Intelligent Items

What makes an item intelligent?  Where does the voice of a talking sword come from?  That enchanted wand that whispers sweet nothings into the ear of a wizard or even the crate of power that my cleric fighter once wielded in a battle?  Where are these voices from?  How do they have their own personalities and what does that mean to how we run a game?

Let me start with the easiest (and possibly the funniest) answer to the above questions.  A humorous anecdote from my own halcyon playing days.  My Fighter Cleric was not the brightest of half-orcs that ever came out of the Church of Hades and when he found a crate that told him it was a weapon of awesome power that had befallen a polymorph spell by a wizard he was all too eager to believe the information he was told.  He ran into battle with an Ettin from memory wielding the crate and was shocked to find the crate splinter into matchsticks with his first swing.  Mind you, the wizard of the parties imp familiar found this joke hilarious.  He had been hiding invisible in the crate whispering in my ear the whole time…

The Magician’s Wand
Image created by Aelin Laer under a
Creative Commons – Attribution – Non Commercial – No Derivative Works 3.0 Licence

OK, with my moment of foolishness out of the way (actually I made myself look more like an idiot when I tried to drown and then burn the imp to death as they do not breathe and are immune to fire) let us look more in depth at the origin of intelligent items.  Of course, as a GM you can set up something like the above story to add colour and flavour to your game.  I have to admit that these many years (it would be around 20 years since that game) passed I still smile at playing that adventure.  But there is a lot of depth that can be added into this style of item that will flesh out the weapon.  The one thing that you should never ever do with an intelligent item though is underplay it.

God Touched Items

The first of which is possibly the God-touched items that have been granted intelligence by the God imbibing some of its own power into an item that will serve in the mortal realm on its behalf.  Good candidates for these items might be paladins holy avengers, cleric’s maces of disruption and anything else that literally lives out the ideals of a god.  For example, a God of construction might have a pick axe of raising whilst the God of Illusion may have a mirror of exultant appearance that all are intelligent and have their own personalities.

A God-touched item is indeed a special source of power.  The intelligence that inhabits the item is likely to be completely compliant with the belief’s and ideals of the God.  In fact, perhaps the intelligence is an aspect of the God’s own personality and thus by speaking with the item you are speaking to the God itself.  God’s have big personalities and these items are not lightly made for they take something from the God and there is always a purpose to them.  Think about that purpose and have it woven into the personality of the item itself.  God’s never say “I might throw a few holy avengers around!” in the hopes that someone might find them useful.  there was always a purpose to a weapon like this and finding that purpose can find you the way to represent the item.

Also, think about holy intelligent items of a dead God and what they could mean to a game?  It poses an interesting question with a LOT of possibilities that can emerge from it.  Imagine if the shard of the God’s being that was placed in that item still lived on.  Could the God be resurrected from that item?  What a campaign ending that would be.  It could be a weapon that the players slowly learn about to restore a great God back to their glory OR the players chase down the evil worshippers of a cataclysmic God and try to destroy the last shard of their being.  i think I will have to leave that idea up to your own imaginations because I could write a novel around that idea.

Spirit Bound Items

Think of all of the wonderful spirits that are out and about in a fantasy world.  then think of all those magicians that call them to them to rub their feet and send off messages, wash the dishes etc.  Well, with a little bit of interest into binding and magical item creations these self same wizards can attach an intelligence to an item.

The reasons that Wizard’s and others do this sort of stuff can vary widely.  It might be they are lonely in a tower so they summon a simple astral spirit that enjoys chatting and embeds it into the staff he is making.  It might be a spirit of the fey wild that is embedded into a druidic stave that is designed to ensure only an individual with nature in their heart uses the device.

The Dragon’s Eye Amulet of Ordanth
Photo taken from David Brawley’s Tower of the Archmage blog under a
Creative Commons – Attribution – Non commercial – Share Alike 3.0 Unported Licence

There are so many types of spirits out there though and it is this reason that can make this type of device very hard to consider a personality for.  Spirits can have totally alien goals and understandings to the need of a fleshy material plane character and so the chances of conflict grow with this nature of device.  Rely strongly on the nature and alignment of the device to work on the personality along with the base for the spirit.  Elemental spirits will represent the clichés for their element (fiery and angry for fire, slow and monotone for earth, fidgety and flighty for air and deep and emotional for water) whilst the main focus of an astral spirit may not be what is occuring on the material but the repercussions in astral space.

Polymorphed or Sacrificed Creatures

Why not add this style into the game too!  Imagine a Vishkanya that has been balefully polymorphed into a sword.  For certain that sword is going to have a poison ability added to it and then the Wizard can enhance the weapon magically as well!  The example at the top of the page could just as easily have been a creature that had been polymorphed into a crate.  

The other option is that perhaps an evil magician committed a sacrifice when creating a weapon and the spirit of the sacrificed creature is contained within the blade.  This is similar to the spirit bound idea above but instead the soul could be magically enchanted to do the creator’s bidding.

This kind of option would add a nice role playing element to the acquisition of the item.  Do they keep the creature polymorphed due to the outstanding nature of the item and how well it is assisting them or do they attempt to set them free and polymorph them back?  If it is a spirit bound, do they destroy the item to send the spirit to its final rest or do they find out that the spirit is intrinsically involved in what they are trying to do and try to resurrect the being?  There is so much option for roleplaying to be had here.

Extension of the Player OR it is Just Magic

Some GM’s like to say it is just magic.  In fact it was the excuse most often used by one of my favourite ever GM’s!  Sometimes that is more than OK.  Perhaps the object is an Artifact and it has always existed or perhaps it was formed in a violent magical storm in some other plane.  In that case, it is just magic!

But what if the magic that is involved actually came simply from the character’s involvement with the item over time.  Perhaps they have some intrinsic magic themselves OR the tasks that they have undertaken in their career have caused items to become magically active.  In such cases you can have the players masterwork sword that they start with slowly over time react and improve because of the characters actions.

I like the above idea as it revolves around the heroics of the player and rewards them in a meaningful way.  It is something that the Earthdawn system does really well with its patterned items.  Items that mean something to the character and thus draw on their own essence to empower them in return.
“Ah, the magical drinking cup of Odin!”
Image by Ivan Koritarev under a Creative Commons Attribution – Non commercial – No derivative works 3.0 licence

I hope the above information in some way helps you to come to terms with magical items that are intelligent.  Each item has a purpose and each item has a personality.  Thinking about what the purpose was and how the item was made will assist you in working out what its personality should be.  Use these ideas in game as a narrative device and a planning device and it should make your use of these items extremely valuable.  I hope I have even convinced some of you who may have thought they were too hard to use to put an item or two into your games!  Keep rolling 🙂

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