Artifacts are awesome and there are artifacts great and classic provided for you to use straight out of various published products. But if you’re a storytelling focused DM like I am then what are the odds that your story and the story of any of those artifacts are going to be a perfect fit? Pretty slim unless you designed your story with a specific artifact in mind.
There is a lot of advice in various products on designing things like monsters, but very little on items and even less on artifacts, so here’s a chance to glimpse into the process I’ve used to create a few artifacts.
This article is inspired by a conversation I had on Twitter where I ended up making an artifact for someone called Timbala, the Orucs Slayer, a sword that once slayed the Prince of Undeath himself (he got over it, as he’s apt to do). So I’ll use Timbala as an example.
Step one, beg, borrow, and steal. Like I mentioned before. There are already a bunch of really good artifacts out there. So find one that has some key components similar to the one you want to make. For Timbala I knew I was making a sword that wanted to kill a specific sort of creature and I knew I wanted it to be a Paragon tier artifact.
So after digging around through the D&D Compendium I found something sort of close and used that as my template. Did I copy it and then just tweak? No, I went well beyond that (although if you find something close enough, do it that way, seriously, it’s super-simple).
So as you look at your template it gives you an idea of about how many powers and properties an artifact of that sort and tier should have and you can imitate that in order to create your item, but with a connection to your story and tailored to your needs.
In the case of Timbala I started to develop some story after talking to the DM of the campaign that was going to use it. I decided that Timbala was a long ago hero who defeated Orcus before the gods were well known in the world. He needed to be exotic and interesting to capture some of the long ago feel. So I avoided a greatsword or longsword, and went with the less commonplace scimitar.
I imitated some properties of my template artifact and gave boosts to initiative and specific, story-focused skills. I also figured that Timbala, the warrior-before-he-became-a-sword was a leader amongst his people and I wanted to capture that by adding some Leader-like abilities. So it has an encounter power to grant temporary hit points and give buffs for attacking its favored enemies, demons.
When I looked at powers that could be added as the artifact grows I continued to use the template for balance, but continued to focus on the story as well. Sometimes it’s just taking what you have and growing it to a higher bonus and sometimes it was a matter of sticking with the theme...make it better at killing demons or allow it to have Leader-like abilities.
When it came time to deciding the Concordance track it was a matter of looking to the story and figuring out just how important that aspect was going to be to the item. Killing demons, defending law and order, these are things that Timbala will like. Creating chaos, killing lawful good creatures, this is going to make Timbala mad. The one bit that seems a bit odd is that you get a bonus in Concordance for being trained in Arcana...but when you consider that Arcana is the skill needed to make monster knowledge checks against elemental creatures, like Demons, it starts to come together.
As I worked on the mechanics of this artifact I also ended up developing the story at the same time. The connection between the hero Timbala and the artifact-sword, it’s personality, how it behaves along the Concordance track and when it moves on. These are all natural extensions of the story implied by the mechanics.
I can’t tell you what came first, the fluff or the crunch when it comes to the details of the item, they all started flowing together for me at the same time. I didn’t add any mechanics without it making story sense and I didn’t add any story without mechanics to add gravitas to that aspect of the item.
Have you ever created an artifact before or even used one straight from the books? How do you integrate artifacts into your story? Leave a comment and let me know.
Click here to download the PDF of Timbala, the Orcus Slayer and check out Sly Flourish where I have an article focused on how to integrate artifacts into your game as a DM and Temporary Hit Points to see how players can use artifacts to guide character growth.
For those who don't know, I'm attending DDXP in January. I'll write more about it later but the big news is that I'm writing 2 adventures for the con. The first one is for the DM Challenge. I have no idea what I'm doing for that one yet, but the challenge itself is to write a Gamma World adventure.
For the other one, I'm writing an adventure using Essentials and whatever I can cook up in that wacky brain of mine. Here is the description I sent the organizer Dave:
Dream a little dream...of death
What was supposed to be a time for rest and reflection has turned into a nightmare. Fear grips the small lakeside town of Tranquility. People are dying in their sleep. Those who wake the next morning recall strange and terrifying dreams. The lack of sleep has everyone on edge and eager to point fingers or exchange blows. Can you put an end to the madness before it goes too far?
