Making Magic Items Interesting – Part 2

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0321

A Brief Word From Johnn

Monster Manual IV Controversy

Monster Manual IV was recently unleashed on gamers (see the ad I’ve placed for it below). It has stirred up a bit of controversy. For many dungeon masters, it’s a love-it or hate-it product.

On the one hand, it’s a different kind of book than the three previous monster manuals. It’s less of a catalogue and more of a GMing tool. Each monster entry comes with an expanded stat block; a Lore section useable for skill checks or just general design; an example, pre-generated encounter; an example treasure hoard; an ecology section; and a tie-in section for Forgotten Realms and Eberron DMs. Some critters also get a lair map.

On the other hand, it contains fewer monsters and has less of the pure catalogue functionality. Also, if you run the sample encounter and dole out the pre-gen loot, you’ve used up that section of the book until you DM a new group (though you can design variants). Another beef some have is that instead of 100% new monsters, a portion of the book contains classed and levelled versions of existing monsters – a time saver for some DMs and a waste of space for others.

I wasn’t going to purchase MMIV, but then I read gamer posts at ENWorld that described the new DMing tools, and I couldn’t resist. I’m looking at it now and can appreciate how the monsters are more complete and possibly easier to DM well thanks to the entry layout and design.

I’ll know soon as I’ll be using it next session, once with a planned encounter, and once on-the-fly out of the book to test how the design works in both situations.

If you have used MMIV in your game, I’d like to hear your thoughts on how it went, and whether you think the design helped you DM better or if Monster Manual V should return to the catalogue approach.

On Vacation

Heads-up, there will be no issues in the first couple weeks of August.

Yahoo! Woes

It used to be Hotmail subscribers would experience frequent missing Tips issues. Nowadays, Hotmail and GMail are reliably delivering this e-zine to subscribers, but Yahoo! delivery is sporadic.

I’ve chatted with my list host ( about this, and they’re checking it out to see if there’s anything they can tweak. I’m surfing around for Yahoo! Delivery information and advice, as well.

In the meantime, if you use Yahoo! and suffer from missed issues, I can offer you a GMail account that you can switch to or set up forwarding on, you can use my RSS feeds, or you can wait a week after e-zine delivery to catch it online.

Hopefully a Yahoo! delivery solution presents itself in the future.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Making Magic Items Interesting – Part 2

Add Interesting Descriptions

From Dave Schaefer

You can add flavor through description. Handing out a boring, old, shield +1? Make it a tortoise shell with leather straps. Describe the shell as dark brown with orange highlights along the ridges, notched from many blows, but still solid. Voila! Interesting item.

Try adding unusual qualities to an item. Perhaps a magic sword produces a low-pitched humming sound whenever it is in the hands of a wielder. A bow could cause its ammunition to screech like a bird of prey when fired.

These changes don’t require any in-game effect – the item still functions as intended, and it just looks or behaves a bit different.

Ideas for descriptions or special qualities:

  • Unusual material (silver, adamantine, francium)
  • Engraved (with runes,magical or non)
  • Crafted with fine gems, inlay, or attention to detail
  • Crafted poorly
  • Depicts a famous person, place, or event
  • Hints about its magical properties (flaming sword has hilt of dragon breathing fire, harp that puts enemies to sleep has a dreamcloud)
  • Produces noticeable effect when used (noise, light, smell, silence, etc)
  • Produces notable effect when near a creature or place (glowing sword, Sting, from Lord of the Rings)
  • Is hot or cold to the touch
  • Is on fire, drips acid, causes snow to fall in the nearby area, is constantly wet
  • Keeps itself magically clean or dirty

New Physical Forms

Another way to add flavor to an item is to change its physical form. For instance, a magic wand that can fill an area with could instead become a medallion depicting the campaign’s sun god. The item still functions as a wand, but is worn around the neck instead of being held in the hand.

This approach also helps cut down on players using out of character knowledge or meta-gaming to determine what items they have received. If you keep handing out sticks with buttons on them and rods with blue tips, experienced players will guess these are magic wands. Instead, give them something out of the ordinary. If a covey of hags infiltrated and destroyed an elven kingdom long ago, perhaps they use the desiccated fingers or hands of elves to cast their magic. Suddenly, the elven PC might not be that willing to use the hag’s items after all.

