Make Magic Items More Marvelous With Magic Item Sets
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1059
As a world builder, I love having lots of cool magic items. Weapons, wondrous items, and artefacts of legend. These provide instant hooks for quests, dungeons, and missions.
As a game designer, I can’t wreck campaign balance. Too many magic items in the PCs’ hands means they can arm wrestle tarrasques, chase demon lords, and insult the gods without breaking a sweat.
That gets boring fast. And it trashes the gritty sword and sorcery vibe I want for Duskfall.
One solution I’m using involves a combination of the D&D 5E attunement rules and special materials to create what I’m calling Infused Magic Items.
Dust or Destiny
On my Duskfall GM Agenda I have this:
Great magic items must have dust or destiny.
By this I mean the best magic items in the land beckon from two strategic hooks.
The first hook comes from Spikes of Danger (very challenging sandbox adventure sites).
That’s the dust part. Magic items or yore & lore lie in wait for bold tomb robbers, intrepid explorers, and desperate seekers.
If items rest in wicked dungeons, the sandbox lights up for players like a constellation of greed, and the campaign practically writes itself.
The second hook comes from my factions. Faction leaders or champions will wield the remaining items on my Quartermaster’s list of campaign rewards.
This means items are protected — and used — by powerful NPCs.
And again, as players learn the Cast of Characters for Season III of Hobo Princes, and hear about the treasure these NPCs possess, gameplay drives itself.
The Milieu Builder
Dust and destiny gives me strong direction in how I craft the adventure region.
I’ll need Spikes of Danger adventure sites.
I’ll need Factions.
And I’ll need one or more powerful NPCs in those factions.
But the world building goes deeper.
I can connect these items, locations, and factions into a story.
The origins of the magic items. Their histories. How they played roles in wars, rivalries, and conflicts. How they are coveted and by whom.
I can tie cultures and history to the locations and items. I can have miracles, legends, and mythology result from the effects Infused Magic Items have had through the ages.
There are no freebies in Duskfall. If the players want good treasure, they’re going to have to take it.
They can try their luck at Spikes of Danger, or tackle a powerful NPC and their allies.
However, I want minions to wield magic items too. The PCs are so powerful that I need to buff up the rank and file so they can pose occasional actual threats.
I also want non-violent items for clever use as obstacles against the PCs. Perhaps a villain will order a minion to sabotage an important relationship the PCs have. Or a foe will try to mislead the party.
But, should all these items fall into character clutches, I’ll have a big problem.
Character abilities blur, making each PC shine less. For example, the paladin getting some magic stealth buffs from a groovy cloak.
And more magic items on equipment lists means it’ll be even harder to challenge the PCs.
Here’s where special materials and attunement come into play.
In Duskfall, all permanent magic items require a special base material.
There are many choices based on fictional materials I’ve created.
For example, blood ore to craft metal items. Mysterium for wondrous items. And dun metal for weapons and armour.
I have half a dozen such materials for Duskfall, with more in the works.
And there’s more to this than flavour.
Special materials become more hooks. Perhaps there’s a small vein of blood ore waiting to be found. If brought back to the Kouzelnik there could be a new cache of items introduced to the milieu.
But our faction game guides us here. The Kouzelnik would not just sell these items. The items would be new resources in their battle with Pantheon, the Bandit Princes, and other enemies that emerge during play. Perhaps the PCs would be interested in an item or two if used against these foes?
These enemies will want intel on the items. They’ll want agents to steal or destroy them. Perhaps the PCs would be interested in these missions?
To further build campaign flavour and keep things balanced, I am combining special materials with attunement.
Special materials activate only by certain wielder traits.
This gives me even more levers for crafting stories and balancing powers.
For example, just evil beings may attune with blood ore items.
And mysterium creates a cap for non-good creatures. Mysterium items will have base functionality for universal attunement. But if a good user attunes, more powers unlock.
Only dwarves may attune with dun metal. To other races magic items made of this stuff are mere masterworks.
This translates into social power, faction power, political power, and intrigue.
For example, if I want to give evil an advantage in the milieu (which I do) I will add more blood ore and blood ore items into play.
I can give minions blood ore weapons and armour that are useless to the PCs. This gives me my desired foe buffs without stacking up PC powers with magic treasure.
And evil foes will want to seize and destroy mysterium items. I imagine the factions of good will want to do the same with blood ore items.
Through the history of Duskfall, I can tell new stories about these innate conflicts caused by special materials.
For example, I can respin the classic tale of dwarves and elves being enemies. In Duskfall, these cultures have their own special material they can attune to. The elves have drift wood. The dwarves have dun metal.
And it turns out these materials are like water and oil. From this material division comes the social division. The betrayals, wars, and enmity stem from each culture’s affinity to a special material.
The last aspect of Duskfall’s Infused Magic Item system I want to share with you today is the concept of attuned magic item sets.
Named item collections harken back for me to the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook. The Rod of Seven Parts. Bigby’s spells and Mordenkainen’s. Elven cloaks and boots.
The idea of attuned sets crystallized recently when I played the Roleplayer board game.
In the game, the character you’re building can buy item cards. You get a victory point bonus for each item in a set you can collect. For example, you want to collect the leather pauldron, leather gloves, leather greaves, and leather boots for maximum stars.
What a neat way to enhance the campaign!
I want players to quest high and lo for lore, clues, and locations of items to complete their sets. It’s another way to deeply hook certain players and let them drive their side plots.
For mechanics, I’m going to tap the Legendary Creatures system of D&D 5E like I did with Gem Powered Items.
I will create bonus Legendary Powers that unlock as items of a set are gathered.
These powers will be designed at the set level. Meaning, I’ll create a Magic Item Set entry in Campaign Logger and define its powers and features.
Items in the set will get their own stat blocks and features.
When two or more items from a set are worn together, and have been properly attuned, Legendary Powers unlock.
More Legendary Powers unlock as a character collects set items, existing powers have more efficacy, or the gem cost of powers gets reduced.
Lots of design levers there.
All this feeds into my desire to have a sandbox milieu steeped in stories, secrets, and hooks.
Infused Magic Item Sets now give me more story crafting options, including a new aspect: the celebrity nature of the creator.
Famous NPCs in history who crafted these sets for some purpose. Those NPCs will have labs and lairs, caches of lore, and fame to make Duskfall feel deeper, more detailed, and wondrous.