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I don't want to outright go out and say it: "Billy found the +5 magical staff Rynn's Lament," since a) that would be a n00b mistake and b) my character is not called Billy.

In my worlds, magic is subtle and not flashy at all, so how can I introduce a powerful magical weapon in this context? Most or perhaps even all of the magical effects are such that they can be easily mistaken for chance and coincidence.

Nonetheless, it should gradually become apparent to the Not-Billy character and to the reader that this is no ordinary item. Unless your responses convince me otherwise, I plan to have it look like a rather plain (if well built) wooden-looking staff with metal ends.

I'm currently thinking a good answer might have one of:

  • a set of subtle abilities for the wielder to gradually discover that make them realize there is something unnatural about the weapon.
  • a way of establishing the weapon's/device's provenance that would be gradually revealed (fragments of lore or a lost instruction manual?) either in the process of acquiring the weapon (I'm guessing it doesn't just lie by a skeleton on the side of the road, unnoticed for centuries by the myriad local peasants), or gradually afterwards.

Limitations:

  • The object in question is not given by a scantily clad godlike entity living in a lake at the end of a dangerous quest, and is not found in a golden jewel-encrusted chest with "Vorpal Sword of Doom +5" written in demonic runes underneath.
  • The wielders do not know this is a magical weapon prior to acquiring it, and indeed will likely come to possess it rather by accident, as it were.
  • Nor will this device/weapon be explicitly identified as such by some bard or lorekeeper in an inn going all jelly-legged at the mere sight of it.

Again, the key operating word is subtle. Lightning strikes are out, unless they're explicitly fighting an armored knight on a mountaintop during a storm.

This is not idea generation, so I'm not asking you to list weapon abilities (although I won't hold that against you if you do as part of your answer), merely for a way of identifying a weapon as magical in a way that's not "in-your-face".

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    $\begingroup$ If the staff cannot be recognized straight away as "magical", your character needs a reason to carry it around long enough to slowly discover that it actually is magical. Is the subtle magic supposed to play a role in your character first choosing to keep/use it? Or will they be using it regardless. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Oct 26 '15 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ Well you could solve one of your problems by changing your characters name to Billy... So thats a start... $\endgroup$ – WhyEnBe Oct 26 '15 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like a pretty standard Grail in the Garbage scenario. See the link for inspiration. (Warning: TVTropes!) $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Oct 26 '15 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe instead of making the magic incredibly subtle just make Not Billy attribute it to other things. The staff keeps ending up in his room even though he thought he left it elsewhere, is he losing his memory? Those voices can't be coming from the staff, is he losing his mind? That bully that was picking on him has been missing, what are the chances. He really wanted his crush to notice him and all of a sudden she loves him...could it be the staff? That way it's not immediately evident it it magical, it becomes more psychological thriller. $\endgroup$ – DasBeasto Oct 27 '15 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ The number of TV Tropes links in this question is frankly irresponsible. $\endgroup$ – MikeTheLiar Oct 27 '15 at 14:46

30 Answers 30

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A few characteristics you might expect of a powerful magical item:

  • It's tough - things that you might expect to destroy it simply don't. This gives a chance for it to reveal that there is something unusual about it, even if it isn't announced.
  • It is storied. Perhaps NotBilly has heard of the staff, even if she has no idea that this is the staff that she is carrying. This then gives her a chance to make the connection for herself if she is smart.
  • It is tied strongly into the magical realm, this may not be flashy but if there are some people ( or creatures in general ) who are more sensitive to it, they will notice something unusual. Maybe there is a type of animal that is attracted to it, so wherever he goes he starts to find cats are drawn to him, or sparrows.
  • Magic is unnatural, so it interacts unusually with nature - if it's left on grass, perhaps the grass dies back or grows longer. Placed beside a vase of flowers maybe they die back with unusual rapidity or start growing as though they are still planted in the ground, reaching towards it as they would towards the sun.
  • Subtle powers that it might confer could include influence, where the bearer finds that their suggestions have more weight than they once did, adeptness, where they are just a little more balanced or if it is used for its purpose ( as a weapon, a weight carrying aid, a cooking implement, etc ) the bearer will find themselves naturally better at that thing. It could confer insight into situations or augment the bearer's memory. The most powerful indicator of either of these would be if they lost it and found their previously gained strengths suddenly receding.
  • Alternately it may be bound to the person who it has chosen, so no matter what they try to do, they actually can't get rid of it.
  • It actively suppresses any attempts to use magic around it by others. This could be exceedingly subtle and it might take a very long time for NotBilly to notice, but it is an interesting possibility.
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    $\begingroup$ Exploring further along the lines of It's tough: It could be of iron and not rust, of silver and not tarnish, of copper and not patinate, be slightly heavier/lighter than expected, slightly warmer/colder than expected given local climate or use, resist warming by grip of hands, be engraved with faint runes or a Damascus pattern, lack scratches or make them disappear slowly (self-healing material), make things faintly visible in the dark by emitting black light, change very subtly in color (black/dark grey/dark blue/dark red) resulting in comments about you having multiple such items, ... $\endgroup$ – Iwillnotexist Idonotexist Oct 27 '15 at 5:31
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    $\begingroup$ Another neat thing to consider; perhaps the item drains something from nearby creatures and gives the possessor a boost. For example: a sword that, when near other creatures, causes them to stumble a fumble about while the owner feels more nimble and dextrous than usual. Or maybe an amulet that, when the bearer passes through a city, inflicts bad luck on the city, causing people to die in incredibly mundane ways or lose their whole life savings, while the wearer experiences strangely good luck, winning consistently at luck-based games or surviving deadly encounters merely by chance. $\endgroup$ – nukeforum Oct 27 '15 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ More for tough: never needs to be sharpened, polished, etc. Maybe it literally never scratches, even when the bearer accidentally dropped it off a cliff that one time. $\endgroup$ – wwarriner Oct 27 '15 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ A follow up to point 2, if they have already heard of the staff, if it's famous enough, it could be described as a replica of the famous staff. Oh the astonishment when it turns out it's the real thing and not a replica. $\endgroup$ – aslum Oct 27 '15 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ An advantage of the "tough" method is that it's easy to illustrate in such a way that doesn't involve explicitly describing the item as unusual: have it be discovered among a collection of other items, all of which are dull, rusted, corroded, partly-eaten, etc. Not-Billy might not even realize the implications immediately, but still take the item because he needs something and it's the only one that's usable. $\endgroup$ – Ray Oct 27 '15 at 23:24
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A few ideas

  1. A slight feeling of vibration/humming when touched. Not noticeable at first when you aren't looking for it, but which you slowly become aware of. Similarly a slight glow in a dark room (not noticed for several days, perhaps, because why would you notice?)

