Who Owned Your Magic Sword Before You Did?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 26, 2010

How does loot end up in a monster’s treasure horde? The beholder wasn’t wearing the chain mail or wielding the great axe when you fought it, yet there it is in its lair among the other wonders and treasures. You probably just assume that it belonged to the last guy who attempted to defeat the beholder before you and your party came along. But do you ever wonder who the last guy was? Do you ever feel guilty claiming his possessions? Sure he’s dead and has little use for them, but that doesn’t necessarily make them yours, does it?

No matter how prevalent magic and magic items are in your campaign world, each and every magic item is unique (as we discussed in What’s a +1 Sword?). Each item required time and resources to create, even if it’s just the most basic magic weapon. So when adventurers loot a treasure horde after fighting and defeating monsters, any magical treasures are unique and probably identifiable. But most PCs make no effort to identify who the previous owner was. They take the item as their just reward and move on. But if the items are unique doesn’t it make sense that someone could and eventually would recognize them?

Let’s assume that during your latest dungeon crawl in addition to everything else the party claimed as treasure, the Paladin found a suit of magical plate armor. When arriving in the nearby town to spend some gold and brag about their accomplishments how would they react if their spoils are recognized?

“Excuse me, good knight, but you’re wearing Sir Delian’s plate armor. It’s been in his family for eight generations and was thought lost forever when we heard he was killed defending those gnomes from the beholder. I’m sure you’ll do the right thing and return it to his brother since it’s a family heirloom.”

Which response do you think is more likely?

“I had no idea this fine suit of armor was so valuable or important to Sir Delian’s family. Now that I know who it truly belongs to I’ll return it immediately. Thank you for informing me.

“I regret that Sir Delian died while wearing this armor, but I found it after my party and I defeated a deadly beholder. Regardless of its importance to Sir Delian’s family I found it and I claim ownership.”

Very few PCs would give up any treasure, especially something as valuable as a magic item. Finders keepers is the generally understood law of the land in most D&D campaigns. The only real exception is when a party is hired to recover a lost item. In all other circumstances possession is 9/10ths of the law.

But even if finders keepers is the accepted practice, isn’t it likely that when the PCs acquire new treasure from monster’s lairs that some of it is recognizable. And in those circumstances isn’t it reasonable that someone will challenge their claim. The more important and influential the previous owner, the more likely his heirs will want his equipment returned.

This is an interesting scenario that most adventures are likely to face as they earn more XP and become better known. In this circumstance what’s a PC to do? Why bother risking life and limb to fight monsters if the treasures you find along the way are claimed by previous owners or their heirs?

Perhaps this is one of those instances where we shouldn’t try to apply real life logic to D&D. We need to just accept that when someone dies in D&D all of the possessions on their body becomes fair game.

The DM in me sees this as an interesting situation that has a lot of good role-playing potential. The most obvious situation is the one we keep describing where the PCs are asked to relinquish their latest find. But it can work the other way too. Perhaps the PCs are looking for an item themselves. A mentor or a patron was killed with a legendary blade in his possession. The PCs see someone else with it and attempt to claim it. Suddenly they’re on the other side of this situation.

All things considered, this kind of encounter would get pretty stale pretty fast so I don’t think this is something I’d likely use very often. However, having it happen every now and then might be a sufficient eye open for the players. Maybe every once and a while they’ll actually try to find out who these items belonged to before they just take them for themselves. They may not end up returning the items, but some PCs may want to do the right thing by making the effort to identify who it belonged to previously.

Is this a situation you’d ever include in your campaign? Do you think the argument has merit or is finders keepers the best way to handle found treasures? If your PC discovered who owned their favourite magical treasure before they did would he do anything about it?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Arcade April 26, 2010 at 9:17 am

I’ve never done it, but I like it. I know my party would be willing to sell the item, but rarely would they give it away. It can work a few other ways as well:
- If you recover the sword of a legendary duelist, other duelists will see it and attempt to defeat you to prove their status as a master.
- If you are wearing the robes of an infamous villain or using a dagger that was held by a well known assassin’s guild, you could be attacked by other heroes.
- Use it as an alternative way to give characters items from their treasure list or enhance the plot. In the example above, the heirs are willing to compensate the party with treaure or a map to an item the PCS are interested in, or they will be in debt to the party and can grant them a favour in the future. (
http://dungeonsmaster.com/2010/04/favours/#more-4405 )

2 Swordgleam April 26, 2010 at 9:47 am

Our ranger’s scimitar was wielded by one of the previous heroes of the town. Her son asked that the ranger keep it, but it’s been a few months now and he mentioned the other day that the guard captain won’t let him join unless he has his own weapons. So I think the ranger is considering returning it.

It might be fun to sprinkle a few items like that in a treasure hoard, but I’d give the PCs warning in advance – someone they meet in town tells them, “My brother was killed by this dragon. If you find his sword, please bring it back.” That way, they don’t feel cheated – the item is already a quest item in their mind, not a reward.

3 Questing GM April 26, 2010 at 11:30 am

Interesting, I think it would make for an interesting one-shot adventure to see how the PCs react to the question.

4 Jeremy April 26, 2010 at 11:57 am

The idea behind this is great but I think it’s out of order. If you want to add this kind of flavor to a campaign it is a great way to incorporate treasure into your narrative and add some realism to the world but there is no reason to do it after a player has had a chance to get excited and attached to his new shiny gear.

