The Alexandrian

D&D — and roleplaying games in general — have always struggled with magic.

Elrond knew all about runes of every kind. That day he looked at the swords they had brought from the trolls’ lair, and he said, “These are not troll-make. They are old swords, very old swords of the High Elves of the west, my kin. They were made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars. They must have come from a dragon horde or goblin plunder, for dragons and goblins destroyed that city many ages ago. This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongues of Gondolin; it was a famous blade. This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Gondolin once wore. Keep them well!” — The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien


Player: We search the trolls’ lair.
DM: You find a +1 goblin-bane longsword and a +3 longsword.

Less nifty.

Some would conclude from this that D&D just doesn’t do magic very well. After all, what’s magical about a +2 bonus to attack rolls or a +5 bonus to Hide checks?

But let’s consider this problem from another angle.

He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him. This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters. His cheap tunic could not conceal the hard, rangy lines of his powerful frame, the broad heavy shoulders, the massive chest, lean waist, and heavy arms. His skin was brown from outland suns, his eyes blue and smoldering; a shock of tousled black hair crowned his broad forehead. From his girdle hung a sword in a worn leather scabbard. — “The Tower of the Elephant” by Robert E. Howard

Also nifty.

DM: Someone taps you on the shoulder.
Player: I turn to look. Who is it?
DM: A 3rd-level barbarian with a sword.

Similarly less nifty.

What are we supposed to conclude from this? That roleplaying games are just abject failures? That they suck all the life and mystery and grandeur from the world?

Well, they certainly can do that. If you let the numbers become the game world, then that seems to be the inevitable result. But I think we’re only looking at half the story here. In my opinion, the numbers inherent to a roleplaying system are only a means to an end. They shouldn’t be confused with the game world — they are merely the means by which we interface wtih the game world.

So, yes, the blade we found in the troll lair was, in fact, a +1 goblin-bane longsword. That doesn’t change the fact that it is also Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver of Gondolin — a legendary blade lost to the elves when that proud city fell to dragons and orcish hordes.

The numbers are only empty and meaningless if you leave them that way. If you fill them with meaning (or start with the meaning and work your way back to the numbers), the problem goes away.

With that thought in mind, here are a few methods for spicing up your magic items.


Mechanically, a +2 longsword magically gives you a +2 bonus to your attack and damage rolls.

Okay, but what does that mean? Is the blade preternaturally sharp? Does the magical enhancement guide your thrusts? Does it grant you a moment of combat-oriented prescience at the moment you begin to swing your blade, allowing you to see the outcome of the stroke and adjust it accordingly? Is it perfectly balanced, yet light and lively in your hand? Does the edge of the blade morph from diamond sharpness (for piercing armor) to vicious serrations (to rip and tear at flesh) in the middle of a blow? Can you feel the tendril of its mystic energy reaching into your mind and there implanting the arcane combat techniques of the Obsidian Brothers — techniques that you can scarcely comprehend? Does your arm grow in strength and speed when you hold the blade? Does the blade glow with a light that only you can see, but which seems to limn your targets in crystal clarity?

In my current campaign, one of the PCs has a ring of lockpicking (+5 bonus to Open Lock checks). The ring has a large ruby that can be slid to one side, revealing a nest of miniature tools. The wearer of the ring can mentally manipulate these incredibly precise tools (hence granting the bonus to their skill checks).

But you could just as easily have a ring of lockpicking that grants the wearer an encyclopedic knowledge of locks; or allows the wearer to psychically “feel” the mechanisms of the lock; and so forth.

The difference between a ring that grants an enhancement bonus in some vague and unspecified way (“’cause it’s magic”) and a ring filled with magically-crafted tools that you can control through the power of your mind is a vast gulf of detail and personality. And having a firm understanding of not only what the item does, but how it does it, can turn every use of that item into a flavorful and memorable event.


Nobody remembers Magic Sword #3419. But if I say “Sting”, you probably think Frodo. And if I say “Stormbringer”, you probably think Elric.

Naming an item immediately makes it unique. It also gives the item an identity, which means that the item will immediately begin accumulating lore to itself — every time something interesting or memorable happens involving the item, it has a name that can be latched onto that event.

