Let’s look at how to make those magic items we give out to players a little more personal. We’re 6 levels and 16 session into my 5th edition campaign set in the Nentir Vale. Along the way I provided my players with some magic items I personalized for them. This week on the Campaign Trail, I’ll provide strategies for giving out magic items, example magic items I created (from scratch or by simply tweaking an existing magic item) and the bit of history I write for each to bring them to life.
In recent past editions of D&D, DMs were expected to hand out magic items like candy, so players could keep up with the enemies they were facing. D&D is infamous for being a game as much about magical accessorizing as it is about epic adventure.
In 5th edition, magic items are a little more sparse, and if you give out a magic item, it is better for it to be consumable. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give magic items in our 5th edition games, they should just be “rare and wondrous”. The problem with lower level magic items is they’re often not very powerful and lack the flavor of some of the famous and powerful items. For example “Here is your +1 Sword” is not as interesting as “Here’s a +1 Dragon Slayer Sword”. Items like a card from the Deck of Many Things, an Immovable Rod, or a Horn of Blasting are always going to be more interesting than a Potion of Climbing or +1 Armor. So let’s give our magic items their own personality.
Adding Personality to Magic Items
I’ve made and avoided many mistakes when giving out magic items. Here’s some advice which comes from my successful and failed Wisdom checks of the past.
Give it a Name
“They say the best swords have names,” – Jaime Lannister
Excalibur, Sting, Glamdring, Oathkeeper, Needle, The Mastersword, The Sword of Omens, The Sword of Shannara, and the Sunsword… these are just some of famous swords I could write here, but just with a name you know they are special even if you don’t recognize them by name. Name your magic items to make them meaningful and memorable. I’d recommend coming up with names for your magic items before you sit down at the table for your session.
Give it a History
Did Bilbo just find a ring of invisibility? Nope, it’s the one ring to rule them all. Every magic item doesn’t need a backstory strong enough to power an entire trilogy just to destroy it, but it is nice for players when a magic item feels like it is part of the world. Try to answer the following about a magic item:
- Who created this magic item and why?
- Who was the last owner of the magic item?
- Why is the magic item at its current location?
- Does the magic item get more powerful as you use it?
- Are there any unique markings or symbols on it?
- Who would know about the history of this magic item?
I’ll provide some answers to these for my example magic items below.
ADDED (thanks Colin): In the DMG on pages 141-43 there are four excellent tables for generating special features for a magic item, so you can figure out who created it, its history, some minor properties and its quirks.
Make it Hard to Get
One of my favorite things to do is make a magic item a quest for a player or the group. Hercules had to kill the Nemean Lion to get his magic armor, the Heroes of the Lance had to forge the Dragonlance from plans, and countless heroes have had to enter volcanoes, dungeons, temples, caves and more to find a magic item.
Help Players Compensate for their Characters Weaknesses
Is your heavily armored paladin always failing stealth checks? If you have a player who is really flailing around, consider giving them a reward that helps minimize their flaw. Rolling with advantage isn’t going to help that -1 stealth check too much. Just avoid minimizing what another player shines at (see below).
Don’t Take Away Something a Character is Good At
My last campaign was set in my seafaring homebrew world of Vodari. One of the PCs was a sea elf and another was a sea dwarf. At first, I was giving out a consumable called a Sea Root (see below for stats) to provide water breathing for the surface races. Eventually, I gave out Rings of Water Breathing to the surface folk. I was trying to make sure everyone could go on an undersea mission, but really what I did was permanently take away the usefulness of a racial feature of the undersea races.
If a magic item requires attunement, equipping it has a cost to the player. In addition, it makes it harder to just pass it to another player to use in the middle of the action. Attunement keeps the number of magic items a player can equip down, making the few items they do have even more special.
Let Them Sell/Reforge Magic Items
The special magic item you designed for your ranger is a bust or isn’t as useful as it was 4 levels ago. Don’t saddle the player with it, let them sell it, reforge it, whatever they want to make it useful. They’ll be more attached to the new magic item that you helped them create. A win-win!
Don’t Create Power Imbalances
Your cool idea for a magic item can really ruin the fun, if you just throw it out there without looking at all of the other magic items in your player’s inventories. I was giving out decent magic items to everyone around level 8, but I made the mistake of giving the rogue a cloak of invisibility. I homebrewed it, but I missed a keyword or something. The short version is the rogue was hard to hit and wasn’t challenged and the other players felt like their magic items were not as awesome. This could have been avoided with a simple proofread or selecting a new item.
Scale Magic Items Over Time
As a player gains power (levels), let their weapon or armor move up from +1, +2, +3. A +1 sword given to the fighter from her dying father shouldn’t be tossed aside as she levels, let it scale up to. As the game progresses you can:
- unlock special damage like an extra 1d6 fire damage
- bump up damage dice for the weapon after it gets a critical hit or kills a special enemy
- have hidden sentience emerge so the magic item can become a sidekick or evil temptation
- or any other power that make the special item continue to have utility to the player as the numbers in your game get bigger
Example Magic Items
The following are some selected magic items from my Vodari and Nentir Vale campaigns. Adding personality to a legendary magic item is relatively easy, so I thought I’d show some examples of how to add just a bit of personality to lower power magic items.
