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The Problem

Assuming that the guards in and of themselves are not worthy of being Paragon-tier, what magic items would best justify giving them Paragon-tier stats, narratively? I want to convey the sense of "unearned power" in their hands. I know I could just make them be Paragon-tier, but the narrative really suggests that they haven't trained, or acquired the experience, or been blessed by a deity or demon or anything-- they just have good gear.

Of course, I also don't want the players to suddenly jump to Epic tier power levels when they inevitably loot the corpses of these jerk-face guards. And artifacts are probably a bad idea, since I want the gear for these guards to be standardized, and there are a lot of guards.

So what should the items be? I'm also willing to convert gear from earlier or later editions of D&D if there's something else out there that would be appropriate.


Fluff Background Information

The guards worked for a defacto Magocracy with a nominal civil government, until the mage's guild was destroyed via secret plot (an epic level Lich transmuted all the wizards into ingredients for some evil plot related spell). This left the nominal civil government rudderless, and the figurehead decided that the best thing to do would be to literally run the city based on bribes. To make this bad idea worse, the richest members of the city outside of the wizards were a number of rival criminal gangs, who now compete with bribes for control of the powerful city guards.

The wizards, before their deaths, were renowned throughout the lands as being the finest makers of enchanted weapons and armor around. The guards themselves were not trained or enchanted themselves, as the wizards used their elite guards as advertising for their skills as enchanters.

Recently, in addition to hassling the civilian population of the city, aiding various gangs in their shakedown activities, and press ganging poor tradesmen and farmers into going monster hunting so they don't have to, the guards have been hunting a couple Vampire Lords (servants of the Lich) in the city. These Vampire Lords have given the PCs a serious run for their money over the course of multiple combat encounters, and are known to be heavy hitters.

The Vampire Lords are very cautious around the guards, so it's pretty clear to the party that the guards really are heavy hitters too, if their existing reputation wasn't enough.

Crunch Background Information

The five PCs are level 16 right now, range from very well optimized to merely moderately optimized, and my group enjoys running "Very Difficult" combat encounters as standard.

Their classes are Cleric/Shaman1, a Wizard2, a melee wildshape-focused Druid, a Barbarian, and a Swordmage.

1: Optimized character #1, a healer more effective at healing than I have ever seen at any table of D&D, ever.
2: Optimized character #2, a very effective tactician, with powers that complement his tactics quite well.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Much too late - it is shifting the goalposts a lot! But even then, most answers stand. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Dec 4, 2021 at 10:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ My apologies! I was merely trying to cut out impertinent information, but it seems I was mistaken as to what was pertinent! \$\endgroup\$ Dec 4, 2021 at 11:10

15 Answers 15

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On a comment, you stated:

"The players have done research on the guards and determined that they’re not much outside their gear. Their patron WAS a wizards’ guild who specialized in creating magical equipment, but the wizards have all recently died in mysterious circumstances related to the plot, so the patrons buffing the guards is not really an option"

Yet, we need a way to make this work from a story point of view without creating an opportunity for a huge power boost for your players. So, why not change things up just a little bit?

The Iron Man suit doesn't make anyone stronger. It uses its own Strength Score.

Doesn't matter if Tony Stark, Hawkeye or Pepper Pots is inside the Iron Man suit. It still has Strength 30, because it is the armor that is doing the work, not the person inside. We can use something similar to this concept.

The research was mostly correct, but it failed on one point - their magical gear isn't actually standard magic gear at all. Instead, the gear is a construct of sorts that shapes itself in the form of armor and weapons, to be equipped and used by a creature. The creature gets unbelievable power, but pays a price that isn't yet apparent to the group - maybe a shortened lifespan, maybe a brainwashed servitude to a faction, maybe the inability to leave a certain area... pick your poison. The truth of the thing is - who is actually fighting isn't the guards, when they don their gear. It is those special constructs that their wear. The guards themselves work just as pilots and power sources.

Mechanically, the gear those guards are using isn't buffing them. It is replacing their stats. While using their gear, the guards have a paragon-like stat block, with all the abilities that entails. Take the gear away, and they revert to their heroic power level. It is the gear-construct that fights, not the person inside.

