I’d written up ideas for levelling up magic items, Weapons of Legacy-style, for 4th edition, but I see that Jeff Rients beat me to the punch by a day or two. His implementation is not specifically for 4th edition, but he expresses some of the same concerns I do about previous attempts (Weapons of Legacy, etc) and both our ideas involve the concept of “awakening” the item. Parallel evolution, I swear!
Jeff says: “First start out by assuming that any magic weapon found in play with just a bonus (i.e. a plain ordinary sword +1, axe+2, etc.) is a dormant weapon.” This is the assumption behind my houserule too, although I descend further into absurdity: every item is dormant, even if it already has a special property.
The things from Jeff’s article I wish I’d thought of are a) the importance of names for magic items and b) illustrating your rules with example characters who don’t make it through the example alive. Not since the sample dungeon adventure in the 1st edition DMG, where the halfling is paralyzed and forced to watch as ghouls eat his innards, has there been such an example-character bloodbath. This has a salutary effect on other example characters, I think.
So here are my rules:
Every magic item has the potential to become awakened: it becomes dimly conscious of its owner, and requires the owner to prove his or her worthiness. If such a quest is completed, the item becomes attuned to its owner, and is more powerful in their hands.
There are two ways for an item to become Awakened:
-An Awakening is given as treasure. This may replace a treasure packet consisting of an item 5 levels higher than the original item.
-The player uses the Enchant Magic Item ritual to pour magical essence from an unwanted item into the item to be Awakened. The item to be sacrificed must be at least the same level as the item to be awakened, and the same slot (eg arm slot, implement, wondrous item).
When an item is Awakened, it gains sentience or semi-sentience: it can provide information to its user, either through telepathy, speech or mentally transmitted images, about its history, and bestow an Attuning quest (a minor quest) on the owner. The quest may be related to the item’s history or purpose, or to finding a means to perfect the item. It may be finishable right away, or require a few adventures or levels before an opportunity arises.
If the Awakening was given as treasure, the Awakening quest might be related to the last encounter or to something in the treasure or in the current location. For example, after a fight in the Sealed Fane, the paladin’s shield Awakens and whispers to its bearer that it can feel the nearby presence of the sacred hammer that forged it.
Occasionally, the Awakening quest may have been fulfilled by the last encounter – if a holy symbol is used to destroy a powerful undead monster, its Awakening quest may have been retrospectively assigned and fulfulled.
If the Awakening was bought by spending a magic item, the quest may involve finding a way to complete the process of merging the souls of the two items. For instance, if a Flameburst axe is sacrificed to Awaken a Thundering sword, it may require the eye of a phoenix and of a thunderhawk to be set like gems in its pommel.
Completing the Attuning quest will cause the item to become the next better type of item, if one is available (example: a +3 weapon becomes a +4 weapon; a heroic-level wondrous item becomes a paragon-level wondrous item). Whether or not there is a better version available, the item will also gain some extra, non-standard power or property, called its Attuned power. An Attuned item sometimes, though not always, becomes an intelligent item.
If the item was Awakened by sacrificing another item, it takes on some of the qualities of that item: perhaps its appearance changes somewhat, and its Attuned power is influenced by the sacrificed item. It might be exactly the same power as the sacrificed item or one that is reminiscent of the old item. Example: a +5 Lifedrinker sword is sacrificed to Awaken a +5 Holy Avenger. The new blade is +6, is covered with a moving Celtic-knot pattern of black and silver metal, and in addition to its Holy Avenger powers it grants the paladin 5 temporary hit points whenever she hits with a necrotic power. It’s also intelligent and has a strange multiple personality.
An Awakened item has more abilities than normal, so the DM should avoid broken combinations (for instance a vicious weapon that crits on a 19-20). Items with two Daily powers are fairly confusing, so bestowing a new property might be better. Also consider bestowing a flavorful bonus power that might be useful outside of combat. Example: The hammer “Gatebreaker”, once used to lead the assault on a dwarven fortress, has the Attuned property of adding 1 square to any forced movement power and, in addition, grants +5 on strength checks and attack rolls made to smash doors and locks.
Any item can be Attuned only once. After this, it cannot gain new abilities.
Quest: Use it to kill a certain type of enemy related to its type. Reward: It gains a related power. For instance, a flaming sword slays an ice creature and gives its user ice resistance.
Quest: Put to rest its old owner. Reward: Gain some attribute of the owner, skill bonus or class power or something. For instance, the armor of a general gives the benefit of a warlord multiclass feat.
Quest: Seal a portal to somewhere. Reward: Gain a daily power to summon an ally. For instance, an angel minion can be summoned after you seal a hellgate.
Quest: You find out who it was meant to protect against. You must be unsuccessfully attacked by a certain attack of that creature. Reward: Gain resist or defense bonus vs that class of attack. For instance, a medusa-fighting medallion gains save +5 vs petrification.