There are basically two ways for an item to gain a name:

(1) Lore. Like Glamdring or the Ruby of the North, the item may have been given a name before it ever comes into the hands of the PCs. This lore-born name can be imparted to them in many ways — perhaps the ogre wielding the weapon cries the name aloud; or the item whispers it in their ear when they first claim it; or a loremaster identifies it; or they were questing for it; or they know it themselves (from a successful skill check).

(I just made up the name “Ruby of the North”, but it made you wonder what it was, didn’t it?)

(2) New. Encourage the players to name items that are important to them, or seize opportunities to immortalize memorable events in the game by naming the items responsible for them. When a sword becomes Gnoll-Render because of the PCs ripping out the entrails of the gnoll chieftain… well, that’s pretty awesome.


If magic items look generic, then they’ll be treated generically. If +2 longswords just look like every other sword (or even if every +2 longsword just looks like every other +2 longsword), it doesn’t matter how rare they are — they’re still going to be treated as nothing more than a stat block.

For example, several months ago one of the PCs in my campaign went down to the local magic shop to buy a magic sword. What could be more generic, right?

When they first arrived in the shop and started talking about weapons, the shopkeeper showed them several magetouched weapons that had recently been recovered from the depths beneath the city. But when it became clear that they were seeking something a little more notable, he smiled enigmatically and went into a backroom.

He emerged with a long, slim blade. The steel was filigreed with gold and the hilt was of finely curved silver. He ran his hand gently down the length of the blade, as if caressing a lover. “The markings here upon the blade are not merely gold, but taurum — the true gold, mined from the Mountains of the East. And there is a thin core of it in the heart of the hilt. The enchantment worked upon this blade sings from the taurum, and its name is Nainsyr.”

At the word, blue lightning sprang from the hilt and rang along the length of the blade — crackling with a vicious smell of ozone.

“It’s an elvish word. It means, ‘Let there be lightning.’ And, indeed, the blade is old. It shows the marks of an elvish craft that I have rarely seen.”

It’s a +1 shock longsword. And it was bought in a store. But it’s his sword. The players remember who they bought that sword from. They remember the first time the PC used it in combat.

Another example from my campaign is a bag of holding elegantly crafted from black velvet that was given to the party as part of their payment for a job well done. This unique little touch might not seem like much, but not only do the players distinctly remember receiving that payment, the player who carries the bag of holding has actually passed up the opportunity to get larger bags of holding simply because they like this one so much.


Glamdring and Orcrist have a history to them. They existed before they came into the hands of the heroes. They are spoken of in tales.

Giving a magic item a unique history — much like naming them — helps to give the item an identity. It can also make the players feel like their characters are inheriting a meaningful legacy or a sacred trust. It gives the item meaning, purpose, and context. This item is not merely a tool; it is a thing of note.


Most of this essay has dealt with how to make magic items feel special and magical in spite of the mechanics. But you can also turn the mechanics to your own use.

For example, +1 shock longsword is not only mechanically more interesting than a +2 longsword, that special ability also gives you something to latch onto while using the other techniques described here. (For example, Nainsyr’s taurum filigree and name are all derived from its special ability.)

Items which feature an interesting package of abilities or a quirky side-effect can be notably unique. A ring of water-breathing that turns the skin of the wearer blue; an amulet of health that causes the user to exude a golden glow (with the effect of a light spell); winged boots that spontaneously generate a cloud of butterflies that flutter around the user; a fist-sized ruby that functions as both a crystal ball and a gem of seeing; and so forth.


All of this advice can really be boiled down to a simple maxim: Life is in the details.

The difference between a cold, lifeless stat block and a memorable myth is all about the living details that you imbue your game world with.

But supplying this detail can seem a little overwhelming. Do I really expect you to give every magical item a clever mechanism of operation; an interesting name; a unique appearance; and a fully detailed history?

No, actually, I don’t. In fact, unless your campaign is extremely light on magical items, that would be a really bad idea. Not only will you end up overloading your players with details (to the point where they’ll just start tuning it out), but when everything is special and unique nothing ends up being special and unique.

In a magic-rich environment, not all magic needs to be unique or clever. For example, in my own campaign there are plenty of two-bit wizards who lay minor enchantments and charms onto blades. These “magetouched weapons” (as I call them) are, figuratively speaking, a dime a dozen. They’re magically sharp and strong, but they’re not particularly remarkable.

