Weapon of Change

June 2013

Written by Bryan Fazekas

This article was originally published in & Magazine Issue 5 in May 2013. Please note that the fiction section is the author's original version. The version published in the magazine was shortened for editorials reasons.


Magic weapons are not always what they seem to be


Wisl of Coomb drummed his fingers on the table, visibly irritated and obviously expecting faster results. Gislhere sighed quietly. Illiterate nobles showed impatience while others searched for information they were intrinsically incapable of finding. But men like Wisl paid the fees that supported research and purchased yet more books and scrolls.

The sixth volume checked had the reference the scholar sought. He looked up brightly at his temporary employer.

"You found the information I need?"

"Yes, my lord. Your battle axe is indeed an important weapon with a long history prior to your grandfather winning it in battle."

* * *

Kneeling with head bowed, the soldier waited while the senior priest completed the first part of the ceremony. The incense burned his sinuses and eyes, but the soldier's patience and acceptance of suffering, lessons learned through hard experience, kept him in place.

The priest completed his chanting in the old tongue, "Rise, Irminric, soldier of Donblas!" The soldier surged smoothly to his feet, no hint of cramping caused by thirty minutes of kneeling visible on his face or in his actions.

Lifting the axe from the pillow the priest presented it to Irminric. Head bowed the soldier accepted the weapon, its weight nothing in his strong hands. "Do you swear to use this weapon for justice, to use it bravely and with good intent in your duties as a protector of the People?"

"I do swear!" The young man's face flushed with a rush of emotion kept barely in check.

* * *

In an anteroom Irminric questioned the priest, "Oswald, you said that Donblas blessed this axe. What does that mean?"

"This axe is imbued with powerful magics, different from what wizards place on weapons, but powerful none the less. Unlike wizard-built weapons this one does not bear a single level of power. Instead its power varies with the power of its wielder."

"When a wizard enspells a weapon he casts one or more spells upon the weapon and then binds the spells permanently to it. Priests do not wield such magics." Oswald mentally debated a few moments on how to proceed. "We use the magics granted us by our god to perform a similar, but very different, thing."

Irminric frowned but before he could utter a word the priest drew a breath and continued, "This weapon began when I commissioned a weapon of the highest quality. It is constructed of a star iron and mithril alloy – rust-proof, harder yet more flexible, and more accepting of spells than mere steel. We senior priests consecrated it and cast spells upon it, setting its direction and preparing it for blessing by Donblas himself!"

Noting that Irminric listened intently as if spellbound, he continued, "Then we prayed to Donblas to bless the weapon. He did so, and the result is the weapon you now hold in your hands."

"This axe has an edge no non-magical weapon could have, and it will maintain that edge against most targets. It will strike creatures whose skin or hide are proof against mundane weapons, and will even pierce the skin of demons and other unnatural creatures! It's powers are greatest against undead monsters. Beyond that I don't know for sure."

The priest spoke in a more heated tone, "Donblas' blessing is a powerful thing, more powerful than all but a few other gods that might approach his strength. Until you use it we don't know all it may do." In a softer tone the priest continued, "But just as important is the wielder. The more skilled the pious one who wields it, the more powerful the blade becomes."

* * *

Irminric's knees buckled when the heavy sword slammed into his shield, but he kept on his feet. The necromancer's human guards were without exception big, strong, and skilled in sword play. This one battering his shield was enough to nearly unman him.

Shunting the guard's follow-up strike aside with the shield Irminric struck in return, his magically sharp axe splitting the guard's shield down the middle and shattering his arm. Controlling but not slowing the motion of the axe Irminric spun it in a figure eight and decapitated his opponent.

He staggered to help his men who were losing to the necromancer's other guards. Two of Donblas' soldiers were dead or dying, two were badly wounded, and the remaining two bleeding from minor wounds. Irminric hit the first guard from behind, dropping him instantly and carrying the motion into the second. The remaining two guards lost focus, turning to deal with a greater danger. The lapse in focus proved fatal as the soldiers used the distraction to bloodily end the fight.

Irminric checked his downed men – both were dead. Pulling strips of clean cloth from a pouch on his belt, he quickly bound the wounds of the living. "Shock and loss of blood often kill when the wounds won't."

