An artifact is a rare and powerful magic item in Dungeons & Dragons. The means to create artifacts are either unavailable to mortal ken, or else long forgotten. Artifacts are often unique or finite in number, and cannot be destroyed except by specific means.
Certain properties distinguish an artifact from a normal magic item.
An artifact is distinguished from normal magic items by its uniqueness. For example, while there may be many vorpal swords in the world, there is only one Sword of Kas. Each artifact is a thing of legend.
A key defining trait of an artifact is that it cannot be recreated by any known means. Some artifacts were forged by gods or powerful beings, using methods or power beyond the capability of any mortal. Others were crafted by powerful spellcasters of long ago, whose powerful magic or technology is lost to us today.
Despite this definition, some lesser artifacts are thought to exist in multiple copies. The staff of the magi, sphere of annihilation and book of vile darkness are known to exist in more than one instance. These are still often considered to be artifacts, since they cannot be recreated by known means, although they are classifed by some as minor artifacts.
Artifacts are by definition more powerful and dangerous than normal magic items.
Each artifact grants its bearer unique abilities, and usually multiple such abilities.
Many artifacts afflict detrimental effects on mortals who attempt to wield them, or have some other drawback.
Examples include forcing the bearer to change alignment, inflicting madness, requiring the bearer to eat and drink more, causing nearby potions to dilute to water, and making it impossible for anyone to rest in the artifact's presence.
Unlike most magic items, artifacts cannot be created by normal means. The secret to the creation of an artifact is generally not known, or cannot be replicated, or requires some unique power or circumstances beyond the mortal realm.
Some artifacts are of divine origin, either crafted or blessed by powerful deities, or were part of an individual's body or possessions when they first ascended to deityhood. Some were created long ago by means which are merely no longer known, such as advanced legendary magic.
Evil artifacts can be created by exposure to an event of darkness like the world has never seen before, such as the birth of an evil god, the murder of a good deity, or an act of genocide. Such a rare event also has the power to corrupt living creatures present and permanently affect the terrain and weather in the area.
An artifact cannot be destroyed by normal means. Each artifact can only be destroyed by its own unique method, the details of which are an obscure secret.
Destroying an artifact is likely to require an entire special quest. For example, it may be necessary to travel through dangerous territory and throw an artifact ring into the volcano where it was originally forged. An artifact is invulnerable to any attempts to destroy it by other means, such as spells or physical damage.
Artifacts are sometimes divided into two categories: major artifacts, and minor artifacts. Additionally, some are referred to as relics. These distinctions are not used by all sources, and are applied inconsistently.
A major artifact is one which is truly unique, and only one of each exists in the multiverse. They cannot be destroyed except by a single obscure and extremely difficult method, and are extremely powerful and dangerous.
A minor artifact is a less powerful artifact. They still cannot be replicated by any known method, but in some cases multiples of this item exist. The might be destroyed more easily than a major artifact, or by multiple different methods.
Examples of minor artifacts is the sphere of annihilation, which can be destroyed by a rod of cancellation or the 9th level spell gate; or the staff of the magi, which can be intentionally broken to perform a retributive strike.
A relic is a general term for any artifact which once either belonged to a noteworthy individual, or formed part of that creature's body. The best known of these are the Hand and Eye of Vecna. A relic may also be considered either a minor or major artifact.
For a list of artifacts, see Category:Artifacts.
While all artifacts are noteworthy items, a few are particularly well known.
- The Book of Vile Darkness, an ancient book of evil of which multiple copies exist
- The Hand and Eye of Vecna, formed from two body parts of the lich Vecna before he ascended to become a demigod
- The Rod of Seven Parts, called also the Staff of Seven Parts, created in ancient times by the Wind Dukes of Aaqa
Artifacts first appeared in Monsters & Treasure (1974), p.38-39, where a few were named, although their powers were not described, leaving them up to the DM. They are described as powerful items of Law and Chaos, and if handled by someone of neutral or opposed alignment can inflict severe effects such as temporary insanity, serious injury, or instant death, possibly with no saving throw.
The artifacts listed in Monsters & Treasure are the Teleportation Machine, Fighter's Crown, Orb, and Scepter, Magic-User's Crown, Orb, and Scepter, Cleric's Crown, Orb, and Scepter, and the Stone Crystallization Projector. None of their powers were detailed in this book, and none of these artifacts appeared in later books, although the concept of "Crown, Orb and Scepter" trio would inspire later items.
