Worlds of Design: Artifacts of Cosmic Power

I avoid Artifacts of Cosmic Power that are likely to destroy the world in the long run.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

"We give the fantasy author one giant leap away from reality, then demand tight-nit probabilities and no coincidences thereafter." - Robert McKee

Longtime readers know that I usually prefer a fantasy role-playing game that leans heavily toward “a life we believe could exist but does not.” That means, after the initial premises that introduce magic and another world, I want something believable. World-destroying artifacts do strain that definition.

Artifacts of Cosmic Power​

This brings up the question of “Artifacts of Cosmic Power,” devices that can drastically change an entire world, or even destroy one. Comic book fans are familiar with artifacts like the Infinity Stones and Gauntlet from Marvel superheroes (including the Infinity War movies). When “saving the world” is the objective of players, such artifacts will often be involved.

The problem with these artifacts is that, given the opportunity for someone to destroy a world, sooner or later that destruction WILL happen. There’s just no way that the world can be threatened multiple times, yet always survive. Even if the chance of saving the world, at each occurrence, is 90%, after ten such threats (which may come from fewer than ten artifacts) the chance of ten successes (saves) is only .9 to the 10th power: 34.87%. Change that to 20 times: 12.16% success. Or put another way, the World is Doomed if there is more than one Artifact of Cosmic Power.

What’s Wrong with an Artifact?​

The issue with these artifacts is that usually one is enough (see Lord of the Rings). One type of world-shattering artifact is challenging but believable (we all live with the modern threat of weapons of mass destruction); but multiple plots involving multiple devices begins to strain credibility.

Comics suffer from this most, with so many cosmic artifacts that it’s easy to lose track. Comics tend to repeat themes as new readers come in, revisiting plots that position the heroes as the only ones who can save it. This is a convention that comic book readers accept, just as they accept the notion that a major character may die, and act as though that character is really dead, even though they know in their hearts that the character is very likely to be brought back in some way, especially in the days of multiverses.

The Star Wars franchise has similar hurdles; the heroes are positioned to save the galaxy from a planet-shattering threat in the Death Stars, but after the first two, Starkiller Base just seems egregious.

Artifacts in Role-Playing Games​

There’s nothing wrong with powerful magic items in high fantasy campaigns. It’s the world-destroying artifacts that get problematic, not the least of which being that if the player characters fail, it potentially can utterly change the game master’s world. If the game master is imposing a story on the players, cosmic artifacts are dangerous because their use by the players may be unpredictable. A storyteller must control what happens in their story, or it’s no longer their story. But if there is only one artifact, and its player use is carefully circumscribed, carefully constrained, then it can become an interesting part of a story.

Conversely, if anything can happen, the game is potentially at risk. The stakes are high, but if failure isn’t an option the players are playing through a linear plot more than a game where anything can happen. Some game masters might be willing to gamble their game world by putting at the mercy of a single artifact, but it’s not for everybody.

Too much of this ruins pacing. If you’re saving the world nearly every week there aren’t enough lows to offset (and make more intense) the highs of the campaign. One is usually enough. Use them at your own (or your world’s) risk.

Your Turn: How many Artifacts of Cosmic Power are in your campaign?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
All of this is true, but ignores the fact about the end of the world: it’s almost never a total end. It’s just a part of the cycle where empires rise and fall.
Rifts is a great/terrible example. World ended, and every monster showed up to party. World was ruined, nearly everybody died, and… the world went on. It became a footnote in a barely remembered history.
If the world actually ends, it should be as a warning to the next one. A decent example was the spelljammer module, Crystal Spheres. Look up the region known as Darkspace.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
All of this is true, but ignores the fact about the end of the world: it’s almost never a total end. It’s just a part of the cycle where empires rise and fall.
Rifts is a great/terrible example. World ended, and every monster showed up to party. World was ruined, nearly everybody died, and… the world went on. It became a footnote in a barely remembered history.
If I have to throw my world map out (along with the notes), it might not be the end of the world, but it's definitely the end of the campaign!

