Item Level: It’s not just a Statistic


Our first few weeks are past and it has been a good run. I am sure all of you are starting to have some questions about various aspects of Unchained Heroes and I wanted to point out an overlooked mechanic of the game that has the potential to add a lot of flavor to your game play. The concept of Item Levels distributes all Weapons, Armor, and Magical Items on a scale of 0 to 15 and gives you a bonus to various stats based on that value. Anything of Item Level 0 is considered the run-of-the-mill, common equipment you find in the world, but anything of Item level 1 or higher builds into uncommon and high quality equipment. At first glance, you might pass this off as nothing but another statistic, but I am going to show you how you can change that mentality and make Item Level into something special.

Item Level Basics

The Item Level, hereafter known as ILV, is a really simple mechanic. As the ILV of an item increases, it becomes of higher quality, worth more, and grants larger modifiers for you. In some cases, such as where magical items like Runes and Potions are involved, it simply is a method for you to determine how powerful something is. You could leave the entire ILV discussion there if you choose to, but statistics are not interesting to everyone. I want to show you how to make the ILV of an item mean something to everyone at the table, so it doesn’t just become another statistic.

Higher ILV means better Quality

The simplest way to portray ILV in the game is to portray it as a quality factor. You can look at 100 swords crafted for the common soldier and you would not be surprised to hear they are functional, but nothing special. If a weapon was commissioned by a local lord to give to his son, you can be assured that the weaponsmith is going to craft it with an artist’s touch and as fine as can be. A standard Greatsword bought at a shop would most likely be ILV 0 and functional, but the sword of Conan the Barbarian is going to be a wonder to behold, unique, and masterfully crafted; Conan’s sword is probably ILV 13, 14, or even 15. The greater the ILV, the better the quality, and the more spectacular you can make the story behind the item.

Quality is one important aspect, but saying something is better quality than another item could lead you into the same trap as using the statistic by itself.

ILV represents Material and Workmanship

This is one area where ILV can really make your game world interesting: it can be tied to the materials of your game world. Think of the special metals, woods, leathers, and gems that are only available in your world and how they can be used in creating the item. The very rare and unique materials might require a very high degree of workmanship to create it.

Everyone has heard of Dragonscale armor right? A sword made of meteorites? A bow with strings fashioned of a goddess’s locks? These are a common trope that we all use that can be applied from the lowest level item to the highest. Instead of telling your players the ILV of items, assign special materials to the items. Make them magnificent and mundane, no matter what the material, they will all tell a story. Item Level 1 armor might be crafted of cow leather, ILV 2 could be buffalo hide, and ILV 6 could be the hide of a basilisk. An ILV 0 sword might be made of pig iron; ILV 1, iron; ILV 3, steel; ILV 5, cobalt; and ILV 10 a silversteel alloy. The end result paints a picture in your player’s mind and adds to the world.

Using these concepts in play is very simple. When your PCs make first level characters tell them they have pig Iron weapons and then when they dispatch the local goons and their boss, you can let them know they are using finer quality stuff than your PCs. Explain that you notice a few nicely made iron weapons in the bunch. Then focus on the nicely wrought steel blade of the local bully. They can all be confiscated and your PCs are rewarded by getting stronger, being better geared, and having an interesting story to tell.

As your characters advance in level, the materials of the equipment you hand out can help tell a story by making it of dragon bones, wyvern stingers, tiger hide, weirdwood, and all sorts of other things. If you describe everything in terms of materials and appearance, at some point your players are going to equate a particular material with an ILV and level of workmanship. At that point you have enhanced your game experience, so when they see a foe wielding a silversteel sword, they know that person has a fine weapon, without you telling them its ILV.

ILV represents History, Uniqueness, and Scarcity

Item Levels are tied directly to the availability of an item as part of the Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Very Rare scale. You should make that apparent in not so many words. Through a combination of the Quality, Material, and Workmanship of an item you can give players an idea of how great an item is in their presence. A shield fashioned of brightly polished steel with gold and silver plating depicting a knight against a lion will really draw your players attention more so than telling them it is an ILV 11 shield. It will also give them a story to tell and paint a picture in their mind. These types of items and their scarcity. How many shields do you know that look like that? Maybe you know of more than one, but they were only used by the guard of Queen Gwyneth the Third. In doing so, you gave your player a bit of history, a sense of uniqueness, and a rare item.

Use the ILV statistic to give you an idea of how much story effort you should put into the item the player is wielding; low level stuff should have some flavor, but not be ornate, while the higher level stuff should be unique and spectacular. Sometimes you can put in a special twist too, think of a simple stone sword with leather hilt that your player finds deep in a cave, that item could be more magical and powerful simply because of its history than a newly enchanted sword.

Use ILV to make Heirlooms

Going back to the story about Conan, you wouldn’t expect him to be wielding anything, but his iconic sword right? If he did, it was only for a little bit and only until he could get his sword back. Why should your players be any different? The ILV mechanic is built as a means to reward your players incrementally and create a continuing series of rewards for them, but it doesn’t have to be that way every time. You might want to give a player a very special armor that was worn by their mother in the War against the Darkness at level 1. The ILV mechanic is great for these types of heirlooms because until a player gets to higher levels, they can’t use the items to their full potential. The right way to move and deflect attacks comes with experience, the kind of experience a player does not have at level 1.

The Heirloom idea can be applied to swords, bows, chain mail, shields, crossbows, wands, you name it. Give the player a ready-made story based on their equipment or let them justify why they might be carrying such an item. In any case, it builds a strong story and makes the game session a bit more interesting.

Item Level is not just a Statistic

Item Level is not just a Statistic, it is whatever you make it to be. I hope, the past few examples make that very clear. If you are using it as such, you are missing an opportunity to make your campaign as alive as it could be. Mix it up and if you think of more ways to make the Item Level mechanic interesting, let me know by sharing it with us here.


-Turk Zapt


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