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Magic Items With Use

Written by One Die Short - Published on January 19, 2012

Greetings!  For this month’s installment of One Die Short we take a look at Magic Items:

Magic Items are a staple, and to some degree a necessity, of Dungeons & Dragons.  In the above page from One Die Short Howie whines about the uselessness of Matilda’s new-found Pandimensional Knitting Needles of Atropos.  For players, there are certain expectations when it comes to Magic Items.  Generally, this expectation starts with the item being useful.  But what makes an item useful?

More often than not I’ve found that unless a Magic Item provides some combat related bonus, stat boost, extra spell or spell-like ability, it’s often perceived as somewhat worthless.  This is for good reason, most especially if you’re playing a combat heavy campaign.  Players like it when their characters get better at killing things.  That’s more or less the main purpose of leveling, and so Magic Items are created with the same ideas in mind.  But Magic Items can be more than this.

A good Dungeon Master avoids cliches, and tries to prevent things from getting stale, predictable and uninteresting.  If Magic Items are always your run-of-the-mill Thundering Hammers, Plate Armor of Fire Resistance, and Invisibility Cloaks, players will start taking them for granted.  Sure, they will still be happy to have them, but they will start to lose their novelty.  They become standard equipment, instead of something new and exciting.

I’m not suggesting that we remove these sort of items from the game, but merely accept them for what they are: useful tools, not epic artifacts.  Magic Items can become the focus of a campaign, but even these items rarely have an identity other than their creative backstory.  Backstories are essential for an important Magic Item, but they don’t make the item itself any more interesting.  Writing a detailed history of an amulet that grants the wearer a bonus spell every day, is still just that: an amulet that grants a bonus spell.

Returning to One Die Short, the Knitting Needles scorned by the Howie have a two-fold purpose (the second purpose is more complicated and one that will have to be discovered by the PCs later).  The more mundane use is that they are enchanted to knit whatever they are commanded to.  At first this seems relatively useless.  Scarves and sweaters galore!  Hooray!  But what I like about an item of this nature is that it forces the players to get creative.  Why not knit a net for a trap, or maybe a bridge to cross a narrow gorge?  Or will they simply use it to become a travelling sweater salesman?

The point here is that the item becomes useful in an entirely new way, but it requires additional thought and creativity.  In my experience this sort of item invariably leads to fun, and sometimes hilarious scenarios, but can also be an unexpected savior during a time of need.  For me, one of the keys to creating these sort of items is to stop thinking in terms of character sheets and stats, and weapons and armor.  Sometimes a really unique item starts with something mundane.

Take a look around you.  How about a magic stool that the character can fold up and carry around with them, and whenever anyone sits in it, it paralyzes that person for a few minutes.  Useful, but in a slightly irksome kind of way.  How do you get someone to sit in it?  Maybe a magic fork that can transform inorganic matter into a nutritious gruel.  The players might never go hungry, but what other use could such a fork have?  How about when one of their comrades is locked up and no one has any decent lockpicking skills?  Turn that stone wall into dinner!

The possibilities are endless, and when we think outside the D&D box we will inevitably create Magic Items that our players will remember.  They may not drool over them, they may not even thank you for them, but you can almost guarantee they will remember these items fondly, and they probably won’t sell them at the first available opportunity.

Thanks for reading, and please be sure to check out the rest of One Die Short, as well as my personal advice blog, Ask the Dungeon Master, all about Life, the Universe, and Roleplaying.

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Written by One Die Short

I’m a long-time Dungeon Master and roleplayer and will bring my dice to the grave with me. I write a webcomic entitled One Die Short. It’s a story of love, life, nerds and roleplaying. Both the adventures and “real-life” segements are based on my own roleplaying experiences as a DM of over fifteen years.

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4 Responses to “Magic Items With Use”
  1. Old Guy says:

    Reading the forums, one would think that D&D was exclusively about combat and that magic items existed solely to enhance combat ability. I love seeing posts like this that focus on the rest of the game!

    Great ideas with the knitting needles. I have to admit that I probably would never have come up with such clever uses.

  2. Xaos Bob says:

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Magic doesn’t always go BOOM. I love knowing others share the thought. Thanks for the post! :)

  3. Matt says:

    Thanks for reading! I’d certainly like to echo your sentiments: It is great to hear from other people that remember the roleplaying part of RPGs!

  4. Jasp says:

    I’ve always been a fan of a glove I picked up from a French novel. Don’t remember the name, but if the wearer clenched their fist and imitated someone pulling an imaginary bowstring back, then releasing it, a real arrow would shoot out.
    I’ve often used a variant that’s a glove that can create fragile javelins of light. Essentially, they shatter upon impact.

    Another one I always enjoy putting in is a black, immobile staff seemingly made of nothing, and a pair of gloves made of a similar substance. The staff cannot be moved, except with the gloves. The number of exploits for this is, naturally, huge. But it’s worth the later GM headaches just to see the players try to work out why the staff is not levitating or floating, but simply EXISTING 3 feet in the air.

    If I’m feeling particularly cruel, I often include a ring or glove of Antimagic: cannot be removed, and whenever the wearer touches a source of magic (item or spell), the item is either temporarily drained of its powers, permanently drained, or – melted -. Very inconvenient, but hooray for an incredibly powerful antimagic.

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