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We all read about the little person finding a magical ring and the GM basing his whole plot on that little ring. That was a cool example of a MacGuffin.

Earthdawn has a system in which characters need to research the history of magical item before they can unlock their power. Or they can weave magic into their own items, thus making them more powerful.

What do you do to make a magical item more interesting in your game?

How do you make that +X sword interesting? How do you make sure your magical item enhance the story you are telling? How do you get characters to create their own magical items within a story?

Finally, I am not really interested in rules answers. I am afraid that I do not care that page 256 of Treasures and Gimps gives rules to create a magical +1 sword of cucumber slaying.

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I personally truely love the earthdawn method. I find it had to believe that a warrior is going to want to give up a finely crafted blade that feels comfortable and has served him/her well through countless adventures simply because there is one in a treasure pile that has a few more pluses on it. A character with a heirloom blade is condemed to using the same +1 weapon that the gm gave him when he rolled his character. It doesnt seem to make sense to me. –  Chad Aug 23 '11 at 17:26
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Basing an entire plot on a little magic ring seems sort of silly. I cant imagine anything like that would do well as a book or movie. –  dpatchery Aug 23 '11 at 18:44
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Ah, but that magic ring is a great example of an upgradable magic item. In its first appearance it was just a Ring of Invisibility. In its second it was a Ring of Awesome World Domination (cursed). –  DJClayworth Aug 23 '11 at 20:52
    
@Chad - Consider Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and their named weapons: As the pair are often divested of their property, these are names they apply to any of their appropriate weapons and not necessarily names of specific ones. It's certainly not a common scenario, but it's an entirely reasonable way to treat your weapons. –  Bobson Apr 19 '13 at 17:52
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10 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Magic items are more interesting when they serve to advance or drive a plot. This may be because

  • Only with that item can the characters succeed (and it is hard to get or keep the item). Example: wights that can only be hurt by +1 weapons, in an area where +1 weapons are extremely rare.

  • The item is complex; it only sometimes works, or requires mastery and exploration. Example: a Wand of the Moon which has greater effects at night than during the day, but the nature of the effects change with the phase of the moon (all of which the characters have to find out).

  • The item has a long and elaborate history, some of which is relevant to some grand plot or event. Example: a horcrux.

  • The item is unique, and even if not all that powerful, the characters become known as the ones with that unique capability, if only they can make it. Example: the characters have to create +1 swords for wight-slaying, and they learn from an old magician how to both enchant the swords and make them glow if wights are within 100m.

You cannot, in general, make people super-excited about items that are commonplace and easy to get, no matter how fantastic they are. For example, in a matter of seconds, I can talk to any person I choose on the planet, thanks to a cell phone. Do I spend much time thinking about the cell phone itself? Not really. (Apple does a good job at making its products seem extraordinary, so if I had an iPhone it might be a partial exception.)

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-1 for invoking the Apple mind controlling demon ^_- –  Sardathrion Aug 24 '11 at 8:07
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One note: it doesn't have to be the player's plot that gets driven. Even minor magic items are more interesting if it feels like the creator had a reason for creating them and an agenda to advance... even if that agenda doesn't directly impact the players. –  Tynam Aug 29 '11 at 13:03
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Apart from his very good other suggestions, I have to disagree with Ichoran, that magic items have to advance or drive a plot to be interesting. A bag of holding is an interesting idea which doesn’t have to be central to the plot.

I agree more with F. Randall Farmer’s ‘Make Items Custom and Personal’.

I say, “Interactive Items Can be Interesting.” In a game I had a ‘snake charm’. This was a little bit of jeweler which from time to time (not controlled by the player) would waken, unravel, slither across my character’s body to a new location and become a different piece of jewelry. For instance it might be a bracelet at one point and later become a necklace, ring, belt, headband, etc.

I’d like to remind you that “the little person finding a magical ring and the GM basing his whole plot” it wasn’t just the cool trick the little person could do, but also that others could sense the ring. It wasn’t just that the ring did x, but, the ring is also interesting because of its other attributes. I bring this up because such a ring tends to interact with the environment and those around them.

