Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted dig up artifacts and attune to magic items from Mythic Odysseys of Theros. In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons magic items and artifiacts grant capabilities a character could rarely have otherwise or complement their owner’s capabilities in wondrous ways according to the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Theros expands on this core part of the 5E D&D experience by incorporating how magic items carry reputations as rich and storied as those who wield them. Looking closer at how MOoT’s approach to worldbuilding, storytelling and presenting a campaign setting, illustrated previously through races, subclasses, Supernatural Gifts, piety and the gods generated fresh ideas and great conversations. Viewing magic items and artifacts with the same perspective stands to reason similar outcomes will result, so let’s get into it.
Artifacts and magic items shape Theros in 5E D&D
Magic items and artifacts make significant impact on 5E D&D characters. Because of bounded accuracy even a +1 weapon or armor represents a powerful boost to a character’s capabilities. At the other end of the scale something like a ring of spell turning grants tremendous benefits to the lucky character who owns such an item. And when it comes to artifacts all bets are off — these one of a kind items can shape an entire campaign or even the entire world where they exist. MOoT reinforces these concepts through both the unique new magic items and artifacts within the world of Theros but also steers Dungeon Masters towards considering the Remarkable Origins of any such object.
“Just as the heroes of Theros carry great destinies, so too do many of the magic items they encounter. The common folk don’t typically possess magic items, yet adventurers come across them with some regularity—further evidencing the divine favor most enjoy. Nearly every magic item was created with a purpose and often carries with it a role in some greater story, whether an epic long ended or one yet untold.”
The chapter on treasures in MOoT begins by encouraging DMs to reflect on how magic items affect worldbuilding, adventures and encounters. In particular the idea even the lowliest of magic items possesses a storied past hits on both sides of the DM screen. On one hand adventurers can take the initiative and quest for such items. A warrior inspired by the company of hoplite veterans who went missing during their quest to reach the edge of the world may set out to recover the magic spear wielded by their captain. On the other hand DMs can utilize this approach to convey information about the setting to players with an in game resource. Any warrior who knows their history knows of the legendary odyssey of the hoplite veterans, right?
This got me thinking about other D&D campaign settings are influenced by magic items and artifacts. The first thing that comes to mind is Dragonlance. The name of the setting itself is in fact a magic item integral to the worldbuilding. The eponymous weapons were designed and created as the only weapons with which mortals who cannot use magic can kill dragons. Stories from the world of Krynn are often driven by these and other important magic items. The entire franchise sets in motion by the appearance of the Blue Crystal Staff, an artifact signaling the return of the true gods.
Ravenloft also revolves heavily around magic items and artifacts. In large part Curse of Strahd is a quest to locate several such items to give adventurers any hope of confronting and overcoming Barovia’s dark master. The Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, Icon of Ravenloft and Sunsword inform much of the direction of the campaign adventure and along the way characters discover the history and lore of the land and Strahd himself.
In Critical Role’s world of Exandria, campaign one’s Vox Machina spent a great deal of time questing for Vestiges of Divergence, powerful artifacts they needed to battle their greatest enemies. In the second campaign The Mighty Nein traveled for quite a while with a legendary Luxon Beacon without knowing anything about its origin. Through the powerful magic item they changed the course of not only their campaign but the broader events in the world at large.
Worldbuilding for 5E D&D players
The same way DMs can approach and present magic items and artifacts as worldbuilding resources for 5E D&D, players have those same opportunities. There’s at least one situation where players can select their own magic items, a common option for games beginning beyond 1st level. One of the most fun games I’ve been part of was a one shot session of Death House. We played with 2nd level characters and the DM allowed us to chose one rare and one uncommon magic item. The Twilight Domain character I played (an all time favorite no question) came equipped with mithral split mail and a ghost lantern. If you’ll indulge me I’ll share the backstory notes I came up with to account for these items.
“Endost has always been scared of the dark. His tribe lived in a big old forest, with frightening monsters lurking in the deep shadows. His folk make small glass orbs, which priests would bless with continual flames, that they would place throughout the forest to guide travelers on safe paths.
Endost enthusiastically apprenticed himself to the tribe’s glassblowers, eager to learn the trade and keep the darkness at bay. He emulated a great hero from the tribes history, Enrora, who the stories tell found strength in the darkness and protected those who travel in it as a Twilight Priest devoted to Sehanine Moonbow.
After serving as a acolyte for most of his youth, learning the tenets of the faith and (reluctantly) walking the Safe Path to hang the lanterns each night, Endost became a true Twilight Priest.
During his Rite of Ordination, the spirit of Enrora coalesced among the gathered clergy. Interpreting this as an omen, the priests bestowed on Endost two very special items: the armor of Enrora, and a magical lantern that housed a guiding spirit.
Endost was ordained and appointed a special quest — to travel beyond the forest and aid others who travel in the dark. Because of his own fear of the dark, Endost was reluctant, but he finds calm in the spirit of Enrora and puts on a brave face to lend strength to others who face the unknown.”
See what I did there? With a healthy dose of collaboration between players and DMs we can explore worldbuilding together during and between game sessions. For another example in the yearslong Spelljammer campaign I ran the very first magic item the party discovered was a magic dagger called Reszur (borrowed from Princes of the Apocalypse). The wood elf monk who held onto it came to cherish the weapon and over time grew intensely interested in the origin. Why did it have a name? Where did it come from and was it created for a special purpose? Many times over the course of the campaign the monk would discover clues about the dagger and spent a great deal of time meditating on it, consulting experts and researching during downtime. They came to learn it was actually an artifact, forged in radiant starlight as a weapon against the encroaching Void upon the entire crystal sphereverse. Spoiler: it was just a dagger +1 with a cool name but the player was so enamored by it and felt certain it contained a hidden power they could unlock. So I rewarded their investment of time and interest.
Now it’s time for you to share! What magic items and artifacts have impacted your 5E D&D campaigns? When you get an opportunity to create a character and choose your own magic items, do you select based only on the power and effectiveness or does storytelling and worldbuilding play a part in your decision? If you’re a DM are there powerful artifacts guiding and shaping the direction of your campaigns and the world at large?