Magic Items from the Jack Tales

Appalachia was fertile ground for the Jack tales from England (Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant-Killer). In the mountains of the eastern United States, these folktales developed into their own genre. Jack, an even-tempered teenager from the far backwoods, is confronted by supernatural adversaries, but triumphs thanks to his own cleverness or (for Jack can be remarkably thick sometimes) help from a supernatural gift. Many of the magic items that Jack so frequently stumbles upon are a good fit for PC treasure, especially if you’re looking to add a folkloric feel to your ongoing campaign.

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Adaptable Rifle. Once when Jack was out hunting, he saw a rafter of turkeys sitting on a branch near a deer with antlers nearly six feet wide. Jack wanted to get both the turkeys and the deer, but he knew shooting one would spook the other. So he took his old muzzle-loader rifle, loaded it with gunpowder, and cut the ball in two before he put it in. Then he took aim at the deer, fired, and jerked the gun upwards, intending that the first half of the ball would strike the deer, and by the time the second half was leaving the barrel, the gun would be pointing at the turkeys. He got the deer all right, but instead of hitting the turkeys, he hit the branch they were on and cracked it lengthwise. When the crack slammed shut, all those turkeys’ feet were caught in it so they couldn’t fly away. Later on, Jack found a different rafter of turkeys, but these ones weren’t standing helpfully in a row; he couldn’t hit them all with one shot. Instead, he slipped the barrel of his rifle between two saplings and bent it, putting bend after bend in the barrel in the same pattern that the turkeys stood in. When he fired the gun, the bullet zigged and zagged in just the same pattern, hitting all those turkeys.

At your table, a gun with that kind of adaptability could be a really fun magic item. It can do just about anything as long as the player can come up with some tall-tale logic. But crucially, the player still has to roll for it, and the gun is still just an antique muzzle-loader, not some fancy machine gun with laser sights.

Playaway Club. Many Jack tales feature as a recurring character a nameless old man with a long gray beard. He always greets Jack by name, and Jack never quite remembers how it is that he knows the old fellow. In one story, the old man tried to use presents to dissuade Jack from seeking the source of the north wind. “If I give you this gift, will you go on home instead? It’s much too cold and stormy a day for you to be out wandering.” One of the gifts the old man offered was a club that operated on its own and took instruction. The old man told it, “Playaway, club, playaway! Knock up some wood!” and the club beat the daylights out of a big old tree until it was all broken up into firewood. Jack used the club to recover gifts from the old man that he’d lost to some ruffians: “Playaway, club, playaway! Knock down the whole house! Kill everybody in it if they don’t hand here my tablecloth and rooster, quick!” A club that’ll fly around and do what you tell it would be a handy magic item indeed.

Anti-Witch Knife. In another story with the old man, Jack did him a small favor. No one had ever been kind to the old man before, so he said, and he offered Jack a silver knife. The boy later used it to chop up a coven of witches who’d been transforming into cats to kill anyone who moved into the old mill.

Drill of Rabbit Containment. The old man saved Jack’s life once when the boy went a-courting. The object of Jack’s affections was a girl whose father had declared that she shall only marry someone who can keep a rabbit inside a ten-foot circle for thirty minutes. Anyone who tried and failed would die. The old man, without explanation, offered Jack a drill bit a foot in length made not of steel but carved from a branch. If the drill was stuck in the ground, a rabbit placed near it would not be able to get more than a few feet from it until the drill was removed.

The really weird part of this story is that the old man tested Jack before giving him the drill. He gave Jack a different stick and told him to stir a particular spring. If Jack “had faith,” the spring water would turn to wine. Jack stirred the water for a long time without anything happening and then the water turned just a little bit pink and Jack’s faith was reinforced. The spring then quickly turned all the way to wine. What Jack was supposed to have faith in is not explained; presumably God, but the evidentiary nature of how Jack interacted with the spring isn’t quite how Christian faith is supposed to operate. Also, maybe the old man is God, but in that case why does he need a stick to tell him if Jack is faithful? I have no answers, but the whole scene is super weird and cool.

