How To Create Great Magic Items In Just Three Minutes

Image of CameoDesign awesome magical rewards during commercial breaks

Busy GMs need help prepping for games faster. And you can create fantastic magic items in just three minutes using my stat block.

Magic treasure is critical in most fantasy games because it does so much:

  • Creates campaign balance, especially if combats are often difficult
  • Adds to campaign mood, atmosphere and wonderment
  • Beefs up weak characters in parties where more knowledgeable gamers build more effective PCs
  • Gives players creative options during gameplay
  • Gives game masters fun design opportunities
  • Fun! Who doesn’t love a magical reward?

It’s easy to create a +1 dagger, but that’s boring, as we’ve chatted about in Roleplaying Tips before. You want your treasure to entertain, feel like a reward and add depth to your campaign.

With my fast design system, you turn magical rewards into plot hooks, world development tools and campaign enhancements all at the same time. Oh yeah, and your players will love them, too.

My stat block has just six elements, all focused on making gameplay more interesting. I think that’s the key to anything you design – make gameplay more fun, then worry about world building and plotting.

There are other things you can add to this stat block, such as cost to construct, creation process, market value, and so on. You can also take a deep dive into any element of the stat block, such as lore, and write up pages worth of information.

But I wanted a tool that let me generate a great reward, whether it’s in a pile of treasure or being worn by an NPC, in just three minutes. In a half hour you can have an adventure’s worth of key magic items designed!

Let’s dive in.

The Stat Block

Use this stat block to create three minute magic items. The numbers represent the time you should give to each part of the block to meet our three minute goal.

  • Awesome Name – 30 seconds
  • Appearance – 30 seconds
  • Benefit – 30 seconds
  • Drawback – 30 seconds
  • Lore – 60 seconds
  • Twist  – 0 seconds (yup 0 – not a typo!)

Awesome Name

The item’s name is its hook. The test of a great name is players’ ears perk up when they hear it. If you get your group’s attention just with the name of something, you’ve done a fantastic job.

You want to then drop the item name into conversation, histories, clues and everywhere else you can think of in your campaign. Tease your players first. Then supply the way to acquire the now must-have object of character lust.

I give 30 seconds to this because you should try out several different names. Then pick the best. Usually our first name idea is not the best, and a little brainstorming helps generate a better result.

Appearance

What does the item look like? A one-liner here should be enough to work from when introducing the item during a session.

Turn this into a 5 second task by using an image and just showing it to your players.

Tip: create one interesting visual feature or quirk. Bonus points if it ties into a PC’s personality or theme. This helps firmly hook the item in your players’ minds. An item with distinct appearance gives the owning player fodder for roleplaying, identification and value.

For example, a +1 dagger that looks like a finely crafted dagger is pretty boring. When in use, the player is not likely to play it up or celebrate the item in any way. However, make the dagger look like an exotic creature’s fang, and you’ll get a little more excitement for it.

Benefit

What does the item do for a character? A great benefit offers choice. If an item enters player conversation (and better yet, NPC and PC conversation) a few times each session, you’ve done a great job.

I split benefits into three types:

  1. Passive
  2. Active
  3. Surprise

Passive benefits tend to be always on. A +1 attack, for example.

I do not like these much, though I currently do hand out a lot of this kind. Passive items add little to gameplay. They are not interactive. They offer no choices or tactical considerations. They offer no roleplaying opportunities.

Active benefits offer specific effects for a limited time. With these you can create any kind of cool and interactive operation, effect or event. Pick just about any spell effect, for example, and make that the reusable benefit of a magic item.

Aim for active benefits with your item designs. Feel free to add in passive benefits as well, because the PCs will need parity with challenges they face. But focus on creating active benefits PCs will swoon over.

Surprise benefits come in two flavours.

Emergent benefits come from clever players figuring out great uses and synergies between the item and other game elements.

Hidden benefits foil typical detection and identification means so you can surprise and delight players at some future point.

I like adding hidden benefits, especially to the most beloved items. Because the benefits are secret, you can add these after the fact, once you know an item isn’t going to be sold or stuffed in a sack.

Picking just the best or most interesting items for this treatment is like putting chocolate sauce and sprinkles on ice cream. Your players will be ecstatic.

Drawback

This is perhaps the trickiest element of the stat block because it requires the most thoughtful design.

A drawback creates gameplay at its finest where players must pay a small price to receive the benefits of the item.

This is not meant to be a penalty. Nor is it meant to negate the benefit. It’s meant to add more fun by weaving more texture into your games.

The design skill comes in where you want a drawback that actually creates fun, or at least more interest or depth, so the PC opts not to toss the item and actually wants to use it despite the drawback.

A great example is the artefacts system in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. (If you own the book, crack open those tables for drawback inspiration. By the way, did you know the book placed #1 recently on Wired’s 9 Essential Geek Books You Must Read Right Now?)

Examples of the types of drawbacks to consider:

  • Minor curses
  • Trade-offs (one thing improves, one thing worsens)
  • Costs
  • Random effects
  • Chance of occasional interesting failure

I suggest creating a swipe file, as they call it, of drawback ideas you find while reading RPG stuff in books and online.

Lore

You can mine a rich background throughout an entire campaign. The trap we fall into is lengthy histories. If you’re like me, by the time we’re done one history for one thing it’s game day already.

So get into the habit of point form histories that cover just the highlights. Do this for enough game elements and you build an awesome scaffold for your game.

A great history focuses on just one thing: notable events relevant to your campaign.

Break that down further, and we see an event only needs a time, place, location and NPCs.

