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D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll and Steve Winter

"The misty past holds many secrets. Great wizards and powerful clerics, not to mention the deities themselves, used spells and created items that are beyond the ken of modern knowledge. These items survive as artifacts, but their means of creation are long gone." (3E Dungeon Master's Guide)

"Upon learning the proper command, an artifact might allow a character to raise all his ability scores to their maximum or turn an enemy' bones to jelly. The artifact might allow the character to summon meteor swarms, utter a power word, resurrect, or stop time once per day at will. He might be able to summon powerful monsters and easily bend them to his will. He could discover the power to dominate the minds of others, enslaving them to his desires. And this might only be a small part of what the artifact would allow him to do. In short, there is no limit to what you, as the DM, decide an artifact can accomplish." (2E Dungeon Master's Guide)

"Those artifacts… which you bring into play should be so carefully guarded by location and warding devices and monsters that recovery of any one is an undertaking of such magnitude that only very powerful characters, in concert, and after lengthy attempts have any chance whatsoever of attaining one." (1E Dungeon Master's Guide)

Last month, we discussed the history of magic items (or more properly "magical" items, as Steve Winter pointed out). This month, we look at those rarest, most powerful, and most coveted of all magic items: artifacts. Wondrous entities, their cataloging and powers once existed as a set of tables in the back of the Dungeon Master's Guide… and whose possession often caused many a DM to attempt to divest them from their players' character record sheets.

Of course, artifacts possessed qualities as well as powers beyond those of mere magic item. "A common assumption," read the 2E Book of Artifacts, "is that an artifact is any ultra-powerful magical device. This is not true.... An artifact must have three properties: it must be unique, it must have a history, and it must be important to the adventure."

The 4th Edition DMG2 releases this month, which includes the return of two of the game's earliest artifacts: the Cup and Talisman of Al'Akbar and the Rod of Seven Parts. As so, this month we wanted to take a look back at the history of artifacts in general, as well as tell the tale of these key artifacts in particular.

From their earliest appearance, artifacts by their nature were designed to be utterly unique items: "Each artifact… is a singular thing of potent powers and possibly strange side effects as well. Regardless of how many of these items come into your campaign, only 1 of each may exist. As each is placed by you or found by player characters, you must draw a line through its listing on the table to indicate it can no longer be discovered randomly." (from the 1E DMG)

Artifacts originally came in two distinct but ill-defined classes: artifacts, which were created by insane, inscrutable, and usually long-dead wizards; and relics, which were created by insane, inscrutable, and long-dead clerics or gods. Collectively they were referred to as "artifacts and relics," but individual items were seldom identified as one or the other.

With a few artifacts debuting in Eldritch Wizardry, a more complete list appeared in the miscellaneous magic tables of the 1st Edition DMG. Players allowed truly random rolls on the treasure charts might actually hit the jackpot and gain an artifact, if they first accessed the right miscellaneous magic table (a 3% chance) and then the artifact listing on that table (a 1% chance). While those odds might seem ridiculously low, they were the same as for almost every other miscellaneous magic item, be it an efreeti bottle, portable hole, sphere of annihilation, or mere, humble folding boat.

The artifacts table (Table III.E, Special) also listed the sale value of each artifact in gold pieces but with a footnote indicating that the items had no experience point value. Simply possessing an artifact was enough of a power boost that granting XP at the same time would be duplication of effort.

In later editions, artifacts lost something of this randomness. From 2nd Edition on, players could no longer simply stumble across them: "These devices never form part of a randomly placed treasure and so are not on any treasure table. The DM must always choose to include each particular artifact in his game" (2E DMG).

As singular items, artifacts were largely meant to be created in concert with the individual DM. "Because of the unique nature of each artifact and relic, their powers are only partially described." For the most part, the 1E DMG did not typically state the exact powers of artifacts; instead, each artifact's entry provided a number of effects to be chosen from wildly diverse tables of benevolent, malevolent, and prime powers. For example, the original Hand of Vecna granted its user:

  • 10 minor benign powers;
  • 5 major benign powers;
  • 2 prime powers;
  • 2 minor malevolent effects;
  • 2 major malevolent effects; and
  • 1 side effect!