If a player decides to don the gear, what happens is that their character sheet gets replaced by the one the guards were using. They lose access to their own individual powers, their own scores, and instead are given access to the powers of this standardized, mass-produced gear-construct until they take it off. It might be useful, and might be a power boost for a little time, but once they start leveling, this gear will be eclipsed by their own abilities, making it obsolete.

Add some sentience to this magical gear-construct, and you can create even more opportunities for roleplay and plot twists.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this could work for me. Stat up some paragon tier monsters per "MM3 on a business card", make the gear replace your stat block, and there we go! \$\endgroup\$ Dec 2, 2021 at 13:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Perfect. but I'd like to maybe flesh out the suit-guard relationship: They're not the powersource at all, they can't even really command the suit. But the suit only becomes aggressive if it sees a real threat. So whenever the guards want to fight they have to somehow provoke the other guys into triggering the suits combat mode. The guards only actual job is to do all the non-fighting stuff of being a guard and - if deemed appropriate - help trigger the suit on some poor soul. \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Dec 2, 2021 at 13:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Re "Add some sentience" "I've also prepared a safety briefing for you to entirely ignore." - JARVIS \$\endgroup\$
    – ikegami
    Dec 3, 2021 at 15:01
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You have two problems here: fluff and crunch.

Roleplaying games generally have two layers: the layer of the world being described (the fluff), and the layer of game rules that is used to resolve interactions between PCs and anything that isn't a PC (NPCs or the environment, basically). When Bob says, "My barbarian, Grogak, attacks the pixie with his greataxe," that's in the fluff layer. It gets translated down into the crunch layer and resolved using the rules (attack -> hit -> damage), and the result then translates back up into the fluff layer: the DM tells Bob, "the nimble pixie tries to evade Grogak's blow but Grogak's fury makes him too swift, and the pixie is cleaved in half."

Magic items won't get you the crunch you need.

Your crunch problem is that you can't simply drop some bonuses on a set of heroic-tier enemy stats and get an appropriate challenge for a paragon-tier party. Leaving aside the level-based differences in attack/damage/defenses/health, higher-level foes also tend to have abilities that are more powerful in non-numeric ways. They inflict more & nastier status effects on the party, they have more ways to move around the battlefield and get out of trouble, and are just generally more capable. In general you can only use bonuses/penalties to move a foe up or down a couple levels, 5 at most.

Most editions of D&D are simulationist: a fluff creature has one set of crunch stats, based off what it is in the fluff world. 4e, however, takes a much more narrativist/gamist approach: foes could have various different stats at different times, based on their role in the story or game that the party & DM are collectively telling/playing. If a foe's role in the story/game changes, then so do its stats.

Consider an ogre. When the party faces this ogre at level 10, it might have the stats of an ogre warhulk (MM1 p199), a level 11 elite brute. These stats fit its role in the story as the hired muscle of the orc bandits the party has been pursuing. If the party opts not to kill the ogre, then that very same ogre could show up 7 levels later as an ogre bludgeoneer (MM1 p198), a level 16 minion, reflecting the fact that it is now just a mook for the evil wizard who commands the orcs, rather than the orcs' heavy hitter.

In short, you can and should use actual paragon-tier foe stats, rather than trying to scale up heroic-tier foe stats. That will make for a much more satisfying encounter mechanically.

Magic items are a problem from a fluff perspective.

Your fluff problem is that if the guards are using magic items to compete with the party, that creates the expectation that the party can acquire those magic items by defeating the guards. If the magic items thus acquired are weak, it implies that the guards were pretty close to challenging the party without them. If the magic items thus acquired are powerful, the party now has inappropriately powerful magical items!

If weak magical items won't cut it from a story perspective, then you need some more thought about how these guards got such a large power boost. Where did they get powerful magical items? Could their patron have just cast powerful buffs (in the fluff; you should still use paragon-tier foe crunch) on them, rather than giving them highly valuable magic items? For that matter, if the guards aren't normally a real challenge for the party, wouldn't it make sense for whoever commands the guards to hire another adventuring party to deal with the players? Whoever is sending these guards after the party and helping them compete probably doesn't want to make the party stronger, so they wouldn't use a plan that has a good chance of providing the party a bunch of quality gear.

