Unique magic items

You cast the identification spell. The sword is +1.

How boring is that? Not only does the sword do nothing interesting, it pulls the player right out into the game mechanics.

Instead, what if the sword lit up like a torch when exposed to air, and if you hit someone it burned them a little? The rules say, let us assume, that a torch will deliver 1 point of fire damage on a hit but is otherwise not much of a weapon. So we can assume the flaming sword will deal +1 damage. So far it doesn’t seem to be as good as the +1 sword from earlier.

But this flaming sword casts light and heat. So you don’t also need to carry a torch, yet you can still burn spiderwebs and such. Fire should do extra damage against most Undead, right? That’s probably already in the rules too. And it should let you keep the non-monstrous bugs and snakes away, like Indiana Jones. So it’s pretty cool, actually. I’d say just about equal in power to the +1 sword.

But there’s a drawback. It lights up with a WHOOSH anytime it’s exposed to air. That means it’s worthless underwater. And you can’t douse it unless you sheathe it in a fireproof and pretty tight sheath. You could douse it in a pile of sand if you needed to, but wrapping it in cloth might not cut it. And while you’re wrapping it up it’s burning the cloth away!

It also doesn’t need a spell to identify. As soon as you draw the sword it catches on fire? Gee I think this is a magic sword, guys. Or you find it already on fire because it’s exposed.

That is an interesting magic item. It’s useful on an adventure and it has a drawback commensurate with its powers.

“But”, you say, “how can I find enough interesting magic items like that to outfit the whole party?” The answer is to reduce how many magic items pass through their grubby little hands. It helps if you decide, right at the start, that you will never find a plain +X item in your campaign. They do not exist. They cannot exist. A magic item must be more complex than that. It may contain an incidental +X value but as a consequence of its magic.

For example, instead of a Ring of Protection just giving +1 to AC and saves, have it create a shimmering force shield around the wearer. It’s visible, especially when you’re being attacked. It helps deflect attacks, giving +1 to AC and saves. But it should also keep the rain off you, and snow, and should reduce wind chill effects. So say it’s the equivalent of wearing the next heavier type of clothes for weather purposes. So if you’re nude it’s like wearing light clothes, or if you’re wearing normal clothes it’s like wearing heavy furs. The save bonus takes the resistance to heat and cold into account already, so don’t give that twice.

That doesn’t seem to change much for that item. But look at all the magic items that have an invisible, always-active, always-successful effect without any drawbacks. Those are boring and should be changed or else incorporated into another item.

What I like most about this is the player has a visceral tool instead of a rigidly defined mechanical modifier. Just wait for the first Magic-User who wants to create a few Flame Tongue swords and stick them in a furnace so it doesn’t need any fuel. Or the first time someone realizes that the Claws of the Umber Hulk combined with the Helm of Treasure Finding make a pretty good prospecting tool set. Or that the Telekinetic Bubble Wand can be used to deliver Oil of Fiery Burning at a distance if you juggle it all very carefully?

Problems crop up with this when the player wants to try things with the item but the DM is wary of letting it become overpowered. So he tends to say “no” too much and it shuts down player creativity. Let’s say someone wants to use the Flame Tongue on a rock wall to heat it up, then throw water on it to shatter the stone. This was a legitimate, though slow, mining practice back in the day. Say yes! But it is very slow, the Flame Tongue isn’t as hot as a full bonfire, and the breaking stone makes a lot of noise. That means random encounters. So say yes, but admit that there may be drawbacks.

But how do you satisfy players who are used to having multiple magic items?

Each item now does more. And the items have a game-world effect that bears thinking about and describing. This helps fill the mental space for the player. The problem is not that he’s unsatisfied at having not enough magic items, he’s unsatisfied at having too few options. And a Ring of Protection or Studded Leather +1 is just going to disappear into the character’s game mechanics leaving him feeling like he doesn’t have anything.

The second problem is more insidious: many players want to gain things regularly. They don’t want to sit there knowing it’ll be several game sessions until they find the next magic item. This problem is exacerbated by CRPGs, and Diablo is a prime culprit. In that game, you can find a magic item that’s not as good as what you have and just sell it for a pittance. Or you find one that’s a slight upgrade and you sell your old one. But typically what slows down that game is going back to town constantly to sell your tons of loot and you end up throwing a lot of it on the ground in disgust to reduce your trips home.

But in most tabletop games, the granularity of the mechanics doesn’t allow many upgrades. If you have a normal sword, the first upgrade you can get is a +1 sword. There are only really four upgrades above that. So you can’t expect to get something better every time you find something.

And the economy has to make more sense than in Diablo. Most D&D settings don’t have the economic capacity to purchase very many minor magic items, or to keep such items in stock hoping someone will buy one. Trade in magic items is like trade in houses, when you change currencies to ours.

But you don’t need to trade in your Flame Tongue sword when you find a Frost Brand sword. Heck, it’s really nice to have both! Making items more complex than a +X modifier means they retain their usefulness longer. Only if he found another Flame Tongue would he sell his current one. But maybe a henchman or another party member would want it instead.

You can also include minor magic items. This guy blogger regularly comes up with cool magic items that are worth having but don’t affect combat much. Practical magic, you could say, and instead of each magic item being like a house, it’s like a really expensive espresso machine. The rich will have them, they’re available, but you can just drink coffee from a french press instead and get the job done. These items are about convenience rather than power. They’re about spending a minute at a task instead of an hour, without expanding what tasks you can perform.