  2. A slow-growing "connection" to the object: a little like the One Ring slowly asserts influence/possessiveness on the carrier, but without the creepy killing everything thing. At first it's just an object, but after a while the carrier notices that they have a sense of it's presence

  3. Similar to above: the carrier slowly becomes more capable, or discovers knowledge they shouldn't have. Either having this capability increase slowly, or simply having them notice after a while that they could do the thing while holding the item, but not otherwise, and the common factor was the magical item. The effects can be as strong or subtle as you like, because the first few times it happens will be written off or not linked to the presence of the staff/item

  4. The item only "fires" in certain circumstances: ie when the character is under threat. They notice when they should be drowning and don't, or are pulled to the surface. Or when the staff blocks an arrow, or twitches to jam and stall the holder just long enough to not be hit by a bullet. It just seems like a normal item until this occurs, so they may not notice for weeks until in danger.

All of the above are only really effective if the object is useful in it's own right - ie if it's a staff or bow or knife, rather than a stone, as the holder needs a reason to carry it without it being magical.

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  • $\begingroup$ #1 might be subtle in-universe, but I don't know if it helps the OP make it subtle for the reader. $\endgroup$ – ruakh Oct 28 '15 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ A valid point, although mostly just because we've gotten used to this kind of device (literary, not magical) being used. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Oct 28 '15 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ Mentioning the One Ring: A writing that reveals itself when exposed to fire. Plus, the item not taking damage/heating up in the process. $\endgroup$ – user5240 Oct 29 '15 at 12:23
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Subtle Enhancement
I'm going to point to one of my favourites rpgs of all time (Because it IS the best rpg of all time.) In Morrowind (TES:III), one of the (earliest) best legendary items in the game you can find is a ring that permanently boost personality and willpower. Making interactions with NPCs much more bearable early in the game without obliging you to put precious points into both traits when leveling up. Such a ring has no distinguishable 'magical' effect. But has the potential of greatly affecting gameplay. Same goes with any item that would make you 'run a bit further', 'jump a bit higher', 'talk with a bit more conviction' etc... (You get where I'm going with this). The effect can remain unknown for a ridiculous amount of time. (Mostly until you repeatedly lose it and notice the difference with and without)

Subtle Protection
An item that would say stop any weapon from piercing your skin for more than a few millimeters. Enough to allow you to be wounded but never fatally. An item that would allow you to hold your breath longer, or protect you against fatal poisoning/infection/disease etc...

A Series of Circumstances
An item that subtly affects the world around you. It could warp perceptions, making people often stop thinking about you the moment they aren't directly interacting with you (perfect for a thief), or enemies could end up always tripping/falling/stumbling in the worst moment, stopping them from harming you, etc... Or making it 100% certain, your opponent does indeed get struck by lightning in a storm :)

What I don't think is possible is a high profile 'active' magical item. I.E.: It's hard not to notice the magical flames on a magical flaming sword.

So how would this magically subtle object be discovered as magical?
My answer is as I said above, the bearer needs to be estranged from it, perhaps more than once, for differences with and without to start being noticeable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Agreed! Not sure if you noticed, but one of the links is to a TVTropes page called "Power Glows" $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Oct 26 '15 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is the best answer. Things just work out when the magical item is around and go wrong if it isn't. This can be done subtly and be unnoticed by the reader and the character for a long time. The character would develop a subconscious fondness for the item, long before she realises what it does. You just have to be careful not to make a big deal out of it. Maybe the character collects a bunch of stuff before setting out on a journey, only one of these things turn out to be magical. $\endgroup$ – BlindKungFuMaster Oct 28 '15 at 10:26
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The "Elderly Care Walking Assistance Units" used to be commonplace among the Numenoreans of old, with their subtle warping of the reality matrix to prevent injuries caused by falls, help walking speed, boost stamina and famously using neuromorphic read/write software to enhance night-vision, ward off mosquitoes and other pests. Their zero-point-drives ensured convenient no-battery operation for forgetful elders.

Later on, during the desperate last days of the Wars of the Greater Abominations, a significant number were weaponized in a doomed attempt to stop the unstoppable, with custom combat plugins and situational awareness enhancements.

Most of the staffs were of course destroyed during the fiery end of the Old Ones. Of the few surviving ones, most were neurolocked so indistinguishable from a regular stick, or their software programming had long faded into the semisentient equivalent of senility. It just so happened that NotBilly's neuropatterns (possibly due to her descent from a long-impovrished line of local gentry) combined to make a 91% match for the neurolock recog software, and the eccentric semisentience within, perhaps our of sheer boredom, decided that was good enough for it.

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Another way for the wielder to notice that there's something about the weapon in a subtle way could be parting with it, then reuniting - the idea being that the effects are so subtle that the wielder doesn't notice themselves until they build up over time, and the wielder adjusts to them habitually. When the weapon (and hence its effects) are removed, the dependence on something that has vanished is much more noticeable than the effect itself.

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Some people are looking for it

If NotBobby happens to find this mighty weapon by accident, it isn't impossible that GenericEvilGuy has been searching this item for a long time and happens to find out that NotBobby has it. In this way, GenericEvilGuy will find NotBobby and try to take the weapon from him, on the way explaining his evil plan before doing it, because that's what evil do.

The previous owner is still (almost) there

OldJohn used to have the weapon, and in his eternal greed, locked himself inside an old cave with the weapon to make sure no-one would take it from him. Fortunately, OldJohn was a little crazy, so he had a journal. Being alone with a magical item doesn't generate lots of conversation so OldJohn was usually writing about his findings of the magic weapon and of the flying unicorns he saw on the ceiling. The hero, NotBobby, happens to find the weapon in the cave, where OldJohn is long time dead due to hunger and thirst, but his journal remains. Maybe a part of it was destroyed by humidity(?) so the hero can't fully understand the power of the weapon, or maybe OldJohn didn't speak the same language as NotBobby, so he'd have to quest up to AnywhereLand to find a sage that could help him discover the power of the weapon.

Good ol' flashbacks

"NotBobby found what he was looking for. Reaching for the old trinket in the madman's pocket, his hand barely touched his wooden staff; a weird weapon for such a powerful man. Upon touching the weapon, NotBobby felt nauseous, thoughts of hatred took over his mind, it was unbearable. NotBobby wondered for a moment if the terrible odour of a decomposing murderer's body combined to the deep disgust he had for the character was to blame or if the staff had something to do with this."

Subtle stuff

  • A wooden staff with metal ends might be somehow heavy. Maybe this staff isn't at all. The weight could either go unnoticed by the wielder because he didn't pay attention, or he could figure it out right away. Then again, it might be confusing if the staff is simply made of rare materials that are incredibly light, or if some sort of magic is involved.

  • A staff isn't that damaging. It hurts being hurt with a long wooden staff, but maybe this staff is even more effective. If the character was to try to hit a rock with it, maybe the rock would shatter, which wouldn't go unnoticed. Monsters fought by NotBobby would react in a more intense way to the hits delivered by the weapon.

