RPT#620: How to Make Magic Items Awesome
How to Make Magic Items Awesome
Johnn Four and RPT Readers
Today I have a mega-long issue for you. It started out with a simple reader tip request. I wrote my tip, and then remembered an old article at the website with more ideas on the topic. I decided to merge the two and didn’t realize the website article was 14,000 words, lol.
But I went ahead anyway, because the article was just languishing as a txt file buried in the article archives.
Here now are all the tips, new and old resurrected. Let’s start with the request I received for help making minor magic items interesting:
I just wanted to send you a quick note of thanks for the excellent resources you are putting out. Thanks to you I have tons of great ideas for my own campaign.
I run a campaign for my family. I hadn’t had a chance to play for about 20 years, but my daughter and wife both expressed an interest, so I dug my old books out of the basement and we are having a blast. My wife and daughter love to shop and they want shopping to be a more prominent part of the game.
Specifically, they want to shop for magic items whenever the PCs are in large cities. What I need help with is generating a large list of minor but still interesting items that they can find as they shop. The trick is coming up with items genuinely useful and interesting, but don’t change game balance. I am used to running a more “magic items are rare” type campaign, but I want to keep my family happy and interested so now I need to stock the shelves. I would welcome any ideas or advice you might have.
Thanks for the request, Kevin! I’d like to share with you a technique I learned from marketing. This technique will not only help you stock the shelves faster, but it’ll add depth to your world, provide great roleplaying opportunities, and add a cool shorthand for gameplay.
The technique is called branding. Create brands for your magic wares to make them feel special, different, and interesting. Then use brands to create choices that are effectively duplicates without seeming that way, so you have far less prep work to do.
I’m using modern jargon here. So first I’ll explain the “branding” technique and what it is. Then I’ll get into how to add it to your campaign without breaking theme or immersion.
Create Brands to Give Players Interesting Choices and Your World More Depth
Shoppers know their brands. They know what brands mean to price, quality, and aesthetic. Create brands in your world and attach them to magic items. The best benefit to this is you turn a Broach of Shielding – just one lonely option – into many choices, one per brand. This is a big win for you because you give players more choices without having to create new crunch or skew campaign balance.
Instead of one Broach of Shielding, you can have five:
- Seagram’s Broach of Shielding – a utility brand, what you see is what you get, functional
- Trimark’s Broach of Shielding – a luxury brand, expensive, posh, religious
- Nine Eye’s Broach of Shielding – an arcane brand, comes with surprises – not always pleasant, sometimes creepy
- Stonefist Brothers’ Broach of Shielding – a quality brand, the best quality out there, beautiful and detailed work
- Snorg’s Broach of Shielding – a cheap brand, you get what you pay for, rumoured to use sand material instead of gold
Five choices, five interesting world details, but just one thing to prep rules-wise.
When you build your next store inventory, you can save time and energy by branding your items. Instead of having to come up with 20 different items to select from, you can select 10 with mixed branded options.
Further, the brands serve as a shorthand. If you had two broaches, one from Snorg and one from Trimark, do you get any ideas on how you might describe them differently? This will save you a lot of prep time, because once you get a clear idea on the traits you’ve given each brand, and you can contrast and describe in distinct fashion on-the-fly.
For example, how would you describe an Apple computer versus a Dell computer? If you are an Apple fan, you talk about design, ease of use, slick form factor. If you hate Apple, you talk about high prices and your opinion of Apple fans. It doesn’t matter which camp you’re in, you have something to say without thinking about it.
Build brands in your game world for the same great benefit.
And by brands, I’m just talking about simple identity and flavour. Not corporations who crank out assembly line baubles. Give your magic item crafters the same treatment you give to other world elements so they fit into your campaign theme. I’m just using brand as a technical term.
How to Create a Brand
Step 1: Choose the Source
Your brand will inherit traits from their source, so start with the crafter, creator, or creation process.
Who or what makes magic items in your world?
Mix up source types to create further depth. For example, a brand doesn’t always have to be associated with an NPC.
- Supernatural events
- Magic zones
For example, you might give a certain kind of ghost in your game the ability to transform normal items into magic items. Legends tell of the Moroi turning their victims’ possessions into magic items:
A Moroi is an infant murdered before baptism. They are pale phantoms who never stop crying. They attack any who fail to soothe their pain (roleplay to stop their crying for awhile). The magic items they create through transformation are pale and beautiful, never aging or tarnishing, but quite brittle. Only items and materials without flaws survive the transformation.
Any Moroi magic items the PCs acquire will be rare, and expensive if purchased. Give them a sad, tragic feel.
Another example, a quick one, is a divine event. Two armies fought. The gods got involved in the final, epic battle. The god of good won by sending blue lightning bolts down, killing the enemy leader and many of his generals. The divine lightning turned many of the items struck into magic items. As the enemy fled, these items were looted, and have since spread throughout the land. This was a one-time event, so no more such items will ever be created.
What will picky shoppers go for now? A +1 longsword from the Player’s Handbook, or a Sword of Kos – still +1 but it’s ancient, rare, and special. Or maybe they want thay Moroi blade. Slim, pale, beautiful, tragic.
Step 2: Creation Traits
Once you know the origin for a batch, series, or ongoing source of magic items, define some traits to give the brand a consistent personality.
An NPC offers a typical source. Jot down a quick 3 Line NPC with an eye toward the NPC’s work inheriting their personality and appearance traits.
A cool feature of the 3 Line NPC template is you can apply it to any source. Treat a guild like an NPC and give it appearance traits (uniforms, signs, visual cues), portrayal and personality traits, and a hook or secret. You can do this for any source, no matter how abstract.
Then use your NPC writeup to create the following key brand type traits:
- Appearance – Oft-used materials or signs of their unique creation process. “See those fine engravings? Nobody gets crisp, deep, steady marks like Stonefist. It’s because they use adamantine fine point chisels.”
- Style – Everybody does things their own way. Choice of ingredients, design themes, motifs. Seagram’s is always squarish, Snorg’s is chaotic with strange angles.
- Quality and Durability – Strength, purity, special touches, no manufacture defects, design.
- Price – Keep it simple and make four tiers => cheap, commoner/normal/game-rules pricing, expensive, kingly.
- Side Effects or Quirks – “The magic items they create through transformation are pale and beautiful, never aging or tarnishing, but quite brittle.”
You can give branded items an unexpected trait once in awhile to switch things up, but otherwise stay consistent with brand traits so the players identify and remember what the standard qualities are. It’s like learning a new language, and it adds fun to gameplay when the group can speak in shorthand with each other.
“Oh, pretty! How much?”
“Hey Seraphina, don’t buy that. It’s Moroi.”
“Well, I’ll take good care of it then so it won’t break.”
“I don’t like it. It’s creepy. Dead babies? [Shudder].”
“You’re jealous because yours is just a Snorg!”
Step 3: Create a Cool Naming Pattern
Cool names add flavour, no doubt about it.
So make the naming convention part of the brand, and have it reflect the brand.
This adds fun to roleplaying, assists with the shorthand, and creates those great gaming moments when players figure something out through putting together world facts and using deduction.
“Miss, this lovely broach would only enhance your beauty.”
“Hey look, there’s an engraving. ‘Ecranare’.”
“Yes, the kindly wizard who sold this to me said it was a Ecranare Broach. It will protect you from magical attacks.”
“That sounds familiar. [GM, you said it was pale white in colour and delicate?]”
“It’s Moroi! How much for it?”
A good example is Mordenkainen items and spells from old D&D. Those often had names with long or flavourful words to go with the fancy, long wizard name.
- Mordenkainen’s Disjunction
- Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium
- Mordenkainen’s Faithful Hound
Step 4: Create a Reputation
Turn traits and brand qualities into a reputation. This adds flavour and fun to shopping.
“Nine Eyes’ stuff is potent, but it’s cursed half the time!”
If you are clear on what each brand is about, then you can wing this during play.
Better yet, sprinkle branded items into your game so reputations build themselves.
NPC roleplay can help this along.
“Is that a Moroi broach?”
“Yes, it’s called Ecranare.” [“EK-ra-NAR-ay”]
“Ah, that means shield, doesn’t it? Beautiful. Delicate though. My friend at the college had a Moroi quill. Broke right in half when he dropped it!”
Make branded items part of quest and hook information. Give such items to NPCs and have other NPCs comment and gossip. Go through the usual channels to spread a reputation to cement a brand’s identity in your players’ minds.
Some Visual Examples
If I need inspiration for magic items, I go to Pinterest.
For example, I searched for broach and got this page.