"We're outnumbered and badly damaged. Pick up Regenhere and Samlis – we'll not leave their bodies for the necromancer to desecrate!" The least wounded men shouldered the dead and moved to follow their leader.

Leading the way out of the building into the courtyard, Irminric stopped cold. In the moonlight stood the necromancer's reinforcements – a dozen zombies – mindless animated bodies capable of using weapons and following simple directions such as "kill" – led by the stinking form of a wight.

Zombies reacted relatively slowly so in the open the fast moving, well trained soldiers could defeat greater numbers. But the wight changed the odds badly – it's touch burned with cold and sucked life from its victims. Worse than death was the fate of one drained of life by the abomination!

Irminric lunged forward and hacked downward on the closest zombie, striking the joint between neck and shoulder. The super-sharp blade sliced through the leather armor cladding the undead thing, hacking through undead flesh and bone. Light flashed from the axe blade, bright to the human soldiers, blinding to the undead. The stink of the rotting bodies mixed with the stench of burned flesh – the flash burned the undead and staggered them.

"AT THEM!" Irminric stepped past the nearest two zombies and hacked at the third. Its sword arm now gone at the elbow the zombie tried to hug the young soldier. Gagging at the stench Irminric stepped under the lunge and swung back to sever a leg at mid-thigh.

Moving on he battered the next in line with his shield, ducked a slash, spun, and decapitated the fifth that moved in on his left. Another burst of light illuminated the area and burned the zombies. Eight of the dozen were down and the remaining four reeled from the damage. The three surviving soldiers didn't hesitate to attack while chance favored them.

The second flash left the wight staggering in circles, stunned to insensibility. The magical axe's third flash scorched the remaining zombies.

* * *

"Your axe was handed down from father to son for 12 generations in the Willic family, until Irminric V lost it, along with his life, in battle against your grandfather."

"I know that, I know that!" howled the nobleman, hammering on the small table with both hands. "Why did it work so well for my father but not for me!".

"Yes, I'm getting to that. This axe is very potent against the living dead, capable of slashing and hacking through their flesh, such as it is, with more facility than against the living. On a killing stroke it emits a burst of pure light that burns all nearby undead while any undead possessing a mind may be stunned."

"That is the powers of this weapon. Why it worked better for your father than for you? This weapon is blessed by Donblas. Devout followers of Donblas, as well as followers of Osiris and Heironeous his allies, are granted use of it's powers. If you don't follow Donblas, Osiris, or Heironeous the powers against undead won't work."

The Baron of Coomb was uncharacteristically silent as he digested that information.

Eyeing the nobleman, Gislhere continued, "Just as importantly weapons of this nature gain a portion of their power from the wielder. The more powerful and skillful the wielder, the greater the powers of the axe. Your father was both a great axeman and a faithful follower of Osiris. My understanding is that you are neither, so until both conditions change you will never master this weapon."

The Problem

Early in my DM career I found it easy to use the treasure tables in the Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide, blithely putting in whatever the dice rolls indicated. As the members of my first campaign gained levels they amassed a mess of +1 and +2 weapons and armor. Around 7th level when they were seeking henchmen this proved useful as they had spare weapons to sweeten the employment agreements. But a few levels later the backlog of +1 and +2 items returned and some characters had enough magical weapons and armor to literally equip a small army.

Learning from experience I switched tactics, putting in less magic items. Those I chose were targeted specifically for the party, not necessarily according to dice roll. This solved that problem but one remained: a character acquires a +1 weapon. What happens to it in a few more levels when that character acquires a +2 weapon? The typical answer is that it gets written down on a "stored items" sheet and forgotten. Targeting magic items reduces the problem of excess weapons but doesn't eliminate it.

One Solution

One solution is to design weapons that increase in power as the user gains levels. There's no need to design a replacement weapon as the weapon effectively replaces itself over time.

This idea addresses another problem common to virtually any role playing game: the game may eventually become just more of the same, over and over again. Here's a typical situation: Fighter acquires magic weapon. Magic user casts Identify and says, "This is a +1 weapon". Fighter uses it until he acquires a +2 weapon then shelves the +1. Later on history repeats itself when the fighter acquires a +3 weapon. No mystery, no wondering, just routine "stuff". Lather, rinse, repeat.