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Subtle magic is a funny thing. Just watch Apollo Robbins work his craft removing watches from people at parties, and you have to marvel at it.

Of course, such subtle magic cannot be overt. If everybody could see it was magical, it would fail to qualify as subtle. Thus we see the first rule: "the staff must give hints to the wielder that it is magical in a way that is hard for a third party to observe." An obvious answer would be a loud booming voice in someones head announcing "you have a magic staff, let me teach you how to use it." But that hardly qualifies as subtle. Certainly not by Rynn standards.

Let the games begin, shall we?

Our staff has the clear necessity of helping its wielder unlock the staff's true potential, without overtly guiding them towards those ends. So it's going to have to rely on its greatest ally: patience. It's simply going to have to continually work with its new owner until one day the owner starts to put 2 and 2 together and realize the answer is at least 4.1, and seems to be going up every day.

The owner clearly has a will. Anyone wielding a weapon has a will they wish to impose on others, or else they wouldn't be wielding a weapon. The staff can patiently wait, sensing that will. When it sees an opportunity, it may do just slightly more, or slightly less than intended. If the owner strikes out, it may hit the enemy, even though the actual butt of the staff was just shy of a strike. Most staves are wood, flexible, but once in a while, it might flex just a little more than you thought the wood should be able to flex, allowing the staff to strike around a block instead of being stymmed.

In this phase, the staff is merely trying to make sure the owner realizes it is special. This phase continues until a key psychological shift occurs: the owner gives identity to the staff. Instead of thinking of it as "a staff," the owner begins thinking of it as "this staff," a unique individual. The owner might even choose to give it a name. Regardless, once the staff has an identity in the owner's mind, the staff has a beachhead to begin the real work of teaching the owner how to use it correctly. The staff may begin to display emotions. It may communicate ("My staff feels sluggish today... perhaps today is not a good day to fight. We should rest instead."). Such "illusions" of personality are not unusual for fine weapons, so nobody besides the closest co-horts of the wielder would even notice. Even they would just think the wielder is a little nuts.

In fact, those illusions show up in so many myths, it really leaves one to wonder, doesn't it?...

Once the wielder has admitted a personality to the weapon, we can begin the final dance between weapon and wielder. Now that we have two personalities in the mix: a wielder and a weapon. Now we have a solid back drop to build the real training upon: social interactions between individuals. Maybe it shows up as the wielder just "knowing" what the weapon is thinking. Maybe there's a physical dance, where every single strike or parry conveys the spirit of the dance between weapon and wielder. Maybe the sanity of the wielder buckles, as he or she begins to hear voices.

In every step of the way, the weapon is going to need to earn its keep. If the wielder is going to be ridiculed for talking to his staff, the peanut gallery better be silenced when they see the wielder and weapon dance across the corpses of their enemies. Fortunately, a staff owned by Rynn would be up to the challenge. The wielder? That's another story. Since nothing is overt, the owner can't simply wield the staff "to great victory." That would show off obvious magic. Instead, the two individuals need to work together. The wielder needs to get used to being told where to stand, just like the lead in a dance needs to have a subtle sense of where the follow would like to flourish. A strong individual will appreciate this dance, and never let their partner go. A weak individual... well...

The lead has to be strong, but able to listen to the spirit of the follow. If the lead is not strong, the dance crumbles. If the wielder cannot be the lead, because they are not strong enough to keep up with the needs of the staff, Rynn's staff will be more than willing to oblige the wielder, and become the lead. In such cases, madness would surely follow, but the madness would never quite cause destruction until a time suspiciously convenient for the staff to find a new wielder.

Alex's lungs burned with exhaustion as the staff hummed with vibration from the force of the last blow. All eight royal guards that had been sent to escort him to the prisons lie at his feet. Two were still breathing; it almost felt as though the staff still had a purpose for them, still vibrating to its own tune -- imperceptibly unless you looked hard or listened carefully. The remaining witnesses, Alex's companions in crime, had long since fled. They had fled not from the royal guards and the summons they brought. The gang Alex rolled with was far too loyal to leave one of theirs behind. But when the first guard began spurting blood, layrinx collapsing under a blow so fast that neither gang member had even realized the staff was inexplicably in Alex's hands, they fled. They had seen Alex take a life before, but not like this. Not like this.

Alex coughed, a spasm of pghlem and a little blood. No guard had struck him. Heck, only the last had had the time to even take a full swing at him -- folly, at that. Alex readjusted himself. It wasn't easy getting used to striking so furiously that even his own organs struggled to keep up with the demands placed on them. His staff knew where he needed to be, it was Alex who found himself constantly the weaker party, the party struggling to catch up.

"I swear, if I knew half of what this staff seems to know, I'd have no peers," he muttered to himself, feeling his arm ache. The vibrations from the strike were still surging through the staff, like the vicious sting of a bat struck against a rock or a wall. It ran up and down his arm, though he did nothing to extinguish the vibrations. Alex felt it would be rude to the staff, like he'd hurt its feelings if he tried to take back control of his arm once more, removing it from this ringing.

Alex heard the two living guards whispering. No, no. That wasn't quite it. It was definitely more than just two voices. Alex dropped to his knees. The auditory hallucinations of his dead foes wore on him, moreso after every fight. Dropping to his knees in submission seemed to be the only thing that had any effect on their prattle as it rose from a whisper to a shout. He held fast, on his knees, vibrating staff in hand, waiting for the voices to end. And they did.

What replaced them was far more sinister than the taunts and goads of dead warriors. Their voices were replaced in an instant, silenced, to let one pure voice ring through. Her voice was almost melodious, smooth, without a hint of malice. And yet what she had to say was more than Alex had ever had to bear.

"I have decided to accept you as my student," she purred, as calm as though there were no corpses piled up around them. "You should know what that means." The pain from the vibration in Alex's arm diminished, and he focused more on this new voice. It was this, or eternal madness, he decided. Better this.

"You should know what this means, Alex. It means I will have to break you. It means I will break you. You are my student now, so it must be."

"So it must be."

A short while thereafter, an Alex gathered his stuff and headed East, towards the town. He would meet up with his friends there. There would be words. Alex breathed easily now. The worst was over, or so he tried to tell himself. He knew it was a lie, of course, but it was a good lie. He sighed effortlessly, walking away from the pile of eight dead royal guards - walking away from the small pile of his phlegm and blood slowly seeping into the dirt. He took a breath, pondering what an autopsy on two of the guards would reveal: lung damage that could only be explained by a tremendously lucky blow to just the right spot on the sternum, through the armor plates. He took another breath, thinking just how lucky he was that his lungs might heal so quickly after he hurt them so badly. Lucky, Lucky, Lucky.