The other thing to remember is that you don’t actually have to do that much work. It’s easy to over-think things, but there’s really no need to prep a three page (or even three paragraph) description of a magic item.

Take Nainsyr for example. It has a little bit of history to it: It’s an old blade of rare elven craft and it was found by delvers plumbing the cavernous depths beneath Ptolus. That type of detail is easy to improvise (and, in fact, it was improvised — I didn’t know they were planning to go shopping).

That may not seem like a lot of history to you, but take a second look at Gandalf’s Glamdring: It seems to echo with history, but the only thing Tolkien actually tells you about it is, “It was worn by the king of Gondolin. It might have been taken by goblins or dragons during the sacking of that city.”

Tolkien lets your imagination run wild with that. Feel free to let your players do the same.

And did you notice how Tolkien doesn’t actually give the history of those weapons until after the heroes have already decided to wield them? Let the players tell you what they care about before you spend time working out the details.


As a a final word, let me point out that not all magic has to be usable. (Or, at the very least, usable by adventuring PCs.)

A small, well-worn stone that grows warm to the touch when you rub it. A poppet that moves and speaks when placed in the arms of a virgin. A skull that crumbles to dust when touched by living flesh, but then reforms itself over the course of 13 hours. A glass eye that rotates and spins when left unattended (in an eyesocket it rotates to perfectly mimic a living eye, although it conveys no gift of sight). A blindfold that can be seen through as if it wasn’t there.

Some such items might be assigned some sort of market value (and, thus, become part of the treasure — albeit more interesting treasure than just X number of gold pieces). But their real function is to fill the world with a little bit of magic that just can’t be boiled down to, “What can I do with it?”

Sometimes magic is just… magical. It’s not there to be used as a weapon or beaten into a plowshare. It’s just there for the sake of being.

And when that type of magic permeates your campaign world — when wonders are there to be found… Well, that’s when you get magic in your magic items.

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3 Responses to “Putting the “Magic” in Magic Items”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    Personally I have decided not to have magic +X weapons in any campaign of mine anymore, because of the comparison with items that are primarily useful for casters (*1). This makes it much less of a hassle to NOT give the players the exact stats of a weapon and keep them in the dark as much as possible and focused on the look and legends of a weapon.

    This shouldnt stop at the items being found in a campaign, but also needs to continue in the magic item creation rules, i.e. no more “I go into ye’ ol’ magic shoppe and buy the stuff I need for the wand of fireballs for X gold and spend Y days creating it”, but rather turning it into an adventure to craft the wand in a volcano or something like that. I think there was a pretty nifty article on that in a very very old Dragon magazine for 1st edition, but this still applies. The rules for item creation in 3rd edition are ok, BUT they need the flavour added, lots of it.

    (*1) The relative gain in power from a +4 weapon to a +5 weapon at around level 20 is not equal to the power gained when going from +0 to +1 at level 2-5. At the same time any spell trigger item increases a casters flexibility in a much greater amount.
    Wednesday, February 11, 2009, 11:14:05 AM

    Justin Alexander
    @Bobson: Weapons of Legacy was probably the worst supplement WotC ever produced. I think I’ll try to dig up a rant I wrote a couple of years ago about it and post it here on the site in the next couple of days.

    Here’s what I recommend for Legacy items: They allow characters to pay the XP + gold cost for enchanting an item without having the necessary Craft feat or any of the other prerequisites.

    That’s it. That’s all you need to do. And it’s guaranteed to be balanced, because it’s using the existing system.

    If you want to particularly encourage people to use the Legacy items, give a 10% or 25% discount to the XP and/or gold costs.

    Why should it cost money? Well, from the POV of game balance it needs to cost money because otherwise wealth levels will get thrown out of whack. From the POV of the game world, there are a couple of possible explanations:

    (1) They item was deliberately designed to require these rituals in order for the wielder to use the item. It’s less taxing on the spellcaster who originally created the item; it acts as an insurance policy against the items falling into enemy hands; and so forth.

