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Bringing Back the Magic

posted Wednesday, September 23rd 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Fluff/Inspiration

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 it’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 part—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 aren’t at a disadvantage while they seek the command to trigger the item’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 it—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 character’s background. Command words add some mystique, but not everyone enjoys roleplaying out using the word—not to mention that the player may not remember the word if it’s been awhile—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 isn’t precisely what you’re looking for in the game. If so, by all means, continue—the entire purpose is to have fun, after all.

Comments

  1. Sian

    September 23rd, 2009

    I have to agree, the replaceable, anonymous nature of D&D magic items leaves a bad taste for me. Heroes of legend (or more recent legend like LotR) maybe have two named weapons through their career, perhaps only upgrading because they need something special to tackle some specific threat.

    I much prefer PCs to get neat expendables, armor and other wondrous items, a weapon is so personal, so spiritually important, that I’d rather see them get upgrades to a weapon with some history and maybe retire it, (note I said retire not sell,) once they need to quest for a holy avenger or such. PCs shouldn’t be penalized for this sort of thing. ;)

  2. Fitz

    September 23rd, 2009

    I totally agree here. The idea that a sword is simply a slightly better sword because it’s magical doesn’t do it for me either. I love adding more crunch to items and quests to personalize them.

    Other examples could be collecting individual pieces of a sword or inscribing magic runes on a blade over time to give it additional strength or powers or even having to recharge a holy weapon by returning to a holy site every so often… The options are endless!

    Great article!

  3. Stitched

    September 24th, 2009

    It could also bring back the old chestnut where you can’t use an items powers without identification/research first.

    By identifying or having it researched, you can learn the lore (if applicable) or the inherent bonuses the item confers.

  4. Jonathan Drain

    September 24th, 2009

    D&D 4th edition only supplies a short sentence of description per magic item. I think a DM should supply the following for every magic item he spawns:

    1. A longer description of its appearance and effect. This is what the player sees.
    2. A description of the item’s background. This includes the item’s creator, the method used to create it, previous owners, and how it got to where it is when the player characters find it.

    One or two sentences for each can suffice. This encourages DMs and players alike to think of the world at large, and makes magic items more than just mechanics.

  5. Stitched

    September 25th, 2009

    You can also tie in the lore into a running sub-quest; tracking down information to unlock all the powers or bonuses piecemeal

  6. Friday Links for September 25, 2009 | Moebius Adventures

    September 25th, 2009

    [...] First we have “Bringing Back the Magic” from Brandan Landgraff at d20source.com. As someone who’s been investigating how to add more “crunch” to wizards, I have to say I hadn’t thought much about magic items until I read Brandan’s entry. As he says, a +3 flaming sword just doesn’t have much pizazz – “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”. You can find this great article here. [...]

  7. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-09-25

    September 25th, 2009

    [...] Bringing Back the Magic Stop introducing boring magic items into your game! Give them a back story, a purpose, a history and some character. This seems to only be done with artifacts in most D&D games, but there’s no reason that “long sword +1″ can’t be called “Bartuk’s Blade of Bane” with a good story behind it. For more ideas on how to do this, head on over to D20 Source and check out their post. [...]

  8. Putting the Wonder back into Wondrous Items « Sea of Stars RPG Design Journal

    September 28th, 2009

    [...] September 27, 2009 I have been seeing a lot of articles on this theme -such as Bringing Back the Magic and the brilliantly named “Is this a +3 Dagger I see before me?“- and I wrote about a [...]

  9. Trazendo a magia de volta

    December 8th, 2009

    [...] Postado em 23 de setembro de 2009, Por Brandan Landgraff no site D20 Source com o título original “Bringing Back the Magic“. [...]

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