Magic Swords and the Ones Who Wield Them

An old and wizened hermit sits atop a craggy hill and watches as the two suns set. One star is bright and young, the other is the deep orange of an old and dying star. The old man looks out across the desert. Where a certain bright young boy is likely tending to his uncles farm, unaware of the dying ember that watches over him from a distance.

The old hermit sighs as he remembers the first time he saw this sunset. He did not know it then, but it was the beginning of the end for him. Not long after he would lose his mentor, his lover, and finally his closest friend.

Inside the old hermit removes a small metal cylinder from a wooden chest, a lightsaber. The saber is old and worn, covered in scratches and scars. A visceral feeling builds inside of him, a mixture of hatred, pity, and regret. He is tempted, for a moment to cast aside or destroy it. Instead, he returns the saber to the chest. Maybe one day, like him, the saber will be given a chance to redeem itself.

A magic sword is no mere weapon. In stories we often forget that it is not only the characters that have sweeping arcs of change, but also the worlds they live in, and the weapons they wield that experience change. This relates of course to gaming, but before I get into how and why I want to walk through a little imagination experiment:

Imagine, that you are Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber. When you where created, you where imbued with the idealism of your creator, a young boy who dreamed of fighting for everything worth fighting for: Beauty, freedom, loyalty, and above all love.

From the very beginning you are aware of another like you, one that is almost always nearby. This is the lightsaber of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Together you face off against insurmountable odds and somehow always come out ahead. Time and time again that saber saves your master, and time and time again you save it’s master.

Then one day, the mother of your master is brutally murdered. The young man is devastated, everything he fought for seems to be crumbling, his mother died a slave. He thought he was loyal, but he failed her. In a blind range he wields you in a massacre against the ones responsible. This is the first time you taste the blood of the defenceless.

From that moment you and your master are changed, he is haunted by fear. His love blinds him and he feels the need to act, you are both compelled to destroy in the name of protecting those you care about. Slowly fear and anger drives your master mad.

Then one day, your master does the unthinkable and wields you against a child. An apprentice Jedi. Then you face off against the sabers of countless Jedi, sabers you once fought alongside.

And then, one day you feel it. The other saber, the one that was your friend from the beginning. Your master wields you like a fiend, and the other saber is forced to defend itself against you. In blind arrogance, your master is defeated, and you lie on the rocks certain of your doom. But instead the other sabers wielder picks you up, and takes you with them to a life of isolation.

One day an old hermit, the same man that picked you up off the rocks, takes you out of the chest you called home, and hands you to a young boy. The son of your creator, he is like him in more ways than he could ever imagine. Filled with a desire for freedom, as well as courage, loyalty, and love.

You know where this is leading, but you are powerless to stop it. Finally you find yourself facing off against your old master. He has a made a new lightsaber for himself, one that is forged in rage and regret. Your new wielder is young and inexperienced, he barely holds his own until suddenly, his hand is cut off, and you fall with this severed lump of flesh down, to your doom.

For reference you could watch these fun little fan edits here and here.

Anyways, the point is the things can have backstories, and those backstories can mean something. Especially in a gaming-genre where intelligent swords are common. Next time you pick up a magic sword as a player, hold it in your hands, look it over and observe the battle scars, the dents and the scratches. Ask yourself who wielded that blade before you, who did it kill, and who did it protect?

Next time you throw a magic sword at your players think about what kinds of battles it’s seen, what kinds of deeds it’s performed. Is this a blade looking to quench it’s hunger, a blade looking for redemption? Magic swords do not grant power to their wielders, they force it on them.

Mechanics v. Communication

Rules in tabletop adventure games often revolve around limiting and enforcing character or referee actions. Inventory and encumbrance is there to prevent characters from carrying more than is realistically believable. Injury systems in some games penalize stats or certain actions to simulate the injury and prevent the player from just ignoring it.

These rules are often unnecessary and can be substituted with a simple question: “Ok, but how do you deal with ____ ?”

  • A character has a broken arm, they attempt scale a low all.
  • “But how do you do that with a broken arm?”
  • A character tries to carry 4 suits of armor and several swords.
  • “Ok, but how do you carry all of that?”

A simple question can re-frame the situation in the players mind and force them to creatively deal with the obvious problem as if it where real. Instead of forcing players to engage with mechanics, reinforce the the fiction and allow them to engage with it by cleverly solving the problems through narration:

  • “I push a crate up against the wall so that I can climb over it using just one hand.”
  • “I tie a rope to my shield and use it like a sled to drag items around behind me.”

Stat penalties and mechanical widgets are unnecessary. Allow imagination, creativity, and good player-referee communication do all the work.