Then I found images that reflect the brands I created and now have this:
Seagram’s Broach of Shielding
A utility brand, what you see is what you get, functional
A luxury brand, expensive, posh, religious
An arcane brand, comes with surprises – not always pleasant, sometimes creepy
A quality brand, the best quality out there, beautiful and detailed work
A cheap brand, you get what you pay for, rumoured to use sand material instead of gold
In fact, consider using Pinterest to create your own magic shops. Surf around, google for images, art, and products. Pin what you like. Create a separate board for each vendor. Add labels and comments, such as brand, item name, and qualities.
Adding Flavour To Magic Items
Which would you rather hear from your GM after a hard battle? “You open the wooden chest and find 307gp and a +1 mace,” or, “The solid oaken chest creaks open and you discover a finely crafted sword of polished silver. The hilt is embedded with emeralds and engraved with runes of power. Wrapped around the blade is a silk cloth displaying a family crest–a red horse and knight on a green cloud.”
If your descriptions are more like the former but you want them to be like the latter, read on to learn how. This can bring excitement and depth to your game as the players become interested in the items they receive and form better pictures in their minds. It can also be a good way to give world-specific details to your players.
There are many possible ways to add flavor to magic items, from adding detailed descriptions to giving items strange abilities or attributes. Here are five ideas for adding flavor to magic items in your campaign. Though the examples here deal with a medieval fantasy game, the basic ideas can be applied to any setting.
Add Interesting Descriptions
One of the easiest ways to add flavor is to come up with a neat description for the item. This can be as simple as adding details. Handing out a boring old shield +1? Make it a tortoise shell with leather straps. Maybe the shell is dark brown with orange along the ridges, notched from many blows, but looks like it was solidly constructed.
Adding unusual qualities can also spice things up. Perhaps a magic sword hums when drawn. A bow’s arrows could screech like a raptor when fired. Most times these changes don’t have to have any in-game effect. The item still functions normally, it just looks or behaves differently. The advantage of this approach is that you do not have anything extra to adjudicate for the item.
Of course, you could add in-game effects if you want. Perhaps the humming sword attracts creatures, increasing the chance of encountering a monster. Just be careful not to make the abilities so strange that they are hard to arbitrate.
Ideas for descriptions or special qualities. The item is/produces/has:
- Made from unusual materials (silver, adamantine, francium)
- Engraved with runes (magical or not)
- Crafted with fine gems, inlay, or attention to detail
- Crafted poorly
- Made to depict a famous person, place, or event
- Crafted to hint as to functionality (flaming sword has hilt of dragon breathing fire, harp that puts enemies to sleep has a dreamcloud)
- Notable effect when used (noise, light, smell, silence)
- Notable effect when near a creature or place (glows when near orcs)
- Hot or cold to the touch
- On fire, drips acid, causes snow to fall in the nearby area, or 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 fills the surrounding area with sunlight when used 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 can also help 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, experienced players will guess that these are most likely 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. 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 magical potions, scrolls, or wands. Perhaps the evil wizard’s spells are not written 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 grow magic beans that bestow their properties on whoever eats them. The new form you give an item may or may not give some clue as to the item’s properties, depending on how much information you want to give your players.
Be aware that changing the physical form of an item might cause rules adjudication problems, and you might have to be a vigilant DM to maintain game balance.
Occasionally, you may want to throw something totally wacky at your players. 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, and paralyzation. Or it might allow whoever sits in it to listen to the thoughts of everyone around them. Other ideas might include a hat that forces the wearer to be truthful, or a shield that transforms itself into a boat.
Strange items can be created by taking the functions of a normal item and matching it with a new physical form, or simply by giving abilities to any item you can think of (anything from knives, chairs, candles, crowns, jewellery, or plants). For some of these items, it may be easier to just rule that the item has a given function and not worry about the game statistics or mechanics involved. Again, be mindful of game balance.
Items For Organizations
A great way to add flavor to a campaign is to give some of the organizations, cults, or religions distinctive items of their own. A snake cult might craft magic rings for its important priests that allow the priests to communicate with reptiles and transform themselves into snakes. The rings themselves could resemble a green snake coiled around the finger of the wearer, eating its own tail. Not only does this allow the players to easily recognize snake cult members but it can provide some excellent story hooks. Perhaps the PCs decide to use a snake ring to help them infiltrate a cult.
Alternatively, the PCs might find an item that has the words Stolen from Puk engraved on it, and they know that Puk is a renowned deity of mischief and trickery. They might wish to keep the item, but discover it has both beneficial and harmful properties. They might wish to sell the item, but find that no merchant wants to buy it. 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 worshipper of Puk appears and will take the item off the party’s hands in exchange for service.
Giving items to organizations allows you to flesh out the organization and get the players involved in your world. Items in this category will most likely center around the theme or cause of the organization, though other items are certainly possible–perhaps the snake cult recently stole a prized artifact from a rival cult and are using it to further their own means.
Items With History
One last way to give some flavor to magic items is to incorporate them in the history of your campaign world. No longer do the PCs simply find a magical axe, they find The Axe of Zon, an orc warchief who had it crafted by duergar to help him slay his enemies in the Rout of Blood. Giving the items a connection to the storyline of your campaign gives players a sense of immersion, as they connect items to famous events, persons, or places that “actually” happened.
Ideas for item history. The item was:
- Used by a famous hero or heroine in an important battle
- Crafted specifically for the destruction or protection of a certain race, area, or group
- The result of a magical experiment gone wrong (and wreaked havoc upon the nearby areas)
- The result of a magical experiment gone right (and good fortune was brought to the nearby area)
- Sent down by a deity, extraplanar being, or other power to help further their cause
- Recently unearthed from a long lost civilization, with no one currently knowing how to use the item properly
Wizards of the Coast’s System Reference Document has some great ideas for magic item properties, purposes, and histories (particularly weapons). You can find versions at:
Describe All The Characteristics
The main idea is to get the item to fit your campaign world. All of the following factors have a major impact on the quality and characteristics of the item.
- What race/culture crafted it? This important decision defines the items they make (or are even able to construct and enchant).
- In which time period of the campaign world was it made? The political/magical/material situations and resources may vary greatly between different time periods.
- Was it made by a priest or a wizard? Items made by priests are likely to be related to a deity in some way, while wizard-made items are often not.
- 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 at full power if enough individuals are present. Also, the ownership of the item might be a sticking point.
- Is the creator connected to organizations, cults, rulers, or gods? Might raise questions of ownership. Was it a gift?
The hardest part of item creation. The name should tell something about the item and its creator(s).
The name can be long or short, with a touch of grandeur or a slice of humble pie. It may contain the name of its creators or it may hint to which time period it was created. Additionally, the item may have many names, with only one being the true name.
The personality and power of the creator affects the abilities and characteristics of the items. Most items made for personal use are meant to overcome personal weakness or challenges, or to enhance strengths.
Maybe the creator was racist, had a problem with the bourgeois or a religion, had a strange sense of humor, was afraid of heights, or had a love affair with a person from a different culture. Perhaps the creator was a human abjurer working as a diplomat, who frequently encountered orc raiders in his journeys, and therefore made items defensive items accordingly.
The former user hints to how/by whom/in what conditions the item is usable, like the dagger of a cult whose greater powers work only during sacrificial hours. A bard knows of the cult and therefore the party can reason that the item is strongest during the full moon.
Mentioning the former users gives the item background and believability. Consider also that the former users may have given the item a reputation, and it may not at all correspond with the original idea for the item. It may have been renamed, even though the original name might persist.
For example, a greatsword used by the elven king against humans during wartime. Later on, when the humans and elves united against the orcs, the item was renamed by a 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 gifted to the humans as a sign of brotherhood between the two races.
The creator(s) might sign their creation, by engraving, by magic, or both. The signature may contain the name of the creator, the time period, for whom it was made, house/clan signature, or a guild’s stamp.
The signature is a great way to create plot hooks. Imagine a certain mage-guild staff that, over time, has found its way in the hands of apprentice wizards from a different nation. Later on in the campaign, the guild finds out a young foreigner has their staff and wants it back. How did the guild lose the staff in the first place? How did it come into the young mage’s hands? Will the wizard hand over the staff?
The materials used for the item depend mainly on the time period, area, and creator’s race. In ancient times of the campaign world, maybe something as common as iron or steel hasn’t been discovered yet.
The abilities of each item could have a connection with the material components used in making it, or the place where the materials came from.
Creature parts may have been used to give the item abilities and powers. Perhaps the last ritual in making bracers of ogre power was drenching the bracers in the blood of a freshly killed ogre, and the stench of the blood is ever recognizable.