In short, you're better off finding another fluff explanation for why these guards (or whoever) is an actual threat to the party, rather than saying, "Oh, these guards are clearly decked out in tons of high-level magical bling."

Do you even need an explanation, though? How do the players know how capable the guards are? Have the players ever fought these guards before? Have they ever fought anything that the guards fought? Maybe the guards were always this powerful!

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent answer that really understands 4e, and uses that understanding. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Dec 1, 2021 at 21:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I’m upvoting your answer because it’s a good one, but not accepting it because it doesn’t quite solve my problem, merely spells it out. The players have done research on the guards and determined that they’re not much outside their gear. Their patron WAS a wizards’ guild who specialized in creating magical equipment, but the wizards have all recently died in mysterious circumstances related to the plot, so the patrons buffing the guards is not really an option. The players have fought what they’ve seen the guards fight— \$\endgroup\$ Dec 2, 2021 at 9:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ (Continued)—A couple of vampire lords that have given the entire party a real run for their money on multiple occasions. The guards, en masse, are enough to keep these vampire lords wary enough to keep to the shadows. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 2, 2021 at 9:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RichardWinters If the party knows that the guards worked for a wizards' guild that specialized in enchanting then that makes it harder to get out of the fluff of them being wimps with good gear. I guess you could do something crazy like "actually those wizards were terrible, and the guards were awesome all along", but it might be easier to simply say that the gear was custom-made for the guards and can't be used by anyone else. I still strongly recommend using actual paragon-tier monster stats (just go find a creature with stats that are tactically similar and reflavor the abilities). \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Dec 2, 2021 at 14:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RichardWinters I'm having trouble finding it in an actual 4e book, which suggests that it might have been a house rule or homebrew, but I seem to recall a ritual that would break down magic items into a substance (called quintessence or something like that) that was sort of raw magic. You could break down a magic item that would sell for X gold into X quintessence, and that quintessence could then be used to pay for the Enchant Item ritual as if it were X gold. It could be that the guards gear isn't usable by anyone else but can be disenchanted into a parcel's worth of quintessence. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Dec 2, 2021 at 14:03
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Tucker's Guards

Place the action on the guards' home turf. This is space they control and know, and they have done competent "battlefield preparation". What seems like preternatural confidence and luck on the guards' part is nothing more than good discipline, and a good defensive plan anticipating attacks like your party's.

Home turf matters a lot, and site preparations like trenches, slits and positioning to place the enemy in enfilade may well have been installed by highly competent predecessors. The current regime may not have had the wit to invent them, but will surely put them to good use.

And site preparations well fit the bill of "the party can't take these power-ups with them" - you can't loot a well-placed murder hole.

Or the guards are much better than expected. How? Perhaps they had help -- an unseen hand at work, from which story can unfold.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ OP specifically cites a lack of training in the narrative \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Dec 1, 2021 at 21:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso No, OP says the narrative really suggests that, which is not the same as it being so. Aside from the unexpected intervention I suggest, it's also common practice for security services to downplay their own competence, precisely so their enemy will come at them less prepared. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 1, 2021 at 22:25
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You mentioned other editions of D&D, but if you'd also be interested in something from Pathfinder 2e there's a unique item from the adventure path #156 The Apocalypse Prophet (Extinction Curse 6 of 6) called the convergence lattice that might give some inspiration of how this could be done.

The device connects people into a sort of hive mind granting enhanced abilities and communication to any creatures that enter it in exchange for taking their free will, so maybe these corrupt guards decided it was worth the risk as long as they were able to contest the Paragon-tier party.

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He doesn't need a magic item!

The only thing our guard needs he already has: he's a guard. This means he has the authority to arrest and detain the party for literally anything that he can find in his book of laws and city ordinances. Is it the color of the rogue's vest that violates the law that permits the color only for citizens or is it the elves quiver, which contains more than the permitted 12 arrows? It only needs to be a tiny nitpick violation of one of the book to give him more than he needs to book them, force them to the dungeon, and have them fined!

Fighting is not an option!