Instead make the +1 weapon a Weapon of Change. Fighter uses weapon previously identified as +1. Fighter gains a level or three and discovers the weapon is now +2! He also discovers (by accident) that a previously unknown power functions. Goes to another magic user who identifies it and says "+1 weapon". Fighter gains more levels and discovers weapon now hits at +3 and displays even more powers! Another identify again indicates "+1". [Note: This is not the by-the-book usage of Identify.]

Even a player with decades of playing experience wonders, "What the ...?"

The fighter finally takes the weapon to a temple of the deity whose symbols are etched on the weapon. A senior cleric researches it (for a fee!) and tells the fighter that the weapon was created by clerics of that deity centuries ago. To anyone other than a follower of that deity (or optionally that deity's allies or the same alignment) it's a +1 weapon, which is what Identify says it is. But to the select few it's a Weapon of Change that increases in power and ability as its wielder does.

So the player now has something new to look forward to with each level change -- checking the weapon to see if any new powers activate. Identify doesn't work -- and sages, legend lore, commune, etc. may or may not reveal details, hints, or riddles at the DM's discretion.

Axe of Donblas

The weapon in the story is a Battle Axe +1, usable by anyone. For followers of Donblas or his allies it becomes far more powerful. As the wielder's level increases the "normal plus" of the weapon increases when used against all types of opponents. Against undead it becomes more potent as the Plus Against Undead column indicates (see table).

Special Powers: On a killing stroke (hit that reduces an undead to 0 hit points or less) that is at least 5 points above the minimum necessary to hit (including all bonuses), the blade emits a flash of light. This light illuminates a radius from the wielder and is bright but not blinding to mortal creatures. All undead within the radius suffer burn damage and possible stunning.

For example, a 1st level fighter uses this axe. For her the weapon is +3 vs. undead and she requires a 13 to hit a skeleton. Any adjusted to-hit roll of 18 or greater that inflicts enough damage to destroy the skeleton triggers the special power and inflicts 1d4 damage against all undead within 10'. Adjusted rolls of 13 to 17 will hit but not trigger the power.

GP value 2,000-10,000; XP value 800-4,000

Why variable XP and GP values? The axe's power varies by the wielder's level, so award XP according to that. At the DM's discretion additional XP can be awarded as the PC discovers additional powers.

Wielder's LevelNormal PlusPlus Against UndeadSpecial Powers Against Undead
1+1+3Flash illuminates 10' radius, and inflicts 1d4 points of damage to all undead within flash.
5+2+4Flash illuminates 10' radius, and inflicts 1d4 points of damage to all undead within flash. Intelligent undead in range save vs. Spell at +3 or be stunned for 1d4 rounds.
9+3+5Flash illuminates 15' radius, and inflicts 2d4 points of damage to all undead within flash. Intelligent undead in range save vs. Spell at +2 or be stunned for 1d4 rounds.
13+4+6Flash illuminates 15' radius, and inflicts 2d4 points of damage to all undead within flash. Intelligent undead in range save vs. Spell at +1 or be stunned for 1d4 rounds.
17+5+7Flash illuminates 20' radius, and inflicts 3d4 points of damage to all undead within flash. Intelligent undead in range save vs. Spell or be stunned for 1d4 rounds.

Why Cleric Made Items?

According to the Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) (page 116) all magic items excepting a few usable only by clerics and those specific to certain races (like Hammer of the Dwarven Thrower) are made by magic users. So by the book clerics can make some magic items. If a DM chooses to allow clerics to make magic items that is simply an extension of an existing rule. Given the mysticism typically inherent in any religion, it makes sense that a cleric made item may not work out exactly as the maker plans, since the deity is supplying the power that makes it work. It's even possible that, depending on the deity, the deity may not know (or remember or care) exactly what powers an item possesses.

Can PC clerics make such items? That's up to each DM -- this article doesn't contain rules for item creation, merely a new dimension that can be added to any campaign.

Especially for players who have been playing for decades, this brings a new concept to the game. They have to work to find out what an item does. It's something out of the ordinary and brings freshness to the table.

More Ideas

This same concept can be applied to other weapons, armor, even miscellaneous magic items. Consider a ring that performs detection spells (Detect Magic, Poison, Traps, etc). Increases in level could enable more castings per day and broaden the type of Detect spells available. The Detect spells could be invoked at a level equal to the wearer's level.

