I’d like to see a quick show of hands: who here has given their PCs an actual artifact in one of their campaigns?
One…two… okay, that’s what I thought - hardly anyone. And, for the love of God, of course you haven’t. Once you give the PCs an artifact, an honest-to-god relic of incredible power, all bets are off. After all, these are the same PCs who ended up killing everyone in that tavern when they tried to sneak out without paying. These are the same PCs who routinely contemplate overthrowing the good-hearted king just because they can. The same PCs who thought it would be a good idea to tell Hextor, God of War, to piss off. And you want to give them an artifact?
Giving the PCs an artifact means handing over a significant portion of the the DM’s control, handing over the keys to the car as it were, and we can’t be having that…or can we? What if, in fact, you gave the PCs a top-tier artifact at first level?
Handing over a powerful artifact to low level characters may look like an extreme move, but it’s an excellent idea for two reasons – it guarantees that the players feel like their choices really matter, and it turns the entire game world into a dynamic, high-stakes sandbox. Particularly if the artifact your handing over acts more as a tool than a weapon, you’ll find there’s little to lose and much to gain.
A D&D game is at its best when the DM is reacting to the players and not the other way around. When a campaign is going really well it’s because the players feel like they are making their own decisions and their actions have real consequence. Handing over an artifact is like suddenly taking the training wheels off of D&D. When you give the players power that far outstrips their character levels they suddenly have the ability to act on plans, dreams and fantasies that would normally be slowly gratified at a glacial pace over many, many weeks of games.
It’s not just the PCs who benefit, but the DM as well. By handing over an artifact at the outset you’re cutting right to the chase at the get go. Instead of buying into the standard model (the above mentioned slow advancement with slow reward) you’re saying, “Show me what you want to do,” and using your player’s actions as a starting point. It is entirely possible the PCs will act as violently as you fear, running off and destroying the nearest kingdom, on the other hand they might surprise you by suddenly becoming more circumspect and serious than you’ve ever seen them – for a little while anyway.
In either case, the chaos the PCs stir up can lead to incredibly collaborative, creative moments – as long as you’ve done some basic ground work to prepare. If you’re considering running this sort of campaign, before you hand over the artifact ask yourself about the effects world-shaking events would have in game. If the PCs cast down the king, defeat the royal army and take the throne, how will neighboring countries react? Will they join forces to try and protect themselves against such an unpredictable threat. Will any powers attempt to ally themselves with the PCs and are their overtures honest? Is there a council of powerful wizards that watch for such artifacts when they arise? Do extraplanar beings sense the awakening of this new power? Would the Gods take notice? What would these parties do and, in the face of such opponents, is the artifact really so powerful? Sketching out such details before the game will give you the flexibility to react to the player’s decisions in an organic way, as well as allowing you to plant the seeds of future adventures without limiting their actions.
Finally, the dirty little secret. Handing over an artifact is not that different from running any other sort of game. Without encountering challenges commensurate to the PC’s abilities, it won’t be long before the thrill has worn off and everyone is bored to tears. If you’re going to hand over an artifact, you as a DM simply have to get a bit more creative with the challenges. Instead of throwing orcs at your low level PC’s you might be sending arch-angels. Instead of helping out the inn keeper, they might be recruited by God himself.
The trappings of the adventure are essentially window dressing, what matters is that the threat to the PCs is balanced overall. It’s easiest to do this with artifacts that tend toward a creative, non-combat functionality. An artifact weapon, if that’s its major function, creates an imbalance that’s difficult to compensate for – mostly because only one PC can benefit from wielding its power while in combat which means that everyone else is left standing around with little to do. If you’re going to hand out a magic weapon artifact, consider going all out and giving one to every member of the party to keep things fair.
If you’re looking for ideas for non-combat oriented artifacts, consider the following adventure hooks as jumping off points:
The Ultimate Invention
A cabal of brilliant gnomish inventors have been enlisted by a wealthy kingdom to construct the ultimate in air going magical craft – a flying ship of unparalleled size and power, capable of traveling anywhere in the world and staying aloft for months. After a decade of tireless work, the ship is ready for its unveiling – only to be hijacked by the PCs.
A Mysterious Gift
The PCs are just beginning to relax at the tavern when a stranger bursts in. He rushes up to one of the PCs and thrusts a wrapped parcel into his hands muttering, “If he isn’t stopped, we’re doomed!” before hurriedly bolting out through a back door. A moment later a contingent of the royal guard arrive with orders to execute the man on the spot. They are tight-lipped about their reasons, save that it is upon request of the king himself. When the PCs have a chance to examine the parcel, they discover it to be a fabled, lost artifact.
Center of Attention
The PCs have been enlisted to stop an evil cult operating in the hills outside a small town. Everything proceeds as usual, but upon defeating the cult they discover they possessed a powerful artifact called the Annulus. The Annulus has many minor powers related to negating or nullifying things (sound, light, heat, distance) but its real power lies in its ultimate ability – the power to wipe a god from existence. What’s more, the only way to destroy the Annulus is to use it to do exactly that. Since every god has something at stake while the Annulus exists in the world, the PCs suddenly find themselves on the run from every religion at once.
An Unusual House
The PCs are invited to relax at the rambling estate of a rich old uncle. Upon arriving, they find that the uncle is nowhere to be found, but that his home has become linked to a potent, plane hopping item known as a Gate Cube. The PCs can either take the Gate Cube with them on their adventures, or make the house itself jump from world to world, traversing the multiverse.
The Divine Spark
The PCs interfere with a powerful arcane/divine ritual, just as it reaches its crescendo. The spell malfunctions and winds up granting the PCs immortal life. They can be killed just as easily as before, but return to life at dawn the following day. Rumors of the PC’s strange power, some accurate, some not, circulate quickly. If not careful with their identities, the PCs could quickly find themselves the most famous, and sought after, people in the world.