Intelligent Magic Items

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 14, 2009

Having a magic sword is one thing but having an intelligent magic sword is a whole new level of coolness. So far there are no mechanics in 4e Dungeons & Dragons for creating intelligent magic items. However a creative DM can always introduce one as he sees fit.

Continuing our look at magic items that began in yesterday’s article What’s a +1 Sword?, today I’m going to share some of the pros and cons I’ve experienced by introducing an intelligent magic item to my campaign. Over the years I’ve have many games that included intelligent items. It’s not something I would recommend for everyone, especially new gamers, but it can add a new and unpredictable element to your game.

I suspect that the forthcoming Adventurer’s Vault 2 will reintroduce us to intelligence items. There are also a few intelligent artifacts in the DMG if you need an immediate fix. Until then here are some of the pros and cons that come with intelligent items in D&D.

Pros

  • Knowledge Sharing

  • Introducing an intelligent item into a party gives the DM a means to dispense information that may not otherwise be attainable. The item may have knowledge limited to specific topics like an ancient historical period, a monster’s weaknesses or arcane magic. The DM may decide to just leave the extent of the item’s knowledge vague. This way if he needs to provide the PCs with important information and doesn’t have any other reasonable in-game method in which to do it he can simply have the item inform the party.

  • Special Purpose

  • Most intelligent items have a special purpose or a special power. When the right conditions are met the weapon gains a power or bonus it doesn’t normally possess. If it’s been designed to defeat a specific creature type then perhaps it glows in their presence, or its enhancement bonus doubles when fighting them, or it scores a crit on a 18-20 – but only when fighting that specific creature. In all other circumstances it’s just a regular magic sword. This can be particularly useful if the focus of a campaign revolves around fighting that items specified foe.

  • Utility Powers

  • Intelligent items often possess utility powers in addition to their primary magic. These are usually spell-like powers that the user can trigger as needed. This could include the ability to expend a healing surge during combat, open a locked door, decipher a foreign language or offer a +2 bonus to a skill check. This added bonus makes intelligent items that much more desirable to PCs. It also can address weaknesses that the party may have if they’re lacking a controller or a leader.

  • Positive Reputation

  • If a PC find an intelligent item it may change his life for the better. Simple possessing the item may carry beneficial in-game consequences. The extent of any such benefits are up to the DM, but it should be relative to the item’s level and its importance to the overall story-arc.

Cons

  • Control

  • Intelligent items generally have some kind of ability to influence their wielder. This may be some subtle form of manipulation like showing the PC things as he dreams. In other cases the item’s desire to control the PC may be blatantly obvious. In either case it presents a challenging role-playing obstacle. As the DM you don’t want to force the PC to play his character a certain way, but you need to demonstrate that the weapon has some level of control. Even an item with a noble purpose may try to force its own will on an unsuspecting PC.

  • Single Purpose

  • If an item is average most of the time but exceptional when battling a specific creature type then the PCs may start to seek that creature out. This in and of itself is not a bad thing but it can take a carefully planned campaign and derail it in a hurry. A PC who would rather hunt werewolves than find the kidnapped prince has clearly lost interest in the bigger story arc. If this new goal is the result of some kind of influence over the PC by the item then it can become an interesting sub-plot, but if it’s just a power hungry PC who wants to feel more powerful then this is a problem.

  • Talking to Yourself

  • If the intelligent item can talk then the game may revert to episodes of the PC talking to his weapon. This may seem funny the first couple of times, but it gets stale quickly. This is especially true if the PC and the item disagree. If a PC spends more time talking to his intelligent item then the other PCs then it’s time to reevaluate the addition of an intelligent item to the party.

  • Negative Reputation

  • If an item is intelligent then there’s a strong likelihood that it has a reputation. Powerful magic items don’t stay secret for very long. A PC who brandishes an intelligent item in full view of everyone is asking for trouble. It may want to be found by someone other than the PC. If so it may call out to others, especially if the item can communicate through telepathy or speech. In this scenario the item may call out to others or simple announce its presence and let the rumour-mill spread the word. If the PC is able to resist the items attempts to control him or if the PC won’t abandon his question in order to do what the item wants then such an item will try even harder to find a new owner.

Have you ever played in a game that had an intelligent magic item? What has your experience like? Are rules for intelligent item something you’ve missed since the launch of 4e or do you think it’s an unnecessary mechanic?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Hungry July 14, 2009 at 12:53 pm

I’ve always loved intelligent magic items, but I have to refrain from throwing them out in EVERY game to avoid diluting the specialness of the items. They are great for keeping PCs on track with gentle nudges.