    (2) The auras of magical items tend to “mix” with the auras of those who wield them. When a great hero or villain wields a weapon, they leave behind an indelible and powerful stamp. Legacy rituals are designed to tap into these “greater auras” and unleash their power — but, like any mystical ritual, there are associated costs in equipment, components, and the like.
    Tuesday, February 10, 2009, 2:52:57 AM

    Justin Alexander
    Re: “Keeping Nainsyr”. A few thoughts on how to handle this.

    (1) Don’t sweat it. If the PCs no longer want the item, then they don’t want the item. Even Bilbo gave away Sting (albeit with a bit more resonance than hocking it at the nearest store).

    You can occasionally look at this as an opportunity: Maybe one of their enemies can purchase their former item and use it to scry on them. Or they find the body of young hero in the local dungeon… their once-favorite sword shattered in his grip. (What could have done this?!)

    (This doesn’t always need to be a negative thing, either.)

    It’s not a well you should go to very often, but it’s not a bad idea to occasionally remind the players that the local magick shoppe is not a CRPG-repository where items disappear into an electronic ether.

    (2) Don’t sweat the balance, either. I’ve written about this before. If a PC ends up weaker than they “should be” due to feat selection or skill selection or multiclassing or equipment… well, then they’re weaker.

    (3) It’s not unusual for the “really special” items that come down the pike to be on the high end of the PCs’ current power scale. This increases their longevity.

    (4) Adding new abilities to items has happened frequently in my long-running campaigns. You can encourage this behavior by reducing the amount of time it takes to accomplish it. There are a couple of ways to do this:

    (a) Simply reduce crafting times across the board. This probably isn’t necessary in campaigns with a lot of down time, but in a campaign where the PCs are being kept busy every day crafting items becomes difficult or impossible.

    (b) If the PCs have an item with the ability they want to add to their current equipment, then they can perform a “transfer ritual”. I’ve had a rule like this for years, and I believe 4th Edition has done something similar. (Note: Two +1 swords should not equal a +2 sword.)

    @Lior: More powerful weapons are also available in my campaign, but they’re rare, too. One way to think of it might be like Ferraris: Yeah, there are a lot of Ferraris in the world. But if you own one, it’s still a Ferrari. (Only, in D&D, the Ferraris are all custom made.)

    And thanks for the compliments everybody. You’re making me blush. Wink
    Tuesday, February 10, 2009, 2:47:46 AM

    “John Lee”
    opened and closed to not emit light during inconvenient times. There are wands of prestidigitation to make sure nobody ever catches pnuemonia after bathing and having to stay wet during the cold night. Heck, these minor magic items are the only reason that the towns’ streets don’t overflow with filth like in extremely-realistic medieval Europe.
    Monday, February 09, 2009, 4:53:59 PM

    “John Lee”
    I take an different approach. In my worlds (or, at least, the single world I’ve ever run), magic items are pretty much made-to-order. You pay runners to scour the land searching for the right contacts, place bribes in the right places to make some of the wizards agreeable to you; and after a few months you come up with the mage. You pay him the fee, wait a few weeks, and get the item. All magic items are created for a purpose. Of course, all of the sample “quirky” magic items could have been created for a purpose; but magic items in my campaign are utilitarian. Following is a quote from my “gaming manifesto”.

    “I consider the list price to be the net amount it costs to acquire the magic item – finding contacts, making little bribes here and there, hiring people to fetch random components, etc. Therefore, you can generally buy any item from anywhere at the given price. Don’t expect it to be quick, though – especially if the item is above 3,000 gp. The same principle of “net value” applies for selling magic items – the half price you get is the amount left after the expenses of hiring people to find the item (or, if you can manage to make a rush sale, the devalued amount of gold you receive). Consequently, I will have no limits on what magic items you can start with (or buy) except for your and your character’s logical sense.”

    One might wonder what benefits are offered by this course. Well, first of all, magic item balancing is easy because the PCs have access to as much as they can get by the wealth-by-level guidelines; and new characters with custom-picked equipment aren’t more powerful than the originals, who often have random knick-knacks. Also, the problem of “what happens to Nainsyr” is resolved. You just enchant Nainsyr to keep up with other random items. Also, you don’t necessarily have to abandon that humble little rock that you used to kill your first orc while running away from the smouldering cinders of your home town. Enchant it into a proper weapon; carve it into a hilt and have it exude a blade of magical force.

