Combating the Golf Bag of Weapons

In 3rd Edition’s heyday, one major rules adjustment I’d instituted was a way for weapons to increase in power as characters grew in experience. My friends called it “Weapon Level-ups.”

It was an interesting way of combating the large collection of magic armaments that characters accumulated throughout their careers; a phenomena not-so-affectionately known as the “golf bag of weapons.” It helped that I consistently ran campaigns where magic was something rare and special—for example, you’d never enter a dungeon room and find yet another boring +1 longsword with no history or uniqueness about it. Because of this, it was important to find other ways to keep character wealth levels where they were supposed to be. Thus, the Weapon Level-up rules were born.

Recently, I was asked how I modified those rules for 4th Edition.

First of all, I start by having players fill out my Character Questionnaire. Question 3 asks:

What are your character’s favorite weapons and items?
I don’t hand out golf bags of magic weapons and armaments. Instead, a character’s items “level up” as he increases in experience. I prefer magic items that feel personal and have their own unique histories. Also, I try to connect a character’s items with plot hooks already in place within the campaign. This gives the character a vested interest in the adventure. Common favorite items include heirlooms that belonged to beloved family members, sets of tools from memorable first experiences, or prizes won in contests.

Usually, answers come back with all sorts of juicy plot hooks. One character might cherish his dead mother’s pearl pendant. Another decided to take up his father’s sword to fight the oncoming orc menace. Still others have tomes, bracelets, bows, maces, hammers, and even a petrified acorn as items of interest. All of these treasured mementos have the potential to become a magic item during the game. In fact, some of them are probably already special, just waiting for the character to unlock their power; in other words, they will awaken during mystical events or combats with otherworldly creatures. Of course, not every character will be sitting on a magic item goldmine—I still shake things up from time to time by having the party discover magic items the traditional way: as loot. However, those magic items will then begin to “level” just like everything else.

Here’s how I put item leveling into practice.

During a group’s first adventure—or sometime during the first 3 levels of their career—I make sure each character receives a meaty magic item, like a weapon, piece of armor, or multi-use wondrous item. Note that I don’t include items like a potions, dusts, oils, or other one-time use devices in the same category as “meaty magic items.” The party will still find those kinds of trinkets as treasure the normal way.

The magic item each adventurer acquires can be something their character had with them before the campaign started, and thus was “magical all along,” or it can be something on their Wish List—something I put in the game for them to “find.” Once everyone is weighed down with an item of interest, I’m ready to return to one of the characters and “upgrade” his item—all it takes is a little research into what he’s interested in. For this, I return to the questionnaire or look at the player’s Wish List. (Occasionally, I’ll pick up hints that players have managed to drop—that works just as well.)

Let’s say Jeff’s character Kazim had a scimitar when the campaign started. During his first level, the item “woke up” and revealed itself as magic through some plot device—it’s now a +1 scimitar. Since I happen to know Jeff is interested in a fire-themed character, I put the following plan into action: Between levels 1 and 3, I describe how the scimitar seems to dance like a flame during battle. On one occasion, the weapon gets so hot that Kazim drops it in pain. Finally, during combat with a cold-based critter, the scimitar suddenly busts into flame, doing an additional 1d6 of freebie fire damage. Then, for a long time, the weapon lies dormant and does nothing, building on the mystery, suspense, and anticipation (giving me time to focus on other things).

By the time the group has reached level 4, I’ve seen to it that everyone has a magic item that they enjoy. Finally, it’s time to return to Jeff so I can “level up” his scimitar. Since I use treasure parcels, I pull up the Party Level 4 Treasure Parcel list from my trusty Dungeon Master’s Guide. I see there are four magic items on that list that I need to hand out over the course of the next level: magic items of levels 5, 6, 7, and 8. With that in mind, I take a look at all the fire-themed magic weapons around those levels. On page 234 of the Player’s Handbook, I find just what I was looking for: Flameburst Weapons. A level 8 version is a +2 with a daily ability. All that’s left is to find a thematic way for Jeff’s weapon to attain these new abilities.

After looking at my adventure notes for the next session, I find it: a trapped room that locks all the exits and begins to fill the area with water. However, rather than stick with the old cliché, I change it so the water will stop as it reaches the character’s chins. They’ll cheer and think everything’s going to be alright—until the temperature drops and the water begins to freeze. Just when the situation is at its bleakest, Kazim’s sword will burst to life, melting the ice and evaporating the water around them. From that point forward, Jeff’s character Kazim will have a badass, fiery scimitar.

Between that and just finding a +2 flameburst scimitar laying around, I prefer the method that invites history and attachment to the item. Speaking of history, I’d be willing to bet against the house that Jeff is now going to want to know how his character’s weapon got that way, prompting him to do research in-game and propelling the plot in a new direction. If I plan ahead, I can easily wrap this into a future adventure.

So what happens later down the road when it’s time to level up again? Let’s say I’ve chosen to upgrade Kazim’s scimitar to a Flaming Weapon (also on page 234 of the Player’s Handbook). The problem is, the Flaming Weapon has it’s own special abilities: An at-will and a daily. Now, you can’t layer the new weapon’s abilities onto the old one. In other words, it can’t have the daily from the Flameburst Weapon on top of the new at-will and daily from the Flaming Weapon; this would make the item more powerful than the book assumes.

There are a few options here. The first would be to let Jeff choose which daily he wants to keep: The one from the Flamebust Weapon or the one from the Flaming Weapon, but not both. The second would be to just give him the new daily and let him use the old daily whenever he wants for an Action Point.

Lastly, all of the above can be done with other types of magic items just as easily, be it necklaces, bracelets, pieces of armor, or what have you. It just takes a little extra work, but the end result is worth it.

I revisited the concept of magic-item leveling and how it interacts with the Treasure Parcel System in another article.