Artifacts were described in great detail in Eldritch Wizardry (1976), p.40-53, which introduced the Invulnerable Coat of Arn, the Mace of Cuthbert, the Sword of Kas, the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, the Wand of Orcus, the Rod of Seven Parts, the Codex of the Infinite Planes, the Hand of Vecna, the Eye of Vecna, Baba Yaga's Hut, the Iron Flask of Tuerny the Merciless, Queen Ehlissa's Marvelous Nightingale, the Machine of Lum the Mad, the Mighty Servant of Leuk-O, the Jacinth of Inestimable Beauty, the Crystal of the Ebon Flame, Heward's Mystical Organ, the Horn of Change, the Ring of Gax, a Crown, Orb and Scepter of each alignment, the Throne of the Gods, and the Orbs of Dragonkind, All items may have unique abilities chosen from a table of powers by the DM.
AD&D 1st edition
Artifacts and relics are defined in the Dungeon Masters Guide (1e) (1979), p.155-164. Each has fixed powers and various other abilities selected in secret by DM from a list, and which may include minor and major benign powers, major and minor malevolent effects, prime powers, and side effects. Items also have unique destruction terms, again, selected in secret by the DM; attempting to simply dismantle or destroy such an item is dangerous and risks instant death. They are also immune to dispel magic.
The difference between "artifact" and "relic" is not strictly defined in this edition. Artifacts, relics, and books (tomes, librams, and manuals) are specifically defined as impossible for player characters to create.
AD&D 2nd edition
Artifacts and relics appear in the Dungeon Master Guide (2e) (1989) as an optional rule. Each is unique per campaign, are never randomly generated as treasure, and may not be carried from one DM's campaign to another. They are unaffected even by wish spells and most deities, and a powerful enough to ignore many usual restrictions or rules on magic items. Again, the terms "artifact" and "relic" are effectively synonymous.
All artifacts in this edition have an alignment, and a history of legend. They have a number of minor powers, one or two major powers one or more dangers (drawbacks), a corrupting effect, and one or more weaknesses. All artifacts detailed in this book have fixed powers. The artifacts listed in this book are the Hand of Vecna, the Rod of Seven Parts, and Heward's Mystical Organ,
More artifacts were detailed in Book of Artifacts (1993), which defined the terms "artifact" and "relic" more precisely: an artifact must be unique, must have a history, and must be important to the adventure; while a relic is an artifact with holy significance to a specific temple. Artifacts are resistant to divination and immune to damage. A large number of artifacts were detailed in this book.
D&D 3rd edition
Artifacts appear in the Dungeon Master's Guide (3.5) (2003). They are divided into major artifacts, which are unique and can only be destroyed in a unique manner; and minor artifacts, which are not necessarily unique, but still cannot be created using that edition's magic item crafting rules. Artifacts appear in various other sourcebooks.
Relics are redefined in the Magic Item Compendium (2007), p.221-223 as items requiring a connection to a deity, either costing a spell slot or the True Believer feat; they are powerful, but can be crafted.
D&D 4th edition
Fourth edition introduced innovative rules for artifacts, first appearing in the Dungeon Master's Guide (4e) (2008), p.164-170. All artifacts are considered sentient, and have their own personality and goals. Artifacts have a "concordance" score measuring their approval of their current wielder, which increases or decreases depending on their actions and traits. Artifact powers are fixed, but can change at levels of concordance. Artifacts eventually leave their wielder and move on, which limits their ability to destabilize a campaign due to their power.
It is notable that artifacts in this edition appear in the Dungeon Master's Guide, since most magic items in the 4th edition core rulebooks appeared instead in the Player's Handbook. Artifacts appearing in the Dungeon Master's Guide are the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, the Eye of Vecna, the Hand of Vecna, and the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd.
Other artifacts appearing in the 4th edition D&D Compendium are the Adamantine Horse of Xarn, the Amulet of Passage, the Blood of Io, the Chromodactylic Loom, the Codex of Infinite Planes, the Crown of Dust, the Crown of Whispers, the Emblem of Ossandrya, the Eye of the Old Gods, the Figurine of Tantron, the Head of Vyrellis, the Helm of the Madman's Blood, Ilthuviel's Blackened Heart, the Jacinth of Inestimable Beauty, the Jet Black Ioun Stone, the Mirror of Secrets, Rash and Reckless, the Silver Mask of Kas, the Standard of Eternal Battle, Sun's Sliver, the Ashen Crown, the Immortal Game, the Unconquered Standard of Arkhosia, the Wayfinder Badge, Xraunran Crown of Eyes, and Zax, Cloak of Kings.
D&D 5th edition
Artifacts are described in the Dungeon Master's Guide (5e) (2014), p.219-227. Artifacts have some fixed properties, and some minor and major beneficial and detrimental properties which are chosen at random or by the DM. Artifacts are not divided into major and minor artifacts. Rather, "artifact" is essentially a rarity category higher than "legendary". Subsequent sourcebooks featuring new artifacts include Tasha's Cauldron of Everything (2020).
Fifth edition did not use the unique 4th edition artifact concordance rules. They more closely resemble the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition rules for artifacts.