Without republishing every one of these original tables, the side effects alone offer fairly telling insight into their chaotic miscellany:

Side Effects

  • A. Alignment of possessor permanently changed to that of item
  • B. Charisma of possessor reduced to 3 as long as item is owned
  • C. Fear reaction possible in any creature within 20' of the item whenever a major or primary power is used; all, including possessor, must save versus magic or flee in panic
  • D. Fumble reaction possible (as C. above)
  • E. Greed and covetousness reaction in all intelligent creatures viewing the item; save versus magic or attack possessor and steal the item - associates are only 25% likely to have to check; henchmen check loyalty first, failure then requires saving throw as above
  • F. Lycanthropy inflicted upon the possessor, type according to alignment of item, change to animal form involuntary and 50% likely (1 check only) whenever confronted and attacked by an enemy
  • G. Treasure within 5' radius of mineral nature (metal or gems) of nonmagical type is reduced by 20%-80% as the item consumes it to sustain its power
  • H. User becomes ethereal whenever any major or primary power of the item is activated, and there is 05% cumulative chance that he or she will thereafter become ethereal whenever a stress (combat, life-or-death, difficult problem involving user's decision) situation exists; the ethereal state lasts until stress is removed
  • I. User becomes fantastically strong (18/00 - 19 if 18/00 already) but very clumsy; so dexterity is reduced by as many points as strength was increased, and so no "to hit" bonuses are allowed for strength, and a -2 for clumsiness is given instead; furthermore, the individual must be checked as if he or she has a fumble spell cast upon him or her whenever any item is handled or spell is to be cast by the user
  • J. User cannot touch or be touched by any (even magical) metal; metal simply passes through his or her body as if it did not exist and has no effect
  • K. User has a poison touch which requires that humans and man-sized humanoids (but not undead) save versus poison whenever touched
  • L. User has limited omniscience and may request the DM to answer 1 question per game day (answer is given with limitations set by DM's discretion, with overall campaign factors and knowledge of player vs. player character overriding considerations)
  • M. User has short-duration super charismatic effect upon creatures of the same basic alignment - evil, good, neutral (chaotic, lawful, true) - so that they will willingly join and serve the character for 1-4, 2-8, or 3-12 turns (depending upon how exact the alignment match is); thereafter the effect of the dweomer wears off and the creature will no longer serve due to realization of the enchantment and fear of it (and hostility is possible)
  • N. Whenever any power of the item is used, temperature within a 6" radius is raised 20-50 degrees F. for 2-8 turns (moves with item)
  • O. Whenever the major or prime power of the item is used, temperature within a 6" radius is lowered 20-80 degrees F. for 2-12 turns (moves with item)
  • P. Whenever the prime power is used the possessor must save versus magic or lose 1 level of experience
  • Q. Whenever the prime power is used, those creatures friendly to the user within 20', excluding the user, will sustain 5-20 hit points of damage
  • R. Whenever this item is used as a weapon to strike an enemy, it does double normal damage to the opponent but the wielder takes (normal) damage just as if he or she had been struck by the item

Rod of Seven Parts

"The Wind Dukes of Aaqa are the legendary creators of this artifact. It is said that they constructed the Rod to use in a great battle of Pesh where Chaos and Law contended. There, the Rod was shattered and its parts scattered, but the enchantments of the item were such that nothing could actually destroy it, so that if its sections are recovered and put together in the correct order, the possessor will wield a weapon of surpassing power" (1E DMG).

As it's described in the 4th Edition DMG2, the Rod makes a likely candidate for not a singular but rather a linked series of expeditions—set across any number of levels—to recover its seven parts. The original Rod did at least offer some small help in the overall quest, as each part would impart to the owner a sense of direction as to where the next one could be found. Aside from the malevolent and side effects conveyed upon its owner, the 1E version also came with its own special curse of ownership, for "as soon as three joining sections are fitted together, the possessor is unable to let go of the Rod as long as he or she lives, until all parts are joined."

Of course, finding the seven parts only met one condition of the Rod. To be fully operational, the parts also had to be correctly recombined—no easy task, since any two parts incorrectly assembled would result in the greater part teleporting 100 to 1,000 miles away (presumably to an entirely new location). Even then, a complete Rod came with a built-in critical failure: "each time a prime power is used, there is a 1 in 20 (5%) chance that the whole will fly into its component pieces and teleport 100-1,200 miles away in random directions."

However difficult it was to find and connect the parts, sadly there was no consolation along the way for carrying around an incomplete Rod; originally "no single part has any power or effect alone." This was to change in later versions. The Rod featured in its own 2nd Edition boxed adventure written by Skip Williams. In it, the individual parts had their own powers and command words:

  1. cure light wounds 5/day (ruat)
  2. slow 1/day (coelum)
  3. haste 1/day (fiat)
  4. gust of wind 5/day (justitia)
  5. true seeing 1/day (ecce)
  6. hold monster 1/day (lex)
  7. heal 1/day (rex)

Connecting various numbers of parts unlocked increasing powers, mostly related to the Rod's original background association with the wind dukes (fly, control winds, wind walk); this also built the Rod itself into an increasingly greater melee weapon, from a horseman's mace +1 up to a quarterstaff +5. A fully assembled Rod ultimately provided the ability to cast resurrection—but doing so always resulted in the Rod scattering and teleporting away, leaving behind just the smallest part.

