I'd been meaning to take a closer look at the 1e DMG's section on artifacts after noticing during my previous skim that there were a bunch of blank lines that looked like they were meant to be filled in by the DM. I finally got around to it today and what I found was even wilder than I expected.
Surprise #1: you can roll artifacts on the random treasure tables. A 17 on the d100 on table III.E.1, Minor Miscellaneous Magic Items, is "Artifact or Relic (see Special table hereafter)". And then you roll a d% on table III.E.Special and an 01 is the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords and a 100 is the Wand of Orcus and everything in between is on that same level. Since rolling on the main magic item table has a 3% chance of going to table III.E.1, any magic item roll has an 0.03% chance of yielding an artifact - about 3 in 10,000.
That doesn't seem like a crazy-high probability, and it's pretty awesome that you can roll them randomly at all.
There is a note that if you the DM don't want an artifact in your campaign you can instead replace it with a Bag of Beans, an actual minor magic item. Which I'm sure many DMs did, but I imagine that letting the dice even suggest an artifact at random would probably increase how often we see them in play. I also like this bit (emphasis mine):
Regardless of how any of these items come into your campaign, only 1 of each may exist. As each is placed by you or found by player characters, you must draw a line through its listing on the table to indicate it can no longer be discovered randomly— if the dice indicate an item no longer available, you may substitute a clue as to its whereabouts or simply ignore the result so that no magic item is found at all.
And in a big 1:1 timescale campaign game with patrons, "where it might be found" might well be with some other player's character. The Teeth of Dahlver-Nar also seem much less insane when considered in a large-campaign context. This is a set of 32 artifact-tier teeth and the more of them you collect the stronger the effects get. Hunting down 32 teeth individually as a single cohesive party would be a huge slog, but if you have multiple adventuring parties operating in parallel across timespans of years, accumulating a significant number of these seems much more plausible. This is probably true of the other "set" artifacts like the Regalia of Might and the Rod of Seven Parts as well.
Anyway, what's up with these blank lines with roman numerals in each item's description?
Because of the unique nature of each artifact and relic, their powers are only partially described. You, the Dungeon Master, must at least decide what the major powers of each item are to be. This prevents players from gaining any knowledge of these items, even if they happen to own or read a copy of this volume, and it also makes each artifact and relic distinct from campaign to campaign.
(Again, emphasis mine) This too is awesome. And then there are long lists of candidate entries for each roman-numeral type. I and II are minor and major benevolent powers, III and IV are minor and major malign powers, V are prime powers, and VI are Side Effects. The balance here seems a little uneven; some of the minor benevolent powers seems competitive with some of the major benevolent powers, and the Side Effects are a very mixed bag, with some rather brutal curses and some pretty neutral or maybe even useful effects if clever. The prime powers are ridiculous.
Other possibilities include the ability to cast resurrection 7 times per week, meteor storm once per day, finger of death with no save once per day, wish once per day. We're not in Kansas anymore.
The counterbalance to these are the Major Malign Powers, which trigger when a prime or major benign power are used. These are also excellent. "User is instantly killed but may be raised or resurrected", for example. Many of these feel unreasonably punitive for some of the major benign powers (ex Speak With Monster 2/day), but for keeping Prime Powers in check, yeah, these seem appropriate.
Another interesting thing here is that these lists aren't rollable tables; they're labeled with letters (and then doubling up, X, Y, Z, AA, BB, CC, ...). This has to be intentional. Gygax doesn't want you rolling randomly a "wish 1/day" item. Gygax also doesn't want you to roll an Axe of the Dwarvish Lords that kills you every time you use it to cast Speak with Monsters. Gygax wants you to stop and think about these superweapons you're considering handing out. Apparently this is where the line gets drawn for random generation.
The section on destroying artifacts is also pretty good. Some of them involve killing gods or demon lords. And since gods and demon lords have stats in the 1e Monster Manual and are on the random encounter tables, this could actually happen in play.
The term "artifacts and relics" is also interesting. Relics in real life are "the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint". "Relic" is a much tighter noun than "artifact", and captures the nature of a lot of the artifacts well (for certain values of "saint"). It's kind of a bummer that "artifact" caught on as the term here.
I think the relationship with sentient swords here is also significant. These are sentient swords turned up well past 11. Sentient swords zap you for damage if you're the wrong alignment; some of these relics will save-or-die you if you're the wrong alignment (or just low-level). Some of them have ego and intelligence scores and will have personality conflicts with you just like sentient swords. But they seem like they might have the same job as sentient swords, of giving non-spellcasters access to limited spellcasting capabilities, of helping balance high-level fighters with high-level MUs, but at the very high end. The big difference is that sentient swords are lower power and balanced primarily by Ego to keep high-power swords out of the hands of low-level characters, while artifacts are all high-power so that Ego balancing mechanism falls by the wayside and is instead replaced with permanent costs/risks to the characters using them. Which is also why you can get away with single characters using multiple artifacts when they could only use one sentient sword at a time - multiple artifacts give you more options, but you still have to pay the Major Malignant price each time you use one.
I'm now rather curious to go see if OD&D had artifacts. I don't recall them from the LBBs or Greyhawk. It sounds like they were in Eldritch Wizardry but their effects may have been underspecified. I'll have to give it a look I suppose.
In conclusion: lots of good stuff to steal here.