If they resist arrest all he must do is flee and call for reinforcements - which means that suddenly it's not 4-5 people versus one, it is Tucker's Kobolds, in arguably much worse: the players are not just invaders into terrain that the guards know so well that they can tell where they are from the feel and sound of their footfall, but the citizens themselves are a complication: Guards can and will pass through the houses, gan hints on where the players go... and atop that, the citizens will remember.

Since the city guards - no matter how corrupt - are the only protection of the city and their laws, someone attacking the guards also attacks their place of living. Lawful NPCs might feel inclined to sick the guards at them for trespass once the PCs enter their shops. Chaotic NPCs might do it for the bounty on their heads.

Guard enemies force a different style of story

From a world-reaction standpoint, resisting arrest is not just straight suicide, it makes the players outlaws and criminals who can't stay in the town and even might need to leave the governmental region it is in. In essence, they became the literal Robin Hood by killing a game warden! We're talking Pre-Fairbrooks, pre-Merry-adventures, ballad-era Robin Hood - a very dubious person that is despised by the general populous despite being a good person at heart!

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Don't give the guards magic items, because that would allow the party to take those magic items.

Instead, give them some sort of template or modification. Maybe they've allowed themselves to be bitten by lycanthropes, or maybe they've drunk demon blood, or maybe there's a parasite that enhances their power but slowly kills them, or maybe they've made a contract with an extraplanar entity. You'll have to worldbuild something.

Also, don't worry about exactly what stats are modified by this upgrade, because there will need to be extensive modifications to all stats. Instead, just create the guards at the CR you want them to be at, and narrate that the reason they're at that CR is because of this upgrade they got.

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You don't need to make magic items to make monsters.

Cave bear, level 6: 20 AC, attack +10 for 1d8+Str damage

Dire bear, level 11: 25 AC, attack +15 for 2d8+Str damage

Does it therefore follow that the dire bear is a cave bear, possessed of a magic item called "the dire", which provides +5 attack and AC and +1d8 damage on attack, and which PCs must be prevented from looting at all costs?

I don't think anybody has ever seriously had that idea, and it really doesn't have to be any different when you have

John Thug, level 2: 16 AC, attack +4 for 1d8+Str damage, +1d6 flanking

John Thug, Guard of Corruptica, level 13: 25 AC, resist forced movement, attack +16 for 3d8+Str damage and -2 AC till EONT

The Takeaway

  • Your town guards aren't lesser enemies using advanced magic items that the PCs can loot and obtain an identical power boost from. They're better thought of as magically (or, you know, fiendishly, technologically, elementally, choose as appropriate) created enemies of an appropriate level, reskinned from existing monsters or made using the standard monster creation rules. And just like most other enemies, the PCs can't just directly access their power once they've fallen.
  • If your PCs maintain an interest in adapting this "fake power" to work for them, adapt the existing loot parcel rules to provide them appropriate upgrades in-theme with whatever you've made, and consider adding some quest XP or a skill challenges to account for the effort they make in doing this.
  • If your PCs maintain an interest in turning this "fake power" against its corrupt masters, in a classic move from the hero playbook, consider using the DMG2 companion rules to spice up some of the climactic fights.

I appreciate the fairly straightforward intent to strap John Thug into an Iron Man suit with a force trident, and some bullet points probably aren't going to be enough to address your concerns that Regdar the level 13 human fighter might be getting some unexpected upgrades. So here's a longer-form explanation about how the Iron Man suit and the force trident aren't "magic items" as commonly thought of, any more than anything about the dire bear was a "magic item", and how they might interact with your campaign by analogy to the dire bear.

If the Iron Man suit makes John Thug stronger, why won't it make Regdar stronger?

The thing about actual magic items is they work for anybody no matter what. They go on top of whatever you already have, whether your combat chops come from martial exploits, divine prayers, primal evocations, arcane spells, or psionic disciplines, they can make them better.

But you can't just pick up whatever the dire bear has and make it work for you. Admittedly it's easier to accept this when it doesn't seem like something you should be able to pick up, but the point you start from is this: the Iron Man suit doesn't work for Regdar any more than some butchered bear paw would.

In much the same way as "a dire bear" is not "a cave bear with a magic item", "John Thug in an Iron Man suit with a force trident" is not "a town guard with some magic items". You deploy them onto the field as a level-appropriate monster - in this case while regular John Thug is a human bandit, his power as a guard of Corruptica is inspired by the water archon shoal reaver (level 13 brute, MM3 p.18).

