Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mysterious Artifacts: The Blackstaff Core

When I started running two semi-interlocked Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, I thought it would be best to set one in Neverwinter and one in Waterdeep. That way, they could share story elements and villainous characters while still staying separate enough that I do not have to worry about too much peculiar overlap. Eventually, one of those groups would come upon an artifact that was interesting enough to warrant sharing with the public at large. The artifact is something I like to call the "Blackstaff Core."

The Blackstaff Core

Khelben Arunsun was the Lord Mage of Waterdeep from some time long, long ago until his death in 1374 DR. The Forgotten Realms novel Blackstaff Tower discusses the current Blackstaff of Waterdeep (as of 1479 DR), Vajra Safahr, and her experiences dealing with the ghosts of Blackstaff Tower. It has been proffered that Khelben (and, potentially, other prior Blackstaffs) remain as spirits in the tower and provide counsel for the current Blackstaff. When I read this, I thought that this description feels a bit like the portraits of old Headmasters of Hogwarts that reside in the Headmaster's Office. It obviously works in the magical world of Harry Potter but I did not think that a bunch of talking portraits would be appropriate for a place like Waterdeep. Then again, maybe it could.

One issue I had with everything I read about the old Blackstaffs advising the current wizard was that it implies that, in some way or another, the spirits of previous Blackstaffs had been bound to the tower. Granted, it may only be in a minor way, but it seems that a noted legend like Khelben Arunsun is not one to be bound, even to his very residence that he called home for far too many years to count. I imagine that his eternal spirit would be doing whatever it is he feels appropriate instead of worrying about what the current Blackstaff does. As it seemed inappropriate to bind the spirits of old Blackstaffs to the tower, I thought it would seem a bit better if it were more like an imprint of the old Blackstaffs, something more along the line of those old portraits than the actual souls of long dead wizards of the Forgotten Realms. After some research, I discovered the use of the term "template of spirit" in reference  to the collective knowledge and intellect of the dying Blackstaff being added to the tower. This seemed to match up with my notion of a psychic imprint.

What about Bob?
From there, I was heavily inspired by The Dresden Files' peculiar character of Bob. In fact, I was inspired by both the original character featured in the novels and the completely different version presented in the television series. The idea of a magical artifact bound with a creature of immense power that a wizard kept around to aid with magical incantations was interesting, but so was the idea of a powerful wizard magically cursed and bound into his skull. From this combination of ideas, I thought of the idea of the Blackstaff Core, a strange artifact, perhaps a crystal structure housing a powerful intellignece, similar to Bob's skull that housed a wealth of information about Waterdeep, the Blackstaffs, and the Forgotten Realms in general that also had the distinct personality of Khelben Arunsun and, to a lesser extent, all of the former Blackstaffs of Waterdeep. This became an important (although damaged) artifact that my Waterdeep adventurers discovered when they explored the Blackstaff Tower.

History of the Blackstaff Core

Khelben Arusnun rejects your reality and
substitutes his own, better version.
Khelben Arunsun is considered one of the most powerful archmages of the Forgotten Realms, only clearly bested by Elminster Aumar. Arunsun Tower (later renamed Blackstaff Tower) was his residence in Waterdeep for centuries. Legends say that he (and, later, whoever the appointed Blackstaff may be) could sense intruders in the tower. Other tales tell of significant wards and traps in the tower that protect it from scrying and intrusion. Magical gateways and portals can be found throughout the tower, allowing the resident of the tower access to many different places around Waterdeep (and, potentially elsewhere throughout Faerûn).

Of course, any good wizard would have some sort of security system for his home or tower. Any good security system requires a significant amount of attention and intelligent guidance. As it ends up, Khelben is a very powerful wizard but he has far more important things to do than worry about security details at the tower. One might think that his apprentice would be a reasonable choice for maintaining security and magical integrity, but Khelben does not seem the type to entrust a fledgling with the power to manipulate and protect his home. He is powerful enough, however, to create (or potentially capture) an entity capable of properly maintaining the safety and security of his tower. The Blackstaff Core is the result of this magical creation. In its most basic form, it is a crystalline structure of great power that houses a magical entity (of unknown origin) capable of maintaining the magical systems of the Blackstaff Tower while maintaining a wealth of knowledge regarding Faerûn, its various cultures, and important persons.

Created sometime early in Khelben's career, the exact date of creation of the Blackstaff Core is uncertain. It has changed significantly throughout the years as Khelben and then later Blackstaffs added to the magical structure of the artifact. Originally constructed to serve as a rudimentary intelligence to protect the tower, Khelben routinely augmented the magical structure to include new functions and capabilities as he found some need that the core could easily accomplish. Over time, this augmentation has included the ability to manipulate the magical defenses of the tower, conduct research both in the tower and within certain areas of Waterdeep, store vast amounts of information collected by the Blackstaff, and manifest a phantasmal avatar with which to communicate with both the Blackstaff and intruders.

