Lessons From Randy Maxwell #2: Magic Items Don't Have to Be Powerful

This is part of a series of posts about what I learned from my first issue of Dungeon Magazine. For the whole series, click here.

For the players in my group, the most important thing about any magic item they found was its power. Is it +2 or +4? That's all that really mattered, and I fully understand why it was all that mattered. It was all I gave them. That new sword you just found? It's +2, so it's better than the +1 sword you've been carrying around all this time. It's better, so sell the old one and move on. You'll do a little more damage now.

The magic weapons in Shards of the Day aren't really that great. There are three swords, each of which is a +2 weapon that gives an additional bonus against a particular type of opponent and has a few minor abilities. One gives a bonus against goblins, another a bonus against vampires, and the last a bonus against fire creatures. They're actually pretty average items, great against some opponents but for the most part just regular +2 swords.

But they weren't just regular +2 swords. No, these were special. For the first time in one of my campaigns, the characters found themselves with weapons that were more than just "plus whatever" swords. Let's look at one in particular:
Shard of Twilight: This blade is multicolored like a sky before sunrise or just after sunset. (It is said that an optimist calls the weapon "Shard of Dawn" and a pessimist calls it "Shard of Dusk.") It is deep purple to almost black at the tip, turning to deep blue, then light blue, to bright yellow-orange at the hilt. The pommel of the weapon is set with a small topaz. Running the length of the hilt and inset with gold is the elder rune Vakaros ("The Air"). The weapon has a +3 bonus vs. vampires and energy draining creatures and has endure heat/endure cold (as spell) and chameleon power (as ring) abilities.
By the time they actually heard me describe the weapon, they already knew the history of the blade and had been searching for it for quite some time.* The looks on my players' faces were well worth the description, and well worth coming up with descriptions for important items in future games. Is it an extremely powerful weapon? Not really... although when all the shards come together they can do some cool things. Is it extremely cool, though? Absolutely.

This sword, even though we never fought a vampire in the entire campaign and the player rarely took advantage of the special abilities, stayed in the party even after more powerful weapons had been found. There was a cool factor that came into play... this was the first magic item they had ever come across that was more than just a bonus in combat.

Lessons Learned:

  • While it's okay to have a plain old +1 sword, players like magic items with flavorful descriptions and interesting histories a lot better.
  • Items with interesting histories and descriptions often outlive their game mechanics defined usefulness.

*If you run the adventure as written, they actually won't even be looking for this one. I chose to change things up a bit, and used the setting without the adventure's reasoning for being there, so I decided this sword should be in the city as well.
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