Artifacts have been a staple of fantasy for as long as the genre has existed, and four of the most potent D&D artifacts spotlight the deep history of the game and its worlds.
The One Ring of Tolkien and Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer are well-known literary examples of legendary magic relics, and delving back into myth reveals Mjolnir, Excalibur, the Hide of the Nemean Lion, the Hallows of Ireland, and many others. The new fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide touches upon fantasy artifacts with a short section that highlights seven D&D classics: the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, the Book of Exalted Deeds, the Book of Vile Darkness, the Eye and Hand of Vecna, the Orb of Dragonkind, the Sword of Kas, and the Wand of Orcus. Those who know the game understand that these potent relics are part of a long tradition.
D&D artifacts originated in Eldritch Wizardry (the third supplement to the original Dungeons & Dragons game), released in 1976. That book featured an impressive list of twenty-two of these unique and powerful magic items, including five of the artifacts published in the current Dungeon Master’s Guide. It was a true trove of creativity that’s endured throughout the history of the game. Over the years, at least a few artifacts took the spotlight in each edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, from AD&D in 1979 through to fifth edition. AD&D second edition featured only three artifacts in its Dungeon Master’s Guide. However, TSR made up for that a few years later with Book of Artifacts (1993)—an impressive tome that provided not just the most comprehensive listing of artifacts (at fifty), but also the deepest look at their histories.
Depending on what works are counted as official, D&D’s classic artifacts first made their way into adventures either when Frank Mentzer produced the “Dwarven” Quest for the Rod of Seven Parts tournament adventures for the RPGA (1982) or when Roger E. Moore wrote “The Dancing Hut” for Dragon 83 (March 1984). A year later, the Mace of Cuthbert appeared in “The City beyond the Gate,” written by Robert Schroeck for Dragon 100 (August 1985). Things took off after that, and four of the artifacts featured in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide appeared in adventures published between 1985 and 1990.
The Orbs of Dragonkind
Like most of D&D’s classic artifacts, the Orbs of Dragonkind premiered in Eldritch Wizardry. That supplement detailed five such orbs, from the weak Orb of the Hatchling to the powerful Orb of the Eldest Worm. Though the powers of the orbs were entirely random in that first iteration, they did have one draconic twist: imprisoned dragons powered the artifacts, and they could control unwary wielders. When the orbs returned in the first edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, their number increased to eight, explicitly tying them to the eight growth stages then recognized for dragons.
The orbs became the first classic artifacts to show up in the original Dragonlance adventures, which rechristened them as Dragon Orbs. Krynn’s orbs were singular objects, not broken up by age groups. They were also more malevolent than their generic kin. Though the forces of good won a dragon orb in Dragons of Ice (1985), authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman later retconned that seemingly good event in Dragons of the Highlord Skies (2007), revealing it as a trap set by the dragon god Takhisis. The true evil of the Krynnish orbs became obvious in Dragons of Dreams (1985), where an orb causes the nightmarish destruction of the entire elven country of Silvanesti. Krynn’s Dragon Orbs would appear in many later books, starting with Dragonlance Adventures in 1987.
The Forgotten Realms alluded to its own Orbs of Draconic Influence in Draconomicon (1990). Then Roger E. Moore revealed that Faerûn and Krynn weren’t the only worlds with orb variants in an article called “The Orbs of Dragonkind” in Dragon 230 (June 1996). As that article put it, “Magical creations are sometimes developed in parallel to a surprising degree of similarity. One of the most famous cases of such independent convergence of thought concerns the Orbs of Dragonkind, examples of which have been recorded on no less than six different worlds.” That article also premiered Greyhawk’s Orbs of Dragonkind.
Meanwhile, additional generic versions of the orbs have continued to appear in the game’s core rulebooks. Book of Artifacts (1993) has one of the most interesting variants. Where previous versions of the game had imagined orbs separated by draconic age, these orbs instead were separated by what sort of dragon they imprisoned. There were twelve in all: five chromatic dragon orbs, five metallic dragon orbs, one cloud dragon orb, and one shadow dragon orb. A similar approach was used in the third edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, the fourth edition supplement Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons, and Dragon 394 (December 2010). Most recently, the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide reworked what is essentially Krynn’s Dragon Orb as the standard Orb of Dragonkind.
The Wand of Orcus
Not only did the Wand of Orcus premiere in Eldritch Wizardry, but so did Orcus himself. Unlike most of the artifacts in that book, the wand had a set power: a 50 percent chance of annihilating any creature except the most powerful entities within the cosmology of the game.
Orcus came to more prominence in the waning days of first edition AD&D. The Bloodstone Pass series of adventure modules (1985–1988) pitted characters against increasingly dangerous villains in the service of Orcus. That culminated in The Throne of Bloodstone, which finally brought the Wand of Orcus onstage in an adventure—by having characters travel to the Abyss to steal and destroy it!
