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Homebrew:

Evolving Equipment

Magic Items that grow with the Characters

There has always been a certain transience to loot and equipment in role-playing games. The quest for bigger and better loot is one of the driving factors in adventuring, but one that is seldom found in the stories we love. As a game mechanic, it works well to give a reason for adventurers to tackle that next dungeon, but you often lose the magic of items that become defining equipment of a character. At least until higher levels, when your party is getting artifact tier equipment, any item they carry, no matter how carefully you’ve picked it out for them, could be replaced in the next dungeon crawl.

Contrasting that with epic fantasy novels, the protagonists often gain only one or two primary items throughout their adventures that define their characters and become like heirlooms. Bilbo and Frodo’s Mithril Shirt or Sting, King Arthur’s Excalibur, and Drizzt Do’Urden’s Icingdeath and Twinkle are just a few examples of the types of items that define a character and are never likely to be discarded for the next best thing.

If you want to include defining items in a game, they need to grow in power.

Wielding a few powerful items works in a novel because the author can write the story so that the protagonist’s skills and tenacity always manage to see them through. That doesn’t work as well in a game where enemies scale to the party’s level and the roll of the dice or game mechanics determines the chance of success instead of the storyteller. If you want to include those defining items in a game where the players increase in power levels throughout, then those heirloom items also need to grow in power level to remain viable.

Introducing Evolving Items

Letting items evolve with your player’s characters is a great way to allow your players to have those defining items and let them stay viable throughout their adventuring career. There are a few ways to introduce evolving items, but however you choose to add them, you should be selective in how many items you bring into the game. Ideally, you want at most one or two items per character that can evolve with them. Your players may still opt to let them go eventually, but by limiting the evolving items to one or two, that drive for bigger and better loot continues for all of the character’s other equipment. Items that work best for evolving equipment are a character’s primary weapon or main piece of visual armor. However, depending on the character, different items such as cloaks, amulets, signet rings, or other items may make more sense.

One of the ways you can add an heirloom or evolving item is at character creation. The item might be handed down from a family member, a found object that started the character on the adventuring path, or a reward for completing their training. There are many reasons you could award such an item as a starting item, and the character’s backstory will help indicate when such an item is appropriate. In such cases, you should be clear that the object seems to hum with unlocked potential. As this type of item is usually a driving force in the character’s adventures, they probably know that it has additional powers or abilities that can be unlocked. However, how they are unlocked is generally a mystery.

Let the player know that the item has unlocked potential.

Another method of introducing evolving equipment is through adventuring loot. While it is possible to simply include the item in a standard pile of loot, it’s more likely that whoever used to own the item was aware of its power and kept the item separate, probably prominently displayed. Think of the sword in the stone or a shining suit of golden armor standing alone on a dais. Calling out that an item is unique is a great way to let the players know there’s something more to it. If the item is just in a pile of random loot, it’s more likely to be overlooked or discarded in favor of something else. In either case, an identify spell should let the characters know that there is unlocked potential in the item. Either their skill is not high enough to identify all the object’s abilities, or they remain hidden from such magic until they’ve been unlocked.

A third option, and my personal favorite, is allowing an item the character already has to evolve when the player doesn’t expect it. This allows you to see when a player becomes attached to an object and surprise them when it suddenly becomes more powerful. A great indicator of this is when a player receives a better item as loot but still chooses to keep the lesser piece of equipment. They may keep it because they prefer the look, or maybe the item got them through a tough spot, or it has sentimental value. Any time the player has difficulty giving up an item (barring a curse, of course) is a good indicator of something you might want to evolve. In this case, the first evolution of the item should come as a surprise. The first requirement for unlocking the second tier should be set as something the character has just completed or is about to achieve when you decide the item should be evolved (see Tiers and Unlocking below).

Tiers

When you decide an item should evolve, you need to consider how many tiers or evolutions the item supports. While it’s certainly possible to have an item that increases in power each time the character gains a level, this lessens the special feeling of having an item evolve. Ideally, the item should only evolve after several character levels so that the evolution is significant. You may decide the item only has two tiers, an unevolved state and an evolved state, or several evolutionary tiers.

