Today’s excellent guest article by Gnome Stew reader Laurence Gillespie is a response to a previous guest article, Can a Sword Smile. Guest articles about Guest articles? Gnomeception! – John A.
The following is a response to Robert Neri Jr’s article “Can a Sword Smile” which appeared on November 10, 2015. I have taken the liberty (hope that’s OK Robert!) of quoting him in a few places to show how my suggestions attempt to support the case he made there.
“Can a Sword Smile” makes some good points about how magic swords can be customized and fleshed out to give them an increased “role within the gaming narrative”. One way to enhance this even further is to invest such swords with personality. This too can, to quote Robert Neri, “add flavor and detail to the game setting” and “add some complication” to otherwise “straight forward campaigns”.
Magic sword personality is manifested primarily by their performance (or lack thereof) in combat. It is generally a negative. At one extreme, swords with attitude may simply refuse to be drawn or wielded in situations that conflict with their raison d’etre, the reason for which they were forged or may under-perform for characters who fail to address the special challenges posed by the sword’s personality. Even swords wielded in causes they support can prove liabilities if they insist on fighting when their owners would rather flee, parley or take prisoners.
Personalities can also be manifested in a more spectacular manner by swords with more colourful magical abilities, such as flaming swords, since they may have more ways to make their displeasure known than traditional +1 swords and the like. Even less flamboyant swords, however, can be an unholy marriage of a killer “to-hit” bonus with a personality only a blacksmith could love. When that sword of victory comes with attitude players will truly learn the meaning of that old saying “can’t live with them, can’t live without them”.
With these kinds of swords, the “where it was made” or “who made it” is often less important than the “why”, since sword attitudes can usually be traced to the circumstances of their forging. This can help the GM bring out aspects of the campaign background, since these can be linked to optimum use of a sword with attitude. Players who snooze or text their way through the GM’s mandatory intro lecture on the great elf-dwarf wars of yore could get a nasty surprise when their invincible dwarf-blade stalls out on them just as they’re about to rescue the elven princess from the dragon. Similarly players baffled as to why their sword fails to come through in certain situations may start paying more attention to those pesky “campaign background” details. At the very least they may start looking at the manufacturer’s label more carefully.
Personality as Game Balance
Personality can also serve an important play-balancing function for otherwise invincible weapons. Sure you may be wielding the ineffable sword of doom but what if it refuses to fight certain monsters for political or game background reasons or has to be persuaded out of its sheath with flattering poetry (preferably composed and recited by the player) or a good joke every time or doesn’t fight at all at night or on weekends…?
It can also tax player ingenuity (if not patience) by adding a whole new preliminary step to combat preparation. Perhaps the orc-ambush will need to be timed to include a “high maintenance sword persuasion phase”. Perhaps the party will have to assign the wonder sword they just found not to the numbskull barbarian tank, but to the character quickest off the draw with a sword-praising limerick or a two-edged one-liner, and who can do it in a respectful whisper.
There’s clearly role-playing potential here too, at least for players with a sense of humour and more than video-game type character motivations. What if under pressure someone major fails with a groaner so bad the sword of mirth refuses even to come out of its sheath? (Can’t you just see the party’s 98-pound-weakling jester or bard rushing over to the barbarian with a “give me that!!! You call that a joke! Get out of the way!”)? Does the wielder dare rely on old material in a pinch? What if the first verse of the sword- praising poem doesn’t quite scan or isn’t a true iambic pentameter, and the barbarian and the party’s bard are on the outs? What if that mid-combat pep-talk fails to convince the elf sword “dwarf bane” that it was also designed to attack short people? What if the rest of the party has had it up to here with all the TLC one character has to lavish on his sword? What if the knightly sword simply refuses to work with “those kinds” of weapons (how dare you call them weapons??!! they’re …farm implements!)?
