Friday Favourite – What’s a +1 Sword?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 1, 2016

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From July 13, 2009, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: What’s a +1 Sword?

“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?”

Note: We ran this article as one of our Greatest Hits in 2009. Here are a few additional comments we added when we ran the article the second time.

The idea of giving names to magical items really struck a chord with our readers. This article quickly jumped to the top of our analytics and still remains one of our most popular and often read articles.

Many of the people who commented on the original article agreed that PCs should cherish their magic treasures and not just treat them as portable wealth. By naming items, the players become more attached to their sword or wand. It becomes more important to the player and enhances the role-playing.

Other comments suggested not immediately revealing a magical treasure’s true power or potential until the PCs either identified the item or had an opportunity to use it. After all, if the PCs don’t know that it’s a +1 sword then they have to call it something else. This is certainly a reasonable approach, but my experience was that by not revealing the item’s power up front – at least out of game – then the PCs waste a lot of time identifying items, not to mention the havoc of recording an unidentified item in Character Builder.

Another comment about scaling power in magical items reminded me of a campaign we ran a couple of years ago in which our DM approached things very differently. All the PCs found or earned +1 items early in the campaign. Then as the PCs leveled up, the items would get more powerful. This way a PC who became particularly attached to their +1 sword didn’t have to trade it for something better as they got more powerful.

The day after running this article we ran another article about magic items. The follow-up explored the pros and cons of introducing Intelligent Magic Items into your campaign. So whether your sword got a name because you named it or because it already named itself, PCs should never have refer to their weapon as just a +1 sword.


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1 Dan April 1, 2016 at 11:50 am

I love adding Flare to my magic items. In my 3.5 campaign, my character entered the game with 2 masterwork, but non-magical weapons: a longsword of blue ice (a magical ice that acts like steel and doesn’t melt, while also being sharper than a normal steel blade) and an obsidian dagger that belonged to his father, with each described in gread detail. I made sure each one had a name, and our DM allows us to have items enchanted, so these will always be his weapons of choice.

In a 5e campaign, my character has a fondness for the color silver, and has elements of his gear adorned with it.

Any time I create a character, I focus on the details that make them stand out, and what equipment they choose to use says a lot about them.

2 Brooser Bear April 1, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Saying “Sword +1” is power gaming. Giving magical items a distinctive description is a touch of genius. In my view, a +1 weapon need not be magical. It can also be fine craftsmanship, or a “lucky” weapon that just happens to be perfectly balanced for that particular user. I always roll percentile dice when someone gets a new weapon. 01 means a defective dud, 00 means fine craftsmanship or magic. Each 00 rolled in a row means an additional +1 bonus. You can also pay equivalent of plate mail armor to have fine weapons made, but these generally mean only “To Hit” bonuses.

3 Dan April 13, 2016 at 11:06 am

3.5 differentiates between Magic and superior mundane through the Masterwork quality, which is +1 to hit, but not damage. My assumption has always been that if the craftsman put the time and effort into making a weapon of such high quality (or if a character is having on commissioned), they would make it distinctive in some way in addition to the superior balance etc., typically through appearance.
Considering the fact that all 3.5 Magic items must first be Masterwork, it makes sense to expect them to have some additional cosmetic distinction.

In the 5e DMG, there are charts for determining minor qualities of a magic item (though some could be used for mundane ones). Things like for whom it was made, by whom it was made, lesser magical quirks, and empathic connections to the wielder. Typically, these are not mechanical, but cosmetic in nature. I think this was a great thing to include for just this reason.

4 RealmsDevil April 15, 2016 at 9:34 pm

Another thought on the original premise. Think of ways to describe the special abilities of the weapons/ items rather than just saying that the Longsword is Keen or the Bow is a Bow of Distance.
For example, using the aforementioned powers, try describing the Longsword as appearing sharper than normal, that it seems to almost whistle as it slices through the air, or in the case of the Bow, have the character notice that it seems to shoot further or it seems to hit the shorter range targets with ease and very little drop along the arrows flight path.
A suit of magical armor that provides a +5 to stealth checks could be described by the character wearing as a bt wierd that when wearing it he seems to sink deeper into the shadows and movequieter than without it.

While a name is important describing powers and abilities via language used by the PCs will also go al ong wau in providing depth and, dare I say, character.

Just my two sense, keep rolling my friends.

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