Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Seven Swords"

Like his "Pages from the Mages," Ed Greenwood's "Seven Swords" from issue #74 of Dragon (June 1983) is an article I remember reading for the first time very vividly. Not only was I keen for more information about Greenwood's then-mysterious Forgotten Realms setting, but I had come recognize the man as one of the more clever and imaginative writers to appear in Dragon's pages. A big part of Greenwood's appeal is the way that he could make something as seemingly banal as sword +1 and make it interesting -- and he did it without having to introduce a host of new powers or abilities into the game.

What "Seven Swords" does is present seven different magical weapons, none of which is more potent than a sword +3. Each of these swords gets an extensive description of both its physical and magical properties. Amusingly, it's often the physical description that really sets these swords apart from the pack. Whether it's the huge cabochon-cut black sapphire in the grip of Adjatha, the six matched bloodstones set in the bronze blade of Ilbratha, or the rearing serpents who make the guard of Shazzellim, Greenwood makes each of these weapons unique in appearance as well as abilities. This is a small detail that many referees overlook, concentrating instead on game mechanical effects. Greenwood doesn't skimp on these either, but they're only one facet of what makes the titular swords special.

Each weapon also includes a "lore" section, detailing the history of the blade, from its forging to the present day. It's this section that I really ate up as a younger man. Re-reading them in preparation for this post, I can completely understand why that was the case. The lore Greenwood presents isn't extensive -- no more than four or five short paragraphs in most cases -- but it's evocative. It's suggestive of adventures and, better still, it gives even a lowly sword +1 an air of antiquity and individuality that makes it a weapon worth holding on to even when better weapons come along. That was probably the biggest lesson "Seven Swords" taught me: game mechanics aren't always what make a magic item special. It's a lesson I've kept with me all these years and one I'd like to see adopted more broadly.

21 comments:

  1. One of the swords in that article, Susk, was bestowed upon the elven Ftr/MU in our old AD&D Greyhawk campaign back in 1986. Like you mentioned, he treasured that relatively low-powered blade even when better weapons were offered.

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  2. One of the best articles old Ed ever penned. He always shared the ability with EGG and few others of being able to stoke the imagination with only a few sentences. One or more of the swords in this article have appeared in every campaign I've ever run.

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  3. What Greenwood got that so many writers missed is that magic should be magical. Mysterious, ominous, and yes, evocative.

    One thing I always hated about the average D&D setting was just how common magic weapons and armor were. longswords +1 were the Saturday Night Special of the lands, cheap and easily available. The old joke about a high-level fighter needing a golf bag and a caddy to handle all his magical weapons wasn't far from the truth.

    If you read the source material, the medieval epic poems like El Cid and Das Nibelungenlied, you'll see that magical weapons and items are treasured, horded, and passed down from generation to generation.

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  4. No amount of flavor text is going to make a +1 sword any more fun to use in play if there are no mechanics to back it up. 4e is a great example of this in practice.

    When Gandalf draws Glamdring to fight to goblins in "The Hobbit", half of what's cool is that the goblins recognize the blade and start cowering. You need to implement that sort of impact within the game, e.g., "This sword forces goblinoids to make a morale check."

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  5. ?????

    Or maybe the DM simply role-plays them cowering...

    Nice retrospective, Chevski.

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  6. No mechanic required IMHO. +1 Aaron. How 'magical' the item is, is wholly dependent on the social interaction of the device between the owner and the DM. If they make it 'magical', then the mechanical bonus is mostly moot, or at least in my experience.

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  7. I enjoyed Ed's writing, his game writing, far more than I ever did his fictional writing. HOWEVER, there does come a point when description becomes the enemy. When doing Ravenloft, they often tell you to 'hide' the mosnter by being descriptive and pointing out examples in terms of what's more effective at evoking the unknown. If you're game time is tight, you don't have ten minutes to describe the brilliant shine radiating with a pulse from the ruby mounsted on the hilt of the worn sword that appears as if.... or to describe the hulking figure that still has chunks of ragged and broken bone in its teeth... Description and unique elements can be great adds to a game but they are not appropriate for every item ,monster or session.

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  8. @buzz:

    The goblins don't fear the sword because it has a magical "Turn Goblins" effect. They fear it because they have heard stories about this sword that usually revolve around slaughtered goblins.

    And didn't 4E completely threw anything "magic" about weapons out of the window by introducing "tiers"?

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  9. I liked this article an awful lot, as it meshed with my own beliefs that magical items should have a history, not just be a container for one or more "kewl powerz."