How did Regdar get strong enough to smash through an Iron Man suit with a great hammer? Training and experience. Like, literally getting experience points and training up in levels. How is the Iron Man suit able to dodge Regdar's great hammer strikes on occasion? Probably some weird wizard stuff, right?

If Regdar's expecting to directly loot and use the equipment, well, why should all of that weird wizard stuff line up with what Regdar already knows? Regdar tries to put on the suit and wield the trident, suddenly he's trying to dodge one way and the suit's trying to dodge the other, he angles in for a strike and the trident's autotracking nearly sends it flying out of his hand.

The Iron Man suit and force trident are "fake power", which created something on par with Regdar. They're not actually "magic items" that Regdar can pick up and use with his "real power".

But shouldn't Regdar eventually be able to make the Iron Man suit work for him?

Oh, you mean like how there's some guy in the base camp by the dire bear caves, holding up a sign that says:

I RECEIVE: five excellent quality dire bear haunches

YOU RECEIVE: level-appropriate magic item + minor quest XP

Maybe it's not exactly like that, maybe you've actually done it up proper with the wizened town elder being all "in these hills lairs a tremendous and destructive creature, the Beast of Bone Mountain. Be wary, brave adventures! But should you triumph over it, bring me its horrid maw and I will infuse your weapon with its power." and that's how Regdar got a +3 vicious great hammer (PHB p. 236) with a bear head on it.

Loot parcels don't have to be actual things you pick up and use immediately, they can be "waiting to be cashed in". So maybe Regdar spends some downtime bound and determined to make this suit obey him, he ropes some other party members into into it, and after a successful skill challenge it relents and he's got some +3 mountain plate armor. (PHB p. 231) Or some scrappy resistance sorceror is trying to jailbreak the force tridents and promising Regdar first dibs once they have enough samples to work from, and that's how Regdar got a paragon-tier set of breach bracers (Adventurer's Vault p. 116).

This is not exactly "bonus loot", in that it should be accounted for in the standard distribution of loot parcels per level that you're already giving your PCs. But if you attach some quest XP to the process (DMG p. 122) or make it a skill challenge, which awards XP on completion, it is kind of bonus loot in that the PCs get part of their XP to level from clever ideas and NPC connections, and thus got this parcel and its XP without fighting through an encounter.

But what if Mialee the level 13 eladrin wizard frog blasts the vent core and now the Iron Man suits are on our side?

What if Vadania the level 13 half-elf druid tames the dire bear? This is not a trick question, the answer starts on page 27 of the DMG2 and it's called "companion characters". Mostly the DMG2 material is about rolling your own so I'll give you the cheaty simple answer - drop an allied monster into an encounter, make someone responsible for dictating its actions, and it eats XP from every encounter equal to its own XP.

If you keep up projected XP awards, the extra bodies on the ally and enemy sides are going to stretch out combat, and monsters don't really have the kind of sustain that PCs do, having only one healing surge per tier to work with. So when Mialee starts laying down her l337 h4xx0r plans, probably the best time to have them actually pay off is for one or two big climactic battles, rather than making John Thug, Guard of Corruptica (sick hack edition) a permanent addition to the party.

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You mentioned that it’s okay to convert material from other editions, so that’s what this answer is based upon.

Dnd 5e has the conjure elemental spell, and also has spell scrolls (which in 5e are magic items). Giving a conjure elemental spell scroll to one of your guards would allow them to conjure an elemental (you can decide which one it is depending on which one you want your party to face), and since scrolls are a one time use thing, your party won’t be re-using this trick on other enemies.

Possible problems with this plan:

  1. The party kills all of the guards and takes their stuff before they summon the elemental. This can be fixed by artificially buffing the guards initiative bonus.
  2. The players try buying the summon elemental magic scroll later. This can be solved by making it so that only specific people can make those scrolls and the guards were extremely lucky to get one, and they can’t be simply bought.
  3. In 5e scrolls require a check to use unless you can already cast the spell, which the guards can’t. You can simply say that this rule doesn’t exist in your 4e game.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Since nothing happens in the world until someone describes it, the scroll doesn't have to exist until the guard pulls it out to use it. Some may not like this approach, but it can stop the looting issue. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 2, 2021 at 0:30
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You need something that's useful to low-level guards but useless to tier 2 players... I can't provide a full answer, but here's inspiration. I recommend combining some of those ideas for maximum effect.

