1. Give them personal names
A simple but effective method. Even minor items get a personality boost when named.
Tip: A name could imply special powers if you are not in the habit of naming most magic items, so you might need to explain the first time that Felix the Cape is what the previous owner called it, and it truly is just a +1 Cloak of Resistance. However, that little bit of disappointment will soon fade as the player starts having fun calling his cape by name. You should not have future problems after this expectation-setting moment, but the benefits will last the whole campaign.
2. Give them a flaw
The best flaws spawn from an item’s powers. Before you tack on a flaw, look first to see if the item’s ability has a story-based downside or can be turned against the PC in a narrative way. This approach generates more choices and consequences for PCs and better integrates the item into your campaign.
Fables are a neat source of inspiration for this kind of puzzle. Read their moral tales, study the mishaps of the characters and look at reactions for ideas on how to turn magic items into trouble and conflict for the PCs.
Fame is a good one. The Slippers of Spider Climbing sure are useful, but when people see the PC walking on walls and ceilings everyone will want him to do that trick. It is hard to be stealthy when you get recognized and asked to perform tricks.
Another example is the lowly +1 dagger. What commoner would not want an ever-sharp, easy to clean, sleek knife? Perhaps the PC is constantly asked to wager away his dagger. Perhaps a killer uses a +1 dagger, so when the authorities see the especially clean and lethal cuts they will suspect the adventurer known to wield that special knife. Providing an alibi might be easy but also inconvenient if the character has something to hide, as they always seem to do.
3. Give them a quirk
Make the item fun to play. A quirk is not a flaw or boon, but an interesting trait. It encourages roleplaying, offers choices and affects character tactics, though not in combat encounters so much. It may have a positive or negative effect, but on a smaller scale than flaws and boons.
A quirk often introduces new gameplay when the item is used or present. Another word for quirk could be side effect. For example, a wand might turn your hands blue for half a minute after each use. No big deal, right? No effect on combat, and just a silly thing. However, in the city of Carnus in a previous campaign, arcane casting was illegal and captured wizards were prosecuted. Blue hands would tip off foes who could summon authorities.
That example might be a bit severe. I might consider it a flaw in that campaign, but a quirk in another. Perhaps using the wand makes flowers bloom instead. Alternatively, the wand might have a clue scratched into it by a former owner and if the PCs realize the clue exists and can decode it, you have a surprise adventure hook waiting.
4. Give them a background
Stories about magic items breathe depth, detail and optional hooks into your games.
Even if a background is so independent it is completely detached from any adventure or encounter hooks, the player will still instantly form a bigger bond with that item and feel your campaign is awesome. Such is the power of little touches like adding backstories to magic items.
If backgrounds are tough for you, try this short outline:
Three owners, two events, one conflict
- Have the item trade hands at least three times.
- Give at least two owners notable uses of the item in some kind of event.
- Give each transfer of ownership a reason, with at least one involving an unwilling transfer.
- Provide the reason or circumstances for how the PC managed to get the item. If the item was in a treasure pile, describe how it got there if that event was not one of the three transfers you have already described. Likewise, if an NPC had the item last, ensure you know how they got it.
Tip #1: Make at least one part of the background relate to the new PC owner. A previous owner might have had the same race, class, goals or struggles as the PC. This will add personal significance for the player.
Tip #2: Make the item’s original purpose incomplete. Tie this into the current adventure, or let it kick off a new adventure for your group. Either way, you just added mystery, a quest or a tragedy depending on how the PCs react.
Tip #3: Use names. Get your name generator out, because you want to include names of previous locations, owners and other NPCs in your backstory. These details will flesh out the story nicely. Plus, players need names to retell their items’ stories.
“Yeah, some guy made this in a nearby forest to kill another dude, but that dude escaped, came back and stole it. Years later his oldest son took it with him when a country invaded another, and the item saved his life three times. The dude’s son came back from the land alive, and that is when they started calling the item Lucky.”
Now go back and add proper names to the people, places and events in that background to see just how dramatic a difference these little details make.
5. Give them a dilemma
Create magic items that require give and take. They offer a benefit compelling enough that the curse or downside is worth it.
For example, infuse your campaign with enemies who take advantage of the flaw. They trigger encounters setup to take advantage of the flaw. They bring the kryptonite, or tuned energy resistance or protection. They hire a disarm specialist, lay a trap or plan a diversion.
If the PC has come to depend on the magic, that is a weakness right there. Enemies just need to nullify the item’s benefits, perhaps even for just a short time, and the PC is made vulnerable.
First though, enemies must learn about the item’s existence, then learn a PC has it, and then learn its properties and flaws. If you game this out, you add great depth and realism to campaigns. How exactly do NPCs gain this knowledge? Spies, divination and direct encounters offer possible answers. So now you need to arrange some encounters.
For example, in my current campaign the villain sends minions to fight the PCs on a regular basis. He then sets spies nearby to observe the combat and report back on the PCs’ capabilities, special equipment and tactics.
Should the PCs figure this out, it becomes a new concern for them each encounter. Is this just a setup by the villain to gather more intel? What should be done to prevent this? It is not enough to beat the guys in front of you anymore; you have to spot the spies or keep your special powers a secret lest you reveal them too soon. Great games within the game!
Another dilemma could be one stat goes up and another goes down while the item is in use. Another might be chances of a critical hit goes up but so do chances of fumbles, or everybody’s chances of a critical goes up in a 10′ radius – including foes. A funny one might be an item grants invisibility but makes the wearer incredibly noisy and smelly.
6. Give them attention
Keep good notes handy about how the characters appear to NPCs. Roleplay NPCs based on how they perceive the PCs. This perception should especially include magic items.
Unless magic is commonplace, others will take notice and talk about it. Take this a step further by producing a range of reactions on a regular basis. If every NPC reacts the same, the effect of attention wears off, so mix it up.
- Amazement: characters love this kind of attention because it makes them feel important.
- Fear: NPCs run way, cower or freeze up. In each situation, ask what they fear and why. Explore this to add more depth to NPCs. For example, the NPC fears for the PC’s well-being. But why? Perhaps in this region only certain people may own and use magic items, such as nobles and military officers. If a character is caught with a magic item, he’ll be thrown in prison. Suddenly you have a great region and culture hook, plus good gameplay tension.Another option is to create phobias regarding magic items, types of magic and types of magic effects.
- Greed: the NPC wants this item for its potential use, to sell it or to curry favor by gifting it. Imagine the value in a magically sharp item that never loses it’s edge, doesn’t rust, and weighs little. If it glows it will further blow their mind!
- Anger: this is a great surprise reaction. Why is the NPC angry? And what will the anger make the non-player character do? Anger is such a string emotion, even an ally could do something unexpected, such as attack to subdue the PC for his own safety.
- Pleasure: similar to amazement, the NPC is delighted when the magic item is around, on display or in use. They want to see it, touch it, use it.
- Confusion: one option here is the NPC just does not know what to make of the thing. Another is to use the effects from the Confusion spell, perhaps because the idea of magic is overwhelming, or the magic emanates some confusion property at close range for those unused to its presence.
No matter what, have NPCs react when the magic item is around.
What about you? How do you make magic items more interesting in your campaigns?