Some examples of creature parts usable in magical items are: fangs, tongues, hearts, tail, blood, hair, paws, claws, ears, eyes, brains, intestines, arms, legs, appendages, scales, hides, skin, bones, flesh.
Elven bows are made with great care and detail, while orc battle axes are not. Human items are somewhere in between. Dwarven items are probably sturdy and practical. The time period could have the greatest affect to the item’s outlook. The high elves used platinum engravings in the hilt of their swords, later replaced by silver.
A great sword made by the elves was probably not meant for humans or orcs. All the different warring cultures and races could have restrictions to prevent the enemy from using the item. This characteristic immediately gives the item a link to a certain time period. For example, a magical elven bow made when the humans and elves were still at war with each other should not unleash its greatest powers in the hands of a human.
These are all mostly for flavor and therefore give no game advantages or hindrances. Engage all the senses when describing the item for the first time and in action.
- Sings or whistles in a specific language/sound.
- Groans/shines/vibrates when elves are within 30′, when it kills, or when its user suffers damage.
- Blood washes off the blade automatically; it never loses its shine.
- Erupts in flames after tasting enemy blood in battle.
- Wind whistles when shot or is totally silent to use (bow).
- Glows softly in moonlight.
- Has two large red dragon’s fangs in its hilt.
- Emits a thick stench of swamp within 5′ of the item.
- Owner’s arm turns gray and cold when item held.
- The item is cold/warm/tingly/uncomfortable to touch.
The item has different powers in different conditions.
- Daytime (dusk, noon, night)
- Weather (raining, stormy weather)
- Time (thrice per week, every other day, specific day of the week/month/year specific time period)
- After tasting the blood of an enemy, or of a specific enemy
- Specific location (in ancient elven woodlands, mountains, or at sea)
- In the holy areas of specific gods/religions
- Bracers are activated by striking them together two times with chiming sound emitting
- Must be used by specific race/gender/worshipper
Game Statistics And Bonuses
Now for the final stage of the item creation, which defines what bonuses and game statistics the item has. Smaller or limited abilities often give an item more character than your straight +3 katana. The bonuses should reflect the background of the item.
- Skill bonus
- Ability bonus
- Initiative bonus
- +5% to +20% hit points, or +1 to +4 per character lvl
- Damage reduction
- Save bonuses
- Improved critical hit chance from +1 to +4
- Extra critical multiplier
- +20% to +100% extra range for missile weapons
- Enhanced spell DCs
- Enhanced spell penetration attempts
- 0 level spell-like abilities
- Resistance to energy drain
- Special functions are activated by critical hits/fumbles
- The item can communicate with the wielder/others by sound (specific language) or telepathy
- The natural forest cover does not hamper the bow’s accuracy
- Bonuses when performing specific maneuver (disarming, called shots, etc.)
- The greater abilities function only if the user has certain amount of levels, BAB
- Powers grow with the owner’s level
- Extra languages
Putting The Wonder Back Into Magic
Numerous RPG players often have the same complaints about magic: it becomes boring. After a while, the most wide-eyed warrior is going to shrug at getting a +1 rapier. And higher plusses aren’t what I’d call inspirational. What’s worse, even interesting items lose the sense of wonder we associate with magic. I call this problem the mundanity of magic. Here are some ideas for putting the wonder back into magic.
Remember the Light of Earendil, from Lord of the Rings? What did it do? Well, it lit up, and evil creatures seemed to be afraid of it. Is that a fear effect? Maybe it burned them, or perhaps it was a circle of protection. The point is, it doesn’t matter.
There are two ways of implementing vague powers in your campaign:
- Decide on specific powers, and describe precisely the effect of those powers without letting on about the details.
- Come up with a general description of an item’s power, and every time it is used, ad lib the result.
For example, your notes about the Light of Earendil could say simply, “Evil creatures don’t like it.” Keep in mind some players may be bothered by this technique if you are inconsistent. If a vampire flees from the light, then a zombie had better do the same.
In fairy tales and legend, heroes rarely have more than three magic items, and these items are potent. Think back to the old D&D cartoon. Each character had exactly one item, albeit one of extreme power. With only a few items, that magic rope is no longer just another item in a character’s possession–it becomes a signature tool.
In my own campaign, I’ve phased out all items of mediocre power, given my players their signature items early on in the campaign, and from that point, given only limited use items (potions and wands).
One problem is if the items start off too powerful it unbalances the campaign. On the other hand, as the players progress in level, that +1 mace just won’t cut it anymore. My solution has been to increase the power of the items along with that of the characters.
This can be done in a straightforward way: the +1 flail becomes a +1 frost flail in the hands of a character of level 6 or more.
Better, though, is to tie power increases to the plot. My system has been to come up with a list of triggering conditions and a corresponding list of powers. When a condition is fulfilled, the corresponding power awakens.
For example, consider a short sword called Whisper’s Edge. This starts off as a +1 weapon, until any of the following conditions are met:
- Pommel is replaced by a valuable (perhaps unique) gem
- Blade is bathed in the waters of Asherak Falls
- Owner loses the sword, then regains it
- The scabbard of the original owner, a legendary thief hundreds of years dead, is recovered and used
- Blade is anointed with the tears of a spectre
- Wielder is caught in an inescapable situation
Some activated powers are:
- Weapon’s bonus increases
- Those struck by the sword go blind
- Sword can strike incorporeal creatures
- Wielder can enter one shadow and walk out of another one
- Sword whispers to wielder when he is in danger
As you can see from this example, the powers should be thematically related. Some conditions are cryptic. How does one make a spectre cry? What qualifies as losing the sword? Some require quests, like regaining the weapon. Some require information, such as who was the original owner? Knowledge of the conditions themselves can be the object or reward of a quest.
For example, a wise sage has been kidnapped by undead. Perhaps the sword is so ancient that only a comparably old being, like a dragon, knows anything about it. Now the party has to find the dragon (who knows what obstacles lurk in its lair?) convince it not to eat them, and then bargain for information.
One caveat: these quests result in information that is only one step toward activating powers. Therefore, either the quest should not be too difficult or time-consuming, or there should be other rewards. Indeed, knowledge or fulfilment of the power triggers may be incidental to the quest.
Notice one other thing. Two of the listed conditions, (losing and regaining the sword, and being caught in an inescapable situation) are specific to the owner. This means the awakened power will not function for any other creature, including other player characters. Keying powers to one person makes ownership more personal, not to mention it cuts down on inter-party theft!
An item should have a checkered history. This gives the item more personality, and the history itself will probably hint at its powers. Most importantly, a history links the item to the saga unfolding in your world. People will recognize the item and respond with fear, awe, or envy. In Lord of the Rings, goblins recognized, and hated, Sting.
Perhaps someone will lay a claim to the item, with varying levels of legitimacy. It’s quite possible the status of the item is more significant than its raw power. Perhaps the baron who sees a character wearing the Amulet of Moranna (+1 armor) immediately kneels and swears fealty in Moranna’s name.
So how does one create a history? Answer some questions about the magic item:
- What is it called?
- Who made it?
- How was it made? (In a volcano, with the heart of her enemy, by prayer.)
- Who did they make it for? (A friend, a liege, the general public.)
- Why did they make it? (To win a battle, for vengeance, for protection, for fun.)
- How was it lost by the original owner? (Stolen, slipped away on its own, owner died.)
- Who else owned it, and how did they use it? (Perhaps they didn’t recognize it for what it was.)
- Are there prophecies surrounding it?
- Who knows about it? (And to what degree? A fishmonger may know its name and description, but a goblin king whose father was slain with it may know more.)
- Who fears it?
- Who covets it?
If you use many magic items in your campaign, you obviously don’t want to overdo it. Not every +1 dagger has a story.
Costs or side-effects can make any item more interesting. The main caveat here is that drawbacks are often annoying.
The way to avoid something too irritating is to justify its existence. For example, a golden scepter with a head carved like a dragon can breathe flame on command. What if it uses up charges, and the only way to replenish the charges is to feed the head red gems? Another example: the short sword described above. When the wielder travels between shadows, he walks down a dark corridor. Perhaps imps who live in this shadow realm could accost him on occasion, either taunting him or pilfering small items.
Most interesting is to make the power difficult to use. What if the item summons a fearsome creature who attacks everything in sight–including the summoner. Or what about an “explosion in a box?” A metal box which, when opened, releases a ball of flame, then shuts itself.
Maybe the item has a design flaw. Consider a metal rod which, when thrust into the ground, creates a wall of force –except the rod always ends up on the opposite side of the wall as the wielder.