Powers can be automatic or they can require command words or special gestures (let the player figure out what gesture just caused a power to activate!). Finding information may require an extended adventure, or series of adventures. With a bit of ingenuity the DM can entertain the entire group for months or even years with a single item.

Author's note: While proofing this article I realized there was more to say on the subject. So while assembling quesadillas with my sons we dreamed up the following items.

Moa's Bracers of Defense

These magical bracers appear to be typical Bracers of Defense AC7, providing armor class 7 protection to any who wear it. However, magic users who worship Aarth discover these bracers provide additional abilities to the faithful. At first level the bracers do, indeed, provide AC7 protection, which improves as the magic user increases in level.

At higher levels the magic user will discover another bonus – the bracers provide a bonus on saving throws identical to that provided by a Ring of Protection. The following table summarizes the armor class and saving throws by level.

LevelACSave Bonus
17-
36+1
55+1
74+2
93+2
112+3

GP value 9,000-24,000; XP value 2,400-7,200

Ring of Shadows

Szürkeegér the Bold first wore this ring, which he stole from the clerics of Zagyg. They had prepared it for a high ranking member of the faithful, but Zagyg was so pleased with Szürkeegér's boldness that he obscured the knowledge of who stole the ring from his clergy.

The Ring identifies as a Ring of Protection +1, and it does indeed provide that ability to all who wear it.

Thief followers of Zagyg who tithe regularly discover a number of improvements in their thieving skills. They receive a bonus of 3% per level in their skills of Pick Pockets, Open Locks, Find/Remove Traps, Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, Hear Noise, and Climb Walls.

At 7th level the faithful may discover that they can detect a non-magical trap merely by examining an item without touching it. If the roll is successful they will know for sure if a trap does or does not exist. Removing or disarming the trap requires yet another roll.

At 10th level the faithful may discover the ability to climb walls as if a Spider Climb spell is in effect. This ability can be used 3 times per day and each usage has a duration of 3 rounds per level.

Should the faithful fail to properly tithe the god, the former benefits will be reversed, with a 3% per level penalty on all thieving skills. Attempts to examine a trap will always be wrong, and the Spider Climb ability will terminate after 1d6+2 rounds.

Non-thieves and thieves who do not tithe Zagyg regularly discover that the ring acts as cursed, with a 1% cumulative chance per day that the wearer will be overcome with the desire to pick someone's pocket. Accursed thieves will gain a bonus of 30% in picking pockets, while non-thieves will discover they have basic thief ability while wearing the ring, a 30% chance of success. The wearer will not realize their growing obsession with thievery until they actually pick someone's pocket. Until this time they may easily remove the ring, but after the first attempt a Remove Curse from a cleric of 7th level or higher is required to discard the ring. Once the curse is activated the victim will randomly pick someone's pocket each day until the curse is removed or the hapless thief is hanged, at which time the ring can easily be removed.

GP value 4,500-13,500; XP value 1,500-4,500

Diadem of Thoth

The Diadem of Thoth is a distinctive item, a mesh of the finest platinum set with a large golden beryl in the front with three smaller stones on either side. As a piece of jewelry it has fetched a price in excess of 25,000 gp.

This item does not radiate magic. However, if a cleric of Thoth places the diadem upon their head, they will immediately realize it contains powerful magic.

For 1st level clerics the Diadem acts a Ring of Protection +1, providing a bonus to armor class and to all saving throws.

Any detection spell cast by a cleric of Thoth while wearing the diadem is cast as if the cleric were three levels higher. Furthermore, spell ranges are doubled and any applicable saving throws are at -3.

At 3rd level the cleric may take Detect Invisibility as a 1st level spell, casting it as would a magic user. At 5th level the cleric may take Detect Illusion as a 2nd level spell. At 7th level the cleric may take as a 3rd level spell a form of Detect Traps which function precisely as a Wand of Trap Detection. Note that these are not additional spells – the cleric must use an existing spell slot for the spell. Also note that the diadem must be worn while praying/meditating for the spells and must be worn while casting. It may be removed in between.

For non-clerical faithful followers of Thoth the diadem acts as a Ring of Protection +1, and for non-followers it is completely inert.

GP value 4,500-13,500; XP value 1,500-4,500


Copyright 2013 Bryan Fazekas