The Basics of Intelligent Magic Items

A common thread in fantasy plots and worlds is the intelligent magic item. Like a familiar, it is usually associated with one person, and often doesn’t have enough agency to be treated as a character in its own right. Unlike most familiars, though, an intelligent magic item can be powerful enough to make or break the plot all on its own, often either consciously steering events or merely shaping them by its presence.

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The thing most people think about, of course, is the magic item’s power level, and what sorts of powers it can manifest. Such things can make or break a game, particularly if it’s not that difficult for them to change hands. It’s usually expected that an intelligent magic item will be powerful enough to be a plot-breaker, and that its powers will be in some way aligned with what it’s supposed to do.

The second is the intelligent magic item’s level of agency: how much it can personally affect the world. Most inanimate objects don’t tend to have very much on their own; after all, a sword can have all the power in the world but be useless without hands to wield it. But that isn’t the be all and end all of magic item agency; some intelligent magic items are able to control or at least influence the people who wield or use them, or merely choose who can and cannot serve as their wielders. And some particularly dangerous ones have both a will of their own and the ability to control their own movements, and as a result have near-complete agency.

The third is the item’s original purpose. Even in D&D-like settings, where magic items are a dime a dozen, an intelligent magic item is difficult enough to make that it was probably either a complete accident (in which case there was probably still a purpose for the item, if not one that fits it) or made to perform a specific function, either a specific task or a long-term role.

Form, of course, is also important. The most common intelligent magic items seem to be either weapons or automata/golems; the former because magic weapons are very common in fantasy settings (so why not have a few that have come to sentience?), and the latter because they can have complete agency (plus or minus a few built-in restrictions) to go with their power. This is usually determined by two things: the powers and the purpose. An item created specifically to fight a certain species of creature is probably going to be a weapon; on the other hand, something that’s meant to insure that a certain task gets done will as likely as not be an automaton in build, while something made to advise is likely to take the form of a cloak or jewelry. This isn’t a straight-out rule, though, just a commonality.

But there’s one thing missing—and that’s the one thing that makes intelligent magic items interesting. Personality. Sure, weapons might thirst for blood, and a task-automaton might be devoted to its purpose, but there can be a lot more than that. How does it communicate? How determined is it to chart its own course? How stuck is it to its original purpose? Does it take pride in its skills? Does it bear the mind of a pre-existing creature? What sort of impression did it carry away from its maker, or from its first owner? Is there anything it wants? Adding details like this can make the magic item a character in its own right; this can let it fill roles like foil for its wielder, information source, or even in-party traitor.

Besides, an intelligent magic item being its own character can come in handy in other ways. Intelligent magic items are excellent objects for rescue plots, as it makes sense that they can’t just break themselves out of there. A magic item with no control over its own movements, if stolen and used against the protagonists, can cleanly create a friend turned enemy scenario. Moreover, an intelligent magic item, being capable of befriending its holder, will probably (unless it really offends someone) be valued more highly than a similar item without a guiding intelligence due to its uniqueness and what it might know.

Intelligent magic items take some doing, but can make excellent supporting characters and plot devices in their own right. Tomorrow, I’ll go into detail on assigning personality to an intelligent magic item.

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