Saturday, May 25, 2013

Saintly Saturday: The Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist

Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist (the first two findings are celebrated on February 24). The relic had been in Emesa (in modern day Syria), but was moved to Komana (in modern day Turkey) during Saracen raids in the early 9th century. It was subsequently hidden and buried during the second wave of iconoclasm.

When the icons were restored to the Churches, Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople (A.D. 847-857) received a vision which told him where the head of St. John was hidden. He communicated this to the Emperor, who sent an expedition to bring the relic to Constantinople. The head was found today in A.D. 850.


One meme that keeps popping up in this corner of the internet is the complaint that the ubiquitous Sword +1 is boring and that magic items should inspire more awe and wonder. I myself have played with systems to try to alleviate this particular issue by imagining the process by which a sword is made. The story of St. John’s Head, however, suggests that giving even a boring old Sword +1 a simple history can transform it from a mere mechanic into a real magical treasure.

What follows is a series of d6 rolls which will provide an outline for the provenance of a magic sword:
Roll a d6. The result will be the number of previous owners. For each owner, roll on these two tables:

Who was the owner?


  1. Thief
  2. Fighter
  3. Knight
  4. Noble
  5. Demi-human (1-3 = Elf; 4-5 = Dwarf; 6 = Halfling)
  6. King

How was it lost?


  1. Stolen
  2. Lost in a game of chance
  3. Owner died in battle*
  4. Owner killed while adventuring*
  5. Owner killed by a magical beast (like a dragon)*
  6. Owner mysteriously disappeared

*On a 1-2 the sword was buried with the owner on a 3-6 it was taken by those who killed the owner, or the sword's fate can be determined by fiat.

As an option, one can also roll on the following table:

How did the next owner receive the sword?


  1. Stole it
  2. Won in a game of chance
  3. Awarded for services rendered
  4. Found it in a lair
  5. Found it in a tomb
  6. Found it in a dungeon

Once each owner is determined, all one has to to do is decide what order they owned the sword and fill in any details that are desired.
For example:

I rolled a ‘3’ to determine how many owners a Sword +1 has had. I rolled on all three tables and here are the results:

  • 3-2-5 Knight died in battle. The sword was buried with him and was in his tomb when found
  • 4-1-4 Noble died adventuring (sword was taken) and was found in a monster’s lair
  • 6-4-3 King had it stolen and was found in a dungeon.

Looking at this, I can fill out the details: A king had the magical sword forged, but before he was able to wield it in battle, the sword was smuggled away into a dungeon. A descendent of the king (2nd son?) went searching for the weapon and found it in the dungeon; however, he was killed on the journey home. A knight seeking fame and glory hunted down a beast in the wilderness, in the lair he discovered the sword. He went on to become famous, but died in a battle defending the realm. His sword was buried with him.

Obviously, further details can be added (such as the names of each owner and what lands they ruled and defended). Should this Sword +1 be found in a treasure hoard other than a tomb, one need only add one more layer to the story: monsters looted the tomb and, depending upon which monsters guard the hoard, either don’t know its value, don’t use swords or use it to defend the rest of the treasure.

Regardless, this lowly Sword +1 is no longer boring. It has a story. It was forged for a king. Men died trying to get it back. It took part in a great battle to try and save the realm. It is an item worthy of wonder, despite the fact in it is “only” a Sword +1.

10 comments:

  1. These are the kinds tables that should have been included in the magic items section of the rulebook -- whichever rulebook one uses. Consider them pilfered for home use. :)

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  2. Sorry to comment twice in a row, but I played with the tables and thought I'd post the results. The tables really do facilitate the creation of interesting back stories:

    The Royal Mace:

    Five previous owners.

    First owner: A king who mysteriously disappeared. The next owner was awarded it for services rendered.

    Second owner: A knight from whom it was stolen. The next owner found it in a tomb.

    Third owner: A king from whom it was stolen. The next owner was the thief.

    Fourth owner: A noble who died in battle, it was taken by those who killed him.

    Fifth owner: A common fighter, killed by a magical beast. The item was buried with him.

    The Tale:

    Long ago, a king had forged an enchanted mace to be the symbol of his house's rule. After many years and great victories won wielding the mace, the king vanished in the night and was never seen again. His Queen, slated to rule as regent for their young son, gifted the mace to the Knight-Marshal, the commander of the royal horse guard. In return, the Knight swore never to rest until his liege's fate had been discovered.

    While searching an ancient tomb, the Knight was ensorcelled and fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke he discovered the mace was gone -- stolen! Unable to bear his shame, he ventured deep into tomb to reclaim it, only he never came back.

    Next to own the mace was a young prince a century later who, exploring the lost tomb, found the mace resting in a coffin on what looked to be the bones of a Knight-Marshal from ancient days. Taking the mace back to his own kingdom, he overthrew his father and became king in his own right. The mace was his prize possession, till one day it was stolen out from under his nose.

    The thief was a noble whose greed surpassed his wisdom. He fled the kingdom for the rough lands to the west where, one night, he encountered some drunk mercenaries spoiling for a fight. A fight they got, but the noble fell at last. The leader of the band, a common fighter, claimed the obviously valuable mace for his own.

    Weeks later, the mercenaries were set upon by a demon summoned by an evil priest they had crossed. Though they defeated the demon, their leader fell in battle. His second in command tried to claim the mace as his own, but he could not free it from the dead man's grip, not matter what they tried -- even weapons and magic did not work. Eventually, they built a small mound-tomb for their fallen commander, and buried him and the mace within, where it lies to this day.

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    Replies
    1. No worries...thanks for sharing!

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  3. Really rare items like relics (the fantasy equivalent of St John's head!) could probably have a much longer life cycle than a 1d6 set of owners. If you think about the One Ring, for example, it effectively has seven different owners -- nine, if you count Frodo and Smeagol twice. Then there are a couple times where it almost changes ownership, and this mere possibility represents a major source of dramatic tension.

    Think about how heavily the LotR plotline revolves around discovering the timeline of those previous owners, to the point of requiring entire chapters of exposition!

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    Replies
    1. Certainly, major magic items should and will have elaborate histories. I wasn't thinking of those when I made these tables, however. Rather, my intent was to give minor magic items (like a Sword +1) a bit of flavor by giving them a history.

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  4. I like the thought of long lost items. Items that have a lore of their own and may have been missing for great time periods-centuries,even. These are the type of things that promote quests and who knows if the myth of the sword (or other item) is true or not until it's recovered (if it can be recovered). These tables are a nice idea.

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    Replies
    1. There is nothing to stop anyone from using these tables to create periods between ownership that last centuries. The example I gave just happened to be a shorter history.

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  5. One of the reasons I so enjoyed the first Baldur's Gate PC game was how it often gave great names and backstories to various magical items. My favorite was always the Edge of the World, an otherwise basic +3 great sword.

    Saving this table.

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  6. These tables are great for ALL "minor" magic items that aren't single use!

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  7. You're batting 1000, Dave. I've always tried to elevate the role of even the lowliest magic item by providing it with context within the setting, and these tables do the job very nicely.

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