I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey the other day. It was really good. My brain kept shouting at me, "THAT'S NOT HOW IT HAPPENED IN THE BOOK ... but that is kinda cool."
It was an odd feeling. And spoilers follow. Be forewarned.
There is a scene in the film where the heroes are taken hostage by goblins. They are disarmed completely, and are surrounded on all sides by angry armed goblins, including the Great Goblin.
Then one of the goblins pulls one of their blades out of its scabbard, and shrieks, calling the Great Goblin's attention to the weapon. The Great Goblin also shrieks and jumps back.
Why? Because they have recognized the sword in question. It's Orcrist, the Goblin-Cleaver. It doesn't matter that none of the nearby dwarves is holding it. It doesn't matter that it's sheathed and lying on the ground. The Goblins are scared of it.
The Great Goblin had previously recognized Thorin Oakenshield. And he wasn't afraid, despite the stories which had surely sprung up around the dwarf. But he was afraid of an inanimate object. One that may or may not have magic powers of some sort.
It reminded me of Fred Saberhagen's Twelve Swords of Power. I don't know if his books deliberately pulled influence from Tolkien's named swords or if it was coincidental. Either way, you have ordinary people with weapons which are earth-shattering in their power.
But it got me thinking. And it reminded me of The Arsenal of Heaven. A bit.
And the concept of famous weapons or named weapons goes back, too. A good long ways. Roland's sword was Durendal in The Song of Roland. And his wasn't the only named weapon in the poem, either. Of course, everyone thinks of Excalibur and Caliburn (Arthur's swords). Geeks often know the Gae Bolg (Cuchulainn's spear). And, if I keep digging, I'm sure I'll find others.
But the real question is this: How do you make sure that items have this sort of ability to move the story without making the characters secondary? It can be as easy as naming the weapon. Most of Tolkien's blades seemed to have been named.
13th Age gives each magic item a personality. And, if your character has too many magic items, then they start to take the character over. "Too many," is defined as "more than your current level," so a first level character can have one magic item before they start running into problems.
Dungeons & Dragons gives some items bonuses against certain targets - but that's not quote the same. At what point do the Goblins recognize the sword and flee rather than face it? Does a +2 vs Goblins make the blade known among the Goblins? Or do you need a +3 or +4? And does that +2 blade influence your personality? Is it telling you to kill the Goblins? Because a character with a +2 vs Goblins is going to attack them more than any other available targets ...
But the blade's name isn't "+2 vs Goblins." That's its mechanical effect. The flavor could (and should) be completely different. You could name it just about anything - but if you want to keep Tolkien's flavor, then it shouldn't be English and it should sound archaic to the characters.
But both games assume your famous weapon is magical. What if it isn't? What if it's just famous? You can do that easily in 13th Age through use of your One Unique Thing. "I was chosen to bear the Hammer of Farhaven." Or it could be something earned later through play. "To thank you for saving our town, we grant to you the Medallion of Nearhold."
I'm not suggesting that all famous things should be weapons, either. Obviously when dealing with medieval (or pseudo-medieval) cultures, your characters should have coats of arms. Provided they are knights, that is. Or descended from them. If my great-grandfather was a war hero, and I'm now the head of the family, I'll have his same Coat of Arms. Those should be instantly recognizable. My little brother will have a differenced version of the same arms. Roland had a horn as well as his sword. There have been other famous items scattered throughout the history of ... well ... history. Banners and flags and suits of armor. Medallions and signet rings. Scarves and veils.
The fame can add bonuses to non-combat rolls with appropriate people - maybe the merchant they're dealing with does good business or owes a favor to someone in Nearhold, so that Medallion gives them +2 to their negotiations with that merchant. Or a discount with that merchant. It's also possible to give combat bonuses to rolls that aren't to-hit or damage - maybe the bandits who were going to ambush them recognize your grandfather's arms and are more likely to flee (bonuses to an Intimidation check used to end combat or penalties to a morale roll). And they can grant penalties, too. If your grandfather was a merciless hunter of Orcs, and you're wearing his colors, then any negotiations between the party and the Orcish warlord who claims this land as his are likely to go poorly because they'll mistrust you from the start more than they otherwise would.
Just keep in mind that every single item a PC picks up has a history. It may be a short as "this river stone was plucked from the river last week for use as a sling stone." But it is there. And every item has potential for fame. Even sling stones.
Hmm. Now I kinda want to run a Pendragon-esque game where the PC's play the various wielders of specific items through several centuries ... that could be interesting. And potentially awesome.