The adventure will be level 4. If you are going and want to play, remember to sign up. I believe event pre-registration starts on Sunday. The events page has the time slots when I'll be running it.
Some of you may have noticed my writing output shrunk a bit over the past month. While part of that is me struggling to come up with topics especially since my normal group is on hiatus, mostly it's due to a project I'm working on. After Gen Con, I signed on as a senior patron of Lost City, an Open Design project done by the fine folks at Kobold Quarterly. My hope was to learn about how the design process works so I could
start on my plans for world domination improve myself.
So, when it came time to submit pitches for an adventure section, I did so. My main hope was that I would get some feedback and see where I could improve, but then my pitch came in second in the poll and was accepted. Of course that was a nice ego boost but panic set in immediately. What the heck do I do now? :)
I've spent the last month and a half learning just that. I'm responsible for 3 tactical encounters, the history of a section of the city and creating lots of monsters who would love nothing more than a nice PC as a snack. And since we're nearing the deadline for the play test version, I'm even more heads down than normal. My experience has been great so far and I'm learning lots of new skills and growing a slightly thicker skin. After the 22nd I'll write more about my experience and the things I've learned.
One piece of advice I’ve received from multiple people I trust is that I should learn about games beyond D&D. Not only will they help me learn how to become a better GM but this knowledge is essential if I ever want to become a game designer/developer. That advice along with my general love of learning pushes me to expand my RPG knowledge. With that in mind the other night, I picked up the Game Master Guide that came in my Dragon Age RPG boxed set. This book is full of great GM advice, useful in other games as well. I'll discuss many of them in a later blog post but for now I want to discuss the Dragon Die mechanic in the game.
Unlike D&D, where skill checks are made using a d20, Dragon Age uses 3d6 for the roll. This change has some mathematical arguments in favor of it, many of which Chris Sims discussed in his article, Dice Heresy, on Loremaster.org . This change to multiple dice does more than change the mathematics of the roll. For example it opens the possibility of adding a rich dice mechanic . Dragon Age RPG does this through the introduction of the dragon die. I may be oversimplifying this, but skill checks are called tests in Dragon Age. Some tests are binary in nature, all that matters is whether the character succeeds or fails. For a success, the overall roll has to cross a particular threshold. Other times, however, we care about a degree of success. For instance, when convincing a merchant to lower his price, we care not only about whether or not he lowers the price, but the degree to which he does so.
In the Dragon Age RPG, one of the 3 dice will be a different color and is called the dragon die. This die determines the degree of success for non-binary tests. So, in the bargaining example, the character attempts to negotiate the price, either against a fixed threshold or against an opposed roll. If he succeeds in his test, the GM would determine the degree of success by looking at the result on the dragon die. Perhaps the discount is a multiple of the value on the die or the merchant's feelings about the character change. The GM only has to worry about 6 possible values and can group these values as she sees fit.
Now some examples of degrees of success exist in D&D 4e but they are often tied to the overall result. Monster knowledge checks result in different amounts of information depending on the result of the die roll. The horizontal distance jumped is calculated by dividing the die roll by 10 (5 with a running start). Many areas where we have degrees are used to tell us how badly we fail rather than how well we succeed. For instance, failing a swim check means you stop movement. If you fail by 4 or less means you are able to tread water whereas a failure by 5 or more means you sink a square.
Introducing degrees of success to D&D 4e also brings with it a number of complexities. For some checks, we might not have the granularity we want for a particular die roll. For more difficult challenges, we have fewer likely outcomes above the threshold, at least for some players. Yet these tests are the ones where we are most likely to want to provide different degrees of success.
We also have the difficulty of determining what intervals to tie these results to. The range of outcomes for a particular skill varies greatly between players. If we tie a particular degree of success to a higher threshold, it’s possible for that success to just not be possible for some of the players at the table. Now, for some narrative elements this makes sense. Perhaps a player shouldn’t be able to jump across a chasm without falling prone unless they can beat a hard DC + 5.
