This is the (almost-) final part of a very intermittent series that examines alternatives and possible implications to the standard spell storage solutions built into D&D, Pathfinder, and, in fact, most fantasy games. Today, We look at Relics and Artifacts.
Artifacts are some of the most misused categories of magic item, and some of the most controversial and disliked by many GMs.
It doesn’t have to be so, it shouldn’t be so, and – after reading this article – it won’t be so…
The Old-School Origins
The third volume of the original D&D introduced Artifacts all the way back in 1976. It included no less than 22 of these wondrous creations, and they were prominent in AD&D, which was the first game that I played – or GM’d, for that matter. And right away, there were problems with most of them. From that high-water mark, it seemed that the games’ producers – whoever they happened to be at the time – began to retreat from the idea. There were only three of them listed in 2nd edition’s DMG, and the later publication of a standalone book on the subject, the Book Of Artifacts – a tome so rare that I didn’t know it existed until I started doing background research for this article (there are copies still available through Amazon if you’re interested) – containing no less than 50 of them.
The 3.x Core rules listed only a few of them, though other popular ones reappeared in published adventure modules. Many of them were relegated to the ranks of “Epic Magic Items” in the optional Epic Handbook, continuing the line of thought initially espoused in the Book Of Artifacts, that these were optional content to be included only if the GM deliberately and explicitly permitted them within his campaign.
It’s a similar story for 4e, and 5e contains a mere seven of the best.
Why is that? Because, to a lot of people, Artifacts represented everything that was wrong with D&D. So much so that the Book Of Artifacts found it necessary to spend most of the introduction answering the eight most common of these criticisms.
The Resulting Problems
“Artifacts are too powerful.” “Artifacts have horrible curses that keep them from being useful.” “Artifacts are just collections of random powers.” “Artifacts created by gods that shouldn’t be involved in the campaign.” “Artifacts are only in the GREYHAWK® game setting.” “Artifacts can ruin the campaign”. “A character with an artifact will ruin the adventure. Any adventure.” “Artifacts are nothing but a headache.” Those – slightly paraphrased and edited – are those criticisms.
Let’s boil these down and take a closer look at what’s left.
- Artifacts are highly powered, perhaps even over-powered. A valid criticism. The tales of a PC coming into possession of an artifact and becoming virtually invincible are many, or they used to be. Many GMs were forced to resort to opposition with their own artifacts – a combination that effectively incinerated all the other PCs, as no-one without one could hope to withstand one.
- Artifacts are perceived as ‘the random finger of fate’ bequeathing one PC with disproportionate power. A criticism with a couple of kernels of truth. AD&D did have an “00” result on the random magical treasure tables that was “artifact or DM’s choice”, which many seemed to read “artifact of the GM’s choice” – no matter how ridiculous that was in the context of the encounter. The rest of the time, artifacts weren’t part of the treasure tables, they were intended for deliberate placement by the GM. And the second part of the criticism is entirely valid – one member of the party immediately became disproportionately powerful and the central figure of the campaign. Those without one often felt left out, overshadowed, or in the firing line of foes they couldn’t possibly defeat.
- Artifacts take the campaign to a cosmic level, at least in most cases. This is a consequence of the power levels involved. They, like the PC who wields one, certainly become the focus of the campaign immediately – again, regardless of what was going on already.
- Artifacts are the ultimate example of Monty Haul syndrome, or are perceived as such. The power is often counterbalanced by equally-horrific penalties and curses, making the entire campaign over-the-top. All too often, a GM would give one away without realizing what they were getting themselves into simply because they often had evocative, cool, names.
- Artifacts are incoherent collections of abilities without rhyme or reason. In many cases, this is a justified criticism, especially of the early examples. There were a few that had, or evolved, coherent through-stories that elevated them, and these are the ones that have survived into later rules incarnations – The Wand Of Orcus, The Hand Of Vecna, and so on. The original idea was that anything not provided explicitly by the rules/write-ups was for the GM to create so that they would integrate with his campaign, but this wasn’t well explained or prominent enough – and even the content that was provided was subject to editorial revision by the GM. This is a notion that began to fall out of favor with 2nd Ed, and was almost completely lost by the time of 3.0, leading to the advent of “old-school gaming” and the edition wars.
- Artifacts are a contaminant of ideas from one campaign being force-fed into another. Again, this concept stems from a misuse of the concept; while the artifacts in the AD&D DMG were intended for, and derived from, the Greyhawk® campaign setting, other campaign settings had their own artifacts, just as 3.0 Faerun had it’s own bespoke spell lists. They were never intended to be campaign-portable, never mind universally omnipresent.
Those six complaints/problems begin to boil that litany of problems down into specifics. For a modern campaign, there is absolutely no reason not to include an artifact – provided that these five criticisms: Power, Balance, Price, Coherence, and Integration – are dealt with.
The simplest way of doing so is to evolve a set of principles and creative rules and then use them to create your own as a deliberate part of your campaign. No artifact from any other source is permitted unless it is put through the same wringer, i.e. edited and rewritten as necessary.
The Limited Artifact
Before we go there, however, there is a solution that occurs to many GMs, or should – the Limited Artifact. An artifact that meets all the conceptual parameters of an old-school artifact but is so constrained by some additional restrictions or handicaps that it has no impact on the campaign beyond that which the GM intends.
No matter what the individual descriptions of these may say, they are all made of Plot Devicium. They are employed by the GM to set up some additional game conditions that are needed to create a particular challenge, or to solve a challenge that would otherwise be insuperable.