Quest: Find out what happened to its maker. Reward: Unlock a secret unfinished power. For instance, a flying carpet gains remote control.
AN ATTUNED ITEM OUT OF ITS OWNER’S HANDS
In anyone else’s hands but its owner’s, the item acts as its original, pre-attuned self. Over time, the item might become attuned to a new owner, in which case the original owner will never again get the benefits of the attuned power. An attuned item sells at its original price, since no one else gets the benefits of its new power.
Everyone likes the idea of items that level up with their owner, but implementation is hard to do. There have been a few official stabs at it, including Weapons of Legacy, but I don’t think any have aced it. I’ve tried several previous versions of the concept, too, but I was never perfectly happy with any of them. Here are some of the concerns I’ve had:
-When someone gets an item that levels with the character, they are basically getting a new item every 5 levels or so. A +1 sword that levels up to a +6 sword is basically like getting 6 items over the player’s career. If this isn’t taken into account, the party is getting more treasure than the treasure guidelines suggest. I tried to solve this by having an Awakening use up a treasure slot – replacing an item that the DM gives out as treasure.
-There’s some planned obselescence in magic items: They show up, and help the party for a while, but eventually fade into the background to make room for new, cool items. Once someone gets a special item that levels with them throughout their career, however, that player is never again going to get a surprising, fun new item in that slot. Taken to its logical conclusion: if every character in the party has, for instance, a levelling weapon, then the DM can never give weapons as treasure. I tried to get around this by allowing every magic item to be levelled up exactly once: so an item’s usefulness is extended from about 5 levels to about 10 levels, or one tier. After that, though, it’s probably time to move on.
-Many of the designs I tried made a distinction between “weapons of legacy”, that is levelling items, and normal boring old magic items. This didn’t give players much choice about what items were important to them. With this design, every item has potential to have a cool evolved form.
-Other designs I tried made every item a levelling item. I tried a version where items could gain levels, and the player could assign special item XP. This caused a problem where every player could choose a specific item, probably a weapon, and level it up with them, so the DM could never give weapons as interesting treasure after around level 5.
-If players can routinely level up several items, the DM won’t be able to give out much magic treasure. If, on the other hand, players are only allowed to level up one or two favorite items, the players will always choose to boost their most powerful, not necessarily their most interesting item. That’s why I have a DM-choice as well as a player-choice option for Attuned items. Otherwise you would never end up with, say, an Attuned magic carpet.
-A +2 bloodiron dagger is not really much more interesting than a +1 bloodiron dagger. I added the “attuned power” so that attuned items would feel really special and unique. The DM gets to choose the attuned power, so a) the player can’t find something optimized/abusive, since the item is becoming more powerful than other items of its level; and b) the player still gets a surprise. I think surprise is one of the big things missing from 3e+ “magic item shop” game design, where players can plan out what magic items they will have from levels 1 – 30. Old-school magic items carry some of the excitement of wrapped Christmas presents (albeit with the possibility that they are cursed). New-school magic items sometimes feel like ordering yourself something from Amazon on December 25.
-I added a minor quest requirement to attuning an item so that it wouldn’t feel too mechanical. If you bathe your sword in a dragon’s heartsblood and it takes on a new, surprising property, I think that makes the item feel more real and alive than if you just levelled it up by spending money. It’s also nice if the player gets to find out something about the item’s history. History infodumps can be boring, but if they’re a) rare and b) tied to an experience that makes a character more powerful, the history may actually make the item feel significant to the player.
-As far as the minor quest, rarity is also an issue. Previous editions tried to make every magic item creation or spell research require a big quest, so the wizard (or whatever) got to set the agenda for the whole party for an adventure or two. I made the attuning quest a minor quest, hopefully something that doesn’t require its own quest but something that comes up whenever it comes up (next time the PCs fight a certain kind of monster, for instance). Also, attuning items shouldn’t be too terribly common, so the party won’t be looking for attuning quest opportunities more than once every other level or so. I’d say that no player should have more than one attuned item at a time, and the whole party shouldn’t have more than 2 or 3.
-Some 4e items have improved versions every 5 levels, some every 10. Some do not level at all. Initially I had designs that made it harder to level up an item that needed 10 levels to improve, but then I realized that players would probably rather have 5 levels added to a sword, say, changing it from a +1 to a +2 sword, than 10 levels added to gauntlets, changing them from Heroic to Paragon. I decided that they could both be treated as equivalent treasures. Also, some items don’t have a leveled-up version, and some items are already the highest-level version. I decided that with the bonus Attuned power, these items could still be attuned. The DM has a lot of latitude about what the attuned power can be, so attuning such an item can still be cool if the new power is exciting enough.