  • That nice lizard-skin armor means something different when you meet a tribe of lizard-folk.
  • That nice bear-pelt cloak seems like a great idea until you get shot in the woods.
  • That rare ring from a lost race should attract additional notice from thieves, jewelers, scholars and the like.
  • Maybe the item works well, but for political reasons shouldn’t be used in public (or if used shouldn’t leave any witnesses).

The idea is that items themselves can have meaning apart from the use players may normally put them to.

Items that change over time I find interesting. Not just items which grow in power with the character, but items which are situational. A moon sword, tied to the phases of the moon. A Forrestal’s cloak which makes hiding and reduces being hit, but only in the forest. A bloodstone, that you have to feed blood to, in order to recharge it. I once had an item which had a very long delay to it, a sort of time bomb (so the trick was trying to predict when to start it and hope it would affect something when it set off).

Another game I’m working on traps entities into objects to empower them. Certain types of entities react poorly around other types, causing the characters to pick and choose what items they can have about their person.

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Nice answer. "Ask not what magic items can do for you, but what you must do for magic items." I'm definitely cribbing that snake jewellery idea. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 25 '11 at 3:03
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"Items that change over time" I love that idea –  Danny T. Aug 28 '11 at 18:43
    
@Danny One of the nice things about situational magic items is that they can be powerful, but when they might be two powerful for a campaign it might be the wrong time. I never really liked the 'use one time a day' items as people would normally save them for a big fight. But a, "Can only be use on a full moon", is much easier to work around. I like the idea of a weapon that is a dagger on the New Moon, a short sword on the 1st and 3rd quarters, and a long sword on the full moon. –  user179700 Aug 30 '11 at 21:23
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Make Items Custom and Personal

This is related to my question Can players use crafting to improve beloved magic items instead of churning gear?

I have my players upgrade their primary gear (weapons, armor, implements) during major down-time (the week before a major assault, during a research break, etc.) They enchant, smith, infuse, forge, transform, etc. their current beloved items to gain plusses and special powers. They run around town and country looking for items to improve their chances of success.

I play it as a D&D 4e skill challenge - As an example, my party has a Dwarven PC that has a profession of blacksmith. During a break he forged a Scimitar of the Sun by fusing a +1 Scimitar with a Light/Radiant Medallion. Our Mage and Sentinel contributed related skills to the effort and modified the final roll.

Next he sharpened the spines on the Mage's Robe of Quills to do more damage (I renamed it the Robe of Barbed Quills)... Finally he bolted some Iron Defender plating he'd collected to his chain mail, creating a patchy semi-plate, upgrading it's defense...

This creates customized items with an in-play history.

That "this roll will either 1) Work or 2) Destroy/Damage your object" creates player investment in their gear. Since I did this, I noticed the players using the special effects on their gear more often.

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+1 for good ideas. -1 for too much rules ^_- but it could be useful for others playing D&D4e so it should stay as is. –  Sardathrion Aug 24 '11 at 8:08
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Didn't think of it as rules-heavy at all: "Skill Challenge to upgrade equipment." To my mind, pretty simple. @Sardathrion - is it that you think Skill Challenges are too rulesy? :-) –  F. Randall Farmer Aug 24 '11 at 15:20
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I run systemless games so any rule is too rulesy ^_-. That said, a skill test to upgrade equipment would be logical. A skill test to research how to do effect X in item Y would be needed to create a new magical item. Or maybe a research-type roll to find how someone else did it -- if one had access to a large library. I particularly like your idea of mixing two items into one. –  Sardathrion Aug 24 '11 at 15:27
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The biggest factor in how interesting an item is is whether it is passive or active. A passive item just increases stat Q by X. That's boring, always there, automatically included in your character sheet, and quite forgettable.

Active items on the other hand are much more interesting. When the character must make a decision to use the item or save it for later, it becomes more of a presence at the game table simply by its nature.

To make active items really interesting, the decision to use them must be a difficult one to make. Here are a few examples:

Powerful Items with Powerful Drawbacks

One striking example comes to mind. My DM gave our wizard a Ring of Time. It allowed him to "roll back" time by jumping back to a point in the very recent past. For each 6 seconds he went back, he aged 1d10 years in a random direction. This saved the group's bacon a few times, but he always had that risk of dying of old age or becoming a child.