Although it was supposed to take Orcus a century to rebuild his wand afterward, the designers at TSR clearly didn’t want to keep a good artifact down. By the time of Orcus’ own death (first alluded to in Planescape’s Planes of Chaos in 1994), the Wand of Orcus was back. The wand and a reborn Orcus then made their triumphant return in Dead Gods (1997), which once more tasked adventurers with stealing the wand—this time from a drow vault on Pandemonium.
Orcus and his Wand have reappeared since then in a variety of sourcebooks. Their most recent spotlight was in the linked series of D&D 4e adventures that culminated with Prince of Undeath in 2009. In that adventure, the characters must face off against Orcus with his wand. If they win, they can choose to take on the destruction of the wand as a final task.
The Eye and Hand of Vecna
The Eye of Vecna and the Hand of Vecna might be D&D’s ickiest artifacts. As described in Eldritch Wizardry, these are the body parts of an ancient lich that can be attached to an adventurer’s body—if the character’s own hand or eye are first cut off or plucked out! Despite (or perhaps because of) their dark nature, the Eye and Hand of Vecna have proven to be D&D’s most popular artifacts. From first edition through fifth edition, they are the only artifacts to appear in every Dungeon Master’s Guide.
The popularity of Vecna’s body parts led to interest in Vecna himself, who began to rise to the fore of D&D lore in the second edition era (1989–2000). David “Zeb” Cook began revealing the lich’s story in the 2e Dungeon Master’s Guide and Book of Artifacts. He also made Vecna the focus of the major Greyhawk adventure Vecna Lives! (1990). As the title reveals, the legendary lich is still around—and now a troublesome demigod in the world of Oerth. Vecna Lives! was the first book to bring the Eye and Hand of Vecna directly into an adventure.
The characters probably defeat Vecna at the end of Vecna Lives!, but it wasn’t the end for him in the world of D&D. He ended up in Ravenloft in the adventure Vecna Reborn (1998), then was a major force in adventure, Die Vecna Die! (2000). In what would ultimately be one of the last adventures published for AD&D, Die Vecna Die! offered characters another chance to claim the lich’s legendary artifacts.
Roleplayers have long wondered if any other of Vecna’s body parts were still around. This eventually resulted in a legendary joke in gaming circles about the Head of Vecna, which would give great power to a character whose own head was cut off first. Die Vecna Die! actually featured the head (a fake artifact, naturally), with instructions for the DM to avoid laughing if the characters cut their own heads off in an attempt to claim it. It also presented a number of other “lesser known Vecnan relics,” including the lich’s scalp, foot, heart, and teeth. More recently, Wizards of the Coast released a short April Fool’s adventure about the Head of Vecna in 2007.
Since third edition D&D, Vecna has been upgraded to a lesser god. However, his artifacts remain a powerful and often-sought part of the game.
The Sword of Kas
Connected to the relics of Vecna is another artifact of historical import: the Sword of Kas. Though not as popular as the Vecna relics, it can also be found across all editions of the game from 1976 to the present—in Eldritch Wizardry, the 1e Dungeon Masters Guide, the 2e Book of Artifacts, the 3e Dungeon Master’s Guide, the 4e supplement Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, and the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide.
The Sword of Kas—probably named after TSR publications editor Tim Kask—was the weapon of Vecna’s bodyguard Kas, described as “the mightiest swordsman of his age.” The full history of Kas and his blade was revealed in Vecna Lives!, which described how Vecna crafted the sword. Unfortunately, the weapon was evil and eventually seduced Kas into killing his lord. Depending on what source you prefer, Kas destroyed Vecna to leave only the lich’s hand and eye behind, or he attacked Vecna and tore those body parts from him with his blade.
Vecna Lives! gave characters the opportunity to gain the Sword of Kas—and to fight Kas himself, now a powerful vampire. Unsurprisingly, the Sword of Kas made a return appearance in the apocalyptic Die Vecna Die!, as did its master—sort of. The deathknight Kas who appears in that adventure is actually an imposter, convinced of his identity by a fake version of the artifact sword.
Because of its history, the Sword of Kas has often been especially powerful against Vecna and his minions—and that’s true again in fifth edition D&D.
Past and Future
A few more classic artifacts appeared in the adventures of the 1990s, including a trio of notable adventures named for their artifacts: The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga (1995), The Rod of Seven Parts (1996), and Axe of the Dwarvish Lords (1999). In recent years, artifacts have seen less development, though some have lent their names to sourcebooks such as Book of Vile Darkness (for both third edition and fourth edition), Book of Exalted Deeds, and Demonomicon. But DMs who want to include artifacts in adventures of their own need look no further than the new Dungeon Master’s Guide, which has seven of the game’s most legendary artifacts ready to play, and which provides rules for creating more.
About the Author
Shannon Appelcline has been roleplaying since his dad taught him Basic D&D in the early ’80s. He’s the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons, a four-volume history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time.