Generally in D&D you get normal equipment, then the first magic item is like “OMG this thing is worth how many thousand gold?!” It’s always cool to get magic items, even at first level, but they’re so powerful! And if you get a +1 Sword by 2nd level, and a +2 Sword by 4th, you’re quickly going to run out of swords to get. I like stretching out the growing collection of magic items a little. One way to handle it is to just put the lowest-power magic items in and hope for the best. But some item types don’t have low-value examples (such as rings, weapons).
Let’s use 1E AD&D as the example. It works because it actually has magic items values, unlike 2E’s DMG, a paucity they quickly realized was a terrible idea and fixed in the Magic Item Encyclopedias. Another reason is that 3E, the other system for which I would have input, has valuation tables for magic items but they’re easy to break and they’re really more of a set of guidelines.
1: Use existing magic items, possibly with few charges.
Here is where you get to make a potion, a few magic arrows, or a Wand of Magic Missiles (5 charges) a worthwhile treasure.
2: Permanent items can have charges.
Found this in a Dragon article. Maybe take a +1 Sword that has 30 charges, and each charge gives you 1 turn (10 rounds) of magic. Otherwise it gives no bonuses. Generally making a +1 Sword that only works 1 day per week or 1 hour per day will cause players to waste time waiting for their stuff to pop back up. But if it’s a finite resource like charges, they gain nothing by waiting.
3: New weak magic items.
Think about stuff that doesn’t have as big of an impact as a 1st level spell or +1 Sword. But who can come up with enough of these things?
Here ya go, this should get you started.
Detect Disturbance: Keep the ring in a container for 1 week. Thereafter the ring will vibrate if the container is touched, moved, picked open, etc. or if magic affects it. Resets to new container if kept in it 1 wk.
Detect Spellcaster: Throbs if you point it toward a spellcaster, monster with spell-like abilities, or someone who has the potential for magic within 60′. But the target also notices you! Requires line-of-sight and is blocked by a wall or even a curtain. WIll detect invisibles if they qualify, but won’t give distance – only direction. Takes 1 round to check a cmopass direction (of eight).
Protection from Charms: Ring has six little gems, and if you would get charmed by spell or spell-like ability one of the gems shatters instead. Even affects higher-level charms like domination, geas, etc. but it’s up to you if it works against psionics or mutations (I’d say no).
Gambler’s Telekinesis: Low-range low-power TK ability, not enough to use in combat or untie your ropes but enough to subtly alter a die roll. Only works for times when your PC is rolling dice in the game, not for you rolling dice in Kristy’s basement. Lets you change the die facing one place from where it will fall. Experienced gamblers may notice that something funny is going on and a Detect Magic will reveal your deceit.
Rod / Staff / Wand
Magic Detection: One charge determines whether or not the touched item is magical, because the rod glows if it is.
Beeping: Wand will beep or glow on silent command by the person who has carried it the most in the past week. It’s great for “detecting evil” and the like.
Ugly Stick: When you hit someone it makes them really ugly for one hour per CHA point, using 1 charge.
Shutup: Whomp on someone and he can’t talk (or cast spells with verbal component, or use magic items with a command word) for 1d6+1 rounds. Takes 1 charge.
Hood of Veiled Sight: Can’t see while you wear it except basic outlines. You can’t tell friend from foe unless their shapes are extremely different (such as your human buddies vs. some sprites or a basilisk) (in 3E terms, call it “Medium Humanoid” vs. “Large Magical Beast” if you wanna get technical). Immune to gaze attacks, but you do not reflect them as a mirror would.
Liquid Mirror: If it breaks, the pieces melt and reform in the frame in 1 hour. Separated pieces evaporate and the frame heals the gap. If broken over a creature it takes 1 HP damage and has -1 to all rolls for 7 days.
Gas Bag: On command it sucks up a 10′ cube of nearby gasses (which might be just air) and seals shut. If commanded again it exhales the 10′ cube of gas. It can knock things over like a Gust of Wind in its 10′ cube area. Corrosive gasses don’t affect it. It can’t hold anything denser than gasses. What it holds will come out at the same temperature it went in. With practice, you can control the exhalation to sustain a person underwater for 1 hour.
Skeleton Bone: It can turn into a Skeleton monster on command, and turns back again if it’s killed. It can be transformed 1/day. But if it takes 10 HP or more damage at once there is a 1 in 6 chance the bone shatters.
Busker’s Case: Case for an instrument; will change shape to fit any instrument you try to put in it as long as such an instrument usually gets a case (no pianos). If set out while you play for tips on the street, you get +10% money. If some mishap would damage an instrument carried in the case it affects the case instead. Three such mishaps destroy the case’s magic.
Water Barrier: Prevents water from seeping in or sweat from evaporating out. Won’t let you breathe underwater unless you supply air somehow.
