How To Create Great Magic Items In Just Three Minutes

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0531

A Brief Word From Johnn

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GMing Two Weeks In A Row

I’m running Riddleport in back-to-back weeks. I have not GM’d two weeks in a row in years, so I’m very excited!

Last session the players learned more about the secret machinations happening in the pirate city. Things that happened many sessions ago now make a bit of sense. Plus, some open loops were tied together.

On Friday, the PCs are headed into the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth to find a legend. The dungeon crawl will be a great change-up from all the urban adventuring we’ve been doing lately.

I’ll let you know how it goes, plus catch you up on all the recent revelations, soon.

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How To Create Great Magic Items In Just Three Minutes

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 player’s creative options during gameplay
  • Gives game master’s 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.


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.


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:

  • Passive
  • Active
  • Surprise

+ Passive Benefits These 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 These 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 These come in two flavors:

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.


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.


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:


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 center, 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.


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 and use it to enter the contest:

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

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

  • Awesome Name
  • Appearance
  • Benefit
  • Drawback
  • Lore
  • Twist

When done, email it to me to enter the contest!

Magic Items Contest Announcement

It’s time for another reader contest!

Gator Games is sponsoring the contest and you can win some great books from them.

= How to Enter =

Follow the 3 Minute Magic Item template described below to create a magic item.

Email me your magic item creation: [email protected]

Multiple entries are welcome!

Format: plain text, Word, RTF or just in the body of your email are all ok.

= Prizes Up for Grabs =

Care of Gator Games (available to North Americans only due to shipping restrictions):

  • Wraith Recon Core Rulebook for use with D&D 4th Edition
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 for D&D 4th Edition
  • Monster Manual 2 for D&D 4th Edition
  • The Adamantine Arrow for Mage the Awakening
  • Player’s Guide for Aces and Eights
  • Fantasy Craft Core Rulebook from Crafty Games Gator Games.

And these prizes are available to anyone in the world:

PDFs from Open Design and Kobold Quarterly.

Copies of AstroSynthesis 3.0 from NBOS.

= How to Win =

There will be three sets of prize draws:

Nov 7, Nov 21 and Dec 5

All entries submitted before each date will be eligible for each draw. So enter early and often.

If you’re creating magical rewards for your campaign, why not enter them into the contest at the same time?

Note that winners are drawn at random, so don’t worry about the quality of your writing – I’ll help edit.

As always, entries will be given back to the community after the contest, so you’ll be helping your fellow GMs too.

If you have any questions, drop me a note.

To summarize, here’s the stat block template to use for your entries:

  • Awesome Name
  • Appearance
  • Benefit
  • Drawback
  • Lore
  • Twist

Read on to learn more about what each stat block item is about.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

(Not) Explaining Missing Characters – A Contrarian View

From Eric G.

I missed the original question asking how to explain missing characters. But I’ve come up with a solution that my party’s been willing to accept, because it keeps the adventure moving. I call it soap opera style.

In a nutshell: I don’t explain the missing characters, and the continuity just assumes they were there.

This works in part because I’m playing 4th edition D&D and it’s easy to scale encounters down as needed. It helps immensely when people run late or can’t make a session.

When a player does show up late, the party plays it off as though the missing player was always there, and the character was just using the restroom or doing something that kept them from participating immediately (the players themselves tend to come up with humorous explanations for what the missing player was doing).

The player gets brought up to speed (in character) and the game keeps going around them.

To me, the constant GM machinations to take the player out of the story break the fourth wall more than just playing on and assuming nothing’s changed.

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Free Book: Magical World Builder

From Tim Baer

Been enjoying your roleplaying tips for a few months now. You asked if anyone found anything book wise that might help with GMing to drop you a line.

I don’t know if you have ever seen this one before, but Magical World Builder is online, free and in PDF form (and a couple other e-reader formats).

The book is geared towards writing about a new world and building the world for your novel, but I have found that tips and tricks from gaming work for gaming, and vice versa.

It also has a 30-day series of World Building exercises in the back. It takes 15 minutes per day for 30 days to work up the world. It’s a good place to start building a world if one has never tried it before.