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  10. Hm, I find 4-5 paras *way* too much. 2-3 lines of background can be really good to jump-start the imagination, but when it gets to several paras that replaces my imagination with his. Which is why I never got any use out of this kind of article, nor the 'Ecology' ones. Too much detail.

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  11. Hm, I find 4-5 paras *way* too much.

    To reiterate, these paragraphs are all very short -- maybe a couple or three sentences generally, so it's not as if each entry uses a lot of verbiage. It's more than 2-3 lines, granted, but it's still very little.

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  12. There was a guy in my campaign group who weilded Susk the Silent Sword.

    Good times. Good times.

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  13. One thing I always hated about the average D&D setting was just how common magic weapons and armor were. longswords +1 were the Saturday Night Special of the lands, cheap and easily available.

    I hated that as well. It was like there was some mass-producing magic-item factory churning the stuff out. Making magic items rare, and each one having its own special history and lore, was the best way I could think of to make them meaningful in a campaign.

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  14. I've actually just come across a story that makes a great story for a magic sword. It concerns the Bonaparte family and the Austerlitz Sword.

    Austerlitz was of course Napoleon I's greatest triumph. The sword he was carrying that day became an icon to France, and after that battle Napoleon rarely carried it. Until the Hundred Days. Napoleon, feeling the sword was a powerful symbol, carried it into battle at Waterloo.

    Fast forward to Napoleon III and the Second Empire. Again, the Austerlitz Sword was mostly a museum piece, until the flagging Emperor decided to carry it in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Which ended with the Empire dead and the Emperor in exile.

    His son, the Prince-Imperial Eugene-Louis, attended military academy in England and served as an artillery officer. He demanded service in the Zulu War and was sent as a staff officer. Despite orders to keep the politically sensitive young noble far from danger, Lieutenant Bonaparte wrangled his way onto a mapping party which was ambushed. The young prince, unable to mount his horse, faced 40 Zulu impi with a revolver and.. the Austerlitz Sword. Fade to black.

    So here we have a sword that might be quite powerful, but is really hard on royalty! You'd have to determine if it is cursed for only a specific bloodline or if anyone with a claim to a throne is threatened. Best thing is this is exactly the sort of thing you would find in a forgotten tomb. No one sane would want to hold the thing unless they knew with absolute certainty that the sword wouldn't affect them and their homes. But tomb robbing soldiers of fortune? It's shiny and magical. Mine!

    What could be more fun is if some sage recognizes the thing, and warns the current dynasty that That Bloody Sword is back in town.

    Just something that hit me. Enjoy.

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  15. Not only 4e made magic common like air; it also made it totally available to players by putting the items descriptions in the PHB like they were normal items, with the players allowed to formulate "wish lists." Lame. Really lame.

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  16. Unfortunately this article came out after my AD&D group broke up after we all left for college. If I ever run a fantasy campaign I will definitely use this as a basis for magical weapons.

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  17. A balance of fluff and crunch text is good but for my money Greenwood used too much fluff.

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  18. Yeah, this article was in the first issue of Dragon I read, and it completely changed how I ran the game.

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  19. Even my +5 swords are really just munition quality swords - just ones made by the very finest sword smiths (of which there may only be one or two capable of such work in a generation).

    [My magic swords and armour were never enchanted by a mage - they were simply made by very skilled weaponsmiths and armourers - even to the extent that they gained magic powers. For example a skilled smith could work with any material to create magical effects, such as beating the flames of his forge into the sword to make a flaming sword (or even forge the very flames itself into a flame sword).]

    True magical weapons of any kind were always artifacts in my game, although they could be created as artifacts through play (gaining experience if they were named as if they were a character's henchmen [and yes, it took up one of the henchman spots.] They always had powers that went beyond the standard. And plot consequences and history.

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  20. In the most recent game I played my Paladin of Pelor and his party encountered a Deva of Pelor trapped in ward in the ruins of a city of Asmodeus worshippers. The Deva had been stuck for thousands of years and become insane and no amount of talking by my character could help and at 3rd lvl we had no magical means to cure it. We freed the poor thing but it attacked us and we just barely beat it. The blade it bore was a flaming bastard sword +2 and my Paladin of course considered it a blessed weapon of Pelor and ended up using a feat(4th ed) to learn how to use it properly. If we'd simply found a +2 bastard sword then there's no way I would have spent a feat on proficiency but because of the background to the blade how could my character NOT spend precious time and effort on mastering this Pelor-given gift?

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