Let the fallen paladins Heirloom Platemail be the hook that leads them to the Beholder. Or as they are gearing up in the village getting ready to go slay the monster the party rogue or bard hears of a local family who have lived in the area for generations and who lost a family member to the beast – if the party can think of some form of help they could use from a powerful family such as this they may go actively searching for the lost gear of this family in order to return it to the family and get the favor they need for some larger storyline.

I like the idea, but as a player I know I would be annoyed that the armor upgrade I’ve waited five levels for suddenly wasn’t mine. Even if, out loud, I didn’t say anything at the table. If it was never mine to begin with then that’s an altogether different scenario.

5 chrishillman April 26, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Somehow this is very thought provoking. I guess others have explored this before, but when we played it was assumed that “treasure” belong to who found it. As if the monster itself owned it before their defeat. “Yes Mr Beholder, that is a fine set of plate mail and it fits you perfectly..”

If you were to find items in a monster’s immediate area, would they be any good? After all, their prior owner must have been defeated. Maybe there are ultra-rich Paris Hilton types who “adventure” on the weekends but run away at the sight of the first Kobold? Maybe that is how that Kobold got a iPhone…

6 xerosided April 26, 2010 at 5:34 pm

When my 4E Eberron campaign finally takes off, I’m dealing with the magic items in tiers. Heroic magic items will be very common, most of it leftover munitions and mass-produced gear from the Last War. The higher level stuff will have belonged to higher-ranked officers. Paragon magic items will be rarer and older, probably heirlooms and treasures from pre-War Galifar (or from Xen’drik). The epic magic items will be truly spectacular to behold: ancient artifacts, the craftwork of extraplanar beings, items of true power.

This will all, of course, be a simple matter of creative application of flavor to an item’s powers. And naturally, the rules aren’t hard and fast. I’m not limiting myself only to the themes set forth above; I’m reserving the right to mix and match or to throw in some special items.

7 Ameron April 26, 2010 at 10:10 pm

I agree that few players would just give up any magic treasures without some kind of compensation. Your ideas for how to work the item’s historical significance into the adventure are great. I particularly like your suggestion to compensate them with a favour. :)

Springing a claim of ownership on the PCs without warning is a mean trick from the DM. I like your suggestion to provide set-up earlier in the game. That way when it happens that players have that “oh yeah” moment. In any circumstance where a PC is asked (or forced) to give up an item because of someone else’s claim on it, the DM should find alternative ways to compensate the PC. The better the role-playing the better the reward.

@Questing GM
This situation is perfect for a one-shot “test” scenario. Depending on the players reactions it can be used as a measuring stick to see if this is something worth exploring again later in the campaign.

I’m with you 100%. My intent as the DM would not be to “hurt” the PC by stealing their shinny toy. I’d use it as a way to force the players to make tough choices. As mentioned above, I’d probably hint that someone was looking for the item or was willing to pay for its return. Springing this on an unsuspecting PC and then forcing them to give it up is just wrong. As a player I’d have a fit if my DM ever pulled a stunt like that without any context or foreshadowing.

I think the commonly accepted D&D mentality is that everything is finder’s keepers. If everyone knows and understands this, then any claim of previous ownership is irrelevant.

But what happens when a PC is disarmed of his favourite magic sword during a fight and then has to flee (a RARE scenario, I’ll grant you). When the party returns they find that another group of adventurers has cleaned up their mess and claimed the magic sword. They assumed that it was just part of the loot. Does your PC have any claim on that item? Again, not a common scenario, but still plausible.

I think your take on the tiers of magic are exactly what Wizards had in mind. The Eberron setting (probably more than any other) has the built in back story for why these things exist and why there are so many low-level items.

For more great discussion, check out the string of comments on Reddit. Wile you’re there, feel free to give our article a nudge up.

8 surfbored April 27, 2010 at 12:37 am

I can just see it now…

Hey, I recognize the cutlass that man’s carrying… he must be the Dread Pirate Roberts!

Of course a PC could just take a magic item to a shop and have it “reworked” to remove the items that make it unique looking; or add to it, like covering up a poorly chosen tattoo.

I really like this idea as a one-off idea though. Very clever!

9 Dungeon Newbie April 27, 2010 at 4:44 am

How about this: The players, upon inspecting their newly found +5 Holy Hammer, realize that it belongs to the great Paladin of Durlanmoore. When they enter the town, they see his descendent/ancestor coming towards them. They have 3 options: Return the sword, try to keep it or disguise the shop(like surfbored said)This could lead to battle opportunities or more!

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10 Brandon September 12, 2010 at 3:04 pm

trying to create a magic sword. Any ideas?????

11 Ameron September 13, 2010 at 7:49 am

We wrote a skill challenge called Crafting Items. I’d suggest you use this as your starting point and go from there. Hope that helps.

12 DM Devon Wilson January 6, 2012 at 8:42 pm

My party members and I are big fans of a fictional character known as Hattori Hanzo.. in one of Hanzo’s many incarnations he was an amazing swordsmith.. Katana’s to be exact.. My party has found 3 so far, one of which has an unknown insignia imprinted on it, another has the name K Inik carved into it. The “New Owner” has yet to find out who this is.. and the third and final one is completely un-used and awaiting a tale to be imprinted onto it..
I re-call something.. i don’t know if im stealing this idea from something.. but weapons should be capable of being made magical by a PC by simply questing and the enchantments relate specifically to their accoplishments.

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