GM Advice: Why (and How) You Should Design Unique Magic Items

Every player loves magic items. That said, magic items can also be quite boring. The best GMs take the time to make their magic items unique and compelling.

Small Treasure Hoard by William McAusland (Outland Arts)

Small Treasure Hoard by William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

 

Magic items make PCs stronger and more capable – they are a vital part of the game. Players love getting them, but once their affects have been added to a character’s abilities or they’ve been used a couple of times they tend to fade into the background.

When you’ve seen one +1 longsword, for example, you’ve seen them all. Designing unique treasures for your campaign is time well spent.

I include unique treasures in my Borderland of Adventure campaign for several reasons:

  • Flavour: Magic items with a defined history and place in the world are a great way of stealth world building. If an item was present at certain events or was created or wielded by a powerful or legendary figure the PCs are bound to want to know more. This provides a GM with an excellent opportunity to share cool facts about his campaign world. What GM doesn’t want to do that?
  • Family Heirloom: A PC who carries a unique magic item tied directly to his family is much more invested in the item than if it were merely a standard magic item. Cool heirloom items include those that are sentient or those whose powers scale as the PC gains in power.
  • Plot Device: Often a unique magic item can serve as a plot device. Perhaps the PCs possess something the evil villain coverts or they are searching for a legendary weapon that can be used to kill a rampaging dragon, demon or whatever. Hunting for a specific, famed weapon is much more fun than simply buying a bane weapon of the relevant type.
  • Differentiate Hero: Anyone can own a +1 spear, but only one person can wield the Spear of the North. Owning such an item marks the hero as someone special – perhaps someone with an important destiny.

Making Them Unique

Making unique items is relatively simple. A time-crunched GM can create a unique item in a matter of minutes.

  • Name: A unique item must have a name. The item’s name is a great way of setting the theme for the item (and can also serve as an introduction to its crafter or most famous owner and so on). For example, a sword named “Arundel’s Bane” raises the question of Arundel’s identity and why the sword was his bane.
  • Appearance: Creating a description for an item is a huge signpost to the players that it is different to the norm.
  • Powers: Giving a standard item other powers differentiates it from the norm. These powers don’t have to be amazing and spectacular, but should make sense when viewed in conjunction with the item’s main power. Perhaps, for example, a wand of burning hands could provide a +2 bonus on saving throws against fire while a weapon could render its wielder less susceptible to fear.
  • History: Giving the item a history is a great way to world build and to give the item context in regards to the campaign. An item’s history is also an opportunity for the PCs to learn about it using their various knowledge skills. Uncovering such information – or even snippets of forgotten lore – further invest the players in the item.

Help Fellow GMs

Do you have any other advice for designing unique magic items? Do you have any examples you’d like to share? Post in the comments below and help your fellow GMs design better magic items today!

Got No time?

Finally, if you don’t have time to create unique magic items (and other treasures) for your campaign, check out All That Glimmers from Raging Swan Press. Comprising over 150 pages of unique treasures, it’s a tremendous resource for the time-crunched GM.

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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13 thoughts on “GM Advice: Why (and How) You Should Design Unique Magic Items

  1. To maintain the uniqueness of magic items, one needs to abolish the magic item shop too, imo. Buying comsumables like potions is okay, Wands of Cure Light Wounds and swords +2 keen and ability score increasers are not!

  2. For the most part in the worlds and campaigns I’ve played in for the past 25 or so years, permanent magic was a rare thing. So when you say, “When you’ve seen one +1 longsword, for example, you’ve seen them all. ” from my experiences that hasn’t been the case. 🙂 We’ve always had potions and scrolls etc but permanent magic of any kind was a huge find. That’s a whole other discussion but I would venture forth the concept of pulling back magic and see the appreciation adventures have when they find a +1 magic sword buried in the dragon treasure. Thanks as always for your posts. 🙂

  3. It might seem strange, but I use the same template for magic items that I do for other entities.

    Mechanics only come into it at the end, after I know how the item fits into the setting.

    Hrm. It seems my rules for intelligent items varies enough from standard it might be worth doing something with them.

    • Oh, hey, one of my posts in the Fantastic Creations blog carnival was on Devising Fantastic Creations.

      Basically, take the template above and start filling it in. At every chance, ask “why?” or “then what happened?”

      * Names are usually found either right at the beginning when I just have an idea, to help cement it, or at the end when I see what I ended up with. Google Translate is your friend. Beobachten is a bastardization of “The Dragon Watching” translated to German (“der Drache beobachten”), Palavirea is “the burning green” in Finnish, more or less (“palava vihreä”), and Kaiho-sha is “The Liberator” in Japanese (again, more or less: “Kaihō-sha”).

      * Then figure out why it’s special. Ignore what it does, I mean why do people care about it? Beobachten is a dragon bound in sword form. It wants out and is willing to deal to gain its freedom… and there are people willing to ally with him. Kaiho-sha wants to end oppression and free slaves, which makes him valuable to people who share those goals such as revolutionaries, and a threat to those who would be targeted, such as slavers and oppressive lords. (Palavirea is ‘just a wand’, useful primarily as a source of fiery, maple-scented death.)

      * Relationships: very, very important, identify how this item connects to other campaign elements. The above section identifies why people would care, this one identifies who cares.

      * Description: what it looks like, how you know you have it in your hand, and (my price) how you know it was here or involved. Also, where (either specific place or description of the sort of place) you could expect to find it.

      * Mechanics: where most people start, but where I end. I make notes while I’m writing the above, but I don’t worry too much about particulars until I get here.

  4. For one of the magic items that I put in my game, was a cross between jack and the bean stalk and the deck of many things only I made my own outcomes. the character who found the item and all the others in the group really enjoyed it. it allowed for a bit more randomness than the normal game.