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Making magic items more unique

Calypso

Bunny With a Glock
Validated User
#1
One of the things I vaguely object to in D&D is the "commoditization" of magic items. I've always preferred the Earthdawn approach, where most items are unique, with their own story and abilities. What are some ways that I can make items more special and less of a "you beat the guy, you got a +1 longsword, so what's for lunch?"

A couple of strategies I've tried, with varying degrees of success:
But I'm looking for other ideas. Give me your ideas!
 

Talisman

The Man of Talis
RPGnet Member
Validated User
#2
I like to personalize the description of items; I find that this makes them feel more special even if they don't have any additional powers (although I do often throw on extra powers). Examples from my 3.5 campaign of years gone by:

* Ocean's Song, a +2 short sword that was bane vs the minions of the elder god of the sea. Described as a silver cutlass with a sea-shell-shaped handguard.

* Wraithshiver, a +3 short sword that allowed the wielder to sneak attack/crit undead. Described as being made of a shard of smokey glass, and formerly the property of the Captain of the Guard of the temple of the PCs' god (which fell hundreds of years ago, so this was kind of a big deal)

* Retribution, a vicious longsword (forget the plus) that granted the wilder +4 to Intimidate checks. It was formerly owned by a famous and powerful inquisitor in Not-Egypt, whose ghost gave it to the party's cleric.

I generally don't worry about potions, scrolls, or half-charged wands, but permanent items - especially items I expect the PCs to carry for a long time - tend to get personalized a bit.
 

Elfwine

Registered User
Validated User
#3
A lot of it I think relies on "this is a magic (item) specifically made for a specific purpose" kind of things - so for example, a suit of armor made for a specific named King's Champion, or a sword wielded by a specific named warlord.

Less "the King's Guard is all equipped with +X items." and more "What did Cuchulain (or Lancelot or Roland) use?"

(in 3.5 terms)

A +X flaming burst scimitar, given as a sign of esteem by a fey King, is something special if flaming burst swords are rare.

A holy sword could be amazing if very, very few weapons actually have that enhancement. It doesn't really even need anything else mechanically if it's the only one the PCs find.
 
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Geoff Watson

Registered User
Validated User
#4
This works fine if each player only has one or two items, but in some variants of D&D each player typically has over a dozen, so special stuff for each item would be too much to keep track of. So don't make it too complicated.
 

Elfwine

Registered User
Validated User
#5
Having over a dozen might not be desired (as far as the feel of "magical items") or necessary alongside "a sword that does +2d6 damage vs. any evil creature is a nearly unique item" style play, though. Depending on how you handle numbers for saving throws and stuff.
 

Calypso

Bunny With a Glock
Validated User
#6
This works fine if each player only has one or two items, but in some variants of D&D each player typically has over a dozen, so special stuff for each item would be too much to keep track of. So don't make it too complicated.
No, but if 2-3 of your items have backstories, layered abilities, etc, that I think adds to the game. In my upcoming Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I'm even planning to make some items require downtime research to learn their history and how to activate them. For really special items I might even be sending the player on a side quest to track down notes on the items creation, or something similar.

I really liked the "phased" approach that Earthdawn took, where in order to attune a thread to an item, you generally had to learn the item's name, and then progressively learn more information before you could attune additional threads to it to unlock more properties.
 

Talisman

The Man of Talis
RPGnet Member
Validated User
#7
I really liked the "phased" approach that Earthdawn took, where in order to attune a thread to an item, you generally had to learn the item's name, and then progressively learn more information before you could attune additional threads to it to unlock more properties.
I like this. Significant items should be named, and knowing the item's name should make things better somehow. Consider it stolen.

One of my PCs once acquired a legendary Elvish sword, known as the Sword of a Thousand Names. In order to unlock its full power, the wielder had to give it a unique name. Being me, I did some Tolkien research and named it Telperilma, "Glittering Silver Light."
 

AlwaysToast

Registered User
Validated User
#8
Have less magic items (it’s hard to give everything super detail).

If your world is not flooded with magic items, have NPCs who want the items the PCs have. People who "want your stuff" make great long running problems if they are smart about it (and don’t directly confront the PCs), especially if they are powerful in some way. Start with offers to buy items (at a reasonable price), then escalate to hiring thugs, etc.

Have NPCs try to hire the PCs to do things related to magic items. Like find magic item and return it. Take this thing to a temple so it can be destroyed, etc.

Describe magic items as interesting objects.

If most things have more description, you can get by with a few things not having a description.

Try to not have more than 2-3 intelligent magic items in the party. It can get real bad if they all end up on one PC. “Which voice in my head said that?”

Describe magic items before the PCs get their hands on them. Have Bards/NPCs tell stories about items. Have NPCs looking for specific items. You want to set up items in the world long before the party finds them so it’s not just; Hear about an item, find it the next session. The stories should ideally convey information about other stuff (such as world history or politics).

If the enemy has a magic item, if they can use it, they should be using it to its full effect against the PCs.

Give out items that have good power, but have bad (but not horrible) side effects or requirements. You want to balance it so the PCs will still want to keep using the item. Requirements can be used to limit how often an item is used (Great for items that can normally be used all the time). Both side effects and requirements make the item more memorable.

If the item has a History, it is wasted if it is just background info that never comes up. The History of an item has to come up if it has one. NPCs need to recognize it and act appropriately. If you have “Elf Slayer” even if it’s just a +1 weapon, every Elf that sees you with it, should have some kind of a reaction.

Make the item a symbol for something (which is just a more important kind of History). If it was made by a god, the followers of that god should recognize it as a holy object. If holding that item gives you a legitimate claim to a title (like King), people should act amazed when they see it. You can even have Undead recognize and respect the bearer of such objects if they are from the right cultural background.

Make sets of items. If you have X number (like 3 out of 5) of the set you can get an additional power. If you get all the items, and one person wears all of them, something special happens. You can’t Identify the additional powers until you have all the items on one person. So maybe collecting all the items is bad. A set can be obvious, or it can be subtle. If it's subtle you'll reward players for keeping track of the descriptions of their items, but it may literally never come up if they don't.

Make items that upgrade over time. They may require knowledge, certain experiences, certain rituals, etc to upgrade.

Magic Items that suck the magic out of other magic items on your person (at random and out of PC control) and take on their powers. It's works best if you use it to condense standard items that you were not happy with their level of detail.

Make cursed items that have good powers in addition to bad powers, that slowly upgrade both if someone keeps using them.
 

baakyocalder

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RPGnet Member
Validated User
#9
HackMaster's current edition uses an approach similar to the Mad Libs books where you write in items to create a long story.

In HackMaster, truly magical items are +6 or better and other items are merely examples of extraordinary craftsmanship with extraordinary materials. Even those items, which fall under the general category of special treasures, are hard to come by and thus mean something.

So, a +1 longsword is not some ho-hum item, it's something a skilled artisan made and which has a mark. A +2 weapon was probably commissioned by a noble or other powerful person and so there's a history. Until you get to the higher levels (level 20 in HackMaster is about level 10 in various D&D editions), a +2 weapon is a nice haul from a dungeon crawl or other adventure.

I use GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Treasure Tables for embellishments and other details and also look for having a short paragraph of history on special treasures.

There are no 'upgrade over time' items in HackMaster, but those might be an option in some games that are more interesting.
 

DMH

Master of Mutant Design
Validated User
#10
Reskin them. One of the ideas I got while looking at the magic item generator in the revised Metamorphica is a hat that acts as a returning hammer. Using alternate objects (including monster parts) provides a lot more diversity even if you are sticking with those magic items in the DMG.
 
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