For this piece, I’d like to play around a bit with the table of minor powers–little powers and features that can be tacked onto regular magic items to give them some added character. Your vorpal sword might also tell you which way is North, for instance.
Minor properties aren’t new. Somewhere I have a well-worn Best of Dragon magazine older than most current gamers, and it talks about the same ideas.
But in looking over the tables in the core books it finally dawned on me why I stopped finding those quirky additions fascinating: they were always afterthoughts. Your magic item was a cloak of protection first, and then it had this other quality on top of that.
Although the additional property was often nice to have and valued by players, it still felt mechanical and dull to me. Moreover, it now had this weird layer of social awkwardness, like it was trying too hard to be cool. Like many GMs, I had once figured out that one way to spiff up a +1 sword is to pile on description. Perhaps it’s made of crystallized spacetime, and you can see the faces of howling angels trapped in the blade; also, there’s this big star-shaped diamond at the crossguard. But both the ornate sword and the quirky sword have come to feel equally forced to me. I can practically see the tables in my head:
Strange material? Check.
Cool visual that screams “magic”? Check.
Some kind of big gem planted on the thing like it’s a ring? Check.
Random power off the Table O’Quirks? Checkity-check.
While gazing at those tables, though, I wondered what I’d come up with if I started with the minor powers first and made them the heart of the item–the best expression of its true purpose.
For instance, if an item grants its owner the ability to speak a language, then someone put quite a lot of work into that. It’s not a quirk. It’s a pretty significant feature. What was the artificer’s purpose in building it?
So I started messing about from that angle, not worrying too much about sticking to the text of the minor powers chart very closely. Sometimes I gave an item more than two minor powers because they fit well together and served a common purpose. Sometimes I simply took the spirit of a power: Instead of pointing to North, the “compass” power from the tables might point to something else. Sometimes I drew on Wallace Cleaves’ ideas about attunement and my own earlier ideas about Expiration points for additional features that fit the same theme.
And I found that when I started playing with features in this way–starting with the item’s purpose and some quirky minor power(s) to build around–I liked the items a lot better. They felt unique and unforced to me. The item had a purpose and had features that served that purpose; the fact it also functioned as a a ring of protection became the afterthought. Indeed, I often didn’t work out the item’s major property (what the object really was) until after I’d worked out the other details.
I thought I’d share some of the specimens from my artificer’s workbench below.
Note: The magical items described in the remainder of this article are designated as Open Game Content. This designation includes the textual descriptions of each item, but not the associated images. (Click here for the license.)
1. The Rarkness Keys
Eleven light-bearing spheres called Rarkness Keys were created centuries ago for the Sentries of Muros. The devices enabled those ancient merchant guardians to
navigate through the murky Fogfens to the Muros Fastness,
guard against the local trolls who so often ambushed travelers,
and open the fortress’s Rarkness Gates.
One of the ancient Keys also bears a secret inscription on how to awaken the Gods of Muros, but that inscription only appears when the key shines its light in a specific, sealed room within the fastness.
A Rarkness Key appears to be a small illuminating sphere with the following properties:
- On command, it projects a compass-like light that points in the direction of the Muros Fastness.
- Its light tints toward green if trolls come within 120 feet of the bearer.
- Its bearer gains some of the Key’s awareness of surroundings, resulting in a +2 bonus to initiative.
- At the Rarkness Gates, if no trolls are within 120 feet, it can be commanded to shed a light that opens the gates. The gates only open when struck by the “unlocking light” of a Rarkness Key.
- One of the keys projects an inscription when brought to the correct room, as indicated above.
- On speaking a command word, the bearer can make the key shed light as though either a light or daylight spell had been cast upon it.
- On speaking another command word, the globe levitates 5 feet off the ground and even if released will glide along through the air as the bearer moves, following by a distance of up to 60 feet, as directed.
2. Fidelis Helm
Fidelis Helms were worn by the Cherub Knights, guardians who had to be trusted with the lives of children who might be threatened or hostaged during a great war. As part of their oath, paladins of the order swore to wear the helms. The helms, in turn, helped them stay true to their oaths.
Each helm has a different name and a different personality, for each relic bears the imprint of a soul of a martyr from the early days of the Cherub Knight order. Although these imprints are not the original souls themselves and do not have information or memories, they do know their code and they are very wise.
Each helm requires attunement, and will only attune to divine spellcasters who are proficient in a martial weapon. The would-be wearer must fast for a night in a temple significant to the old order and swear to follow the the old order’s code. If the wearer completes these tasks, the helm attunes.
Once attuned, the helm telepathically encourages good and lawful behavior, often advising the wearer through moral or ethical dilemmas. For this reason, the helms are sometimes called “Counselor Helms.” This counseling has no mind-control powers. The wearer can ignore the advice. If a wearer willfully and without immediate repentance commits a clearly evil act, attunement is forever broken.
