Quick & Cool Magic Item Backgrounds In 60 Seconds
Today’s Musing is a longer piece about how to create great background stories for your magic items. It’s something I wrote for Strolen.com in 2011 and I thought you might find it useful now for romancing your treasure.
First though, do you remember the rules advice RPT GM Haukur from Iceland asked in a recent Musing? He was looking for ideas on how to add guns without extreme lethality to his D&D “Mad Max” style campaign. I forwarded him your tips, and he updated me on Facebook saying his game went great:
We took a session last Tuesday. The players — Alex, Kjartan, Lexi and Bjarni — were very engaged in roleplaying aspects and it was a very good session overall.
The balancing was doing great and the rules worked out perfectly with gun deadliness/rarity. I’m planning on developing further.
Thanks for your help.
Congrats Roleplaying Tips readers. You helped a fellow GM out. Thanks for your all your tips and emails!
Quick & Cool Magic Item Backgrounds In 60 Seconds
Give your magic item a quick history. Then use the history to tie a whole bunch of things together that will make you look like a genius.
We’ll get into the genius part in a sec, but let’s first create a simple background that you can do within the 60 second time limit.
To flesh out your item’s lore fast, give four questions a one-line answer each.
Lore Question #1: Origin Story
Who made the item and why? (And when?)
We’re dealing with how the item came into existence. The item’s origin story. And this is always interesting stuff!
I’ve assumed the item was crafted on purpose by someone or some-thing, but that need not be the case. A magical event might have imbued a mundane item with powers. Or, if you’re using the Legacy Item system from Assassin’s Amulet, the item might have spawned from energies absorbed by great events or NPC deeds.
Some ideas for why the item came into existence:
- An NPC commissioned the item to be created
- The creator was forced into it by an NPC or terrible circumstances
- It was an accident
- A magical event, such as a supernatural storm
- Manifested when the gods created the world or universe
- The gods built it for mortals as part of their plotting
- Natural disaster + magical world, such as a landslide imbuing its earthly power into a shovel buried during the catastrophe
- A community pours its attention, devotion, or spirit into a mundane item that absorbs this energy over time
Next, give the item a date stamp. While not required, this fact offers you additional context and inspiration.
For example, is the item ancient or new? If so, that’s notable and worthy of further exploration to help detail the item and your campaign.
If you have a campaign management information system, like I do for my campaigns using Campaign Logger, then a date stamp also helps you log the item into it.
- Created by Servis, a humble village priest, to help protect his northern community from orcs 53 years ago. (Servis was half-orc, which caused interesting problems, but that’s another story.)
- The goddess Cyrene bequeathed the item to her loyal guildmaster in CY245 to help him handle recruitment.
- Lightning struck the item not once, but three times. Each strike imbued the item with one power. This happened yesterday, to a PC (stinking behirs!) but he doesn’t know that the item he’s been carrying since level one is now magical.
Lore Question #2: Who Used It Last?
In most cases, owners dictate an item’s effect on the world. A magic sword offers no lore if it’s been sheathed since creation. To make history – and interesting campaign material – the blade requires an NPC to brandish it.
On a finer scale, recent ownership can inspire plot. For example, if the item was stolen, the previous owner might want it back.
Loot or Possession?
Items are either loot or possession.
Loot means the item sits somewhere waiting to be discovered. Dungeon crawls, museums, and private collections are full of loot, for example.
But that’s boring. We want to know who used the item last, which means it was a possession.
So go back to when the item was used last and jot a note about who used it and how that NPC became the owner.
Answer these questions as succinctly as possible to keep your creation process moving fast:
- Who was the last owner?
- How did they become the owner?
- What did they use the item for, in general?
- How did they lose the item? (If applicable.)
- How did the item get to be at the location where the PCs can find it? (If applicable.)
- Servis gave the item to the village’s strongest warrior, Urbat, who used it in many raids against the orcs. A foe finally defeated Urbat and stole the item away.
- Guildmaster Avram used the item in his presentations to prospective guild members for years. He kept the item’s function a secret, but was never seen without his golden torque. He handed the torque to his successor, and ever since it has become a symbol of guild leadership.
