What’s a +1 Sword?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 13, 2009

“That’s a beautiful blade,” noted the barkeep as he served the adventurers their ale. “Is it magical?”
“It sure is,” replied Delian the Paladin. “I found this in the ogre’s lair. It’s a +1 sword.”
“What’s a +1 sword?”

How often do you refer to your PC’s gear only in gaming terms? Sure the people sitting at your dining room table playing D&D know what a +1 sword is, but how would you describe the same weapon in character to an NPC? You’d sound pretty stupid if you called it a +1 sword. Not to mention that no one would understand what you mean when you call it a +1 sword.

Magical treasure is the most common reward in D&D. All PCs strive to acquire magic loot be it a magical wand, a suit of magical plate mail or even a magic sword. In most Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings magic items are fairly commonplace. To an experienced gamer owning a magical weapon may not seem like a big deal. In fact most PCs or NPCs worth their salt have one. But just because the magic items are common doesn’t mean that they aren’t special. It’s not like they’re mass produced in a factory and are indistinguishable from one another – quite the opposite in fact. Creating a magic item of any kind requires time, resources and aptitude. Anyone who chooses to create a magic item wants to make it unique. So just because you’ve got a magic sword and I’ve got a magic sword doesn’t mean that they’re the same.

It may be easier and faster for us to rely on game terms when we describe our character’s equipment, but why not give it a little bit more effort and have some fun with it. Don’t just say I have a +1 sword or I have a +1 wand. Put yourself in your PC’s shoes. He certainly wouldn’t refer to his weapon as a +1 sword or his magic wand as just a +1 wand. Assuming that I’m right, what do you think your PC would call his magic sword or his enchanted wand?

In most fantasy literature I’ve read, magical items are described in great detail. The more important the item to the story the more detail is provided. And important items always have names. In some cases the name is already know when the owner acquires the item and in other cases they name the item once they get a sense of its power. Drizzt has Icingdeath & Twinkle, Elric has Stormbringer and King Arthur has Excalibur. Think of how different these stories would be if these weapons didn’t have names.

Naming magical treasures isn’t limited to just weapons (although I think we’ll find that weapons tend to get named the most). In some circumstances the item may not get a name, but a lot of effort is put into describing the item. And despite lacking a proper name, we still know that this item is important and powerful. The Wizards in the Harry Potter stories all use magical wands and each wand is described in great detail. In the first novel Harry tries out a number of different wands before choosing one made from the feather of a phoenix. It’s this attention to detail that makes the item unique and more memorable.

In my regular campaign I play a Paladin. At 3rd level he found a +1 frost sword. I made a point of having him name the blade Frost Bite. He’s 9th level now and still wields Frost Bite with pride. Had it remained just a nameless +1 frost sword he’d likely have traded it in for something more powerful, but over the past six levels he’s come to cherish the weapon. Likewise, Wimwick plays a Rogue in the same campaign. When he found a +1 duelist’s dagger at 1st level he named it Nibbler and he too still uses Nibbler at 9th level. By naming the items they have become important parts of the ongoing story and help define the characters themselves. It’s seems like such a simple thing, yet it make our D&D experience enjoyable and more personal.

The next time you look over your PC’s item inventory think about naming some of the items. Think about how your character would describe his most valuable and important possession to others. By giving your items names it saves your PC from having to answer the question “What’s a +1 sword?”

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1 Tim July 13, 2009 at 9:35 am

One of the neatest ways I’ve seen this addressed was in a game run by a friend of mine. We found a sword in some nondescript dungeon and took it to the local magic-user for identification. The MU took some dust, sprinkled it on the blade, and gently blew on it. The dust clung to the blade. He did it again, and the dust clung again. He did it a third time and this time the dust was easily blown off the blade. He handed the sword back.
“This blade has been magicked twice,” he said.
So we knew we had a +2 sword without all of the metagaming.
.-= Tim´s last blog ..Dangerous Encounter: Thicker Than Water =-.

2 Micah July 13, 2009 at 10:14 am

I always try to name or describe my magical gear, and it makes sense in terms of equipment prized by the PCs. On the flip side, at higher levels, magical treasure often becomes a substitute for portable wealth. Rather than carrying around tens of thousands of gold, characters can just keep the magic items they find and sell them wherever they are for the cash they need. It’s kind of sad and meta-gamey, but in those cases, I think it’s best to just stick with “a +1 sword”

3 mike July 13, 2009 at 10:16 am

I’ve just run with the idea behind magic items in my game. I’ve taken most of the gold out, and replaced it with lower level magic items. Its all random so my players will either wear it, or sell it for 20%, hasn’t seemed to unbalanced the game either.
.-= mike´s last blog ..The Re spec Rule: Rebuiding from the ground up. =-.

4 Ben July 13, 2009 at 10:36 am

I am becoming more and more a fan of low-magic worlds myself, a +1 sword would be a rare thing to find in my games until well after level 5-6, if not even later. Let alone a +3 sword or an intelligent item

5 Hungry July 13, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I agree that naming equipment leads to a closer tie to the gear. I do my best to provide a description of the weapon and its abilities long before I throw out the crunchy game mechanics of the item. This allows for weapons to be named, equipment to be loved and items to be cherished by the players. It just makes for a better environment all around.
.-= Hungry´s last blog ..Adventure Hook Thursday: Portals =-.

6 Ameron July 13, 2009 at 3:30 pm

I really like this idea. It eliminates the “I’ve got a +1 sword” conversation and still gives the PCs an idea of what kind of item they found in the dragon’s horde.

