How to Create Interesting Magic Items in D&D
Magic items are a foundational part of any Dungeons & Dragons game. The Dungeon Master’s Guide and other source books provide hundreds, if not thousands of ready-to-use magic items for your game. But eventually, you’ll get the craving to create your own. After all, creating is what we do as Dungeon Masters. This guide will help you create (or spice up) interesting magic items, every time.
Magic items are often hidden in the DM’s secret folder until the time the player characters stumble upon them in the dungeon. This makes for lackluster reveals if its the only mode of acquiring magic items. The lore of magic items should precede them. By adding renown, you start revealing these treasures early in your adventures. By the time player characters finally discover one, the excitement is already there. Think of drawing an amazing Magic the Gathering card you’ve always wanted. Or finally catching the Pokemon you’ve been dreaming about. The tension and excitement builds throughout your journey and the catch is that much more satisfying.
Of course, you don’t need to do this with every magic item. And you certainly don’t need to reveal everything about them — which we’ll cover in Rarity & Mystery below. But revealing their existence and fame in your world is one powerful way to build excitement among your players.
Giving your magic item personality will create an emotional bond between the player and the item. Using the item starts to mean more. Losing the item starts to mean more. Personality can be in the form of sentience but it doesn’t have to be. It can come from the look, the feel or the backstory. The more unique the item, the easier it is to create this connection. If everyone has the same +1 magic sword, there won’t be an emotional bond.
The character needs to understand the magic item and feel that the magic item understands them. There’s an unspoken (or spoken in the case of a sentient item) bond holding them together. Maybe when the character experiences the harsh winter, their magic sword becomes warm. Not enough to do anything mechanically but enough to comfort them. Maybe the character cracks a bad joke but the sword vibrates slightly — a sign of reassurance.
Subtlety is key. Over time, you can create an amazing bond between a player character and a magic item.
Rarity & Mystery
Magic items should be mysterious. Players and character should always wonder at magic items. But the level of mystery depends on the rarity. Magic items vary in the following rarities:
As rarity increases, so too should the mystery. Common magic items such as potions of healing are well-known and their effects are straightforward. There might be an air of mystery as to how they actually work but the effects are clear. In most settings, they’re readily available all over for those that have the resources.
A rare item, such as a portable hole aren’t easily found. In fact, you’d likely have to set out on a journey with acquiring one as your end goal unless the stars align and your DM drops one on you. Whispers of their powers are probably widespread though many rumors are likely to be false. There’s a much greater air of mystery with rare items that should drive the characters’ thirst for them.
A legendary item, such as the cubic gate are incredibly hard to find, if not impossible in most cases. There’s far more mystery than fact surrounding these items. There’s a good chance that the characters have never even heard of these. If a legendary item is known by the characters, make it legendary! Legends surround it. Legends of its origin, its purpose, its location. Think of Excalibur or the Holy Grail in our world’s legends.
As rarity increases, the mystery increases. This gives you room as the DM to drop true and false information about these items throughout your story and world.
Growth and Evolution
Once a magic item is acquired, it should grow and evolve much like the characters do. There are a number of ways to accomplish this. The easiest is to change the appearance over time. Fable III follows this approach. Magic items change in appearance based on how they get used. What if a magic item begins to fall apart if its used against its will? What if a magic item begins to look like the adventurer? What if the magic item starts to reflect the alignment of the user?
The more difficult approach is changing the properties or abilities of a magic item. But it can be done. When changing the properties, look at other magic items that are more powerful. Instead of the character finding a brand-new magic item later on, alter the powers of the one they’ve created an emotional bond with to match what the new item would have had. Another method is to add powers. You want to be careful here as you’re approaching the line of the game’s design. But it is your game. Maybe the one item the character has contains the abilities of two different magic items. If that’s the case, consider limiting the number of magic items they have. Give them one less in the end.
As the items grow and evolve, they become even more important to the owner — solidifying that emotional bond.
Create the Ultimate Prize
What’s the most interesting and exciting magic weapon? The powerful, frightening, and sentient item that few know exists. Drop only the rarest of hints. Shroud this item in mystery. When its first encountered, it should be a moment to remember. When its acquired, the player characters should feel a tremendous amount of power and responsibility.
These are the items that lie at the end of campaigns. Some campaigns are built around them. Worlds rise and fall because of them. Use the ultimate prize wisely.
Use this guide to create interesting magic items for your game or apply this advice to existing magic items to really bring them to life.
Originally published at https://phd20.com.