Intelligent Items

Sometimes all you need to do is give your items a little personality. Our hide-and-shoot stealthy character found the shield of a legendary warrior. It immediately bound to him, but always wanted to charge into battle. Every combat was a struggle of wills between the character and his shield.

Charged Items

You can also use items with a finite number of uses, or charges. This forces the item to be an active one. I don't think this mechanic is as good as the others that I've listed, but it's surely more interesting than a passive item.

Gambits

Fourthcore introduced a new idea to D&D-4e called gambits. The concept however can be applied to any system or systemless game. Gambits follow the same rules for items in that they have a cost and can be purchased or rewarded as treasure, but they are more of a "story" item. Example gambits:

  • Friends in high places: Choose a race at the time of acquisition. Invoke this gambit to gain a bonus to a diplomatic measure you are making with a member of that race.
  • Unlikely Cache: (1 use) Invoke this gambit to "just so happen" to have stashed a small cache of common items worth [nominal value] at your current location.
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Wow... I'd have extremely large problems with charged items and intelligent items as described: I absolutely refuse to have my hammer tell me it doesn't want to hit things. ... looking at your active/passive ontology, I wouldn't say active causes interest so much as it causes mechanical complexity. Given that complex things are quickly integrated into either the schemata of battle or discarded, I'm not entirely sure I buy your articulation of increased interest. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Aug 27 '11 at 7:54
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@Brian That's only true for games that are battle-focused and rules-complex enough to induce mental simplification strategies like battle schemata. An item that is a strategic (non-combat) puzzle all its own can provide lots of interest when the players' heads aren't already full of grid-based tactical complexity. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 28 '11 at 18:18
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  • Give the magic item a history that can be explored during play. An evocative name can help a lot with getting the players interested.

  • If it makes sense in your setting, have the magic item become more powerful as its owner becomes more powerful. There's no fun in a magic item that was cool ten sessions ago but now isn't worth keeping around.

  • Surely there are some NPCs that wouldn't mind having that item for themselves...

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+1 for magical items upgrading as the characters become more powerful. –  Sardathrion Aug 24 '11 at 8:07
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And +1 for items with history that can be explored. One of my favourite things in D&D is when you encounter something that feels like it was once part of something greater, something wonderful whose secrets await exploration. –  Jonathan Drain Aug 28 '11 at 17:59
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Larry Ditillio wrote a great article for Sorcerer's Apprentice magazine back in '81 about this called "The Eldritch Connection" (Fall '81, Issue 12). He had a 16-point checklist about questions you should ask for any magic item you include in a game; the highlights include:

  • How often and how easily can the item be employed? Suppose that super-sword only works 3 times a day, or only 30 times until it disintegrates; how will that affect players' approach to it?
  • Is the item limited to a specific character type/class/bloodline/minimum stat/race?
  • What can't the item do? Ditillio makes reference to a pair of boots of water walking; does 'water' mean "any liquid", or will someone sink if they try to walk over an acid pool?
  • How can the item be destroyed?
  • Are there any side-effects to using the item?

...as well as others regarding legends, inclusion in the scenario where it's found, and the like.

On top of that, the best advice I've read lately about magic items comes from Lamentations of the Flame Princess: "Never create a magic item that merely improves game mechanics. No +1 swords, +1 shields, or anything of that sort." So if you have a sword (and depending on the rule set, a +1 might be inevitable), what can it do besides "what swords do, but better"? How about a sword that acts like D&D's Boots of Striding and Springing? Now you have a unique magic item; come up with a reason why someone would have forged such a weapon and you've got something unique, useful, and colorful.

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+1 "How can the item be destroyed" –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 19 '11 at 17:04
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One technique that I am particularly fond of is to provide an index card along with the item. The index card has the name, the stats the player knows, and maybe even a little sketch (if you're feeling up to it).

The item may start out as a mystery. They don't know exactly what it does, but one of those goblins did seem to squish extra bad under this new mace. As the character discovers more of the properties, they write the new information down on the back of the index card. Eventually they find out that it keys into magic users (that goblin was a shaman).

