Putting the Wonder back into Wondrous Items

27 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:


  1. My players tend to really like the items their characters have been given as gifts. That +1 cloak means a lot more when you got it from the grateful villagers you saved. But my campaign is pretty low magic, so anything shiny is exciting.

    • That is a great way of tying items into the campaign world.

  2. Seems like it’s a common meme these days, indeed.

    In parallel to your mention of Earthdawn, which is a cool solution by the way, I might mention Midnight.

    In Midnight magic items have powers which become “unlocked” when you gain levels. Kind of clunky solution, but the idea is nice.

    • A good idea but rather lacking in flavor, however, if you tied it to achieving certain goals (as well as gaining levels) that would be rather cool.

  3. I remember a table with magical item quirks, I think itwas from an old dragon magazine or something. These quirks had few mechanical benefits or penalties, but added flavor and mystery to the items, examples would be items which glowed when used or swords that emitted a humming tune, constantly dripped with blood etc.

    You also had the old Weapons of Legacy splatbook from Wotc where weapons gained powers as you leveled up and you could unlock more powers by taking certain feats or PrC’s, a neat idea but horribly executed IMO.

    One of the things that kills the “magic” of magical items IMO , are magical item shops. In my Campaigns the players tend to buy most of their gear and stuff they find is usually discared for other shiny toys from the MIC or other more obscure sources.

    • Magic items should have personality and quick can help to establish that.

      Yes, WoL did not sell me on its system either. The idea is good though.

      I do not mind magical artisan (who make magic items) or even dealers in magic items but, yes, magic item shops just do not seem right. Though alchemical shops selling potions and weird brews I am entirely happy with.

      • It’s not that magical item shops don’t have a place in a fantasy setting, it’s just that they tend to trivialize magic. espescially in a high magic system like pathfinder and D&D. If I had the time and creative energy I would have perzoanlized every magical item in my Campaign, but I find it much easier to just let the players have what they want if they have the resources to buy it.

  4. […] Putting the Wonder back into Wondrous Items […]

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