I do miss the rules about intelligent items in 4e, and I hope WotC rectifies this situation without forcing everything to brew their own house rules that are disparate and hard to follow.

The best intelligent item I ever handed out was to a human rogue who had become a paladin after a change of heart. However, he still wanted to use some of his thief skills. The sword would sing loud ballads of courage and bravery any time it detected the thief being sneaky. It was a hoot!
.-= Hungry´s last blog ..Adventure Hook Thursday: Portals =-.

2 Wyatt July 14, 2009 at 1:47 pm

I never really used intelligent items because to me there is really no sense of mystery or wonder to it. To me the subtle wiles of fate and power within an artifact (as they are in their 4e incarnation), which has a will that does not speak but makes itself known nonetheless – now that’s cool. Intelligent swords just make me think “metal sidekick, voiced by Danny Devito.”
.-= Wyatt´s last blog ..A Punishment Ill Fit (III) =-.

3 cynicaloptimist July 14, 2009 at 3:33 pm

The artifact rules in 4e ARE the intelligent magic item rules. Considering the tone WoTC has taken regarding this, they probably will not make separate rules for non-artifact intelligent items. There’s a few reasons for this, though- while artifacts used to be very powerful, very high level items, the current artifacts are available at all tiers of play. They also took cues from Weapons of Legacy to implement an interesting item-advancement mechanic. I like Wyatt’s remark regarding “metal sidekick.” To remedy that problem: by making all intelligent items into important, potentially plot-integral items, the system actually gives intelligent items a useful role in a campaign.

I can see where you’re coming from if you want a general, non-impressive but otherwise talkative sword. But why would you want that, or why would you need special rules beyond “it talks”?

4 Rook July 14, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Ahhh… the memories. Long ago I was playing in a low level campaign when my rogue character acquired a +2 longsword named “Monty”. The blade was a pampas, snooty thing with a British accent and a cleanliness fetish. While “he” was a pain in the ass, no one else in the group had a more powerful weapon, so I put up with a lot. It got to the point that the only way I could force him to shut up and comply was to threaten him with sticking him in the mud or refusing to clean the blood off him after a battle.

So remember, intelligent weapons are “people” too. They are NPCs with full blown personalities, ethics and morals, for better or worse.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..My Foray into 4E: My Iconic Character(s) =-.

5 Ameron July 15, 2009 at 8:50 am

@Hungry
I’m in the same boat as you. I want to use them in every campaign which seems to minimize their special nature. I suspect that the AV2 will have more rules and guidelines about intelligent items. Giving a Paladin/Rogue an intelligent item with a conscience was a stroke of genius.

@Wyatt
Depending on how the DM and PCs handle intelligent items you’re absolutely right that it may just end up becoming a guy with a talking sword. I had this happen once. Rust Monster to the rescue, no more talking sword. That PC was angry for a long time after that encounter.

@cynicaloptimist
I really liked the concept of item-enhancement introduced in the Weapons of Legacy. I agree that this approach to artifacts (or even just regular powerful items like a Holy Avenger) is an excellent way to make the item useful and balanced regardless of the PC’s level.

As far as special rules, I’m thinking back to previous editions of D&D where there were a bunch of tables that you could roll on to give intelligent items special powers and a specific purpose. If I’m going to create an intelligent item I want it to do more than talk and be the voice of the DM, otherwise what’s the point?

@Rook
I think you’ve nailed it. The intelligent items need to be treated like any other NPC and shouldn’t just be a funny voice coming out of your sword. Thank for your comment.

6 Matthew Lane July 19, 2009 at 10:52 pm

I am going to enjoy saying this… “YOU ARE WRONG.” I’m not a huge 4E D&D fan; to be honest i bearly count it as D&D, but i was willing to give it a shot when it first came out. Thats how i know that issue 367 of Dragon Magazine, has an article called “Intelligent Items” in which you are shown how to make a magical item that is intelligent: Including weapons.

-M

7 Ameron July 20, 2009 at 8:09 am

@Matthew Lane
Sure enough in Dragon Magazine Online #367 (September 2008) there is an excellent article by Logan Bonner called Intelligent Items (pages 22-30). So our question about what intelligent items in 4e D&D might look like has already been answered.
Here is the link that will allow you to download the complete issue.
http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/drtoc/367
(A subscription to DDI is required).
Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Matthew.

8 Chad December 7, 2011 at 12:08 pm

I like this article. I plan to come back to it for my campaign in the future.
I exactly don’t have a party member with an intelligent magic item, but last week one of my players used the Orb of Chaos and turned his vast collection of bones (taken from skeletons) into a single hive-mind entity. It should be interesting to see how this plays out.

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