(Setting-optional:) But each magic item has its own personality - they aren't assembled in a factory. Some wizard put his time, energy, money, and maybe even blood into it. You know how people name boats? Wizards would have an emotional connection to their creations as well.

  • The more powerful the item,
  • The more powerful the creator
  • The fewer creators of that power (and, potentially, the more eccentric)
  • The more individual effort spent
  • The more personality imbued

Maybe our Mace of Magic Crushing comes from a wizard expelled from his magic university. This mace, coincidentally, is also incapable of doing non-lethal damage to wizards, and, while holding it, the wielder can't be affected by curses (or healing).

Items are more fun when they have some sort of humanity. It makes them more interesting, it makes a better mystery, and can help to tie together some weird effects!

(Note: they don't have to be intelligent to feel human)

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I've done this. Add a key to the corner of the card that indexes into my GM notes, and I can easily reference the item without looking at the character's sheet/index card. If I ever forget where that potion bottle came from and what's in it, the cryptic number in the corner of the card tells me! –  SevenSidedDie Aug 27 '11 at 1:58
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Paizo sells a set of cards with illustrations and blank notes areas for exactly this purpose. –  Sean McMillan Dec 20 '11 at 18:02
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I'm surprised no one has mentioned this yet, perhaps as it relies on the players being interested in stuff in the first place, but just describe the items in detail. Don't let them instantly identify what they have. Let them figure out what the item does. Make them work for it.

I once described a masterwork sword in a D&D game as something like:

A dark shimmering blade with a black opal gem on the hilt

My players got pretty involved discussing how to pick up the 'obviously' cursed item, until the group's fighter just grabbed it. He'd gotten involved enough to want the item, no matter the risk, as it was interesting. And that was without the item even being magical.

Imagine what you could do with a truly magical item?

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+1 for making the players figure out what the item is/does on their own. –  Gordon Gustafson Jan 14 '12 at 16:37
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An items "cool factor" is directly related to its desirability, and there's really only two reasons to desire an item: either it helps you mechanically or it adds an interesting piece of "fluff" to the story being told

The easiest way to "cool up" an item is to make sure that it's mechanically good enough that a player doesn't have to "waste" a slot to equip it, and then crank up the fluff factor. If the current standard for your game is a +2 sword, it's more work to "wow" with a +3 sword than a really cool +2 sword.

What bit of fluff makes an item cool is going to change from player to player. One player may love a cosmetic-only shadow effect. (This is fairly common in my world, as I have a player who's fully decked out in it.) Another player may love having a jacket that provides them with food every time they reach into the pocket. (Another cosmetic effect in a game that doesn't require you to actually track rations.) Other players may enjoy an item with a mythic history, or a juicy roleplaying hook, or even a sly homage to another work. Fluff is easy to custom fit.

And I can't recommend enhance-able items enough. Rather than having them "turn an item in" for an upgrade, just upgrade the item itself. If the story hook for an item was "this sword is the last thing my grandfather ever gave me, and I miss him" it's going to pose a nasty mechanics-versus-story issue when an adamantine one turns up in a dungeon. Replace with a potion that turns steel into adamantine and it becomes, "this sword was the last thing my grandfather ever gave me, and now it's going to mean even more when I give it to my grandson."

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If you are going to have something that scale, just make sure it does a multiplier and not an addition. So, the sword bonus is 1.2 that of your skill -- at skill of 100, you get +20, at skill 10, you get +2... –  Sardathrion Dec 19 '11 at 12:21
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One way I've found to make magic items really compelling is to let players be more creative and bend the rules with magic items. Every generic shield is the same, but a magic shield gives you a little something extra, something beyond an ordinary item. Let the players run a little wild where their magic items are concerned.

For instance, I ran a game where a character acquired a fairly standard +1 sword. The player asked me to describe it, so I told him it gave off small lightning sparks constantly. The player picked up the ball and ran with it, using his sword to light fires, signal his teammates, scare off monsters, and many other things. This would not have been possible for a normal sword, but I let him go with it because it gave the sword a lot of personality and made for some great stories.

If you let players be creative (maybe the particularly sturdy magic buckler can serve as a wagon wheel in a pinch?), they'll make the items more memorable than you could have imagined.

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