Magic gear with a capped boost

For attributes, maybe it boosts them to 20, or 22? Enough for the guards to justifiably pack a punch and endure more punishment... but such gear scales badly with player level, and especially is useless to the players that would have those stats as main or secondary.

Well, not necessarily useless, but not overpowered either: who cares if a wizard has 22 strength.

Or the magic gear boosts level... but only up to 2 levels under what you're fighting, with a cap of level 14.

Magic gear with arbitrary requirements

  • Instead of attuning quickly, it requires years of attunement.
  • It requires years of training to work properly.
  • Guards are chosen at a young age and must grow up with the gear; anyone older than early teens can't possibly use it.

Magic gear with drawbacks that are deal-breakers for adventurers but not guards

  • Every activation requires days of total rest. (Guards only activate the gear against high-level threats, but are paid during the forced rest.)
  • The gear has to be recharged every day, and after every use.
  • The gear only works within range of specific devices installed around the city.
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Connect the magic items to a source:

The magic guild has a thingamajigbob that draws from ley lines below the city and uses that energy and a meticulously spanned out net of smaller thingamajigbobbies that disperse this energy throughout the city.

The "magic enhancers" on your city guards draw from this dispersed energy - without it they are just dead weight - wich conveniently enough starts about 50m outside the city walls.

Stealing the thingamajigbob from the now empty (?) guild does no good due to the diffizile calibration needed to tap into the specific arrangement of ley lines needed to power it. Sabotaging it may be a nice idea though - unless this energy also powers the wells, climacontrols the lords castle and makes the fruits cultivated here so much more tasty...

You players could try to sabotage the thingamajigbobbies to weaken the guards

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The city has a handful of elite soldiers that can remotely "possess" guards to fight through them.

Instead of patrolling, each elite soldier spends their shift on standby inside a magical circle, or wearing a magical helmet, or something to that extent.

Guards only have rudimentary combat training; when they need extra punch, they can activate special gear to channel an on-duty elite soldier, ceding them complete control of their body.

The big limitation is that at any time, only the few elite soldiers on duty are available for channeling, so the city can't field many of them at once: a squad, rather than an army. Perfect against renegade players, though!

The restrictions on the elite soldiers are what's most interesting.

  • How soon can they channel again, if their guard is disabled or they need to intervene elsewhere? At least a short rest?
  • How does the city guard decide to trigger a channeling? Can an individual guard unilaterally start it, or do they need to "call it in", with an official dispatching elite soldiers where they're needed?
  • Even then, how quickly does the channeling happen? Pre-emptive attacks against guards can be devastating, and stealth in general super effective.
  • How long can a given channeling last?
  • How many elite soldiers are on active duty, and how many are off duty but available within minutes? How many can the city's facilities accomodate at once, anway?
  • Do the elite soldiers have standard training (the same stat block), or do they have different capabilities, with recognizable combat styles, and possibly magic? Do the guards carry different weapons and implements to accomodate that, and patrol in balanced squads?
  • What's the channeling range outside of the city, inside buildings, and deep underground; can that range be extended in any way?
  • How well-defended are the elite soldiers while they're channeling? Is their location knowable, assaultable?
  • Are there other means through which troublemakers can block or limit channeling?

From there, add any fluff you want. Does it take special training to channel an elite soldier, or could any peon do it? Is channelling hard on the body, requiring a day or two of full rest afterwards, surely paid? Who decides when channeling happens?

Also, say players get their hands on both ends of the channeling setup: it doesn't boost their combat capabilities, but they could still find interesting uses for it.

(I have another, more generic answer, but when I had this idea I thought it deserved its own.)

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Magic pills

The guards somehow acquired and took a potent combat enhancing drug. This changes their stats to whatever you want them to be. This solves the crunch problem that @Oblivious Sage mentioned.

