful that the generic versions of the same. Sadly, these artifacts are rather rare, and they offer nowhere near the variety of special effects and bonuses a fully fledged magic item system would.

This got me thinking. How could we emulate such a system in a RPG game set in modern or science fiction setting? Having rare named items is fine, but I want something more. Something closer to the commonly found magic items in a classic, fantasy RPG.

The answer to the question lies in Clarkes third law: we use technology. After all, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Here are some ideas:

DIY Weapons

Fallout 3 had a great idea of introducing weapons you could make using common household items after finding the right schematic. I loved the flaming “Shishkebab” sword, and the dart gun for example. I just wish there were more of them. Fallout only had 5 or 6 different weapons that you could create this way. I’d love to see this mechanic used to it’s full extent – allowing you to create makeshift armor and weapons from random items.

Tinkering and Upgrades

A logical extension of the idea above would be to open up all weapons and armor for upgrades. For example, you could reinforce your flak jacket with armored plates, or install targeting sensors on your helmet. Some fantasy games introduce socketed items into which you can put in enchanted gems. We could use the same idea, just for weapon and armor upgrades.

In fact, this is the exact system Knights Of The Old Republic games used for most of it’s gear. The socket design is easy to implement, easy to grasp and usually opens up lots of upgrade paths and possibilities.

Alternatively you could use a modular design for most of the items. Each weapon could be broken down into 3-4 pieces and each of them could potentially be attached to another weapon. This would allow you to do cool things like refitting your rifle with a longer barrel for increased accuracy, or making your submachine gun shoot high caliber, armor piercing bullets.


For futuristic settings cybernetics are the next logical addition. Getting performance enhancing implants would be just like collecting enchanted rings, pedants and talismans. And because of Clarke’s Third Law there is no limit as to what kind off effects these things could offer. You could have targeting arrays, reflex busting implants, armor plates underneath your skin, exoskeleton that would boost your strength and carrying capacity or even a hidden flamer that would allow you to shoot fireballs out of your wrists. The sky is the limit.


Finally, we have the ultimate magic-like technology – nanomachines. These things are pure science fiction for now, and we really don’t know what could be their limits. What we do know, is that they are tiny, invisible and can manipulate mater at the molecular level.

The characters would simply need to find or buy a small box with the specialized nano-bots inside and open it. The bots would then crawl all over them, and create their own colonies living off the hosts biological waste. It could take them a little while before they are in full operating capacity, and you may need some sort of a skill to be able to control them.

They could be used for healing, reinforcing your skin to make it bulletproof, making you invisible by bending the light a certain way, giving you extra sensory perception or a wide variety of buffs and bonuses. You could even be able to temporaroily impart these buffs onto your company members. If I’m not mistaken, Anarchy Online had a system like this – but I have only played that game for about an hour or two so I can’t be sure.

How would you add some magic to an RPG game set in a modern or SF setting?

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5 Responses to Magic Item Equivalents in Modern and SF Settings

  1. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    You don’t need that many changes from the Alchemia of Morrowind/Oblivion in a modern setting. Replace the magical ingredients by natural (bio-)chemical effects (acids, bases, solvents, salts and other toxins or drugs) and with the appropriate laboratory equipment (oven, test-tubes, etc.) you could allow the character to create powerful enhancing drugs, poisons, gaz, medications and so on. You mentioned the bandage patch in another post, I believe (or maybe it was on the Oblivion’s forum). I think this is typically something that could be implemented the same way.

    It could be visually interesting too: a bio-chemist skill could allow to create a medicine pill, visually in the game, and its effect could be, instead of the magical aura of Morrowind, a feverish colored vision in a futuristic RPG. While a more basic first-aid skill would allow the creation of bandages and patches with some simple ingredients: cloths, antiseptic and so on. The visual could be a bandage roll and a patch on the wounded part once applied. Nothing really hard to make nor to simulate in game statistics.

    And creating a fireball is nothing else than a molotov cocktail. The base ingredients: a liter of gasoline, a glass bottle and a piece of rags. The tinkering skill or any other similar one could be used to show the efficiency (or a blueprint based system). Of course, if you want more SF-like sophistication, go with an advanced set of technology skills (like the different Morrwind types of magic) and learn more blueprints instead of the spells/alchemy potions. With a little bit of imagination and/or the socketted elements you already mentioned, one could even imagine going one step further in realism than the Oblivion system. One skill would allow you to create one type of basic tools, weapons, drugs or objects. But knowing more skills would not just allow you to create more types but also to combine them (via the socket system or via more advanced blueprints, usable only for users of the multiple skills).

    A basis for this is already present in Morrowind, where enchanting is actually nothing else than a socketting of enchantable objects to add spells (from the other Magic skills) to this object. Replace enchanting by whatever futuristic technology you deem reasonable, replace the bascic sword with your favorite universe laser gun and replace the spells with an optical scope blueprint or a chenically improved ammo and voilà…

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  2. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    By the way, for a post-apo world like fallout, here is my blueprint for the scope:
    * two bolts
    * one steel pipe
    * a pair of old glasses
    Necessary tools:
    * optic equipment (rare and/or expensive)
    * basic tinkering kit (like a drill and a couple of pinchers, which are very cheap and easy to find).
    Basic requisite:
    Any weapon with a barrel longer than a pistol’s one.

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  3. Lironah UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I don’t want to spill too much, but I’m working on a rules modification for D&D 4th edition which uses the idea of a ‘tech level’ to simulate the boost in stats granted by magic items. Basically, the campaign is set at a given tech level, and any salvage the characters find which has a tech level higher than their own is considered superior enough to grant a bonus.

    It’s just a cosmetic change for now; I’ll be testing it out on my players soon to see if it needs any deeper tweaking.

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  4. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I don’t feel the need for magic (items) in a Modern/sci-Fi setting, because as you said : technology already covers it all.

    In fact, “magic items”-like things are already in these settings. In Fallout, any energy weapon, most big guns and small arms and power armors could be considered like magic items. It doesn’t “feel” magic, but the effect is the same: more damage, more range, more accuracy, more damage reduction. Instead of the flaming sword, you get the light saber. Instead of the fireball spell, you get the flamer. Forget the +1 full plate, say hello to portable energy fields.

    Fallout 3 doesn’t lack magic, it lacks useful item variety. There’s quite a few guns, but I basically spent half the game with only two weapons : a hunting rifle and a combat shotgun, and later upgraded to Lincoln’s Repeater and A25 Plasma Rifle. That’s four weapons for the whole game, not much. Ammo is so plentiful and other weapons felt so underpowered that there’s really no reason to use something else.

    Fallout 1&2 didn’t have this problem as ammo was a lot scarcer (so you can’t use your most powerful gun for ants), and upgrades more frequent and useful : for instance, small guns first come in single shot pistols, become burst capable with a SMG, get better ammunition (.44, .223, armor piercing rounds), more range, more power, more ammo capacity, faster firing rate, etc…

    Anyway, from reading you post, it seems what you lacked most was an expanded crafting system to abuse. These systems are very hard to balance, and Morrowind and Oblivion are good examples of them going completely out of control. 100% invisibility, all the time ? Sword of 100 fiery coldy thundery draining doom ? Complete immunity to damage ? Please… are the games any fun with these items ?

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  5. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Most of what Luke described are not Morrowinf game native stuff but mods or cheats. They are not really in the game. And in any case not available before a very high level (when they become already irrelevant).

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