While assembling this version of the Rod unlocked further powers, it unlocked further side effects as well—from making the owner fastidious, to being able never to lie, refusing to determine anything randomly, or always taking things literally—in essence, playing up the Rod's background as an instrument of lawfulness and providing further roleplaying material for its owner.

Cup and Talisman of Al'Akbar

"Know ye, O stranger, that this story begins long ago, in the Seventh Dynasty of the Sultans of Arir. During the reign of Sultan Amhara, infidel invaders swarmed from the East, swallowing Annan defenders and driving refugees before them. Their violent wave threatened even the magnificent capital city of Khaibar, in which Arir's greatest treasures were hidden for safekeeping. By repute this treasure included more gems of all kinds than there were stars in the sky; and of course, the treasure beside which all others pale - the Cup and Talisman of Al'Akbar." (I9: Day of Al'Akbar)

Both the Cup and Talisman featured in the adventure module I9: Day of Al'Akbar. Further history of these artifacts described them as "great treasures which had to be protected at all costs. They were hidden in a place of safety, surrounded by guards and wards of organic, mystical, and mechanical nature. History records that the invaders were beaten off at the very gates of Khaibar, but the Sultan was tragically killed at the height of the fighting. He alone apparently knew the only safe method of retrieving the Cup and Talisman (and the rest of the treasure); for many spiritual and temporal leaders made bold proclamations about being appointed by Providence to lead Arir, followed inevitably by an expedition to retrieve the Cup and Talisman, from which none ever returned."

Holy treasure hidden somewhere in the desert seems the perfect MacGuffin for adventurers (and Indiana Jones). Once found, the Cup and Talisman could actually be used as the ultimate healing vessels for a good-aligned party. Originally, certain classes (cleric, druid, paladin, or ranger) could "fill the Cup with holy water and immerse the Talisman into the fluid to create a potion once a week," determined randomly:

1-5 healing potion
6-10 extra-healing potion
11-15 poison antidote balm
16-17 cure disease salve
18-19 remove curse ointment
20 raise dead balm

In later versions, these artifacts were also given powers beyond the random tables of the 1E DMG. The Cup could bless on contact and cure light wounds, while the Talisman could cure disease on contact and remove curse. Together, both artifacts could also resurrect a slain comrade up to seven times/week.

Yet, as with the Rod of Seven Parts, the Cup and Talisman had their own curious drawbacks as well as powers—particularly if non-good characters possessed or dared use either one. Using the Cup resulted in such a character losing 5d6 pounds every time; using the Talisman aged a character 3-30 years until he or she became a "deathless withered zombie guardian" of the very Talisman itself.

Adventure Hooks

The 4E DMG2 states: "at a fundamental level, artifacts are magic items whose role in the game has far more to do with the story of your adventure or campaign than it does with the actual game effects of the items."

As such, while artifacts exhibit traits of magic items, they stand above and beyond such "common" items—if not in terms of absolute power, then in the role they play in your campaigns. Artifacts cannot be created by known means, they carry no price to be purchased, and they cannot be easily destroyed. Artifacts cannot be rendered down into so much residuum, but will only be sundered with supreme and specific effort … that is, if they don't simply leave on their own accord when dissatisfied with their owner or when they feel the proper time has come. From the earliest editions, artifacts have always been items of singular identity; the concordance rules of 4th Edition look to integrate this sense of uniqueness with an artifact's powers and relationship with its owner.

Of course, artifacts also serve as compelling story devices, not only in how they interact with their owners, but how they are discovered in the first place. If you pick up the DMG2, you might consider the following options and story hooks around them:

  • Retrace the Sultan's failed quest to find the missing Cup and Talisman, especially as they are needed to cure a plague (perhaps a zombie plague, with Halloween around the corner).
  • The Cup and Talisman have been misused by a church or cult of dubious or outright evil intent; worried relatives have lost contact with its members, who have been transformed into zombies now guarding the artifacts.
  • Create powers for the individual parts of the Rod of Seven Parts, or assign command words for each one which must be discovered as well (as if rituals).
  • The Rod has long been associated with its antagonist, Miska the Wolf-Spider. We've provided the old stats; if you've been using the Monster Builder to create your own creatures, we'd love to see your results for updating Miska to 4th Edition. Send them (export your .xml file) to

Results from our cleric poll: Did you ever beseech your deity for direct intervention in any of your past games, and did they ever appear?

I asked, and help arrived: 47.1%
Never asked: 29.9%
I asked, but we were left on our own: 23.0%

Have you ever gained possession of an artifact in your games?
Yes, I actually rolled form one randomly on the charts.
Yes, I quested after one specifically, and recovered it.
Sadly, never.
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