posted Thursday, August 19th 2010 by
Dungeon Mastering Advice
Powerful magical items are a staple of myths, genre fiction and roleplaying games alike. Most D&D players will have heard at least of the Hand and Eye (or Head) of Vecna, for example, and who hasnâ€™t heard of Excalibur or the One Ring? As powerful as these items are, itâ€™s really the stories of where they came from and how they were used that captures the imagination. If your campaign world has similar magic items of incredible power, quite aside from the mechanical representation of each item it is essential to consider the story behind it as well.
Most magical items arenâ€™t legendary on their ownâ€”they have well known owners as part of their story. Excalibur is almost always mentioned in the same breath as King Arthur, for example, and the One Ring is associated with Frodo, Sauron and Gollumâ€”but also sometimes known as Isildurâ€™s Bane after another ill-fated owner. Is there one user in the history of your artifact who is most famous for its ownership, or has it been passed through many hands? What became of the owner, and what role did the item in question play in that fate?
Another angle to consider is whether there are any locations or events that are tied to the item. Locations donâ€™t necessarily need to be specific named placesâ€”Excalibur, for example, was granted to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake (and returned to the lake in some versions of the tale) but which lake in particular is anyoneâ€™s guess, as there are a number of lakes which fit the bill. This confusion of locations can be beneficial in your campaign setting, if you choose to make tracking down the item in question a major quest, especially if other treasure seekers are also after the same item.
Events can be well known, such as the battle in which Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauronâ€™s hand, or more vague, such as exactly when and where Smeagol and his friend Deagol later came upon it. Either way, these stories can provide both background on the item of power and potential hints on where it is to be found. Are there any locations or events that your artifact is associated with? Are the locations specific (like Mount Doom) or vague (like the Lake in Arthurian lore)? What is the nature of the association?
Some items are most often referred to in combination with other items. Excalibur and the Holy Grail, for example, have a certain amount of connection thanks to each having close association with King Arthur. Other storied items of legendary powerâ€”the Hand and Eye of Vecna, for exampleâ€”are much more directly associated. Are there any other artifacts connected to the item youâ€™re creating? What is the connection? How close an association is it? Are the items tied together as complementary, or are they equal and opposite in natureâ€”opposed weapons of light and darkness, for example?
The question of what the item does is of course definitely a contributing factor to its fame and story. Some items, such as Excalibur, are obvious in their use from their form alone and the tales surrounding them are based on that clear use. Other items are of less immediately apparent purposeâ€”The Black Cauldronâ€™s appearance would not necessarily indicate to an observer its power to raise the dead as servants to its owner, even if it would be immediately evident that it was a powerful item. The shape and form of the artifact can be an interesting way to make them more interestingâ€”magic swords are obvious and popular, but trying something more unique may have a more memorable result.
Giving your artifacts strong backgrounds and stories can help them stand out in your playerâ€™s minds, as well as provide further links to your worldâ€™s history and geography. Itâ€™s even possible to provide this kind of detail for more mundane magical gearâ€”though the same level of depth is not necessary, especially if your game features frequent acquisition and replacement of lesser magical toys. In any case it certainly does a great deal to shift magic from being a collection of numbers towards being something special in your world, which is always a good thing.