A third breath, and they was gone.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 @Cort Ammon, I can always count on you to provide thoughtful and in-depth answers! $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Oct 27 '15 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ I'm looking forward to the day I pick up some media, whether it is a book, a movie, or a game, and I hear Rynn's whispers from the corners of the pages, or between the lines of dialogue =) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Oct 27 '15 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ Its a shame the object is a staff, since in reality swords are named in many cultures. A named weapon like a sword would make Cort Ammon;s scenario work more smoothly. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Sep 9 '17 at 13:11
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KISS.

Maybe an slight aura of menace or radiance. Warmth perhaps. Very slightly glowiness.

Of course, if this was the dread blade of skogroth the squirrel slayer, all the squirrels in the area going deadly silent...

That said, first boring magical blade that came to mind was the blade from Conan the Barbarian, which he took from crom/the king in the barrow. It had one property. It wasn't rusty. Also was sharp.

A unaged weapon in a pile of rusted out junk might work here.

I'd also consider the elven blades from LOTR. They had fairly mundane magical properties, and fairly well leveled up stabbiness.

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    $\begingroup$ I admit. The only reason I posted this answer was to mention skogroth the squirrel slayer. $\endgroup$ – Journeyman Geek Oct 27 '15 at 2:44
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One trope you could use in conjunction with others is: Antagonists who are magically attuned start saying things that sound like NotBilly is the Chosen One and they're intimidated by him. Gradually, though, NotBilly realizes that they're not talking about him, they're talking about the item.

For example, the question you asked reminded me of a scene in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. In one of the encounters with the primary antagonist, he remarks to Link that he's met his match while battling the hero. Later, it's implied that the antagonist isn't actually talking about meeting his match in Link. Instead, he's talking about the spirit inhabiting Link's sword, who is more powerful than Link realizes! (This also foreshadows that the primary antagonist is himself the spirit of a powerful item, which is used by another villain in the final boss battle.)

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I have a few suggestions, but their applicability will depend on the rest of your setting:

1. How it's found: If the previous wielder used it to escape a trap, this would justify it laying dormant for hundreds of years (particularly if the wielder was only partially successful.

Example: NotBilly is at a local temple when there's a massive rumbling through the floor. The clerics unseal the entrance to the abandoned catacombs beneath the temple, and send NotBilly down to investigate. Down there, he discovers a room filled with stone rubble, and a plain wooden staff jutting up, unscathed.

The room had had a "collapsing ceiling" trap (Indiana Jones style) which had been triggered by some adventurer centuries ago. The adventurer had used the apparently-unbreakable staff to hold up the ceiling, and had either escaped or starved. After hundreds of years of focusing all its weight on a single point of wood, the stone slab of the ceiling had finally cracked and collapsed to either side of the staff. If the area is humid, the fact that the staff is still in perfect condition (the metal caps would be free of rust) would also indicate that it's not a mundane item.

2. What it does: When wielding the staff, NotBilly wouldn't feel any different, but he'd wind up using the staff almost as an extension of his body, even if he had no training with such weapons.

If he trips over a root, he darts the tip of the staff out to brace himself and maintain his footing without breaking his pace.

If someone throws a rock at him, even if it's from a direction he can't see, the he whips the staff around to block it (maybe not necessarily successfully every time). Maybe he even bats it directly back at the thrower.

If someone swings a sword at him, he blocks it with the staff, and it makes a sound like you'd expect from a steel blade impacting wood...but the staff remains unscathed.

When he tries to hit someone with the metal ends of the staff, he seems to always find just the right spot: maybe he clocks them in the elbow and makes them drop their weapon, or slips through their guard and stuns them with a blow to the head.

3. The weapon is special, not the wielder: You could also illustrate the weapons capabilities by taking it away from NotBilly (perhaps a villain steals it while the hero sleeps, or replaces it with a mundane staff), and NotBilly loses the capabilities to which he's grown accustom...and the villain gains those capabilities until the weapon can be retrieved.

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A lot of your options for the most subtle (early) clues depend on how much of NotBilly's thoughts and observations you are describing to the reader. Most answers above are very good, but seem to depend on what Billy himself notices about the staff. I would instead advise having other characters be the first to remark on the weirdness going on.

The weapon influencing NotBilly's behavior helps you explain why he keeps it around, even if he doesn't know it's value, while you slowly show him refusing to abandon it despite increasingly adverse circumstances.

A few examples:

  • NotBilly injured his ankle prior to finding the staff. He picks it up as a useful crutch, but after he's healed, he keeps using it. Another character remarks on it, to which NotBilly responds that it looks well-made and should provide a pretty penny at the next market.
  • While at the market, NotBilly is short on cash, but refuses to sell the staff, depriving him and companions of something useful.
  • During a visit to a temple/library/etc, NotBilly is told to leave the staff outside. When NotBilly gets defensive, the priest/guard maintains that it "clearly is a weapon." He runs off in anger.
  • At this point another character might start to gather lore, none of which seems to match the weapon or what's happening.
  • Some person spots NotBilly's staff and accuses him to theft, loudly. When the law officer arrives, NotBilly claims it is a family heirloom (which the reader and companions know to be a lie), but then he proceeds to accurately describe every tiny detail of the staff and its carvings accurately despite the law officer holding it out of his sight. He convinces the law officer, but alienates his companions, who complain that he's derailing the (main plot) with his staff-related antics.

In the meantime, you can have the staff cause beneficial if unlikely events for NotBilly that can't be traced back to the staff directly. Once the reader is clued in to the staff (magically) affecting NotBilly, he/she will think back and connect the dots. At that point you can let NotBilly flail around a little longer to increase the reader's frustration/anticipation before he finally figures it out himself or until the staff dramatically saves his hide if NotBilly is a bit too dense.

From there on out, you can introduce more lore about the weapon and have NotBilly attempt to use it intentionally.

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As Not-Billy is initially unaware of the staff's magical properties, he'll probably initially use it outside of combat situations in the sorts of ways any ordinary staff might be used - as a walking stick, leaning it against a desk or table and setting his hat on it, spanning it between two tree branches to dry his laundry over, manipulating objects from a distance (e.g. retrieving the shoes he kicked off last night), as a lever, or to carry something over the shoulder (e.g. water pails or a knapsack).

In any of these situations, the powerful magic can subtly assert itself through apparent accidents, such as:

  • While using it as a walking stick, the end of it just happens to land on the one floor tile that conceals a hidden compartment; the distinctly hollow sound is obvious.
  • While his hat is hanging on the end of the vertically-oriented staff, it just happens to get knocked over by an errant breeze. In the process, the hat rolls or drifts (depending on its weight) to land directly atop something uniquely relevant to Not-Billy's current situation.
  • While drying his laundry across the staff, an article of his clothing suddenly falls off of it. When he picks up the garment, he discovers that it fell due to the weight of an item in one pocket. He does not recall ever having acquired the item, and in fact he is sure it was not there when he was washing his clothes. The item is also completely dry. (This one is more obvious, and might be reserved for when Not-Billy has failed to make the connection from many prior clues. For a more subtle event: the clothes get dry much faster than they normally would.)
  • When using it to extend his reach, he fumbles and the staff slips from his grasp. It rolls across the floor, and where it stops, one of the metal ends reflects a beam of sunlight (or light from a nearby fire, if at night) onto something he hadn't noticed was there.