I have an examples to offer from my own Fumanor campaign. From the third Fumanor campaign, we have The Gates Of Joraldon (actually spelt “Goralden” but too many people got the pronunciation wrong, so I decided for this article to make the spelling more explicit). (I was going to add a second, but ran out of time).
Example: The Gates Of Joraldon
The party were being escorted to an offshoot of the Temple Of Thoth by Brother Jirome, a priest from the Temple who was following instructions laid down a century earlier by his deity without explanation. The temple is located in the township of Joraldon, which no-one has even heard of in living memory.
From my adventure notes [with annotations];
The path has just ascended toward a crest on the side of a mountain named, according to Jirome, “Mount Karven”. As you crest the ridge, it begins to descend quickly into a hidden valley. While the center of the valley is packed with small farms, most of the region is filled with a vast forest of red-leafed trees. “The Rudd-trees keep this color all year round, and the valley is heated by hot springs at it’s upper end end; Goralden lives in a perpetual autumn,” he explains. To the right of the narrow path, Mount Karven looms almost vertically, while to the left there is a weak stone railing no more than a half-dozen cm high, beyond which a sheer drop plummets to the valley floor. Winding around the face of the mountain, the path shows clear signs of Dwarven construction, having been cut directly out of the mountainside rock – “Hence the name, Mount Karven,” explains Jirome; “It’s rumored to have been sculpted into a completely different shape than that which nature bestowed by Dwarfish picks hundreds of years ago.” Half-way down to the valley floor, the path turns sharply left, where it crosses a narrow stone bridge, of unbelievable unsupported length. At the point of the turn onto the bridge are two small towers which, to Auralla and Ceriseth [two of the PCs], glow with a subtle magic.
On the far side of the gently arching bridge, the path begins to climb quickly through a series of switchbacks toward a sizable ledge on which the township of Goralden is located. The architectural style is very different to anything you have seen before, with one building sharing all four walls in common with another, flat-roofed buildings built on top of other buildings, like a stack of children’s blocks. At the back of the town, nestled against a sheer cliff face, is a large commons crisscrossed by paths and sheltered by high stone walls. In the center of the town-side of the commons is a tall plinth-shaped structure with pyramidal cap, towering almost 180m into the air (Think of the Washington Monument, but bigger, if you’re not sure of the shape). Three watchtowers [near the bridge] permit approaching enemies to be continuously raked with arrows from the time they cross the midpoint of the bridge, and the path (and bridge) are so narrow that troops can march only two abreast. The only weak point, in terms of conventional warfare, is that from this ridge you can see across into the town and have a fair idea of the defensive layout; but it’s a debatable point, because the layout is so intimidating that troops attacking the town would be suffering morale problems before even coming under fire.
Observing the town, it seems clear that they are aware of your approach, but not overly concerned. A handful of archers lounge, unconcerned, on the tower battlements; farmers till the fields and gather the last crops of the summer; and what clearly seems to be a welcoming party are gathering at the town entrance.
Notes to PCs:
Various party members had the ability to detect magic, and the whole town reeked of it, even from this distance, which seemed to radiate from the watchtowers.
A PC cleric (who had a high Wisdom) was able to use that characteristic to determine that the Mages’ pronouncement was self-evident if you only had the wit to observe instead of merely seeing.
From my prepared note to the player:
“Showoff Mages, blurting out the blindingly obvious – of course the towers have an Arcane component. They are, after all, in perfect condition after a century of virtual neglect. What they don’t realize, because you haven’t told them yet, is that they are primarily spiritual in nature, and are clearly NOT of the Chaos Powers. So far as you can tell, they bestow some exotic variety of blessing on all who pass, or live in their vicinity.”
The central tower is the Temple. It casts an illusion over the entire town of the way life was for the long-deceased spirits of the dead inhabitants who haunt it with no idea that they are actually dead. They live their lives perfectly content, farming, caring for their children, celebrating minor triumphs and festivals and so on. Because these are the actual spirits of the formerly-living, they were capable of reacting to, and interacting with, the PCs. None of this has been previously discovered because the town is so isolated (it had taken the PCs almost a month to journey there, and they had a guide who was following a magical map and prophetic instructions from the deceased God Of Knowledge, Thoth.
More important are the Gates, i.e. the space between the three watchtowers. These are an artifact crafted by Thoth shortly before he wrote his prophetic instructions and then erased all knowledge of instructions, town, or relic from his own mind – something only possible to the God Of Knowledge, because that divine attribute would prevent anyone else from eliminating the knowledge. They have the power to turn any illusion into reality within its range of effect – the entire township.
From my adventure notes [with annotations];
You get the impression that the reception committee is out-of-practice at this. They are still getting organized when you reach the gates into the town. There are 4 people waiting to welcome you to Joraldon, and a substantial crowd of onlookers, women and children for the most part, with a sprinkling of guards in chain mail. You notice that the crowd is behaving in a slightly-odd fashion – none of them are crowding in so closely that anyone is in physical contact with anyone else.
Of the ‘official’ group, Person #1 is clearly better dressed than the others. He’s a large, portly man, in elaborate red robes and a broad velvet sash, with very ruddy cheeks. Persons 2 and 3 are identical twins, giants of men standing almost 7 feet tall. One is dressed as a farmer, and the other is in brightly polished chain mail with a purple cape. The fourth is a small man, wizened with age, with narrow, beady eyes. As you approach, they appear to be debating which of the twins protocol demands be introduced first – the elder or the one with higher rank. Suddenly they notice you, and with a sharp gesture, the fat man cuts off the debate and steps forward in your direction, his palms open and extended outward from his body, looking intently at Rocky [the party cleric].
