Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

In Defense of the +1 Doohickey...

I've read some criticism lately around the supposedly trite, formulaic +1 sword (and its numerous equivalents, obviously).  Magic is wondrous, and bonus-granting stuff, although useful, squanders much of its potential.  Now this is a reasonable critique, and I'm hard-pressed to disagree.  Magic could always use a little wonder, and it's easy to get lazy when putting together your latest edition of (insert game-x here).  But ever the devil's advocate, I've decided that maybe our friend, the +1 sword, needs a little love too.

Clearly, bonus-giving items are a form of advancement.  Combat isn't everything; but it happens often enough that entire classes are devoted almost exclusively to battle.  For these characters, adding +1 to their attack rolls is a huge payday.  Or put another way, that +1 doohickey is only boring until it saves your life.  And these items are understated enough to blend with the user's normal kit, which makes the sexier stuff stand out more...

That's right.  Magic stands in contrast to the ordinary; and when everything's uniquely magical, nothing is.  And the divider shouldn't be just normal vs. magical either.  We need steady shades of gray between the so-called low stuff that nudges rolls and high magic capable of trapping souls in mirrors.  Incidentally, the former largely falls to fighters, while the latter goes to wizards, for whom overtly magical displays are expected.

Now I get it.  People aren't calling for the abolishment of +1 magic swords, only warning against over-reliance.  How about a ring of protection that grants +1 vs. poison and sings a song in the presence of tainted food and drink?  That's what they're after, and I'll happily agree.  Let magic be magical.  But I'll add that the largely invisible, bonus-granting stuff has an important place as the workhorses of the magical world, a necessary one; and perhaps we need this to preserve what makes magic - and the characters using it - truly special...


  1. Honestly, I think all a +1 item needs is something to make it unique. First, don't make them too common. Don't throw them into random treasure piles. Put them in the hands of foes to use against the player characters, so that winning them means something personal. Second, make them stand out. Avoid the AD&D shtick of all magic items looking like ordinary, run-of-the-mill weapons, shields, rings, etc. Make them unusual. Make them memorable. Make the players covet them for their appearance alone. It's amazing how much more my players prize an item for its craftsmanship. So, yes, I think the humble +1 item has its place. They can be made interesting and useful without heaping additional magical effects on them.

  2. I added a side effect to a +1 dagger taken from cultists of Baalzebub: +3 Save vs. Poison and constant buzzing around the user.

    The players were so distrustful of it that they traded it away.

    Also, tougher monsters stats are under the assumption that the higher level characters are packing +x weapons.

    If one does away with these kind of weapons, they must adjust the monsters accordingly, unless there's always the option of the party going creative with magic.

    However, if playing pre-made adventures, such opportunities don't exist all the time.

  3. The old standard Chainmail magic sword was effectively a
    +1 sword, but it was, throughout most of the rules, simply described as a "magic sword." So were the magic swords in the Dungeon boardgame. Of course that did mean quite a bit more when resolution was based on a 2d6 roll. But if you had a magic sword, that is what you got. A +1 bonus on rolls (since there must be some mechanism for applying that effect in the game mechanically).

    Chainmail went on to mention that there were in fact +2 or +3 swords, but they were rare artifacts of great power. Excalibur was given as an example of a +3 sword.

    This was also why the original magic sword table only went up to +3 (and they were supposedly very rare). The vast majority of magic swords were just magic swords (giving a +1 bobus), with most of the others being magic swords (+1 bonus) that did 50% more damage against certain creature types.

    Of course, since Gygax preferred his d20 combat system, he just multiplied everything by 1.5 (you can see this in the weapons vs armour mods in Greyhawk), so we now climbed up to +5 swords, which escalated the bonus problem.

    [I actually quite like the idea in The Shadow of the Demon Lord that a magic sword should basically give the character a Boon in combat (which is effectively a bonus of +1d6). If you have two Boons (for example being a trained warrior [1 Boon] with a magic sword [1 Boon]), then you roll 2d6 to determine the bonus, but it will be the higher of the dice. And of course Boons offset Banes (disadvantages).]

    One element that made swords unique was the special abilities granted by the sword's intelligence, although I was never that happy with the idea of "intelligent" swords (and neither were most other people I knew). But what if you renamed that stat "magical power." You now have 50% of swords simply being "magic," with the rest having some sort of special ability (like glowing in the presence of orcs or gold for example). Although I'd use a more extended set of tables and abilities, such as those produced by John T Sapienza Jr in Different Worlds #4.

    And it would be trivial to extend this to other magic items as well. Which might result in a set of +1 magic armour that reduces the damage from Lycanthropes by 50% (generated as if it were a sword, except with the reverse effect). It almost starts to describe, and name, itself.

  4. The Hero's Journey 2e has an intriguing system described on Drivethru: "Unlike many traditional fantasy role-playing games, characters in The Hero’s Journey, Second Edition acquire magic items by performing heroic deeds that become inexonerably tied forever to the weapons, armor, and strange trinkets they carry on their adventures. As characters progress and grow, they earn Myth Points, which can be spent to create unique magic items specifically tailored by the player to their individual character instead of simply finding a “better sword” in the next treasure hoard. Magics grow and develop alongside a character, becoming an important part of their legend." The +1 sword would presumably have a history with stories about it, and one that could presumably grow with your character. Even in a system where the actual power of the sword didn't grow beyond +1, a system where reputation and fame mattered, might make that +1 sword more valuable. If you pulled out the Great Sword of Xant (once wielded by the hero Xant, and now wielded by the famous hero Mordiger), it might offer other benefits such as demoralizing an orc hunting group, or changing the mind of a belligerent Lord who would otherwise have little to do with you. It could impact things like moral, henchmen hiring, or the tide of battle, simply because who owned that sword and who owns that sword now, where that sword has been, and what was done with that sword, make such a large impression. In short, the reputation of that +1 sword may precede it invoking fear, awe, loathing, inspiration, and honor to those who behold it.

  5. Even the best bouillabaisse can use a little salt and pepper(!). Also, +1 sword (or similar) here and there can ease the long slow climb from level to level. It’s figured into my game that these blades are sharp AF.