Putting the Wonder back into Wondrous Items27 September, 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 related subject in Fantastic Fantasy.
The question is:
How do you make magic items special to the characters and to your players?
Magic items -especially in D&D- often just become bonuses and tools divorced from any wonder or magic, just things that make a character’s life easier that have no importance beyond that. That may even be appropriate to the lowest tier of magic items in a setting with considerable magic. After all, in a world rife with magic items, your basic +1 short sword made by the dwarves of Tollaria by the thousands is nothing really unique or special.
But some items should be special. How do you make them so?
Circumstance of Acquisition: When you -at last- defeat the evil High King Goardic and pry the Sword of Eternal Rule from his dead hand. That is an item that is special. But very few items are that epic in source.
But the lowly magic sword you grab up that allows you to cut down the attacking shadows and save the party. The wand of burning hands you just found that takes down the water elemental that drowns your friend. These are the items that player character’s often get very attached to, they are often the ‘lucky thing’ of that character. Unfortunately, such occasions are rare and difficult to plan and to orchestrate so it better to just play them up when the scene happens.
Description: “It is a +2 elemental bane long sword” or “The watered steel of the double-edged blade is marked with interwoven elemental runes, the hilt is carved from rock crystal that flickers with blue-green fire when you touch it.” Most people will find the second more intriguing.
Most descriptions do not even need to be that florid, one or two interesting things about an item will usually serve as hooks. An unusual fur collar for a cloak (silver fur for example), an inscription on a blade or inside a ring, a wand made of unusual material (bone, crystal, jade), any of these may spark the imagination.
History and Legend: Tying an item into the history and myth of a campaign setting makes it more real and more interesting. The Lost Claymore of Clan McNiven comes complete with potential plot hooks unlike a +2 bastard sword. Arcorn’s Spellbook, from the Academy of the Three Isles, is more interesting then just a block of new spells. It ties the item, and thus its new owner, into the world.
Earthdawn takes this idea in an interesting way, requiring the owner to learn the history of an item, in some case recreate aspects out of it, in order to gain greater aspects of the item. There is no reason not to fold that into other games. This makes the item not just a magic item that gets better but a source of adventure in and of itself.
Power: Yes, powers can make an item more interesting. These powers though are usually thematic. In one campaign, one of the characters gained a sword from an ancient wraith given freely. It was not much, a +1 longsword, but when the bearer needed help, sometimes it would give a small boost (haste for a round for example).
These minor powers easily tie back into interesting descriptions, one reinforcing the other. For example the silver fur trimmed cloak of resistance +1 could also provide resistance to cold 3. A scimitar etched with silver runes could be a +1 scimitar, +2 against shapeshifters (the old style +1/+2 weapons from earlier editions of D&D were excellent for this sort of minor effect).
Those of some of my strategies to try and make items more interesting and fun. What have you found to work? As a player, what has made you like a magic item?
You can help! I will be happy to add links to other articles on this theme, just let me know where they are.
Here are some of them: