In Defense of the +1 Sword

There is a line of thought that referees should avoid the plain old +1 sword. The argument is that a+1 sword is not a very engaging treasure item. On the extreme end, some would say that every magic weapon that appears in your campaign should have some characteristic that makes it more than a mere modifier to the to hit and damage mechanisms. It should have a name, an unusual characteristic not tied to game mechanisms, a history, a curse, something; anything but sword, +1.

There is some truth to that. A plain +1 sword feels a little lazy. There’s no embedded narrative for the players to interact with and you may be passing up an opportunity to provide some micro-exposition about your setting.

“Bob the Fighter wielder of the sword,+1,” Just doesn’t have the same appeal as, “Elric of Melnibone bearer of the black sword Stormbringer!”

I have come around to the point of view that a +1 sword is an appropriate item in the proper context.

<insert movie narrator voice> In a world of monsters…

If your campaign setting has more than a few high level NPCs and a lot monster but also has a functional civilization; you have some options for your world to be internally consistent and coherent.

  1. Civilization is on the knife edge of destruction from the threat of monsters.
  2. Magic is somewhat scarce but heroes are active in protecting civilization from the monsters.
  3. Magic is common and rulers use it to protect their people and personal interests.

If my setting has a lot of monsters, wizards that can summon or conjure monsters AND has a functioning capacity to grow food, process raw materials into finished goods, maintain long distance trade routes, relatively safe and functional cities then I want to account for how that is possible. One way is for there to be a significant supply of magic weapons belonging to the rulers and their vassals. Even the ruler of a petty kingdom will need a substantial number of +1 magic weapons.

If there are a lot of +1 magic weapons around, then some significant number of them are going to be in the hands of bandits and humanoid monsters. They will also appear in the treasure hoards of non-weapon using monsters.

There are a significant number of monsters that can only be damaged by magic weapons or spells.

Magic weapons are necessary to deal with even low HD monsters that are immune or resistant to non-magic weapons. A knight holding a manor near the borderlands will need a few magic weapons around, even if they are a mere +1. A single monster immune to non-magical weapons wandering in from the wilderness would be enough to wipe out every village in a 24 mile hex. No villagers. No farms. No farms. No rents. No rents no way to maintain your retainers or pay your taxes to the king.

If you have high level spell casting NPCs/monsters; Put yourself in their role.

I like having high powered evil wizards, liches, demons or other spell casting baddies in my campaigns. I assume they didn’t achieve their power by being stupid, ignorant, or incompetent. When I start creating the major NPCs and monsters for the setting, I think about how they might have achieved their power and how they might maintain it.

If the evil wizard wants to take over the realm, might he do a little recon with a scrying device or an invisible servant? Might he notice a lack of magic weapons? Instead of creating an army of orcs to swallow the land in a new age of darkness, he spends a few weeks teleporting around, summoning invisible stalkers and elementals. He sets them loose on the supply lines, food storage, and peasantry of the realm. No +1 swords? No food. Kingdom collapses in less than a year with very little investment in time and almost no danger to the wizard. He waltzes in, offers to protect the survivors from the terrible monster apocalypse and easily takes over to the relief of the common folk.

Without some distribution of +1 weapons, castles and walls would be a waste of money and labor. Earth elementals, can easily destroy walls and are immune to non-magic weapons. An invisible stalker can fly over the wall, through the window and murder the king and his heirs with little effort. A few dozen 1st level fighters with +1 swords would be an adequate protection even though many of them would die in the fight.

If you run your campaign long enough, this is what your players will do.

You may decide that NPCs aren’t going to do things like exploit the logical consequences of the game mechanisms because that wouldn’t be in the spirit of the narrative universe. OK, fair enough.

Your players will. Guaranteed.

Players of OSR games learn to think of ways to use spells, magic items, and everyday items that exist in your campaign world against monsters and NPCs. Old school games reward creative use of resources and the avoidance of danger. OSR players stack the deck. A player whose gotten that wizard to 12 level will have gotten very good at stacking the deck and the referee better be counting the cards or they’ll never be able challenge that character in a meaningful way.