The Power of the Blackstaff Core

The full extent of the power given to the core by Khelben Arunsun is unclear. It would appear to have sufficient agency to maintain the magical energies and defenses throughout the Blackstaff Tower. However, as it has remained in the Blackstaff Tower since its initial creation, very few people have ever seen it much less see it . Furthermore, since the artifact's primary purpose was maintaing the tower, it rarely had need to extend its influence outside of the confines of the Blackstaff Tower.
When I say "crystalline artifact," imagine
something stolen from this fancy place.
Once removed from the tower, it is uncertain what the core is capable of performing. When the Waterdeep Adventurer's Guild found the core and removed it from Blackstaff Tower, they found it barely able to do anything other than repeat the same message: "The Blackstaff has been captured." They were able to ascertain that some sort of important control crystal had been taken from the device, a component potentially capable of increasing the power, capabilities, or other features of the core.

In addition to maintaining the Blackstaff Tower, Khelben created the Core to serve as a library of knowledge and insight into the world of Faerûn. To that end, it is an enormous database of facts and data administrated by the intelligence of the Core. From important ritual magic to interesting details about the mating habits of griffons, the Blackstaff Core is possibly the most comprehensive single collection of knowledge in the Sword Coast, if not all of Faerûn. A group of adventurers that is able to take possession of the Blackstaff Core would have a potentially enormous wealth of knowledge available to them.

"Phenomenal Cosmic Powers!
Itty bitty living space."
With additional power crystals, the core may be capable of great magics. However, no matter how much power it is given, it is still bound. In this regard, I think of Arcadian from Ultima VII: The Forge of Virtue. The crystalline structure of the core acts as a sort of prison for whatever entity Khelben first trapped or created, limiting its ability to exert its power beyond those strict restrictions imposed by Khelben when he created the artifact. Thus, although the core may contain some sort of terrifying demon or devil as its host intelligence, it cannot do anything other than those things Khelben intended. Thus, this prevents the core from doing anything world crushing as to unbalance the world.

The Personality of the Blackstaff Core

After centuries of interacting and even conversing with the Blackstaff Core, Khelben's personality began to imprint on the intelligence at the heart of the artifact. As later Blackstaffs observed, the core would routinely argue and orate in a manner that very closely reflected Khelben's own style and diction. It very quickly took on the appearance of Khelben, although later Blackstaffs would suggest that this was done intentionally (as a matter of vanity on Khelben's part). The fourth Blackstaff enhanced the capabilities of the artifact further, giving the core psychic imprints of the previous Blackstaff while establishing the tradition that all future Blackstaffs would contribute an imprint to device. Because of this, the Blackstaff Core carries functional duplicates of the memory and personality of every Blackstaff, although its primary "personality" is that of Khelben Arunsun.

At its most basic form, the Blackstaff Core will appear as an apparition that looks like a middle-aged version of the venerable wizard. Although it is capable of manifesting as any of the prior Blackstaffs, it generally only does so when the memory imprints of prior Blackstaffs have something to contribute that differs from that of the primary personality. Vajra Safahr observed early in her career that the primary personality was quite fond of arguing with (and then summarily dismissing) the other personalities, although she found the contrary opinions quite useful in her work. To that end, it is not clear how distinct the different personalities are from one another.

Introducing the Blackstaff Core to a Campaign

The Blackstaff Core can serve any number of purposes within in a Waterdeep or even a Sword Coast based Forgotten Realms campaign. Recovering the core itself could be a major quest, whether it be recovery from some noted villain at the behest of the Blackstaff or recovery from the Blackstaff Tower due to the disappearance of the Blackstaff. If damaged, the party could be sent on any number of exotic quests to find and recover components of the Blackstaff Core, endeavoring to bring it back to full functionality. This could be a convenient way to tie the party's adventure to the current Blackstaff, whether it be in service to her or instead as a prelude to her eventual rescue.

"Mr. Smith! I need you!"
If a party manages to get its hands on the Blackstaff Core and keep it as their own, the core could serve as a power artifact for the party's lair or headquarters. Having a wealth of knowledge at their disposal could be very useful, as could the ability to protect their headquarters from potential attack. Perhaps other components could be added to increase the core's power, allowing it to do even more to aid the PCs in their quest. In that capacity, the Blackstaff Core could become akin to the Sarah Jane Adventures' Mr. Smith, an intelligent supercomputer that provides occasional insights into the current adventure.

Of course, it is just as easy to turn the Blackstaff Core into a potential villain. Perhaps, once removed from Blackstaff Tower, the core begins to assert its original personality and goals. Maybe the creature that Khelben originally captured was quite malevolent. Being freed from the binding of the Blackstaff Tower, the creature begins to use the PCs to promote its own nefarious goals. Imagine a group of adventurers, working with this new artifact that they recovered to bring about some noble goal. As they near completion, they realize that the noble goal promoted by the core is actually quite diabolical, putting the lives of countless innocents at risk. Unfortunately for the PCs, they were the ones that helped engineer and bring about this master plan.

No matter how the Blackstaff Core is implemented into the campaign, it can add both an interesting, if not peculiar, character to the story while also giving the party something important to work towards. The core must be repaired while its peculiar personality dealt with. Perhaps that personality will end up becoming a villain that the party must deal with. On the other hand, it may very well become the greatest ally they have. There are so many different ways that an artifact like the Blackstaff Core can become part of a Waterdeep based campaign that are both interesting and relevant.

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