“In peace, I greet you,” he announces, as he executes a complicated salute. “My name is Jann Thew, and I am the governor of the village of Joraldon. These worthy gentlemen are my councilors, Farley,” (he indicates the farmer), “Hebrom,” (the Warrior), “and Neveritt” (the old man). “We bid you welcome to our humble township, Most Holy. A small feast has been arranged in your honor, but I must first advise you of a local custom which you may not have encountered previously, and whose transgression could cause ill-feelings amongst the townsfolk toward you.
“Almost a century ago, a succession of terrible plagues swept over the town, and in defense against them, it was decreed by my predecessors that none may touch one another save husband and wife. Although the need has long passed, the practice persists; it has come to be seen as a gesture of respect to one another. It would ease your visit, if you would respect this custom while within the town or its surrounding farms.”
Synopsized from the adventure notes:
Jann Thew gently probed for the reason for the visit, and made the necessary arrangements when told that the party need to consult with the Priests of the Temple. The “feast” was relatively simple fare, but well-cooked; service is by a smörgåsbord arrangement. Toasts are offered, etc etc. Brother Jirome did not attend the feast, returning to the Temple and report.
It slowly became apparent that not all was as it seemed. A couple of children, too young to obey the rules, were playing and one was observed by one PC to run straight through the other. There are plants growing in the garden that are impossible for this climate. Various other clues come to light. The mystery of what was going on was not solved until they actually went to the Temple, where they learned that Thoth had personally left a letter to be hand-delivered to the group who matched the description of the PCs.
[synopsized from later campaign notes, and not known to the players/PCs at the time]:
I’m not going to go into huge detail on this because it all tied in with the (extensive) campaign background, which is far too lengthy and involved. In a nutshell, Thoth had decided that as the God of Knowledge, he should have knowledge of the Chaos Powers, i.e. the enemies of the Gods, responsible for all evil and corruption, against whom the Gods had been struggling for millennia. Recognizing the dangers that this posed through his knowledge of the future, he prepared Joraldon as a fail-safe with instructions on how to destroy his own existence, after the plagues completely wiped out the populace, and set various things in motion that would eventually create the unique assemblage of PCs, who would be the right people to take advantage of the instructions he was leaving them. And then set up backup plan after backup plan in case it was necessary. This was the knowledge that he had expunged.
He then attuned his mind to the ‘forbidden knowledge’ and learned that doing so exposed him to the corruptive force of the Chaos Powers, converting him into a willing pawn to their cause. He then, at their direction, began planning their ultimate victory with everything at his disposal, as he knew in advance that he would. In keeping with his personality, he wrote everything down that he needed to know in order to make these plans – force assessments, information about the Chaos Powers, tactics, who needed to be corrupted and how they could be influenced, where the plan was susceptible to interference, and so on. The magic imbued into the “lost temple of Thoth” meant that it retained a copy of all this information, stored away in a particular volume of records that no-one else would ever have any need to consult – until the PCs followed his pre-prepared trail of breadcrumbs.
The key to success was the perfect preservation of Thoth’s personal notes in the form of an evolving illusion without his knowledge (it had long earlier been established that since Illusions were not real, he had no knowledge of them).
The gates were a plot device, pure and simple, that enabled me to bootstrap information into the hands of the PCs that was completely impossible for them to obtain in any other way, the springboard to the 3rd Fumanor campaign’s big finish. Each 80′ tall, virtually invulnerable to harm, weighing hundreds of tons, they were completely immobile. They were limited to doing what I wanted them to do. In fact, to prevent “Dark Thoth” from learning what the PCs now knew, there were specific instructions on hand to end the illusion, effectively destroying the artifact, and on how to use a far less powerful artifact that had previously been recovered – without operating instructions of any kind – by the party Druid, unknowingly following another of Thoth’s breadcrumbs to shelter them from Dark Thoth’s abilities.
In fact, the party had previously discovered that they were unique in that the Chaos Powers couldn’t ‘read’ or ‘influence’ them, though they never knew why that was so. This was revealed to be another of “Good Thoth”‘s machinations, a byproduct of the plot of the first Fumanor campaign.
The Story Continued:
In fact, “Good Thoth”‘s entire plan worked – after an epic struggle. Five armies, volcanoes being raised as tactical barriers, marching forests, lots of fun. The PCs had left the Gates Of Joraldon in ruins, and thought no more of it. Campaign number 3 revealed that Thoth’s plan had one colossal oversight: he couldn’t anticipate the actions of another deity (or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in this case). Through a carefully-planned encounter, Lolth – believed to have been killed a century earlier but who has more lives than a cat – learned of the gates, traveled to them, reprogrammed them, moved them to the Elven Lands, and reactivated them to corrupt the entire race and bend them to her will. Only those Elves who were outside their native realm and the Drow that she had abandoned and who had been converted by Corallan in her absence were immune. This set up some of the major plot threads of the “Seeds Of Empire” and “One Faith” campaigns. But, once again, Lolth can’t move the Gates, and can’t leave their vicinity, without losing her tenuous grip on True Divinity, which had been her motivating ambition throughout the campaign – something that the PCs learned, in part, in the first campaign, and in part, in a “coincidental” encounter en route to Joraldon – which was me deliberately setting up the seeds of the next Campaign.