A drawback could be physical. What if that machine of weather control weighs a couple tons, or is made of ice?
The social status of the item may also be a problem. Just found a javelin of dragon-slaying? Every treasure hunter in the area will want a shot at you. And good luck if the nearby dragon hears anything!
With any drawback, make sure the cost does not outweigh the power of the magical item. You don’t want the players to regret going through all the trouble of getting it in the first place!
Most magic items have powers that center on adventuring. Yet, only a small portion of the general population (or more importantly, of the rich and powerful) are adventurers. Most of the elite are political leaders or wealthy merchants. These are the people most likely to commission magic items, which may have rather prosaic uses.
Why do we care? Because these household magic items may not have obvious adventuring uses. How about a brush that sprays a caustic cleaning liquid on command? How about a crystal dictaphone, like a jewel that records sound? It could be a great spying tool. You could create a wardrobe that dresses its owner upon command–useful for those in need of a quick disguise. For these items, you don’t even need to come up with a creative use yourself. Just come up with a magical whatsit that makes any mundane task easier, and let the players figure out how to abuse it.
Items that gradually transform into other items, or are parts of larger ones, give you an opportunity to add or change powers. Consider an egg that can store spells. One day, it hatches into a metal bird with new, greater powers. Or maybe a stone whose color mimics the phases of the moon, with different powers at different times? Use your imagination.
Magic Items with Flavor
Tired of receiving/giving out yet another +1 whatever? Are you or your group swimming in everyday, run-of-the-mill rings of sustenance? Well, keep reading, and hopefully you’ll find something of use to yourself and your group. Included below are a few tricks I’ve used over the years to assist in keeping magic items interesting.
Create a story or history behind the weapon. This is often overlooked, yet helps in making the world evolve. This is also a good way to get bards a little more involved. It doesn’t have to be a very detailed history, either, nor does it have to be a story that meshes with the plot. Just an interesting tale will generally suffice to make it last in a player’s mind.
For instance, the players in my group recently found a nice short sword adorned with gems. After doing some research, they discovered the sword once belonged to a high ranking noble of a long-dead house of a long-dead empire. The noble had problems with rivals continuously humiliating him by mocking his dress style and his cleanliness (he had a penchant for falling into mud pits just before balls and other galas).
His short sword, in addition to being adorned with valuable gems, would also keep him clean, and allow him to magically change his clothes and the style and color of his hair! Not to mention he no longer had to eat, drink, or sleep (very handy for avoiding assassinations by poison or in his sleep.)
After hearing the story, they named the sword and kept referring to it by name. It’s a wonderful feeling, as a GM, to hear your players name an item after some piece of history, especially since the sword wasn’t named to begin with! You can keep the story as simple or as complex as you like, but my experience has been to keep the story simple. It sticks in the players’ minds longer.
Describe what they’ve found. Be specific. Instead of saying “You find a ring,” tell your players, “You find a band of crimson metal with dwarven runes carved into it reading, ‘To Darkath, may you soar with birds.’ It’s worn and radiates heat as you touch it.”
Some basic descriptors are:
- Perceived temperature of the item
Some of these will be dictated by the item. A ring’s basic shape is already determined, as is writing on a scroll of fireball. However, perhaps there’s one region or race that makes a specific paper? A scroll written on “paper made from seaweed grown only in one bay of the Oligmaar Ocean” is interesting.
A +1 club doesn’t have to be only that. Make it a shocking cudgel. A pretty minor change, and a logical progression to boot, but the more interesting properties sometimes yield more interesting uses. Perhaps a wizard uses a flaming dagger to light his candles? A fighter uses a mace of frost to keep his ale cold, while a cleric uses a holy crossbow bolt to assist in the creation of holy water. Maybe a bard has discovered a way of making weaker thunderstones, and uses them in his/her performance to add some bass to their musical performance.
[Editor’s Note: In my D&D campaign, I’ve decided to ignore the convention that states items have to be enchanted to +1 before the more interesting properties can come into play. At low levels this might have been a balance issue, but with no item creators in a mid-level party, I look forward to seeing those properties come into play a bit more.]
Make Up Your Own Properties
It’s not as hard as it may seem, so long as you keep things logical. For instance, if a spell storing quarterstaff can be created, and can be cursed, perhaps the curse is simply that whatever spell is put in there stays permanently, but only gets cast 10 percent of the time. If the creator doesn’t know the specifics of the curse, he may just test it out by casting a cantrip into the staff, only to realize the staff won’t take another spell, and that the spell doesn’t fire all the time.
As far as the creator is concerned, it’s a curse. As far as an adventurer is concerned, it’s treasure. And if there’s a story behind it, all the better. Experiment and see what you can come up with.
Curse it creatively. Perhaps a kama was created and in the attempt to give it intelligence, its creator put in the soul of a doting goblin matron. Imagine the horror on the rogue’s face when the sword tells him to watch his language or she’ll rinse it out with mud! I know a few rogues that would just toss the sword at that point. The soul would feel put out and maybe try to put a guilt trip on the rogue for doing so.
Imagine gauntlets of ogre strength that bestowed an ogre’s intelligence and charisma upon its wearer, as well. Or a holy symbol that requires the physical act of turning in a circle to turn undead. A curse doesn’t have to be deadly or evil.
No matter what style of play your group likes, be it hack-and-slash, political intrigue, role playing, or roll playing, the players will notice that if any lowly thug has a +1 weapon, then they equate them with as being cheap enough for most people. Thus, trying to charge them 500,000 gold pieces for a +1 weapon will not work.
On the flip side, if they’ve reached high level and one party member finally got a single +1 arrow, they will be quite upset upon finding out that magic weapons are sold everywhere for 40 percent of book value.
Tips for being consistent are:
If magic is rare, magic items will be rarer. If magic is everywhere and prevalent, then obtaining a magic weapon should not involve a grandiose quest.
Follow Basic Economic Principles
If there is no demand for magic items, there will be little supply. If there is great need, and the supply chain can keep up, then there will likely be a shop that purchases and sells magical items.
If the need is great and supply is low, prices will skyrocket, whereas prices drop dramatically the other way around. Note, this does not mean that if the players’ need is great they get overcharged, but when they want to sell, they get underpaid. If the PCs are the only source of business for a particular store, that store will probably fail. Most store owners go into business to make money, and the best way to guarantee profit is by establishing a healthy customer base.
Remember And Record
If it’s been established elven weaponsmith Arranagis always marks his weaponry with a stylish A, and one of the party members starts marking their weaponry the same way, Arranagis is going to take offense. Unconvinced? Look at copyright laws. Whether your world has intellectual property is up to you, but you must keep human (orc? elf?) nature. If the King’s Guard arrests someone using your sigil, you can expect a visit if you steal someone else’s.
Magic items can take on a life of their own if you remember that most items have history, have their own distinguishing marks, and may or may not have their own little quirks and/or properties. Some of the best items in many RPGs I’ve played had no affect on game mechanics. The system gives GMs the tools to tell a story. It’s up to the GM to make the story interesting.
Magical Magic Items
High fantasy is a popular form of roleplaying, and the easiest way to differentiate this genre is the role magic plays in the campaign setting. In high fantasy games, magic is prevalent, and sometimes even common.
However, the common occurrence of magic in high fantasy provides a unique challenge. There are many ways to describe magic in a general way. Is it awe-inspiring and magnificent, or dark and secretive? Regardless, it should never be common unless you don’t need or want a mysterious and powerful force in your campaign that spawns so much adventure.
This leads us to the problem of magical items in high fantasy role playing games: their frequent appearance can make them mundane. Many players get involved in high fantasy games mainly because of the magic element inherent in the setting, and familiarity will make it boring. To counteract the effects of magic items becoming common and mundane, it is worthwhile to explore whatever techniques might be leveraged to keep magical items magical. Regardless of what technique is used, the principle behind them all is the necessity of making magical items unique and special so they do not lose their lustre.
Following are five specific techniques for making magical items more magical.
Intelligent Magical Items
Adding intelligence is one way to make an item special. Effectively, the item is an NPC as well as an item. Giving an item an identity immediately makes the item unique. The GM may use whatever persona he wishes, which is wonderful since the GM knows exactly what he wants for the campaign in terms of mood, ambience, and roleplaying style.
Here is a list of several ways to leverage an item as an NPC:
The most effective way of introducing a feeling into a group is to roleplay it yourself. In a game meant to be dark and scary, the intelligent item can have a fearful and secretive personality. The mood can be brought to the gaming table without complication by roleplaying that mood with the item.
