There exist throughout the world items that were never meant for the hands of mortals, powers that by all rights should solely be the province of divine beings and the elemental forces of creation. Yet occasionally, whether by accident, calamity, or strange fate, shards of such impossible might do fall into the hands of mortals. These motes of the unfathomable are called artifacts, and where they pass, lands shudder, nations rise, and legends are born.
Rather than merely another form of magical equipment, artifacts are the sorts of legendary relics that might become the focus of whole campaigns—sparking quests to recover them, fights against their wielders, missions to destroy them, and more.
Unlike normal magic items, artifacts are not easily destroyed (and are impossible for PCs to create). Instead of construction information, each artifact includes one possible means by which it might be destroyed.
Artifacts should never be purchased or found as part of a random treasure hoard. When placing an artifact in your game, be sure to consider its impact, but also keep in mind that artifacts are fickle objects, and if they become too much of a nuisance, they can easily become lost once more.
Appearance: Every artifact begins with a description of its most common physical appearance. This account is presented as spoiler-free read-aloud text that GMs can relate to players who discover these fantastic treasures. In the cases of artifacts that take on multiple forms, have distinctive manifestations, or are part of a varied group, this section might take a generic form or, in a few cases, might be omitted, with descriptive details falling within the artifact's stat block.
Stat Block and Destruction: Every artifact has a stat block detailing its general statistics, specifics of its miraculous properties, and other details characters need to know to employ its powers, just as for any other magic item. Instead of creation and pricing details—as artifacts cannot generally be crafted by mortal hands—each presents a section on destruction, revealing the secret of what must be done to destroy the artifact. Typically, the feats described in the destruction section of these artifacts are nearly impossible labors worthy of whole campaigns and the highest-level characters—and even then their completion might be beyond the bounds of mortal abilities. The method of an artifact's destruction is not usually known by its bearer and also might only be discovered over the course of multiple harrowing adventures. Alternatively, GMs might allow characters to research the method of destroying an artifact. If this is allowed, the task should require at least 1 week of effort in a world-renowned collection of lore and a successful Knowledge check with a DC equal to 20 + the artifact's caster level. The GM should choose whichever Knowledge check seems most appropriate to the artifact for this check, and might apply any number of bonuses or penalties to the check as she sees fit (largely based on the obscurity of the artifact, the quality of where the research is being conducted, and whether or not secrets and misinformation might conceal the truth).
If an artifact has additional special rules—additional stat blocks, charts, or unique dangers—they follow this main stat block.
History: This section describes the origins and true history of the artifact—information often long since lost to even the greatest of scholars. This information might be related and embellished in popular legends, or it might be entirely unknown in the case of ancient or otherworldly artifacts. GMs should determine whether or not an artifact's legend falls within the purview of a Knowledge check, whether it can be researched, or whether only a select few know the tale and must be sought out for their secrets. Magic like legend lore can typically relate an artifact's background as detailed in the spell description.
Ramifications: Artifacts are life-, world-, and even reality-changing treasures, truly the tools of the gods themselves, and as such those who wield them face certain challenges and dangers. Sought after by the most powerful creatures in the world and even godlike beings from planes beyond, artifacts and their possessors rarely go unnoticed. This section details the implications of possessing each specific artifact, both for characters in the game world and in terms of its effects on a campaign. GMs should consider these factors before inserting an artifact into their games, as some artifacts might inspire undesirable actions in the hands of unpredictable PCs. More than warnings, however, any of the topics in this section might serve as the basis for single adventures or whole campaigns, introducing organizations, creatures, individuals, and mysteries intrinsic to the artifact's legend. In many ways, it is these ramifications and the heroics or tragedies they imply that set artifacts apart from mere magic items. At the same time, the GM is the ultimate arbiter of what to include in a game, so any of these elements might be ignored or exaggerated as the GM sees fit. Except where they are of particular note, the most general and obvious ramifications of artifact possession are not emphasized—such as each artifact's extreme value or the lengths to which nefarious beings will go to possess them.
Certain vagaries exist surrounding artifacts, purposeful gray areas that exist so GMs can tell the types of stories they please. In general, artifacts should be considered unbalancing elements, items with the power to completely change the course of entire campaigns.