    ...and so on.

Some other, more random, possibilities:

  • While Not-Billy is carrying the staff as he browses through a shop filled with knickknacks, the end of the staff knocks a small object off a shelf and directly into his backpack/pocket. Neither Not-Billy nor the shopkeeper notices, but the object just happens to be something that Not-Billy was keenly interested in, but that he could not afford or the shopkeeper did not want to sell. (But the shopkeeper might notice after Not-Billy leaves.)
  • Not-Billy puts the staff in one spot before going to bed, but in the morning it is in a different location. For this one, do not call the reader's attention to the movement; don't even let Not-Billy notice it. Just casually mention that he sets it down while describing Not-Billy's actions in one room, and continue to describe additional things he does before retiring. In the morning, be sure you've somehow established what room Not-Billy happens to be in when he picks the staff back up, but without drawing any particular attention to the fact that this is definitely not the room he was in last night when he set it down.

Of course, depending on what the "actual" magical properties of the staff are, some of these would have to be modified or abandoned. The quick-drying laundry might be appropriate if the staff has some kind of heat- or moisture-related properties. The floor tile, reflected light, and hat-in-the-breeze examples would all be good fits for any type of divination ability, or for plot-driven powers.

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Not Billy wasn't sure what was strangest about this, this, well, let's call it a staff. Maybe it was its lack of imaginable purpose paired with the obvious care that must have gone into its construction. Maybe it was the incongruity between its texture, its weight, and the way it sounded when put back on the table. But for some reason Not Billy mostly found himself pondering the fact that someone must have gone to great lengths to paint this thing in the most hideous shade of octarine imaginable. Why would anyone do this? Maybe to protect it against theft? (Not Billy had once tried the same strategy with his bicycle, and it had worked quite well - until Mondrian, the colour blind master thief, came into town and apparently did not mind the olive greenish blue and the yellowish beige stripes. In a way, Not Billy felt relieved at the time, even though it meant he now had to buy a goat for riding to school.)

Not Billy considered taking that staff thing with him, but decided against it. He put it back on the oaken table where he had found it. By now he could hardly make out the orange spots that his bleeding nose had left there half an hour earlier. They had been absorbed by the purple surface.

When Not Billy stepped into the sunlight and closed the brown door behind himself, he couldn't help feeling that everything was too light now, for want of a better word. Had the grass always been that particular shade of green? He suddenly felt the urge to study that object in the sunlight. He felt slightly dizzy now when he thought about it. Hadn't there been something strange about its colour? What colour had that been again?

About 65 seconds later, Not Billy left the shed again, this time staff in hand, and not at all dizzy. In the sunlight it was clearer than ever: the only thing that was really strange about this staff was that someone had bothered to paint it in the worst shade of octarine imaginable. By comparison, the grass now looked refreshingly normal in the green sunshine. But obviously this was just his imagination.

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Its weight is a bit off. Either it is too light from what you'd expect or too heavy.

Durable / Resistant / Unbreakable The staff simply never blemishes, is unscathed after a hard hit, looks like new, always. Honey or mud would never stick in it.

Has physical properties it shouldn't Think of a piece of wood that acts like a magnet or, to be cliche, if you throw a piece of metal into the flames, it is quite cool when you touch it immediately after retrieving it

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I think the best way to utilize the "subtle" approach would be to have characters inform the actions of the staff by way of verbal comments, RP, or desires.

In some ways (where feasible, it can't be too flashy after all) when a character wielding the staff expresses a verbal interest in something, the staff can start to shift reality toward that end. After a while characters may start to see a cause and effect.

Example: A caster wielding the staff says something like, "If only I'd prepared an extra casting of fireball today instead of conjure bread." You can just retcon the spell slots.

A perhap better example: "Man I'm pretty weak right now I really hope I make this save against poison." They roll you have the staff provide a circumstance bonus (in secret) to their roll.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is where I'd go, a secret addition to their rolls. Obviously if they roll a 1 they can't still hit the target, but maybe a 6 or 7 still hits the target when it shouldn't. $\endgroup$ – Robert Wertz Oct 26 '15 at 21:03
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a set of subtle abilities for the wielder to gradually discover that make them realize there is something unnatural about the weapon.

Some people have already given more specific examples, but the more general way to put it is to slightly adjust your character's sense(s). Even if all they notice at first is "it feels good in my hand, it must be amazingly well balanced", eventually they either catch a change in their own perceptions or the staff goes slightly against their expectations in some way.

They start to catch little things they wouldn't have noticed before. They seem quicker or stronger, or more precise. They somehow hear a whispered conversation that they shouldn't. However, each time it happens the character thinks they are just lucky or "on their game", or they don't even notice until someone else points it out.


a way of establishing the weapon's/device's provenance that would be gradually revealed

Lore-wise, stories of a great hero wielding a fantastic staff could be littered about. But the staff of legend looks all fancy and amazing, and your character's staff is just a plain staff. Stories do tend to be embellished, or you could have some other excuse.

You could also have the staff itself slowly reveal itself to someone who it likes. Maybe it can actually talk and stuff, you know, if it feels like it. Maybe it first talks to the character when they are sleeping, so it is taken as a dream. Or maybe it isn't actually self-aware, but it does still slowly tell the wielder its history or abilities in some way, just as part of its magic - subtly leading them to pieces of its history.

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The wood of the shaft has subtle carving on it. The more you examine the carving the more detail you see in it--upon close inspection the carving is more intricate than one could expect to be made on wood and yet it looks pristine.

Upon enough inspection you realize that the carving shows any special powers the weapon may possess.

Over time you notice that the weapon does not grow dirty as you would expect.

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As far as a cursed magical item is concerned I've always liked curses you can never seem to get rid of. Say, that ever since you picked up the stick you find that people shy away from you a bit... mostly because you smell like rotting flesh to them now... and you realize that no no, it's actually not you it's the stick. So now you toss the stick in a lake to get rid of it, but the next morning, you wake up only to find the stick is still there beside your bedroll. So you burn the stick to get rid of it. You watch it burn and turn to ash, the stick is gone. But the very next day, a friend of yours gives you a stick as a gift because she knows you like sticks, and it happens to be the Exact same stick that you know you burned the night before. No matter what you do, it always comes back, it is always there, up until you find a way to break the curse.

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One power I once saw a sword enchanted with in a story, that originally felt weak compared to the rest, only for me to later realize it's power despite it being subtle. The blessing, like all the ones on the sword, was refereed to by a single word adjective, I think it was something like 'calm'.

