An artifact is, simply put, a magic item that is more powerful than the norm. Artifacts cannot, as a rule, be created by mortal beings; they are always rare and often unique; and they often have strange and wondrous powers that go well beyond what normal magic items can do. As the DMG states, "…they are the sorts of legendary relics that whole campaigns can be based on. Each could be the center of a whole set of adventures — a quest to recover it, a fight against a opponent wielding it, a mission to cause its destruction, and so on."

That being said, not all artifacts are created equal, and not all of them are unique. They are, however, always rare and valuable items of great power and varied ability, and should be customized for the individual campaign. All artifacts, regardless of type, have the following characteristics:

  • Caster level 21+. No artifact is ever made by a being below 20th level - even those that evolve instead of being created (see below) take a long time to gain their power – 20 levels at least.
  • Radiates overwhelming magic. Anyone using a detect magic spell on an artifact must make a DC 25 Fort save or be blinded for 1d4 days from the sheer radiance of the item's glow. Cure blindness will not heal this condition, as it is psychic as well as physical – the caster is using his mental faculties as well as his eyes to sense the presence of magic. A heal spell will cure the blindness, however.
  • If aligned, radiates overwhelming energy of that type to detection spells/effects. As with detect magic, casting detect alignment on the artifact, or attempting to view it with that spell, will blind the caster for 1d4 days.
  • Artifacts are so powerful that they simply cannot be affected by non-legendary spells, except in rare circumstances. The exception is that divine beings can affect minor artifacts only with non-legendary spells, but even they can't damage or destroy lesser or greater artifacts (a god couldn't use warp wood on a staff of the magi, for instance).
  • Regenerates damage. An artifact will renegerate any damage short of total destruction in 1 round. Again, some artifacts have exceptions to this rule, but they should be rare in the extreme.
  • Each type of artifact has the following criteria, to aid in classification (note that these are not hard and fast rules, but more guidelines).

Minor Artifacts

Minor artifacts (most of the items called "lesser artifacts" in the DMG and ELH) are really just powerful, rare magic items that few, if any, people know how to create anymore (some suspect that most of them require legendary spells in their creation). While not common by any means (there are usually less than 20 of any given item in existence), minor artifacts are generally not unique items; the ones that actually are unique are usually weapons or armor used by legendary heroes. They have the following characteristics:

  • Caster Level 21st - 30th;
  • Generally special powers;
  • Immune to non-legendary spells (including antimagic field), but can be destroyed via a targeted disjunction;
  • If a weapon or armor, has a +5 to +7 armor or enhancement bonus (but must qualify as legendary in terms of total market value bonus).

Moderate Artifacts

Moderate artifacts are more powerful and rarer than minor artifacts; many are minor artifacts that have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years, gaining power through use until they gained lesser artifact status, and many were created this way, through major events (a weapon used to slay a god, e.g.) or by divine beings. These items are often unique, but can be just extremely rare (less than a dozen of the particular item exist); a good example would be a handful of magic swords created for a specific purpose by a god of crafting, or a set of items that grant minor powers apart, or greater ones together. They have the following characteristics:

  • Caster Level 25th - 40th;
  • Immune to non-legendary spells, but can be destroyed via a targeted disjunction cast by a god; unique items usually have a specific method of destruction (in which case they're immune to disjunction).
  • If a weapon or armor, has a +8 to +10 armor or enhancement bonus.

Major Artifacts

Major artifacts are little more than legends, extremely powerful items that have appeared from time to time, usually in the hands of a great hero (or heroes), who wielded the item for a time before either dying or losing the item (which promptly vanishes to pop up somewhere else in space and time). They are the subjects of legends, songs, and fairy tales, the goals of epic quests, and the downfall of many a great hero. They usually have a long and involved history, and their creation is usually intertwined (or attributed to) a great being of legend – a divine being, legendary hero, etc., though the truth of those stories is hard, if not impossible, to determine.

Greater artifacts are always unique items, and cannot be created by any means – they are items of formerly lesser stature that have existed for thousands of years, gaining power through use. Such items, while not always intelligent, seem to be able to transport themselves across dimensions and spheres, appearing on different planes at random (generally, only one such item of its type exists for all the Primes; if it is destroyed, it cannot be found on any plane again). Oftentimes, the apperance of such an artifact heralds great events, even if no one initially knows of its presence.

They have the following characteristics:

  • Caster Level 36th+;
  • Immune to all spells and effects from any source (but can be destroyed by a certain specific method);
  • If a weapon or armor, has a +11 or greater armor or enhancement bonus.

Evolving Artifacts

Very few artifacts are created from scratch, with all powers already present, and those few are almost always created by divine beings. The vast majority of artifacts started out as minor magical items, or even normal items that were later enchanted. Over time, and with constant use, they gradually gained powers – through additional enchantment, exposure to magical energy, involvement in major events, whatever – and often gained artifact status without their owner even knowing it. A small percentage of items have also been granted artifact status by the owner's deity – as a reward for long and faithful service, or at the owner's death, where the god wanted there to be a physical reminder of the owner's life on earth.

In any case, this is a rough set of guidelines to determine how and when an item should gain artifact status. The DM can also determine other qualifications that fall in line with these.

In order to gain artifact status, an item should have most or all of the following:

  • A name. It must be a unique item, not just "a longsword +3" or "the hammer of smiting I found in the ruins of Al-Kemesh".
  • If a weapon or armor, it must have a +6 or greater enhancement bonus, or a +11 or greater market value bonus. If another magic item, like a staff, it should qualify as legendary.
  • A purpose. The thing that separates a hammer of thunderbolts from a normal +4 large returning warhammer is that the former are made to slay giants. A magical recorder that was used to charm a horde of rats and lead them out of the city is another example of an item with a purpose.
  • It must have been used in at least one major defining event, or used repeatedly in the same situation. The recorder from the above example, a sword used by a paladin to slay demons, or a pendant used by a con man to hypnotize his victims so he could ferret out their deepest secrets and rob them are all examples of such items.
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