Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Making +1 Swords Feel Magical

I had a disagreement with my colleague Tom Kilian recently. I said that +1 swords were boring. In almost all of my previous  D&D games, the little scribbled +1 would fade into a long string of bonuses from other sources (base attack bonus, attribute bonus, feat bonus, etc.). I'd forget that I even owned a magical sword. And when a +2 sword came along? I'd throw the +1 sword onto the ground like day old bread for ducks. 

Tom disagreed. He protested: "I've never been bored with +1 swords! A +1 can be really useful. And they all have a little extra, you know? They point towards the north or float in water. And they have a history you can uncover."

And I thought, whoa, wait, hold on. That does sound cool. 

So I still might not be in love with set-it-and-forget-it bonuses, but I could tell Tom was investing more into standard magic items as a GM than I was.

Let's fix that.

Make treasure lore-full

Darrell Sweet

First things first. The standard treasure lists found at the back of your DMG are about as flavorful as a saltine cracker soaked in room-temperature water.

This is boring: “You find a longbow, artwork that costs 500 gold, a gold ring worth 100 gold, a +1 sword, and 1000 gold coins.”

This is much cooler: “You find an elven bow made of yew and strung with a strand of elf hair. A portrait of a portly burrower with a mayoral hat in a golden frame seems like it would carry a hefty sum. A golden signet ring is marked with the house sigil of three apples. A dwarven sword, short but wide, carries runes that name it Death Cleaver in the dwarven tongue. Lastly, a treasure chest overflowing with silver and gold of different mintings. Most bear the seven stars of the Andantine Isles, but dwarven coins from under the mountain bearing the hammer and sickle are mixed into the hoard as well.”

Dark Souls isn't everybody's cup of tea, but the way that it delivers its lore through a steady drip-drip-drip of item descriptions is fun. (I wrote a bit about this here.) To discover Dark Souls lore, you have to read through the ancient texts like a real life loremaster (through your item menu, hoping that some invader isn't about to shank you).

If you're a GM like me, I bet you are positively vibrating at an opportunity to tell the players some dope shit you've written in your world - some bit of lore you love but can't deliver organically. Guess what motherfucker? Your players want treasure. Give it to them that way. Like giving your cats a pill wrapped in salami. 

When describing treasure, specify:

  • The materials of construction
  • The people who crafted it
  • The artistic embellishments
For example: "The sword has runes running down its blade in Aklo, naming the blade 'Tailbiter.' The hilt is shaped like a peasant boy fighting a dragon."

Make magic active

Sara Kiplin

So the core of my complaint is that it doesn't feel magical to write another +1 bonus onto my sheet. 

Let me quote a GLoG principle that I like a lot:

> GLOG Design Rule #3: Never use small, passive bonuses. They're boring, easy to overlook, potentially confusing, and often lead to synergy. Use active abilities instead. (What Extra Credits calls "incomparables".)

What would a +1 sword look like if it didn't provide a passive bonus?

Just brainstorming, here are three options.

1. Activate the bonus

When you unsheathe and cry out the name of a magic sword, you add +1 to attack and damage for the rest of the battle. 

> Earthdawn had this concept of weapons that leveled up with you as you learned their lore. Learn a weapon's name? Learn who created it? Fight a battle against the weapon's chosen enemy? Each of those unlocks another power. I think that's pretty cool. I like this option because it evokes that feeling.

At the same time, this is still just a +1 weapon. Sure, there's maybe a little choice of "Do I cry out the name?" that's interesting if you're doing a stealth mission, but this is kind of like the Dodge feat from 3E. I forgot to invoke it 75% of the time. It wasn't active vs passive, it was "forgotten" or "goddammit, if I had said he was my Dodge target, he would have missed, goddammit, not again." 

OK, let's try again.

1a. Activate the BIG bonus

When you cry out the name of a magic sword, your next attack is a critical hit. The sword must be driven into a campfire and rest, like a human would, before it can use this ability again.

> OK, well, I'd probably remember to use this bonus if it was big enough. A critical hit is a nice level - one solid strike, maybe enough to kill a big beast. Making it 1x/day with a Dark Souls-y way to refresh it? That's fine.

2. Additional damage dice 

This sword deals +1d4 damage.

> A passive bonus? Josh what are you doing? Well. I think that rolling an additional dice feels different in a kinesthetic way. If a normal sword does d6 damage, but I'm rolling 1d6+1d4? That feels physically different at the table. I remember I have a magical sword because I have to pick up a whole other dice!

...Still, maybe a little boring.

3. Invulnerable sword

This sword is all but invulnerable to harm. It can hold open a dragon's jaws, or prop open a crushing trash compactor room, or dipped in acid. It cannot be destroyed by conventional means.

Even so, it is light as a feather. It only takes up one pack slot, if stowed. 

Moreover, if you learn the sword's name, it has a special property.

> I think this one is my favorite. An item that is straight-up immune to damage is great for OSR puzzle solving. Assuming you can retrieve it, you can use it to trip traps, bypass obstacles, and get up to all kind of shenanigans. 


  1. > I said that +1 swords were boring

    My players usually end with golf bags full of them. Which they then use to equip their hirelings and mercenaries so that they can fight non-magic-weapon-immune enemies, so it's not a total waste at least, and at that point the simple bonus is kind of nice, because you don't really want to remember what the minor magic feature the sword Mercenary Lieutenant Number Four is using has.

    > Make treasure lore-full

    I am reminded of https://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/99/treasure-tells-a-story/ . I don't really enjoy long treasure descriptions like your example, unless those details go somewhere / mean something.

    > incomparables

    I've kicked around having magic swords grant cleave attacks and the ability to make critical hits -> https://wanderinggamist.blogspot.com/2022/06/magic-swords-proficiencies-and-1e-dmg.html . Ability to injure nonmagic-weapon-mmune monsters is also sort of an incomparable. Sentient swords also offer a lot of weird special stuff, and I could see boosting the rate at which they occur.

  2. Some great stuff here. I'll definitely be thinking about this article the next time I'm giving out magic items.

  3. This is fantastic, especially if you're playing a low magic campaign. Suddenly a +1 (with added "accoutrements") is not just good, it's pretty much an artifact.

  4. These are great ideas. We must give a tip of the old feathered hat to Ed Greenwood, who single-handedly upped the game in treasure descriptions across a series of Dragon articles that showed how magical and mundane finds could open a portal into the campaign's history and economics. My critical appreciation: https://rolesrules.blogspot.com/2014/03/between-gygax-and-greenwood.html