The idea is that the weapon helps to calm it's wielder, prevent them from panicking or acting in a frenzy, instead letting them think calmly and make simple, precise, focused movements. It felt weak, until I remembered what real combat is like. Even a professional has a hard time staying calm, and it's hard to keep track of everything going on in a battle to decide where you need to be and how best to help without tunnel visioning. A simple magical assistance, to help you stay calm, focused, and aware of your surroundings in the heat of battle can be a huge boon to anyone, even the most skilled fighter.

If not-billy is not a seasoned veteran this sort of blessing is even more powerful. It will help him focus and fight when in reality most would freeze up, panic, or fun in a fight. It can justify how a non-veteran manages to focus on fighting. Even if he is a veteran he would be able to keep his mind aware of things around him, so he could notice other attackers, better plan out his next attacks while parrying the current, and plot reason about his opponents fighting style and weakness during the heat of combat. From my sparing experience, and even gaming experience, I will tell you that is still a pretty strong force multiplier

This is also offers lots of foreshadowing options for it's power. Say not-billy is a trained fighter but with limited battle experience, or wasn't even all that trained originally, he may be shocked at how calm he is in a fight. Later when he doesn't have the weapon he may find himself less calm, unable to focus and plan etc, which can be a hint to how to staff was helping him. It also lets him be cool in a way. If it just made him an awesome fighter that would be kind of cool, but ultimately he only wins because his staff was super powerful. However, if it helps him stay focused that may allow him to think and plan out all kinds of unique fighting techniques, using the land to his advantage, tricking someone into leaving a flank open, noticing a character has a tell he can use to anticipate an attack and exploit the opening etc. The character couldn't do it without the weapon, but he still has to be smart and intelligent to take advantage of it. The weapon supports him, but he wins with his own skills not just the weapons.

This could suggest a whole class of similar abilities, ones that focus more on enhancing the user in minor ways rather then doing anything flashy. Maybe he is more tolerant to extreme temperatures or hunger with it (to help him survive in the wild better), and has subtlety enhanced senses to help him hear and spot ambushes easier.

Another useful effect would be that it boosts his stamina. Real battles are short because you wear out quickly in any fight. It boosting his stamina would help justifying his doing all the things a hero does in a story and really shouldn't have the energy for.

I would also give it very weak healing power, the sort that doesn't fix a wound immediately, but helps you heal up just a bit faster and, more importantly, recover from injuries that would have done permminate harm with enough time. But the healing is very minor and takes days to really add up, this could be tied in with the stamina easily, the same healing powers are what help you keep going by healing all the small wear and tear on your body that exhausts you.

All of these can be subtle enough that no one would notice them at first. As an added bonus they work with genre expectations. Everyone expects the hero to not freak out in combat, to endure things no one really should, to keep fighting with heroic will power. It's subtle not just to the user but to the audience because it grants all the powers we just presume a hero should have, even though realistically no human does. That makes the reveal that much more interesting because of how well it lampshades our own biases. All you have to do to make the staff powerful is to show reality ensuing for everyone who isn't your character in the story, they can't chase him because they get exhausted to soon, they freak out in a fight and use bad tactics because their afraid etc. You can sort of deconstruct the very expectation of a hero if you really wanted to.

The final 'reveal' can be as simple as finally realizing that no human should be able to do all the things your hero is able to do, combined with his noticing how he is always more afraid and feels less confident without the staff in his hand. Once it's expected it can be tested, for instance by testing his senses when holding and not holding the staff to prove that he can better make out things with it, even if only subtlety.

If you want more ways to help reveal it have him get a sense of 'ease' when he is holding it, originally justified as his feeling more comfortable being armed then unarmed, but later explained as the 'calm' effect taking over.

The staff would likely also be magically protected from breaking or dulling, so he could easily notice that it never gets cut, or burns, or otherwise is damaged when it really should be.

Another way to reveal it is to have the staff be powerful when used for/against magic. Imagine a powerful mage cast spells on his own staff to enhance himself. The staffs blessings were all useful effects the mage needed in his daily life, not directly tied to fighting with the staff since the mage didn't fight by hand as often. However, the staff could have one or two additional magical effects that not-billy wouldn't notice at first but are indisputable when they finally come up.

1) the staff is powerful channeler of magic, which the mage used to, you know, cast spells. Not-billy isn't a mage so this isn't useful, but perhaps others may peruse him for the staff because in the hands of a mage it's even more devastating.

2) The staff is powerful at dispelling or breaking magic rather then casting it. it can protect not-billy from magic attacks made against him, perhaps by channeling the energy to the ground. Until Billy gets in a magical fight he wouldn't even realize the staffs ability to dispel magic or break enhancements, but once that happens there is no doubt of it's power.

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I think the most subtle way would be trough effects on his personality and attention, in ways you wouldn't connect to the object, but the correlation between gaining/losing those traits and gaining/losing that item finally convinces him that it is actually the item that has this effect, and he starts to explore the properties further, learning about its special magical properties.

For example:

The sun was already nearing the horizon, but he still couldn't see the city. He slowly lost the hope that he would reach the city today, so he likely would have to sleep in the free space. He didn't look forward to a night with basically no protection from the wild animals and the not much less wild robbers who made trouble in this area. He tried to motivate himself to go faster, but he simply felt too bad to actually accelerate his steps. So he slowly walked on, with his eyes down to the floor instead of to the horizon. The view of the horizon, with the city not in sight, was too depressing.

As he walked on, he suddenly noticed a staff lying in the mud. It wasn't a particularly pretty staff, but for some reason it caught his interest. Maybe it would be useful to fight animals or robbers, he thought, although the staff didn't actually look as if it would survive more than one strike. Anyway, he picked it up and started to wipe the mud from it.

The concentration on cleaning the staff seemed to have helped his mood. Although he had lost even more time by doing that, his situation to him didn't look as bad any more. After all, this land was full of hills, so the fact that he didn't see the city yet might just mean that it was hidden behind one of the hills. And even if he did not manage to reach it, he now had at least a weapon to defend himself. It might not be the best weapon in the world, but anyway, it should help.

He started to walk again, now faster than before, and with his eyes fixed to the horizon. And suddenly he noticed a dark spot there. Was that the city? He looked closer: The spot was still very small, but he now could clearly see two upwards spikes. That had to be the famous two towers of the city! He obviously was much closer to the city than he had thought. Had he not continuously looked on the floor instead of the horizon, he probably would have made out the city much earlier.

But then, in that case he would not have found the staff. But he wouldn't need the staff anyway, as he now was sure he would reach the city before sunset. But anyway, for some reason he considered himself lucky to have found that staff. It was illogical, but well, feelings were illogical.

Later on he can lose the staff, and his mood gets worse; but again he has a perfect explanation for that change, unrelated to the staff itself. And when he finds it again, his mood again starts to get better, but again this has a perfectly plausible explanation. But over time he starts to draw a connection between his mood and the staff, at first not taking it seriously, but over time he gets convinced that it is really the staff that's responsible for his mood change.

