Wednesday, May 05, 2010

growing into the awesome

I'm told it's easy to get the impression that all the old school bloggers are grumpy old men who hate anything that Wizards of the Coast does.  This is not entirely true.  We have a few grumpy young women as well.  Also, Wizards has produced so much D&D material over the last decade or so that one is bound to find some good stuff in there if you don't just dismiss it all out of hand.  For example, I still kinda like the Template as a systematic way to give multiple disparate monsters a similar theme.  Many individual templates were pretty sucky though, such as the Fiendish template.  One would be hard-pressed to find a more boring way to mechanically express the idea that this particular monster has the brimstone taint of hell about it.

Another concept where I like the idea but not the execution is the magic swords and junk from Weapons of Legacy.  A chapter with a similar topic also appeared in the 3.5 version of the Unearthed Arcana.  I'm told by my sources that Earthdawn and the French rpg Bloodlust also covered similar ground but I've got to give WotC credit for getting me thinking in this direction.  The basic idea I'm digging on is giving low-level PCs a magic item that starts out weak but grows as the PC levels up.  Rather than constantly feeding PCs a slow diet of more powerful magic swords, you give them a single sword that grows with them.

I like the idea but not Wizards' execution of it.  First of all, both WotC versions require the PC to sacrifice game mojo (by taking levels in a stupid prestige class and/or dumbass feats) to make their trinkets pokevolve.  Nertz to that.  Second, the items grow in a systematic, preplanned way.  That's the exact same thinking that put me off chargen as a source of fun.  It makes every time I level up a PC in 3.x seem as enjoyable as doing my taxes.  Maybe you enjoy tax planning and keeping all those receipts, but I greatly prefer taking the standard deduction and getting on with my life.

Here's how I'd handle a Weapon of Legacy.  First start out by assuming that any magic weapon found in play with just a bonus (i.e. a plain ordinary sword +1, axe+2, etc.) is a dormant weapon.  Enchanted in a bygone age, these weapons sleep between periods of activity just like dragons.  Awakening them requires that they be found by an heroic personage (someone with levels), named and used.  Upon the heroic personage gaining a level, the player gets to roll to see if some of the dormant power within the weapon becomes active.  This would involve a huge-ass random die chart, of course.  If a new power becomes available, the PC is expected to give the sword an epithet.


DM:  Inside the treasure chest you find 250 gold pieces stamped with the image of a long-dead king and a silver-hilted sword in an ancient scabbard of cracked leather.
Tom: I start filling my pack with gold.
Bob: I grab the sword and draw it from its sheath with a flourish.
DM: You feel an eerie power course through your sword arm.  It's a sword +1, dude.
Bob: I will name you... Doombringer!
Tom: Way to rip off Moorcock, dude.  Heh.  I said Moorcock.
Bob: Shut up.  Okay, howzabout Kings-Gift, since we're stealing some dead king's treasure here?
DM: I like both.  Kings-Gift sounds vaguely Old English, like I would believe a sword found in Beowulf would be called that.  But I'm always for more doom in the campaign.
Bob:  Doombringer it is, then.
Tom: I saw Beowulf in the theater.  Those wrist crossbows were rad.
DM: Part of me wants to smack you.  The other part likes wrist crossbows.

Later that session:

DM: Okay, that's four dead ogres split five and a half ways, or 291 XP each, 145 for the henchman.
Bob: Ding! Ding! Ding!  I just leveled up.  How's life as an elf, Tom?
Tom: Grumble, mumble.
DM: Bob, roll to see if Doombringer gains additional powers.
Bob: What do I roll?
DM: I don't know.  This is just an example and Jeff's still working out the details.  Let's say you rolled +2 damage versus a recently slain foe of your choice.
Bob: Awesome!  We're still in the Ogre Hills, right?  I'll take it versus ogres.
DM: Excellent choice.  To gain access to this power you have to give it an epithet.
Bob: What's an epithet?
DM: An additional name/title that someone or something goes by.  Like Chicago is the Windy City or Batman is called the Darknight Detective.
Tom: I know!  You can call your sword DJ OGA KILLA.
Bob: Right.  Because I've always thought of my paladin as a thug rapper.  Still Ogre Killer is sort of in the ballpark, isn't it?
DM: Ogres-Bane?
Tom: The Og-sterminator!
Bob:  Ogre Slayer.  My sword is now Doombringer, the Ogre Slayer.  Fear me, vaguely gigantic cave-men of the Ogre Hills!