An item should only evolve when the increase in power would be significant.

The number of tiers of evolution an item has should depend on how long you (or the player) want to keep the item in the campaign and how often the item needs to evolve to stay viable. For example, if you’re going to have an item remain in a campaign from level 1 through level 20, it will need to evolve at least every five levels, and that might be stretching things a bit thin. The best rule of thumb is that an item should evolve around the time you would expect to award a new item with a significantly higher power than their current item. The power level of the tier should be an indicator of how many tiers to use.

Power Levels

Each tier of evolution for the item should bring about a new power level. How much power you add to the item is dependent on how long you want that tier to be viable. You should try to aim at a power level where the item is slightly overpowered for a level or two, average power for a level or two, and then somewhat underpowered for a level or two. Having an item be slightly overpowered after evolution makes it feel new and powerful again, reinforcing the desire to keep the item and strive to unlock all of its tiers. As a character continues to increase in levels, however, the item should begin to feel a bit underpowered. That gives the character a reason to want to unlock the next tier, possibly even starting a specific quest.

As a simple example, if you have decided that the item should last from level 1 through level 20 with four tiers of evolution, consider when the item should evolve and how many character levels you include in each tier. The first tier would start at level one, and you could set the other tiers to evolve at levels five, ten, fifteen, and twenty. That would give the item four tiers, but it would be significantly underpowered when a character reaches those levels. Additionally, if the item starts as a basic item at tier one, the chances that the character will continue to use that item until level five are slim.

When other treasures start to look tempting, the character will be looking for an upgrade.

It is better to use those milestone character levels as power levels for the item and space the evolutions around them. In this case, the item might evolve at levels three, eight, thirteen, and eighteen. At level three, the item evolves into an item with a power level equivalent to a fifth-level item. That will be a significant power upgrade for the character, and the character is unlikely to find any loot that even comes close to the item. When the character reaches fifth level, the item is on par with other treasures they might find but now has more personal value to the player. By level seven, however, the item is becoming underpowered, and other treasures will start to look tempting. At this point, the character will be looking for an upgrade and needs to decide whether they want to unlock the next tier or use a different item. Likewise, the final tier unlocked at level eighteen gives the character a top tier item for their last couple of levels that evens out with their power level at level twenty.

Unlocking

How an item evolves is just as significant as when an item evolves. You can certainly decide that the item suddenly becomes more powerful as soon as a character reaches a certain level, but this is underwhelming and requires a bit of metagaming to explain. It is better to create scenarios or requirements that must be completed before unlocking the next tier. Meeting the requirements gives the character agency towards when the item evolves and makes them the driving factor. That helps to add to the bond the player has with the item and makes it feel as if it is genuinely a part of their character. There are thousands of possible requirements or scenarios you could use to unlock tiers of an item, but each tier must become significantly more challenging to unlock. In the beginning, the final tier should seem near impossible to achieve. When the character is ready to attempt it, it should still seem like a challenge, but not impossible.

In the beginning, an item’s final tier should seem nearly impossible to unlock.

A weapon may require slaying a certain number of creatures before it evolves or slaying a significantly powerful beast, such as a dragon. At the first tier, this may require killing ten goblins or killing a wyrmling with the weapon. In comparison, the final tier may require slaying thousands of goblins, a goblin king, or an ancient dragon. Be careful with using kill counts as a requirement, though, as it can lead to a lot of additional bookkeeping. A piece of armor may require surviving a particularly powerful blow, immersing it in a specific magical pool, or attaching lost adornments. Any requirement that leads the character on a particular adventure is a great way to evolve an item. It provides a known reward for the adventure and gives the player a feeling of accomplishment beyond upgrading their equipment.

One standard method of unlocking additional tiers, which can be used for virtually any item, is assembling missing or lost pieces of the object. The item should work in its initial state, but each additional piece should add additional levels of power. Such pieces may include adornments or accessories such as a gemstone for a pommel, a scabbard, a bowstring, or integral components such as pauldrons, bracers, or tassets. Much like set bonuses in video games, adding each new piece brings an evolution in item power.

