Last Updated on January 22, 2023
As a player, getting your first magic item is an exciting and pretty special experience. At least, it should be.
My first character’s first-ever magic item (this is before I picked up D&D, back in the heady days of Pathfinder 1e and a soon-to-be-abandoned degree in philosophy) was a prosthetic arm forged from blackened star iron.
My human bard (called Nick Jagger – don’t judge) lost his arm in a dark bargain with a dread elder god – made while trying to escape the lair of a different dread elder god.
Afterward, we traveled to a temple, bluffed our way inside, and the arm was bestowed upon me (thanks, we later found out, to a case of mistaken identity) by the high priests of the Children of the One Armed Prophet.
Mechanically, other than strangling the real one armed prophet to death, the arm didn’t do much beyond giving me a +1 bonus to unarmed attack and damage rolls.
However, it completely shifted the gears of the campaign. The arm (and my bard’s canonization as the One Armed Prophet) jump-started a holy war, a gruelling series of morally questionable battles, and the eventual release of a Balor from the depths of the abyss. But that’s a story for another time.
The point is that my star iron arm was an evocative, exciting magic item intricately weaved into the fabric of the DM’s world. It had consequences and complications. It had history. It became iconic. And it saved old Jagger’s bacon more than once.
Here lies my issue with the +1 magic sword.
A lot of players, I think, get some sort of +1 magic weapon as their first magic item. For paladins and fighters, the trusty +1 magic sword almost feels required.
Less wondrous and more like a 20% gratuity pre-charged through a delivery app, a necessary step on their “power curve”. The more I think about it, the more I hate that it’s the case.
Mechanically, a +1 weapon on a low level adventurer makes a lot of sense. They become a bit more effective in combat without totally throwing the concept of balance out with the bathwater, and by the time players start getting to around 5th level, they tend to fight more monsters with resistance to non magical attacks.
But thematically, narratively, a +1 magic sword might just about be the most flavorless magic item you could hand to a new player. It’s boring.
Passive. It’s not fun. It doesn’t make your world more interesting, or the players’ lives more complicated, and you can be sure that it’s going straight to the bottom of the bag of holding the second a +2 sword rolls around.
It all feels very MMORPG – grinding away, level after level, to outfit your character with the gear that grants them a few more points of damage per round, or a slightly higher AC. Granted, there are people who like to play D&D that way and I’m not here to yuck those yums.
But, if my player doesn’t have a moment when they hold up their shiny new +2 magic sword beside the battered, blood-soaked blade that’s been their faithful companion for session after session and at least consider keeping their old one, I feel like I’ve failed slightly as a DM.
How do we create that moment? The moment when a player makes a “suboptimal” decision because they’re loathe to give up their trusty +1 magic sword. And, how do we make the moment when a player gets their hands on their first ever magic item – the one they’ll blog about more than a decade later for money – truly memorable?
How do we make that +1 sword special?
Welcome to our guide to making +1 swords not totally suck.
- There are many like it, but this one is mine – Making +1 swords special
- Origin, aesthetic, and location
- Using +1 swords as plot hooks
- Give your +1 sword something else it can do
- 20 +1 magic swords that don’t totally suck
There Are Many Like It, But This One Is Mine – Making +1 Swords Special
Now, it would be very easy to say “here’s how to make +1 swords interesting: just pick something else.” And, while it’s true that a Bloodspear or a Dagger of Venom are more evocative than a +1 magic sword, they do this by adding special active effects that increase their effectiveness.
It would be too easy to just say that your +1 sword should also let you cast Burning Hands once per day.
Tarting up a +1 sword with a powerful damage effect makes me feel like a divorced dad trying to squeeze a lifetime of missed soccer games into one guilt-soaked PlayStation 5 underneath the Christmas tree.
Sure, it might make your children- I mean players – very happy, but you’ll know in your heart of hearts that it’s an apology.
We want to make a +1 magic sword that, despite not being measurably more powerful or mechanically different to the basic item, is actually going to leave an impression on the player who picks it up.