Later Bob's paladin and Tom's elf fall into a pit and die.


  1. DM: Part of me wants to smack you. The other part likes wrist crossbows.

    lol! Love it, Jeff.

    As a recommendation, maybe make the new level achieved some sort of modifier for the magic-item power acquisition/activation role, and then stock the table appropriately.

    That way, achieving 9th level would hopefully produce a more powerful manifestation than achieving 3rd level.

  2. Interesting point, would save alot of time digging up new ideas for new weapons during a campaign


  3. I agree with Alan - higher levels should give better powers. I think the chance to gain a new power should be cumulative somehow, until you gain a new power, and then the chance resets. Like 10% per level - you failed? OK, its 20% next time.... YMMV. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Sweet. And, yeah, much better than the Wizards implementation. More random charts to roll on! ;)

    Plus, doing it with random charts means that you could put together sets of weapons that each had unique properties but all ran off a particular theme or style fairly easily. You could customize the charts for an entire campaign to give it a unique flavor, or a few different sets of charts for the different magic-sword-leaving ancient cultures in a given setting. (Or even take a page out of Taichara's book and build charts for the things made by specific magic-sword-craftsmen.) Though that'd probably only make sense in a game with a fair number of magic swords, or a lot of PCs.

  5. Part of me loves your blog for teh funny. The other part wishes it could eat you and gain all of your powers and your blog.

  6. Philotomy has mentioned that he does swords in a similar way, except that all the powers are always there, they just don't reveal themselves all at once. Maybe he'll pop in and expound.

  7. Brilliant post all around. So many good points.

    -encapsulating all that is wrong with levels in modern D&D
    -greate implementation of a cool idea (and nice Bloodlust reference to boot)
    -hilarious real gameplay dialogue
    -ending particularly funny and pertinant to your preferred gameplay style.

    Well done.

    (word verification: flingue. I flingue poo. The squire opened the weapon case and took down the flingue from the top shelf.)

  8. I've always thought that if magic items improve with your level, they should eat up a percentage of your XP when they do it.

    Basically, carrying a leveling magic item would be like having a new class feature, and therefore carry an XP cost... say -5% to earned XP for each leveling item you possess.

    (This would be a back-door way of discouraging Christmastree syndrome.)

  9. That's the exact same thinking that put me off chargen as a source of fun. It makes every time I level up a PC in 3.x seem as enjoyable as doing my taxes.

    I've compared it to creating a character in Champions or in GURPS except you do it every time you level up, which makes it agonizingly more painful. Especially if you're the DM. But your tax analogy intrigues me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

    I like your random power-up idea for magic weapons. Like you I liked the ideas put forth in Weapons of Legacy, but I hated the implementation. For my last 3e game I set up a system where players could propose a way to level up their own weapons (bathe them in the blood of a freshly killed gorgon, for example, or use them to strike the killing blow against a red dragon), and we liked it well enough. I like your more random approach though - while the "come up with a way of powering up your own weapon" idea should have led to more players proposing their own quests, in practice it didn't work out that way because of our sporadic playing schedule. I'm going to have to keep the more random approach in mind for the next time I run a campaign - I think that might be a good method for a sporadic playing schedule.

  10. Jeff, you have my approval on this.

    You know, just in case you wondered about that.

  11. Anonymous12:20 PM

    My own ruminations on the game have run down this path, but I never went the random route. Like all worhtwhile discoveries it was right there staring us all in the face all these years. I'm going to give it the unlooked-for approval the best way I know how. I'm going to steal it, work on it and use it right away. Thanks Jeff.

    P.S. - for hose that award XP for treasure... how would you figure the sword's XP value and when would it be earned?

  12. Of course I love the idea of a bunch of random charts to roll against. This feels like a really good implementation of the WoL idea, especially the adding the epithet part.

    I would probably have a few "Pre-made" weapons rolled up and placed in various locales. There's something about knowing the powers that are yet to manifest in advance to generate a story about the weapon.