During concrete descriptions involving the intelligent item, the personality of the item can be played upon for a unique flair. Without the function of the item being affected, the appearance of the effect can be varied with the item. The visual aspect of a spell may be changed (a firebolt to a skull for example, or a holybolt to the phantasm of an angel) to fit the character of the item, or the item can yell something appropriate according to its personality in a given situation.
Playing an intelligent item can be a non-threatening way to show the players by example how your preferred style of roleplaying works. Whether you desire more in-depth roleplaying, a concentration on political affiliation, or emphasis on inter-party conflict, the intelligent item can draw this out.
Besides being an extra character in the campaign, the intelligent item may also be a plot device or somehow connected to the plot in a special way. This makes the item unique because it is campaign specific and immediately catches the players interest on an in-character level.
Here are three ways to increase the impact of the intelligent item by leveraging the plot and/or campaign setting.
The sword may be an important part of the plot line because of the information it gives to the players. This can be a one-time event, dropping an important piece of information for the party, or it can be perpetual as when the item is carried with the party to locate something the item will recognize.
Because the intelligent item is an uncommon kind of NPC, this can be used to surprise the players. Have the party search for a particular individual and secretly make the individual an intelligent item. Not only is this surprising when the party finds out, it can provide a puzzle for the game and clues can be given that subtly point to it being plausible or even probable.
An intelligent item can add to the richness of the campaign setting by having an emphatic attitude that is campaign related. Even if the item is not a plot device, it can add to the flavor of the game by expressing attitudes toward the villain of the story, or having been involved with a major NPC and retelling that involvement to the players. This gives a unique narrative device to the GM because the intelligent item would have had a different view on events due to its identity as an item.
Conditional Magical Properties
Roleplaying character classes are normally such that the class is balanced overall, but shines especially under a certain circumstance. For instance, the D&D bard is at its best in a social setting. This technique may also be used when creating magical items for a campaign. It can be fun to have an item that is, at a strategic moment, slightly overbalanced, while slightly under-balanced the rest of the time.
The stylistic advantage of having an item that is balanced in this way is found in the trigger for the overbalanced ability. For example, the D&D bane weapon ability allows for extra damage only against a certain type of foe.
In general, it is the condition that triggers the overbalanced ability that lends its particular flavor to the magical item. Because conditional modifiers make an item unique, they make an item special and memorable. Below is a list of four conditional modifiers to make an item unique and fun.
Like a bane weapon, this item acts differently against a type of creature. A common enemy type conditional modifier is a bad guy radar, like Orcrist from The Hobbit. The other common kind is an addition to the effect of damage done by the item.
Enemy-triggered weapons can be interesting to characters who have a special interest in a certain type of enemy. This could be for roleplaying reasons, such as looking for vengeance, or a property of the class, such as the ranger’s favored enemy from Dungeons and Dragons.
An item may act differently under starlight or in cold climate. This works particularly well with druid characters. It is intuitively narrative to have magical items created by druidic rituals tied to nature’s numerous tides (night/day, seasons, ocean tides, weather fronts, moon phases, etc.). If used, remember that the more often the conditional modifier is usable, the less powerful it should be, and vice versa, so the overbalanced ability is designed that way precisely because it is not often usable.
Items may be made so that they work better close to a certain location. This is best in a specific class or prestige class because it involves the item with the background setting. Defender and guardian archetype classes and prestige classes are well positioned for this sort of item. A prestige class might be created with this kind of item in mind.
If used in a campaign, the GM must consider where the party will be in relation to the location of interest and how often. The GM must make sure the overbalanced ability of the location triggered item is not always usable.
This type of conditional modifier works differently in different terrain types. This is well suited for implementation in a D&D setting because the system clearly and explicitly categorizes terrain types.
Geographically related magic items are best for parties that travel a lot and for classes that typically roam, such as the barbarian and the ranger. D&D has numerous terrain-dependent prestige classes and feats. This kind of conditional modifier would work well for characters taking classes and abilities that are also terrain based.
For these techniques, remember that an item with a conditional modifier must be noticeably better than other abilities of equal level when the conditional modifier is active. This is to compensate for the time when the item’s conditionally triggered ability is unusable.
Random Chance Items
Items that produce random abilities or benefits are anything but mundane. More than any other type of magical item, a random effect item is frequently the center of attention when being used. Out of game, players’ attention is drawn to the random effect magical item because they are curious as to what it will do next. It’s like finding new items–an item that keeps changing its ability is like getting a new item each time its random property is displayed.
The most common type of random item is one that changes its abilities on a daily basis. Here is an example of a +1 sword with a random additional ability; each morning 1d6 is rolled to discover what ability the sword will have for the day.
- Nothing special
- Flaming (+1d6 fire damage/hit)
- Frost (+1d6 cold damage/hit)
- Accuracy (+2 to hit)
- Keen (x2 threat range)
- Holy (+2d6 against evil enemies)
With the addition of a random daily ability (unless a 1 is rolled), the sword becomes a +2 weapon in terms of market price and game balance. This is because, although it has the chance to be overbalanced (with the holy weapon, rolled on a 6), it may also have no extra ability.
Players have different personalities, and some appreciate this type of magical item more than others. Around the Internet and in print, you can find essays and articles that try to classify types of players. One such category of player is the gambler. This sort of character likes to take chances and generally likes to shake things up simply to see how they fall out.
Given such a player, an item like the above could help satisfy his desire for chaos. However, there are a few other ways to add chaos to an item other than a straight random roll each day:
Special Critical Hits
Players always find critical hits a fun and exciting aspect of the game. You can make a weapon whose special ability works only during critical hits. The ability should be especially potent to compensate for the great deal of time the ability goes unused (any time a critical hit is not scored).
It is safe to make such an item do extra damage equal to twice what an ability that is usually active can do. For example, if an ability produced 1d6 extra damage on every hit, an equivalently balanced weapon would normally do no extra damage and 2d6 extra damage on a critical hit. Also, because critical hits generate excitement on their own, a critical hit special ability gives the GM an extra narrative opportunity to describe the exciting scene with respect to the item’s power.
Probably the most chaotic type of item, one with an uncertain effect has a chance to do something different each time it is used. Most effective with rods, wands, or magic-effect-items, the spell or effect produced by such an item is rolled randomly when the item is used. For reasons of playability, the different spells and effects should be usable in the same situation–rolling between cure and inflict wound spells makes for an unplayable item, but rolling between differing ranged attack spells is playable.
Here is an example wand with an uncertain effect; percentile dice are rolled each time the wand is used:
- 00-25: ray of frost
- 26-75: magic missile (caster level 3rd)
- 76-99: ray of enfeeblement (caster level 3rd)
- 100: all three take effect (only 1 charge is lost)
Such an item would be worth slightly less than an item producing its most common effect (in this case, a 1st level spell with a 3rd level caster) provided its better and lesser abilities cancelled each other out in terms of under/over balance. This is because the uncertainty makes it unpredictable and therefore harder to take advantage of strategically.
This type of ability only affects description. Such an item would be like any other of its type except that the description of its effect by the GM is different. No concrete rules apply to this type of effect. Instead, the GM may make up events during the use of the item that could be directly or loosely tied to its use. The description of the effect of the item becomes entirely ad hoc.
This kind of ability has the potential to make players curious or thoughtful about the item, even though it is really nothing special, game balance-wise. An example could be a wand of fireballs that seems to slow down time for a moment or a sword that never stains from the blood it spills. This type of item is just a tool for making up weird things in an encounter to make it memorable
An item is a lot more interesting if you don’t have to plan to pawn it off when it becomes obsolete. If an item grows or can continue to be useful to a character for a long time, an attachment can grow between the character and the item. Andy Collins, a professional game designer for Dungeons and Dragons, provides some rules for having a magic weapon progress with its owner.
Imbuing an item with sentimental value in the first place can be done in several different ways. Each method gives a different flavor to the item without affecting game balance.
Here are four ways to give sentimental value to a magical item:
It would take a callous fighter to pawn off a +1 longsword given to him by his father who received it from his father. This is a sword a character can be proud of, regardless of its abilities. If a more powerful sword is the heirloom, the character may have to prove himself worthy, earning the right to possess it (which keeps game balance by not giving the PC the sword until it wouldn’t overbalance the party).
Everyone covets a Sword of the King, even if it is just a +1 longsword. Such a sword might only be won at an official king’s tournament and denotes exceptional battle prowess. The statement it makes about the wielder cannot be bought.
