Depending on your game, and the level of magic in your game for some of those games, your approach to magic weapons is going to change. For some games a +1 magic sword is something that every adventurer should have at least one of, if not two to three as back up weapons to their real source of damage. In other games, that same +1 magic sword is a family heirloom that has been passed down through generations and is one of the most venerable and highly valued weapons in existence. Either way, a well done magic weapon can almost have a character of its own and a real impact on a game. Today, I want to talk about that.
A Tale of Two Swords
As so many of these posts of late have been, this one is inspired by my thoughts on something going on in one of my games. See, in the L5R game I am running one of the PCs - a Tsi Smith - sacrificed his life in the forging of two weapons that he, literally, poured all of his heart, soul, and talent into. The two blades - Truth and Redemption - are now wandering about the empire on the hips of a couple of folks, but I'm itching to do more with them. There is the potential here to lay a mythology in my game as awesome as those for Excalibur, Gae Bulg, and the Aegis. The question is how do I do it? As such, I'm likely going to be returning to these two swords in much of my rambling here.
Know Your World
To make your weapon have a story, and character, in the world you first have to know the world. By know the world I don't mean be able to draw a map of it. I mean you have to know the people who live in the world, how they act as a society, and what kind of things do they value. Think about the great weapons we have in western mythology, what they exemplify, and how they do so. Often these weapons exemplify the merits of the wielder, but this also goes with the focus on the individual hero that many in Western mythology has. Still, by knowing the people and society the weapon will be a part of, you can better plant the weapon in the mythology of the world.
For my own weapons, the world I am running in is Rolugan. Rokugan is a mess of eastern philosophies and "ways of life" as viewed through the eyes of westerners. Ultimately though, the majority of the society is based off of feudal Japan and the samurai way of life as depicted in the court romances of the 15th-17th centuries. Yes, things can be brutal and violent, but there is also a romantic ideology going around. One of the chief views from this is the idea that the sword (specifically katana) is the soul of the wielder, and through that that in the case of awakened - magic - weapons will only work for someone whose soul fits the weapons purpose. Yes, these purposes can be changed, but in rokugan an awakened weapon literally has a soul of its own.
Names Are Important
Despite what poets like to say, names are important. They give us a sense of who someone is. Think about it for a second: how many times has someone called you by a name that isn't yours? How many times has that name been the same name despite every possible difference being there between the two people? Almost everyone who gets my name wrong calls me Andrew for some reason. It is apparently just the vibe Furthermore, almost any magic system I've ever seen has one common rule: names have power. This is true for weapons as well. The name of the weapon will speak to the purpose or use of the weapon. Are you going to assume that a weapon named "Soul Reaver" is a good aligned weapon or more likely to be in the hands of some sort of Death Knight? By the same token weapons with names like "Vigilance" and "Whimsy" give us very different ideas of the person who may have named and/or wielded the weapon. Even more obscure names like "10,000 Frozen Nights" and "Whispered Breath" give us some sort of impression to the weapon. Names have power. Respect this when making your weapon, keep it in line with the above point about knowing the world, and keep both in mind as you work on the weapon itself.
For my own weapons we have Truth and Redemption. Now these were in part named by the PC who made them, but they also fit very well into the society and setting. Truth is a very interesting thing in feudal eastern cultures. The truth is something almost everyone wants, in some form or another, it is just a basic human desire. However, in a place like Rokugan one very rarely tells the truth. Why? Because it is rude. Instead you act with sincerity instead of honesty. You tell very clever lies to get the message across without actually saying anything at all. The truth is harsh and unrelenting. It cuts through to the heart of the matter. These are qualities this weapon should likely possess, no? Redemption on the other hand is another matter entirely. Everyone loves a tale of redemption, and the Rokugani are no exception. However, there is more to it then that with the story, isn't there? Redemption was the second made - and second named - sword. What act did the Smith need to redeem himself for? How does another sword do that? There are obvious, and less obvious, connections that can be made here.
Throwing It All Together
When you throw it all together: the story of the weapon's creation, the place it fills/exemplifies in its host society, and the name of the weapon should all work together to give the weapon an angle and direction in the story. Will it be the sword of conquerors? Will it be a shield used to protect the down trodden? A staff or arcane power? These are all things that can come about from it. However, there is one thing that we haven't touched on yet. Something you may want to do in game, or have set in place before the game finds the weapon. Every great weapon made its name known in mythology for one reason and one reason alone: they were carried by a great person, and with that person they did great deeds. How that happens though, that is up to you.