  13. Anonymous1:21 PM

    Very nice.

    Earthdawn tied items to their history, by discovering the item's history and following actions linked to the item's purpose, it gained more powers. You could do that by having the player suggest the legend of the blade and taking steps to "reforge" that legend.

  14. Anonymous1:35 PM

    I like the idea, but perhaps you have to choose which weapon you "unlock" when you gain the level.

    One problem I see is that the new power could be very underwhelming, and the player ditches the item in favor of an older one. Maybe that's okay, as in "this sword was wielded once for a few seasons by the Mad King Korgoth while he fought Ogres in the Ogre Hills". This could be easily avoided by letting the player pick the specifics of the power - like with your "choose a recently slain monster to gain +2 damage against".

    But it's also possible this could feel like opening the little prize from a toy machine and finding out it's a crappy orange spider ring.

    Overall it's a pretty cool way to do things. I've tried implementnig a similar growth-item in D&D before, but the player typically just obsessed over trying to level it up as quickly as possible. Tying it to a regular level-up sounds good.

  15. I like it! There was a setting for 3rd ed, called Midnight, where I think this idea originated. I'm going to use it for a campaign, some day.

    Random tables are a great addition to an already great idea.

  16. have some of the most badass ideas of all time. Mmm...or wait, maybe I'm confusing you with D. Bowman over at Sham's. Well, whatever.

    This is a fantastic idea. If you don't publish this in a useable form I am going to make it a downloadable supplement and everyone else be damned!

    Growing into the awesome indeed!
    : )

  17. I think you have read your Weapons of Legacy wrong, Jeff. You don't have take any feats or prestige classes to use the junk of legacy. You get the 'activation feats' for free if you do the required rituals or actions that unlock the item's powers. The actions are usually quests like slay a diamond dragon or climb the highest mountain or defend a red-haired old man.

    You can take additional feats etc to boost the abilities but usually it's not worth it.

    Secondly the book includes great rules for forging your own legacy. My players have used them to creating items which have powers related to the results of their adventures.

  18. I am so gonna steal this... The idea, not your sword. That would be wrong ;)

  19. I have each class (the 5 I use) get a different type of "Character Item".

    Warriors get trademark items, thieves lucky items, clerics relics etc.

    Each is given by a 2d6 check if something happens. ie, thieves get 7 after a heist, clerics doubles, warriors their opponents level or less. etc etc.

  20. The really excellent "3.75" game FantasyCraft from Crafty Games has an artifact system that allows you to level-up your magic items. In addition to experience, heroes earn Renown, which can be spent to buy specific reputations, contacts, property, and magic items (in fact, even if you build your own magic item, you have to dedicate Renown) to it). You're capped as to how many "prizes" you can carry, so it encourages players to have one or two really awesome items, rather than tons and tons of crappy ones.

    Because Renown is spent at the player's choice, it's up to them to decide whether they want to slog along with a weaker magic item that they found earlier, while accumulating other Renown0based rewards, or cashing in points to upgrade the item. When an artifact is upgraded, the player and GM are encouraged to come up with a cool subplot-adventure that explains the sudden influx of juice into the item.

    That said, I love the idea of the random roll; I'm all for players having to be surprised and not being able to plan their advancement.

  21. Ooooo! How about those random tables from Stormbringer for when you put a demon or an elemental in an item?

  22. you have to check out this post from matt . . .

    what more could you want from a great sword?

  23. When I was GM'ing Earthdawn I had a variant rule on the legendary weapons. This allowed for the mundane weapon that a player had to get magical the more heroic things they did with it.

    This had an interesting side-effect of making my players (and there-by their characters) become useful, heroic good people, rather than the bumbling evil players they usually are.

  24. "DM: I don't know. This is just an example and Jeff's still working out the details."

    Thanks very much. I was trying to drink tea while I was reading that. And I'm wearing a white jacket.

  25. I came close to buying WoL a week or so ago (it was heavily discounted). I'm glad I passed. I am a 3.5 player and even I think it sounds like overkill.

    Someone wrote about this concept in an issue of The Crusader (not sure if it was Steve Chenault or not). It was the same general concept, but much less formalized. Basically, rather than distributing magic weapons and such in loot stashes, why not let a PC's weapon grow in power as he grows. Random tables are always fun, but the GM could simply rule that a sword has gained hill giant slaying power because it was used in a bad-arse hill giant battle.