This approach works well for one time use or charged items, such as potions, scrolls, or wands that are used and then discarded. Perhaps the evil wizard’s spells are not written in on parchment, but scrawled on the skin of his tortured victims. A nature-loving NPC who spends time tilling their garden might not have glass vials full of potions, but might instead grow magic beans that bestow their properties on whoever eats them.

Strange Items

Try throwing something wacky at your players from time to time. Perhaps they find a magical chair that bestows powers upon whoever sits in it. It might have a dial on the back to protect the user from a selection of fire magic, ice magic, or being paralyzed. It might allow the seated person to hear the thoughts of everyone around him. The party now has an interesting item that also takes some effort to move around, which can lead to fun gameplay.

Items For Organizations

Give distinctive items to your game world’s organizations, cults, or religions. A snake cult might craft magic, serpentine rings for important priests that allows them to communicate with reptiles and transform themselves into giant snakes. Not only does this allow players to recognize snake cult members, but it can provide excellent story hooks. Perhaps the PCs find a ring on a body and need to infiltrate the cult, so they decide to use it or to craft similar looking rings of their own.

Alternatively, the PCs might find an item that has the words”Stolen from Puk” engraved on it. They might wish to keep the item, but discover it has beneficial and harmful properties. They might wish to sell the item, but find that no merchant wants to buy it for fear of invoking Puk’s ill favor. To make matters worse, the engraving on the item cannot be removed, and the PCs find it back in their possession each time they try to get rid of it! Perhaps they need to track down a knowledgeable sage who can help them get rid of the item, or a follower of Puk appears and will take the item off the party’s hands in exchange for service.

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Add Cultural Connections

From Karo Laakso

My ideas are mostly for D&D’s 3rd edition, but they can also be used in other systems. The main idea is to get the item fit to your campaign world. All of the following factors have a major impact to the quality and characteristics of the item.

  • Which race/culture made it? This is one of the most important things to consider. The race/culture of the creator largely defines the items made (or that they are even able to construct and enchant).
  • In which time period of the campaign world was it made? Political, magical, material, and technological situations and resources could vary between time periods.
  • Was it made by a priest or a wizard? Items made by priests are more likely to be related to the deity in some way, and wizard-made items are often made to benefit the wizard in some way.
  • Was it made by a single person or many? Powerful items may have required the efforts of a dozen casters. The item might only function in its full power if enough members (of same faith, for example) are present. Also, the ownership of the item might be a tricky question.
  • Did the creator or purchaser have connections to organizations, cults, rulers, gods, or nobles? This might raise questions of ownership. The item also might have been a gift.

Factor In Former Users

Who the former users were says something about the item, maybe even gives hints to how/by whom/in what conditions the item is usable. (A dagger of some human sacrificing cult, whose greater powers work only during sacrificial hours.). A bard in the group knows of the cult and therefore the party can reason that the items greater powers work only during full moon.

Mentioning the former user(s) gives the item background and believability. Consider also that the former users may have given the item a reputation, and it may not correspond with the original idea for the item. It may have been renamed, even though the original name might be visible in the in engravings. For example, a great sword was used by the elven king against humans during a war between the two races. Later on, when the humans and elves united against the orcs, the item was renamed by new elven king who used it to slay an orc general. The item gained a legendary reputation as a symbol of the human/elven triumph over the orcs, and was later on given as a gift to the humans as a sign of brotherhood between the two races.

Create Signatures

The creator(s) of the item may engrave their signature on the item, by mundane or magical means. Alternatively, the item might only be seen by spells.

The signature itself could contain:

  • The name of the creator
  • The time period in which it was crafted
  • The name for whom it was made (“Gift for King Gregar the Third from the elves of Thaylade Forest”)
  • House, clan, or guild signature
  • Wizard’s mark or sign

Use signatures to create plot hooks. Imagine a special mage- guild staff that has found its way into the hands of an apprentice wizard from a different nation. Later on in the campaign, the mage-guild finds out that a young, foreign wizard has their staff and want it back. How did the guild lose the staff in the first place? How did it wind up in the young mage’s hands? Will the wizard hand over the staff or not?