Heat Barrier: Your body heat won’t go out and the armor won’t overheat from outside. Armor has minor effect in making you warmer if it’s cold or cooler if it’s hot (as in Wilderness Survival Guide, but a minor change, such as -/+ 20 degrees toward comfort). Mainly it makes you invisible to Infravision.
Oily: It’s hard to grapple you (-4 to hit or something) but if struck by fire you burn for an extra 1d3 HP for 1d3 rounds. Then you need to pour 1 flask of oil on to re-oil it. You can’t get oil out of it. If struck by a rusting attack while oiled, it de-oils instead.
Reflected Brilliance: If there is a light source that touches you (as in, it’s bright radius, such as the 20′ for a torch or whatever) then you also glow in all directions for 10′. You cast no shadow, even if the light isn’t bright enough to activate the armor.
Protection From Magic Missiles: MM against you have a 1 in 6 chance to hit the shield and bounce away harmlessly. These bounced MMs become mopey little light motes that you could capture if you cared; they eat aphids and crumbs.
Floating Disc Shield: Can carry stuff like a Floating Disc spell as a 1st level M-U. It has all these coin-shaped depressions in the front and it requires 10 GP to fuel one hour of operation. The coins get consumed by the shield but you can pry them back out if you haven’t activated it yet.
Campfire Shield: On command the front surface heats up and small flames come out. In combat if you shield-bash you deal +1 fire damage. But every turn you carry it lit you take 1 HP because it’s so hot, and it takes 3 rounds to heat up or cool off. Mainly it’s a nice guaranteed campfire (you can always light it, you don’t need fuel, it won’t blow out).
Sled: Enlarges into a one-man + cargo sled (with all the normal harness) on command, though to go cross-country you’ll need dogs or something to pull it. The enlarging / shrinking won’t cause damage but can scoot small objects out of the way.
Sword-Friend: When it hits a swordsman (or a swordsman hits you) the two swords bind together and fall to the floor. They come apart again in 1 turn. Until then neither can be used in combat. Usable 1/day.
Sacrificial Sword: When you kill something there is a (HD %) chance that you get an immediate 1st level spell effect on you or a nearby target. You can’t save it up. The effect is based on the religion of the sword, and you might get to pick from a couple choices. Only works if the thing you killed wasn’t a worshipper of the sword’s religion. Each time it happens you have a 1 in 10 chance of switching religions (and possibly alignments) as you begin to see the truth.
Sword of Courage: Followers of your party or men in your unit gain +1 Morale (and/or Save vs. Fear). DM decides whether it works for full party members (PC or NPC) or wielder. You get +1 or +5% to recruiting new hirelings.
Willow-Sword: Very flexible, bends to get that hit when it would otherwise miss. If you miss by 3 or less, the sword hits anyway for just 1 HP of damage.
Axe of Wood-Chopping: +1 vs. wood. Succeed at Open Door 2/day vs. wooden enclosures.
Bitespear: Wounds caused by it look like they came from whatever animal you choose (has to be something you have experience with). The wounds still look / feel just as serious, so if you choose hornets it’ll be a whole lot of hornet stings per stab. Spear makes a medium-volume sound like the animal when you attack.
Digger-Dagger: +1 vs. earth and stone creatures. Acts as a full-size shovel for digging purposes.
Hammer of the Heavy Drop: After you attack it takes 2 rounds to recover from the swing. If you drop the hammer and pick it up, or someone else does, it still can’t attack faster than once per three rounds. It deals triple normal hammer damage. If used to Open Doors you get three chances in one swing. It’s throw distance is 10′ maximum.
Iron Spike Hammer: When it hits it drives in an iron spike automatically. It holds 20 spikes, and you refill it by inserting the spikes into the little hole on the hammer’s face. It causes +1 damage (and all damage is piercing type) if a spike is driven in, or normal hammer damage if there are none. You can’t fire the spikes as missiles. If a rope or chain is threaded through the hole also, it will be attached to the spike when it’s driven in. You can use wooden stakes instead, but these have a special effect on Vampires only if the DM allows (he should read his description of vampires’ weaknesses carefully, and consider how he handles “called shots” already). Special spikes could be made, but must be durable (not ceramic or glass) or else they shatter with no effect.
Liquid Tool: Can change form so the head is shaped like an axe, pick, shovel, hammer, blade, skillet, saw, drill, or crowbar. It’s always Medium-sized. The haft is nonmagical and can be replaced. If the head chips or breaks you can press iron scraps into the break and it will heal over. It automatically sharpens / straightens when it changes shape.
Muleskinner’s Whip: Unskilled user counts as a skilled drover / teamster. Skilled user gets extra 10% distance per day OR ignores one animal / wagon mishap. Wielder tends to swear more often.