I’ve always liked special items that are distinct, sometimes even unrealistic, in description. Not Final Fantasy-style “really freaking big sword”, but with various ornamentation and other features. This is part of what I was planning to write I explored ornamentation some time ago, but have never finished the research for.
There are many random tables out there identifying ornamentation that could be applied to various items. They can be enameled, chased or inlayed with precious metals, have gems attached, and so on. However, it seems very uncommon to really have meaning attached to the results.
Throughout history, magical and metaphysical properties have been ascribed to many materials and symbols. Gold is often seen as a symbol of nobility or perfection or the sun, silver is associated with magic and the moon, diamonds with perfection of thought, heraldic lions with bravery, and so on. Whether a particular special item is magic or not, these associations and symbols can be leveraged to create items that are thematically consistent.
Many metals have metaphysical associations. The list below contains some of the more common ones.
- Gold: the sun, wealth and nobility, perfection.
- Silver: the moon, magic as a whole, reflection, trust, and intuition and sensitivity.
- Copper: Venus, conducting (or enhancing or diverting) energy, and healing.
- Tin: Jupiter, lightning, attraction (success, prosperity, healing), and sound.
- Iron: Earth itself, and Mars, and protection (especially against magic, bad luck, and chaos), war, and courage.
As much as metals, gems are shrouded in metaphysical connotations. This is harder to research because much of the older material is buried behind the belief that crystals are wonderful alternative healing mechanisms, and there are many web sites explaining all the different ways various crystals and gems can solve your problems. The list below contains a few that aren’t simply “makes you feel better”.
- Diamond: perfection, invincibility, courage, mental clarity.
- Ruby: love, healthy, blood, strength, courage, and authority.
- Sapphire: memory, wisdom, protection, and purity.
- Emerald: wisdom, serenity, love, and health.
- Jade: different properties based on its color. These include protection, calming, purity, bravery, and happiness.
Even where I can find older references, it seems gems are most often seen as passive, being worn to attract effect rather than being applied to cause effect.
Heraldry does not consist only of cool pictures on shields, the various elements can have meaning. A full list would be huge, but a few are shown below. In fact, I’ll skip some of the elements entirely (furs, lines, and ordinaries) because they’re not of much use for me here, despite their use in heraldry.
Colors and Metals
- Gold (or, yellow): power, splendor.
- Silver (argent, white): peace, sincerity.
- Red (gules): warrior, blood.
- Blue (azure): loyalty, truth.
- Green (vert): hope, joy.
- Black (sable): constancy, grief.
- Purple (purpure): royalty, majesty, justice.
- Orange (tawny): worthy ambition, work.
- Brown (maroon): patience in battle.
As a general rule — not always followed — they tried to avoid putting two metals together or two colors together because of lack of contrast. Silver and gold could be hard to distinguish, while silver and red were much easier.
This would be thousands of words at minimum, so I’ll just touch on some of the expected ones.
- Acorn: antiquity and strength.
- Antlers: strength and fortitude.
- Badger: tenacity and ferocity.
- Bear: strength and ferocity.
- Castle: protection and defense.
- Crown: royalty or nobility.
- Dragon: guardian of knowledge.
- Griffon: valor and bravery.
- Lion: courage and majesty.
- Mountain: stability.
- Plumes: nobility.
- Snake: wisdom and medicine.
- Wyvern: valor and protection.
There are many more heraldic symbols that could be considered, and it is evident that few if any have unique meaning.
How to Apply
The associations of various materials, colors, and symbols can be used to help describe items that have certain purposes. Gauntlets of strength or a belt of giant strength might be made of iron, with a bear motif. A silver circlet with a sapphire is likely a headband of inspired wisdom.
These could be simply cosmetic elements with no real game effect. They can be used to make items that look cool and consistent with their nature (real nature or implied), but optional.
These could be ‘abstracted requirements’: to enchant an item with a particular effect, it must have relevant associations present. There is no game effect per se, it doesn’t have any mechanical benefit or detriment, it’s just what they look like.
I favor making these optional but rewarded. If you take the time and effort to leverage the associations, you can save time, money, and/or effort when enchanting the items. You aren’t required to make a headband of inspired wisdom of silver and sapphire, blessed in the Holy Pool of the Moon Goddess… but if you do, you can expect it to be quite a bit easier than making one of gold and ‘just casting spells on it’.
While jade was sometimes used to make tools or weapons — it’s not particularly hard, but it is tough and relatively durable, and could be polished to take an edge — many would consider it a poor choice when steel is available. However, as a stone of purification, a jade dagger could be a good tool for facing ‘impure’ or ‘tainted’ creatures: ghost touch and various banes could all be appropriate, and it might even pick up some protective abilities (bolstering gives a bonus to saving throws against abilities used by a creature recently injured by this weapon, deathless protects against negative energy).
Copper is associated with healing, as are snakes. A copper wand shaped like a serpent is likely a healing wand (cure wounds or lesser restoration… I lean toward lesser restoration because I don’t like to have wands of cure wounds in my campaign).
While not shown here, snakes are often venomous, and it would not be unreasonable to expect that a blade with a serpent motif is a weapon of venom (standard is a dagger, but it could be a short sword, why not?). Many snake strike exceedingly fast, so a ‘snake blade’ might be a weapon of speed or a weapon of dueling (bonus to initiative).