Magic Weapon Levels (Part 1: Pre-design notes) | New Rules Option for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

Oddly, this is one that I get a lot of requests for. But an official request recently came in from no less than two patrons. The concept is simple: a weapon that gains levels as you do. Can it be done?

Playtest Content

The material here is presented for playtesting and to spark your imagination. These game mechanics are in draft form, usable in your campaign but not refined by final game design and editing. They aren’t officially part of the game.

Constructive feedback is welcome and appreciated in either comments or social media. If you can give me a valid reason with examples why something is off, 9/10 I’m likely to make changes to the content and credit you for doing so. Otherwise, feedback without anything to back it up gets ignored (or at most a smile emoji like this 🙂 ) Thanks!

Design Notes

Here are my notes for the build.

Before the Build

Fortunately, Unearthed Arcana just dropped some pretty killer rules for Sidekicks. And this makes for a great model on how to do this.

Now, I’ll be honest. This isn’t my first official attempt at making magic items that can level. I tried it with armor recently, but the trouble I ran into is that coming up with twenty levels worth of upgrades on a magic item was pretty tough.

To understand magic items, you need to understand how magic items scale. And we can do this by referencing the rarities on magic items.

We’ll start with weapons that just get a bonus: +1, +2, and +3.

A +1 weapon is uncommon.

A +2 weapon is rare.

And a +3 weapon is very rare.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a dagger or a greatsword, the rarity stays the same.

To go beyond very rare, we need a weapon that hits the legendary status. And what’s better than the ol’ vorpal sword?

Here is what makes the vorpal sword legendary:

  • It’s a +3 sword.
  • It ignores resistance to slashing damage.
  • When you roll a crit, you cut off a creature’s head and it dies. If the creature can’t have its head cut off for some reason, it instead deals 6d8 damage.

So now we know what a legendary weapon is capable of.

Another thing to consider with these weapons is that they are all magic weapons. This means that they overcome resistances that have the nonmagical weapons stipulation.

Tying magic weapons to character levels.

Okay, so at what levels to characters get magic weapons? For that, we can turn to Xanathar’s to get an idea of the milestones. On page 135 there is an awarding magic items chart at the bottom of the page. All we have to do is tie each of the weapons to classes.

Something to note is that the number of items is for a party and not just an individual character. So we’ll have to make a few adjustments.

Here’s how it shakes out for magic weapons:

  • Each character should have at least 1 uncommon magic item at 5th level.
  • At 11th level, there’s a balanced distribution between rare and very rare magic items.
  • Then, at 17th level, there are almost enough legendary magic items to go around for everyone.
  • One more important thing to note, which will be important for the creation of these rules, is that the characters should also have plenty of common magic items coming their way between levels 1 and 4.

Okay, this gives me an idea for our weapon’s tiers in accordance with the character’s levels:

Character Level Magic Item Tier Magic Weapon
1st Mundane Mastercraft (+1 on attacks)
3rd Common Becomes “magic”
5th Uncommon +1 weapon
7th Rare +2 weapon
11th  Very Rare  +3 weapon
17th  Legendary +3 weapon with powers
20th Artifact +3 weapon with artifact powers

After going back and forth a few times, I decided to have the bonus bumps go along with the traditional player tiers. At 3rd, the weapon becomes “magical” which is roughly in line with Paladin’s Sacred Weapon and Warlock Pact of the Blade. I might limit its usage as a magic item, but I don’t think it’ll break things too much if it’s not.

Rare comes in at 7th because it would have been too powerful at either 8th or 9th. 8th the character gets its second ASI, which is probably going to go to its main damage dealing ability, allowing it to hit 20 in the score, and 9th is a proficiency bonus bump. For the martial classes, 7th tends to be somewhat of a “wasteland”, so I didn’t think it’d mess things up too bad.  Plus, the rapid succession of bonuses will keep the player invested in the item.

Okay, now all I have to do next is bridge the gap between the tier bumps. I can’t add too many nifty abilities, because too much would push the weapon beyond its rarity.

Sidekicks are relatively easy to scale because they have both ASIs and proficiency bonuses to fill up the ranks. ASIs take up a full 7/20 levels for both the Expert and Warrior sidekick classes. Both then fill the rest of the ranks with nifty little powers that make sense for it.

I suppose the same could be done with a magical weapon.

So there are a few options here to fill up our class options:

  • The powers themselves could be based on common weapon item powers. Common weapon items have powers that duplicate both 1st level spells once per day. A rare, very rare, or legendary item might allow its possessor to cast a lower-level spell more frequently. At the early levels, one or two won’t break things too bad, especially if they’re limited by charges. And then once it gets up to 8th level and beyond, it shouldn’t make things too crazy at all in terms of what the character should be able to do.
  • It could be a sentient item that stats up with its own powers. But that seems kinda like a copout, really. Maybe as a subclass?
  • 5/20 of the powers could be filled up with subclass powers. So, for example, if you have a whip of fire, it could start off with fire abilities and scale up. Actually, I kinda dig that.
  • Some smorgasbord catch-all powers like those of fighter and ranger. Minor benefits that help add a level of cool to the weapon. Most of which would be passive.

So here’s my breakdown so far (and thanks for bearing with me, it sometimes helps me in design if I write about it as I go):

  • 7/20 levels are dedicated to the rarity types themselves.
  • 6/20 levels are dedicated to subclasses for the items.

That still leaves me with 7 levels. These levels probably need to have some minor helpful effects. But what? Outside of their attacks, weapons have costs, damage, weight, and properties. There are also a few weapons that have related feats.

Maybe two subclasses? One for the type of weapon (ie a category for swords, one for polearms, another for bludgeoning items). I think that sounds kinda cool. One will automatically be built into the class and the next will be by choice. So you can have a glaive of fire or a quarterstaff of necromancy.

It might offer up a little more analysis paralysis than usual, so it’s probably best to lock each benefit to individual choices.

I’ve also thrown in a few “theme/type” agnostic features.

The best part? It works out perfectly for spacing the features. Check it out:

Character Level Magic Item Tier Magic Weapon
1st Mundane Mastercraft weapon
2nd Type benefit
3rd Common Magic Weapon, Subclass
4th Type benefit
5th Uncommon +1 weapon
6th Theme benefit
7th Rare +2 weapon
8th Type benefit
9th Type/Theme agnostic feature
10th Theme benefit
11th Very Rare +3 weapon
12th Type benefit
13th Type/Theme agnostic feature
14th Theme benefit
15th Type/Theme agnostic feature
16th Type benefit
17th Legendary +3 weapon with cool powers
18th Theme benefit
19th Type benefit
20th Artifact
+3 weapon with really cool powers

Okay, so I’m pretty happy with this.

Only trouble is, I’ve now given myself the following things to make:

  1. An entirely new set of optional rules.
  2. At least three subclasses (the themes).
  3. And individual rules for all the types.

Woof. This is going to take a while.

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