Redefining Artifacts: Relics
Whew! That was rather longer than I originally expected. Anyway, moving on: because of their limited nature and definition as Plot Devices by the GM, “Limited Artifacts” are a side issue (though very much the sort of thing that this series was intended to explore). The real story here is what to do about “True” Artifacts, which I will describe hereafter as “Relics” so as to avoid any confusion between old-school “Artifacts” and the reinvented model that I am about to present.
The place to start is, as usual, by defining the key characteristics of Relics; once those have been determined, I’ll show how to use them as a fill-in-the-blanks blueprint for creating a Relic.
A Relic has 12 defining characteristics:
- Undetectable by normal means?>/li>
- Immutable State
- Exotic Form or Exotic Otherwise
- Buff, Boost, or Both
- Scaling Abilities
- Usually Worn, Held, or Wielded
- A Part Of History
- The Price Of Ownership
- The Difficulty Of Acquisition
- The Difficulty Of Rejection
- The Plotline Impact
As usual, these need to be discussed in greater detail to be meaningful.
The magic in the item is not consumed when the effect it contains is released, or instantly renews itself, and either way, the item itself survives.
Undetectable by normal means?
In AD&D, the rule was that artifacts were not detectable with “Detect Magic”. This was obviously done in response to a looter’s mentality on the part of players: “We put all the loot in one pile and cast Detect Magic. Anything that glows is worth attention, we flog the rest for cash.” (Flog: Australian slang for ‘sell’).
By making objects that looked mundane, did not respond to this Detect Magic, the GM was encouraging his players to respect all the effort that he had put into compiling descriptions, and in some cases, backstories, and possibly even important clues, for the treasure. The problem was that there weren’t many official Artifacts, and it was easy to separate anything that met their description, or even came close.
This ignored me so much that I started including rare coins and hidden compartments and the like in a number of my treasures. I had gnomish pranksters enchant coins and random objects with Nystal’s Aura, and so on. Very little of which had any real impact other than permitting me to ignore the basic problem of Artifacts and Detect Magic, at least for a while.
When I looked back into it, I decided that Artifacts might not be detected when they were lying passive, but when they were activated, they were instantly recognizable by the strength of the reaction. That meant that I needed some activation mechanism for the artifact itself, above and beyond that for any individual ability; I decided that the simple process of “taking it to heart”, of “claiming it as your own” was sufficient to activate the item the next time the person doing so touched it, and that there was a co-mingling of souls – the souls sacrificed to create the artifact having imbued it with a kind of pseudo-soul and its own distinct personality, a bond that was extremely difficult to break. Thereafter, for as long as the possessor lived, the artifact was his – extraordinary intervention notwithstanding. This mingling provided the ‘seed energy’ to ‘awaken’ the artifact.
All this, was, of course, a long time ago – the early 90s. When I looked back on it, I realized that this was an attempt to achieve the same thing as the original literary device of not having an artifact react to detect magic, and that it had been no more effective in that respect. While I liked some of the campaign color that resulted, that was all it was – so, when it came to the Fumanor campaign, because that ‘color’ didn’t completely fit with what I wanted for that campaign, I quietly set the notion aside, transferring the “activation principle” to necromantic magic and recasting ‘soul’ as ‘life force’. In Fumanor, artifacts were magical objects the same as any other – just more subtle, and often with many disparate schools of magic involved in their creation, which would be revealed when the aura of an object was successfully analyzed by a mage.
This is a decision that every GM needs to make for themselves. There are three possible answers: No detection, detect under certain conditions (eg ‘activation’), or detect as an ‘ordinary’ magic item. Make the choice that works best for your campaign, depending on what you decide artifacts actually are (as a class of object).
It’s very rare for these items to change in any way, though there is often a visual expression of a power when one is invoked.
Exotic Form or Exotic Otherwise
One touch that I always like to throw in is to make Relics and Artifacts exotic in construction. Either they are unusual in form in some way, or they are made of some exotic material, or both. This makes them inherently more valuable and notable as objects. Nor do I restrict myself to ‘real world’ materials – gloves may be in a potion bottle in a liquid state, until you open the bottle and they crawl out and coat your hands, giving them a mercury-like surface. Relic should be memorable, and a touch of the exotic helps make them so.
Here’s an important point: the abilities that are bestowed by a relic or artifact should be proportionate to the abilities of the owner. They should scale with the character, rather than being in full bloom from the moment they are claimed. This means that Relics are no longer so overpowering that they take total command of the campaign, and no longer let one character completely overshadow the rest of the party. This one change alone is enough to take the heat out of several of the standard criticisms.
What’s more, it effectively adds a new plot thread to the campaign: the deepening bond between character and relic, and the increased abilities that result.
If a first-level character finds a sword relic – drawing it from a stone seems traditional – it may be nothing more than a +1 weapon with potential. But if that weapon gains a further +1 to attack rolls with every even-numbered level, and +1 to damage with every odd, and grants a new ability every 5 levels, then 4, then 3, 2, and finally 1, then by the time the character reaches 15th level it is a +8/+8 weapon granting 5 special abilities. As magic weapons go, that’s incredibly potent.
