I’ve been thinking about swords a lot recently. I think this is a common affliction in our hobby.
I’ve also been thinking about running a campaign, an even more common and disruptive affliction in our hobby. I think the two are possibly related. But anyways, these dark thoughts go something like this:
If I were running a campaign right now, the highest enhancement bonus on any weapons would be a +3, I think.
EDIT: I have received a communique that magical enhancement caps at +3 for both 5e and 0e. I take this as confirmation that my idea is a good one, because several people came up with it already.
“Okay,” I hear you say, “so what? High level characters are going to be slightly less powerful. What’s the big deal?”
To which I say, “Well, actually this is a chance for me to pontificate about my views on weapon enhancement, to-hit bonuses, and power-creep.”
When you get a +1 sword, you don’t just get a sword that does more damage and hits more often. In D&D, this sword is inherently magical – the enhancement is the result of literal magic, as opposed to superior craftmanship. And that strikes me as really, really weird. Like, I was reading this series of posts over on a Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry (super cool blog btw), and it seems like there was quite a range of possible qualities when making and finishing a sword. There are many fine considerations that go into making a predominantly metal weapon. What kind of iron and steel are using? How did you laminate the differing types of steel to make best use of their different material qualities? How do you finish the blade?
In a pre-capitalist society, there’s a lot of room for smiths of differing ability to be making dogshit swords or really really good ones, depending on region, price and demand, and I feel this isn’t represented very well in D&D rules. Like, okay, there are masterwork weapons in 3e but to be honest those rules kind of suck. Most of what makes a weapon special is magic.
What galls me in particular is the effect this has on internal logic in low-magic worlds. Like, okay, magic is rare, except every adventuring party has a wizard AND every every fighter past a certain level has a magically enhanced sword. And you could always just say “No magic swords” but in D&D this is the same thing as saying “No +1 swords.” Which is pretty fucking boring for the sword-wielding members of your party.
So fuck it. The new enhancement scheme is +0 to +3 non-magical swords, to reflect differing abilities of smiths.
The New System
So a regular +0 sword is basically pure iron, or steel but made by someone who doesn’t know how to work steel well. It’s probably worse than a bronze sword, because pure iron is actually worse for weapons than bronze. Mercenaries and very rural or isolated nobility or the nobility of less metallurgically advanced societies usually carry these around. People who shouldn’t be able to afford swords, like adventurers or peasants, but somehow inexplicably have them will only have +1 swords. If you pull a sword out of a dungeon, or get it from salvage, it’s probably going to be a +0 sword because of long abandoned maintenance.
A +1 sword represents a smith who knows what the fuck they’re doing making an honest to god steel sword. It’s still rudimentary, not heavily layered, but its superior metallurgical quality still carries through. A knight from a kingdom’s core regions, well-off or high ranking professional soldier, or successful adventurer is going to have a +1 sword.
A +2 sword is getting into the real good stuff. This is the best work of the top tier of smiths currently alive. These are always commissioned, usually for richer nobles and kings. Actually, +1 swords are commissioned too, but commissioning a +2 sword is a Big Deal. A +2 sword is the best any adventurer should ever expect to get. +2 swords usually have names, and if they are wielded by someone famous, they will become famous as well.
A +3 sword barely even qualifies as a sword. Most people who own them think they’re too precious to risk actually using in a battle. It’s really more like an art object. If your players recover one of these, and decide not to use it, it should count as treasure for XP and stuff. Longstanding dynasties might have one of these, passed down from generation to generation, and they’ll sometimes wave it around before battle to motivate their troops. All of them have names. In my campaign, they’re all named after battles the Romans lost, like Carrhae, Cannae, Ebrittus, Caudine, or after their enemies, like Volsci, Aequi, Samnite, Alaric, and so on. The people who made them have names, and are legends unto themselves. A smith capable of making such a blade is trained once every half-millennium. Or maybe they’re like, a cyclops or something.
Note that this only applies to swords, in a sword-centric culture. Around here, the best a spear can be is +1, to account for better materials. This also helps keep swords distinct, as I tend to have a lot of different weapons In foreign places, maybe they’re really obsessed with axes or spears, and I guess all of this can apply to those weapons instead.
I also chose +3 because my campaign is supposed to have some pretty hard caps on to-hit bonuses. The highest to-hit bonus anyone can reasonably get with a +0 weapon is +4, for example. You can easily do the same thing with a traditional +5 scale.
What About Magic Weapons?
“But wait!” You protest, “now none of my fighter characters have cool magic weapons! This blows!” Not so. I love magic swords. I just don’t see why they have to be +X or whatever. In fact, I think this kind of has the result of making magic weapons lame. To illustrate:
“You recover from the demi-liches a mighty sword, clearly of magical provenance.”
“Holy shit, awesome! What does it do?”
“Um, it gives you +4 to hit and to damage.”
Not exactly titillating, is it? But by tying sword enhancement to magic, I think this sort of play ends up being encouraged. The benefit of a magic sword should be the magic.
You could enchant a +1 sword to be magic, but most of these are being dug out of treasure piles of the gullets of scary monsters, so they should probably be +0. Or you could enchant a +0 sword to have +1 to-hit and damage, but that’s pretty boring and should require, like, a wizard that inexplicably has professional level knowledge of blacksmithing techniques. Sort of like this twitter thread I saw recently where a guy talked about how he (no joke) went to clown college and worked as a clown before pursuing a PhD. Incidentally, the clown stuff paid better than the PhD. But yeah, a wizard who can just make a +1 sword for you is going to require that specific melding of expertise in vastly different areas… if you want a +1 sword it’s way easier to just find a competent smith.
Mostly, magic swords should be weird or have cool but situational effects. Check out this (also a super cool blog especially if you like glog stuff) generator, except, you know, leave out the +1 stuff. I’m also cracking up imagining an intelligent sword that’s +0 and kind of insecure about it. Come on, that would be hilarious.
This also has the added advantage of making devils and certain types of undead and such way more dangerous. If everyone past a certain level is expected to have a magic sword, then devils being immune to everything except silver and magic isn’t very important is it? But in this scheme, even a very high-level fighter might use a very good but otherwise mundane sword as their main weapon. I like that this encourages carrying around two weapons, one main weapon and one silver and/or magical to take care of supernatural threats. Very witchery. I like also how it encourages ‘non-magical’ solutions to magical problems. This has been discussed in OSR before but I think a lot of interesting world-building and gameplay can come about from how mundane objects interact with crazy magical forces. One of these days I’m going to write a post about what it actually means to have a low-magic setting.