Many artifacts are storied treasures, their legends passed down through cultures and ages. Others are mysteries of the multiverse, sequestered by eternal powers and kept from the knowledge of shortsighted mortals. Regardless of their myths or owners, though, artifacts have a certain way of falling into the hands of adventurers, and adventurers prove to be insatiably curious sorts. Thus, anytime an artifact appears, a GM should know how the players can learn more about the fantastic treasure now in their possession.
Spellcraft Checks: At their most basic level, artifacts are magic items and can be identified as such through the use of the Spellcraft skill. However, as the DC of such a check is based on the magic item's caster level, the challenge of identifying an artifact's abilities typically exceeds a DC of 35. A challenge of this magnitude exceeds the abilities of many low-level parties, and makes immediate identification less than a sure or immediate thing for even mid-level groups—though such characters typically have spells on hand to identify magic items (see Magical Identification, below). If a single die roll's ability to reveal the awesome powers of an ancient and legendary artifact seems too commonplace, GMs should feel free to increase the DC of such a Spellcraft check by +10 or more, or even make the artifact unidentifiable via this method. This might be heavy-handed in the case of some minor artifacts, or even major artifacts like Orbs of Dragonkind, whose abilities are the stuff of legend, but for artifacts that have been lost for millennia—like Saint Cuthbert's Mace—it wouldn't be too unreasonable to say that the PCs have never encountered documents detailing magic of this kind, and so are unable to accurately identify much beyond the artifacts' schools of magic and general power levels. The GM should determine whether or not an artifact can be identified using Spellcraft, and the DC of that check if it's nonstandard, before introducing it into his game.
Knowledge Checks: Similar to Spellcraft checks, a GM may deem that a character can learn about an artifact's abilities by checking to see whether she has prior knowledge of the item. Allowing PCs to learn about artifacts in this manner raises all the same challenges and concerns as using Spellcraft checks to reveal details. The biggest difference is that Knowledge skills encompass a variety of academic focuses, any of which might reveal some secret about an artifact's abilities, as determined by the GM. If a GM intends to use Knowledge checks as the method by which artifacts are identified, he should first choose which Knowledge skill (or skills) pertains to a particular artifact. Knowledge (arcana) should not serve as a catch-all for the purpose of learning about artifacts, though an artifact with significant ties to magical mysteries or the other topics the skill relates to (like arcane symbols, constructs, and dragons) might make this the most logical skill to use in revealing its properties. In this way, characters who have put numerous ranks into specific Knowledge skills—especially atypical ones like Knowledge (geography) or Knowledge (history)—might find themselves rewarded by knowing something about such an obscure treasure. By the same token, this method makes bards using their bardic knowledge ability particularly adept a revealing an artifact's secrets—a talent thematically appropriate for that class. As with Spellcraft, the DC of a Knowledge check made to learn about an artifact equals 15 + the artifact's caster level + any ad hoc adjustments the GM sees fit.
GMs might also choose to take a cue from the Knowledge skill's description of identifying the abilities and vulnerabilities of monsters. In this way, a GM might reveal only the most basic properties of an artifact to a PC who makes a Knowledge check exceeding the set DC. Then, for every 5 points by which the character's result exceeds the DC, the GM might reveal an additional, more obscure detail. While this method can quickly increase the already significant DCs required to identify artifacts, it gives the GM a way to retain some measure of an artifact's mystery, while still granting the PCs the details they need to utilize the treasure. Additionally, this method should encourage the PCs to seek other methods to reveal more of an artifact's secrets, such as magic that improves their skill checks, and to seek locations to conduct research regarding the item (see Research, below).
Magical Identification: As artifacts exceed the powers of most mortal magic-users and their spells, identifying them by magical means proves far more difficult and far less reliable than identifying normal magic items. Artifacts in your Game
Identification The spells identify and analyze dweomer specifically do not aid in revealing the abilities of artifacts. This makes legend lore one of the only spells useful for revealing a measure of an artifact's secrets. This spell, however, does not describe the item's abilities in concrete game terms, instead detailing its history and tales surrounding it. Legend lore can still prove useful to GMs, however, as it helps an artifact retain its air of mystery. Legend lore might allow PCs to learn the general powers and dangers of an item and perhaps even how to employ it with a degree of effectiveness, but still cloak the full sum of its properties. Consequently, the PCs will likely never possess a spell they can rely upon to quickly force the GM to describe all of an artifact's secrets.
