Learning History from Weapons

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.



9 thoughts on “Learning History from Weapons

  1. I agree actually. I think that magic weapons, at least in my opinion, should be the stuff of legends or at least an heirloom to be cherished for generations to come.

    Something my current DM did with my character that I liked was his sword. It was magical, but abilities had to be “unlocked” by me putting XP into the sword. Even the banner I uncovered had the same system in place. Even though these abilities had been unlocked in the banner before, I personally had to do this to make use of it.

    It makes that sword the type of thing that will be held onto by the adventurer. They will add thier history to that of this mighty weapon and it will grow in fame.

    Of course, that only handles part of you post. However, I could write entire posts in response to this one ;)

  2. one of my biggest complaints about Forgotten Realms is that magic items practically fall out of trees. The whole basis for the ‘fantasy realism’ of that setting is completely broken. I only wish there could be a setting that was decidedly LOW-magic, but still as well-developed as FRCS (which is the only reason I actually use FRCS at all is becuase of its depth). I suppose Greyhawk gets closer… but not nearly enough.

    The problem is that every player WANTS magic items… if they don’t, they tend to bitch about it. But too much magic makes it… mundane and ordinary…

  3. I am in complete agreement. The player’s skills should never need to be complimented with magic items.

    This is probably my number one complaint about Dungeons and Dragons 3.x games. It seems that for a party of four to stand toe to toe with the real bad guys they need to be armed to the teeth with magic items. This is just sad.

    It’s one of the things that excited me about the new edition, but I haven’t read enough about how magical items impact the 4.0 game.

    If anyone has an idea of how this works in 4.0 or knows of a good review that deals with this, I’d love to read it.

  4. I think there is a practical reason why heirlooms have to be magical. Grampa’s sword is probably not in great shape. And Kagren the Bold’s axe blade is a pitted husk of its former self and the wooden handle long since rotted away. But if you simply add some minor magic, then yeah, the vibe is much better.

    I completely agree that the mechanical efficiency of equipment upgrades pretty much negates any incentive players have to keep mundane gear. The Weapons of Legacy rules that Tom mentions are neat. The character imbues their gear with some reflected glory.

    I love to give magic items a history. I always used to make use of the Legend Lore table on pg 18 of the 2nd ed Bard’s Handbook. Players would always find it more interesting when I’d say something like “the sage translates the dwarven runes as ‘the strength of our friendship be forever a shield unto you’. He believes this to be a rare amulet of protection given by the Dwarves of Khadin-Fal to the surviving priests of the Ofalian Monastery after the Battle of Ingall’s Doom. Unfortunately, the amulet did the priests little good – he believes the monastery was destroyed in a retaliatory attack by the Drow.” Oh, and it gives +1 AC.

    4e kinda takes away from that since players automatically learn item effects and don’t need to study an item first. Sigh, the death of Legend Lore and sages…

  5. I’ve long had a spell for transferring enchantments from one object to another. (A ritual, in 4e.)

    The need for magic weapons and other gear is built into the system. 4e is better about this, but the balancing’s still done with that assumption, so to keep things on an even keel, bonuses have to be coming from somewhere. Whether that’s new stuff or a house rule that gives bonuses for other reasons.

    My ritual basically destroys the “new” item and transfers its enchantment to the “old” one. Instead of throwing away grandpa’s axe and using that +1 flaming sword, the character uses grandpa’s axe, which is now +1 and flaming.

    It’s a little more complex than that, but it’s a decent handwave of the situation to allow both the necessary mechanical bonuses and the desired character history and personality moments.

  6. @Tom – That’s a very interesting idea. So did players have to actually give up XP into the weapons?

    @Jonathan – Forgotten Realms is a tough setting to compare to. It has taken a completely different role in RPGs than other settings in that it focuses completely on the fantastical, and the mundane almost literally doesn’t exist anymore in the setting. But you’re right, Greyhawk gets at least a bit closer.

    @Mark – Agreed – I found often that I couldn’t rely on the players and characters skills and abilities very much to match up with villains, and thus, to make the game fair, had to give them more items than I prefer to hand out. Is there a good compromise?

    @.0. – Nice name, and welcome to the blog! And I also found myself describing items in that way as well, giving out a rich history to make the players learn a bit about the setting with each item. Unfortunately, they admittedly were still more interested in the +1 Armor.

    @ scottschimmel – It’s almost like a Horadric Cube version in D&D. Awesome!

    I’m looking into a method of magical items that is very similar to Midnight (by Fantasy Flight Games). There, all magic items are called Covenant items, and they simply gain in power as the characters get more powerful, with them essentially unlocking more abilities as they get more powerful. I’ll see if I can make it work, any suggestions?

    Thanks for reading all!

  7. Earthdawn had a nifty way around this. Essentially, magic items have Names and a Legend associated with them. The more the character learns about the item, the more powerful it becomes. This also includes taking certain actions. For instance, if a given sword is famous for dragon slaying, using it to slay a dragon may be one step in making it more powerful. Your characters don’t get blinged out the way they do in D&D, but magic items become meaningful and important throughout the campaign arc.

    Earthdawn was not without flaws, but it had a lot of cool mechanics like that to support role-play.

  8. @Gary – That seems like a pretty cool way of supporting high magic without having characters walking around with trunk loads of magical jewelry. I’ll have to check it out.

    Thanks for reading !

  9. First time to comment, thank you for blogging.

    I agree wholeheartedly, but have a LOTR quibble. Normally I’d repress the need to talk about Tolkien, but since this a is a gaming blog…

    The three Elven rings are used all the time, but their effects are subtle. Lothlórien and Imladris are otherworldly refuges because of the rings. Gandalf has been carrying Narya around since Cirdan gave it to him.

    Giving a PC +2 to a roll is quick and easy to understand and implement in a consistent fashion. Giving a PC a ring that “will support thee and defend thee from weariness. For this is the Ring of Fire, and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill” is difficult.

    Anyway, a nice post. Cheers, John

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