I was watching the Lord of the Rings recently on a day off, and something occurred to me. It struck me as interesting that the major treasures of the world often seem more significant for their historical connections than for their concentrated badguy-whomping power. A highly-treasured sword is highly-treasured not because it’s +5 and Vorpal and Slays Evil With A Single Touch (in fact, it may or may not actually be any more combat-effective than your average weapon), but because it was worn into battle by a king a thousand years ago. Even some of the really powerful artifacts in this mythos (say, the Three elven rings) are practically never used at all, and seem to serve primarily as status symbols for the individuals and nations that control them– by dint of historical inertia, I’d wager.
When you think about it, this is a pretty neat way to connect characters with setting. An adventurer with a mortal’s lifespan has a limited amount of timeline he can really connect to directly. But if that same adventurer leaves home with his great-grandfather’s battleaxe (you know, the one Gramps used when he fought in the Orc Wars of 438?) he inherits a piece of setting history as well as a physical weapon, and connects himself, via the object, to a part of the timeline outside of his natural lifespan. That’s pretty neat!
If an adventurer finds an even more historically significant object (of importance to an entire culture rather than just a family), the “history effect” is magnified. If you are wielding, say, the Axe of the First King, which Kagren the Bold used to win sentience for mortalkind by severing the umbilical cord of the world at the dawn of time, you are wielding an item of unimaginably great importance and power– even if it turns out to be a “mere” masterwork axe.
Role playing games are typically balanced around the assumption that as they gain in level and in power, adventurers accumulate vaster and vaster collections of mighty equipment. You’re expected to replace your old and busted stuff– it’s tough to compete if you don’t. It’s extremely rare to see a world-saving hero at level 20 who still relies on the same sword he left home with at level 1, even if it is the one Gramps used in the Orc Wars of 438.
Heirlooms get set aside when shinier gear comes along, and to me, that’s a pity.
I think the problem happened somewhere along the line, when people were trying to recapture the feel of their favorite epic stories in a game format, and someone made the error of ascribing the mightiness of heroes to the qualities of their equipment. It’s a chicken-and-egg sort of dilemma: if we see a lone warrior stand against an army of thousands armed only with his trusty sword, and he actually survives, is it because he is an exceptionally talented warrior, or because he has an exceptionally nifty sword, or some particular balance of the two? Do adventurers become mighty because they acquire mighty gear, or does gear become coveted because historically it has been used by mighty adventurers to accomplish mighty deeds?
I think I’d prefer it if the balance between person and equipment were shifted a bit. I’ve always been fond of heroes who rely on personal skill more than special tools. (I always like the combat in Jackie Chan movies– hand the man an umbrella or a loaf of bread or a priceless vase, and he does just as well as any master swordsman. To me, that’s fun combat in a nutshell.)
And when power comes from the hand and mind of the adventurer, rather than from the adventurer’s collection of special gear, there’s no reason to throw away great-granddad’s heirloom axe just because you raided a dragon’s lair. Instead, keep the axe, and you keep the Orc Wars of 438 as a talking point that connects your character to significant events in the setting’s timeline.