A simple way to show that an item has grown in power is to alter its appearance.

Appearance

One thing you may want to consider as an item evolves is its appearance. A simple way to show that the item has grown in power is to add details, adornments, or alter the item’s appearance. Perhaps rust falls away, revealing a gilded hilt, previously hidden runes flare to life, or the color of the item shifts to a new hue. Be cautious when making such changes since part of the player’s draw to the item may be because of its unique appearance. It’s generally best to alter the appearance to emulate or call attention to the attributes and abilities of an item or to stay within a theme. An assassin’s dagger dedicated to ravens may look like a normal dagger at its basic tier, perhaps with a raven’s head pommel. In its final incarnation, the blade may be an inky black raven’s feather sharpened to a deadly point with raven’s wings for a guard and blood-red rubies for eyes. Letting the player dictate some of these changes can help lead to a more personal attachment to the item.

In Conclusion

You aren’t limited to always offering your players new and better magical items. Sometimes it’s better to let them grow attached to their items and let those items become powerful with the character during their journeys. It can build a defining item for the character, lead to new and exciting adventures, and provide players with additional choices in how their character grows. However, one last word of caution: if you grant one of your players an item that evolves with their character, the others will all want one of their own. Keep them to one or two per character and, most of all, make them unique. As a bonus, we’re including an item you can drop right into your campaign: The Scourge of Dragons.


Scourge of Dragons

Scourge of DragonsThe Scourge of Dragons is an ancient two-handed sword forged by Dwarven masters in the flames of a captive elder dragon. The blade was imbued with great power over dragons, engraved with powerful runes by the most adept enchanters. Intended to turn the tide in the great dragon wars, the sword was given to the mightiest warrior of the age. By the end of the wars, the dragons had learned to fear the blade, naming it the Scourge. Eventually, the blade would pass to others.

Throughout generations, the sword has been used for hunting and slaying the most dangerous dragons the world has known. Each of the heroes wielding the blade have become renowned dragon slayers, and some have even become kings or queens in their own lands.

The sword is a powerful artifact, but the wielders, however mighty, are not immortal. Those that wield the blade eventually die, leaving others to fight over it or discard it out of ignorance. As is the way of things, the sword is often lost to obscurity—buried in ancient crypts, locked away in a dusty tower, or carried by someone who doesn’t know what they have.

The sword sleeps, awaiting the next great hero to discover its powers and unlock its full potential.

Tier 1:

Requirement to Unlock:

There are no requirements for the first tier, and this is generally how the sword is found.

Appearance:

The sword appears to be a well-made two-handed sword with a simple carving of a dragon’s head where the blade meets the crossguard. When held to reflect the light, five faded runes can be seen extending along the length of the blade.

Powers:

  • Dragon Sense: The wielder can sense the presence of dragons and draconic creatures within 60 feet.

Tier 2:

Requirement to Unlock:

The wielder must use the sword to slay a wyrmling or older chromatic dragon.

Appearance:

The sword appears to be a finely-made two-handed sword with a carving of a dragon’s head where the blade meets the crossguard. One rune at the base of the blade glows with an inner light (the color reflects the type of the dragon’s breath weapon, which was slain to unlock this tier). When held to reflect the light, four additional faded runes can be seen extending along the length of the blade.

Powers:

  • Enhancement: +1 to attack and damage rolls.
  • Dragon Sense: The wielder can sense the presence of dragons and draconic creatures within 90 feet.
  • Resistance: The wielder gains resistance to the energy type of the breath weapon of the dragon slain to unlock this tier.

Tier 3:

Requirement to Unlock:

The wielder must use the sword to slay a young or older chromatic dragon of a type/color not used to unlock a previous tier.

Appearance:

The sword appears to be an expertly-made two-handed sword with an intricate carving of a dragon’s head where the blade meets the crossguard, which hints at the shape of dragon wings. Two runes, starting at the base of the blade, glow with inner light (the colors reflect the types of the dragons’ breath weapons which were slain to unlock this and previous tiers). When held to reflect the light, three additional faded runes can be seen extending along the length of the blade.

