Now that my first in-print article for Paizo is out (“Lost Relics of the Crusades”), I thought I’d discuss a bit about the process of designing magic items for that article. I’ll break this up into three parts: designing relics as magic items, developing the mechanics of the items, and developing the story lore of the items.

First, designing relics, and a bit of background.

I was presented with very little by way of an outline—just the art orders describing the five items I would be writing and some recommendations for the design of each. The five items are a human jawbone on a leather cord, a suit of plate mail barding for a horse, an axe with the symbol of Torag on it (which is a hammer, so I thought “an axe with a hammer engraved on it? That will look silly.” I assure you, the final version does not look silly at all), a book with the holy symbol of Iomedae on it, and a golden wand with silvery runes. I was encouraged to research real-world relics for inspiration, and turned loose. It was a delightful yet terrifying amount of freedom.

I immediately found a pretty sharp distinction between fantasy magic items and relics. Fantasy magic items are tools that the heroes use—they are swords, axes, armor, wands, and so on. Relics are very often body parts of holy people, but also often clothes or other mundane items (a cup, say) that those holy people have touched. How to reconcile the two?

In one case, the tie between fantasy item and real-world relic was already done for me: the human jawbone would be the jawbone of a holy figure, and that’s just what it became. In order to make the other items more relic-like, though, I had to take some liberties (and, in one case, cheat).

I didn’t think that the barding had very relic-like flavor. Other than deciding that a holy person once rode a horse wearing the barding, I didn’t see the need to make that much more of a real-world type of relic.

The axe, however, was something that I thought a holy person might have touched, or even created. My developer suggested that I make this an intelligent item, but I’d recently done some intelligent item design (for the Viridian Legacy adventure path) and I knew that an item with saintly Wisdom or Charisma could get very expensive without a lot of benefit to the wielder. I elected to keep the “sentience” low, and thought that a sentience that was a chorus of faint spirits, rather than a single strong personality, would serve. This is what the axe’s intelligence became, with a blacksmith that witnessed a parade of ghostly martyrs coming in to touch the axe, and then realizing that she, too, was a martyr. So that has the “touched by saints” aspect real-world relics have.

The book had to have the holy symbol of Iomedae on it, and Iomedae’s story is that she was, effectively, a saint on Golarion: as a follower of Aroden, she performed several miracles before ascending to divinity herself. I decided to reinforce this saintly connection by tying the book specifically to the eleven miracles Iomedae performed while alive. (This led to the multi-use design of the item that is pretty common throughout many of my items in this article, but more on that later).

My cheat was with the golden magic rod. A golden rod or wand didn’t seem to have any particular relic-ness about it at all. In my further research, I learned that it is sometimes the reliquary—the often-ornate container holding a saint’s remains—that has particular potency. I thought that’s just what this could become—not a relic on its own, but a sealed reliquary holding a piece of a saint within. Since a rod is about the size and shape of a thighbone, I put a shattered thighbone within. This also naturally suggested a method of destruction (which all artifacts should have): if the reliquary is breached, the thighbone’s power dissipates.

More in upcoming posts about the mechanical design and story design of these five items!