Finally, a nice part of the dragon die is that they allow us to randomize what a success means, allowing us to add interesting complications. Instead of dealing solely with degrees of success, we can use the result of the dragon die to pick randomly between 6 outcomes of equal value. Each of them could add a different complication to the result with none of them being harder or easier than the others. In the heat of the game, I’m often terrible at this, not wanting to screw my players even though I know at the end of the day the game will be better if they have interesting choices to make.
Of course, this points to a potential downside of this mechanic. If I roll 6s on my other two dice and have decent bonuses to the roll, I may be a bit perturbed when I find out I still only barely clear the chasm and am left hanging off the edge because my dragon die has a 1. Especially when the same result with a 6 on the dragon die instead would have left me sitting pretty. Howeer, I think this “unfairness” would have bothered me more as a newer player and as someone who has never GMed than it does now.
Besides helping in a basic test such as the one we've been discussing, the dragon die helps in Dragon Age's version of skill challenges. Called "advanced tests," these are a succession of basic tests. The dragon dice are tallied for each basic test and the test is completed when the sum surpasses the threshold for the test. Contrast this with the often arbitrary nature of 4e skill challenges which tend to fit the formula of x success before y failures.
During skill challenges, players often get upset when multiple exceptionally high rolls don’t get them any closer to overall success than the rolls that barely succeed. They may have rolled high enough 3 times in a roll to convince the king to give over his first born son, but they still have some number of successes to rack up before he’ll give them the support they need. Now the conventional wisdom is that the DM should consider ending the skill challenge early since it doesn't make sense in the narrative to continue the negotiation. However, this decision is rather arbitrary and/or subjective and may make some players uneasy. By using the dragon die result instead, players are better rewarded for high die rolls in a way they understand and predict.
So what are your thoughts of the dragon die mechanic, degrees of success or anything else I discussed here?
2. Now I am by no means the first person to talk about this, it's just that I'm only now at the point of learning about these other mechanics. For instance, Rob Donoghue has at least two great articles about this, Rich Dice: Force, Finesse and Fortune and Rich Dice Extravaganza.
The dreams start in many ways. Sometimes they begin in my old college fraternity. Other times, I'm a hired sword of some sort and we are clearly in a castle or keep. Occasionally I am in the basement of some library and find a hidden passage. Regardless of how it starts, my mind tells me that I'm heading into some familiar territory for tonight I will be fighting a dragon.
But first, I must wind my way down a series of chilly, narrow corridors. Inevitably I face a ghost or three, a witch and anything else my brain decides to throw my way (Damn, she's a mean DM). Finally I arrive at my destination, a rather large, mostly destroyed cavern. Without seeing or hearing it, I know that a dragon lives here.
Sizing up the situation, it being me, my sword and, well, a f*ing dragon, I decide stealth might be my best option. Inevitably the dragon sniffs me out and we engage in a series of short battles which consist of me hitting the dragon with my sword and then scrambling to find cover. You see, my sword isn't your garden variety model. It is magical and quite powerful. When used properly, it will shoot forth a blinding and quite lethal white light, but then it needs to recharge. Until I can weaken the dragon enough to where I can go in for the final kill, that power is my lifeline and I need to give it time to reactivate. I need to keep moving.
Inevitably, I end up in some niche waiting from the sword to recharge and unsure where the dragon waits. Slowly his head comes into view and I know I'm dead. While I remembered my trusty sword, I have no shield. I wake up, usually shaken by the experience.
So what does this have to do with D&D? Well, I was reminded of these dreams by Chris Sims's article on magic items. This dream illustrates a weapon I would love to have in the game but one that is ill-suited for 4e's magic weapon philosophy. Is it a bit overpowered, especially for my level of expertise? Hell yeah. But it's also fun and it's the only magic item I have. No suit of armor that resists fire, heck, not even a shield to protect me from the dragon's breath.
4e D&D needs to get back some of that wonder. Everyone needs a magic item that fills them with awe, that they wish they could steal from the game and bring to real life. Something they care about and would hate to lose. It should call to them in their dreams just like my unnamed sword. I'm not sure yet what the solution is, but I guarantee it will involve story and plot and, well, pure concentrated awesome.