GM Tips: Bringing Life to your Magic Weapons
"Smith" art by Alec Adams
Everyone loves finding treasure, right? Well, what happens when your players get bored of finding countless +1 Longswords that are otherwise nondescript? How do you take what should be an exciting item to find in-game and turn it into something that actually holds the player's interest and wonder? For that, you're most likely going to have to really dive into the details.
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Let's start with that +1 Longsword (Though in another post I will make the case for varying your weapon choices for distribution to spice things up. For now, we'll stick with the traditional longsword).
COME UP WITH A STORY: You've already come up with a story for your NPCs, so treat your magical weapons like you would an NPC. After all, it's got a history of its own, and it has perhaps been wielded by many a powerful warrior or mage in the past. Has it been involved in any major battles or wars? Was it crafted by a mystical blacksmith on the night of a full moon? Was it stolen by a greedy dragon? Was it used to kill a king or queen? Does it have a long history with Undead, Werewolves, or Vampires? Was it once lost to antiquity? These details are actually very important, and can really begin to breathe life into a magic item. We'll say that our Longsword +1 has always been handed down in the town to its most capable defender, and has a long history of killing goblins.
COME UP WITH AN INTERESTING APPEARANCE: Think about every iconic fantasy weapon you've ever seen in popular culture. Who can forget the Sword of Omens from Thundercats? What about the massive Atlantean Sword Conan the Barbarian used in the Conan movies from the 1980's? How about He-Man's Power Sword, or Bilbo's Sting, or Link's Master Sword? They all have an iconic look and appearance. If they were flat, boring blades they wouldn't be half as memorable as they are today. If you're an artist, don't be afraid to draw/sketch a completely new weapon (which I sometimes do for my own campaigns), and if you're not as much of an artist just find a cool looking art image or photo of a sword that fills your expectations and use that for reference and write a few details for the player's benefit. Try to be as unique as possible. You can also make use of various generators out there which generate the appearance of magical weapons. Just whatever you do, don't reduce the weapon down to its most simplistic terms. It's more than a +1 Longsword, it's an investment. We'll say that our Longsword +1 is long, slim, and made of bronze. The grip is made of black leather, and the cross guard has been expertly crafted to look like twin serpents. The scabbard is simple aside from matching bronze clasps and buttons along its sides and matching black leather. Now we've got a better appearance than just "+1 Longsword".
COME UP WITH A SECONDARY TRAIT: Please consider giving your magic weapon a secondary trait or two to let it stand out from the pack. There is a Minor Properties table in the 5e Dungeons & Dragons DM Guide, so that is fairly easy to use. The secondary traits should only be used for flavor or story development and not necessarily to give the players an edge. There are also several websites out there which generate those traits for you, or you can even just try to think of harmless ones to make for yourself. Some examples are someone waking up with a full beard the day after using the weapon, or when the weapon strikes a surface it produces a shower of sparks, or the blade glows a dull red, or the wielder can use an action to know which way is north. Just have fun with it - the player will feel like they've found something more special than just a +1 Longsword. We'll say that our +1 Longsword whispers a warning to its wielder when goblins are near.
GIVE IT A NAME: So now that you've breathed a little life into the magic item, you should name it. Try to think of a name that makes sense, if you can, in terms of its abilities and history. There are countless magic weapon name generators out there, so you can use those, but if you do just make sure you pick one that makes sense. For our purposes, we're going to call our +1 Longsword "Whisper" because of its secondary ability.
Now that you've put some work into making your weapon stand out, let's examine the difference once more. +1 Longswords are great, but kind of boring. That's all you can really say about it. Players find them so often in the games that they barely take a second look at them. That's something we want to avoid, unless you're going to encourage your players to design their own special Longsword +1 that they'll actually enjoy using. Now let's take a look at the sword we just constructed in the above examples.
Whisper is a magical +1 Longsword. Its blade is long, slim, and made of bronze. The cross guards are formed into the shape of snakes. The handle and scabbard are both made of black leather. It whispers a warning to you as goblins near. It has been handed down for generations to protectors of the town, and now you are the newest in a long line.
See how much more engaging that was? Have you come up with any cool weapons? Share with us below!