For our magic item design, then, we just need three or so one-liners, one event per line, that follows a Mad Libs style formula like this:

On [DATE] an [NPC] [TOOK THIS ACTION WITH THE ITEM] that caused [THESE CONSEQUENCES].

There are other approaches, and I’ll cover at least one in an upcoming newsletter. But, the gist is to keep it short and simple, and to proliferate your histories with people, places and things, because that’s what your adventures are all about.

Put another way, when you create adventure backgrounds, NPC backgrounds, plot hooks and encounters, you want to tie things together to make your campaign feel integrated and immersive. To do this easily, you want your notes to be clear and simple. Pages of history result in tons of great information getting buried. One-liners present the most important information front and centre, available for instant use.

For your item’s history, create three one line entries that involve at least one NPC, a place and a situation.

Twist

You want to break the pattern of “just another +1 dagger” that saps wonderment out of your sessions. A twist offers one of the best ways to do this. The unexpected always creates interest and excitement, and sometimes a little drama.

Best case scenario, which only comes with practice at creating magic items in this fashion, is you create a neat twist in one of the other stat block elements. Then this step takes no extra time!

For example, an interesting drawback creates a natural twist. So does a secret in the form of a juicy Lore entry. A surprise benefit makes a neat twist sometimes, too.

On occasion, you can make a twist out of the item’s appearance, such as when form does not follow function. For example, a magic dagger that does d4 damage and d12 healing when it hits. Attacking to heal is a fun twist, and on the rare occasion when damage exceeds healing but only by a minor amount, you’ll get laughs and groans at the table.

Practice Required

You will not likely make your first item using this system in the time it takes to boil an egg. It requires a bit of practice. You might need to create 10 items or 25 or more before you get fast at it. The great news is practicing is fun.

What could be better than whipping out an index card when you’ve got three minutes to spare and creating a magic item for your campaign? Repeat as often as possible until you get fast.

It’s not like designing a game world. Those take a long time to work through the entire process. Weeks, months or even years.

But with our magic item stat block, you can cycle through the entire creation process from start to finish in minutes. That means you can repeat often, and therefore become great at it fast.

Cheat Like I Do

Use all the tools and resources at your disposal to help you out. Following my template ensures you will generate something interesting. That gets taken care of all by itself. You just need to put in the time and effort.

First thing you might do if stuck is grab a magic item book off your shelf. Or an adventure. Steal parts liberally. Mix and match.

Websites are another great source of ideas.

Second, use generators. Suck at names? Google some name gens and hit F5 to get that design part taken care of for you.

Here are a few generators you might find useful:

Write In Point Form

Your campaign is not a writing contest. As a rule for all your game notes, be as brief as possible with your notes without losing the fidelity of your thoughts.

Point form stat blocks are perfectly acceptable. Add in the extra words during gameplay.

Now You Try It

Here is the stat block again. Got three minutes to spare? Give it a shot:

  • Awesome Name – 30 seconds
  • Appearance – 30 seconds
  • Benefit – 30 seconds
  • Drawback – 30 seconds
  • Lore – 60 seconds
  • Twist  – 0 seconds (yup 0 – not a typo!)
  • http://www.redturtlegames.com/eraven virbots

    Great ideas. Use some of them already – like the picture of a piece of jewelry I downloaded from an online store to show my players, an awesome name, and a rich history. Now if I could only nail down what the thing does! :)

  • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

    Hey, that’s a great idea to use online stores for pics. thanks virbots.

  • http://skylandgames.wordpress.com Thorynn

    Excellent work! Thats a really succinct framework from which many awesome and memorable items could be generated. ::Bookmark::

    • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

      If you try it out, be sure to enter the contest:

      Magic Items contest

  • http://trollandflame.blogspot.com/ Norman Harman
    • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

      Thanks Norman.

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  • Noumenon

    It seems like something I would normally mull over for half an hour, so I got out a stopwatch and tried it. In 6:48 I came up with this…

    The Swinging Bolos of Merendar (awesome name)

    Faceted bolos that reflect light in all directions as they wrap around a target (appearance)

    When the bolos entwine a beholder (ancient enemy of Merendar), they cause its eyes to wrap in around each other and unleash a rod of wonder effect. (Surprise benefit)

    On a natural 1, you get entangled. (drawback)

    On [DATE] a Drow princess hanged herself with this item that caused an entire realm of Merendarian dwarves to be castrated. (lore)

    When it wraps around drow, it dazzles them. (twist)

    I didn’t really like the first twist I came up with — my subconscious took a “truck nuts” angle — so I had to come up with a different one. I really like the sparkling bolos that dazzle people, though. I think if I used this idea I would regularly throw out three or four of the categories and spend time developing the rest. A magic item with a cool name AND a cool appearance AND a cool benefit AND a cool twist just has too much going on for one item.

    • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

      Great feedback, Noumenon!

      I am not sure I agree that there is too much stuff going in on one item. I would want player input before trimming the template. Though, I could see fatigue setting in if every magic item offered the full design array.

      • Noumenon

        I didn’t want to trim the template, I wanted to trim the end result of the brainstorming process. In case my awesome name didn’t fit the twist I came up with later, or in case I had four plot hooks in one item at once. But that’s how a magic item starts taking more like fifteen minutes, I guess.

        I’ve only played 3.5 and their magic items tend toward the “this only does one thing, either it duplicates a spell or it’s an extremely boring thing like spell resistance and it doesn’t even do it very well.” I bet my bolos would cost like 20,000 gp if I didn’t de-cool them somehow.

        • http://www.roleplayingtips.com Johnn

          Yeah, it would definitely generate pricey items in PFRPG and other editions of D&D too.

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