I can tell you with no ego, this is my finest sword.
If on your journey, you should encounter God, God will be cut.
— Hattori Hanzo, Kill Bill, Vol. 1, Miramax Films, 2003.
Keeping with this week’s theme about equipment in D&D, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the current edition’s lack of mid-range, minor items between “normal” and magical.
I’m not the first person to notice the game’s 5th edition is missing what in 3rd-edition (and its many derivatives) was termed a masterwork weapon — a nonmagical weapon with a better-than-normal bonus, but still clearly inferior to a blade imbued with magical power. Masterwork items were fine gear for low-level characters who were between their fledgling 1st-level status and their higher-level paragon achievements.
And that has left DMs and players who are eager to work in a Hattori Hanzo-type sword (from the Kill Bill movies, and particularly scenes like this one), or any other superior-craftsmanship items, stuck deciding between two options:
1. Use a magical item’s stats and description, but describe the item’s properties as coming simply from craftsmanship. It’s a +1 sword, but without the italics.
2. Or use a normal item’s stats, but role-play as though it’s superior in some way, even though that superiority has no game effect. This option turns the item into treasure, valued mostly because it’s valuable.
I have seen some frustration with that decision on message boards and thought I might toss out a way DMs could address it.
Before I get around to describing a possible house-rule, I should say a word in the game designers’ defense: The 5th edition is a remarkably streamlined and elegant system, trimmed of a lot of the clutter and complication that existed in previous incarnations of the game. When Wizards got rid of masterwork items, that simplification was part of a suite of similar moves that all helped the game. Creating a house rule to re-complicate matters, then, risks mucking up a game that was already working well. All house rules run this risk. (For that reason, I have suggested before that house rules should be adopted through a group-decision process, in phases.)
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s explore some options.
Immediately, of course, we hit a challenge: If we simply take 3rd-edition’s masterwork bonus–a +1 to hit–and tack it onto 5th edition, we risk some game imbalances. One of the pivotal features of 5th-edition is its much-discussed bounded accuracy approach, which leads to much flatter level bonuses and more-restricted Armor Classes. You can see the impact of bounded accuracy on magical weapon bonuses in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, where +1 is now fairly typical and +3 is extraordinary. Past editions have gone up as high as +6 for magical weapon bonuses. Wizards has tightened the magical bonuses because each plus is a bit more powerful now than it once was. A weapon with a +1 bonus to hit thereby steals a bit more thunder from actual magic weapons.
So if we want to Hanzoize an item, we might want another mechanic.
One potentially fun possibility is to riff off of the new edition’s Inspiration mechanic (Player’s Rules, p. 35), which grants spendable Advantage for exceptional role-playing.
As a parallel, DMs could decide a particular piece of equipment has Expiration points (or Hanzo points, if you prefer). You can spend them to gain Advantage on a check related to the purpose of the item, at a rate of 1 per rest. When you aren’t spending points, the item works normally. When you run out of Expiration points, it remains “normal” until an expert repairs, sharpens, tends to, recharges, or otherwise refreshes the item. A masterwork sword with, say, 3 Expiration points, would be able to attack with Advantage three times (again, only once per rest) before needing expert-level tending. A masterwork pair of boots by Hedgenape, renowned halfling cobbler-to-the-Thief-Lords, might grant Advantage on Stealth checks until it has to be repaired by that same cobbler.
To really stretch the concept: A wizard’s private research journal might grant Advantage on Arcana checks, but the wizard has to visit new, restricted libraries for some period of time to add new notes to it if she wants to “recharge” it, spending funds and time as though crafting an item (see below). For armor or shields, you might have to flip things a little bit: Spending an Expiration point gives an adversary Disadvantage on an attack.
There’s precedent for high-quality, mundane items that lose their edge in D&D, as it happens. In the early days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (the first edition), the Fiend Folio featured a humanoid called the qullan, who wielded a nonmagical sword with a +3 craftsmanship bonus to hit and to damage. That bonus would also wear off, and only qullan smiths were able to restore it.
