Monday, September 21, 2020

Artifacts, Relics, and Minimalist World Building

One of my favorite sections of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide was the section discussing artifacts and relics. Even if one ignores their "potent powers and possible strange side effects," artifacts and relics are notable in that they come with hints of a setting specific to AD&D. I used to think about all the names, places, and events referenced in this section and wonder what they might mean.

When I say this, I'm not talking about, for example, the Codex of the Infinite Planes or the Jacinth of Inestimable Beauty, both of which explicitly reference the World of Greyhawk setting, though entries of this sort did command my attention nonetheless. Rather, I mean items like the Rod of Seven Parts, which talks of "the Wind Dukes of Aqaa" and "the great battle of Pesh, where Chaos and Law contended," or the Crown of Might, part of a mighty set of regalia "constructed for special servants of the deities of each alignment when they were contending amongst themselves." In just a few words, Gygax implies a great deal; it's a great example of minimalist world building.

Even more interesting in my opinion is the final part of this section of the Dungeon Masters Guide, where Gygax discusses "possible destruction means for artifacts/relics." Here, he references multiple legendary locales without any explanation. In a few cases, these locales come from Earth mythologies, such as Arthur's Dolmen, the River Styx, or the Clashing Rocks. In others, though, it's a bit less clear to what he is referring. What is the Well of Time or the Earth Wound? Where is Marion's Trench or the Cornerstone of the World? Is the Tree of the Universe the same as Yggdrasil or is it something else entirely? How about the Juggernaut of the Endless Labyrinth? 

These are all questions without answers, at least in the page of the Dungeon Masters Guide. To my mind, that's what makes them so compelling: the only answers that exist are the ones you come up with and, boy, did I spend a lot of time trying to come up with my own. My Emaindor setting, for example, included the Earth Wound, as well the Cornerstone of the World, the former of which actually played a big part in its history. I often think that a creator can achieve more with suggestion than straightforward explanation. The DMG's discussion of artifacts and relics is a great example of one way to do that.


  1. Did you ever get that professional map of Emaindor posted on the blog? I would love to see that; the hand drawn map is a wonderful relic in its own right.

  2. I assume that Marion's Trench is the Mariana Trench.

  3. If its the Mariana Trench the artifact could be taken care of by the mysterious Leap Year William.

  4. This section is what sold the 1st edition to my boys. They started with the 3rd, but on reading my old books I purchased back in the day, and especially this section, they decided to bounce between that and the latest version. I think it was a toss up between 'the Juggernaut of the Endless Labyrinth' (which they thought was absolutely awesome sounding) and the foot of a humble ant.

  5. Love that artifacts section, and it inspired me to not just create and include artifacts and relics in my own campaigns, but to design some of these sites/locations as part of the mythic geography of my campaign worlds/multiverse.