Part 1: Reconstructed Items
In my last article, I introduced a way to rethink attunement and possibly make it more interesting by connecting it to proficiency. Graham Scott followed this up with discussions about how to make interesting, low-power, or even nonmagical items and on how to theme items by focusing on their minor properties.
In this article I will describe a method I have used to make magic items stay relevant throughout a campaign: I design them so that they will grow and develop with the characters who possess them.
It has always struck me as problematic that characters in fantasy role playing games tend discard the magical objects they once worked so hard to acquire, and so relied upon, whenever a better, more powerful version comes along. I suspect that the hard attunement cap rule will encourage ditching of items — a fact which runs counter both to the idea of magic-item scarcity (items should be rare) and the idea that you shouldn’t be able to buy magic items at a shop. If adventurers in the world have several built-in reasons to get rid of old items while trading up to better ones, market forces pretty much dictate there will be a market for magic items. The economic rule trumps the book rule, or ought to.
Even before attunement was invented, player characters treated their magic items with a certain mercenary callousness that seemed at odds with much of the fantasy genre’s traditions. After all, who is Arthur without Excalibur, or Elric without Stormbringer? Iconic items are a staple of the genre, but they rarely actually come into play in fantasy role playing games. On one level, of course, this makes a certain sense: It is grossly overpowering to give an artifact to a low-level character, and such an individual would be hard pressed to hold on to it.
Still, it is sad that by the time characters actually acquire such legendary items they are nearing the end of their natural playing span. If you get your epic sword at level 17, there is only so much you are going to be able to do with it before you hit your level cap.
Fortunately, there is another great staple of fantasy literature: Sometimes characters discover items of great power early in their adventuring careers and only unlock their true power and potential as they themselves increase in skill, power, and mastery. In this article, I’m going to call these types of items legacy items. Legacy items become part of the characters’ stories and progression; they are intimately tied to their owners’ identities.
Why not try to replicate legacy items in the new edition? Two new mechanics from the new edition, proficiency and attunement, provide a framework for such devices.
There are at least three different ways to incorporate legacy items into the new edition of the game:
- The first takes a cue from one of the legendary artifacts of fantasy RPGs by having the players acquire an item that needs to be Reconstructed from disparate parts to make a more powerful object.
- The second ties the power of the item to the level of Mastery, or the proficiency bonus, of the character that wields it.
- The third requires what I will call Enhanced Attunement — you spend multiple attunements on the same item. Each attunement unlocks additional powers in the item.
Note that these three patterns can be combined.
For this first article I will provide two examples of the Reconstructed item type.
Reconstructed Items: When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
A reconstructed item comprises several pieces. Each piece grants a minor benefit, but they can be combined to create an even greater item. There is a long history of such concoctions in the lore of fantasy role playing games, perhaps most famously in the Rod of Seven Parts.
Reconstructed items have several advantages over more traditional high powered items, but the most significant feature is that they scale with a character’s level progression. The GM can control the power at a PC’s fingertips by only allowing specific pieces to fall into the character’s hands as appropriate for the level of play. Reconstructed items also permit PCs to stay attuned to them, instead of simply discarding the items later when better versions come along. Because of this, a reconstructed item can quickly become a signature part of the identity of the character who bears one.
This option encourages — and makes it worthwhile for! — GMs to create items that have a more significant history and back-story. After all, all that rich detail won’t be left in the dust once a newer, shinier item is discovered. The GM can also turn the search for more parts into a great hook for further adventures.
Reconstructed items should generally be the sorts of things that lend themselves to disassembly and assembly. Obviously, some types of adventuring gear might not lend themselves well to this treatment. A twelve-part magic ring would be weird, indistinguishable from shrapnel. However, weapons and armor, arguably the two of the most common forms of magic items, both fit into this category rather well.
Alternatively, of course, you could use the same concept for items that are part of a set rather than parts of a singular item. Famous examples include the Regalia of Might and the body parts of one famous lich. In that case, the items should either be similar or function well as a set. For example, you could have a set of rings that each have minor individual properties, but which when worn together (perhaps on the same finger or on the same hand) gain extra and more substantial powers.
Before we get to some examples, I want to describe two features that probably ought to come into play with legacy items.
