Telling Stories: With my weapon

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.

Let’s kick this column off with a rhetorical question.  Why did Final Fantasy XIV and WildStar both tie character classes to iconic weapons?

You could say it’s for ease of itemization, or for transparency in play, but I think the real reason is much simpler: weapons say something.  We associate certain traits with weapons.  They’re not just tools, they’re symbols, part of the language by which we understand our characters and their capabilities.  An entirely different message is conveyed if your character is wearing a sword or a gun on his hip, after all.  Human beings (and, presumably, almost-human beings) have an attachment to our weaponry.

This is a rich vein in fiction, of course, and most games go the extra mile by having several weapons with names and points of origin.  World of Warcraft is awash in notable weapons, Final Fantasy XIV has Relic Weapons, Final Fantasy XI has Mythic Weapons, Guild Wars 2 has Legendaries, Lord of the Rings Online even lets you raise a weapon as a specific legendary item.  It’s a fertile ground for roleplaying, and it’s well worth exploring what it could mean to have a special weapon or two… even if those weapons aren’t useful because of their power.

FAT CHOCO 4 LYFFF

This qualifies as a weapon if I get it to sit on someone.

How it was made

There are four things that can factor into a special weapon, and the first is the most obvious when you think about weapons.  It’s something we’re very familiar with from video games – the idea that your blade has been made out of some particularly rare metal, a staff forged from rare lumber, an item made from something that is not normally used for these purposes which is therefore stronger.

Note, however, that it’s not always a matter of the materials being stronger than normal, just rarer.  Games generally make a point that these rare materials are also more powerful, but some don’t discount the symbolic importance; in World of Warcraft, Shadowmourne is forged from pieces of Frostmourne, the cursed blade of the Lich King.  You could easily have a sword made from a gauntlet your father once wore, or a pair of dagger whose hilts are carved from the bones of your murdered brother.  The point is that the materials were rare, not necessarily more powerful.

This can also tie into a weapon made by someone special.  Kill Bill makes a big deal about Hattori Hanzo’s swords largely due to the craftsmanship, and the fact that the Bride wields a new sword made by the master is a sign of the righteousness of her cause.  Wade the blacksmith in Dragon Age: Origins isn’t the only one who could conceivably work some of your findings, but his artistry is well-known and appreciable.  Don’t disregard the artisan who can make mundane materials sing.

What it’s accomplished

Gorehowl, the axe of Grom Hellscream, does not appear to be made of anything special.  Bone and metal, perhaps a slight enchantment for the glow – or perhaps that’s just an in-game thing to represent what it’s accomplished.  No, what makes Gorehowl terrifying is its owner and the countless foes laid low by swings of its curved blade.  Its reputation is what makes it matter, and it’s very possible to have a weapon that was a stock item in its day become something far more valuable over time.

Sometimes it’s not even a matter of the weapon being particularly powerful.  The Treaty-Blade and the Sword of Kings in Final Fantasy XII are powerful artifacts, but not particularly good weapons, best known for both what they accomplished and their status within Ivalice society.  Sting from The Hobbit is mostly notable for what it accomplished; while it can glow, there’s no indication that the blade itself is more than a sturdy dagger, but it has quite the legend around it.

Will we ever see another world like Ryzom's Atys?  I certainly hope not.

This axe is special mostly because it can’t stop the chop.

What it can do

There is room for a lot of special weapons that aren’t any more powerful than regular ones while still being more significant, but there’s also room for ones that are more powerful.  The reason that the hero is toting a gunblade in Final Fantasy VIII isn’t just because the game needed a ridiculous weapon, it’s because that gunblade can do something that normal swords cannot.  Hence… you know… the part where it’s also a gun.

All right, so gunblades make no sense at all, that isn’t relevant.

Some weapons can do things that other weapons just can’t.  In roleplaying, it’s best to pick out effects that aren’t a matter of simply making your blade sword better than other swords.  Have it do something unique, like always leave a scar the first time it cuts someone’s flesh.  Or perhaps it’s able to conjure small fires, not enough to hurt someone but enough to start a campfire.  Perhaps the soul of your ancestor resides within.  Something more memorable than just “and it’s a really good sword,” because there are a lot of those.

What it represents

This is simultaneously the most obvious and least obvious part of a weapon.  Because a weapon can mean a whole lot to a character despite being worthless.

My main character in Final Fantasy XIV has a sword that is, in every way, mundane.  It was made of normal iron, not particularly well-made, and it’s old enough that it no longer even serves as a very good sword.  But it’s still incredibly important to her, because it’s the first sword she wielded after her husband died years ago.

She had sworn to never use one again, but it became necessary.  And she keeps that sword, even though she has better weapons now, even though she no longer balks at the thought of using a sword again.  It’s incredibly meaningful to her despite its lack of practical application.

The point of making significant weapons is to externalize character traits in an obvious fashion.  It makes a weapon more than just a cutting implement (or smashing implement or whatever) and into a part of the person who owns it.  And it could mean something because of its unique properties… or it could mean something simply because of its history with the person in question, a unique set of circumstances that won’t come again, an object that tells a story to those who’d listen.

You can have something that fails to hit all of the obvious points while still hitting that one.  And that’s the one that ultimately matters the most.

Feedback, like always, is welcome by mail or in the comments down below.  Next week, it’s time to talk about the power of fear, and the week after that I’m going to yammer on about recasting character abilities.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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