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Friday, March 2, 2012

Intelligent Swords: A Dumb Idea?

Disclaimer: There are several variations of the intelligent sword rules in different editions. I am basing the mechanics discussed here on the B/X "Cook Expert" rules. 

Turning the WayBack™ machine to 1983 and the salad days of TSR, I remember many a 1st edition game after school, on weekends, vacations, etc. We were kids and we were sometimes shamelessly Monty Haul by our standards today. Multiple artifacts and relics floated through the campaign, millions of gold pieces rattled around in bags of holding, and more than one PC was psionic and/or had an 18/00 strength (along with maybe a belt of storm giant strength). 

One of the more interesting items that crossed the party's path was a +5 Holy Avenger. Rare enough, to be sure, but it was also two-handed and it was sentient.

Leaving aside the odds of all that (if rolled randomly), it had several additional powers beyond the impressive array that the +5 H.A. already boasted. The player was ecstatic, and the sword was his favorite new toy. Over time, I came to see such items as unbelievably munchkin and disliked them on principle. 

Back now, in the present day, I recently re-read the B/X and Labyrinth Lord rules for such items and it got me to thinking; just how good or terrible an idea is such an item in a campaign, really? 

A few things that I noticed looking at the rules as written. First off, I hadn't realized how COMMON an intelligent sword is! 30% of magic swords have an Intelligence score (!) The second thing I noticed about intelligence and swords is that some sentient swords are quite dim (INT 7-8).

What's much rarer is for a sword to have a "Special Purpose" (Deliberately skipping the obvious Steve Martin jokes). Only 1:20. An oddity I hadn't picked up on before is that a special purpose swords are automatically maxed out at INT 12. 

Sword alignment heavily favors Lawful (65%), which chaotic swords comprising only 10% of the mix.

Although they have their superstars.

Fun fact: conflicting alignments between the sword and wielder results in automatic damage to the wielder, at up to 12 points per round! So your lawful PC picking up that chaotic sword might be instantly killed.

The Primary Powers of the swords are an odd lot. 30% of the time it has to do with detecting things like sloping passages or shifting walls (isn't this why we let dwarfs into the party? jk). While you can use most of these abilities over and over, they aren't all terribly powerful.

Every now and then, though, you get an Extraordinary Power. These powers are bit cooler, like ESP and teleportation. Plus, most can be used 3/day!

To me, what's far cooler are the Special Purpose powers, but obviously these are much rarer. For example: A chaotic sword that was forged to slay magic users (and elves) will, upon striking a lawful MU or Elf, force a save vs. spells. Failure means the target is TURNED TO STONE! You can bet this is working its way into a game at some point! (hee!)

Finally, after all the rolls and charts you figure out the weapon's Willpower. Basically this is number that is used when the sword decides it has a chance to take over its wielder's mind! Considering a typical sentient weapon has a Will of around 19 and the PC's rating (STR+WIS) is more like 20-22, this won't be a gimme. But if the PC is badly wounded (at less than 50% hp), things can change quickly, deducting 2d4 pts from his Will score. 

Once the sword is in control, the DM is supposed to have it control the character's actions in certain situations. Some fun suggestions in the book include:
  • Making the PC spend all his money on a fancy scabbard, etc.
  • Forcing him to surrender to an opponent that the sword thinks would make a better wielder. 
  • Discarding other weapons.

So, after looking at all this, the question remains; are intelligent swords a good idea in a game? Looking over the number crunching, the odds of a really POWERFUL one is fairly low, and the ones that are more likely to turn up are a nice way to add some spice to "generic" magic weapons.

I decided to roll one up randomly to see what I'd end up with. I started on the magic sword table and went from there:

% roll on Magic Swords =17: Sword +1
d20 Special Purpose = 5: No special purpose
d20 INT roll = 16*: INT 8 (2 Primary Powers), Communicates via Empathy
d20 Alignment = 8: Lawful
% roll for first Primary Power = 84: Detect Magic
% roll for second Primary Power = 59: See Invisible Objects
d12 for Ego = 9
Will: 18 (8 Ego + 9 Int +1 to hit)

*I did re-roll this to get a result with an INT score. 

So what have we got here? Well, the +1 is no great shakes, but seeing invisible at 20' range 1/round, and detect magic (but limited to 3/day) is SWEET and no mistake! With a lack of special purpose, it's unclear why this sword has a sentience locked inside it. It's not bright enough to talk, so I guess the DM doesn't have to develop some huge backstory. It has a high Ego, so I'm guessing a level of "stubbornness" about it. 

Here is my "stab" (hur hur!), at what the sword's deal is.

A scrying spirit was bound into the sword at its forging for use by royal bodyguards,  who used it to check that no hostile enchantments or invisible foes threatened their charges. The spirit was aware of the pomp and ceremony that surrounded it on a daily basis and, as a result, has a rather high opinion of itself. If it succeeds in seizing control of its wielder, it will force him to take the lead, checking for danger in each room or situation before allowing anyone else to enter. 

I think I'm going to have to try this a bit more often when I randomly roll magic treasure. If it seems to work out, I may add other weapon types into the mix, who knows?


  1. Clearly this comes down to taste... So, for my taste, intelligent swords are annoying and distracting. The game should be about the players (and their characters), and having to deal with some dickhead sword which may or may not have some ulterior motive is just a pain.

    Nowadays if the sword even hinted at being anything other than polite and 100% cooperative I would wrap that bitch in asbestos and embark on a Frodo-style Lava-Quest.

    And who on earth would forge a magic friggin katana and then decide "I NEED THIS TO DETECT SLOPED PASSAGES!!11!1!"? Surely there is some kind of weaponisable effect you would prefer to spend that (no doubt considerable) time and effort imbuing your fine blade with? Ugh. I dislike a lot of D&D stuff though.

    Best case, have like... one (or two opposing) magic sword in the campaign and play it like an NPC... and an important NPC at that. Like the Big-Bad's archnemesis who was slain but semi-rescued and entombed in a blade or something. I don't know, I am skeptical of them in general.

    1. To be sure they could become annoying, and even silly. I do like the idea that magic swords (some at least) have some kind of spirit or will to them. While actual clashes of will should be rare, the idea that the sword "feels angry" is cool, IMO.

      and yes, like I said, some of the powers are a bit odd for a weapon.

  2. I used intelligent swords a lot way back when, and yes, each and every one was damed annoying :)

  3. When I wrote up my Unique Magic Weapons document, I included quite a few intelligent swords. I don't think there are exactly enough to meet the statistical odds, but close to that (so out of 100 swords, I think maybe 22 or 23 are intelligent).

    I rolled almost all of their intelligence powers randomly (a couple really iconic ones I fudged a bit), and aside from the fudged to match the source material ones, only got one that seems "overpowered" by the rolls. Coming up with personalities to fit the swords' Int, Will and powers, plus source inspiration, was pretty fun. I haven't gotten to introduce one through play yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

    And personally, I like that they're annoying. It's the price a player accepts for the ability to detect gems at will or teleport three times per day or whatever.

    1. "And personally, I like that they're annoying. It's the price a player accepts for the ability to detect gems at will or teleport three times per day or whatever."
      Yes, magic with a price. I agree.

  4. I'd like to see a magic sword as PC. Maybe when someone new joins the group, the tank's flaming longsword suddenly starts talking.

    1. That could be funny, but be ready for the potential player conflict levels to ratchet up!