First, reconstructed items should have some sort of synergistic benefit to help define them as a legendary item. We’ll refer to this kind of benefit as a Synergy Bonus. Effects of synergy bonuses might vary considerably from item to item. For one example, a reconstructed item assembled from the parts of a book or tome might gain special properties when the front cover, the spine, and back cover are reunited. Only when all three parts are combined does the item gain the property of providing a +1 bonus to the owner’s spell-casting DC. A synergy bonus should come into effect when two or more parts of the reconstructed item are put together. The bonus can apply when any specified number of parts are connected, or may apply only to particular combinations of pieces, or may even result from a combination of the two types. In general, most reconstructed items should require attunement at some point in their assembly — either when a certain number of pieces are combined or else when a synergy bonus is gained. If the owner doesn’t attune, synergy bonuses might be denied or the pieces might refuse to work with each other. Such a rule helps prevent reconstructed items from becoming a way of getting around the attunement cap.
Second, an adventure involving reconstructed items benefits if PCs have (or can acquire) some way to track down the other parts. Such a mechanism spurs further adventures, enabling the GM to plant seeds for future quests as the character in possession of the item attempts to reconstruct it. That mechanism also provides a ready source of conflict since other parties may be seeking out the piece that the character has. There are as many ways to handle this element as there are potential items, but one simple option is to have each piece give mystical guidance to its possessor, each bestowing visions or insights about where another piece is located. While the PCs seek out the location of the piece they know about, someone else might be homing in on them, guided by the device in their own possession!
Here is my own homage to the reconstructed item trope. Like the Rod of Seven Parts and the Horcruxes of Voldemort, it is rooted in the classical obsession with the number seven.
Note: The Seven-Part Sword and Battle Standard of the Cerberus Corps described below are both designated as Open Game Content. (Click here for the license.)
The Seven-Part Sword
The Seven-Part Sword is a legendary item associated with seven noble families, each of which traces its history back to a metallic dragon ancestor (including some rarer types of dragons). Each part of the weapon is meant to represent one of the noble houses. Together, the seven parts of the sword are meant to represent the strength of their reciprocal alliance. Several of these weapons were crafted over the centuries, gifted to noted heroes and military commanders who put the interests of all of the combined houses above that of their own, individual family ties. Most have the same set of properties but a few variations exist.
Legend holds that these blades can only be wielded by a member of one of noble families. In truth, however, attunement merely requires the wielder to be blood-related to the seven noble houses. Over the centuries quite a few people who have slipped from the nobility now have the blood, and thanks to intermarriage among houses, almost every noble in the region, whether part of the seven houses or not, might qualify.
Each part of the sword can be used independently if swapped out for the same piece of a normal, mundane longsword, granting its property to the new weapon. Affixing an element to a sword requires a DC 12 Intelligence check using smith’s tools. However, no piece of a Seven-Part Sword can be combined with any other magical item or device other than its sister parts or a nonmagical sword.
Once two parts of the sword have been combined, the resulting item requires attunement. Why? The pieces were once parts of several swords. When an owner matches a hilt and a blade, they are unlikely to be from the very same original item and must be attuned to begin coordinating. If the items are not attuned, only the first item that the owner possessed works normally, and the other pieces become inert in his or her possession. If you use the alternate attunement ritual rule that we introduced earlier, the sword can be attuned by either encountering the breath weapon of a dragon (this doesn’t necessarily have to be a hostile act) or by being blessed by a priest of a good-aligned god associated with or worshiped by dragons.
Whenever two parts of the blade are connected and attuned, the wielder is granted a brief vision of the next nearest piece of the sword and a concise, somewhat cryptic message that indicates where it is. As the wielder attunes to more pieces, those visions grow stronger and more precise.
Below, the parenthetical next to each part of the sword denotes a type of dragon from the alliance of noble houses. In some cases (e.g. Iron, Mercury), these dragon types may not match dragon types from your campaign setting. Feel free to replace them with other metals or even other appropriate creatures, like couatl.
The Pattern Steel Blade (Iron): Provides +1 to damage. The blade of the sword is composed of pattern-welded steel of the finest temper. It holds an incredibly fine edge and is strong and flexible. It is slightly longer than the average blade of a longsword but also a bit thinner, though no less resilient. Other than the +1 bonus to damage that it provides, it functions as a normal longsword when attached to a hilt, guard and pommel.
