Make Your Own Magic Items

Here’s a thing that’s been banging around my head lately, based on the following concepts:

1: Players like interesting choices
2: A list of magic item powers that you recombine can result in more magic items than a simple list of magic items
3: Players like to carve up monsters and discover new ingredients in foul holes in the ground and in sweltering jungles
4: Players want certain magic items and will try to acquire them if you let them (magic shop, enchanting, etc)

How about a list of magic ingredients that have powers on their own but have vague, DM-determined effects when used on various materials or other magic ingredients?


You kill some giant spiders and the DM says the webbing, which you got stuck in during the fight, is a tough fiber that’s really sticky. A player says ok, I try collecting some strands and weaving it into a rope. DM says it’s too sticky. Player says ok, I coat the strands with dust so they aren’t SO sticky, can I weave a rope? DM says sure. Yay, we have a “silk rope” which is like hemp rope but lighter because you can make it thinner and carry the same weight.

Another player says wait a minute, what if we use this Animation Dust we found earlier on the fibers to de-stickify them? We end up with an Animated Rope right? Sounds great, you end up with a permanent Rope of Entanglement – note that this wouldn’t work on a hemp rope because the dust will eventually wear off because it’s not sticky.

What if I want to control the rope without giving it verbal commands? Well, you’d need some kind of gloves enchanted with telepathic connectivity. A side effect would be that whatever the rope touched you would get telepathic feedback from, so you could entangle something in the darkness and know generally what shape it was. If you could somehow give sensory abilities to the rope, you could sense that it was a breathing, heartbeating Kobold!

As you can see, the rope quickly gains powers depending on the creativity of the players and what they’re interested in having, and also what ingredients you give them.

Let’s say you have a device that has two chambers: in one you place some gold (a valuable, dense material) and in the other you place some material or object you want to make heavier. Pull the lever, the gold vanishes, the item becomes heavier. Sure it doesn’t make scientific sense! What if we use lead (a cheap, dense material)? Chance of failure and destruction of the item! What if we somehow condense a light, especially valuable material like a mineral vapor? It could make the item lighter! But how will we get such stuff …

Of course the basics should emerge: if a sword is lighter, it does -1 damage but +1 initiative. If you make it very hard, you can make it hold a keen edge for +1 damage, or if you make it flexible it’s unpredictable for the enemy and gives you +1 to hit. You can have a heavy, hard sword (+2 damage, -1 init) but you couldn’t have a hard, flexible (because the two cancel each other out). Now we have our +1 weapons taken care of in an interesting way.

What about better magic arms and armor? Introduce rare metals. Mithril is +1 naturally and weighs half normal. Adamantite is +2 but weighs normal. People need to decide whether the extra +1 is important or the reduced weight … I suspect Mithril to be more common in armor. Metals can have various special effects too. For example, in my campaign Mithril is a silver-type metal (silver is effective against werewolves and certain others) while Adamantite is a form of iron (iron is effective against certain demons and undead, and all fairies and elves). There’s room for a +3 that’s especially heavy or a material that blocks magic or psionics (or aids them!) etc.

The thing to consider when setting up this system is, do you want players to be able to reproduce any of the magic items in D&D, or do you want a new set of items to emerge and you don’t care about old items? The difference is in one extra step for backwards compatibility: take all the magic items in the DMG and come up with one or four possible ways to make that item. If you don’t have enough ingredients, make up more. In any case, you will have MANY more possible magic items than are present in the DMG.

Ingredients can be monster organs (dragon scales, flumph tentacles, beholder eyeballs), plant extracts (especially from monster or dangerous type plants and various Underworld molds, spores, fungi), minerals (incl. flawless large gems, pearls from special oysters), and strange extracts like the shadow of a cat or a child’s laugh (better hope you don’t get a reputation as the Thief of Voices!). The important things are:

1: The ingredients must be hard to get and in short supply (killing a dragon should give enough ingredients for several things but not enough to outfit a barony’s soldiers)
2: Other people trade with PCs only if they get a pretty good deal IN MAGIC, though money can sweeten a deal
3: Most recipes should be commonsense and PCs invent them on the fly
4: Some recipes can be obscure but should still be logical, and discovering them is a form of treasure
5: If PCs come up with recipes you hadn’t thought of, keep an open mind
6: But also keep game balance in mind. If the ingredient is inferior, the resulting item can be of inferior effect / limited uses / degrade with time
7: Assembly lines result in catastrophe (theft, taxation, explosions, angry villagers, jealous wizards, angry gods)

Consider too that maybe you need spells cast upon the ingredients to activate them properly. For this reason, most spells should have utility purposes. Imagine the usefulness of a spell that can change something’s color permanently. Or the ability to create a sphere of impenetrable darkness. How do you capture the light of the full moon? Will anybody notice and/or get upset even if it comes right back on? Maybe moonlight filtered through a dust storm has a different quality …

Look at the existing potions. There are some great things here … Essence of Darkness, Philter of Love, Potion of Rainbow Hues … clearly you can imagine some cool ways to gather the ingredients required for these potions, and cool things you can do with the potions once you have them. What happens if you water a peach-tree with a Potion of Animal Control? The results could be hilarious, profitable, disastrous, but at least they’re interesting.

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