Even finding out what the sword’s “problem” is could pose an interesting challenge to the players. Ideally magic swords should be the strong silent types, as otherwise it’s too easy to uncover their secrets. Their attitude should come out in their actions, not talk. There may be hints in their inscriptions or in the lore surrounding them but no more. It should fall to the players to discover the rest via the usual mechanical means, such as consulting with seers, clairvoyants, fortune tellers and old wise women, seeking divine guidance or direction from lore-learned supernatural beings, the standard spells and rituals (it should be noted, however, that “detect magic” does not “detect attitude”). If the sword’s attitude is thought to be derived from some person sacrificed in the forging process, then things like séances and contact with the deceased through dreams might also work. True all this might involve a hazardous side quest or two, but the PCs knew the job was dangerous when they took it.
Personality as Bond
To counterbalance all the negative aspects of personalizing swords, it should be possible in special circumstances for characters to “bond” with their swords. This will happen only after the character has demonstrated respect for the sword over time and acted consistently with the sword’s “raison d’etre”. It doesn’t hurt to be of the class of beings the sword was forged to favour, if applicable. Characters that have bonded with their swords are able to sense what the sword likes and how the sword is feeling in any given situation. Conceivably this could come easier for a character with a background in weapon smithing or a skill/ability like “weapon sense, read iron”, etc. or some other special sensitivity.
Swords that have bonded in this way will never fumble and have double the normal chances of doing a critical hit. They may show their enthusiasm in other ways by coming out of the sheath like a rocket, leaping into the hand of their wielder, and clanging excitedly at every opportunity. Swords like this should be named.
Magic swords with attitude can thus add a much-needed element of the unpredictable. No longer is a sword fight simply a matter of whipping out a blade and hacking away. From now on that blade will have to be motivated and you the wielder will have to make the effort to understand your sword. For that cold cutting piece of eldritch steel has feelings too.
For all the reasons cited above, personalizing magic swords like this can make the game more interesting. It will challenge the players in new ways, present some truly off-the wall roleplaying opportunities and allow the GM to make his campaign background more meaningful to the players (whether they like it or not). It also hearkens back to the way swords were thought of in pre-modern times, bringing the game closer to the sort of legends that ultimately inspired the first rpgs.
Roll Your Own Swords
For those interested in examples of “magic swords with attitudes”, I have included a table featuring some used in my game. Entries separated by a slash normally represent distinct alternatives, where this would make sense. For example, rolling a 2-5 would give the alternative of a “high maintenance sword” or a “sword of mirth”, not a sword that is both. Ditto for rolling 3-5, that gives you a “totem sword” or a “sword of the dead”, not a sword with both personalities. Download here
For those not used to roleplaying cold pieces of metal, it may help to think of the table entry as representing the essence of the personality of the person who made the sword or who was sacrificed in the forging process. Think of how a person with that kind of personality would respond to the game situations that arise.
Popular culture also provides some interesting examples of weapon systems that have a mind of their own. One could do worse than look to Dark Star’s Bomb #20 for roleplaying guidance, for example.
Those who use some kind of random personality generators in their games or who have an encounter table for special characters might be able to draw inspiration for further “magic swords with attitude” there.
As noted above, attitude can be manifested by a refusal or resistance to being drawn, reduced benefits from whatever magical benefits the sword has (a +2 might become a +1), double the chances of fumbling, double the action or strength points expended to use the sword, no chance of doing a critical, or anything else that would be appropriate to the situation, in the view of the GM. Swords that are hopelessly pandered to, bond to the character, or that are used in a fight totally in sync with the essence of the sword should have their bonuses or magical benefits enhanced, where this would be reasonable. Such swords would never fumble, have double the chance of doing a critical, and fight so enthusiastically the wielder expends no energy or strength points. A mischievous GM is always free to craft exceptions, of course (a totally world class triggering joke might well make it hard for the sword of mirth to focus for the first melee round or two, but it should make up for it with an enhanced benefit for the rest of the fight). Stopping a sword that insists on fighting on would require a major exercise of will on the part of the wielder and the expenditure of strength or energy points, at the very least.
Do you have sentient weapons in the party? What kind of personalities do they have and how do they interact with the party?