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The game Earthdawn makes use of system for growing the power of magical items along with the progression of those that hold them, but in such a way that the items can be used to drive plot as well. I've been using this for a while in Exalted, and thought I'd write it down. Similar ideas have been discussed in pages like DaveFayram/ArtifactSealing, Discussions/IncrementalArtifacts and BillGarrett/LegendForged. This one is somewhat different from them, in that it is more detailed and focuses more on plot.

Some artifacts do not reveal all of their power at once, but manifest new abilities slowly as their user becomes more familiar with them. Often, a user might not be sophisticated enough with magical forces or other types of experience to understand how to activate certain powers, or even to know they are there. The artifact itself might be hiding abilities until the user is worthy of them. Whatever the reason, incremental artifacts like this provide a way of adding more interesting artifacts to your game earlier, and having them grow in power as your players do. Storytellers may also want to use incremental artifacts to explain something like a vanilla orichalcum daiklave. Many think it unlikely that solars would bother creating such basic artifacts out of orichcalcum, but creating sword that appears to be a vanilla orichalcum daiklave at first, but reveals more power as the user grows can make this more "realistic". (Consider also, however, that dragon kings also attune to orichalcum, so the plain old daiklave isn't as far-fetched as you might expect.)

The powers of incremental artifacts come in stages. Each stage contains two types of requirements that must be met before the power of that stage is "unlocked" and available to the user. The first type of requirement is a mechanical one: the user must have particular traits at a certain level, such as a specific Essence rating, ability rating, knowledge of a particular charm or ritual, and so on. The second, more important, type is a plot requirement: the user must discover some story element or answer some question to gain enough understanding to use the powers available in that stage. These elements are often related to the life of maker of the artifact or the history of the artifact itself. The requirements for the first stage of nearly all incremental artifacts is the same: mechanically, the user must attune to the artifact and, as a matter of plot, must possess the artifact to start with.

For each stage for which the requirements are met, the user knows the powers granted. The user also knows if there is another stage beyond. If there is, the user often gets feelings or visions that let him know what the requirements for that stage are, but the powers that will be revealed at that stage remain a mystery until they are unlocked. Further, only the next stage can be "felt". The user has no way of knowing how many stages there are, or what they might reveal.

Stages must always be unlocked in order. What often happens, therefore, is that a user may work a while to meet the requirements of the next stage, but when they do they may find that they already have the requirements for the next stage or even the next, and they get a sort of cascade of new effects all at once. Note that this also means, when designing incremental artifacts, that requirements need to be laid out somewhat intelligently. As an obvious example, in an artifact with six stages, if the first one has a mechanical requirement of Essence 4, later stages shouldn't require Essence 3, as that would be a pointless requirement since the user is guaranteed to already meet it.


There are three basic styles of incremental artifacts: intentional, incidental and controlled. These styles are mechanically identical, but have much different flavor. In particular, their plot requirements tend to behave differently and lead to stories that have different feels.

An intentional incremental artifact contains stages that were put in place on purpose, usually when the artifact was initially designed, but possibly after as well. This might have been done to secure an artifact from use by anyone other than the designer, particularly if the item isn't a personal object. Artifacts that were created for use by someone other than the creator might also have incremental features. It's also possible that artifacts laid to rest in solar tombs might have been dangerous enough to have some kind of controls worked into them, in case the defenses in the tomb itself fail; since they would be added after the fact, though, they might be vulnerable to bypass with countermagic or some other means.

For some designers, creating artifacts, particularly those of great power, is a very personal experience, forging a connection between the artifact and the forger. This bond is sometimes so strong that it creates an incidental incremental artifact. Such artifacts were not intended to contain incremental stages, but now require knowledge of and sympathy with with the artifact's creator to unlock. In most cases, the original artificer never realizes this has happened, as he already meets all the requirements for the artifact. Plot requirements for incidental artifacts almost always are based on gaining knowledge of the creator, even so far as reproducing experiences that made the creator who he or she was. Some rare artifacts of this style may even require the same soul-shard as the original creator for part of its plot requirements (though it is recommended that some abilities be reachable without it).

Rarest of all, the artifact may be intelligent (or inhabited by a something intelligent) and have some degree of control over how its own powers are used. Such controlled incremental artifacts often need to be convinced the user is worthy of its power. This style is slightly more likely in soulsteel artifacts -- where one or more souls managed to hold themselves together better than others -- and in starmetal items, where the metal may retain some residual consciousness of the spirit from which it is formed. In both of these cases, the entity is likely to be a little grumpy, but personalities will cover the whole spectrum. Generally the plot requirements of these items will be based around fulfilling the inhabiting entity's Motivation.