Set Special Conditions

The item must be used in special conditions fir it to function, or for certain of its special abilities to function.

Example conditions:

  • Daytime (dusk, noon, night)
  • Weather (raining, stormy weather)
  • Time (thrice per week, every other day, on a specific day of the week/month/year)
  • After tasting the blood of an enemy, which would possibly have to be of a distinct race, culture, class
  • Specific location (in ancient elven woodlands, mountains, at sea, a certain desert)
  • In specific time period (before/after/during “The Time of the Dragons”)
  • In the holy areas of specific god(s)/deities/religion(s)
  • Bracers are activated by striking them together two times with chiming sound emitting
  • Has to be used by specific race, faith, culture.
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Let Magic Permeate Life

From Craig Fraser

When I think of my gaming world, I try to imagine not only the ways magic is used to compliment combat, but also how it would permeate day-to-day life. Often, the best magical items in my campaign are things that seem mundane, but have been altered magically to create player role playing opportunities.

For example, I created a rare spell component. It was requested by an NPC to aid in casting a powerful spell that would forward the plot and answer some questions for the PCs. The NPC asked the players to venture into the nearby mountains and obtain a special root. He explained that it was difficult to see, but left anything else to be discovered by the party.

Not only did that create speculation and wonder on their part, but also left me with the ability to flow with whatever the players decided to do.

I created the root so it would only be seen during the deepest of night and would emit a small blue light, revealing its location. What I didn’t tell the players was that the small blue light was actually a flame jetting out of the invisible root.

When one of the PCs stooped to pick it up, I got to roll d4 damage from the heat. That was a real shock to the PC who did it, but also made the experience realistic. The player then blew out the flame, causing the invisible root to materialize. My players are good at keeping out of character knowledge from their role playing, so when a character who hadn’t seen his comrade get burned came running to see the root, he also got scorched. It made for an interesting side quest, all based on a mundane yet important magical item.

Another item was a magical caravan loaned to the party. I told them the caravan was stuffed with all sorts of items and so, if they went searching through the cupboards and drawers, they had a chance of finding the sugar, rope, candle, apple, etc. that they were looking for.

Once again, keeping some information from the party was a valuable tool in the promotion of role playing. Unbeknownst to them, the caravan was actually magical and acted as a D&D version of a replicator from Star Trek. If you placed your hand on a particular cupboard and said candle before you opened the door, a candle would appear inside. I restricted the items available to things of mundane and non-combat nature. The players rummaged over and over again. Converting items that the party has seen a million times before into something that they would never expect opens all sorts of doors for both me and my players. I’d love to hear what others have done to make things stand out in their campaigns.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Resource For Military Ranks

From Jeffrey S.

Hi Johnn, just a quick note regarding military ranks tips from Issue #318. The information on the following site is repeated on quite a few other sites, but this has a good amount of info on different commissioned and non- commissioned ranks in the navy:

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Advertising Online Games

From Eisel, The Grandma Gamer

The one request for advice I receive regularly is: How do we get players for an online game? With the demise of, both gamemasters and players have been suffering. Hopefully, that will end soon. Two new sites have popped up to take care of advertising needs, both for GMs looking for players, and players looking for games.

Replacing is, naturally, With a new owner, the look is new, fresh, and attractive. Offering not only the usual free advertising, PBeM2 also has resources for everyone.

That takes care of the e-mail players, but until now there has never been a site dedicated to Play By Post (PBP) gamers. Try the Play By Post Network, set up in exactly the same format as a PBP would be. This Network also offers resources and links for gamers.

Both sites list games by genre and make it easy to find what you are looking for. Do keep in mind that both sites are relatively new. I highly recommend both sites.

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Use The PCs As A Special Forces Group

From Kit Reshawn

The PCs are much better than normal people in any given game world. They would slaughter any normal soldier they came across, so there is really no need to pit them against one. At the same time, it is unlikely that people as skilled as the PCs will be thrown into normal combat where a lucky shot can kill them. There are more valuable ways to use them: as a special forces group.

