Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How to Keep Your Magic Items From Getting Mundane

You know how in video games like Diablo or World of Warcraft magic items tend to have names along with stats? More often than not though the names don't mean anything; they aren't plot relevant, they don't reference anything in the game you've encountered thus far, and they don't alter the appearance of your avatar's gear. After half a dozen levels you stop noticing the names at all, or really paying attention to anything other than the bonuses the items in question provide you.

Don't let that happen to your tabletop game.

The Problem

It happens in every game, from Pathfinder to Changeling; magic eventually becomes so commonplace and accepted that players aren't impressed by it. Whatever guise it takes, be it mutant powers, super science, holy light or incantations, the point is that things which would once have wowed your players are now expected and relegated the background information. It goes something like this:

"You find a magic sword."

"What's the bonus?"

"It's a +1 bonus."

"Pfft, I've got a +2. Toss it on the pile, we'll sell it."

Doesn't it seem like only a few levels ago a magic sword would have had the party at each other's throats for who got to keep it? Yes, part of the blase attitude is that the bonus is no longer as impressive. That said, presentation makes a world of difference when we're discussing magic items.

What Does It Look Like?

Meh, put it with the other hell globes.
Telling the party they've found a +2 longsword, or a hedgespun suit of armor doesn't really do much for the imaginative mind. On the other hand the more description you as the storyteller provide, the more real the item in question will be to the player.

Try an experiment. In the same horde have players find a "+1 magic dagger" and "an exquisite dagger wrought from blackened steel. Light shimmers across the blade like a stolen rainbow, and the soft leather of the hilt seems to mold itself to your hand." Now make them the exact same weapon, mechanically. Which one do you think players are going to want?

There are all kinds of details you can apply to magic items. Is there an inscription along the hilt or the blade? What language is it in? Does the weapon have a name (one of my personal favorites)? What material is it made of? For a mace, is the steel bright or dark? If it's a wand is it carved from wood or bone? Does the weapon feel cold to the touch or warm? Does it have a sheathe? Does it respond to being touched, and does it alter in battle?

A sword that's just a sword until it's drawn with intent to kill becoming cleaner, sharper, and making a distinctive ringing sound can make things quite interesting. For more storytelling hints, check out this blog entry on showing versus telling.

Make Them Work For It

I stab the bard with it... what happens?
Like I discussed in this previous blog entry, you should always endeavor to get your players in on the act of storytelling whenever possible. This means that you as the storyteller shouldn't just hand players magic items with nothing but a numbers description. Sure the weapon we're looking at is a +2 holy greatsword, but how do they figure that out? Does the wizard correctly identify the magic bound into the weapon? Does the bard recognize the maker's mark near the hilt, or remember a story about a brilliant, flashing sword once wielded by a paladin years and years ago in this very region? Does the fighter who worships the goddess whose holy symbol is prevalent lift the weapon and feel a tingling in her skin as the weapon recognizes one of its own?

Yes you will eventually need to tell players what the weapon's stats are. By the time you get there though, those numbers should be the icing on the cake.

Make Them Harder to Get

Can you believe they just left these laying here? All 30 of them?
By the time players hit a middling amount of power they buy magic items like every town has an enchanted steel depot. How many times have you as the storyteller heard a player say "yeah, I'm just going to upgrade my weapon from a +2 to a +3 before we head out to the dungeon."

Who's doing that? If your players are the most accomplished adventurers in the land, who is powerful enough to enchant their equipment in a backwater burg? Nobody, that's who.

What I'm not suggesting is that you refuse to let your players buy magic items, upgrade their equipment, or force everyone to take craft feats in order to make the magic themselves. But if players come to accept that every hamlet and village has a learned steel smith wise enough to increase the magic in their weapons then they won't realize how special those items really are. If someone can buy a holy avenger in the corner of any old store, then why should players be awed to find it?

Don't Be Afraid to Give Your Items a Story

There's a story behind every one of these bad boys.
Spoiler alert! In the first book of Carrion Crown your party is attacked by a possessed man from town. If you kill him then you have to deal with the fallout, but if you just knock him out the possession ends and when he awakens he realizes that he's misjudged the party. To make amends he offers them his old armor, which he wore when he was a young adventurer himself. It went to my paladin (the same guy who one-shotted a dracolich later in life), and the ST told us it was +2 ghost touch chain mail.

I could have just left it at that, but I didn't. I designed a crest on the mail, and created a specialized unit our random NPC had been a part of called the Gallows Hunters who specialized in tracking down undead and slaying unquiet ghosts. I put so much work into it that the ST occasionally had people recognize it and realize my paladin was not a man to fool with if he was wearing that armor.

Not every magic item will have an epic story, but every item should be more than just a collection of numbers. A faerie-spun surcoat with cloth woven from honor and promises that protects the wearer as long as he or she remains true is a lot cooler than just filling in some armor dots on your sheet. A rune-etched battleaxe with the names of every previous wielder down through the years engraved on the blade is just a little edgier than a dwemered wood cutting tool. Giving magic items stories of their own does more than make them interesting though; it challenges players to make that story part of their own story. Does the Bloody Blade of Balthazar eventually have it named changed because of the man who wielded the sword against its infernal creators redeemed it somehow? Does a druid become famed for carrying a staff carved from the last of a great ent tribe?

These are things that can add a lot of fun to any game, and keep players coming back for more.

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  1. Some of the most fun I've had in a recent game was when the party wizard and I wound up collaborating on the names and descriptions of the magic items he was making for me. We'd often hand the GM a page long description with a half-sentence of stats. Not only was it fun, it also became part of the characters; the mage went from being a nerd obsessed with the most efficient ways of doing things to making his items beautiful and elegant, and the fighter/rogue actually started studying poetry to come up with appropriate names.

  2. To avoid the +X issue I've always enjoyed inherent bonuses then the magic items given out can be all alternate things and flavor instead of worrying about people tossing their old items.

  3. To avoid the +X issue I've always enjoyed inherent bonuses then the magic items given out can be all alternate things and flavor instead of worrying about people tossing their old items.

  4. Yes, yes, yes, oh yes! Great advise, which I shall use in my own games in good faith. Thank you, Neal.

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  6. I totally agree I think weapons (Especially magic and masterwork weapons) should be well described and special to stop them from just being stat bonuses. I have a blog with a few d100 tables of predescribed weapons like your dagger that are perfect for DM's who need a weapon to slap a +1 on or who want to hand out a meaningful or plot relevant weapon.