Rating Incremental Artifacts

Defining a rating for an incremental artifact is tricky, and depends a lot on why you want the rating in the first place. In most cases, it only really matters at character creation, when players are spending points to buy artifacts. It is highly recommended that the players have no idea what the incremental stages of the artifact even are during this process. The approach to use depends a lot on the campaign, the maturity of the players and on the particular artifact (and on the artifact's plot requirements). Some possible options are:

  • Avoidance. Simply don't allow purchase of incremental artifacts at character creation.
  • Minimized. Let players buy incremental artifacts at the rating of the highest stage for which their characters meet the requirements. The drawback here is that it may be unfair to players that don't buy incremental artifacts as they are getting "less for the same points".
  • Maximized. Let players buy incremental artifacts at the rating of the highest stage the artifact has. The drawback here is that it may be unfair to players that buy incremental artifacts as they are getting "less for the same points" at first.
  • Amortized. As "minimized", but add one to the rating.
  • Compromised. As "maximized", but subtract one from the rating.
  • Authoritative. Just guess a "that sounds about right" rating, based on the powers, the difficulty of meeting the requirements, etc.

One other wrinkle here is armor, which is canonically overpriced in the first place. You could easily justify this higher cost with the promise of incremental features.

Commitment Cost

The commitment cost of attuning to incremental artifacts almost always increases as more stages are uncovered, but generally starts fairly low. Note that, while the powers of the artifact are staged, the commitment cost is not. The user cannot just turn stages on and off. Once a stage is unlocked, he needs to pay the entire commitment cost, even if he doesn't particularly want that stage's powers. For this reason, many incremental artifacts are built using a combination of commitment and activation costs, where some stages contain powers that require an activation, but don't alter the commitment.

If the artifact provides a material bonus, gaining access to the bonus works just like in regular artifacts: if you have to force attunement, you must pay twice the commitment cost.

Example: Ophidian Kata Rings

This example illustrates not only how incremental artifacts work in general, but also three specific techniques for designing them. In the first place, they provide a sample of an intentionally incremental artifact. Secondly, they show how existing artifacts can be manipulated and extended to be incremental (this particular artifact is mostly as an incremental version of orichalcum perfected kata bracers [ab_e.80, ocdx.42]). Thirdly, they encourage character growth into directions that might not otherwise be taken (in this case, the martial artist who uses these must learn Craft in order to do so).

Appearing as ornate, orichalcum snakes eating their tails, this matched set of five ciclets are worn on the wrists, ankles and neck. When attuned, the snakes animate briefly into a perfect fit and will do the same should the user want to move or remove them. The neck ring contains a hearthstone socket. The rings function only as a set, providing no benefits if worn otherwise.

The rings contain great power, but this is not immediately evident. The artificer who created the rings constructed them for a young solar he had never met, as a favor to a circle mate. Not confident in his circle mate's ability to properly train this young solar and concerned that too much power too quickly would derail the boy even further, the artificer installed a series of locks into the artifact. These locks required the student to learn certain things before they released and granted additional abilities. Most of this knowledge is, in itself, fairly innocuous, but the artificer hoped that seeking it would provide a journey to the boy that would teach him well.

Initially attuning the bands requires a commitment of three motes and provides a vision of the item's past. The rings augment martial arts forms, briefly trailing faint lines of essence and making a barely audible noise appropriate to the form (hissing for snake, rustling leaves for wood dragon, etc.) as the form is activated. The progression of the item is based on knowledge of crafting in general and of the maker of the item in particular.

Plot Requirement Mechanical Requirement Rating Attunement Unlocked Abilities
Must possess the artifact Attunement •• 3 When martial arts form is active:
Unarmed attacks do bashing or lethal
Parry lethal barehanded
+2B/+1L/+1A soak
Material bonus: MA attacks that damage creatures of darkness deal (Essence)A, soaked normally.
Determine the name of, and enter, the city where rings were forged (Rathess) Craft (Fire) 2 ••• 5 When martial arts form is activated, choose to add Essence to accuracy, damage or defense of unarmed martial arts attacks. This bonus remains while the form is active. To change the bonus, the form must be dropped and reactivated. Should user be able to cast more than one form at a time (a rare, but possible, event), only one bonus can apply at a time, but can be changed when each new form is activated, lasting while any of the forms remain active.
Learn name of ring's maker (Pale Dusk) Essence 3 •••• 8 Like previous, but instead add Essence to accuracy, damage and defense simultaneously.
Learn title of maker's seminal work on artificing (Concerning the Divine Metals) Lore 2 •••• 10 Any charm the user casts with a duration of one scene, including forms, has its mote cost reduced by one (to a minimum of one).
Detailed reading of Concerning the Divine Metals Occult 3, Essence 4 ••••• 10 Whenever the wearer avoids taking damage from an attack (either through dodging, parries, soak, or bad damage rolls from the attacker), he regains a mote of essence.