It’s also a long way short of the power levels of ‘traditional’ artifacts, depending on what the special abilities are. These should also start fairly small and grow in effectiveness with successive abilities. It’s important to note that these abilities can go outside the normal rules structure; most magical item capabilities can be described simply by listing a spell that is granted x times a day, or whatever. Relic abilities should be special, should deliberately avoid this pattern, enhancing the difference between this class of magic item and more mundane examples. Get creative!
Buff, Boost, or Both
Relics can add abilities, or enhance existing abilities that are measured by some numeric value on the character sheet, or both. The last is probably the most common.
Usually Worn, Held or Wielded
Almost universally, Relics have to be held, wielded as a weapon, or worn. However, there are some that go beyond this; for an example, contemplate “Howl’s Moving Castle” (Wikipedia entry, available from Amazon in a Blu-Ray/DVD Combo and strongly recommended) (bet you thought I was going to mention Baba Yaga, huh?).
A Part Of History
There’s a reason I included so much detail on the Gates Of Joraldon earlier – it was to show how strongly the existence and origins of the artifact was entwined within the campaign history and background. While it’s possible to have a Relic appear from nowhere, the gift of a Lady Of The Lake, never heard of before, this sort of thing should be rare. No, make that “Exceptionally Rare”. Why? Aside from countering some of the verisimilitude-distorting impact of the Relic itself, this is an opportunity to reveal and even extend the campaign background to an audience that suddenly has every reason to be attentive.
The right relic at the right time can bring parts of your campaign to life instead of leaving them dry words of limited relevance. But this won’t happen by accident; when planning Fumanor Campaign #3, the first thing I came up with was the “Dark Thoth” concept, the second thing was the “Gates of Joraldon concept”, the third thing was working out what the PCs would need to use (b) to resolve (a), and the rest was drawing a path from where they were (in terms of knowledge and abilities and campaign circumstances) to where they had to go, plus some filler, some color, some flexibility for the players to do whatever they wanted, and some plot seeds for what eventually became campaigns #4 and #5. And always, looking at repercussions and reactions to campaign events both planned and unplanned.
It’s only tangentially relevant, but a neat (and informative) metaphor occurred to me while writing the above that I thought I would share.
A campaign is – or should be – a ship on a storm-tossed sea. The GM is the Captain and has the tiller, the PCs are the wind, waves, and currents.
At any given moment, the players determine the direction that the forces of nature move the ship, and can even overwhelm the GMs control if they so desire; but over the long haul, the GM determines the course that the ship sails so that it reaches its chosen destination.
Think about that for a minute. Does that describe your campaign? Because it describes all of my most successful ones.
And remember: no ship is unsinkable if the Captain makes foolish mistakes. Or if the players exert too much force.
The Price Of Ownership
Possession of a Relic should never be straightforward. There always has to be a price, and one that is commensurate with the power and potential power that the Relic can grant. But the price should never be so great that it becomes the dominant force within the campaign or the character, unless that is made clear to the character by strong>known myth and legend before he accepts possession of the relic.
The Difficulty Of Acquisition
You know what’s wrong with the King Arthur myth of the Sword In The Stone? It’s too easy, smacks too much of a Deus-ex-machina. When Arthur (or anyone else) grasps the sword, they should be (spiritually) transported to a place in which they are tested and must prove their worthiness. Succeed, and you are returned to the instant from whence you came with strength sufficient to the task; fail, and you return suffering the full effects of fatigue, exhaustion, and long struggle. Outwardly, you may be unchanged, but your strength has been completely sapped by the experience, and you are thus unable to draw the sword from the stone. It’s even possible that you would retain no memory of the experiences you have undergone; or, perhaps, you return with full knowledge that you have been tested and either found worthy or have had your disqualifying flaws paraded before you in hopes that you would learn from the experience and become a better person.
A thirty- or forty-second montage of scenes would have been sufficient. But it didn’t happen.
It’s a truism that Relics should never be placed in a campaign arbitrarily or randomly; it should always be an informed and deliberate act by the GM. What is not so self-evident is that it should never be a trivial exercise to acquire one that has been placed. A Relic needs to be earned, it should never simply be given away in a pile of arbitrary loot.
The Difficulty Of Rejection
This comes directly from The Lord Of The Rings – it should never be a trivial matter to reject ownership of a relic, no matter how opposed to it your character might be morally or philosophically. The power of the Relic might represent an easy answer to an otherwise-difficult problem, or it might be seductive, or it might hold some other appeal, but it should never be a straightforward choice to reject one. Evil Relics will appeal to any weakness or flaw in the character’s personality; there might be hints (probably false) that a sufficiently strongly-opposed character might be able to hold the evil of the item in check, or even ‘reform’ it.
Even if an evil character accepts an evil Relic, the character should not be totally evil (not yet) and every good instinct or facet that the character has should rise up in opposition to what the character has done.
For me, the very best example of this is the story of Tremble in Knights Of The Dinner Table. Even beyond the Bag Wars epic, this was the plotline that secured them a life-long fan. This plot through-line started in Issue #14 with the ascension of Lord Gilead and slowly built up to an epic finish in Issue #95. It actually comprises several smaller story arcs that build on each other in succession; you can read a synopsis of most of it at this KenzerCo page, starting with the “Protégés Story Arc”, continuing into the “Doomsday Pack Story Arc”, and concluding in the “Tremble/Marvin Story Arc”.
This is as much a matter of matching the Relic to the PC during the design phase of the Relic and of creating the right campaign circumstances. As was said earlier, it rarely happen by accident.
