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by Mike on 12 January 2015
Compared to previous versions of D&D and other fantasty RPGs, D&D 5th edition is stingy with the magic items. According to the Dungeon Master's Guide, a PC should receive roughly one permanent magic item per every five character levels.
This low-magic economy can be disappointing for some groups. Players love to get loot and enjoy it when a dying monster explodes into a pinata of shining weapons like a Diablo 3 boss.
If we ignore these baseline rules and give out too many magic items, we risk overpowering the characters. Too many magic items can also screw with a game world's economy. Magic items aren't typically sold. They're ancient things lost in the deepest reaches of the planet. If too many of them enter the economy, how will the economy react? What will players expect when they go into a weapons shop?
A lack of purchasable magic items creates another problem. What do the PCs do with all the money they earn? D&D is stingy with magic items but not typically with gold. Buying a castle is an option but for wandering adventurers, a castle isn't a big draw. For some it can be a downright pain in the ass what with all of the handling of the serfs, the clogged up of sewers, administration of the taxes, and keeping disease from spreading among the pigs. Who wants that hassle?
Let's narrow down our problems:
Monte Cook's Numenera RPG introduces a type of item known as a "cypher". These strange hyper-technical items can be found all over the Ninth World and are designed to give PCs a nice boost in power that they can only use once. They can be world-breaking sorts of high power magic but won't completely imbalance the game because they only work once.
Monte Cook's Arcana of the Ancients brings cyphers to D&D but we need not limit ourselves to just this book. We can build our own.
The relic is an object infused with chaotic magical power. It might be centuries old or it might formed yesterday. The item is infused with a single spell, identifiable and usable by anyone who possesses the item. When that power is used, it's gone and the item loses its magic. Here's a list of one hundred sample relics generated with the random relic generator ordered by level. You can have players roll 1d100, the higher the roll, the more powerful the relic. Reload this page for a new set of 100 relics or bookmark the random relic generator for a quicker list.
We can use relics numerous ways. We can add them to any treasure hoard the characters discover. We can have NPCs carrying them around, even potentially using them. We can treat them like spell scrolls or potions only with greater thematic flavor and a wider range of effects.
Relics use the same rules as their baseline spells. They trigger by using the same casting time as the baseline spell. They follow the same rules for concentration. Caster levels, spell levels, saving throw DCs, and spell attack bonuses are listed along with the relic. No magical talent is required to use a relic. Anyone can use them.
Once a relic is used, the spell is expended and the item becomes useless. It cannot be recharged.
To prevent characters hoarding these items, you can add the following optional rule:
Arcane Instability. When a character picks up and holds more than three relics, one of them, determined randomly, loses its power.
Alternative Rule: Relic Mishaps. If you want something a bit more chaotic but harder to run at the table, use the spell failure table on page 140 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Every time a PC uses a relic, they must roll 1d6 and add the number of additional relics they carry to the roll. If the result is a 7+, the relic bursts with energy and the DM rolls on the spell mishap table to see the result.
Relics add some fun chaos into the story of game. If we randomly add them to loot hoards or make them available in stores, we don't know which ones will end up in the hands of the PCs. We don't know when or how they might use them. It's quite possible our low level PCs will acquire a powerful relic and that's perfectly fine. Since they can only use it once, it doesn't break anything outside of one scene. In fact, I recommend including relics with a spell higher than any the characters can cast. 3rd level characters with a glyphed orcish skull that casts circle of death once can be lots of fun. Such relics may push your game in an entirely new direction.
Because relics are single-use, they flow out of the economy. This makes them scarce and valuable. When they're for sale, it's usually for a lot of money. The cost of the relic is based on the spell level or the caster level if cast at a higher level than the base spell and uses the magic item cost table on page 135 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. As single-use items, the cost is halved.
It isn't generally expected that characters would buy these items often. Most likely they'll end up in treasure hoards. When the characters do visit a town or city, it is possible they'll find someone selling a relic. For the seller, the cost is a windfall. Very few could afford to buy such a thing and, for the owner, the cost of a powerful relic might be enough for them to live out the rest of their lives.
Few common folk could afford to buy such things or have the need for it in the first place. This makes it hard for PCs to sell ones they find. Generally speaking, they could likely sell such a thing for 10% of the expected cost.
However, what if there is a larger system at work when it comes to the creation, distribution, buying, and selling of relics? What if there is an organization?
All over the land in secret towers and laboratories teams of wizard apprentices hone their craft infusing objects with magical power. These are then given over to the Artificer's Guild who distributes and sells them all over the land. None but the Artificer's Guild are permitted to buy or sell these relics. In any transaction taking place involving relics, either the buyer or seller must be approved by the Guild. Since these relics are only sold to those who can afford them, the relics often end up in the hands of nobility, rich inheritors, royalty, rulers of the land, and rich adventurers with little else upon which to spend their wealth.
Merchants of the Artificer's Guild can be found in any medium or larger city but only have three relics for sale at a time, chosen randomly, because of the volatility of the relics. Due to the doctrine of the Artificer's Guild, only one merchant may reside in any city.
Much of the Artificer's Guild is secret to outsiders. Few know their goals and aims. Due to the high costs and rarity of sales, merchants of the Guild are paid a salary rather than a commission. Any money a merchant makes on a relic is passed through the guild. Guild ambassadors work with wizard schools, historians, archaeologists, and adventuring groups to acquire ancient relics.
This Artificer's Guild can be dropped into any magical campaign world to add an entirely new layer to the economy that falls right into the daily activities of the world.
If you're running a Forgotten Realms campaign, you can tie the creation of relics to the Spellplague. The chaotic nature of the Spellplague created thousands of these artifacts all over Faerun and the Spellplague Artificer's Guild wants to control their distribution and figure out the secret to their creation.
Relics serve many purposes. They serve as a powerful yet not unbalancing magic item reward. They create a new economy with a volatile commodity. They change your games in ways no one could expect.
Relics might be a rare diversion or the basis for an entire campaign. Imagine the characters caught up in the dangerous trade of the Artificer's Guild. Such strange items might be the entire core base for a world's political and economic forces. However you decide to use it, relics can add a new and interesting twist to your D&D games.
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