One of my campaigns has an Artifact of Kingdom Power. Not quite Cosmic. It's not harmful, either, unless you're an evil creature. In that case, it hurts your eyes a bit.
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
Unless your campaign is cosmic level you don’t need a cosmic level artifact to evoke the risk of potentially campaign changing devastation the characters can be seeking to overcome. At low level an Item that attracts a hydra can be a devastating threat item, the AD&D series desert of desolation is a mid level adventure about the release of a threat that a high level party could just defeat etc.
Even in the movie Clash of the Titans when they release the Kraken it just threatens one city Iirc.

So while I agree with this reasoning against cosmic level threats my main reasoning is that they are unnecessary to evoke the game changing threat - if that’s what you feel is something you want in your game.
 

I have run one "cosmic threat" campaign 30 years back. (Oddly it was very similar to the snarl in OotS) Unlike OotS where it was "impending and immediate doom", the PCs were brought in with a couple centuries before catastrophe, but with the the hanging threat of "solve this in your lifetime or we open the Gates and let the armies of heaven and hell do what they will to get the MacGuffin."
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I very rarely have a story that can destroy or drastically alter the setting on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. However, in the last 35 years I've done it twice. When I do it, I'm prepared for the consequences of failure and really, failure is far more interesting than success.

The first time I did it was was in 2000 or 2001 and it involved an orc horde led by a king who brought the orb tribes together coming down out of the mountains(the same ones as Obould came down out of. Copycats!!!) and striking into the heartlands. The PCs were the only ones who could stop him. They failed and there is an orc kingdom where the middle of the heartlands used to be.

The second time was about 6 years ago and involved a powerful artifact that sealed the gods away from the Forgotten Realms. No divine power could get through, so all divine classes lost all abilities. The PCs were an exception. They were the demigod(in the Greek sense, not the D&D sense) children of a god who were ignorant of their heritage until after this happened. The creators of the artifact didn't consider that blood calls to blood and their divine parents could grant some power through that connection, so the cleric and paladin retained their abilities. Had the group failed, there would be no divine classes left in my world. They succeeded.

I enjoy this kind of story only once in a great while. That way when it does happen it really seems momentous to the players.
 

TheSword

Legend
Cosmic threats only carry weight and consequence if the reality of the game world and the people who live there is well established. The people you are saving have to matter otherwise the threat is empty… i discussed this in my thread on Gaming from Below.

I thought some of the Elder Evils intended to end campaigns fall into the same category as cosmic artifacts. Same kid-gloves need to be applied.
 
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Cosmic threads only carry weight and consequence if the reality of the game world and the people who live there is well established. The people you are saving have to matter otherwise the threat is empty… i discussed this in my thread on Gaming from Below.

I thought some of the Elder Evils intended to end campaigns fall into the same category as cosmic artifacts. Same kid-gloves need to be applied.
True, also…
World ending is a strange term. The world is a matter of perspective. A family might consider a thier household being ruined as world ending. Star Trek has multiple worlds ending each week.
 


JAMUMU

actually dracula
Imagine an artifact that imagines itself a network. An information network, if you will. At first it draws together the voices of the outsider, the dispossessed, the obsessed. It amplifies and directs those voices through channels that would never have been allowed to exist before the forging of the Artifact. It equalises. It flattens. It expands the ordinary and gladdens the great and the good.

The Great Houses, the Grand Colleges, the Royal Crowns, the Dark Demesnes all declaim the artifact's unheralded power. Even the druids begrudgingly admit the artifact's ability to make organically sound gardening advice available to the common peon.

But decades after its inception, the network spasms, curls, jerks, hardens into its intent. Entities from beyond harness the artifact's power, hitch their inhuman messages to the signal, slide in through gaps that did not exist before the artifact existed. Soon the only communication that matters is transmitted from the artifact. Speech no longer matters. Music no longer matters. Only the artifact. Only the network.

Only the supernal voice of the artifact must be listened to And to listen is to obey.
 

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