14 March 2014

The Ordinary Magic Sword

Princess Verella and Meldil
I recall a gaming forum discussion on magic swords, and magic items in general, where the sentiment was running against “common” magical items – and against the concept of scaling owned items up in power as the PCs gained experience – and in favor of “unique” and “storied” items.  One person asked:

Certainly there's something very cool about creating a sword or wand or whatever that has a storied history and special unique powers... but do you want EVERY item to be that way? Do you feel like there should never just be a +1 sword?


The game I play has enchantment rules. My gameworld's cities have a number of qualified enchanters, and they make their livings enchanting things. Since the lower end enchantments are by far the easiest and cheapest to make, by the nature of the beast there are going to be a relatively large number of +1 Puissance weapons out there, which take less than a twentieth the time of (say) +2 Puissance, +2 Accuracy, Quick-Draw, Loyal Sword broadswords. Since said +1 Puissance weapon takes 250 mage-days to enchant with my houseruling of GURPS, and the ability to enchant in the first place isn't common among wizards, this isn't anything a lowly PC is going to buy off the rack.

But that being said, I see no reason why an item's "storied history" should have much to do with its OOC system stats. The legendary Dragon Crown of the Emperors of Vallia doesn't become legendary because of its stats; it's legendary because it's been worn by three thousand years' worth of monarchs. No one knows the actual stats of the great warsword Meldil, borne on half a hundred battlefields by the renowned Princess Verella Elyanwe; it's famous because it's wielded by a great hero. Does it actually cleave iron as if it were wood? (Or is it the case, in truth, that the beautiful elven hero-princess has particularly florid and fanciful minstrels composing her tales?)

It wasn’t always this way, and D&D isn’t really to blame.  My first campaign as a player was an Empire of the Petal Throne run in 1978, and we just got flooded with stuff, in tried-and-true Monty Haul fashion. So much so that we players – sick and tired of scenarios being solved with our widgets instead of our wits – got together and agreed to pick just three items apiece to keep, and throw away all of the rest.

How would I change the paradigm?  If I had to do it all over again (unfortunately, the making of relatively simple items is too entrenched in my gameworld), I'd eliminate any spell or ability that analyzed the particulars of a magical item, and make the result of any enchantment unpredictable. The only way to figure out what something did would be empirical. Enchantments become things of mystery only if they're mysterious, and if you can't know – for certain – everything about it. Make it mechanistic, know for a certain fact that the bolts from a Staff of Reaming do 1d+2 crushing damage, that they have a range of 10 hexes, and that the Staff has 11 charges and 15 HT, then it's no more "wonderful" than 50' of hemp rope or five pounds of smoked cod.

Heck, you could even ring in items that people thought were magical, and really weren't.  I did this writeup on another site, and bet some of you could use this as an idea in your own campaigns:

✵ ✵ ✵ ✵ ✵ ✵ ✵

One of the most significant finds to come out of the haunted ruins of the city of Telmora, Deathreaper is a giant battlebrand, five and a half feet in length.  Wrought of some black glossy metal and engraved with fell runes of annihilation, the only color on the blade is the well-worn silver wire wrapping the hilt.  Through some eldritch sorcery, it is light as a willow wand in the wielder's hand ... but that is not all.  When waved over the wielder's head, Deathreaper erupts in dark violet flames (which somehow do not burn the wielder), and the runes on the blade sear with stabbing blue radiance.  The howls of dozens of voices split the air, screaming in horror and anguish, eternally damned.  It is said that to die on Deathreaper's point is to have your immortal soul destroyed, sucked into the blade for all time, to join the chorus of the hell-caged and be seared in the unholy flame of the brand.

The warrior-mage Thenestre, who found the sword, is now a feared man.  Standing taller, standing prouder, the power of Deathreaper fills him with its blazing might.  It is said that as long as he carries the sword he is invincible, and that even if he is parted from the blade, it will fly through the air to his defense ... and find his foe.  And drink.






