Legendary/Spontaneous Graded Items

A-Z 2016 "L"During this year’s A-Z Challenge, many of my posts have discussed graded items, items with multiple qualities of different grades. Often these items are enchanted, and many of them are simply very well crafted, with special materials and processes to get around spell prerequisites.

I’d overlooked another option: spontaneous enchantment, as of legendary items of yore. A particular sword might not have been particularly well-crafted, it might not have been enchanted by a spell caster, but after being soaked in the blood of a dragon in single combat it has become attuned to dragonslaying.

Creating Legendary/Spontaneous Graded Items

After a bit of consideration and discussion, the rules appear to be fairly straightforward.

These will be described at the meta-level. “In world”, these items come about spontaneously from the notable actions of heroes, villains, and other major figures. From a rules perspective, the item must be ‘understood’ (designed) and there are decisions to be made.

Design the Item

Determine the qualities to be assigned to the item. Unlike the normal rules, not all item grades must be assigned, some can be left unassigned. The item’s grade will be equal to the minimum grade that can contain qualities of those grades. For example, an item with only a grade 4 quality has a minimum grade of 7, even if the other three grades are not accounted for.

Each quality will be added in turn. It will not always be possible to have a ‘legal’ (all grades assigned) item at all times.

I originally defined the rime-blade of Norskyr as

Rime-Blade of Norskyr

This battleaxe is somehow formed of the heart-ice of a glacier. It is a crafted grade 13 weapon with a +2 enhancementfrost III, giant bane, and durable I qualities.

  • (6) frost III (+3d6 cold damage on a successful hit)
  • (4) +2 enhancement (+2 attack and damage)
  • (2) giantbane (+2 attack and +2d6 damage against giants)
  • (1) durable I (+2 hardness and break DC)

Market Price: 84,500 gp

I’m going to use it as an example for the rest of this post.

Add Qualities Through Achievement

Qualities are added to spontaneous graded items through achievement. Each time you add or upgrade a quality, determine the item’s new grade and add the grade of the quality being added to find a target grade value. To add the quality, you must complete associated challenges with a Challenge Rating equal to or greater than the grade of the quality being added, to a total experience point value of the target grade value.

… that is horribly worded. Let’s use an example.


I start with a normal battleaxe. Grade 0, no special qualities. The first quality I will add is giant bane, a grade 2 quality. This requires an item grade of at least 3, so after I do this it will be a grade 3 item with a grade 2 quality. This gives me a target of 5; I will need to gain (and spend on my battleaxe) 1,600 experience points (equal to those gained from a CR 5 challenge) by facing challenges of at least CR 2 (grade 2 quality). Ogres are CR 3, so if I kill two of those I qualify.

Note that I’m taking a grade 0 item to grade 3. This might end up being my first magic item, and odds are good that either I’m going to be outmatched by the ogres, or I’ve got friends along. I only get to count the experience points I would gain, so if I’m part of a party of 4 the experience points get split four ways — we’ll have to kill eight ogres for me to get the 1,600 XP I need for this. And because I have to gain them in ‘CR 2’ (600 XP or more) units we’ll still need to face them three ogres at a time — the four of us facing a single ogre gets me only 200 XP, not enough.

So, my low-level PC killed two (or was part of a team of four that killed eight) ogres. Yay me (us). The battleaxe picks up on how it is used and becomes better at killing giants.

+1 Enhancement

Giantbane is a nice quality to have, but something more general would be good. Let’s say that enhancement bonuses are gained by meeting challenges involving magic… or DR/magic (which might explain why other qualities are gained first). Adding a second grade 2 quality means minimum item grade 5, and because I’m adding a grade 2 quality my target is 7. I need to gain 3,200 XP, in units of 600 or more XP (grade 2 quality; CR 2 encounter is worth 600 XP). This means five or six CR 2 creatures with DR/magic (which are hard to find), or higher-CR monsters (which are harder to defeat!)… and that’s if I work alone.

However, let’s say that I complete my quest and beat up a bunch of monsters with DR/magic. I’ve faced at least 4,800 XP worth of challenges and all the XP have gone into my axe, but it’s now a +1 giantbane battleaxe.

Frost II

I want to get some more damage capability, so I’m going to start adding the frost II quality. Monsters with the cold subtype are clearly the way to go here. I’m adding a grade 4 quality, the battleaxe is already grade 5, so the new item grade will be 9 and my target is 13.

Gulp. That’s going to be brutal, I need to face challenges enough to gain 25,600 XP (all of which go to the battleaxe) in units of 1,200 or more XP (grade 4 quality). That’s a lot of white dragons and… frost giants. This is a giantbane axe, frost giants are CR 9. I just need to kill four of them!

… I think I’ll bring my friends. CR 9 split four ways is still CR 5 XP, enough that I can count each giant toward my goal. Between us we defeat sixteen frost giants, and my share of the XP goes into my axe. I now have a +1 frost II giantbane battleaxe. This is a grade 9 item with 8 grades of qualities, worth 36,000 XP. (The approximate equivalent is a +1 icy burst giantbane battleaxe, +4 equivalent worth 32,310 gp… but my battleaxe always does +2d6 cold damage instead of +1d6, and +2d10 on a critical.)

After a bit of post-analysis (shown below) I realized it actually is cheaper to do this in two steps. I think I might say that I do this ‘twice consecutively’, going from +1 giantbane to +1 frost I giantbane, then the second time to +1 frost II giantbane. That is, while going my merry way killing frost giants it gradually picks up the power, rather than it all being gained in one step.

Frost III

My axe has been taking some abuse. The constant cold makes the steel brittle and I want something more suitable for my purpose. I’m going to go on a quest into the heart of a glacier. My friends aren’t so suited for this, so I’m going alone.