That's the point where he starts asking himself how the staff could affect his mood, and while researching this question, he learns about the magical powers that lie in some items, and how to identify and use those powers.

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I would like to propose two quick ideas:

  1. One of the issues other answers have discussed is the "how do we get NotBilly to hold on to it long enough to notice the subtle clues" problem. I propose to have NotBilly having it be the subtle clue. NotBilly runs across this stupid staff way more than he ought to, really -- first it's in the grip of the orc he kills in a desperate spot. He leaves it with the orc, but some enterprising hawker offers it to him again at the market -- 100% genuine Dwarf-fashioned wood, grown in the finest groves, you know! -- which he turns down as it is obviously too plain to be dwarven work. A friend he bumps into later had been conned by the hawker, and offers it to him. He refuses, then sits on it accidentally when taking a carriage to the city center for the yearly census -- seems somebody had left it behind that day. And a dozen more coincidences slowly cause him to be curious about this stupid recurring theme.

  2. Turn the problem around: make the artifact manifestly magical, but stubbornly useless. It is emitting sparks and a purple glow, and when you get near your hair turns blonde for a second. If you hold it, instructions magically appear -- unfortunately, in the lost tongue of ****. People have been trying to get it to do something actually useful for hundreds of years without success. At this point, it's such a joke that nobody really cares about it any more. But it's indestructible, so it's no surprise for NotBilly to discover it completely intact on the side of the road, where its previous owner finally got fed up with it and threw it on the ground in frustration during a long car trip. And of course, NotBilly never discovers its true power; he only discovers some side effect of its true power that happens to be not 100% useless in 100% of situations. (It puts me in mind of that thought experiment about our nuke-surviving descendants discovering a radio, and figuring out that it electrocutes them when they're in the bath, but never really working out what it's actually good for.)

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The first few ideas that popped into my head:

  1. Only the conscious mind needs magic to be subtle. Whenever Not-Billy leaves the staff leaning against the nightstand next to his bed, he has the most amazing dreams. In these dreams, he is a warrior of superhuman skill, wielding a staff of breathtaking power. His magic is not bound by the shackles of subtlety that limit its possibilities in the waking world. In dreamland, he is free to unleash all manner devastating effects upon his foes. It doesn't take long for him to realize that these dreams are not his alone, and their impact can be very real...

  2. It always turns up. The first few times Not-Billy encountered a staff like this (lying on the ground, leaning against a park bench, sitting in the window of a junk store) he barely noticed it. After a few more encounters, he began to pay more attention and to remember the details. These staves all seemed to have the same gnarls and knots, despite being of apparently natural origin. But what kind of tree could produce such similar looking branches? And why had it become so commonplace to find them lying about? Slowly, the strange truth began to dawn on him-- these were all the same staff! Somehow, wherever Not-Billy happened to be going, the staff always managed to get there first. How did it predict his destination, and how did it relocate itself without drawing the attention of anyone but him? In a world where magic must appear mundane, that level of subterfuge could be a valuable tool indeed...

  3. Animals are often aware of things that are beyond human perception. The power of the staff is one such thing. When Not-Billy sets it on the ground, bugs, lizards, and other creepy-crawlies emerge from their hiding places and scatter. When he brings it home, his dog hides under the bed and refuses to come out. Or maybe animals are attracted to it. Squirrels, songbirds, and other normally shy critters have no fear of Not-Billy when he's carrying it around; they may even perch on his shoulder now and then. And when the time comes, some of their more predatory kin will prove to be very handy in a fight...

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There are a lot of good answers already about figuring out that it is magical, but I am not sure they are really fully addressing the question of finding it.

If you want to be subtle, both for the readers and for NotBilly and his/her companions, then a very plain staff is a good starting point. It can even be visibly plain, but gradually shift over time, or look different in a certain light, but on the surface it should just look like a normal, utilitarian wooden pole that can be used for holding things up or hitting someone, just like any other length of reasonably sturdy wood.

Finding the staff

It should be found at a time when something like that is needed, maybe not precisely a wooden staff; it might just be the best option available at the time. For example, our hero and his intrepid band stumble across a small group of bandits and end up driving them off, but one of their party is injured. The injury is bad enough that they need to make a sledge or stretcher to carry him, this pole that was leaning against a tree is just one of the pieces of wood used for the structure of the sledge, and other thing scavenged from the bandit camp get more attention. Perhaps there is a richly-lined and warm fur cloak or a supple and well-balanced bow and a fine quiver of arrows. After getting to civilization and taking the injured person to get medical attention, the cloak, ropes used in the sledge and this staff simply get packed away with the rest of the gear.

Later, someone (the bandits, wild animals, whatever makes sense) attacks the group at a time when they least expect it, NotBilly is near the gear and unarmed, the sledge-pole is nearby, he uses it to protect himself, and the next day, there he is, using it as a walking staff as they go.

If NotBilly is the type of person who normally wields a sword, it would be unnatural for him to suddenly switch to a staff, even if he likes its balance and it "just feels right" in his hand; as soon as his current use for it is over, he would tend to swap back to the sword. It might be easier to have a non-combatant develop a flair for combat with a staff. On the other hand, having a sword-wielder gradually stop going for his sword and finding that he's reaching for the staff might be a clue that something is going on. At first, perhaps he tells himself he needs the reach on a taller opponent, or perhaps he doesn't have time to drop it and grab for his sword from the sheath, but later he leaves the sword untouched at his belt, and later he finds it is getting in the way and he leaves it in his pack.

Abilities As noted in prior answers, durability, balance, and improved skill when using the weapon are very helpful here. It could also resist NotBilly being disarmed -- he is able to keep a grip even in circumstances where he would be expected to drop it or have it knocked out of his hands. On the other hand, he is surprisingly adept at disarming other opponents.

He might develop an uncanny knack for subduing an opponent without causing major bodily harm, either destroying the weapons of his opponents or knocking them far out of reach, or managing to stun or knock someone unconscious without killing them. Blows that might otherwise be expected to break bones don't, but the opponent still stays down. Consider that a wooden staff is often the classic weapon of peace-loving characters, so perhaps this is a weapon that subdues aggressive instincts and increases protective ones in anyone who is touched by it. Perhaps it needs a flesh contact to work, so wearing gloves causes NotBilly to lose his new skills, and hitting someone where they are armored doesn't spread the pacification as well as knocking them on the ear or a bare ankle.

