Guest Article: Artifacts are for the Dungeon Master

by Mike Shea on 25 November 2010

Note: The following is a guest article by our very own Jeff Greiner, host of the Tome Show and creator of Temporary Hit Points. I want to thank Jeff for letting me crash his podcast so many times and pimp my book at http://slyflourish.com/book.

This is one of three articles on this topic. The other articles include...ahem, "Playing with your Artifact", and Forging New Legends from Old on SarahDarkmagic. And now, let's sit back and let Jeff amuse us with tales of an artifact that he mistakenly thinks can threaten the Prince of Undeath himself.

Artifacts are wicked-cool. That is what theyre designed to be, after all. They are more powerful than several typical items combined. They grow and can become more powerful with time. And as a DM, they give you an instant hooks to story, character motivation, player buy-in, and even a literal active voice in the game. Artifacts are all of this and more.

A month or so ago I was asked to on Twitter to design an artifact for someone, which I called Timbala, the Orcus Slayer (I know, total blasphemy on this site where Orcus is so highly revered). So I got some information about the campaign, where the DM wanted this artifact to fit in, where it would be driving things in the future, and then was given plenty of leeway to fill in the blanks and design away.

Spending so much time designing and using artifacts in my gaming life has led me to a few tips on how to use them well in your game: make it part of the story, use it to aim the pcs, and know when to take it away.

Make it part of the story

Artifacts are part story hook, part NPC, part magic item, and all story. Their entries are laden full of story and lets face it, theyre so powerful that if you arent making an artifact a major part of your story then you probably shouldnt be including it in your campaign.

So look carefully at what the story of the artifact is. Look at its lore. What does that say about your setting? Look at its goals. How does that interact with your campaign? Dont forget to consider its abilities and how that will drive future design decisions you make both mechanically and for story.

For example, lets look at Timbala, the Orcus Slayer. I was told by the DM that part of the story was facing off against the forces of Orcus and that they had already heard a legend of a sword that defeated the demon prince in the past.

So there is well engrained story there. It tells us about the past role of Orcus in the setting, there are bits about the hero Timbala who defeated Orcus and became the sentience of the sword that drives story ideas for a DM.

If you have a campaign that is focused on Orcus and demons, thats an easy fit and the blade will encourage the desired behavior of going after that threat. It also opens up some additional conflicts that the DM seemed to enjoy. Like the idea of the artifact actually containing the personality of the ancient hero, Timbala. There was a lot of talk about the soul being divided, or trapped in the wrong place, and quests to rejoin the artifact.

Explore all those little corners of the artifact entry and mine it for story that ties into your campaign.

Use it to aim the PCs

Having a powerful magic item in the party that literally has a voice gives you a chance to guide the story by making suggestions, dropping hints, or providing vital clues. Or perhaps, just outright giving the party a quest, like Timbalas soul asking to be rejoined with his sword after being divided following a vile ritual.

It also gives you less subtle ways to aim the characters in a direction that suits your story plans, which you need to be well aware of when you choose to put one in your campaign. If the player will gain concordance for killing any creature that is evil then you can rest assured that having a storyline that involves working with a local politician who happens to be evil is going to be all the more difficult. Not impossible, but hard because youve directly encouraged that PC to kill the politician with the artifact.

So if you want to include Timbala in your campaign think twice before you also try out a storyline where the party is going to raise a rebellion. Timbala doesnt like it when you create chaos and overthrowing a government is sure to do just that. But if you want your campaign to spend some time in cities or a well organized kingdom then Timbala will encourage the PC to work within the laws of the land and it will fit all the better if theyre also going up against a demon-summoning cult.

Know when to take it away

Remember that artifacts are made to exit your game as much as they are intended to drive story in it. Unless the artifact is integral to the larger story of your game it probably shouldnt join you at mid-paragon tier and stay with the party until the end of level 30.

Dont think of an artifact as another magic item in the arsenal of the party, think of it as a new character in the party that sticks around for a while and leaves. If you think of your campaign like a TV show an artifact is a character who joins the cast for one or two seasons and then is written out of the series. It might make a cameo in the last episode, but the story isnt all about that anymore.

So in the case of Timbala, we have an artifact designed to drive the story for a few levels as the party tries to rejoin it. It then pushes them in the direction the DM needs them to go in, focusing in on fighting the demonic hordes of the world, and then moves along. Would it make sense for it to for it to come back for a big final battle with Orcus? Absolutely, but in the meantime, when it is no longer actively driving the story, its ready to leave the campaign.

Do you ever use artifacts to help aim the characters in your game? Do you embrace the use of artifacts? Do you avoid using artifacts? Share your stories about using artifacts in the comments.

You can find a PDF of Timbala, the Orcus Slayer as well as read about how it was designed over on At-Will and some advice on how to help artifacts guide your character growth on Temporary Hit Points.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide. Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.