A memorable sword would be one that shone brilliantly as it struck the killing blow to the vampire overlord that had been pursuing for months–and then became vampire bane. This makes a unique sword for the user, because it is attached to a great memory. This kind of ad hoc special ability is easily balanced by taking the value of the new ability of the sword away from the treasure generated by the level of the adventure.
Getting anything as a well earned gift of appreciation is gratifying. This can be especially the case if it comes from a familiar NPC who is respected and, in turn, respects what the party has done.
A cursed item is instantly differentiated from any other kind of magical item. This is a distinct advantage for the GM wanting to design a unique item. However, designing the special cursed item also comes with a special challenge. By default, players don’t like and don’t want cursed items. The easiest solution is to make it a property of the cursed item that it cannot be gotten rid of by regular means. The players then have no choice in the matter. The problem with this is that players still don’t like the item.
An in-game character is almost never going to like a cursed item, but a character’s player may still appreciate the narrative value of such an item. To reap the maximum benefit from the cursed item, the player whose character possess the item must be actively engaged in roleplaying the effects of the cursed item. Doing this solves the problem of players not liking cursed items because they are actively participating in the effect of the item for the story opportunity.
Keep in mind, the cursed item can be a distraction to the game rather than adding the richness to the story if it is positioned as an annoyance as when it is forcefully attached to the character. The GM should consider some rationale for the curse and make it game related. This adds to the believability of the game and adds rather than detracts from the story.
Below is a list of four ways to design a cursed item so that it lends itself for use in a campaign world while being unique and memorable.
This sort of cursed item has an ability that is worthwhile to use by itself, but also has a detrimental effect on the user similar to the effect it produces on the enemy. The simplest way to design this sort of cursed item is with respect to damage; the item does damage to another, but also to oneself.
It is wise to make the damage to the user substantial so it does not become part of a use-and-heal combination, or to making the damage substantial in a qualitative way, such as damage that cannot be magically healed. If the item produces a non-damage effect, such as a spell effect, the possessor would be subject to the same effect the target is.
In most cases, it is appropriate to make the effect of the item automatic against the user to offset the knowledge the user has. The item is, after all, meant to be cursed.
Cursed items like this are not cursed in terms of their use, but cause a detrimental effect by the simple possession of item. The item may be a good and dependable one, but has an effect that is detrimental. This effect lasts as long as the item is possessed, and possibly afterward. The detrimental change should have a lingering effect after the item is gone so the possessor cannot easily revert back from the disadvantageous effect whenever it is especially hindering.
An example of this type of item could be a potent sword that causes the possessor to take on the appearance of a demon and an evil alignment for the purposes of magical detection. If the item is dispossessed, the previous possessor remains in its demon form until the next summer equinox. Add to the sword’s ability the capacity to damage a villain in the plot that is otherwise invulnerable and the PC with the item has a lot to think about and roleplay in terms of cost vs. benefit the sword represents. Obviously, in this example, the detrimental effect of the item is a social one–the character looks and detects like a demon.
The cursed item with a disastrous effect, usually with only one use but at a terrible cost. This item may be carried without use by a character until the climatic moment. Alternatively, the cursed item may be usable regularly but have a condition that triggers the disastrous effect.
An example of this would be a magical sword that is normally potent, but having once injured a lich when it was still mortal the most potent ability of the sword is the ability to kill a lich in one blow, but at the cost of the wielder’s life! This ability is an appropriate cursed item in a story whose villain is a lich too powerful to defeat other than with the sword. The curse on the sword is emphasized in such a case because it is expected to be used.
A cursed weapon can be normal with regards to game rules, but provide an opportunity for roleplaying through a forced shift in morality. This weapon is unique in that it is the only kind of magical item that explicitly dictates a change in roleplaying.
Because this is a curse that taxes the player in terms of effort, it needs active participation from the player in an out-of-game perspective. If the alignment change is radical enough, the introduction of the morally hostile magical item into a game may warrant secret communication between the possessor of the item and the GM. This is because the newly aligned character may not want the party characters to know about the morality shift, as the character may adopt ulterior motives as part of the story. The added value to a specific campaign with this kind of item comes from the morality shift of a PC affecting the character’s motives and so affecting the plot of the story.
Keeping the Magic Alive
In a high fantasy setting, the most important themes are the awe-inspiring moments, the change from the ordinary, the aesthetic appeal of spells replacing technology, and the romance of the medieval era. In a word, the high fantasy setting is all about magic. This is the major differential between fantasy and other genres. So, in all aspects of the game, magic should be treated with the respect it deserves as the corner stone of the high fantasy setting. When it comes to magical items, this is done by making items unique and special.
There are several techniques for doing this, and the following list outlines them in the way they have been discussed in the article:
- Intelligent items: The intelligent item is unique because it has a personality; the item is an NPC as well as an item
- Conditional modifiers: This technique puts an item in the back seat so that it can burst into the spotlight when the right situation arises.
- Random chance items: Adding chaos to an item keeps it in the centre of attention because no one knows what it’s going to do next.
- Sentimental value: Attaching a feeling to an item ensures that it will be special to the owner.
- The curse: Making an item cursed in the right way engages the PC with unique challenges and roleplaying opportunities.
Regardless of what techniques are used, by far the most important strategy for keeping magical items magical from a storyteller point of view is the description. All GMs have a different style, but giving a special effort to make the description of magical item effects memorable and aesthetic is always worthwhile when chasing the goal of making the game on a whole more magical. After all, the GM is the player’s lifeline for imagining the story and description is the GM’s most powerful tool.
Let Magic Permeate Life
When I think of my gaming world, I try to imagine not only the ways that magic is used to compliment weaponry or combat, but also how it would permeate the rest of life. Often, the best “magical” items in my campaign are things that seem mundane but have been altered magically in order to create some role playing opportunities for my players.
I created a unique and 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 it also left me with the ability to flow with whatever the players decided to do.
I created the root so that it would only be seen during the deepest of night and would emit a small blue light, showing 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 more 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 RPing as well, 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 mundane yet useful item I created was a magical caravan that was loaned to the party. I told them that 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”, then opened the door, a candle would be sitting there. I obviously restricted the items available to things of mundane and non-combat nature. The players rummaged over and over again (especially one of my players) and sometimes found what they were looking for.
One day, however, the owner of the caravan was hanging out with the party. He came into the caravan and asked everyone if they’d like a drink. When they said yes, he simply went to the cupboard, placed his hand on the door, and said “Scotch”. The players found it really cool that the caravan could be used in this way and also felt kind of dumb for not figuring it out themselves, though in a good way.
To keep it slightly humorous and provide another role playing vehicle to the party, I purposely had the NPC perform his little trick when the player in my game who rummaged the most was away from the table. That way the rest of the players could use the caravan the right way and get a laugh when they saw the other player looking in vain for some tea each night.
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.
I find, as the person who wrote the request stated, that magical swords +1 are as uninteresting as magical swords +2, if described simply with those words. If the GM says, “You cast identify on the longsword and determine that it is a longsword of +17 slay anything,” it leaves little room for the players to get their imaginations flowing. I try to restrict all of my descriptions of the magical weapons to what the players would actually see or feel when they used/identified them.
I use the following two techniques to stave off boredom:
Try revealing the properties of the item over a period of time, even just a few rounds of combat, so that the player gets to master one or two enhancements before learning another.
If an item has a particular enchantment, say +1d6 lightning damage on a bow, I will tell the player when they identify it something like, “You get the impression from the auras that surround this weapon that it has some powers relating to the weather.” If they examine it further, I’ll expand on it. “You can tell, after studying it some more, that the weather it relates to is electrical in nature.”
Most players would put 2+2 together and guess it has lightning based properties. But I don’t reveal things like the damage until the player tries the weapon out for the first time. That way when the GM says, “As you begin to draw the bow, you feel a strange sensation running up and down your arms. A subtle blue and purple light begins to trace its way over your weapon. It grows as you continue to pull back, beginning to crackle and hiss in the air around you. You feel your hair beginning to stand on end.” I then wait until they actually fire the weapon and hit their target to say, “Add 1d6 electricity damage to that roll.” In my personal experience, it makes a great deal of difference to the flow of the game when the GM tries to avoid direct references to items that the party carry. I never say the +1 sword, I always try to refer to it by a more descriptive title, or at least just call it Player X’s weapon.
Sometimes you might find that it helps to think of how a citizen of your particular game world would speak and apply that to the magical (or any other) items you’re describing. Do they speak with modern or colloquial English, or something in between? Would they really say things like, “Wow dude, that sword kicks ass,” or would it be more like, “I have rarely seen a blade so fine as this. The workmanship is exquisite…” For me, it’s the subtle phrases and ways of speaking, plus using them consistently, that allow my players to visualize more about what I’m trying to get across to them.