In addition, the helms grant their wearers the ability to speak and understand Celestial, a language often used by the old order for encoded speech around possible conspirators. The helm also grant advantage on an Initiative or Insight check once per rest. Finally, the helm offers the same defensive benefits as a ring of protection.
This unique knife is a prison, containing the soul of a long dead assassin who has over the years begun to exert some will over events outside the prison.
The knife’s wielder can hear the assassin’s thoughts urging particular courses of action, all designed to bring about the killer’s eventual resurrection or further other agendas. When the knife is happy with its owner’s cooperation, it sometimes uses the Help option to improve skill checks. In game terms, the knife has 3 Expiration points, which can be spent to grant the bearer Advantage on any of the following skills: Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception. (When it helps with Intimidation, the knife offers strategies and suggestions on what to say.) All three Expiration points can be recharged by killing a target whom the knife identifies. Such killings always serve the knife’s interests, not the wielder’s.
In all other respects, the knife is a +1 dagger. If ability scores are needed, it has an Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma of 14.
4. Dwarven Ale-Friend Ring
The Ale-Friend Ring of the dwarves is seldom worn by a dwarf. Instead, the rings are gifts of profound thanks to non-dwarves who have served a clan so well that the clan invites the individual to call its clan-hold home. The ring is a symbol and facilitator of that invitation.
The ring requires attunement in a ritual of friendship conducted by a dwarf from the clan that forged it. Once attuned, the ring grants the wearer the Delver ability from the minor powers table, as well as the ability to speak Dwarvish. Additionally, while the ring is worn, patterns of lines appear on the wearer’s arm, becoming more extensive and more defined over time. To casual observers the marks are merely abstract tattoos (light or dark depending on the wearer’s own skin color), but in fact they are a running map of the underground territories that the wearer has visited. Finally, the Ale-Friend Ring has the properties of a ring of protection.
5. Ring of Lulthilim
The mysterious psionic masters of a plane-spanning ancient race sometimes forge rings for their most important and powerful thralls to wear. When a thrall must be trusted to run special or dangerous errands for his or her owner, the ring helps ensure operational security in a society of telepaths–while also ensuring loyalty.
The ring requires attunement. However, in the case of this item, attunement is both fast and permanent: The wearer merely agrees to serve the maker of the ring; it matters little whether that agreement is freely given or psionically compelled. Within a minute of wearing the ring after agreeing to serve, attunement is achieved. Thereafter, the ring cannot be removed without the maker’s permission by any means short of amputation or a wish spell.
The ring has the following properties:
- The wearer is treated as a willing target for any psionic or magical effect created by the maker, receiving no protection or saving throw against them.
- Against all other creatures, the ring is treated as a ring of mind shielding.
- The wearer is also able to speak Undercommon.
Note: In most cases, if the maker of a ring dies, the wearer finds he or she can remove the ring at will and no longer suffers the drawback listed in the first bullet above. However, in a few cases associated with very powerful and clever masters, the ring may become a vessel for transferring the soul of the master, which then takes over the mind and body of the wearer.
6. Kite of the Changeable Knight
This shield, created by a sprite smith for a trickster hero who had to impersonate five wicked knights, changes its face to match the design of any heraldic object it touches. Contact must be held for 1 minute before the new pattern is “memorized” by the shield. From that point on, the bearer can command the shield to adopt that pattern (or any other pattern it has studied) for as long as desired. The shield otherwise operates as a +1 shield.
7. Unbreakable Rope
Unbreakable rope cannot be cut or broken except by the tools that originally helped to craft it. A coil of the rope is flexible and hard-hitting when used as an improvised weapon. When employed in this manner, treat the rope as a +1 flail.
8. Utheling, the Gate Sword
As swords go, Utheling was clearly built for function. The crossguard of this longsword is elegant, unadorned, and uncluttered; the grip comfortably accommodates two large hands. The plain but sturdy blade has a tapered, pointed tip for pushing through mail and armor.
Although it is a well-made weapon with the properties of a +1 sword, Utheling’s primary function is as a key for inter-planar travel. It has the following properties:
- When it is within 120 feet of a gate or interplanar conduit, whether that portal is dormant or active, light around the blade begins to bend and warp. Objects viewed through the space around the blade are distorted as through a fun-house mirror. The bending grows stronger the closer the bearer gets to a gate.
- Unless a gate or conduit has unusual or unique countermeasures barring use or intrusion, Utheling can open it. If for any reason an ability check is required to open or activate such a portal, Utheling grants advantage on the check.
- Utheling can attune with a wielder if borne through a gate to an outer plane and the wielder wishes it. Once attuned, it grants two additional features:
- It remembers the teleportation sigil sequences of every circle it passes through and can share these with the wielder, who, while gripping the sword’s hilt, remembers them as though the memories were her own.
- It has 5 Expiration points. A point can be spent defensively to warp light and space around the blade, imposing Disadvantage on an opponent’s attack. The points can only be recharged by holding the sword within 5 feet of an active gate, portal, or conduit. The sword regains 1 point per minute while exposed to the portal’s energies. †
♦ 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.