Example: Wyr'paljan Caduceus

This item may be a more typical use of incremental artifacts, where you could easily imagine a powerful solar actually using an item like this, but with many of its features unavailable to a character until they themselves become more powerful. Even a starting character can use this item, but it will be some time before the character will have access to all of its might.

The first solar to master magical alchemy, Wyr'palja was also a formidable First Age sorceress. She had a particular fascination with birds and the elements and built an orichacum device, a golden caduceus, to assist her in casting her favorite spells. The caduceus can change in size from a small amulet to about the length of staff. Any attuned user can do this at will, but using some of the abilities forces it to become a certain size. Generally, the more powerful the effect, the larger the caduceus must be.

Apart from the size changes, the caduceus has no real power in and of itself (making it's attunement cost low). Instead, it acts as a conduit or lens (and, in some cases, teacher) for specific spells. When these spells are cast through the caduceus, the caduceus allows the caster to alter the spell in various ways, either making the casting easier (which tends to reduce the cost of casting) or more flexible (which tends to increase it). As a spell is cast through it, the snakes on the caduceus shift into patterns to better channel the spell.

This is an incidental incremental artifact, with a fairly long chain of stages. The key to unlocking the caduceus are Wyr'palja's passions: the birds that inspired her magic, the joy she found in crafting and artifice, and her lunar lover, who spurred her on as a sorcerer while he lived. It was her emotional reactions to these things and the insight they gave her into sorcery that allowed her to fashion the caduceus in the first place. Some of this leaked into the caduceus when it was forged, and there remains enough vestigial memory that an attuned user experiences feelings that act as hints to the next state.

