posted Wednesday, September 23rd 2009 by
Magic items have always been an integral part of D&D and other fantasy roleplaying games. Even before the roleplaying game was invented, magic items captured the imaginations of generations, be they weapons like Excalibur or the Gae Bolg; articles of clothing like a cloak or cap of invisibility, seven league boots or winged sandals; or even the legendary magic ring and lamp that summoned genies to grant wishes. Folklore, myths, and legends are full of magic items, and itâ€™s only to be expected that D&D would be as well, drawing as it does on all of those as sources.
The problem is that all too often it is easy to think of a magic item as a +3 flaming sword, rather than the legendary fiery blade wielded by the mighty conqueror Hulkgar the Bad during his annexation of the kingdoms of the north. Treating magic items as simply a better class of regular gear removes the most important partâ€”the magic itself is gone.
Fortunately there are a few ways to make magic items feel more evocative. A few are listed below:
- Lore is a great way to make magic items feel special. As mentioned above, perhaps the flaming sword +3 your players have just found once belonged to a conqueror who united the ancient empire. Perhaps the links of the suit of chain armor they found was forged using metal provided by the five great dwarven mithril mines of the lost dwarven holds. Even when the PCs are enchanting their own gear, by adding a bit of detail on the components or the process, or perhaps a minor quest to find specific rare reagents required for the ritual can make the item feel more special.
- In older editions, magic items were often activated by way of a command word. Finding the right word or phrase to activate an item may be simple, or it may become a minor quest in and of itself. In 4th Edition, the way magic items are structured makes this approach work quite well; since the enhancement and properties are mechanically distinct from the activated power, players arenâ€™t at a disadvantage while they seek the command to trigger the itemâ€™s full potential. In fact, if you are inclined more towards a campaign where items grow in power along with the heroes instead of being replaced every few levels, you could even use command words to trigger each increase in power.
- Acquiring new magic items could be the specific focus of a quest. This is almost always the case with powerful artifacts, but a quick foray into the territory of a band of kobolds whose leader has been rumored to carry a massive axe of pitted black iron that seems to spread infection and corruption from even the slightest of wounds inflicted can be a worthwhile diversion, as well as a good opportunity for a set-piece battle without needing to directly relate it to the main story. One could almost build an entire campaign around the simple motivation of collecting magic items, if so inclined. For those who prefer more depth of story, consider giving a weakness to the antagonist or common enemies, and spending some time seeking magic items to exploit itâ€”blessed weapons for taking down a vampire, perhaps, or silver weapons to deal with a marauding band of lycanthropes
These approaches are just a few ways to make the magic items in your campaign feel special. Take care not to use them to excess, however. Players will soon become bored if every item has a back story longer than their own characterâ€™s background. Command words add some mystique, but not everyone enjoys roleplaying out using the wordâ€”not to mention that the player may not remember the word if itâ€™s been awhileâ€”and sometimes items should be simply work, no strings attached.
Finally, if every magic item the players get becomes the object of its own quest, there will be very little time for activity not related directly to the acquisition of treasure. That, of course, assumes that that isnâ€™t precisely what youâ€™re looking for in the game. If so, by all means, continueâ€”the entire purpose is to have fun, after all.