  26. One thing to watch out for with systems like this is the issue of treasure. What you have with an item like this is a periodic, semi-automatic rewarding of treasure: When the weapon powers up from +2 to +3, it's functionally little different from the PCs finding a +3 weapon in a stash of treasure.

    This has two major impacts:

    (1) Does this reduce the thrill of treasure-finding? If the PC already has a power-up sword, does this turn any magical swords they may find into hum-drum?

    OTOH, I suspect the fun of randomly checking/generating the powers at level-up probably serves to replace this thrill-moment with something equivalent.

    (2) Is it disrupting the balance of the game? If you allow magic items to be sold (and if you don't, I'm always curious what the PCs are supposed to do with magic items they don't have a use for), you're effectively bumping up the total treasure haul (because they'll be selling those magic swords instead of swapping them out).

    And even if you don't allow magic items to be sold, you still want to watch out for unconsciously adjusting the treasure hauls: You don't want to stop giving magic swords just because the PCs are "sworded up" with their power-up items. In this scenario, the PCs end up with a wider array of more powerful magic than they would have otherwise.

    I had a post awhile back spit-balling ideas for handling this in 3.x (including my own excorciating critique of the sub-par WoL). They probably work less well / are less necessary for the unbalanced older editions of the game, but similar ideas can mitigate these issues. (Possibly while suggesting cool alternatives: For example, vampiric items that can drain the mojo out of other magic items for their own benefit. But they require a living conduit to channel/convert the energy, which is where the PC -- and the energy potential of the PCs' soul as expressed through their level -- comes into play).

  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. Chiming in with ideas for handling this in 4e. Justin, I mentioned a lot of the same problems with legacy-style items as you (for instance, an improving sword counts as a +1, +2, +3, etc sword), although not the hilarious weirdness specific to the Weapons of Legacy implementation.

  29. Good over all solution, and elegant too. Nice!

  30. I wrapped up a 2E campaign recently where the players powered their own artifacts through the souls of their slain enemies, much like any of a number of video games you might have played. When their item accumulated enough Soul Points, they got to infuse it with a 29th Level Daily Attack Power of their choice from the 4th Edition PHB. It was a hit.

  31. We have a few grumpy young women as well.

    At a local convention a couple of weeks ago, I had a middle-of-the-night lobby chat with a 13-year old girl (and a large group of her friends) which mainly consisted of her griping about WotC's 4th edition and talking about her searches for alternatives.

    This was partly delightful, and mainly just an excuse for me to feel really, REALLY old.

    Fortunately, after a while the conversation shifted to the topic of pixel art.

  32. Really good idea. The early 3rd edition module Nemoren's Vault had a sword like this in it, with the powers lined out at each level - not random, but otherwise similar. I liked that idea, hated Weapons of Legacy.

    The best thing about this approach IMO is that it eliminates much of the "magic item as commodity" syndrome (other than maybe potions and scrolls) as there are far fewer swords etc laying around because once the players find one, they don't need to find a better one every few levels to keep up the power curve. It means a 5-man party only needs to find 5-10 weapons over the course of their career instead of 20-30 or more.

  33. I was considering something like this, but have the PC suffer an experience point penalty in exchange for a new power every other level beginning at 2nd level. That is, should the character receive a legacy weapon at 1st level, it will develop its first power at 2nd level, then at 4th, 6th, 8th, and so on.

    I am not sure how much of a penalty I will impose (maybe +10-15%/level), nor what kind of abilities I'll permit for the weapon in question.

    Oh, and I was thinking that only fighting-men [and MAYBE clerics] can wield weapons of legacy. Magic-users - particularly at higher levels - simply have too much going for them (though I am willing to be persuaded...).


  34. Reminds me of a magic item we had available locally for Living Greyhawk, when 3.0 had just come out and things were not as stratified as they became. This item was a +1 weapon, but you kept track of the next 20 critical hit rolls you made with it and what circumstances they were under. Once you'ld accumulated those 20 critical hits, the local folks in charge of the campaign would look over that list and give your weapon a special ability based on how it had excelled in the past.