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Stormbringer and special-purpose swords in D&D

January 8, 2012

I’m rereading Michael Moorcock’s Elric books for the first time in maybe twenty-five years, and I’ve reached the last volume proper, Stormbringer. That book begins with a tale entitled “Dead God’s Homecoming”, in which Elric encounters an ancient (perhaps immortal) entity called Sepiriz. Sepiriz is described as being one of “Fate’s spokesmen” and from him Elric learns much concerning his ultimate destiny and that of the world he inhabits. Furthermore, Sepiriz tells Elric something about the origin of his demonic weapon Stormbringer and its sister-sword Mournblade (the emboldening is mine):

“We know for whom and for what the blade – and its twin – were forged. They were made for a special purpose and for special men. Only Melnibonéans may carry them, and of those only the blood of the royal line.”

“There is no hint of any special purpose for the swords in Melniboné history or legend,” Elric said leaning forward.

“Some secrets are best kept fully guarded,” Sepiriz said calmly. “These blades were forged to destroy a group of very powerful beings. Among them are the Dead Gods.”

This passage of dialogue surprised me because, although I hadn’t forgotten how Elric’s saga ends (I may not have read the books for a quarter of a century but I’ve listened to a lot of Hawkwind in that time), I didn’t remember the runeswords being described in exactly those words. Swords with special purposes (as opposed to those only possessing special properties or abilities) appear, of course, in Dungeons & Dragons, and have done from the start. From the Monsters & Treasures booklet (page 30):

Now, while swords with complex biographies of their own – Excalibur, Tyrfing, etc. – are common enough in myth and literature, there’s little doubt in my mind that the phrase “special purpose” in OD&D came directly from “Dead God’s Homecoming”. This seems especially likely given the explicit connection OD&D makes between special-purpose swords and the struggle between Law and Chaos, fundamental to Moorcock’s fictional philosophy and enshrined in the D&D alignment system.

Holmes doesn’t mention special-purpose swords in his Basic rules, nor does Moldvay in his. Cook and Marsh, however, include them in the 1981 Expert rules and that’s where I first encountered them (page X46):

Notice that in OD&D one in every ten magic swords has a special purpose, whereas under the Expert rules the ratio is one in twenty.

Notice also that the demi-human classes in Expert have been included under their nearest equivalent human class, but the thief class, absent from the game in its original form but present in the Basic and Expert versions, has not been added to the list. Players drawn to that murky profession (and I was usually one, back in the day) can sleep soundly in their beds because no one – not even the gods of law, banking, or property rights – has ever bothered forging a sword specifically to slay a thief.

Notice thirdly that in OD&D “monsters” was a catch-all category, but in the Expert rules the DM is advised to roll randomly to determine what kind of monster the sword is designed to defeat. I’ve just tried that and the result was … rust monster. Hmm. That’s probably why the text also explicitly gives the DM licence to create and place special-purpose swords non-randomly, and to exercise careful judgement in so doing.

Finally, notice that while Lawful and Neutral swords retain the same special-purpose abilities from OD&D to Expert (paralysis and a saving throw bonus respectively), Chaotic swords have stopped disintegrating their victims and now turn them to stone instead. Whereupon, I suppose, they may be disintegrated at a somewhat slower rate by a hired squad of dwarven masons or natural processes of erosion.

In AD&D, the number and nature of the tables and subtables for unusual magic swords make special-purpose swords almost vanishingly rare, at least as far as randomly rolled items are concerned. Another difference is that the special-purpose power of a sword in AD&D is no longer a function of its alignment. Instead, the effect is determined by rolling percentile dice (Gygax’s DMG, page 167):

I wonder if this approach would make special-purpose swords in OD&D and B/X D&D (my system of choice) more unpredictable and interesting. I don’t expect them to be common in my game (adhering as I do to a miserly, Lamentations of the Flame Princess-style, less-is-more philosophy when it comes to magic items) but – well, you never know, so from now on I would use a modified and slightly expanded version of the AD&D table. Oh, and I’m not keen on the saving throw bonus, either. That’s protection, and bland to boot, so it seems like a job for an amulet or a shield rather than a sword. So if I ditch that along with the standard paralysis/petrification, I might run with something like this:

Roll 1d12 for the sword’s special-purpose power, or pick one. In each case, a successful relevant saving throw negates the effect.

1. Banish – the opponent is instantly hurled to a far planet or another dimension.

2. Blind – as light spell; duration 2d6 rounds.

3. Confusion – as the spell; duration 2d6 rounds.

4. Disintegrate – as the spell.

5. Enfeeble – the opponent undergoes sudden and catastrophic strength loss, suffering a penalty of -4 on “to hit” rolls and each die of damage. (If the sword’s special purpose is to slay magic-users, feeblemind is an effective alternative.)

6. Fear – as the spell cause fear; duration 1d4 rounds.

7. Ignite – the opponent bursts into flames, sustaining 1d8 hit points of damage per round until entirely consumed and reduced to ashes or the fire is somehow extinguished.

8. Imprison – the opponent is instantly despatched to a lightless oubliette deep in the bowels of the earth and there incarcerated under the watchful scrutiny of monstrous guards.

9. Drain life energy – the opponent loses one level (or hit die) each time the sword hits. Ectoplasmic life-essence can be seen escaping in clouds from the victim’s body. (Something along these lines appears to happen to Darnizhaan the Dead God when he is attacked by Stormbringer and Mournblade.) If the sword normally drains life energy, it uses no “charges” when wielded in pursuit of its special purpose.

10. Paralysis – duration 2d4 turns.

11. Petrification – the opponent is turned to stone.

12. Polymorph – the opponent is transformed into a small, harmless animal.

One last thing. Unlike D&D, the AD&D tables include swords whose special purpose is to slay thieves – boo! – but it’s alright because there are also swords forged for the express purpose of slaying monks and bards – huzzah! In your face, Master of Flowers!

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