The staff chooses to be wielded

The staff has a personality that has grown over the decades or centuries since it was made and enchanted. It has an empathic connection with its bonded owner and will influence the user and be influenced by him. When out of the owner's hands, it is a normal staff, and it tries to get back to its owner. When it isn't bonded to anyone, it travels in search of a new person of the right frame of mind. It exerts a subtle influence to various people to pick it up -- either because it thinks they may be the next one, or because it thinks they will take it to a good place to find the next owner -- and they carry it for a little while until it exerts an influence for them to forget about it. Most don't ever notice. They needed a pole or staff at the time, then later they no longer needed it and forget where they left it, if they even think about it at all. And if they can't quite remember why they came to wherever it is that they ended up, it certainly wouldn't have anything to do with a bit of wood.

It may have imprinted memories from its past, or even from past users, and it may share these after the bond has matured, or through dreams.

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There are plenty of good answers, but I really feel that explicitly coming up with details such as humming, weight or warmth are likely to give away to the reader this is item has a special meaning.

Motivation to carry around: As non-Billy just found this by chance there better be a good reason for him to carry it around at least to get started with, maybe he took the staff from somewhere to fight a enemy, got outnumbered and with the staff as the only weapon he just kept it for security. Maybe he could have tossed the staff at an enemy blocking his path and the staff was resilient enough to knock him down you can make it look like a lucky strike but non-Billy could go like "Well I guess this piece of stick works" and keep it in his way out of the trouble.

Make other people recognize the item: He could be granted entry in places with no apparent reason, because guards are educated enough to tell the staff is magic and therefore non-Billy should be a important person. They don't need to mention it. In a world wizards are detectives non-Billy could wander into a crime scene with no one stopping him just to realize he was tress passing and then rush out of it.

He could meet former owners: Owners don't need to have realized the staff was magic, and maybe go like, "Oh I that staff remembers me of my childhood, my grandfather used to have one pretty similar to that, one day he went out to walk and aliens contacted him", seems like just a crazy guy story, probably not relevant. Maybe those conversations can get interrupted by seemingly mundane events. Non-Billy could just get distracted with the mumbo-jumbo the guy he just meet it going through just to find out latter that person actually told him a valuable piece of story that connects with things that happened to him, which so far seemed like sheer luck or lack of.

Unusual utility: It starts to rain as non-Billy goes up a mountain, he grabs the staff and goes wherever he needs to be. When he goes back home he needs the staff again for any reason (kill a spider, grab something in a high place) so he goes to a placeholder where he usually leaves it, but its not there. Oh of course, he took it to the mountains so he must have left it in the backpack, but wait, I don't quite remember taking it from home to start with, I guess I'm getting old. Maybe he falls in battle and the only weapon that drops nearby him is the staff, doesn't look like much all by itself, combat does not needs to be flashy, just to narrowly save his skin

Repetitive behavior: The staff could always be rolling though the house, like if hard to be kept in the vertical when unattended, which would come as an inconvenience to the wilder, it could be attracted to something rather common that would make it seem like is always stumbling around when left by a wall. It could be attributed to one of the ends being slightly heavier than the other, but non-Billy can never tell which side is which before it actually falls down. Once its picked up and put in place again it doesn't starts to roll around so soon again, because, well its magical it behaves like we want it to behave x) leaving the idea that non-Billy got the right side now. Maybe the interruption caused by the sound of the staff falling can be combined with other events in order to help or undermine the character. For instance the staff falls to the ground right beside a door, not Billy goes to pick up the staff and place it now with the heavier side downwards, as he approaches the door someone opens it and hits Billy

All those can be used to establish a base from where the character might start to get suspicious about the staff.

Hope I could help

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I'm going to agree with carvings being on the staff. I suggest runes, or something similar, that appear meaningful, but require massive research or the like to glean any sort of meaning. Any normal looking object with strange writing on it that no one understands is likely going to have some significance, but won't be immediately clear, hence the epic quest to uncover the potential locked within.

This would be similar to the Forgotten Realms stories about Arilyn Moonblade and her sword that she knew was magic, but had no clue what abilities it actually possessed.

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Here's an idea... NotBilly doesn't know the staff is magical. All he knows is that he has been improving in his fighting skills and has gotten quite good over the past year...

Then he gets into a battle and has to use some other staff and does very poorly. Maybe then he will realize the staff is magical, or maybe he won't but the reader will. :-)

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If humans can also be magic in this world, you could bring it to an appraisal specialist with a magic detecting ability or something similar.

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The weapon has a word carved into it, maybe crudely. This word is actually the weapons name, but it is a short ambiguous word and not obviously a name, like 'north', 'knock' or 'river'.

In use it handles lightly but is surprisingly effective, although this may be an effect of the hard metal ends.

It can tell the difference between a friend and an enemy. An blow to an ally, accidental or otherwise, will be felt but will not be as wounding as to an enemy. It will take a long time to realise this. If it is taken and used against its rightful owner, the blow may not even land - something else like bad luck will befall whoever has taken it.

The weapon begins to assume an identity, and to be associated with the word carved roughly on it, with it often being referred to by that name, because it seems natural to do so.

A person begins appearing in dreams, at first nameless, over time it becomes clear that the person is either closely associated with the weapon, or maybe a dream manifestation of the weapon itself.

At this point there is scope for dreams to start explaining the true history and nature of the weapon, and the full extent of its powers.

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It's probably not all that realistic to do, but I was immediately thinking of swapping him an unfair die, one that is missing several low numbers and has duplicate high numbers instead, but distributed in a manner where you cannot see more than one of the duplicates from any given angle.

But maybe there are some other means of messing with the overall game mechanics when the item is in play?

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! I'm not quite sure what this is supposed to relate to. The connection between a rigged die and a weapon isn't clear to me. Could you expand on this a little? Thanks. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 31 '15 at 16:52
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Some thoughts ...

You might introduce it as being different during a quiet scene where Billy is polishing it. He starts paying attention to the subtle patterns of the grain. The grain patterns begin to ... waver ... as if seen through heated air. He blinks and the pattern is back to normal. "Crom, I need to get more sleep." But over time he starts using the staff as an aid to concentration or meditation.

Later he feels oddly reluctant to part with it -- say when entering a common house which checks weapons.

Still later he can use it for something that should have broken it... Say he blocks a massive overhand axe-blow with it. The impact drives him to one knee, but he notices later -- again, with the polishing -- that it is not scratched.

His friends notice that he "grooms" his weapon a lot. Depending on the tone you want to take it can be jovial ("Oh for Mitra's sake, Billy's got wood again") or concerned. "Billy ... are you alright? You keep staring at your staff...". This could lead to a discussion of how patterns (woodgrain, fabric weaves, etc) can be cursed and draw people in. Billy is a little defensive, and realizes it. Now he wants to know the provenance of his weapon.

If this is a named artifact, work in the name somewhere. "Ha. Billy, remember when we were lads and we'd play knights? You always wanted to play Rynn and his staff Lament. You'd wave it about and dozens of ogres would 'fall to their knees, repenting of their deeds'." Basically, you need to build the backstory for Rynn's Lament, just like for a character.

Und so weiter...

$\endgroup$

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