The Fitted Hilt (Copper): Provides +1 to hit. This copper hilt is molded to fit the grip of a fighter’s fingers and give great control and precision to one who wields a blade to which it is affixed.
The Safeguard Quillons (Bronze): Provides +1 to AC. This artfully designed guard has slightly swept and filigreed bronze quillons and ecusson that help to protect the wielder’s hand and allow the wielder to parry more effectively.
The Balanced Pommel (Mercury): Bestows the ability to gain Advantage on one attack made with the weapon once per short rest. The extra die roll may be made after the first roll has already been made. The pommel is a perfectly reflective metal sphere filled with a slightly sloshing, heavy liquid. It has a small divot at the end for attaching a stone. Somehow acting as a perfect counterweight to the blade, adding it to the weapon makes it feel perfectly balanced. The balance the pommel affords is so excellent that it sometimes allows the wielder to turn a failed blow into a successful hit in mid-swing.
The Golden Pommel Stone (Gold): Inflicts additional +1d6 fire damage and sheds light. This golden orb seems to shine with an inner fire. When attached to a sword (it fits perfectly in The Balanced Pommel) it grants the wielder the ability to cause flames to erupt from the blade or to quench those flames. Triggering the power requires tracing a pattern in the air with the blade to which the pommel stone is attached. The pattern is inscribed on the surface of the stone and consists of a set of small spirals. The wielder can activate or deactivate the fire as a bonus action. Once alight, the blade deals an additional 1d6 fire damage on each successful strike. While alight, the blade casts bright light out to 30 feet, providing dim light beyond that range by another 30 feet.
Brass Ring Guard (Brass): Provides +1 to saving throws. This series of side rings and contre-garde fit over the ricasso of the blade and connect with its quillons. Occasionally, when great danger threatens, these rings seem to pull the blade and its wielder away from an imminent threat, providing a split-second warning of danger that can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.
The Stalwart Silver Scabbard (Silver): Grants Advantage on saving throws against fear effects and on contested checks against physical attempts to move the owner against his or her will. Furthermore, while the scabbard is worn, it stabilizes its owner at the start of his or her turn whenever he or she is dying. This is the only part of the reconstructed item that is not actually integral to the weapon itself. No crafting roll is required to benefit from it. If any attuned weapon containing a piece of the Seven-Part Sword is sheathed within the scabbard, they are considered connected. The scabbard is made of silver dragon hide, covered by very fine scales. The throat and mount of the scabbard are sculpted in the shape of a curled dragon, and the shape at the end is cast in the form of a smiling dragon’s head.
Synergy Bonus: Hilt and Blade. When the blade and hilt of the sword are combined they become a magical +1 weapon. This feature replaces the +1 to hit and +1 to damage bonus of the blade and hilt respectively. This is only important in game terms as it makes the item magical for purposes of affecting creatures that can only be wounded by magical weapons or that have resistance to nonmagical weapons. Furthermore, if any 2 additional portions of the sword are connected to the hilt and blade the inherent weapon bonus increases to +2. If all 7 of the pieces are connected, the weapon bonus increases to +3.
Synergy Bonus: Pommel and Pommel Stone. Together these items not only perfect the balance of the weapon, they also impart an ability to recover from a fumble and turn it into a feint. When these two items are connected to each other as part of a weapon they confer the additional benefit of enabling any wielder of the blade who rolls a natural 1 to reroll the die. This ability is usable once per short rest.
The Battle Standard of the Cerberus Corps
This standard was commissioned by the successful mercenary company known as the Cerberus Corps, so named because a triumvirate of three captains shared its leadership responsibilities. Each of the three components of the standard was meant to represent one of the leaders, and the combined item served as a symbol of their camaraderie and loyalty. Both the company and the standard continued to serve long after the founders had retired from service or passed away in battle. Eventually, the company and the standard were reportedly destroyed while defending a pass against a massive hobgoblin horde.
Since that time, portions of the standard have sometimes been recovered from goblinoids only to be lost again in later battles. Not once has the whole standard has been reconstructed since its original destruction. Legend tells that if the standard is reassembled, it will reveal the location of the Cerberus Corps’ hidden vault, giving its bearer access to the vast treasure that the company stockpiled over its years of service. Because the standard would be recognized by anyone proficient in military history or by those who have served in a mercenary company, it would be a potent symbol even without its attendant powers.
