Sunday, September 13, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 6: Dedicated Weapons

It's been a spell! But there's a slight chill arriving on the evening breeze, and the time has come to discuss curses once more. To review past entries in this series, click here.

This time we tackle the subject of Dedicated Weapons, (often intelligent) magic items created to fulfill a specific mission or to combat a specific foe. This is a broad subject, so we'll discuss loyal retainers and crusaders this time, and traps and haunted possessions next time.

Part 1
It's a dark time for Evenwald. The stony mountains surrounding the valley kingdom have shrieked with the fury of the trolls all winter, and everyone knows that as soon as the snows melt they will fall upon the humans as they did a hundred years ago. Only Berglancer, the ancient sword of the Evenwald kings, offers any hope for the isolated folk, for no troll can behold the baleful glare of its blade and live.

So Berglancer, the legendary blade of the Evenwalds, totally rocks, right? If you’re a lord or paladin of the king’s line, no troll can defeat you while you’re wielding it. But what if you’re a troll who finds it by looting an Evenwald tomb? What happens if you decide to unsheathe it and take on some humans? Or, to shift to a PC-centric point of view, imagine an intelligent sword forged by the drow to detect and slay the hated humans of the sun-lit lands. How would she feel about being discovered and claimed by one of the despised humans?

To the point: What happens when you try to use an item that has an agenda, either sentient or by its nature, that conflicts with your own? Perhaps it is merely loyal to a previous owner or master and wishes to be rescued. Maybe it’s on a mission and attempts to force your aide against your will. Worse yet, maybe it was created to destroy you or someone, anyone of your race, alignment, or allegiance.

Loyal Retainers
And the giant sat down, and his wife brought up a whole sheep for his dinner. When he had eaten it all up, he said, "Now bring me my harp, and I will have a little music while you take your walk."
The giantess obeyed, and returned with a beautiful harp. The framework was all sparkling with diamonds and rubies, and the strings were all of gold.
"This is one of the nicest things I took from the knight," said the giant. "I am very fond of music, and my harp is a faithful servant." So he drew the harp towards him, and said, "Play!"
And the harp played a very soft, sad air. "Play something merrier!" said the giant. And the harp played a merry tune.
"Now play me a lullaby," roared the giant, and the harp played a sweet lullaby, to the sound of which its master fell asleep.
Then Jack stole softly into the giant's room and seized the harp and ran away with it; but as he jumped over the threshold the harp called out, "Master! Master!"

Loyal retainers are enchanted items that owe allegiance to someone the characters are at odds with. This is certainly the case with the golden harp from “Jack and the Beanstalk”. It works actively to prevent its theft.

Not all loyal retainers are as outwardly proactive. Sauron’s Ring, a more extreme loyal retainer, is seemingly passive and inert. However, it is, you might say, tricksy. It too desires to be reunited with its creator, but it does so subtly, by tempting, corrupting, and consuming its bearer—slowly if he lacks ambition, more speedily if he craves power. Its use is addictive, and the bearer finds it increasingly difficult to cast it aside or even stop using it—even knowing it will destroy his soul. One might debate to what extent the Ring possesses self-awareness, but that’s beside the point. It knows enough to slip off fingers when it’s ready to move on, when to inspire dark temptations, and when to slip on fingers when doing so brings it closer to discovery by Mordor’s allies. Now, that’s a dedicated item with a curse!

The sky’s the limit on wondrous loyal retainers. Let your imagination run wild. A household the characters are breaking into might contain a pair of self-lighting candlesticks that scream if removed from the dining room by strange hands, for example. Or a lamia’s prized magic mirror might reveal false information to those who steal it to enable its mistress to recover it (perhaps it chooses not to reveal that the characters are being pursued even when asked).

Crusaders and Avengers
“Strike him down. By the blessed Shutra, you must do it.”
“Shut up.”
“If you do not slay him, he will continue mocking nature with his unnatural life, long after your bones are dust. Even now, he defiles the earth with his footsteps and his accursed shadow. He and his kind must be cut from the earth’s womb for what they did to the servants of the most beneficent Kaudra, blessing be upon his get.”
“That was a thousand years ago; who cares?”
“Then let us speak of the present. You and I did most of the work in bringing down that medusa, and yet the wondrous dagger it guarded was claimed by one who did not even sully himself with close and honorable combat. Why divide what is rightfully yours with one who will live forever? Is immortality not reward enough?”
“You cannot trust the elf, my friend. He wants the fruits of your labor, and he is clever enough to get them with you none the wiser. Thank Shutra I am here to look after you and teach you the wisdom of the Holy Order…”

What’s not to like a +1 scimitar (+2 vs. elves)? I mean, even if you don’t whack elves with it, it’s still got a lot going for it. Its only real drawback is that, when it isn’t attempting to convert its wielder to the unpalatable religion of its maker, it’s explaining why the elf in the party and every other elf in the realm needs to die a painful and immediate death. If the sword has a low intelligence it can be played for laughs. If it has a high Egoism rating and can dominate its bearer… well, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

As we noted in the opening, intelligent magical items created to serve as weapons against certain races, civilizations, or classes are likely prone to hating that which they are created to destroy. One might encourage his wielder to continue his crusade, while another is content to serve her original masters by concealing her true allegiance and using her gifts to lead her wielder to his doom (or to her masters, if they still exist). Still another might convey some disadvantage to those who refuse to seek out its enemies (and we’ve covered lots of disadvantages in past installments).

Some items might be perfectly stable most of the time, only revealing a personality defect in certain situations. For example, a weapon made by some traditional enemy of the PCs (racial or species enemies like goblins or drow, not personal enemies) that falls into their hands may feign loyalty unless put into a situation where through treachery, it might return to its true masters.

Even unintelligent weapons might be a threat in certain situations. Imagine a +1 axe that puts its user in a berserk fighting trance when facing its hated treant foe.

If the item is intelligent, it might be a while before you realize that it's working against you. The prospects of betrayal by a resource you rely on in times of peril puts the dedicated weapon (or other sort of magic item) well into the danger zone of our continuum of cursed items.

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which we touch on trojan horse magic items and magical traps (nice puzzle box!).