Sunday, April 1, 2012

A is for Antimony

[This is the 1st of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

The metallic element antimony has been known since ancient times. The Egyptians ground it up for their kohl eye cosmetics, but it's often best known for its highly poisonous nature. The derivation of it's name in English (the "Anti-Monk") brings to mind Eco's Name of the Rose, since it's reputed to have been especially deadly to monastic alchemists of the middle ages.

The classical alchemical symbol of a cross atop a circle (the inverse of the traditional sign of Venus) is the same as the medieval symbol of the Globus Cruciger, a Christian symbol often held by kings to show their God-sanctioned dominance over their little slice of the world.  So we've got the heights of power, and the dangers of the chymist's art...

Antimony also shows up in the notes of Isaac Newton, who experimented for many years in making all kinds of interesting forms, including the Star Regulus of Antimony, a beautiful crystalline version that occurs after repeated meltings and coolings of the raw ore turn it into a purified, crackly wonder:

My original idea for this post was to stat up the brittle Star Regulus as a "broken" magic item that must be assembled from its shards back into its pristine whole.  (There's a cliched adventure seed for you...)

However, the sheer difficulty in just making this thing made me think of the whole process of how player characters can create magic items and artifacts.  Most versions of fantasy RPGs have rules for this, and I always remember Len Lakofka's alchemical expansions on this process in The Dragon #49, too.  But readers of this blog will know that I often like to play with "mini-games" within the larger game (see Contests of Skill and Training for XP).  Magic item creation is another fun place for a mini-game, I think!

There should be multiple steps in creating any magic item, with opportunities for mishaps spread out all along the way.  An example list of processes for a magic ring, say, could be:
  1. Find the ore for the ring, and the gemstone for the main ornamentation.
  2. Alchemically prepare the ore into pure metal.
  3. Infuse some special potion or other compound into the metal and/or the gemstone.
  4. Forge the ring into its proper shape (with help of a blacksmith??).
  5. Insert the gemstone into its setting (with gaudy ritual to finalize the process!).
Each step need not be tediously role-played, as long as in-game time is set aside for these things to be done. The key is that the PC is given the chance to make key choices, at each step, that affects the chances of success, failure, or catastrophic failure (boom!).  Spending more money on quality equipment improves the chance of success.  So does taking additional time to do everything properly.

Usually an RPG will give a single probability of failure for the whole process, and this can be divided up into all of the stages to up the tension. (Just don't use the by-the-book probability in EACH stage; probabilities multiply!)  If any given roll comes up as a failure, the GM can give a context-appropriate explanation of what happens in that stage.  In the event of running out of specific ideas, one can always rely on external circumstances such as someone entering the room and distracting the PC... hearing a rooster crow outside just as the PC is set to pour from one beaker into another... and so on.  :-)


  1. Cool post Cygnus, thanks. I love the world of glyphs and symbols. I look forward to your month of posts...

    [ Antimony, often given homeopathically, acts as an emetic, is used for de-worming and also for skin ailments such as chicken-pox! Just a fun-fact.]

    Violet @ Revolution ~ Evolution

  2. Very cool theme. I am so pleased to see so many cool theme.

    Looking forward to seeing what you do!

    The Other Side
    The Freedom of Nonbelief

  3. You lost me at, 'However, the sheer difficulty ... ' but before that I was thinkin' kick-ass post.

    I'm with Timothy. Looking forward to what comes next.

    (Particularly liked the descriptor, 'purified, crackly wonder.'

  4. Nice theme :) I'm learning so many new things today because of this challenge! Great post! It's nice to meet you!

    Nikki – inspire nordic

  5. Thanks for visiting, everyone!

    @Suze... Can't win 'em all, I guess. :-) Most of my readers have been from the gaming blogosphere, so I'm trying to stretch my creativity by finding practical ways to use these cool ideas at the D&D gaming table...

  6. Interesting background on antimony. I never would have known that stood for anti-monk.

    I'm your co-host for the A-to-Z! If you didn't get an email from me the other day, it may have gone in your spam box. Please feel free to contact me via my profile or reply to that email if you need anything or have any questions.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z