Powers:

  • Enhancement: +1 to attack and damage rolls / +2 vs Dragons.
  • Dragon Sense: The wielder can sense the presence and number of dragons and draconic creatures within 120 feet.
  • Fearless Hunter: The wielder is resistant to the fear effects of dragons.
  • Resistances: The wielder gains resistance to two energy types (those of the breath weapons for the dragons slain to unlock this and previous tiers).

Tier 4:

Requirement to Unlock:

The wielder must use the sword to slay an adult or older chromatic dragon of a type/color not used to unlock a previous tier.

Appearance:

The sword appears to be an expertly-made two-handed sword with a crossguard of dragon wings. The wings of the crossguard meet at the base of the blade, forming an intricate carving of a dragon’s head. Three runes, starting at the base of the blade, glow with an inner light in different colors (the colors reflect the types of the dragons’ breath weapons which were slain to unlock this and previous tiers). When held to reflect the light, two additional faded runes can be seen extending along the length of the blade.

Powers:

  • Enhancement: +2 to attack and damage rolls / +3 vs Dragons.
  • Dragon Sense: The wielder can sense the presence, number, and direction of dragons and draconic creatures within 300 feet.
  • Fearless Hunter: The wielder is immune to the fear effects of dragons.
  • Resistances: The wielder gains resistance to three energy types (those of the breath weapons for the dragons slain to unlock this and previous tiers).

Tier 5:

Requirement to Unlock:

The wielder must use the sword to slay an ancient chromatic dragon of a type/color not used to unlock a previous tier.

Appearance:

The sword appears to be a master-crafted two-handed sword with a crossguard of dragon wings in flight. The wings of the crossguard meet at the base of the blade, forming an intricate carving of a dragon’s head, and the grip resembles the scales of a dragon. Four runes, starting at the base of the blade, glow with inner light, each a different color (the colors reflect the types of the dragons’ breath weapons which were slain to unlock this and previous tiers). When held to reflect the light, one additional faded rune can be seen above the glowing runes.

Powers:

  • Enhancement: +3 to attack and damage rolls / +4 vs Dragons.
  • Dragon Sense: The wielder can sense the location of all dragons and draconic creatures within 600 feet.
  • Fearless Hunter: The wielder is immune to the fear effects of dragons.
  • Resistances: The wielder gains resistance to four energy types (those of the breath weapons for the dragons slain to unlock this and previous tiers).

Artifact Tier

Requirement to Unlock:

The wielder must use the sword to slay an ancient dragon of each of the five chromatic colors.

Appearance:

The sword appears to be a master-crafted two-handed sword with a crossguard of dragon wings in flight. The wings of the crossguard meet at the base of the blade, forming an intricate carving of a dragon’s head, with ruby eyes and a tongue extending up the first quarter of the blade. The grip resembles tiny scales, with the dragon’s coiled tail creating a pommel. Five runes, starting at the base of the blade, glowing with an inner light in green, white, blue, red, and yellow.

Powers:

  • Enhancement: +4 to attack and damage rolls / +5 vs Dragons.
  • Dragon Fear: Any draconic creature damaged by this sword is subject to a fear effect. Any dragon resisting the fear effect is immune for 24 hours.
  • Dragon Sense: The wielder can sense the location of all dragons and draconic creatures within 1 mile.
  • Fearless Hunter: The wielder is immune to the fear effects of dragons.
  • Resistances: The wielder has resistance to acid, cold, electricity, fire, and poison damage.

Roger Soucy

CFG Founder 
Roger Soucy

Roger is the founder of Crystal Forge Games and has been creating, playing, and running tabletop role-playing games for more than thirty years. As an artist, programmer, and writer, he is using his passion for gaming to create unique accessories, tools, and resources for the gaming community.

  • AD&D (2nd Edition)
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Champions
  • D&D (3.5 Edition)
  • D&D (3rd Edition)
  • D&D (5th Edition)
  • D20 System
  • Magic: the Gathering
  • Palladium RPG
  • Pathfinder
  • Pathfinder 2E
  • Shadowrun
  • Star Wars RPG
  • Vampire: 5E
  • Vampire: the Masquerade
  • World of Darkness

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