Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Alternatives To Traditional Magic Weapons and Armor

There's nothing quite like that moment where your characters get their first magic weapons. Whether it's a longsword crackling with lightning, a glowing bow that fires with a choral thrum, or a shotgun that booms with a thunderclap, chances are it was your character's most treasured possession for months. You went on adventures with it, saved the day with it, and it became part of your character's signature look.

At least until you found something more powerful.

You fought well old friend, but you're just not a +2 weapon.
It happens in every game; your first magic item is a life-changing experience, but pretty soon even the most wondrous weapons and amazing armors become nothing more than a collection of numbers and abilities. Worse though, you usually have to end up exchanging huge piles of gold for them. It's the only way to keep the game balanced though; if players didn't have to pay a wizard to enchant their weapons and armor then the whole game would be unbalanced.

Wouldn't it?

Not really.

You see the mechanic of treating a magic weapon or suit of armor like any other good, with a value that can be measured in gold pieces, is functional. If it wasn't then so many roleplaying games wouldn't use it. However, for storytellers who are sick to death of how these awe-inspiring items become no more impressive than buying rations or a bedroll, here are some alternative suggestions for getting magic items into the hands of the party.

If you'd like suggestions for making your magic items just seem more special, then read How To Keep Your Magic Items From Getting Mundane.

Don't Let Players Buy Magic Weapons or Armor

Now I know what you're thinking, but hold up a moment. I'm not advocating that you force your players to partake in a world with no magic; that would completely eliminate the point. What I'm saying is that you need to take away your players' abilities to just exchange hard currency for whatever they want out of the back of the book.

I bought this at a hock shop for $500.
Magic items are supposed to be fairly rare in the first place; it's what makes them so special. Lots of players just walk into every town like there's an epic weapon emporium right next to the inn though, and if you want to keep your players on their toes you need to curb that behavior right away.

If you want to be a kind storyteller then you can put magic items in your shops, but make players really look for them. Perhaps what a merchant thinks is simply a monstrously fine sword is actually a weapon engraved with dwarven runes of power to make it burn brightly when drawn in battle. Maybe the local smith has a weapon he keeps only for special customers, locked away in the back for those willing to pay for its true value. Or it might be possible for characters to wheedle a favor from a wizard's college or a learned spellsmith, if the character is willing to pay the price demanded.

That's if you want to be nice.

What if I'm all out of nice?
If you don't want to be nice to your players then make them work extra hard for their magic items. Make them fight creatures for them, or give them specific magic items as quest rewards. Make them win a tourney of champions, or seek out a mythical smith in the haunted forest. Have the party defeat the Lord of the Dread Marsh in order to take up his enchanted helm and flail. If you do that it becomes clear that enchanted tools represent things money simply cannot buy.

Alternatively if a party member wants a flaming sword, then make him perform a ritual where he plunges a masterwork blade deep into the flames of a sacred volcano while chanting an ancient incantation. If someone wants a lighting lance then make her charge the top of a mountain and survive being struck by bolts from the heavens. These solutions allow players who want more story to still get magic items without taking craft feats or chiding the party wizard to please, pretty please, make something shiny for them. It also means that you can't stop in at local farming village #356 and walk out with celestial armor and a holy avenger.

Ancestral Weapons

Despite the name, an ancestral weapon doesn't have to be handed down within a family or a clan; the name refers to weapons that have acquired a legend of their own through long use. As an example, many vorpal weapons were never enchanted as such (at least in older editions of Dungeons and Dragons), but they gained this quality due to the sheer number of heads they'd taken from both the wicked and the wrongly convicted. Everything from Wyatt Earp's 6-gun to the Sword of Charlemagne grows larger when wielded by someone whose legend has grown long.

I'm sure there are other examples... somewhere...
This mechanic means a storyteller avoids the whole "go to a special shop and commission an enchanted weapon" mechanic entirely, and it allows weapons and armor to get special histories of their own. The holy sword found in a treasure trove might have been handed down a certain line of priest kings, whose piety made it more than just sharpened steel. A bow might have been carried by a series of famous outlaws whose chaotic lives imprinted in the grain of the wood over long use. Even a spiked gauntlet worn as a symbol of rank by ancient generals might begin to buzz with the energies and wisdom of a hundred great commanders, taking on effects for those who wear it today.

Old Fashioned Magic

Both high and low fantasy have some pretty epic examples of enchanted weapons, and they always come with intricate rituals and rare components. These weapons or suits of armor come with names and looks, and a complete pedigree of how they were made and where they came from. Like the greatsword Starbreaker, forged from the last gasp of a dying star fallen from the heavens, and hammered on the altar of Gorum for seven days and seven nights. Quenched in sacrificial oils the sword burned white hot, and then the blade turned as black as the Lord of Iron himself. The sword's edge never dulls, and it cleaves through shields and flesh as if they were no more than morning mist.

What I just described is an adamantine greatsword +1. But how much cooler did it sound?

It bears a passing resemblance to another famous sword.
Some magic items are made with certain components, while others are created by certain events. If you want to power up your party then use that to get players deeper into the game.

Let's say you have a barbarian who is particularly devout. There's no mechanical bonus for it, but the player is going to the hilt with her character's devotions to Sarenrae. The character arises every morning, prays, sharpens her sword, and dances to welcome the burning light of another day. Say that the party is later fighting undead in an underground tomb, and the barbarian dedicates each slain foe to Sarenrae; it's possible she'd begin to notice, and that the sword would glow brighter on each death. Once a cinematic moment is reached the sword bursts into flames as bright as the dawn itself, and the character attacks with all the ferocity of a desert whirlwind.

That's a lot cooler than just paying 4k gold for a +1 flaming sword. It also comes with the potential for the character to lose the goddess's favor if she strays too far from the fervor that granted her the weapon in the first place.

For characters who are less devout then it's possible for pure circumstance to leave weapons changed. A weapon that's killed a hundred lycanthropes might become a bane weapon, for instance. A blade that deals the death blow to a dragon might absorb some of the wyrm's power in the form of an enchantment appropriate to the creature's breath weapon. A weapon which always seems to deliver critical blows might become keen-edged, or perhaps actively try to suck the life force out of those it kills, depending on the wielder and the situations it's been used in.

For players who want the experience of making a magical weapon there's always the use of rare components. The hunt for star metal is well known, but what else might soak magic into steel? Quenching the blade in dragon's blood and bile? Heating a forge with the bones of great warriors so the steel absorbs their power (this was something some ancient peoples actually frigging did!)? Perhaps having a sword forged by a blind man, or a prophet, or a virgin priestess is the secret to making it powerful?

Whatever mystical dingus you want to use for your magic items it will make players appreciate how hard they are to get. Not only that, but a player will be a lot less likely to forego the trusty Razor Tusk, the weapon that killed the last of the great orc chieftains in the Black Tooth Wars just because another sword crops up that gives him an extra +1.

And even if the new sword gets drawn, the old one will never leave its place of honor on that warrior's hip.

One More Thing...

Also, before you go, I wanted to show you this.

Willy Shakes just telling it like it is.
This is the latest example of gear you can get at my store. If you want to check out the full Shakespeare click here, and a complete list of my shirts can be found by clicking the link for Literary Mercenary gear on the right hand side of the page. There's stuff for literary types as well as gamers, and the list keeps getting bigger so check back regularly if you don't want to miss anything.

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