DMs wary about game balance could start small, with just one such item and perhaps just one or two Expiration points. If it seems problematic during play, the DM could simply stop handing them out. If it seems to work well, the DM could gradually phase them in, being careful not to move too quickly.
Figuring out the costs of such items may be the toughest part of the process and may require some finesse. A simple approach might simply be to double the base price for each Expiration point of the item. For recharging, sharpening, or repair, charge half the price that the original item would have been worth. (Confession: I’m using printer ink as a model for that math.)
Math aside, though, the best way to deal with pricing of masterwork items may well be not to have a price list, although I know that makes some novice DMs uncomfortable. Acquiring such an item shouldn’t be easy. (It wasn’t for Uma Thurman’s character, the Bride!) The character may have to find the master who will make the item, and it’s likely to be a custom job. Persuasion (and hence role-playing) may be required. Yes, money will likely enter the equation. But, using the above “simple” approach as a rough starting point, you might just role-play the negotiation. Squeeze the player for every copper he or she is willing to part with. If the PC wants to create a masterwork item herself, no new rules are needed: She would simply follow the same crafting guidelines as for other items, with regard to time, skill, and materials.
How many Expiration points should a masterwork item have? It’s hard to say, as I’m only now starting to play with the concept. My instinct for masterwork items is to keep them low at first: one to three, perhaps. Ramp up gradually if those seem too low.
A final note before moving onto swords that break: The same basic mechanic described above could just as easily be credited to magical properties, with the item treated as a kind of charged, magical item. Maybe Hedgenape’s boots are imbued with minor illusion magic, and that’s why his rivals have such trouble imitating his work. In such cases, the game mechanics remain largely the same; aside from the fact the item now radiates magic, only the description changes slightly.
Anti-Hanzos: Using a Similar Mechanic for Shoddy, Stone-Age, or Improvised Equipment
If you’re going to have superior craftsmanship, what about inferior? In the fun Western Silverado (which has great fodder for gamers, regardless of genre), Kevin Kline is robbed down to his underwear. Upon arrival in a town, he spots the villain who robbed him and has to acquire a cheap handgun for a gunfight. The gun he buys with what he can muster is … trash. And the scene is fascinating because of it. Have a look:
Having shoddy equipment in a game can make a game more interesting, provided the approach isn’t too complicated. And the same Expiration point system can work here, if you flip it. Let’s call the flipside Degradation points. A Shoddy item normally grants its user Disadvantage unless that user spends one of its Degradation points. Spending a Degradation point enables the owner to use it normally. When the owner runs out of Degradation points, the item disintegrates, falls apart, breaks, whatever. Shoddy items don’t get repaired. A shoddy axe with 5 Degradation points has at best 5 good uses in it.
Yes, Disadvantage is a huge … um, disadvantage. In some cases (picking locks, for instance), the character will be better off not using equipment at all. However, the idea here is that the user would likely spend Degradation points every turn until the item broke, but he or she would have the option of extending its lifespan by accepting a higher risk of failure. I’d start Shoddy items with as many as 10 Degradation points, maybe more (they’ll go quickly), and permit players to spend points from Shoddy items as quickly as they wish, even if that means burning through more than 1 per turn.
An alternative but also more high-maintenance approach to Shoddy gear would be that Degradation points result in Disadvantage (as with the second option above), but it would be the DM’s decision when to spend them. The downside to this option is, of course, that the DM already has enough paperwork to juggle. For that reason, I incline toward the first system myself — it delegates management of the item to its owner.
However, I offer all of the above ideas for interested gamers to play with. Let me know in the comments below what works for you — or doesn’t! †
♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. Graham has also written a Dungeon Magazine city adventure titled “Thirds of Purloined Vellum” and a fantasy novella titled Godfathom. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content.