That's the shtick, anyway.  As a warrior, Thenestre is nothing much.  As a mage, he's a decent weaver of illusions and tolerably good at minor summonings.  As an adventurer, he's quite a con artist.  Reading of the adventures of a legendary champion bearing a hell-forged black soulsucking sword, he wondered whether he could do one better.  "Deathreaper" is, with the help of a dwarven confederate, a few layers of enameled foil over a core of pinewood.  A little engraving took care of the "runes of annihilation" (which came out of the Big Little Book of Wyzardry, 4491 edition), and a couple of enchanted illusions takes care of the lighting and sound effects.  Well, everyone knows that Thenestre was assisting Master Thormor on the dig in the northern part of the Old City ... or at least they believe it when Thenestre tells them that he was.

Thenestre can whip the sword around with the best of them, and light as it is, he makes it look easy.  He bolsters it by summoning "bodies" which he artistically disguises with illusion to have large holes in them and features contorted in horror, claiming that they were rascals who tried to steal from him.  He hasn't had to do more than brandish it since -- many a brave warrior, bold enough against mortal steel, wants no part of a dark destroyer forged in the very Fires of Hell itself!  And now Thenestre is "somebody," a renowned adventurer, someone who doesn't have to buy many of his own drinks, someone who can run up tabs at the tailors and the taverns, someone who gets his share of the women attracted to the Dark Anti-Hero.

Adventure hooks: 

1)  Sooner or later, there'll be some up and coming punk stickjock who wants to prove how bad he is by taking down the "legendary" Thenestre!  And maybe he'll run before the full fury of Deathreaper ... and maybe he won't.

2)  Sooner or later, there'll be some up and coming punk thief who wants to prove how bad he is by stealing the "legendary" Deathreaper!  And maybe he'll go down before the anti-theft illusions Thenestre sets (most nights, when he remembers, when he isn't too drunk, when he's not occupied with the groupie de jour) ... and maybe he won't.

3)  Sooner or later, Master Thormor -- or someone else familiar with the Telmori site -- might come into town and recall Thenestre as a minor assistant who didn't merit anything beyond the antique emerald brooch that was his share of the loot, and three weeks' pay ... certainly no ancient artifact sword.  Of which none were recovered, not in working order, anyway.  (Alternately, a researcher of the period might know, or uncover, that no such weapon is recorded in the annals of the Triolini Empire.)

4)  There are real dark forces in the world.  Forces which covet the power of Deathreaper, and seek to take it for their own.  (They might even hire the party to do it, and might not react well to being told "Oh, yeah, we stole the weapon you wanted, but gosh, it's a fake, here it is.")


  1. Good stuff.
    It does seem that if a setting is known to have magical whatsits around there are going to be LOTS of charlatans trying to make bank on fake items or making it seem like they themselves have powers.
    I agree about doing away with, or tamping down, the sorts of 'appraise' abilities that give out exact details/history about a weapon. Having some sort of psychometry available, but fallible and vague might be fun... but not just a roll of the dice and the player gets a card full of stats. That would get rid of a lot of the annoying (IMO) activity that goes on around looting/selling/buying.
    Generally, I'd just have +1 mean it's particularly well made. No need for magic.

    I do like Earthdawn's way of having a magical item's history imbue it with powers... but you have to know the history... discover it through research... you have to form a relationship with the item and, to some extent, recreate the significant moments that led to its empowerment.
    The idea that some famous warrior's sword is just a regular sword with a name also appeals though.

    1. As it happens, a +1 sword in GURPS is indistinguishable from a "Fine" weapon, which can be crafted by any skilled swordmaker with extra time and expensive materials to burn. Fine weapons are much cheaper and take far, far less time to craft. The only real reason to have a +1 Puissance or Accuracy (i.e., bonus to damage or bonus to hit) weapon is for things that can only be hit by magic.

      And you're right: there'd HAVE to be hordes of charlatans, never mind the ex-apprentices or hedge-wizards trying to peddle more than they're quite capable of doing. Heck, you'll see an example in my next post.