Enhancing Magic Items
- Minor enchantments, such as detect spells, which are handy without adding too much power.
- Change the usual form of the item. Instead of Drums of Panic, have Pipes of Panic, especially if your players know the DMG.
- Add interesting bits, such as an unusually beautiful engraving or gemstone. After all, magic items are always masterwork!
- Name it. Maybe an ancient appellation in glowing runes?
- Give some history for the item, such as why it was made. This doesn’t have to be reserved only for artifacts of great power, and can also become an adventure lead.
- Inherent limitations don’t feel right, unless there is a reason for them, such as a weapon that only worked for women because it was made for Amazons.
Magic vs. Technology
If you are reading these lines, chances are high that you own a personal computer. Do you know how it works? I mean, do you know exactly how electrons interact with those tiny slices of silicium you can’t see without a microscope? Some of you might know that, but I don’t think a lot of us do. That’s not magic, of course. It happens in the real world, so it cannot be magic. Is that the difference between magic and technology?
No, it isn’t. What is technology? Let’s say it’s something cool we don’t need to understand to gain benefit. Now, what is a magic item to your average warrior? Something cool he doesn’t understand but from which he can benefit.
Now look at a spoon. There are many kinds of spoons. Small, standard, silver, wooden, huge. Who would look twice at a spoon?
Next, imagine a world where magic rings would be as commonplace as a spoon in our real world. I know such worlds exist in some RPGs (even in some commercial ones). It isn’t magic anymore, it becomes technology. For a character who lives in such a world, what we call a magic item is just a useful tool.
What I call magic is something marvelous for the player and her character alike. And that’s how you give flavor to a magic item: you make it marvelous. So, how?
Make Magic Items Rare
That should be obvious from the introduction. Too many items and it becomes technology. In the campaign I GM, in three years of game (that would be 52 game sessions), the PCs have encountered four magic items. The first was cursed (everyone possessing that blue pearl died quite spectacularly), and they lost the second. So now they have only two: a magical sword and a magical harp.
Few normal monsters should have magical items in their lair. Either they sold or bartered it for something more valuable, or they used it for protection when the adventurers came. Once again, there isn’t a stupid troll keeping a magic ring because it glitters (my precious!) behind every boulder.
So, let’s say statistically one magic item every ten game sessions, no more.
Make It Unique
“Oh, you got Aldashabor’s necklace of far-seeing! Fancy that, my uncle bought one last week too!” How would you like that? No two magic items, however different in shape, color, or material, should have the same effects. So, Aldashabor made a necklace of far seeing. His rival Trino tried to reproduce it but only managed to make an earring of drunkenness.
Make It Hard To Produce
If every dwarf could forge an enchanted sword, again that would be technology. You could rule that to produce such a weapon, your dwarf should research for years and then forge the blade a bit each full moon, while casting enchantment upon enchantment during one year. But what are ten or twenty years to a dwarf?
Here are two other options:
- Make the producer lose some ability point (such as Intelligence, or Wisdom, or whatever is needed in your game system). 1 point for a small item, 2 for a useful one, 5-10 for an artifact. Bet your dwarf wouldn’t be so keen on creating handfuls of magic blades!
- Have the art of producing magic items lost. Once again, in my campaign, all the magic items were ages old, and today magic-users are so persecuted that they don’t have time to research for lost abilities.
Give It A History
If it’s hard to produce, it’s not for fun. There’s a good reason they were made: a magic weapon is made to fight with, either to attack or protect. The creator might well have died to give birth to the item. It was made for a king, a general, a hero, a high-ranking priest or mage. Who would give a dragon slayer to a level 1 character? So, what and who was it made for? What happened once the deed was done (or failed)? Did the wielder keep it? If so, what happened to him? Is he still alive? Did it pass to someone else? Who? Family? Apprentice? Was there a contest for it? Was it stolen? By whom? And why? Was it stored or displayed somewhere? Where and what for?
Now ask yourself the same question for as many times the item changed hands and you’ll have the item’s history.
Make It Special
The cursed pearl was blue. Have you ever seen a blue pearl? Zaric’s sword is made of copper. Who would forge a weapon out of copper? Yet it was harder than steel and no notches were seen in the blade after several hundred years of lying in the dust near a stream. Ocea’ch’s harp has silver strings, which, of course is not possible.
So ask yourself: what material is that kind of object made of? What color is the standard one? What other aspect could you modify? Think also of weight, length, and quality. Is it invisible? Does it emit light? Is there something else unusual? Sculptures? Details? Etchings? Is the item cloaked in illusion?
Make Them Artifacts, Not Cheap Magic
If magic items are rare, unique, and hard to craft, it’s logical that most are quite potent. Be careful not to unbalance the game, though.
Reveal all the possibilities of the item slowly. In my campaign, most magic items are level dependent. For Zaric’s sword, here is what I use:
- 0-5: +1 sword
- 2-7: +1 critical range
- 4-9: 2d6 additional damages showing as flames.
- 6+: +2 sword
- 8+: critical range +2
- 10+: damage +4d6
- 12+: fights alone if wielder is stunned, unconscious, or dead
In case of sentient items, it may well be the item itself which decides when (if) it shows its capabilities.
Use It In Your Plot
“Curse you,” said the count as he saw that the PC wore Aldashabor’s necklace of far-seeing. “It is said that the day this necklace is worn again, the nameless god will enter the world for the second time! Curse you! The wars of dominion will start again and again!”
“Bless you,” said the priestess as the PCs brought her Zaric’s sword. “It is said that only that blade could prevail against the enemy that walks through steel and wall!”
It’s such a cliche to ask the PCs to retrieve a lost magic item. Make them find it first and then announce it was needed:
“The gods sent you!” said the town’s major “You are the one we were awaiting! You carry Ocea’ch’s harp! Only you can free us!”
Making Magic Items Interesting
A common problem in fantasy games is that magic items, no matter how rare they’re supposed to be, end up becoming boring, commonplace tools for the PCs. A +1 bow deals an extra point of damage; a ring of regeneration lets a fighter take on the troll; a horn of blasting lets the party threaten kings.
Part of the problem is players who meta game. How do they know it’s a +1 rapier? A character might realize an enchantment makes a weapon better. They might even be able to tell the enchantment is weaker than the one on their own blade, but few characters should be able to tell exactly what it does. Particularly without serious time and study. Besides, that softly glowing dagger might have a wish spell concealed somewhere.
Another part of the problem often lies with the GM who makes magic too common by giving into the magical arms warfare race. Rolling random treasure is fun, even for the DM picking through the treasure tables, but even at lower levels it’s an easy thing for PCs to be inundated with magic.
Try limiting the number and power of magic items. If a +1 shield is a rare find, the players will come to respect it.
If one of your players is a wizard, however, he might make his own magic items. One way to limit this is to make the task so involved, complex, expensive, and risky that only the desperate would try. Perhaps crafting a simple magical sword requires a pact with a demon?
For the groups without a mage, the task is simpler–keep them from getting their hands on magic. Magic shops should be incredibly rare. A dragon’s lair might contain the sword of a legendary hero, a +1 greatsword. The hero’s dead now. The dragon ate him.
Another possible solution is the existence of a guild that snaps up any magical items they find, limiting the number of items floating around. Perhaps there is more than one guild, in constant conflict. If they’re the only magic-heavy groups around, the devastation caused by some of their battles could seriously sway public opinion, limiting the creation of new magic items and what can be found abandoned or stolen from unwary agents of the guilds. This puts the matter firmly in the GM’s hands as to what might be available.
Or make magic illegal. A common character in fantasy is a court magician. These magicians might persuade the current ruler to ban all magic not officially permitted by noble ruling. This would secure the court wizard’s position and put any magic-bearing PCs in hot water. Sure, the ring of invisibility might be handy right now, but if a guard sees it the entire party will go on the kingdom’s Most Wanted list.
Finally, have magic gradually wear out. If even permanent spells wear out, eventually the legendary sunsword of the vampire slayer Von Dalchin will be nothing more than a rusty relic of bygone times. I don’t suggest a magic item suddenly winking out, dead however, but the knowledge of fading magic supports a world with rare magic. If the party is abusing their magic, perhaps they notice it is getting weaker with each use?
Some players will feel cheated if they don’t get to deck their character out until he glows with magic, however. For players like that, there are other solutions.
If your players demand magic, one solution is to give them magical items with quirks. You can use major and minor quirks.
