The RPG Blog Carnival for July is about Weapons of Legend, a topic that is near and dear to my heart. In Dust to Dust, there are eleven living weapons of immense power. In D&D terms, you'd call them artifact-level weapons, and not wussy artifacts, either. There are also Named weapons, which are greater in number but less individually powerful. However, as the campaign is still ongoing, I can't talk about them without a mighty lot of spoilers. Instead, I'm going to talk about some techniques that we've used to make Living and Named weapons essential to the story, and some of the theory that went into our initial decision.
A Named weapon, in Dust to Dust, is one that has accomplished a Great Deed. (Armor, shields, and locations can also be Named.) The qualifications of "Great Deed" are deliberately opaque, as we don't want to argue with players over whether a Great Deed has occurred. Players sometimes receive Named weapons as loot, and sometimes grant a Name to weapons they already own.
What does Naming accomplish? By this point, I think enough of DtD's players know the answer that it isn't a spoiler: when the item is enchanted with a specific lesser, greater, and master enchantment, it gains one or more additional properties from its Name. Items can otherwise only receive one lesser, one greater, and one master enchantment.
The theory behind Named items is that players would love Naming their own gear and telling stories about the Deed that made it worthy. We expected that they would also love hearing stories referencing the history of the Named item - a text prop or oral tale about an unrelated topic that included a passing reference to their item would make them feel cool by association. Essentially, they're going along absorbing a bunch of new information, and something familiar unexpectedly turns up in the middle of it, pointing out that the thing they already have is more important than they previously realized.
A while back, I talked about the complexities of magic items in long-term LARPs. The short version is that our rules system doesn't handle straight numerical bonuses well, and permanent magic items steepen the advantage that long-term players have over new players. Named weapons engage this concern by not doing anything unless you're also funneling a lot of money and other resources into sustaining their enchantments. They're better, but you might not take advantage of the thing that makes them better a lot of the time. It feels cool to have one even when it isn't powered-up, though, especially because they often have extra-fancy visual design.
The function of Named weapons relies pretty heavily on the structure of Forge Magic in DtD, but DtD is far from the first setting to declare that gear became more powerful through use in Great Deeds - Earthdawn springs to mind here, but D&D has made nods in that direction as well. It's tough to justify a ton of rings of protection from Great Deeds, though. As many of those things as seem to be floating around, and as generic as they feel, "Great" gets diluted. One of the things I like most about 5e is its trend toward a smaller number of more interesting and memorable items, as this makes it easier to attach story to them.
It would be hard for me to imagine a setting or society that didn't place a high value on storytelling, and that's all it really takes to use our approach to Named weapons. Everything else is a negotiable element of implementation. I think a lot of game designers and game-runners who create weapons of legend as part of the setting stop at giving the weapon one significant bearer and one significant event in its history, but ideally it feels more like a through-line of the setting's history.
A lot of what I have to say about Living Weapons is "like Named weapons, but more so." We wrote Living Weapons into DtD because we are huge fans of Steven Brust, and because we wanted a small number of things that were more powerful, famous, and permanent than Named weapons. One of the cosmological rules of Living Weapons is that eleven of them exist at any time, and a new one can only come into being when another is destroyed. That world rule has driven the story more than I could have hoped when we decided on it. (I've always had a taste for odd-but-inviolate world laws that, I hope, intrigue the players and draw them in to find out why, and drive endless in-character conversations.)
There's one case here that I can talk about in some detail. Some of these Living Weapons are Good, some are Evil, and some are hard to pin down. Earlier this year, the PCs learned the location of one of the Utterly Evil ones, called Aethershred; its primary ability is killing just about everything, but especially the genius loci that preserve the memory of the world. After an immense amount of debate, a group of PCs accepted the aid of a servant of a Major Evil (who was, nevertheless, dedicated to the destruction of Aethershred). They retrieved the weapon, took it to the cosmic forge, slagged it, and made a new weapon in its place, one that doesn't want to kill everything - just the enemies that the PCs and the aforementioned Major Evil both hate.
While we're on this topic, I want to reiterate one of the core tenets of my game-running beliefs: three-way conflicts are the best because they never have to end. Any two sides can gang up on a third side to re-level the playing field.
With all that I've said about the problems of PCs gaining powerful magic items, it might seem untenable to allow a PC to wield a Living Weapon. We've put a few of them in PC hands, though, and some in a lasting manner. The idea is to make them relevant enough to the story that they create content - and tension - for more than just the player wielding the weapon. In the case of Aethershred, no PC would want to wield it - you're destined to lose the contest against its malevolence, and then you're killing your friends. Its replacement, Crusader, was given into the keeping of a powerful NPC, who may sometimes give it to other characters - PC or NPC - for limited terms. This spreads around the fun of wielding the weapon and feeling like a rockstar; it's also possible that the weapon might show up in an enemy's hands. The players initiated the plan for Crusader; the ally-antagonist NPCs added a few wrinkles, and the unfathomable nature of the High Mysteries of magic added a few more, which is to say that we had a lot of room to design a major encounter as the climax of this story.
Even more than with Named weapons, we went out of our way to make Living Weapons show up at multiple important times in the setting's history, and to have them discussed from multiple points of view. At this point in the campaign, the players can recognize almost all of the Living Weapons on sight, and have some good information about what it means when one of those weapons shows up in an enemy NPC's hands. That then means they've become a part of the game's visual language: if the mace Shadecall shows up, you're going to fight a hundred million shades, and the bearer has the backing of a particular Major Evil. If the paired green swords known as the Children show up... it might be time to reconsider your life decisions. If they show up in a PC's hands, all bets are off.
This is harder to do effectively in a tabletop environment. For one thing, the visceral effect of seeing the weapons is harder to pull off in a GM's description. I'm interested in adapting some of these techniques into my own tabletop games, and as I explore them, I'm sure I'll post about them further.
I also have to note that Shattered Isles, King's Gate, and Eclipse have all done comparable things - Shattered Isles had Grimslayer, Ring-cutter, and other powerful, dangerous weapons; King's Gate allowed me to make Steadfast (and oh yeah, there were some other awesome weapons as well, but I'm super biased); and Eclipse has Dreamguard, the Sword of al'Eld, Lightning and Thunder, Victory, Death, Hunger, and War, and so on. All of these are great examples of hanging rich stories off of cool weapons of legend.