The stats below are good enough from my game and fit my world. Please really pay careful consideration before you dump any of these into your own game. Even better, just open up the DMG and customize or create your own magic items!
You can breathe underwater for 1 hour after eating this root and gain a swim speed equal to your movement. The root is bitter, spongy and salty. A creature that eats the root will quickly grow gills on the side of their neck and webbing between their fingers and toes.
Like a potion, the Sea Root is a consumable that provides water breathing. Making it a root instead of a potion is a tiny tweak that makes this a little more interesting that the Potion of Water Breathing and avoids the problem of having a ring, amulet, or another permanent magic item in the player’s inventory.
Ribbon of False Appearance
Wondrous item, uncommon (requires attunement)
This ribbon has 3 charges, while it is tied in your hair, you can use an action to expend 1 of its charges to cast the disguise self spell or 2 of its charges to cast the blur spell from it. Any cast spell ends if the ribbon is removed from your hair. The ribbon regains 1d3 expended charges daily at dawn.
I gave this item to our Rogue – Mastermind who was really enjoying running disguise missions. I took the Hat of Disguise as my base and scaled it down to avoid at will use. The BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) had it in his study with some letters and she pocketed it with the letters, not knowing what it could do yet.
Weapon (Polearm), rare (requires attunement)
You gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this magic weapon. When you hit an evil enemy of civilization with this weapon you deal an additional 1d6 radiant damage.
I created this for our paladin who follows Erathis (Goddess of Law and Civilization). He was handed the magic weapon from a statue of his goddess in a vision/waking dream in her temple. The “evil enemy of civilization” is ridiculously vague and an ongoing joke, but it is working for us, letting us target enemies of his goddess versus a type of monster.
Ring of the Forest Friendship
Ring, uncommon (requires attunement by a bard, druid or ranger while outside)
This ring is made of a magical green metal and given to non-elves by elven nobility as a gift of friendship. While wearing this ring, you can cast Animal Friendship, Speak with Animals, and Speak with Plants when you are anywhere within ten miles of a forest.
This item was sent to our half-elf ranger by the neighboring elves as the only reply to a call for help for and upcoming battle. While it is a pretty useful item while in a forest, it was also an important hint that the elves would help them. When the huge battle was about to swing in the favor of the bad guys, the elves marched in with their golden armor and giant white stags.
Barnaby the Raven
Wonderous item, uncommon
This silver statuette of a raven can become a raven for up to 12 hours. Once per day while in raven form, the figurine can carry a short message (up to 25 words) to a person you know. You need to know the general location of the person, but the raven must be able to reach them while in raven form (traveling up to 25 miles in 12 hours). After 12 hours has passed or the message has been delivered, the statuette will instantly return to the person who last held the figurine before it changed into raven form.
This is heavy modification of a Figurine of Wondrous Power to make it very specific to my campaign. The players ran with it and the name Barnaby was given to the raven who has been quite useful in the campaign so far for our ranger. This was a nice pick-up for our ranger – hunter, who wouldn’t have a companion otherwise. I’m sure there is some more history with this item…
Staff of the Frog King
Staff, rare (requires attunement by a bard, cleric, druid, sorcerer, warlock or wizard)
This staff has 10 charges. While holding it, you can use an action to expend 1 or more of its charges to cast one of the following spells from it, using your spell save DC: Poison Spray (1 charge), Ray of Sickness (2 charges), Protection from Poison (3 charges)
The staff regains 1d6+4 expended charges daily at dawn. If you expend the last charge, roll a d20. On a 1, the staff blackens and explodes into a cloud of noxious gas and all creatures within 10 feet must make a DC13 Constitution save or take 1d12 poison damage. The staff is destroyed forever.
I didn’t expect the bard of our party to pick up this item, but he is really enjoying it. It was picked up from the dead body of the Chief Gloorpk, leader of a tribe of pesky bullywugs the party cleared out of a cave. The magic item had allowed the Chief to take control of the tribe, become quite corpulent and start to raid the nearby village. I created the magic item so that Gloorpk would be a tough opponent for the lower level PCs. I was wrong, and I’m not sure he even was able to hit a PC with a spell before he died.
Vendar’s Dragon Slayer +1
Weapon (any), rare (weapon will attune when near a dragon, unlocking extra damage)
This weapon is well crafted and should feature the Vendar family crest on its blade, pommel, hilt (or similar area). You gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this magic weapon.
When you hit a dragon with this weapon, the dragon takes an extra 3d6 damage slashing damage. For the purpose of this weapon, “dragon” refers to any creature with the dragon type, including drakes, dragon turtles and wyverns.
Vendar is a great hero of the past who killed a dragon in an epic battle on top of a waterfall. The bards sing of his mighty deeds from long ago. My party found this magic longsword lying in a dragon’s treasure hoard. I’d tell more about this item, but my players and I haven’t reached that part of the story yet.
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