Plot Requirement Mechanical Requirement Rating Attunement Unlocked Abilities
Must possess the artifact Attunement •• 1 While the user is attuned, he gains the knowledge of the the spell Flight of Separation and may cast it reflexively, even if he does not know sorcery. He still pays normal cost for the spell, but it takes no shaping time.
Wyr'palja had a very strong sense of self, so the first step is to discover her name and caste (twilight) Essence 3 ••• 1 While the user is attuned, he gains the knowledge of the spell Death of Obsidian Butterflies and may cast it, even if he does not know sorcery. Cost and timing remain the same, but visually the spell summons small, brightly colored glass birds instead of butterflies
Sorcery colored the majority of Wyr'palja's life, so the user must uncover which school she followed (Salinan). Terrestrial Circle Sorcery ••• 2 When Death of Obsidian Butterflies is cast through the device, spending three additional motes prevents it from needing a round of shaping.
Wyr'palja focussed and calmed herself by making things, particularly intricate figurines, mostly of birds. To gain a closer understanding of both her and the birds she loved, the user must create a highly detailed figurine of some kind of bird out of some durable material. The bird must capture the feeling of one of the five elements, and then must be enchanted with that element with Ritual of Elemental Empowerment. It then must be given away. Craft (Air) 2, Ritual of Elemental Empowerment ••• 2 When Flight of the Brilliant Raptor is cast through the device, it can be given a different elemental aspect for +5m.
Air: Undodgeable. (Per + Occ)L piercing base electrical damage, plus Essence auto damage successes. For each two health levels dealt, -1 die to Dex rolls next turn, decreasing each turn.
Earth: (Per + Occ)L base damage, plus Essence auto damage successes. For each two health levels dealt, clinches target for a round.
Fire: (Per + Occ)L base damage, plus Essence auto damage successes. For each two health levels dealt, -1 die to Dex rolls next turn, decreasing each turn. Three yard blast, giving any who fail a Stam + Res (3) roll a two die penalty for two turns.
Water: Unblockable. (Per + Occ)B base damage, plus Essence auto damage successes. For each two health levels inflicted, target's knockdown test increases in difficulty by one. Three yard blast, knocking down those who fail Stam + Res (3) roll.
Wood: (Per + Occ)L base damage, plus Essence auto damage successes; however, instead of actually dealing damage, target infected with poison lasting one round for each success.
Feelings of longing for a particular mate echo in the user's mind, urging him to discover the name of Wyr'palja's mate (Iron Monsoon) Presence 2 ••• 2 When Infallible Messenger is cast through the device, it takes the shape of a bird, not a cherub. For +10m, once reaching the target, the caster can speak through the bird to have a 5 minute, two-way conversation with the target.
The user "remembers" the first time Wyr'palja flew as a transformative moment for both her and her magic, and realizes he must feel the wind on his face just like she did. He needs to fly in some capacity where he is largely unhindered (on a rope hanging from a skyship, some kind of personal artifact, etc.) Conviction 3 ••• 2 While the user is attuned, he gains the knowledge of the spell Swift Spirit of Winged Transportation, and may cast it without knowing celestial circle sorcery. Cost and timing remains unchanged.
The user has a vision of a dark day when Wyr'palja lost control and took out her frustration on a flock of birds, killing 100 with a single casting of Death of Obsidian Butterflies. The user must replicate this feat. Essence 4 •••• 2 When Death of Obsidian Butterflies is cast through the device, for +10m its damage becomes piercing. This may be combined with other improvements to this spell provided by the staff, but each must be paid for.
In fairly vivid montage vision, the user sees Wyr'palja and her lover happily teaching each other sorcery against a stunning backdrop, halfway up a wooded mountain, with a small river running through some kind of outdoor manse/temple, then cascading into a spectacular waterfall, thousands of feet down. The nature of the place seems inspiring, and the user knows that he must find where it is (at the source of the meander river). Celestial Circle Sorcery •••• 3 By spending 10 motes, the user can transform the artifact into a fantastic golden vessel to be carried by the Swift Spirit of Winged Transportation. The artifact remains in vessel form for as long as these motes remain commited. The vessel looks like a flat-bottomed ship covered with intricate metal tracing over the hull, and with the masts replaced by a single post with a crossbar to use as purchase for the bird's talons (this uses stats for a large yacht [king.145], but with +4L/+4B soak). The ship is luxuriously appointed, but contains neither crew nor weapons. Build for air travel, it is not particularly sea worthy, but does float. The user has minor control over the configuration of the ship and can, for example, optimize it for carrying passengers or cargo.
Together, the lovers were a formidable war machine, particularly in their flying warstriders. Discover the name of Wyr'palja's (Luminous Talon Rain) War 2 •••• 3 When Princes of the Fallen Tower is cast through the artifact, they appear as large birds. For an additional +5m, they can fly at twice their walking speed.
Learn the name of Iron Monsoon's warstrider (Molt-Defying Plumage) Presence 3 •••• 3 When Summon the Army of the Wyld is cast through the device, any birds that come can be commanded remotely.
To learn about elemental forces Wyr'palja visited every elemental pole. Start on this path as well and come within five yards of one of them. Conviction 4 •••• 3 While the user is attuned, he gains the knowledge of a spell called Elemental Wrath, a weaker version of Wrath of Five Elements. This effect acts in all ways like a celestial circle spell costing 30m, including casting time and 2wp charm cost. The spell is identical to Wrath of Five Elements, but only one of the elemental effects (decided when the spell is being shaped) is released per casting and the spell lasts for only one turn. Whatever effect is chosen erupts around the target with various avian visual effects (e.g. flock of firebirds erupting from the ground, etc.)
Wyr'palja carved her own city out of the the deep forest. Discover the name and First Age location of this city (Q'in Sanizaj, deep in what is now the eastern Wyld) Essence 5 ••••• 3 When Death of Obsidian Butterflies is cast through the device, for +5m and +1wp its damage becomes aggravated. This may be combined with other improvements to this spell provided by the staff, but each must be paid for.
Finish the journey you started and come within five yards of each of the elemental poles. Solar Circle Sorcery ••••• 4 Each time the Wrath of Five Elements is cast through the device, it can be altered in one of the following ways:
The wp cost is reduced by 1 and one less turn of shaping is required.
The caster can select the order in which the five elemental effects activate. He must use each element exactly once and chooses their order as the spell is cast.
The difficulty of dodging or parrying each effect increases by half the caster's Conviction (round up).
The caster can automatically channel Conviction while casting, regardless of the situation. This channel counts against the number of channels available per story, but does not cost Willpower. The cost of the spell also decreases by 5m.
To gain the same insight into the elements Wyr'palja did, find some way to transform your body, however briefly, into each of the five elements. Conviction 5 ••••• 4 When using the option to select the order of the elemental effects of Wrath of Five Elements, the caster can spend an additional point of willpower to use the elements more flexibly. The total number of turns the spell works remains five, but the caster can use, for example, the fire effect on each of those five turns, or two fires and three woods, etc. The elements used and their order must be chosen as the spell is released.