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Putting the MAGIC back into ‘magical items’

Written by Daniel@DeepDark-Designs - Published on September 27, 2015
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I.e. most D&D players with most magic items. But can you blame them?

Imagine the scene– the players kill the big boss of the dungeon, bust down the door to his hidden vault, check for traps, unlock the chest, and open it to find a glowing magical longsword; only to then simply toss it in the Bag of Holding with all the other stuff.  Then they just offload it on the merchant next time they’re in town for 50% off MSRP.

For some there is nothing as special as liberating a sentient weapon from the despotic evildoer by prying it from his cold dead hands, finding a curious trinket imbued with the arcane collecting dust on a forgotten shelf in a back-alley bazaar, or stealing a prized instrument from the lair of a shrewd dragon. However, all too frequently the lore and mythology behind these items is scarcely considered, never explored, and ultimately amounts to little more than a ‘+’ numeric advantage somewhere on a character sheet.

Yet on the other hand with just a little work, these items could be made so much more special with a bit of history and intrigue underpinning their existence.

This could be as simple as a signature or trademark from the item’s creator etched, stitched, or embroidered. Take a sword; let’s look at the hilt. Maybe it isn’t a +1 but instead was: ‘an original Leomer’–making it an important piece of living history and giving it sentimental value to one of its creator’s descendants, or significantly increased worth to a collector. Or alternatively perhaps Leomer was an elf who was butchered by highwaymen, and his father, a hardworking smithy, made it his life’s work to avenge his son the only way he knew how– by marking every blade he manufactured with his son’s name so that the that same son can posthumously strike bandits everywhere.

Whether the item in question is a deck of cards commissioned by a charlatan so that he can always win at games of chance, a necklace crafted by a jeweller as a wedding anniversary gift for his wife that would keep her forever young, or weirder and more thought provoking (even the players would have to wonder at the state of mind of an individual who prepared a hundred identical jars of ‘Ward from Spider’, labelled them in tidy, calligraphic writing, and stacked them perfectly in serial-killer-neat rows on shelves)–these types of creations are supposed to be one-off, non-mass-produced things in the world of D&D and as such each should feel special. Unique.

It’s so easy to forget that in reality a master craftsman or artisan may have spent weeks, months, or even years manufacturing the item the adventurers now hold in their hands. When trying to create noteworthy magical items I usually ask myself a pair of simple questions: Who created the item, and what drove them to make it?

Just by answering these two questions you can make that +1 longsword an extension of its creator’s personality and therefore a unique piece of your world. Forget your PCs casting Identify, the next time you ask for an initiative roll, your fighter should know instantly that THIS is the blade to draw.

Written by Daniel@DeepDark-Designs

Hi, I’m Daniel, lead designer at DeepDark Designs and massive D&D enthusiast (well any roleplaying game really). I’ve been throwing dice as frequently as possible for over a decade now and love every second of it. In addition to ‘good’ adventures, I also write ‘bad’ fiction books. I won’t write an essay here but come say hi sometime, ya’hear?

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6 Responses to “Putting the MAGIC back into ‘magical items’”
  1. MythicParty says:

    Other than perhaps Exalted by White Wolf, D&D as a system seems to have the greatest over abundance of magical stuff everywhere. So to handle the ‘plethora of pluses’ either make every single item unique; no two Bags of Holding are ever alike; every single +1 sword had been given a name as well as a special purpose, each Potion of Healing does its curing a little differently, etc.

    Or- alternately- go the opposite direction; some day try a campaign where magic has completely disappeared from the world. One where there are only herbs, scattered alchemical wares, and the occasional burst of technology. But that Constant Reader is a column for another time.

  2. Lovely Rotten says:

    Great article, excellent arguments all around. Anything to start driving down all the pluses and bonuses. Tying it all into the story and goal is a great idea as well.

  3. Joseph says:

    I used to draw out the magical items–well embellished with character and decor–I gave my PCs with a paragraph on the side with flavor. Having a tangible image of their unique item and its flavor was greatly appreciated by the PCs.

  4. Daniel@DeepDark-Designs says:

    Thanks for the comments. That’s a great suggestion Joseph, I’ve always found being able to demonstrate ideas or objects visually really helps players get a fuller sense of them and fosters immersion but unfortunately I’ve always been limited by my lack of artistic ability. Your players are lucky to have a DM go to such great lengths for them. I’ve also seen that several companies release stock art of magical weapons, armours, and items on sites like DriveThruRPG though I think that what’s available can be a bit limited.

  5. Sean Holland says:

    I am always happy to see this subject being discussed. The main focus is to get player interested in what their characters perceive and understand of the world, not just the mechanics of the system.

    But I wrote about this subject a little while ago: http://wp.me/pylJj-68

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