Thanks again for your tips!

Kill ’em all, let Tiamat sort ’em out!

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Party Cohesion

From Jeremy

I was thinking about your Riddleport campaign issues: six players, six sets of personal goals, alliances and contacts, and no real cohesion as a gang.

I see a couple of really easy ways out of this, some of which you’ve already set up:

1. Perhaps the players have crossed a line. It’s ok to murder, steal, kill, smuggle, bump off, etc., but you don’t touch the “real” crime lords of the city.

This might result in some NPCs severing connection with the PCs, it might result in some allies turning, it might result in some allies warning the PCs then stepping back to see what happens.

This throws the PCs together and forces them to work together.

2. Perhaps, a number of the crime lords form an alliance to eliminate a threat to the city’s well-being.

This would have to be several crime lords the PCs interact with and are beholden to in one way or another. Allied with potential competition and former enemies, the players will pull together to try and accomplish their goals without messing up.

3. Have the new dragon spawn leader hire assassins, bounty hunters or rogue wizards to off the PCs. Nothing spells party cohesion like a threat to life and limb.

4. Have multiple crime lords want complimentary goals.

The PCs can destroy the spawn’s home base, but before they do that they must destroy smuggling to the base and cut its supply lines which help a second crime lord.

They must find the informers who give the smugglers their clues, who happen to be on the crap list of a third crime lord, etc.

By linking these, the crime lords aren’t necessarily in alliance but still work together.

5. There’s always good old deus ex machina.

There’s a huge threat to the city as a whole. The paladin has a vision in which it becomes obvious that, if the party does not work together, they will be destroyed.

6. The party has crossed the line mentioned earlier, and instead of just destruction, they are warned to flee Riddleport.

They do so, but are given a chance to kidnap, cajole, beguile or outright lie and get a small army from a neighboring region.

 Returning to the city as conquerors is a most satisfying end to the campaign, perhaps.

I had a similar problem in one campaign I ran. I had three characters.

One wanted to become a hero and a big name guy in the political realm of the campaign.

A second was working on elven rights within the nearby human kingdom, trying to help against prejudicial laws.

The third was a dirty-minded gnome who wanted, amongst other things, lots of money and a nice castle, and no more adventuring.

The first two characters were no trick to manage, but that gnome was more trouble than he was worth. I finally had to sit down, have a long heart-to-heart with the player, and introduce a prophecy that implicated the players as having accomplished the first few deeds that were needed to give evil its ultimate victory.

This put the oh-no factor into the game and forced them to work together to finish the campaign. It was heavy-handed, but it was the only way that worked with this game.

Since your players have diagnosed the problem themselves, giving them in-game reasons like above will automatically throw them together.

Another easy way to have party cohesion and eliminate some of the problem would be have the dragon spawn killing off crime lords and their minions.

They go to talk to Harvey at the pawn shop only to find Harvey dead. Not only is Harvey dead, but Harry his fence is dead. Not only is Harry the fence dead, but Harold the crime boss has been offed.

I hope this helps. I’m sure you already thought of all of this on your own, but it never hurts to have it all spelled out by an objective third party. Wow ’em with GM brilliance or baffle them with random encounters.

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Haunted House As NPC

From Jerry Saner

I was a bit late in reading the tips request for a “living” haunted house.

My group finally finished up with the second arc in Oone Games’ “The Road to Revolution” – “The Bloody Fix”.

The main protagonist in this arc is just that – a living house or, as it was called in the The Bloody Fix, a dread manse.

The maturation of the manse is fully laid out with powers and personality traits from child to adult. It was an effective and worthy opponent. My players never killed it, and with the research they should have done before they started fighting, they found out they only put it back into a state of repose.

“The Bloody Fix” is available through RPGNow and DrivethruRPG or the Oone Games site. You don’t have to buy all the arcs, and once you have read how it works, it becomes a fun and challenging NPC for any urban or rural setting.

[Roleplaying Tips affiliate link: The Road to Revolution: The Bloody Fix

Road to Revolution: The Complete Campaign Bundle ]

Site: Oone Games