The Plotline Impact
From the moment it enters the campaign, a Relic has to matter, to become a key factor in the campaign history that is still to be written. That’s most easily achieved by looking ahead and working backwards (refer to my comments on “A Part Of History”, above, and consider the example of The Gates Of Joraldon that I offered earlier.
From the moment that the PCs actually reached Joraldon, half my prep was devoted to the current and-near future in-game situation (i.e. the big finish to the current campaign) and half was devoted to preliminary work on the next campaign, and how best to utilize the potential of the plot seeds that I had scattered (while I’m not going to deal with this subject in any great detail here – this article is big enough already – you can read more about the process in these two posts: Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part One of Two: Campaign Seeds and Part Two: Sprouts and Saplings).
In this particular case, various powers and groups would learn of the existence of the Gates, and of their supposed destruction, even if the PCs chose to try and keep the story quiet. How would they react? What would they do about it? Some (Group one) would attempt to create facsimiles, only to find that it was not as easy as that (no Plot Devicium). Did I want one of them to succeed? Others (Group Two) might doubt that the Gates really were described and set out to find the place for themselves. A third Group might have similar thoughts and decide to claim them just to be sure they could not be used against them. A fourth group might suspect that some residual magic might exist in them, and set out for the place. Some would dream of what they could do with them if they were restored. What would that be? Did I want one of them to succeed?
By now, you know that the answer to this last question became a ‘yes’. Groups two, three, and four encountered each other along the way and either fought a bloody battle or backed off; by the time the victors (and it didn’t matter which faction they were part of) arrived to lay claim to the Gates, they were gone.
The answers to these questions were worked out in time to include mention of events in the epilogue to the Campaign’s big finish, letting it serve as springboard into the sequels (originally, there was only going to be one, but one of the players moved and needed a separate game for about 6 months).
Legacy Items – a modern 3.x take on Artifacts
Long-time readers at Campaign Mastery may be thinking that a lot of this sounds very familiar. It was by following these same lines of thought that I created the concept of Legacy Items for Assassin’s Amulet, the 3.x/pathfinder game supplement that I co-wrote with Johnn Four and Michael K. Tumey, and which feature heavily in the bonus extras that come with the e-book. But they evolved in their own direction, due principally to the concept of Legacies as the creative principle behind the origins of such items. Nevertheless, Legacy Items are a subset of Relics (as the latter are defined in this article).
- You can read an excerpt from ‘A Player’s Guide to Legacy Items’, one of the sections of the Assassin’s Amulet supplement here at Campaign Mastery (it’s in two parts: Part 1, Part 2).
- You can read about Assassin’s Amulet and see a list of the extras that have been published at the Legacies Setting page, also here at Campaign Mastery.
- You can get the Free Preview of Assassin’s Amulet (73 pages with lots of behind-the-curtain content) at this link.
- Or you can skip straight to the main attraction – the 300-page game supplement and all the extras published to-date by clicking here (US$20).
Blueprint for a Relic
A slightly-edited version of that list of characteristics forms a fill-in-the-blanks blueprint for creating Relics.
I was actually going to explain the process by way of presenting an example, created as-I-went, but time is beginning to be a factor, so I’ll do that in a separate post some other time (No, that’s not because I spent so much time writing up the Gates Of Joraldon for this article, that had been done in advance). Let’s see… If I move that, and delay this, and shift this other to there, then I can squeeze it in early in October, about two weeks from now… Done!
Every Relic starts with a central concept or idea, from which inspiration can be drawn. This can be broad or vague, or it can be detailed and refined – to be honest, I think that better results stem from the ‘broad or vague’ category, as too much detail can get in the way. Ideally, you want to be able to sum up that idea as succinctly as possible so that you can keep it in mind as you progress though the creative process.
I will usually jot down a couple of ideas instead of a full description and move on, returning at the end of the process to fill in this section properly. In fact, I will usually do that for the whole list. Why? Because one idea triggers another, sometimes quickly, sometimes not – but getting too caught up in writing one idea down in detail can derail the mental train; by the time you’ve finished, you’ve forgotten what you were going to write in the next section. So run through as fast as you can, then come back and expand on these rough notes.
How does the owner get the Relic to do whatever it does? Does it have any autonomous, all-the-time functions? Is there one trigger for all the abilities, or does something different have to be done for each? (Note: we haven’t actually defined those abilities yet). Are there any abilities that persist even when the object isn’t being worn/wielded/whatever? How about if the item is merely being touched? How do these choices reflect the core concept?
Abilities and how they scale
Given the note in the previous section, this is also the time to jot down some ideas about what those abilities are, then rank them in some sort of logical progression.
There are a couple of such progressions that you could use, depending on the nature of the Relic. It could be in terms of effectiveness or power – that’s a fairly standard approach. It could be a progressive shift from relying on the internal “power supply” of the Relic to empowering the character to use his own characteristics, or it could be the reverse, starting with whatever the owner is bringing to the party and then slowly supplementing that as the bond between the two strengthens. A fourth option is to transition from inward-focusing effects to outward-focused ones, and a fifth is the reverse of that. A sixth option is to start with abilities suitable for relatively friendly and comfortable environments and progress to those suitable for more hostile conditions, and – once again – the reverse sequence is a seventh. There are many others, I’m sure.
There are also two ways abilities can be expressed: all-at-once or strengthening with levels. All-at-once means that the ability is at full strength the first time it becomes available; Strengthening with levels means that the power of the ability is indexed to some other value. This might be character levels gained since taking possession of the Relic, or it could be a stat value, or number of ranks in a skill, or whatever.