In Swords and Wizardry, A 12th level druid can summon earth elementals and doesn’t even have to concentrate to control it. The local king has something the players decide that they want like, I dunno, the kingdom. They decide they are taking over. What’s to stop them? That 40′ thick castle wall defended by 200 men at arms and no magic? Not a chance. It could be 2000 men at arms and it wouldn’t matter.

Soon your campaign world will belong to the player characters because your NPCs are NOT nearly creative enough in using their magic resources.

A party of name level PCs with magic can defeat an army without magic and not break a sweat. Give that same army some low level magic, even if it is just sword,+1 and they have a fighting chance.

Does everything have to be special?

It depends. What kind of game are running? What sort of experience are you attempting to deliver?

It is OK for there to be somewhat mundane and boring magic. Not everything MUST be special and unique. There is no rule that says you can’t have every city in your setting with an armory full of +1 weapons and magic plate armor as standard issue. There are good arguments for and against that kind of setting. It depends on what you as the referee of your campaign and creator of your setting want it to feel like.

Contrast

A sword,+1 provides you a contrast when a player takes a +5 Defender out of the ancient red dragon hoard later on down the line. That +1 won’t scratch old Demogorgon but I’m on my way to the abyss to kick some demon ass with this sweet piece of enchanted steel.

If you have a lot of magic and every bit of it is unique, then it loses its contrast. It’s either non magic or its magic and special. That can become tedious. The player ends up with a character sheet or a file with long, purple descriptive text for three magic items.

For a unique magic weapon to have some value to the player, it has to provide useful information about the world, a mechanical benefit for the character or both. If there’s no context that the player can connect back into the setting or the uniqueness doesn’t have any mechanical effect; many players will be annoyed that this fancy thing is all sizzle and no sword.

It becomes a resource at higher character levels

When a character gets to higher levels and acquires a more powerful, unique weapon with a history and a name of legend, they will no longer need the sword,+1. Then the item goes from being a sword to being a resource.

If the player has hirelings, they can hand that sword to the hireling which increases the hireling’s combat effectiveness and their loyalty because their lord is sharing the good stuff.

The player can sell the object to pay for other things.

The player can give the object to an NPC as a gift to improve a relationship that is beneficial to the party objectives.

The player can give the weapon to an NPC ally to improve chances of success in an endeavor.

Conclusion

The mundane and boring +1 sword may not be your first choice for an item in a treasure hoard but it has useful applications in the right context.

It can simply be a way to make sense of a world that has a lot of monsters and wizards. It provides contrast between minor magic and major magic. It can be a resource to higher level characters who have discarded it for a mighty legendary weapon.

5 thoughts on “In Defense of the +1 Sword

    1. Definitely disagree here. I think there is a much more noticeable difference when you go from “Weapon without unique powers/intelligence” to “Weapon with unique powers/intelligence”. Just on the grounds of how much my players talk/ask about things, the jump to +1 sword usually isn’t important, but when they get a sword with special powers (regardless of statistical bonus) they ask about what its limits are and look for ways to exploit it constantly.

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  1. In Basic, First, and Second I was all about getting a +1 sword but the “everuthing must be over the top” nature of DnD past 3rd makes a +1 sword seem “lame.” So send all your unwanted +1 swords to me at … 😄

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  2. Arc

    I agree with you overall. I love a good +1 sword! However I like to change them to Masterwork weapons and have them not magical, but really really well made (I would also just remove the idea of needing magic to damage a low-level creature, only really tough monsters should have that.)

    A good example is Game of Thrones. The castle forged steel weapons like Arya’s Needle are really high quality, not your standard issue stuff but the type of things that can be given to knights and vassels. So while mundane they are strong and balanced. Valyrian steel is where we get the real magic sword vibe, being much rarer.

    I would probably implement that kind of scale in my world. Level one adventurers are not getting much more than cheap gear, but an heirloom sword or reward from the local lord could be a badass custom weapon made by the castle smith.

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