Finally, consider putting a check on the chart next to a magic item found in treasure, and then if you reroll that magic item again later insert a comparable unique item from your Big List of Magic Items that Won’t Fit On a Chart. This way you still see the standard ones crop up, but as you play you see more and more of the interesting or weird ones.

1: So my answer is to reduce the number of magic items you give out, make those items all very interesting, and keep their powers from overlapping so as to eliminate trade in magic items.

2: You could also give out charged items, so they get used up and leave the campaign. A treasure of a ten-dose Potion of Fire Resistance is better from a balance perspective than a Ring of Fire Resistance, even if the temporary potion is more protective than the permanent ring.

3: You could mix in items that aren’t as useful on an adventure, or which have little use in combat. A self-heating frying pan would be pretty sweet on an adventure, even if it didn’t do any extra damage, just because then you wouldn’t have to set up a fire every time you camp. The upgrade-and-sell effect on these is also very low.

4: Very attractive items, those that everyone wants, may carry an abnormally severe drawback or quirk. Everyone wants a Cloak of Displacement, right? Well what if those cloaks were tied to a dimension that sapped the color and emotion from you, eventually turning you into a humorless, passionless, grey, vapid person. It affects your equipment too. Wear it long enough and it’s irreversible. Is making the enemy miss once per fight really worth all that? Maybe it’s worth using it sparingly, for special occasions …

5: Intelligent Swords. If you have to deal with a cranky personality every time you want to Detect Treasure, at least it’ll be interesting. And my sword personalities are universally hard to get along with. Who says an ego weapon of your alignment is purely a blessing?

How many magic items should a character have at a given level? That depends. I’d count any items with only a couple uses left as half to a quarter of an item. Such as scrolls, potions, low-charge wands. Anything low-power (like that magic skillet) should be a fraction of an item. Anything permanent and combat related should be a whole item, as should powerful single-use items like an Elixir of Resurrection.

That said, if you have more than one magic item per level you might have too much. But it really depends on what you have too. I’m not talking about game balance here, I’m talking about player satisfaction. Depending on what they’re used to, players could be satisfied with just one item per two or three levels. But anything less than one item per three levels is probably too low.

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4 Responses to “Unique magic items”

  1. Jeff Rients Says:

    FYI I’m pretty certain “this guy” is a gal.

  2. 1d30 Says:

    Whoops! I’m probably wrong. You know what they say about people who assume: they did not do the research!

  3. Jason M Brodsky Says:

    I’m late at getting a look at this, however I would have to state that Magic plays a large role in effectiveness of non-spellcasting characters to a great extent. Wizards need magic items for protection but can get around them with spells. Fighters need that +3 sword and +4 bonus to strength from their items to be effective at later levels. For example I want to see your fighter listed above at lvl 10 fight any CR8 monster. They’ll get crushed, a wizard on the other hand should be able to hold his own, fighters need that +5 full plate or they become HP tanks, and not very good ones because clerics can do it better by standing there healing themselves as they get stomped on.

    Your campaign seems like my perfect excuse to play my vow of poverty character, because the items I get while amusing and quirky lack in game progression. Unless you want your players to fight goblins for all eternity, because they’ll never be ready to fight a dragon. I’m running a campaign where the end goal is to fight a Dragon and just giving gold and magic to them in droves and that dragon still seems like it’s going to end them with ease, just because Dragons are that powerful (you try your bonus less fighter against a dragon with a 52 touch AC>.<).

  4. 1d30 Says:

    @Jason, in a game like 3E D&D you’re absolutely right that full progression spellcasters are more powerful than non-spellcasters or semi-casters like Paladins and Rangers. Also, because of number inflation, non-spellcasters are reliant on bonuses from equipment. I don’t run 3E, but I would need to edit it extensively if I did. One question to ask is whether someone with a total bonus of +10 vs. an enemy with a total bonus of +10 is more or less desirable than someone with +50 fighting an enemy with +50 – if both pairs are 10th level. Another question that’s worth asking is at what level do you think the game’s math will break down?

    Part of the problem is that 3E’s design decisions give a lot of tiny bonuses constantly, meaning everyone at equal CR is still equal but they have to handle larger, clunkier numbers. And the design assumptions that made earlier editions of D&D work well have been slowly removed. In 2E, for example, Wizards have a limited number of spells per spell level, if they find a spell they might not be able to understand it (chance to learn spell), and enemy saves get steadily better as their levels increase. Saying that a Wizard could just Teleport in and Forcecage a monster as evidence that Wizards are overpowered is meaningless when only a tiny percentage of Wizard characters could ever get both Teleport and Forcecage.

    In general, with 3E’s large but still equal bonuses, you tend to see a narrowing of what challenge ratings can be handled by a given party level. The most obvious of these is skills and saves, but AC is in there too. As an example, take a Cleric who has put a lot of energy into increasing AC. At some point he will lag behind the Fighter. What happens when a monster has +40 to hit and the Cleric’s AC is 40? The Cleric might as well shed all that armor and beg the DM to respec his feats until he’s walking around with AC 10. Similarly, characters with “poor saves” in a category will always fail and characters with “good saves” will always succeed. Once the bonuses become so disparate that a d20 doesn’t matter, you could say that the game’s rules have broken down because the random element is lost.

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