The PCs get missions for the war, such as attacking command posts, killing enemy leaders and other important people, interrupting enemy supply lines, rescuing defectors, and so forth. As a result, their actions will have a much larger impact on the war than a normal soldier’s actions will, and they will be pitted up against more skilled foes, such as enemy special forces units and royal guards.

Although they won’t be on the main battle lines, the PCs’ actions should have a noticeable impact on battles. For example, if they kill an enemy general, perhaps the part of the front he was commanding collapses for a time and the PCs’ allies are able to make great advances. If they rescue defectors, then they learn valuable information that allows a successful ambush or trick. If they destroy an enemy special forces group, then they manage to protect a vital supply convoy so the troops will have warm clothes for the winter.

As a result, the PCs can measure their progress by how the war is going without having to get involved in huge and messy combat situations where there are many foes and allies to track.

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Game Weekly To Create Momentum

From Steve Kozak

In response to Isaac’s note about only being able to play once a month, believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve found the best way to get everybody to attend sessions is to make a routine out of it. Have a weekly game night, one that is clear for all the players. While this can be a challenge, once established it’s easy to get into a routine, which means better attendance. And a regular weekly meeting gives a great deal of consistency and momentum to the campaign.

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Making A Module Mine

From Telas

One of my favorite modules to run is U1 (Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh). It’s a haunted house with an integrated story.

In my experience, most modules are a good starting point for an adventure. Some can be used as is, and some provide nothing more than the germ of an idea that’s unrecognizable once finished. Most fall in the middle, and provide a set of maps, some encounters, perhaps a plot, and some treasures.

Some of the more obscure modules are the best. Everyone knows Tomb of Horrors, but how many people have been through some of the ones posted in early Dungeon magazines? If there’s some doubt that someone’s been through it before, change the names and locations, and as much history as you dare.

Finally, I find the best way to make a module mine is to write it into an MS Word document, adding what I need to as I go. (I DM from a laptop.) For me, this is better than reading it.

I don’t structure anything other than a basic outline:

  • Basic overview of adventure
  • Background/History of settings and NPCs
  • Current situation of setting and NPCs and how they will behave/react
  • Detailed notes on areas, with general notes at beginning of sections
  • Resolution possibilities

Areas are handled by text:

  • Bold text is to be read to the players.
  • Italic text is skill checks, hidden monsters, rumors, etc.
  • Plain text is detailed information on the area.

For example:

[bold] As you open the door to this room, a musty organic smell emanates from it. Unlike the rest of the complex, the floor of this large room is dirt, and the walls are roughhewn rock and packed dirt. As your light penetrates the room, you realize that the entire floor is covered with mushrooms, from tiny buttons, to foot-tall puffballs, to a couple of massive specimens over six feet tall sitting in the northeast corner. The room is roughly forty feet wide by thirty feet deep by at least twenty feet high. There appear to be no other entrances or exits to the room. [/bold] [italics] 2 Harpooner Mushrooms in the NE corner; anyone approaching within 10 feet will be attacked.

If the party enters, they will see two shovels and rakes on a rack by the door.

Spot DC10: manure is regularly spread among the mushrooms.

Spot DC20: manure is regularly spread among some of the mushrooms; the ones in the NE corner have no manure around them.

Spot DC30: You see a man-sized bone sticking out from under the mushrooms in the NE corner. (+5 to check if actively looking at the mushrooms in that area).

Knowledge (Dungeoneering) DC18: The tall mushrooms are Harpooners.

Search DC18: Ivory cylinder found. [/italics]

This room is the “garden” of the complex. Priestess Veruca keeps the two Harpooners as a threat to her mooks, and occasionally feeds one to them to keep the mooks in line. If the Harpooners are destroyed and the area searched, a small cylinder will be found. It’s about .5 by 1.5 inches, smooth, and carved of ivory. It opens to reveal a key to Room 23 (unmarked), and eight uncut diamonds, each worth 100 GP before cutting.