This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Thirty Six on 22nd March, 2023.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
Sentient magic items are another common trope in many fantasy or fantasy-adjacent stories. The One Ring from the Lord of the Rings is an obvious example. All the characters who knew about it talked as if it had a will of it’s own, such as when it supposedly abandoned Isildur and then Gollum in its quest to get back to Sauron.
More recently, in the Marvel movies, Dr. Strange’s cloak of levitation is another item that has it’s own will and makes decisions and takes actions due to an intelligence of its own. And in Disney’s adaptations of the Aladdin story, the magic carpet found by the hero is often portrayed as having a will and mind of its own.
In short, sentient magic items cover any magical thing that is able to think and act on its own and has some ability to act independently of the creature holding it. The items in D&D are unfortunately more often like the One Ring than Aladdin’s Carpet most of the time.
Now one grammar note that I’m going to insert here because it’s a point of confusion and unfortunately Wizards of the Coast hasn’t helped in this case. The various sourcebooks call these items sentient magic items when often what it actually means is sapient. Sentience refers to anything that is self aware and capable of feeling. The vast majority of animals in D&D and the real world are sentient. Dogs and cats are a good example; they feel sensations, they are aware of themselves, and they react based on memory.
Sapient creatures are capable of thought and reasoning beyond that. They take past experiences, develop preferences, and reason out steps and consequences before actions are taken. In most fiction it is also equated with the ability to intelligently communicate the specifics of those preferences and choices along with the reasoning behind them. In D&D there are hundreds of sapient species, but in the real world the only one officially acknowledged is humans, though there are arguments being made for certain primates, dolphins, and whales.
The first thing to know about these items is most of them are designed to be rare and powerful. Some of them can only be acquired by killing whatever creature has it already, such as the Wand of Orcus. Guess who you have to kill to get that one? The benefits of the items match the amount of effort required to get them. Most of the official sentient weapons, for example, grant bonuses to hit and damage even if the creature using the weapon isn’t attuned. When they are attuned, the bonuses just get better.
The power of the items comes with a tradeoff, and that’s where the sentience matters. All of the sentient items have an agenda of some kind, and most of the agendas are kind of extreme. The sword Blackrazor, for example, is in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Its thing is absorbing souls. It really wants its user to kill things so it can absorb souls. And if the user isn’t on board with that plan, the sword might take matters into it’s own…handle?
The descriptions of all sentient magic include a section on the item’s personality. That description usually includes the goals and motivations of the item. These goals are not often nuanced or complex. As previously mentioned, the sword Blackrazor wants to absorb the souls of dead creatures. That’s pretty much it. The item “The Ring of Winter” from Tomb of Annihilation has a personality description that just says “craves destruction, and it likes inflicting indiscriminate harm on others.”
Now for better or worse, the creature that uses the item doesn’t need to do research or cast spells to figure out what the items want. In most cases, they tell the user directly. How the magic item communicates is usually included in the description. The most common methods for the official items are either direct telepathic messages or communicating by emotion. For the latter, that usually means the item either projects or creates an emotion in the user, like making them feel angry if they aren’t doing what the item wants, or the wielder is aware of the emotional state of the item itself.
Sentient magic items are tricky to introduce into a campaign and several different aspects of the game have to be considered. Many of them, like the aforementioned Wand of Orcus, could be the focus of a campaign; people and groups looking for the item and fighting each other for it could be the catalyst for a number of different adventures.
The next thing to consider is just their effect on the game from a mechanical standpoint. As mentioned, many of them are extremely powerful, conveying +2 or even +3 bonuses to hit for weapons, and often allowing free or low-cost casting of powerful spells for non-weapon items. If a low-level character acquires one it could drastically upset the balance of power.
There are a couple of ways to blunt that. The other groups searching for the item aren’t going to stop just because it’s in someone’s possession, so characters with it will become targets for those groups.
The other limiting factor is the item itself. As we mentioned, if the character using the item doesn’t follow the item’s agenda, the item will take steps to make the user’s life more difficult. Or possibly shorter. So if you want to introduce a sentient item without a drastic power boost for one character, it might be better to use one whose goals will not match the party. The item might provide that power spike for a little while, but it will quickly come into conflict with the user and the power spike will vanish.
But again, you have to be careful. Some of the sentient items apply minor penalties if they aren’t getting along with their users, like refusing attunement or reducing the bonuses it applies to spells or attacks. But others have more extreme effects, like applying exhaustion or trying to dominate the character.
There is a section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide that describes what is called “coming into conflict” with the sentient item. If that happens, the character is required to make a Charisma check against the item’s Charisma score (and, yes, the items have stats for Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma). If it wins the check it can impose demands on the user, like “do what I want right now.” If the user doesn’t comply, it can impose one of the penalties mentioned. And there are rules for how to run the check if the item tries to dominate the character.
Unfortunately while there are explicit mechanics for the items, there isn’t a lot of specific direction in most cases. Some sentient items say exactly how they respond to reluctant users, but for the ones that don’t, the DM has to choose the demands that are made by the item, and the eventual response if the character ignores those demands.
The other challenge there is that some of the goals are vague and open to a lot of interpretation. For example, this is the personality note for the sword “Dawnbringer”, from the Out of the Abyss module:
“Long years lost in darkness have made Dawnbringer frightened of both the dark and abandonment. It prefers that its blade always be present and shedding light in areas of darkness, and it strongly resists being parted from its wielder for any length of time.” The description never explicitly says what will cause it to come into conflict with the user, or how “strongly resists” translates mechanically. It could mean that the sword will actively resist the user if it’s left for a day or two. But the description does say “any length of time,” so the wielder could put it down to go use the bathroom and then come back to a very angry bladed weapon trying to take over their body.
A group that’s comfortable with variable roleplay may enjoy the back and forth that could result from a temperamental magic item. One of their number constantly arguing with their weapon or telling everyone to hang on because it needs to have a talk with its ring about not blowing up the village could be a fun distraction or amusing interlude. However, if a group or player is more tactically or mechanically focused, they’re likely to be frustrated at the idea of suddenly losing bonuses or the magic item itself without knowing the exact conditions that will cause it. It may be necessary to come up with more specific triggers and events that will result in the magic item rebelling for those players.
The system for sentient magic items in 4th edition may be a good template to look at for things like that. In that edition, there was a granular system of points that could be gained and lost that influenced whether the item would agree with the character, and more explicit actions that would improve or worsen the item’s opinion of its user.
Beyond the character using the item, however, you should also consider the impact a character having a sentient magic item might have on the group and the story. The sentient items are supposed to become another character that is with the group, in effect. Even if the only person they can communicate with is their user, that character is suddenly going to have side conversations happening all the time and may decide or be forced to go off and do their own thing. That’s on top of what we mentioned earlier about outside groups possibly hunting down the user so they can take the item for themselves.
All of that adds up to an unequal amount of attention on the character with the sentient item. Again, some groups may be fine with it and just recognize that it’s adding to the overall narrative of the story. But some groups or players may resent the fact that the spotlight seems to be on the other character so often. Unfortunately there isn’t any blanket advice that really helps with that; you’d have to deal with it on a case-by-case basis. However, you should be aware it’s a risk.
Everything we just covered is hopefully enough to convince you that sentient items are not something to throw into your game on a whim, at least not if you want to get the full benefit from them. They can be unbalancing and may cause some issues with players, but if they’re roleplayed well and you can mitigate the mechanical issues they can be a fun way to shake up a party and the adventure.