Connecting the pieces is simple, requiring no skill checks. The ensign slides or ties onto the pole; the ornament affixes to the top with a simple lynch pin. As with many other reconstructed items, each piece has powers on its own when affixed to a mundane standard: the magical ensign still works when attached to a nonmagical pole, for instance. In addition, it is possible to use all three parts of the standard together without attuning the set. The individual powers of the components are, though quite minor, still useful. However, the standard must be attuned to provide any of the more powerful synergy bonuses described below.
A character can only attune the standard once two parts of the item are connected. If you are using the alternative ritual attunement rules, attuning the standard requires the possessor to plant it in the ground and hold it secure while commanding troops to victory in a battle involving at least twenty combatants.
When a character attunes to the standard, which requires two parts of the item, the wielder can from then on sense the direction toward the last piece, though no sense of the distance is communicated.
The Brave Banner (Ensign). While the ensign is attached to a pole, pole-arm, or staff, the bearer of the standard has advantage on saving throws against fear effects. The flag is made of silk died a rich and vibrant green. The edges are finished with golden thread. The embroidered image of a three-headed dog in the middle of the banner is a deep, blood red.
The Ashen Stave (Pole). The pole acts as a +1 pike. If the ensign or ornament are attached, they can be removed with a standard or bonus action. However, if both the ensign and ornament are attached to the pole when it is used in combat, the wielder suffers Disadvantage on attack rolls. While the pole is planted in the ground and grasped, adversaries cannot physically force the bearer of the standard to move from his or her current position, so long as the bearer is conscious. Against magical effects that would move the standard bearer on a failed save, he or she has Advantage on the saving throw. If the effect wouldn’t normally permit a saving throw, a saving throw is permitted. The pole is a 10-foot ashen shaft of incredible strength and resilience. It has a mount for the ornament on one end and a sharp triangular spearhead on the other that can be used as a weapon.
The Three-Headed Hound (Ornament). While the ornament is attached to a pole-arm, pole, or staff, the bearer of the standard gains Advantage on checks for both Initiative and Perception. The Ornament for the standard is a frighteningly lifelike rendition of three wolfish heads snarling in different directions. One head is made from gold, one from adamantium, and one from mithral. All three figures are set with piercing cabochon-cut emeralds for eyes. The bearer of any standard that is adorned with the ornament is sometimes granted flashes of visions. The nature of the visions is left up to the GM, but might be images that the heads have witnessed in their past, or they might glimpse what is going on around other parts of the standard, or they might be fleeting images from a possible future.
Synergy Bonus: Ensign & Pole. This synergy bonus takes effect if the bearer has both ensign and pole, and has attuned to the standard. As an action, the bearer can plant the standard in the ground and speak the command word “Defend.” If the standard is already planted, speaking the command word still takes an action. When the command word is given, any creature friendly to the bearer that is within 60 feet of the standard is granted a bonus of +1 to AC and saving throws. The effect ends after 10 minutes. This power can be used just once per day, recharging each dawn.
Synergy Bonus: Ensign & Ornament. This synergy bonus takes effect if the bearer has both ensign and ornament attached to the same shaft, and has attuned to the standard. As an action, the bearer can plant the standard in the ground and speak the command word “Rout.” If the standard is already planted, speaking the command word still takes an action. When the command word is spoken, each hostile creature within 60 feet of the standard must make a DC 14 (DC 16 if the pole is also connected) Wisdom save or become frightened of the standard. At the beginning of its turn, each creature so frightened must use its full movement to get as far away from the standard as it can, though it can maneuver to avoid obvious threats as long as it doesn’t move closer to the standard. At the end of its turn, each creature affected by the standard may roll a new save, and if it succeeds the creature is no longer frightened of the standard. This power can be used just once per day, recharging each dawn.
Synergy Bonus: Pole & Ornament. This synergy bonus takes effect if the bearer has both pole and ornament, and has attuned to the standard. As an action, the bearer can plant the standard in the ground and speak the command word “Attack.” If the standard is already planted, speaking the command word still takes an action. When the command word is spoken, any creature friendly to the bearer who is within 60 feet of the standard is granted a bonus of +1 to attack and damage rolls. The effect ends after 10 minutes. This power can be used just once per day, recharging each dawn.†