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World Building 101 – The Art of Artifacts

posted Thursday, August 19th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
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 hasn’t heard of Excalibur or the One Ring? As powerful as these items are, it’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 aren’t legendary on their own—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 Gollum—but also sometimes known as Isildur’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 don’t necessarily need to be specific named places—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 anyone’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 Sauron’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 power—the Hand and Eye of Vecna, for example—are much more directly associated. Are there any other artifacts connected to the item you’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 nature—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 purpose—The Black Cauldron’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 interesting—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 player’s minds, as well as provide further links to your world’s history and geography. It’s even possible to provide this kind of detail for more mundane magical gear—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.

Comments

  1. Andy

    August 19th, 2010

    Indeed. Most potent, of course, is to have an artifact tied into the story of the players themselves. That’s always pretty awesome.

  2. Tourq

    August 19th, 2010

    Bingo.

    After sifting through about 20 RSS posts, I stopped here. Nice read.

    -Tourq

  3. vbwyrde

    August 19th, 2010

    Thanks for the writeup. Tis a good topic, and well treated. As for the black cauldron, I believe you are referring to the one from the Mabonogion into which dead warriors could be placed and return to life, though silent. What strikes me is that in the ancient times during which the tale was popular we wouldn’t know what kinds of surrounding stories or cultural perspectives also influence the understanding of the story. It may be that to the ancient Welsh at the time the myth was first written (and for some time thereafter) the cauldron was relatively new to their culture, and hence the difficulty of making it, and the expence, might automatically have put it into the magical category for many people. That it also had magical / mystical powers might be something they would have accepted more readily because of this. The same might be true for the magical wagons that carried the fertility god from village to village. At one point a wagon was new to civilization, and it is possilbe that it’s newness and difficulty of construction (for people of that time) confered upon them a magical connotation. The extension of that magical nature might be an afterthought, and the assignment of even more magical properties than its newness and uniqueness (in that time) might have been a necessary augmentation once such items became generally used. Just a thought. Thanks again!

    -vbwyrde

  4. Brandan Landgraff

    August 19th, 2010

    vbwyrde: Much as it shames me to admit it, while I’m aware of the origins of the cauldron in the Mabinogion, I’m really mostly familiar with it through the Chronicles of Prydain. I never got around to really delving into that particular mythic cycle, in spite of Prydain being literally the first books I ever read…

  5. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-08-20 — Double Edition!

    August 20th, 2010

    [...] World Building 101 – The Art of Artifacts I love artifacts. No. Wait. I LOVE artifacts. As a matter of fact, one of the early columns that I did on this blog involved an artifact of the week. It finally become too onerous to generate an artifact every week, so I had to bail on my much beloved column. I feel that every magic item (other than menial ones like potions and scrolls) should have a large history behind them all. It adds so much more flavor to hold the “Sword of Karn’s Reckoning” than “a long sword +1″ even if their crunchy game effects are the same. [...]

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