Rather than rely on lesser magical items as easy ways to carry wealth we use gems. When the PCs reach a certain point in their development our DM stops rewarding as much magic (especially on the low end) and ramps up the number of gems, jewels and art objects. This way you don’t hear comments like “Great, another +2 dagger. We already have five of those. Just throw it in the Bag of Holding until we can sell it.”

This is sort of the opposite of Micah’s comment above. I can see how this would work in a society that relies heavily on trading and bartering and less on currency. If magic items are treated like currency then this makes for some very interesting role-playing opportunities.

My group plays in Eberron, which is extremely magic-rich. It seems like everyone has magic items. But in a magic-rare world a +1 sword (whether it’s got a name or not) is going to be considered a powerful item. As for Intelligent items, we’ll be covering that in an upcoming article.

Sounds like you and I look at this in very much the same way. I’m glad my guys aren’t the only ones who get something extra out of this additional attention to detail. Thanks for the comment.

7 Sean Holland July 13, 2009 at 4:53 pm

I rarely, as a GM, hand out named magic items but I try to ensure that each magic item has someone interesting in is description (and perhaps a minor additional ability) so that the players can form an attachment (and name them) if they wish. But entirely agreed, magic items should never be just a “sword, +1”.
.-= Sean Holland´s last blog ..The Kingdom of Eosiant – Knights and Ambition =-.

8 Rook July 13, 2009 at 8:23 pm

When describing the level of enchantment of an item in game, we usually refer to their enchantment as mild, moderate or powerful. Of course, this is totally dependant on personal perception and the tier or level you are playing at. A +3 sword at 4th level would be considered very powerful, but at 23rd level, not so much.

And instead of naming some wands, rods or staves, I usually give it a short detailed description, but I also give it a very specific activation word, which tends to make it rather memorable. Even after 15 years of game play, some of my players still talk about the dread they felt when my Halfling character pulled out his Wand of Wonder and spoke the word “Canomere!”

(Ahhh… those were the days.)
.-= Rook´s last blog ..My Foray into 4E: Taking the “Role” out of roleplaying =-.

9 Siskoid July 14, 2009 at 8:38 am

I’d have to check some old notes to see if I actually “named” items, but like Sean, I like to make each item unique through effect or trigger.

Effect: The sword has faintly glowing runes that grow brighter after it tastes blood. Or the wind seems to rush behind it as it strikes. Or it feels lighter to the person it’s bonded to, and heavier to everyone else.

Trigger: If the item has a triggerable power, I like to make that trigger culturally significant. A war paint stripe has to be dashed on it. An oath must be spoken. Or it could be all about its daily maintenance, with oils, incense or being kept in a dark box.
.-= Siskoid´s last blog ..Don’t Hurt the Player Characters… =-.

10 Ameron July 15, 2009 at 8:34 am

@Sean Holland
I think many PCs get so used to having magic that when they do find something as “trivial” as a +1 sword it’s not even seen as a valuable treasure. I’m glad you’ve tried to remedy this problem.

I like the mild, moderate or powerful idea, but I agree that it’s going to be directly related to the level of the party so long-term this may become more difficult to manage.

I’ve often used command words to trigger wands. It’s amazing how something as simple as forcing a PC to yell the activation word when he wants to use it can make a game more memorable and enjoyable.

I think your effect and trigger ideas are both great suggestion. I like how it won’t directly affect the game mechanics but will enhance role-playing. Very imaginative, I may have to steal this idea.

11 Siskoid July 15, 2009 at 9:47 am

I wouldn’t post on an open channel if I didn’t want you to. 🙂

.-= Siskoid´s last blog ..Cat of the Geek #10: Red Lantern =-.

12 Bog97th October 7, 2009 at 4:54 pm

When I used to play with my old DM, he never told us what the item did or a name unless it was a real relic. Them the name would be told but never the functions. Players had to figure the powers out on their own. Either through trial and error or magic. It lent a lot more to the game and the character back ground. I also try to follow that rule.

As more a +1 sword “just” being a +1 sword….. Look at Lord of the Rings! One lousy ring of invisibility created all that mess. Even with Wizards being around.

It’s all in how you run game not the how the game runs you.

Game ON!

13 Ameron October 20, 2009 at 10:02 am

I never used to tell PCs what an item’s power was until they had an opportunity to put it to practical use. However, we eventually spent more time trying to identify items then actually role-playing so we abandoned this methodology long ago.

You’re right about the one ring. Players need to remember that just because some worlds (like Eberron, for example) are magic rich, not all worlds are. Magic items should never be taken for granted just because you think their common-place.

14 Uberdungeon January 6, 2011 at 1:58 am

Excellent article, this problem is pretty commonly found in my games, although we have named a few items when they were really fun
For example, our party found themselves stuck in an ice cave after killing some yetis, when they found a hole in the ice… the druid (who touched the hole) was teleported to the realm of a dwarven god of trickery who bestowed upon the druid a +2 returning dagger, which fit the hole in the ice, opening a way out
Anyway, this item was named “Goddagger” (original, right…) and was an integral part of the story, causing multiple quests and some very funny encounters

15 Geek Fu February 18, 2011 at 5:05 pm

A player in my group wields a Mordenkrad named “The Postman” that has “Return to Sender” backwards in raised letters across the striking surface of the hammer.

16 Andrew August 6, 2011 at 3:37 pm

My character in a campaign, a Genasi Swordmage had a weapon that he kept from 1st level all the way. I wanted a memorable weapon so I asked my DM if I could get on of those “Art Swords” that look cool but don’t do anything. He said no. I dropped a F-You and did it anyway. It’s how anyone at our table would have done it. Well I enchanted it and and used that Transfer magic ritual on it multiple times. The sword eventually became known as the Guzzler (because of all the gold pieces I spent on Ritual components)

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