An intelligent item is any item that is self-aware and has a personality quantified by a number called an ego. Ego is essentially the force of will of the item. The more powers an item has, the higher its ego score, which is used as the DC of a roll when a wielding character attempts an action that goes against the item's alignment or wishes. Oh yeah, intelligent items also have alignments. They are basically wearable characters, and because of this can be both villainous and beneficial in their use, depending on the party's tendencies.
When I think of intelligent items, I tend to think of weapons, but there's nothing that states intelligent items can't be armor, pendants, or rings. The One Ring from the Lord of the Rings is of course an intelligent item, probably the intelligent item of fantasy. It may never have spoken, but it had a purpose, a will, and could choose its wielder by abandoning its previous one. Unfortunately, its hard to introduce a ring without players immediately thinking of those books, the source for nearly all Dungeon & Dragons tropes, and assuming the worst. On that note, I will address more about how to use a player's meta-gaming habits against them in a later post, probably next month after the A to Z challenge.
The first aspect I'd like to address about these items is their proclivity for murder. Reading through the official rules, special purpose intelligent items have a percentile roll to see what their purpose is. Approximately 75% of these options are to defeat or slay a certain class, people, race, alignment, etc. with another 5% open to choice. One may argue that this only applies to special purpose items, but what character worth his salt doesn't have a goal, a dream, a desire? The purposes listed just so happen to lean heavily toward the murder variety. This is not a bad thing, I'm just saying how amusing it is.
I've always been fond of talkative and high ego intelligent items. To me, if an intelligent item isn't vying for control of its wielder or the entire party, it might as well not be intelligent. Obviously the item has to be good enough that a character would find it worth dealing with an antagonistic piece of furniture, but occasional disagreements should happen. Even if generally in agreement and alignment with the character, no personalities are always in sync. I would strongly encourage a DM to be prepared for these fantastic roleplaying moments and know the item's personality and goals very well in order to best represent the item. The first time I ever brought an intelligent item into my campaign I forgot to use it to talk shortly after the first couple of sessions and after that it never really showed up as a character. I consider this a lost opportunity and wish I had done more to guide its wielder.
The second time I brought one in, however, I was better prepared. I actually crafted an entire murder-mystery adventure around an evil cursed human-slaying bow that had taken control of an elven lord. The players, after a lengthy adventure of sleuthing and spying, had pin-pointed the lord as the culprit, but did not realize until the end that the bow had taken control of him. This turned out to be rather interesting when one of the players managed to disarm the lord of the bow, then promptly picked it up, only to fail his save against the bow's ego, and start shooting at his own teammates. Eventually he had to be disarmed as well, at which point the bow teleported away, calling out to the players that this was not over, and it would see them again. Essentially I had made an item a reoccurring villain. Who would be its next victim?
I feel the most important aspect of the intelligent item is really what it wants and what it feels. Besides its special purpose, why does it exist? Does it have other desires? Is it actually a coward, opting to above all else avoid combat? Is it passive-aggressive, or lazy? Does it desire to be put in a museum, to be ogled at by the masses? I would suggest thinking on these aspects of an intelligent item's personality before introducing one to your game, as they could really add some flavor when applied with imagination. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned tomorrow for "J is for Journal".
D&D 3.5 Intelligent Items
Pathfinder Intelligent Items