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What happens often at my D&D 5e tables (both as a DM and a player) is that somebody finds a better weapon and just drops the previous one. For instance, one might have a Longsword, +1 and then finds a Flame Tongue Longsword. The character would simply drop the Longsword, +1 to use the Flame Tongue Longsword.

But I don't find that very good story telling: it's their sword that they're dropping, the one they killed their first goblin with, the one they saved the town with, and they just drop it for some random sword because it's "more powerful". What would be better is that the player takes their old Longsword, +1 and extracts the power of the other sword and imbue it on their own sword. If I take the Flame Tongue example, the sword might still be a +1, but the extra damage from their Flame Tongue/+1 would be a d6 instead of 2d6.

Are there rules that allow one to improve their gear as they adventure (so really as a progression), rather than drop/take another piece of gear?

If any I'd prefer D&D 5e official rules, then possibly Unearthed Arcana, then only any other official D&D source. I might go homebrew, but then it'd be my take based on existing UA or previous editions, so please don't link to existing homebrew.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to be clear, I'm aware of XGtE's Crafting Item section, but I read it as crafting a new "more powerful" weapon rather than improving an existing one. \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire May 19 at 11:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Also, the DMG and XGtE say that we can take time to craft existing items, not imbue with other abilities to make a unique weapon. \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire May 19 at 11:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Somewhat related on Can players enchant items? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 19 at 11:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Be happy you're not on the equipment treadmill that was 4th edition. \$\endgroup\$ – Exal May 19 at 13:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Items in my games are limited by their composition. I.e., you might be able to construct a +1 sword out of steel, but you'll need a mithril alloy to add additional properties or just go to a +2. I'm reminded, too, of the Gray Mouser - I think he named his weapons, but if he lost one he just named it the same. \$\endgroup\$ – Russell Fox May 19 at 21:14
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The world of magic

In D&D the world is supposed to be a magical place:

In most D&D worlds, magic is natural but still wondrous.

Some D&D settings have more magic in them than others.

DMG p.23

Whatever mr. Clarke says, magic is not technology — the former is wondrous and can't be replicated or harnessed in a convenient way. The uniqueness of relics and places of power is the common fantasy trope.

From the balance reasons merging two magic items is the same thing as finding a third more powerful one. And finding new magic items happens quite often in a D&D game. A DM can (and should) introduce their own magic items using the Creating a Magic Item guidelines from the DMG p.284. The same is true for monsters, by the way.

So you can just introduce a kind of "Crucible of Merge" somewhere in the world which allows you to transfer some of one item's properties to another one, while staying in the 5e guidelines.

DMG page 141 "Special Features" actually encourages this approach:

You can add distinctiveness to a magic item by thinking about its backstory. Who made the item? Is anything unusual about its construction? Why was it made, and how was it originally used? What minor magical quirks set it apart from other items of its kind? Answering these questions can help turn a generic magic item, such as a +1 longsword, into a more flavorful discovery.

So here is your +1 Longsword of the Flame. It was constructed by PCs using the Crucible of Merge by merging their old +1 Longsword with the Flame Tongue.

Pact of the Blade

Warlocks have a feature that gives them their own magic weapon:

You can use your action to create a pact weapon in your empty hand.

This weapon counts as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage.

This weapon is supposed to be a main melee weapon of the Warlock. However, if she finds a better magic weapon, she can transform it into her pact weapon:

You can transform one magic weapon into your pact weapon by performing a special ritual while you hold the weapon. You perform the ritual over the course of 1 hour, which can be done during a short rest.

This way the weapon retains all its properties and it also gains special Pact of the Blade properties, so it is like "merging" weapons together:

You are proficient with it while you wield it.

You can then dismiss the weapon, shunting it into an extradimensional space, and it appears whenever you create your pact weapon thereafter.

Keep in mind you can't do this with the most powerful ones (so called artifacts).

The Wish spell

One of the most powerful and controversial spell which allows you to do anything. With the acceptance of the DM a player can merge two magic weapons into one, gaining the more powerful and unique magic weapon. Basically use the same Creating a Magic Item paragraph when adjudicating this.

It's not a good idea to combine many magic items tho

There is no convenient way in 5e to merge different magic weapons and there is a reason for that. Let's say we have +2 sword, a Flame Dagger with additional fire damage and a Staff of Defence giving you +1 to AC. Players are not supposed to merge them into "Flame +2 Sword of Defence" with all the properties combined, primarily because of the balance reasons. You can allow it as a DM, but this will quite definitely break the game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The warlock part of the answer seems to only add one property: it becomes "your pact" weapon. So it's not really versatile. Which leads to the combining random magic items part. I would not expect to fully transfer a power from one weapon to another, but rather expect a table on which players and DMs can find which properties can be stacked together, and provide insight about the rarity of the weapon based on the stacked properties. \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire May 19 at 11:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OlivierGrégoire I suggest you to homebrew a solution, using the "Creating a Magic Item" paragraph to determine the rarity. Using rules from another edition can actually cause more problems than introducing a homebrew "Crucible of Merge" somewhere in your world, which will work according to the 5e guidelines. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor May 19 at 12:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ The "The World of Magic" with the reference to DMG p. 141 is indeed what I was looking for as general rule. I was hoping for more specific rule about how to improve items, but this is good enough for now :) \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire May 19 at 12:58
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Sadly this one is in your bottom category of "Any other official D&D source", but 4th edition had the Transfer Enchantment ritual, which could move an enchantment from one weapon onto another.

It would override the existing enchantment, so you'd lose it (or had to move it off the original item to something else, first)

The ritual can be found in Adventurer's Vault and its text is also available here

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's very close to what I ask and is useful to understand how WotC would handle this. \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire May 19 at 11:46
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Are there rules that allow one to improve their gear as they adventure (so really as a progression), rather than drop/take another piece of gear?

Storm King's Thunder introduces Runes which may (among other things) have some their magic transferred to existing non-magical weapons to upgrade them. Unfortunately, the upgraded weapon becomes magical, and subsequent Runes may not be added according to the rules as written.

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