I’m increasing the grade of the frost quality from frost II to frost III: two grades’ difference. The new item grade is 11, so my target is 13.

The journey itself is a challenge, or a series of challenges. There aren’t too many battles, but I face a dozen or so challenges (of CR 5 and 6 difficulty — but by now I’m about tenth level, they’re not that difficult for me on my own) to gain 25,600 XP. The primal cold of the glacier soaks into my battleaxe, increasing the frost from frost II to frost III.


In the heart of the glacier I face the very spirit of the glacier. She sets several challenges on me, including how to bind my soul to the ice and how to shape it to my will. In the course of this I replace the steel blade of my battleaxe with a blade of primal ice. This does not increase the item’s grade because I had an unassigned grade, but it is a change. My target is 12; there were many minor challenges, and yet enough to gain 19,200 XP toward improving my axe.

This is now a +1 durable frost III giantbane battleaxe, a grade 11 item worth 60,500 gp.

+2 Enchantment

As a final step (for now) I want to improve its enhancement bonus. The new item grade will be 13, the delta is 2, so I have a target of 15. I need to face and succeed at 51,200 XP worth of challenges, and these need to be related somehow to improved combat and/or have DR/magic. When that’s done my battleaxe is complete: +2 durable frost III giantbane battleaxe, worth 84,500 gp.

Summary and Analysis of ‘Spontaneous’ Enchantment

The example above took part in six stages, probably over the course of 12-16 character levels, to guess by the experience points that had to be gained and the challenges faced.

Quality Quality Grade New Item Grade Target XP Cost Total XP GP Value
giantbane 2 3 5 1,600 1,600 3,000
+1 enhancement 2 5 7 3,200 4,800 10,000
frost II 4 9 13 25,600 30,400 36,000
frost III 6 11 13 25,600 56,000 55,000
durable 1 11 12 19,200 75,200 60,500
+2 enhancement 4 13 15 51,200 126,400 84,500

Assuming my character level was equal to the item grade at each upgrade — and as written, that was not necessarily the case — this axe ‘earned’ about a quarter as much experience points as I have. I had originally expected that the experience points gained toward spontaneous enchantement might have to be drawn from the character’s level advancement, but I suspect that might not be necessary. If each experience point gained toward advancement can be spent on advancement and item improvement, but the item improvement experience points have to be assigned to only one item and quality (fighting monsters with the cold subtype and DR/magic doesn’t let you improve frost and enhancement at the same time) it’s probably not overwhelming.

Assuming it doesn’t blow away the wealth by level guidelines.

Quality New Item Grade PC Level PC XP Total Item Total XP GP Value Wealth by Level
giantbane 3 3 5,000 1,600 3,000 3,000
+1 enhancement 5 5 15,000 4,800 10,000 10,500
frost II 9 9 75,000 30,400 36,000 46,000
frost III 11 11 155,000 56,000 55,000 82,000
durable 11 11 155,000 75,200 60,500 82,000
+2 enhancement 13 13 315,000 126,400 84,500 140,000

… bugger. At low levels this axe uses almost all of the character’s wealth by level allowance. I’m not entirely sure this is a problem, considering how much the player needs to invest in getting here.

I thought I might need to fall back on the “XP goes to the item, not you” rule… but on examination (not shown) the difference is perhaps one level, and often not even that.

Adding and Upgrading Qualities

The above example was contrived to demonstrate a few circumstances in spontaneous enchantment, including adding several grades of a single quality (adding frost II directly) and upgrading (frost II to frost III, and +1 enhancement to +2 enhancement). I had originally thought to have each quality added or upgraded a step at a time, but decided not to in the example.

I was curious, though, about what it looked like if I followed by original plan. As it turns out, it’s actually more efficient in terms of total XP cost. Not a lot, in this example (6,400 XP), but a little. Splitting the frost II into two pieces means paying for a pair of two-grade improvements, which means the target grows slower. Instead of having to pay for a target 13 (25,600) for frost II, I pay for a target 9 frost I followed by a target 11 frost II, saving myself 6,400 XP.

This probably isn’t important, but I found it interesting.

Quality Quality Grade New Item Grade Target XP Cost Total XP GP Value
giantbane 2 3 5 1,600 1,600 3,000
+1 enhancement 2 5 7 3,200 4,800 10,000
frost I 2 7 9 6,400 11,200 21,000
frost II 4 9 11 12,800 24,000 36,000
frost III 6 11 13 25,600 49,600 55,000
durable 1 11 12 19,200 68,800 60,500
+2 enhancement 4 13 15 51,200 120,000 84,500

Closing Comments

This blows the wealth by level guidelines out quite a bit at low levels. You can gain pretty powerful-for-level items at no gold cost, without needing particular skills or magic. However, I suspect the time investment will outweight those in any case, because of the amount of item-specific experience points that need to be gained. My original expectation of ‘spending XP’ on the spontaneous enchantment instead of level advancement doesn’t seem to be justified, it doesn’t make a big difference in character level in any meaningful way. I suspect this mechanism would largely be used only by those who wish to pursue in-story item development would be in a position to ‘abuse’ it.

It might still be worth treating the item as having to fit within the wealth by level guidelines. If this is used as a backstory element to explain where a character got a particular item, or to explain the history of a legendary item, I expect I would require it to be considered ‘just normal treasure’ with an unusual backstory. I think in play someone who goes to this much time and trouble to play it out — in the example there are six specific quests or sets of challenges faced to build up the rime-axe of Norskyr, over the course of about ten levels — that the PC deserves a bit of a leg up.


  1. Pingback: Legendary/Spontaneous Graded Items, Made Simpler | In My Campaign - Thoughts on RPG design and play

  2. Pingback: Z-A Challenge 2016 Index | In My Campaign - Thoughts on RPG design and play

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