Research: In many cases, artifacts are unique creations and details about them prove far too limited to find in just any common history or lorebook. Therefore, the likelihood of a PC having once stumbled across a specific artifact's details and now be able to remember them is effectively nil. This makes deliberate research in a specialized place of learning or repository of knowledge necessary to reveal an artifact's abilities. GMs who choose this method of revealing an artifact's details encourage the PCs to leave the dungeon and head for the library. For some players this might add weight and a sense of realism to learning about an artifact, as well as giving learned PCs an opportunity to shine. For others, though, it might seem like a halt to the action. Both opinions are valid, and so GMs should weigh whether or not conducting research reinforces an artifact's sense of mystery and is a valuable addition to the game.
To conduct research into an artifact's lore, the PCs must first determine where to initiate their investigation. This might mean heading to a sage's collection, a city library, a region's most esteemed university, or a hidden trove of knowledge lost for ages. At the GM's discretion, some collections might not prove significant enough to hold details about an artifact—the goal of the PCs' research, after all, is finding some obscure writing describing the artifact's powers (or, if that seems unrealistic, a combination of descriptions, legends, and histories that, together with a PC's insights, sparks some related revelation). Thus, a noble's collection of romances might not prove appropriate for research. On the other hand, once the PCs do find a place with considerable scholarly resources, the GM might decide to grant them bonuses on the skill checks they make to conduct their research, from +2 in a library well stocked with related texts, to +5 in a collection with unique resources and a helpful staff (or even higher if conditions are truly peerless). Researching an artifact requires 1 week of investigation, at the end of which a PC makes a related Knowledge check (see Knowledge Checks, above). If the result exceeds this DC, the PC has learned an artifact's history and abilities (or a portion of them, as noted above). If the result fails, the PC has discovered nothing and, at the GM's discretion, that collection of knowledge might simply not hold the information the characters seek, forcing the PCs to search for another.
Sages: Some artifacts are so obscure, alien, or unique that they are unknown to both legend and academia, and almost no one knows anything about them. That's where sages enter in. In this case, the term “sage” refers to anyone with special knowledge of an artifact. This might be a scholar with a very specific field of study, a tome written all about a certain topic, a mummy that lived through a relevant time, or an artifact's very creator. In any of these cases, the sage is the only way the PCs can learn about an artifact's history and properties, and while the sage's knowledge might be unique, information about the sage is not. A few Diplomacy or Knowledge (local) checks might be all it takes for a party to learn about a sage's existence, setting the PCs upon the proper path. From there, the GM is free to make learning about the artifact as straightforward or challenging as he wishes—the sage might be local and eager to help, or might be fickle or nearly legendary, requiring further adventures to earn her knowledge or even find her. Using this method, the PCs have no ability to learn about an artifact's powers, but the GM retains complete control over what details they do eventually learn, the veracity of those facts, and the direct opportunity to turn learning about an artifact into its own adventure.
Minor (or Lesser) artifacts are not necessarily unique items. Even so, they are magic items that no longer can be created, at least by common mortal means but still will likely have a great impact on the adventurers and societies through whose hands they pass. Minor artifacts are typically distinguished as artifact-level treasures of which multiple copies exist. This doesn’t mean minor artifacts actually prove significantly more common or less dangerous than major artifacts, though, or that GMs shouldn’t consider the same issues when choosing to add such potent magic items to their game.
Major (or Legendary) artifacts are unique items—only one of each such item exists. These are the most potent of magic items, capable of altering the balance of a campaign. Unlike all other magic items, major artifacts are not easily destroyed. Each should have only a single, specific means of destruction.
The Pathfinder RPG is designed to be a game of details, explanations, and options. A GM confounded by how a bead of force works need only look to something that creates a similar effect, like resilient sphere, for an explanation of a comparable function. One purposeful gap in the rules exists for artifacts, however. This wiggle room allows a necessary flexibility for exciting items without existing analogs, concepts that buck established guidelines, or ideas that simply prove too elaborate to quantify. There's a place where people besides villains and heroes might find the power of artifacts to hand-wave certain game elements useful, though. The place is at the game table, and the people are GMs.
There's a certain suspension of disbelief that even the most intricately plotted and deliberately planned RPG session requires. Sometimes a player doesn't show up and so her character just seems to vanish. Sometimes new rules present innovations too tempting for established characters to ignore. Sometimes players and GMs just don't want to concern themselves with the details of encumbrance, tracking rations, using alignment, speaking in character, or countless other conventions. Artifacts might serve as a way for a GM to grant PCs an in-game explanation for out-of-game concerns.