Origin, Aesthetic, and Location
First things first, why was this +1 sword made? Who made it? What happened to them? Why is it now in the hands of your adventurer?
Any magical item (or mundane one for that matter) is a part of your world. It has history. It has purpose – or at least had one at some point. Even if the people who made this +1 sword are long dead and gone, they still live on to a degree in this blade.
The origin of an item has a profound impact on its aesthetic qualities, and probably on where your adventurers find it. Was it taken from the corpse of a questing knight by the hobgoblin champion who bested her?
Plunged into the stump of an ancient tree as a reminder to the elves that they should honor their sacred treaty? Locked away in a glass case by some arcane collector?
Think about the Origin, Aesthetic, and Location of a +1 magic sword. Express its past in the craftsmanship, or in the place where it is found. Do this right and your player hasn’t just picked up a slightly better pointy stick: they’ve acquired a piece of history, a riddle from the past to solve.
Giving your cleric a holy sword forged by an order of nuns to slay the demon that tormented their monastery, with a blade forged from melted down holy symbols and a hilt adorned with wax purity seals and scraps of holy scripture is a hell of a lot more evocative than saying “you find a +1 magic longsword.”
Using +1 Swords As Plot Hooks
Swords – in both history and legend – have always been more than a sharp stick. Swords are symbols of political power, of legitimacy. When Arthur Pendragon pulls the sword from the stone, he cements his claim to the throne.
The cruciform shape of the crossguard, hilt, and blade of many medieval swords pulled double duty as a reminder of the wielder’s devotion to a Christian god.
I see no reason why swords in D&D should be anything less. The right sword in the right hands is more than a sharp stick; it’s the key to the kingdom, a symbol of hope to the downtrodden, a tyrannical yoke – a symbol of fear.
As such, probably my favorite way to make a +1 sword more interesting in my campaigns is to explore this potential for symbolism as a way to create plot hooks.
Putting a +1 sword that is also a pot hook in the hands of your party at the end of one adventure is a great way to jumpstart another. Think about the power that a sword might have beyond its simple mechanical advantages.
Power attracts things, creates tension and drama – the bedrock of any good adventure.
Give Your +1 Sword Something Else It Can Do
I know, I know – I said we weren’t going to bribe our players into liking +1 swords by making them shoot fire or heal their wounds. We’re not doing that, but adding extra effects to a magic item doesn’t have to mean boosting its damage or giving it some super impactful ability.
Magic – I think at least – should be strange, mysterious, a little unsettling even. And +1 magic swords feel absolutely antithetical to that idea.
By adding a touch of weirdness to a magic sword, we can not only help express its Origin, Aesthetic, Location and symbolic power within your world, but also make D&D’s least unique magic item into something with a flavor all its own.
These effects can be whole inconsequential 99% of the time, or helpful, slightly annoying, or even a little scary, but as long as they serve to make this magic sword feel different from all the other +1 magic swords rattling around in adventurers’ backpacks and dragon hoards, then we’ve succeeded.
If you do feel so inclined to give a +1 magic sword a more mechanically impactful effect, however, just make sure you balance it out with a drawback of some kind.
d20 +1 Magic Swords That Don’t Totally Suck
Making up your own unique, exciting magic swords is a lot of fun. To help you along (or if it’s game night and you’re running behind on your prep) we’ve put together a list of 20 +1 magic swords that (hopefully) aren’t a total snooze fest.
Pick your favorite or roll a d20 and consult the list below:
The Sword of Maggots
This +1 magical longsword is shaped like a butcher’s cleaver and forever stained with rot and mold. When you reduce a creature to 0 hp with this weapon, within seconds, the body is consumed by writhing white maggots.
The Bone Blade
Once attuned to this +1 magical shortsword, the wielder intuitively knows how many bones are inside the body of any creature they observe.
The Wolf’s Fang
This +1 magical longsword – with an ivory wolf’s head pommel – identifies its bearer as a friend to wolves, who will not attack the wielder unless provoked.
