I’ve seen a question asked on a couple of blogs about magic weapons and their importance to DnD. When we are introduced to famous and powerful weapons in novels, movies, or videogames, there’s almost a small story that takes place in the space of a few breaths. Legendary weapons require some “screen time” of their own, much like the introduction of a new character.
A famously cited example is the incident of the trolls’ treasure hoard in the Hobbit. Somehow three trolls managed to come into possession of three ancient Elven swords. They were exquisite, unique, and Gandalf had just enough knowledge on the subject to excite the reader. We had to know more about these works of art and we would find out eventually, Gandalf explained, but only when he could decipher the runes upon the forged blades.
Within these couple pages Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves engage a cunning plot hook. Dungeons and Dragons does not play out exactly like a book, it is a cooperative game and has a different dynamic concerning the driving force of the story, but Tolkien presents a great formula for DMs to use when bringing magic weapons into the game. Using this method could allow us to reward our players with a nice magical weapon, but also bring back the wonder and awe we all felt when the party discovered Glamdring, Orcrist, and Sting.
Enter Stage Right
The introduction of a special weapon in a campaign is a lot like a three act play. Beginning with how the weapon comes into the hands of the party, we have to design a dramatic entrance, but one that makes the players ask questions. The legendary weapon is just that, legendary, it has a history of being used by famous people at great moments in time. It was forged by masters, imbued with magical power, and promptly left somewhere for the convenience of the party. The location that your players discover this weapon in will be important if you want to create that love at first sight feeling. That is why we are going to steal a common concept from the video game series the Legend of Zelda.
In the Zelda series there are dungeons to crawl and explore through, and every one of these terrible locations contains a magical item that either counters the effects of the dungeon, or allows us to bypass its dangers. How better to make your players salivate over an item than placing it in a location distinctly contrarian to its nature? A paladin would take it as no less than a message from his god, if he found a sword pulsing with radiant energy while searching a crypt in the Shadowfell. The first encounter is crucial to capturing the players’ attention and getting them to develop an affinity for this new piece of magical firepower.
A Rose by any other name…
When we bring a magical item into a game, we must use words to describe the look and feel of this new addition. How well we do that job will determine how clear of a picture our players will have in their minds of this new item. If they can see that new hammer or shield in their mind’s eye, the more excited they will be when it comes time to use it in battle. This seems like a simple concept, but there are numerous times that I have completely failed to get my players interested in the magical items I dole out.
The biggest part of this is setting aside some time to plan out how you are going to give out these magical items, and when you are going to describe them in detail. I enjoy the Player’s Hand Book and the Adventurer’s vaults, because of the artwork and descriptions they provide of the weapons, armour, and items. On the other hand, it is too easy to read straight from those books and simply inform the paladin that he found a level 25 Holy Avenger long sword. That’s why a description of the items might require us to string our players along. They find a cool item in an equally cool location, and then we give them a very exciting description of this brand new weapon. We tell them how terrifying the blade looks, how broad the shield is, and how the longbow is so intricately carved. After all of that foreplay we as the DM turn around and tell them it only has a bonus to attack power. Which brings us too…
Of course they can’t know what encounter or daily power their new weapon or item holds. This is in direct contradiction with 4e rules and how to identify magical items, but I don’t care. The players won’t feel like they truly earned an amazing item unless we moderate the amount of excitement they get from discovering it. This tactic shouldn’t always be employed for every magical item in a campaign. But when you do hand something particularly amazing to a PC you want it to leave a lasting impression. They discover this radiant sword in a Shadowfell crypt, their knowledge and experience with weapons tells them it is a finely crafted magical weapon, we even tell them it has an attack bonus which makes it immediately useful to them in the game. But when they get back to a safe haven, when they talk to a renowned scholar about this new addition, then we can bring the full weight and majesty of the PC’s legendary weapon to light. Ancient lore and history can be revealed to the lucky paladin about this fantabulous piece of holy weaponry, and through this carefully presented performance we should see a player’s eyes light up as he realizes he holds a weapon in his hands that he can truly smite evil with.