One option that often serves fairly well is to define a new cross-class skill (or system equivalent), “Usage of Relic [X]” (because we still probably haven’t given it a name) and then index the powers to that. This gives the player some control over the pace of advancement – he can become proficient really quickly, but only by compromising his progress in other areas, or he can pace himself. Players generally love that sort of thing because it makes them feel in control of the process.
The Price Of Ownership
Now that you have a vague idea of what the Relic is going to offer its owner, it’s time to consider the downside, and make sure that it is commensurate with the advantage. You may be tempted to weight this one way or another, for example inflicting the worst of the downside before advantages begin to accrue – this is the concept of an investment in the Relic – or of letting the advantages pile up until the character is too tightly-bound to the Relic to resist the penalties. While it is possible to do a little of this sort of manipulation, as a general principle, it’s nowhere near as good an idea in practice as it seems in theory.
Remember my pointing out that players love feeling in control? Either of these options has the opposite effect. You can get away with a little bit on general trust, and a little more if you’ve chosen the “Usage of Relic [x]” Skill option, but that’s it.
Another good question is how many downsides there should be, and how severe they should be. Do you choose one per ability? Or one less than the total number of abilities? Should you count a more severe or progressive penalty as filling more than one penalty “slot”?
It is worth remembering that the Relic is probably going to fall into the hands of a PC, whose player will have an extreme allergic reaction to any downsides, exaggerating their impact in his mind simply because most magic items don’t have them. If the player is to learn of these downsides only when they manifest, they will easily be doubled in significance, perhaps even tripled, within his mind.
Finally, indexing the powers of the item to anything other than Character Level can be viewed as a downside in and of itself. It requires the character to commit to raising whatever the indexed power is (unless another of the Relic’s abilities does that for the character, of course). Even the “Skill In Relic [x]” option commits the owner to investing some – potentially many – of his skill points away from the usual source.
The Difficulty Of Acquisition
The more powerful the Relic, the harder it should be to acquire – assuming that the player sets out with the ambition of obtaining it. If he does not, the dangers should still be commensurate with the reward, but the reward should be assessed not on the ultimate power that the Relic presents but at its immediate level, plus an allowance for future potential.
Careful thought needs to go into this aspect of the Relic. And you also need to pay attention to the logical question of why it is so hard, within the in-game context. Who has made it so? Why? How?
The credibility and verisimilitude of not just the Relic but of the whole campaign can rest on getting this right – though that’s a worst-case assessment. So make notes, but on your second pass through the work-list, take the time to get it right.
Part of this problem is also consideration of the clues that you as GM are going to emplace around the Relic as to its nature, power, and history. There is a fine line between making these clear and making them too obvious, and an even finer line between making them too obscure (Players can be sharp – or thick as two planks – at the most inconvenient times). The correct level is for them to be fully obvious in hindsight once the Relic is claimed, and remembered until they become so, and for them to be noteworthy even if the significance is not appreciated in the meantime. In addition, some should become at least partially interpretable the moment a PC lays eyes on the Relic – enough to divine its basic nature as a relic, at the very least.
These objects are supposed to be important.
And remember that every clue has to have been deliberately left by someone – who and why?
The Difficulty Of Rejection
There’s no point in emplacing a bardic Relic if none of the PCs is, or wants to become, a Bard. Similarly, if a Cleric is to be the Acquisition target of a Relic, you won’t get far if it appears dedicated to some other Deity than his own – things become a little more flexible if he is the priest of an entire Pantheon, but D&D / Pathfinder aren’t typically set up that way.
You need to take into account the goals of each PC, the personality of each PC, and the personalities of the players concerned – then target an in-game element of the “pitch” at each of these. There may be times when an item will appeal to several PCs – and there are players who will deliberately alter their PCs plans to accommodate Relics. Even if your intent is for the PCs to undertake a quest to destroy the item, that doesn’t always work out – remember Frodo and the One Ring in the heart of Mount Doom?
At the same time, you need to beware making things too clearly targeted at one specific PC. It’s very easy to fall into the position of being accused of playing favorites. One way to compensate for this is to clearly and deliberately go light on the treasures suitable for the targeted character for a period of time prior to the discovery of the Relic, but this can also be fraught with danger because it can make the player feel pressured to accept it, lest he fall farther behind the other PCs in magical equipment. The best solution is for at least part of that targeted “slowdown” to take place after the character comes into possession of the item, and for this to be communicated to the player in advance.
This, too, is a tricky balance to get right, and requires considerable thought.
History of the Relic
Once you have some ideas about all of the above, you can start thinking about the history of the Relic. Who created it, and why? Was it used in that way, and if not, why not? Either way, what happened? Who then came into possession of it? How did it come to be where the PCs found it?
Was the entire reason for Gollum’s creation by JRR Tolkien to answer the questions of how the Ring came to be where Bilbo found it? Or was it all about Gollum’s reclaiming of the Ring at Mount Doom? Given that The Hobbit was written before The Lord Of The Rings, and that many of the ideas in the latter were not fully represented in the former, I suspect the first – Gollum was simply present as an means of getting “a magic ring” into Bilbo’s possession, and half of his role in the latter book was by asking the question of what Gollum would do once he had lost the Ring. Answer that question, and its’ a very small step to the logical conclusion of his ultimate role in the plot of the trilogy.
