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Magic Items with Character

I’ve been doing a lot of prep for my D&D games lately and I have also been spending a bit of time over on the Troll Lord Games forums, talking about Castles & Crusades. One of the conversations revolved around magic items, so I have been thinking about magic items a great deal for the past couple of days.

The question that I have been mulling over is “What makes a good Magic Item?” and I think I have come up with a few characteristics to which I adhere when I create such things. All of these criteria lead to what I like to call Magic Items with Character

1. The item must have some sort of non-combat ability

It’s okay if it also has combat mechanics and such, but I want the item to also encourage good roleplaying and creativity in problem solving. For that to be the case, the item must have some benefit outside of combat. Also, the benefit doesn’t have to be a direct mechanical implementation (i.e. a direct roll modifier, stat bump, or skill bonus), but should be described in a sentence or two that makes it easy for a GM to use the item however they see fit in their campaign. 

2. The item should have some discover-able meaningful history

That means that the item should have a known history that relates to the world/setting and can be discovered by the PCs. If the PCs are unable to know the history of the item, then it may as well not have a history. Does the history have to relate to the current adventure? No necessarily, but it would be nice. It is also nice to have the item’s backstory act as hook to bring the interest of the PCs onto a new/future event, or the item can be a huge help to the PCs in some future story arc. This provides the “We had help all along!” effect, but in a good way, not in a gotcha way. It also ends up tying in the two events/arcs – that is, the one in which the PCs find the item is now tied to the one in which the item is extremely useful – it’s a nice connector in the midst of a long campaign. All this also adds to the setting and I like my players to learn about the setting their PCs are adventuring in as we play through the campaign (just like we did in the old Greyhawk days!).

3. The item should be useful

Many would say this should be the first item on the list, but I am not so sure. The odd item – the one that the PCs do not see an immediate use for – is the one which has the capability to pull a lot of creativity out of the players. Too often in more modern games the PCs sell anything they do not see an immediate benefit for (especially in high magic settings where magic abounds). This is unfortunate, in my opinion, because it cuts off that creativity too soon. So the item should be useful, and it’s okay if the item is useful only in creative ways, but you may have to teach/train your players not to slough off any items without immediate apparent use.

4. The item should not be overpowered

This one sounds obvious to all the GMs, but it is still worth writing down. This is important because an overpowered item tends to also squash creativity. How? Because it becomes the go-to resolution item. “What? there is a problem over there? Let me just pull out our stick of This Thing Does Everything and solve that real quick!” So the party need not resolve anything creatively because they already have the magical multi-tool of the universe.

That’s it. I know, a rather short list, isn’t it? The fact is, it doesn’t take much to create an interesting magic item that fits my criteria. Here are a couple of examples of magic items that I created based on play in a Castles & Crusades campaign I ran a while back. In the examples below I provide the mechanical benefits based on the Castles & Crusades system, but the items are easily modified for any fantasy system.

Examples

Ring of Sophia’s Goblet

This small silver ring looks like a basic one-piece loop of silver, but it has a small goblet symbol etched into the underside. Once per day the ring can be used to cause 3 oz of liquid to appear in a metal or wooden goblet. The ring is activated by tapping the rim of the goblet 3 times (the ring must be worn at the time). 

The easy way to run the item is to make it always cause water to appear, but I use it with a bit more flavor. Sophia is the name of a popular queen in my setting. When the ring is used, it causes the goblet to be filled with whatever type of liquid the queen last drank. I roll 2d6 and consult a table to determine what she drank: 
2) Soured juice (nauseates drinker for 1d3 hours)
3) Expensive red wine
4) Expensive white wine
5) Cheap table wine
6) Water
7) Water
8) Water
9) Ale
10) Goat’s milk
11) Oil of Bird Egg (basically a raw egg, effects as the CK sees fit)
12) Salve of healing (acts as weak potion of healing, recover 1d3 HP)

It’s amazing what the players can do with 3 oz of liquid when they have to do something interesting in a pinch. I also had a twist on this in one of my last games – Queen Sophia was assassinated about 2/3 of the way through the campaign. Since she was no longer alive to drink things the randomness of the liquid went away and there was a 95% chance that the goblet would contain clean water. Since she was killed with poison there was a 5% chance that the goblet would produce poisoned water. The players put this effect to good use as well.

Bergot’s Dimple

This small, round, golden broach/pin has two holes in it – closer inspection reveals that it was formerly put to service as a jacket button. The pin is used by placing it on the lapel of a character who wants to make friends with a stranger. The pin’s effect lasts for 15 minutes and gives the character a bonus to charisma checks as though CHA was a prime attribute for that PC. Once the pin is used, 4 hours must pass before it can be used again. 

The name of this item is also based on an NPC in my campaign setting – a young beggar named Bergot who charmed the pants off of one of the characters and turned into a valuable and trusted ally for the group. Bergot was renowned for his ability to get any type of information from anyone with just a smile. One of the player’s made a crack about it being because of his dimples and a mythic legend was born. When Bergot died the group found his old coat and kept it. It became something of a good luck charm, but eventually all but one single button was left. One of the PCs turned that button into a pin and I decided on the spur of the moment to imbue that pin with magic, and thus was born Bergot’s dimple.


So… What do you think? Did I miss some important criteria? If so, tell me in the comments!

Until Next time, I wish you good gaming!

~DMSamuel

About

DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

5 Responses to “Magic Items with Character”

  • In response to a comment I received elsewhere about +1 weapons having ‘extra’ magical effects…

    It’s not that I think every +1 sword should always have a bunch of extra magical abilities, it’s more the case that I don’t give simple +1 magic items. I think they are boring and have no character. I like magic items to have a bit of flavor – it doesn’t necessarily have to be a secondary magical effect, but it should be more than a simple +1 blah.

    So, for example, if I want to give someone a +1 weapon, it might have some other property, like it always is shiny and looks like you just polished it, no matter how dirty or rusty it seems like it should get. Or perhaps the shield is a basic +1 shield, but it also has the property that it repels insects, thereby making it a very good choice when you are in the swamp. Simple things that give character, not necessarily powerful secondary effects

  • Girdle of Femininity. Meets all criteria.

  • Good points, though I am not sure if weapons always need an additional non-combat ability.

    I very much like that the character actions imbued an item with magic. There should be more of that in game worlds.

  • Well, technically, I suppose the Girdle of Femininity does meet all criteria, but I consider that a cursed item. Cursed Items have a different set of criteria.

  • I think that is the most common comment I have gotten in my conversations about this elsewhere – that people don’t want to give weapons additional non-combat abilities.

    Perhaps it is because I run relatively low-magic-item campaigns, but I treat magic items like they are special. Even that +1 sword should be special in another way – it may only be how it looks or how it feels, or something like that – I suppose it doesn’t strictly have to be an ‘additional’ magical effect – it can simply be something that differentiates it from other swords. But it NEEDS to be special – and I guess that is my real point. If +1 swords are in high abundance and/or don’t have anything else to differentiate them from other swords or other +1 swords, then what makes them special? Nothing. And I find that boring.