- The PC carries the item in his backpack, ripe for a friend or foe’s detect magic.
The main reason these quick facts help you is they offer a breadcrumb trail in your campaign. Armed with NPC identities, locations, and past usage rumours, you can guide the PCs to the item, add the item to an NPC’s background, incorporate the item into an adventure backstory and so on.
Simple details become great hooks and leads with just seconds of preparation.
Lore Question #3: Weal
Next question offers you more grist for your campaign wheel.
Name a time when the item brought good to someone or someplace, and briefly describe what happened.
Again, a one-liner suffices. More details are welcome, so if you do have extra time, keep creating past events when the item did some good instead of fleshing out details for just one event.
You can always add details when working on other parts of your campaign or on-the-fly during the game. That’s where the genius part I mentioned at the beginning of this article comes in.
- Urbat slew many orcs with the item, but a legendary moment came when he singlehandedly saved a farm family from a dozen orc raiders. (The village created a holiday in Urbat’s name on the date of this event after the warrior’s death.)
- Another time, Urbat used the item to kill an orc champion in a challenge with the orc leader. Urbat’s victory gave the village a three-season reprieve until the orcs reneged.
- Bratheon, the third guildmaster after Avram, used the torque to convince city counsellors to stay an execution. The criminal became a guild member, and the family never forgot this kindness.
Lore Question #4: Woe
Now we dive into the dark corners of the item’s past.
Name a time when the item brought harm to someone or someplace, and briefly describe what happened.
If you have a bit more time, add more bleak spots to the item’s past.
- Urbat stumbled in combat and accidentally slew a friend. This sent Urbat into a funk that was not lifted until he met his future wife.
- Avram forcibly recruited Nial Crackhammer with the torque. Nial’s clan suspected foul play, and discovered evidence of the item’s magical influence. The Crackhammer clan remains a guild enemy to this day — plus they bear knowledge of the torque’s secrets.
You Are A Genius: Weave A Complex Tapestry Through Simplification
Questions three and four give you campaign depth with little work. This brief effort makes you a genius because the item becomes a catalyst and a unifying element.
By having an item do good and evil, you create an intriguing past. The contradiction will make PCs even more curious. The good and evil events generate conflicting views, stories, and legends. The PCs might even think they’re hearing about two different items, thereby creating a great future group Aha! moment.
Instead of a ho-hum cardboard magic item, you have one that offers mystery, dilemmas, and gameplay potential as players try to sort things out.
Further, these stories of weal and woe give players hints about the item’s powers. Bonus points if you offer clues about the existence and nature of hidden powers or surprise elements.
For your adventures and encounters, the conflicted history brings good and evil factions to the table. The bad guys hear of the item’s evil deeds and want it for their cause. The good guys hear of the item’s good deeds and want it for themselves.
Optionally, each side wants the item to prevent their foes from using it against them!
Unify Campaign Details
During design, we create a lot of details. Each bit of information tends to be its own island within your notes. This NPC over here, that place over there, this event in your adventure background, that event in your campaign history.
Tie some of these details together using the history you just created for your magic item. Each time you link game elements together, you reduce prep work and add depth to your world.
You can even use this to generate some plot. Who did what when to whom? Your item history can take disparate facts from your notes and noggin, and start building such statements in your campaign background using NPCs, places, and things drawn from item history tidbits.
You connect stuff. This increases detail for what gets connected, which is great. But it also reduces the number of game elements you now need to track. It’s like a video game where smaller blobs combine into big blobs, and the big blobs get new features and properties from the merge.
For example, you need a village for your adventure. Normally, you’d put a dot on your map and declare that the village. Then you start developing the village a bit.
This time, you make the village the same one Urbat protected for all those years. Boom. A small parcel of details borrowed from an item’s history instantly gives the village great details and campaign context.
Instead of a new village and one more thing to track and design, you’ve got one place with a bunch of interesting details you can include or not, roleplay or not, as you run your adventure.
Go through your item’s history and tag all the people, places and things mentioned.
Each of these nouns becomes a new entity in your campaign. Try to link to these entities as you develop your game.