Even if the PCs are never going to get more than hints, the GM needs to work all of this out for himself, so that those hints can be logically consistent except where the GM chooses otherwise as a reflection of history being distorted by time.
Impact of the Relic on History
This is equally important. The direct contributions to history should be fairly evident, or developed in conjunction with, the preceding section; but you also have to think about all the indirect contributions that the Relic, or its absence, may have made.
Again, the Lord Of The Rings is informative – just look at everything that happened because Sauron no longer had the ring, and everything that took place to recover it once he knew it had been found again. It was Saruman’s search for the Ring that led to his being ensnared by Mordor and corrupted, and that in turn led to Wormtongue and the Ents and the Corruption of the Rohan, and the creation of the Uruk-Hai. Gandalf and Aragorn spent years in search of Gollum to learn of how he came to posses it, and in the hunt for additional ring-lore. The Ring had at least as much influence over people because they didn’t have it as it eventually had when its existence was rediscovered.
The Relic In Myth
It would be a rare thing for something so astonishing and pivotal not to generate its own myths and legends. Heck, you don’t need power to do that in the real world – just be impressive in some way. It’s commonly believed, for example, that Napolean shot the nose off the Sphinx in a demonstration of the power of his weapons, or perhaps, of his ego. In fact, that has been conclusively shown to have never happened.
This is also a great dumping ground for any ideas that don’t work out – abilities that were too weak, or too powerful, pieces of history that didn’t make sense when the final story was assembled, etc.
The Plotline Impact – Immediate: The Search For Knowledge
Almost certainly, the immediate impact of the Relic will be a search for more information about it. This can be underplayed, or a dominant element of the campaign. Rumors of information can be a useful plot device for getting the PCs into adventures.
There will be far greater impact if it becomes obvious or known that the new owner is in possession of the Relic. Political alliances have been broken and forged over less. There are those who will be envious, those who will deem him less worthy than they are, those who don’t care how worthy he may be (they just want it), those who don’t want anyone to have it, those who will want him to do things with it (that may or may not be possible – refer to the myths section above), those who will strike before the Relic can be used to prevent whatever it is that they want to do (even if they aren’t really ready), and those who will want it destroyed – at any price. The Relic will become the pivot around which politics throughout the known world changes. And, of course, all sorts of rumors and misinformation will spread about who has it, and what their agenda is, or might be.
Even if it is a total fraud, a relic has Massive consequences for a Campaign. Quite often, it will be easy to read “Relic impact” into an event even if the event has nothing to do with the Relic – which means that everything has to do with the Relic.
The Plotline Impact – Medium-Term
In the medium term, even if the new owner tries to hide the fact, it will slowly become known that the Relic is out there. There are too many sources of information in a fantasy world for a secret that big to stay hidden forever. That whole long list of consequences and reactions are inevitable.
On top of that, we have the consequences of its’ actually being used, and the reaction of the owner to the expectations of what he will do, and the reactions of the public and various social groups and political bodies to the consequences of its use.
And finally, a Relic should never be emplaced within a campaign without some idea of where the resulting plotline is heading. The medium term is when that begins to make itself felt, though it may not be appreciated for it’s true significance.
The Plotline Impact – The Campaign Scale
That ultimate direction is the ultimate impact of the Relic on the campaign, and – hopefully – the reason for its presence within the campaign in the first place (you should always have a reason, even if it isn’t a good one, and if it isn’t a good one, come up with a better one eventually).
But it doesn’t end there. Now that you’ve finished with it, what happens to the Relic? Even if it gets destroyed, there will be those who believe otherwise. Its’ absence will continue to shape events, as discussed earlier. Only when those just old enough to be aware of events are dead and buried will it fade from immediate relevance – though it may start doing so in a mere generation or so. Call it between 70 and 100 years. A generation or so after that, and it will again begin to retreat into myth and legend – unless something occurs to keep the story current, of course.
Elves have very long generations….
Other Game Systems
It might be stating the obvious, but everything that’s been said in this article can also be applied to other campaigns, from magic in 7th Sea to uber-powerful super-science devices in Sci-Fi.
The (slightly premature) Wrap-up
“Artifact” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It can be the ultimate expression of Fantasy in a Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Too much of the stigma associated with them derives from misuse and inadequate preparations. Avoid those mistakes and you too can ride the whirlwind!
An artifact, or the somewhat watered-down representatives called Relics in this article, immediately becomes the central focus of a campaign, whether the participants realize it or not. Respect them, and take that seriously, and put the effort in that anything of that magnitude of importance demands, and all will be well.
Artifacts and Relics: the ultimate magic items, so powerful that they don’t even have to obey the game mechanics, so awesome that they can rewrite the rules – in specific and limited fashions. A fitting place to end this series.
Except, of course, that the series isn’t quite over. I still have the example Relic that I devised especially for this article, and then had to excerpt. So there will be a kind of postscript to this series.
But, in the meantime:
Next here at campaign Mastery: On Thursday/Friday, The Essential Reference Library For Pulp – 2nd Shelf, and next week, Part 2 of ATGMs42: Musical Puzzles – if all goes according to plan! Of course, I’ve already changed that plan
oncetwice and counting!
- If I Could Save Magic In A Bottle: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 1
- A Heart Of Shiny Magic: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 2
- Just Another Pointy Stick I: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 3a
- Not Just Another Pointy Stick: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 3b
- The Energizer Bunny: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 4
- The Ultimate Weapon: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 5
- Let’s Make A Relic: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 5a – The Crown Of Insight