This +1 magical shortsword can retract its blade completely into its hilt. Also, the wearer attracts the attention of all cats within 100 ft, who follow them around yelling for food.
This +1 magical rapier is made from glittering silver steel that never rusts. Its hilt is inlaid with mother of pearl stars. When Moondancer moves through the air, the tip of the blade leaves traces of silvery light behind it.
This +1 magical shortsword is made from magically hardened porcelain, inlaid with pale blue images of swallows in flight. The blade is impossibly sharp, but brittle. On a critical hit, roll an additional damage die. On a 1, the blade shatters into a thousand pieces and the air is momentarily filled with birdsong.
Sword of the Oathbound
This +1 magical greatsword was once wielded by a questing paladin avowed to uphold truth above all else. When the wielder lies or breaks a promise, the blade noticeably twitches in your hand or rattles in its scabbard.
Eye See You
This +1 magical broadsword has a jet black blade tinged with purple. The blade, hilt, guard, and pommel are inlaid with hundreds of tiny silver eyes that blink and move in darkness. You gain darkvision with a range of 10ft. If you already have darkvision, its range is extended by 10ft.
This +1 magical broadsword is of dwarven design. When the tip of this wide, squat bronze sword is tapped twice against a nonmagical metal, stone, or other mineral, the wielder learns its type.
This +1 magical longsword was forged from a meteorite. Its blade is a dark, shimmering blue, streaked with black and gold. Under starlight, the blade glows softly and feels lighter, gaining the finesse property until dawn.
Bhal’mak, Slayer of Men
This +1 magical greatsword was forged by the death priests of the cult of Vhar’Ghurath. Its hilt is adorned with a gaping demonic mouth. When you reduce a humanoid creature to 0 hit points with this weapon, the blade glows with fiery infernal runes.
Ielthuen of the Waters
This +1 magical broadsword is made from greenish oxidized copper. Light dances upon the blade as though upon water. If the Ielthuen is ever broken or lost, a creature attuned to it need only reach their hand into a river or stream beneath the light of the full moon to find their hand upon its hilt.
Dao of the Crystalline Master
This +1 magical shortsword has a supple, elegant blade that appears to be pale, translucent crystal but has the properties of the finest steel. Any creature reduced to 0 hit points by the Dao is instantly transmuted into crystal.
Talon of the Crow Lord
This +1 magical longsword has a hilt adorned with feathers wrought from silver. When you attune to this weapon you can speak to and understand all crows, ravens, magpies, and other corvids, who periodically seek you out to make tiny offerings of shiny trinkets and baubles.
Valorius the Great
This +1 magical rapier is sentient and can communicate in a loud voice. Valorius is – he tells you – the greatest fighting sword in all the land, and often offers “helpful” hints about your fighting style, but only after you make a mistake.
Kopis of the Viper
This +1 magical kopis (shortsword) has a forward curved blade designed to look like a snake’s fang. The blade has limited sentience and hisses at anyone who it thinks means you harm.
This +1 magical longsword was forged and wielded by hobgoblins as a sign of ultimate rank and status. Any hobgoblin wielding this sword has advantage on Persuasion checks made against goblinoids, and any non-hobgoblin becomes the immediate target of enmity from any hobgoblin they meet.
This +1 magical rapier is exceptionally light. So light, in fact, that it will gently float away unless held or weighed down. When drawn, the bearer is surrounded by a momentary gust of wind that causes their hair and clothes to billow impressively.
Curse of the Jur Madar
This +1 magical shortsword pricked the finger of every member of a legendary group of freedom fighters sworn to have their revenge against a tyrannical king of old.
The hilt of the blade is decorated with an eye which cries blood in the presence of nobility. If the Curse of the Jur Madar gets within 30ft of a king or queen, it becomes a Flying Sword and attacks them.
Giant’s Butter Knife
This +1 magical greatsword is massive, blunt, and tucked away in a hill giant’s lair for the purpose of spreading butter on their toast. If the blade is within 5ft of a lump of butter larger than a fist, it grows somewhat hot, inflicting an additional 1d4 fire damage.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.