Minor quirks can be amusing or annoying, but rarely have any impact beyond making the items. The horn of blasting amplifies all the sound around it, constantly causing an ear-grating humming unless it gets carefully wrapped in sound-dampening cloths. Maybe the potions of healing leave you ravenously hungry, burning up your body’s calories to heal you. You still might die… of starvation!
In essence, a minor quirk is something that causes, at worst, a small inconvenience. In the examples above, most players will have food on hand, especially if they know healing potions make you hungry, and a tunic can serve to muffle the horn.
Major quirks have significant impact. Perhaps the power of the sword is tied to the phases of the moon, with a full moon giving it the most power and the new moon making it weaker than a common iron blade. Perhaps those potions of flight actually turn you into a giant parakeet for the duration (A nice GM will let the equipment polymorph with the character. A more evil GM will rule on damage to the equipment if it falls and breaks).
As a general rule of thumb, the more powerful the item, the more quirky it should be. Potions of healing make you hungry, but the Rod of Resurrection kills all plant life within a mile!
Sample Major Quirks:
- A single weapon that has two different sets of powers, depending on the position of the sun. The powers could be opposite from each other. A flamebrand becomes a frostbrand at night.
- One of the item’s powers randomly fluctuates–probably the most useful power. Every time the wielder tries to use it, there’s a chance the power fails.
- The item’s powers mutate randomly. A +1 falchion in the morning could be a flaming nunchaku by lunch.
Sample Minor Quirks:
- The item glows. The glow radiates through anything used to shield it. This is a nuisance as the character can never hide as long as he has the item on hand.
- The item hums all the time. It can be either a vague droning sound that gradually gets on everyone’s nerves, or it can be humming a tune, but it only knows one tune.
- As long as the owner carries the item, small plants and animals around him will fall over dead. This quirk could rapidly lead to accusations of demonic origins or necromancy.
- The item has an aura that subliminally convinces people that they know the owner from somewhere, even if they’ve never seen him before. While this won’t predispose them for or against the owner, it will result in strange looks.
- Whenever the owner uses the item it attracts swarms of normal insects.
Many game systems rule that an intelligent magic item can have a will of its own and is able to disagree with its owner or refuse a task. This doesn’t have to be so. Some magic items may just be intelligent and like to talk. Which is worse, a taciturn holy sword that refuses to do anything that won’t further the cause of Good, or the dagger in your belt that just won’t shut up, especially when you really need it to? Maybe the item says the wrong things at the wrong time….
Most intelligent items have names, and egotistical ones may like to hear it a lot, even if they’re the one saying it. “Did I ever tell you about the Battle of Sun Peak? The hero, Glong, had the magic sword Sunbreaker–that’s me–and he….” This can get frustrating quickly, but if the weapon has a useful power, the party may need to keep it with them, suffering the incessant chatter with gritted teeth or cotton in their ears.
Picture a mace or shield that used to belong to a powerful priest. The intelligent item tries to convert everyone in earshot, using any method it can think of: shouting everyone awake to ‘view the glorious dawn created by Pelor!’, singing hymns and paeans late into the night, or shouting insults at priests of opposing faiths.
Give the PCs an item with personality, no matter how weak the item is, and it will stick in their minds and remind them how magic is strange. After all, which is cooler, a warhammer +1, or a warhammer +1 named Crusher, which grumbles incessantly about ham-handed idiots who can’t swing a hammer to save their lives?
Some sample personalities:
- A sweet, naive, pacifistic personality. This is especially appropriate for a non-lethal weapon, such as an enchanted net or lariat–or fittingly ironic for a powerfully enchanted sword.
- A power-mad megalomaniac who seems convinced the party is going to do what it wants and makes dire threats if it gets disobeyed. It can’t actually do anything, but having your sword tell you what it intends to do to you for sparing the villagers can be creepy.
- The item believes it is a dog. It barks at passing strangers, pants after a long fight, and howls at the moon.
- A lazy, apathetic personality that doesn’t want to be bothered. It complains if it gets used.
- A weapon that refuses to speak any language the players can understand, but which will talk loudly and at length in foreign tongues.
- Steadfastly loyal to an ancient empire, which, it seems, has outlawed just about everything the party likes to do. The item will routinely try to get the party locked up by screaming things like ‘Help! Thief!’ when around guards.
- A stalwart, heroic personality that likes to keep morale up, often shouting cheers and encouragement to the wielder. It’s like the annoying sidekick, only without the occasionally useful backup.
- A quiet, taciturn personality, who gradually gets used to the party; eventually, while never becoming talkative, the item will defend the party against anyone trying to slander them.
A Dragon Magazine once had an article on too many magic items having strange effects around each other. If your players like to carry around a lot of magic items, this may well cure them of the problem.
What’s the point of wearing magic plate, carrying a flaming sword, wearing a ring of regeneration and invisibility, and a cloak of flight if having more than three items causes effects like glowing purple (even while invisible), speaking in a high falsetto voice that makes dogs howl, and having your shadow lag about three seconds behind you?
Two kinds of side effects are possible:
- Those resulting from permanent magical items like cloaks, swords, and the like.
- Those from temporary items like wands, potions, and powders.
Permanent quirks may or may not remain after the items are removed, with the first ruling setting the standard. If they’re permanent, a remove curse spell may be needed to free the victim of the effects.
Permanent quirks can do just about anything: change the way a character looks, the way he sounds, the way he sees things. Picture the poor sap who gets a mother-in-law illusion only he can see!
It is a good idea to tailor the side effects to the items. If the character is wearing something like a displacer cloak, a ring of invisibility, or boots of stealth, perhaps he becomes permanently invisible. This might seem like an advantage at first, but picture how hard it’ll be to do anything normal. Shopkeepers won’t want anything to do with him, guards will be convinced he’s up to no good even if he’s just trying to visit a friend, and most anything that can see him will likely be hostile anyway. If he’s the only thing to turn permanently invisible, his clothes and gear will seem to be animated, or controlled by a ghost!
Temporary effects should result from temporary items. Someone who drank too many potions of flight in too short a time might not be able to land, constantly drifting up to bump against the ceiling like a balloon. Effects wearing off can be hazardous too.
Mixing different kinds of potions can be dangerous. A potion of flight, a potion of healing, and a potion of strength might intermix and result in the character temporarily turning into a small roc, or they might explode as the different types of magic fight for dominance. They might just give the character a horrible case of indigestion, complete with belched rainbow fumes.
Some examples of temporary effect:
- The character grows useless wings. This makes wearing a cloak and armour difficult, and the character will likely be accused of being a demon or angel.
- As a result of too many fire-magic items, the character’s hair turns into a corona of flame. While they don’t harm him or much else, daily tasks, like sleeping, become a challenge.
- The character’s hair starts growing rapidly–an inch per hour. While not fast enough to be immediately dangerous, letting it go for a few days without cutting it can be trouble. On the other hand, an enterprising character can make a fortune selling hair to wigmakers and rope-weavers.
- A phantasmal image follows the character everywhere, hovering on the edge of the character’s vision. Disturbing things regularly manifest, such as the glint of light off a scythe’s edge, the crackling of bones moving without flesh, or the rustle of a thick black robe.
- The character attracts ravens. Everywhere he goes, they’ll flock to perch on things and stare at him. Often he’ll wake up to find two or three sitting on his chest. Are they bearers of ill luck, messengers of the gods, or maybe familiars of evil wizards? Play it out.
- The character temporarily develops a reverse chameleon effect. His skin perfectly mirrors whatever happens to be on the other side of him, but in precisely the opposite colors.
- The character’s use of too much temporary flight magic (shouldn’t have drank that last potion of flying right after using the dust of airwalking) leaves him temporarily weightless. Even a mild wind can blow him away.
- The character begins to glow, radiating light equal to a candle.
- The character attracts the attention of every spirit, faerie, and magical beast within a five mile radius. This can get frustrating quickly.
- The character’s size begins to fluctuate, depending on his mood; the happier or angrier he gets, the bigger he grows; the more somber or tired he gets, the smaller he becomes. However, his mass doesn’t change.
Give that old +1 whatever a description and history. Make it unique, with a place in your world’s background. How will the thief feel when he finds out his magic dagger once belonged to the noble barbarian hero-turned-king, who fought the same demon lord now menacing the land again?
While it may be more work for the poor GM, the rewards can be great. One of my own favorite magic items remains a simple sword with a bluish blade; it has a habit of talking to itself in strange tongues, and has a raging hatred of water and water elementals. It used to belong to the pirate Havarin, who used it to destroy the elemental guarding the port city of Pearl. In game terms, it’s nothing more than a simple +1 cutlass with minor intelligence, but to my character, it’s a historic legacy.