Also, you either mention that the greedy guards took all of the pills, or your team learns about some horrific long term side effect of the pill, so they'll provided no use for your party.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "... your team learns about some horrific long term side effect of the pill, so they'll provided no use for your party." only works in the movies. If you give said pills as an option for all D&D players, at least a quarter will take them anyway. Some might even take them because of the long term effects, to have interesting narrative. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Dec 1, 2021 at 21:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Homebrewed buffing scrolls do the same thing, with every one affecting multiple guards in range and spell lasting 24 hours. The party can't cast them even if they get them, because the scroll is warded so only a person who said guardsmen oath when joining the watch can touch them. If somebody else does, they crumble into dust. This is the oath: goodreads.com/quotes/… \$\endgroup\$
    – jo1storm
    Dec 2, 2021 at 11:04
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Why not just give them a kit made of magical energy (from the big wizard) that dissipates when the user dies, or when someone who has not received the boon of the dark wizard touches them?

You can maybe still make them useful even though they dissipate like maybe you get a glimpse of the wizard's thoughts or some information from him (ie location of some quest object) when one touches the items & make them dissipate, related to when people wear the One ring in lord of the rings

I can also see going all the way to LOTR, that the items don't dissipate but when you wield them the wizard and all his crew see where you are at all times and will try to send folks to kill you nonstop, and maybe the items will corrupt you (at a fast pace).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. \$\endgroup\$
    – Community Bot
    Dec 3, 2021 at 20:40
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Magic Buffs are temporary

Rather than giving them actual magic items, give them temporarily enchanted gear that gives them a boost but doesn't retain the magic after their death or a certain period later. Every morning a priest blesses (not actually the bless spell) their armor and an artifacer enchants their weapons. The leaders could get higher level blessings/enchantments that last a week instead of 24 hours or that are stronger (or both).

If you want a good way to convey this to the party maybe one of the guards was hunger-over this morning, missed the daily rituals and so is running around in regular gear. They hold back from the fray, and surrender the first chance they get knowing they probably stand no chance without the magic buffs. Alternatively an identify check on any of the equipment would note the transient nature of the buffs.

It's worth noting I'm using this in 5e but there's no reason a similar template couldn't be used in 4e (and honestly it'd probably be easier to do in fourth).

My current campaign is set in Eberron and the party is contending with the Silver Flame, who are obsessed with the destruction of Evil. All of their weapons are silvered (so worth a bit of money for the party even w/out magic) but also get an added effect as long as the wielder remains attuned to the item (of course you could change this to last for 24 hours or 1 week as I suggested above, if that works better for your story). Also note that these numbers are "tuned" for a 5th level party, in 4e the to-hit number would probably need to be higher, and for paragon tier the damage would need a considerable boost.

Silvered Sword of Purity Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, Reach 5', one target. Hit: 9 (2d6+3) slashing damage. Against Lycanthropes, Shifters, Abominations and Demons a hit deals an addition 1d6 Fire damage, and a Festering Wound. Until fully healed, any healing (magical or otherwise) heals only the minimum amount and duplicate applications after the first in the same day have no effect.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How well has this worked in 4e for you? Since the asker doesn't know what magic items would do this, I'm not sure how useful a suggestion of "just make them temporary" actually is so your experience buffing 4e opponents this way would much improve the answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Dec 3, 2021 at 11:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've only done this in 5e but in principle the edition shouldn't matter in the slightest since you're giving the guard effectively a non-permanent magic item. I'll edit in some details of how I've used that in case it is helpful. \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Dec 3, 2021 at 18:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why the downvotes? \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Dec 7, 2021 at 17:20
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If you're going to go with by-the-book items only you're not going to be able to do this.

T.Sar's answer works with custom items, but leaves the party with those items afterwards. They can't use them, but they would be valuable to others.

aslum's answer comes close, but the wizards are gone, temporary items would have decayed by now.

Thus, how about a different approach--the great power comes from consumable items. I'm thinking of something I pulled more than 30 years ago. Some ordinary orcs, but I gave them rings of 1,000hp that were invisible. Whack away at them and it looks like they were doing no damage. (In the end the party figured it out, grappled the last orc and got a partially-used ring.)

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