Game Fodder: Journey of the Sword – A Bit of Magic

Congratulations, you have a sword! You’ve transformed a lump of shiny rock into a weapon of slash destruction. Sword in hand, your PCs and NPCs are ready to charge off into battle, right? Or did you want to imbue the weapon with a bit of magic? (For the article on forging check here; on smelting check here; and here for the article on mining. And to see how this series began, check here.)

Like everything else, magic is in the eye of the wielder. Perhaps your PCs have been sucked in by the sales pitch and have invested in a “magical” weapon little better than a kitchen knife. Or perhaps your PC has stumbled upon a weapon of legend lost for eons and only now returning to use. It depends on what you’re looking for and the context in which you try to find it.

Let’s look at an example or two. Hrunting was the sword Beowulf used to battle Grendel’s Mother in the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Rumored to have great power (“a rare and ancient sword named Hrunting. / The iron blade with its ill-boding patterns / had been tempered in blood. It had never failed /the hand of anyone who hefted it in battle.”), he ended up tossing it aside because the “fabulous powers of that heirloom failed.” This was a “magic weapon” that failed to live up to its promise.

The Vorpal Sword from Lewis Carroll‘s Through the Looking-Glass was used to slay the Jabberwock. In Disney’s recent Alice in Wonderland movie from director Tim Burton, it was Alice herself who beheaded the Jabberwock on the battlefield and it seemed there was a relationship between sword and monster, as though they’d done that dance before.

And there’s always King Arthur’s Excalibur, given to him by the Lady of the Lake and known to have certain special abilities. In certain stories, the first time Arthur draws Excalibur on the battlefield, it blinds his enemies. But it may have been the scabbard that was even more powerful, with the ability to protect the bearer from bleeding to death. But neither protected him from dying in the end and eventually being taken to the Isle of Avalon.

These are all examples from folklore and fiction, and each offers a slightly different take on the idea of a magic sword. One is thought to be magic and fails, one is magical and succeeds, and one succeeds but also fails.

Let me ask a key question. Where’s the magic in each case? Is it in the story behind the item? The abilities of the item? Or both? Depending on which expert you ask I’m sure you’ll get many different answers. And that
I think is the mystery of magical weapons. Each item, so long as it’s unique, can be interpreted differently by the wielder.

As such, I think all magical weapons are a mixture of fact and fiction. Why not use the same approach in magic weapons for RPGs? If you look at it that way, every weapon has the potential for magic even if it’s ordinary. Have each player imbue their PC’s weapons with their own legends.

If a particular sword was used in a war against the goblins and has certain distinctive features (perhaps a particular hilt, etchings on the blade, or a distinctive blade shape), it may gain a name among goblins as “Goblin Slayer” and as a result gain a +1 to hit any creature of goblin-kind. Have we done anything to the sword itself? Not really, but its reputation has given it a bonus in a particular context. Perhaps through time it can gain additional bonuses as it leads a long, glorious life of battle.

Other swords may actually have magical origins. Look at Elric of Melniboné‘s sword Stormbringer (from the books of Michael Moorcock), which is actually a powerful demon who has taken the form of a sword. Stormbringer can cut through nearly anything, drinks the souls of its victims, has an intelligence all its own, and imbues Elric with additional strength and vitality. In this case, we have a sword that *is* itself a magical creature reveling in chaos and destruction while conferring benefits to its wielder.

Both of these weapons are much more intriguing than the “+1 Longsword” you can purchase in D&D, don’t you think? They have depth of story that makes them unique and as such adds to the stories of the characters who wields them.

“Sigmund’s Sword” (1889) by Johannes Gehrts. (Wikipedia)

So what kinds of magical sword creation stories might we come up with?

  • A talented blacksmith solved the riddle of steel and was able to create swords that with care survive hundreds of battles and be passed down generation to generation.
  • An elf, dwarf, or other member of an ancient race, has granted magic to a weapon. Some blades shine with an unnatural sheen while others prove deadly to creatures of particular qualities (deities, lycanthropes, giants, goblins, etc.).
  • A group of sorcerers have mastered the art of summoning spirits and binding them to a weapon to do the bidding of the wielder.
  • A wizard can inscribe magical runes on a weapon to confer certain magical properties to it.
  • A divine blacksmith to the gods creates weapons for the gods and their offspring to use when circumstances warrant.
  • A legendary hero (or villain) wielded a particular blade throughout a bloody war against evil (or good) and the gods deemed the hero’s deeds worthy of a divine boon, thus granting his weapon a few god-like powers.

Sometimes there must be a quest for a magical or legendary weapon.

  • The heroes must locate a retired adventurer rumored to have a legendary weapon in his or her possession.
  • The heroes must travel to a remote mountaintop where a group of monks have been guarding a divine weapon for a thousand years.
  • A family heirloom has been stolen and the heroes must track down the thief and return the famous weapon before too much time passes or an ancient evil will reawaken.
  • The heroes must go on a sacred quest to retrieve a special weapon from the most distant statue of a god to prove their worth.
  • A legendary sword has been broken into pieces. The heroes mus track down the pieces and have the sword re-forged before it’s too late…

If a weapon is too powerful to keep in the PC’s possession, keep in mind that some weapons must be returned or bad things will happen (terrible earthquakes, horrible floods, plagues, etc.). But there is plenty of flexibility to come up with more than “+1 weapon” – give it a past or help the players create a more special future. Sometimes a sense of history or mystery is more important than the powers the weapon does or does not possess. And sometimes the prowess of the person wielding the weapon is more important than the weapon’s pedigree.

Looking for some other examples? Check out these sources:

And I’ll leave you with a recent xkcd cartoon:

 

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