Folded Boat. Yet another gift from the old man in yet another story was a folded-up piece of wood that, when unfolded, turned into a good-sized boat. That boat sailed across the land as easily as the sea, and required nothing more from its captain than directions. Jack used it to pick up a bunch of allies on his way to challenge a witch to a contest.

Axe of Growing or Clearing, Bucket of Filling or Emptying, Hammer of Reinforcing or Building. Not all of Jack’s magic items came from someone who might be God. Three came from someone who was probably the Devil. King Marock was a roguish card-player with three beautiful daughters. He was also a witch and—worse than that—he cheated Jack in a card game. Why Jack, a fellow too young to shave, was gambling with the Devil is a question best left to philosophers.

Jack tracked King Marock down to see about getting his winnings. In coming to Marock’s house, Jack saw and fell in love with one of Marock’s daughters, a woman who sometimes wore a greyhound skin and turned into a dog. King Marock set Jack three impossible tasks to complete in order to get his payout, and planned to kill him anyway even if he did all three. But, like Ariadne in the labyrinth, Marock’s daughter helped Jack out. The key was that every day, Marock would set Jack a new task and offer two tools: one old and busted, one new and shiny. Jack must always pick the old-and-busted one, which was enchanted. The new and shiny one was cursed. Every day, Jack picked the new-and-shiny one, figuring the other would break before the task was over, and every day, Marock’s daughter had to sneak Jack the old-and-busted one to rescue him. This feels like a real change of character for Jack, who usually overcomes impossible obstacles by being clever. My wife, who’s from Tennessee, laughed and suggested that the stories where Jack was clever were told by men, and the ones where he was a dunce were told by women.

The first impossible task was clearing a thicket to find a ring King Marock lost in it. The new axe would cut the wood, but it would grow back twice as thick. The old axe cleared the whole thicket in just three chops, revealing a little locust tree with a ring on one branch. The second impossible task was emptying a well with a bucket. The new bucket seemed to make the well overflow with water, while old bucket was able to empty that well in only three bucketfulls. The third and final task was busting up a big rock and using the stones to build a twelve-room house. The new rock hammer only made the big rock bigger with every swing, while the old one turned the big rock into a house in only three strokes.

As magic items, I love the idea of paired tools that do opposed things: one useful, one counterproductive. Even the counterproductive tools would be helpful in the hands of a clever player. A rock hammer that makes rocks bigger could seal a tunnel behind you when you’re being chased. A bucket that makes water sources overflow could be used to flood out a level of a dungeon to drown the orcs within.

Saddle of Transformation. Jack still had to escape King Marock’s custody and marry the girl who’d saved him. For that, she produced a saddle that would turn any horse it was placed upon into the finest steed.

Giant’s Rifle. The old Jack and the Beanstalk story is naturally part of the Appalachian Jack tradition, albeit with a few changes. One is that the giant who lived up in the clouds accessible by the beanstalk dwelt not in a fancy castle but in a backwoods cabin and, naturally, carried a rifle and a skinning knife. Jack made off with both of these items. The giant’s rifle in particular strikes me as a great way to give your party what amounts to a cannon if you’re so inclined.

Cursed Bull of Food and Drink. In one story, Jack befriended a strange black bull who sure reads like a cursed magic item. The bull told Jack that if he unscrewed its left horn he’d find bread, and if he unscrewed its right horn, milk. But the animal might have been more trouble than it was worth. It encouraged Jack to murder an old woman who offered him shelter in exchange for her getting to eat the talking bull. Jack went along with it and killed the lady with an axe. The bull also fought (and killed) every other bull it encountered. That’s a lot of hassle for free bread and milk!

Eventually, another bull killed Jack’s black bull, but the cursed animal remained useful to Jack even in death. It told him to cut a strap of hide from its nose to its tail and to take its horns too. Then whenever somebody gave Jack trouble, he could say “Tie, strap, tie! Beat, horns, beat!” and they’d do just that. Jack used these tools that fight on their own to defeat both a witch and a giant, and rode on home.

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The game has:
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You can download the free early-access version of the game from DriveThruRPG or Google Drive.

Source: The Jack Tales: Folk Tales from the Southern Appalachians Collected and Retold by Richard Chase (1943)

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