    Also, the story is yours. The PCs don’t care about the rusty old dire flail they found on the evil lieutenant’s corpse. They care about the unnamed yet beloved scimitar they’ve had ever since they killed their first orc with it. So break the dire flail down, dispose of its ancient history as the weapon of the ancient malicious empire; and add its magical power to your own sword and your own history. If it’s just as easy to keep your new weapon as it is to sell the weapon to power your own sword; they’ll probably pick the sword whose history they know. The sword whose history they all know; and the DM does not have to spend extra effort making.

    But Tetsubo is right. Minor magic items are the lifeblood of the world. In my campaign, magic is common; magic is commercialized; magic is economic. There are “monasteries” full of level 2 or 3 adepts that crank out Rods of Continual Flame that can be o
    Monday, February 09, 2009, 4:51:33 PM

    Minor magic items have always been my favorite. I think they give a truer feel for a world that is infused with magic. It shows what non-adventurers do with the magic around them.

    Pots that are self-heating.

    Pitchers that keep your ale cool and fresh.

    Pocket watches that entertain.

    Toys of all sorts of course.

    Pretty much any gadget that can exist in our world can easily be translated into a minor (or not so minor) magic item.
    Monday, February 09, 2009, 3:17:43 PM

    Bobson: that is exactly what my comment is about. If longswords +3 and +4 are common then longswords +1 are not going to be thought of as individually significant items, except for cultural or historical reasons.

    I suspect that in Justin’s campaign, a “longsword +3” is not something the players are likely to ever have, and there may be no “longsword +4” in the whole world. Thus a “shocking longsword +1” is a powerful and unusual item, something that the characters will keep.
    Monday, February 09, 2009, 3:06:33 PM

    I’m curious how you reconcile the specialness of a sword like Nainsyr with the fact that it is just a +1 shock longsword. What do the players do when they find a +3 longsword? Or a +4? Or after passing it up because it’s “your” sword, when the rest of the party has upgraded to that level you’re now missing much more often than everyone else?

    I know this is what WotC was trying to solve with legacy items, although I’m not really happy with their implementation of it. How would you suggest keeping that special sword special?
    Monday, February 09, 2009, 1:24:30 PM

    As usual, Justin, you make excellent points and express yourself in the best way.

    I think the trend toward lack of detail has to do with the change in the prevalence and function of magic in the game. Magic which is commonly available in standard fashion is not expected to be individually special.

    Let’s look at the modern world. 30 years ago, every home computer had a history and an individual personality — computers were rare and unusual, and everyone modified their own in a different way. Today, there is still considerable variety in the choice of computers, but it is treated in a completely commonplace way.

    At one time, people bought a “Commodore 64”. This told you about the look-and-feel. They didn’t say “I bought a 1MHz 6502”. Today people say “I bought a 3.2GHz Intel Processor”; they might tell you the manufacturer — but this communicates practical questions such as reliability, not the intangible “nature” of their computer.

    On the other hand, if a friend of yours owns a sword they will probably tell you the name of the smith not because you may want one — they’ll tell you because it’s part of the “myth” of that sword.

    In a world where magic is prevalent, magic items are commonplace commodity items, and you generally treat them as interchangable (in usual D&D3 a sword +6 has a standard market price, implying a lively market in swords +6). Most characters won’t personalize their 10′ pole or their crossbow. Not all crossbows are alike, but only few soldiers think of their weapon as anything other than standard issue. Some do, and some players choose to add depth to the game world by making their ordinary crossbow unique, but that is the exception.

    A particular crossbow +0 can fire a little high (not an issue to the owner who knows how to aim, but a problem to a fire-time user). It can be stamped with the seal of the foundry who made it (thus proving that the secret city of Ar actually exists) or with the seal of the city armoury from which it was stolen (potentially getting its unsuspecting owner in trouble).

    My point? You can add detail to any item, but it’s rare and unusual items that must be one-of-a-kind. Whether magic has to have this detail has to do with how common it is than anything about magic as such.
    Monday, February 09, 2009, 11:18:55 AM

    I lament that I’ll never play in a campaign of yours, Justin. Your detail-oriented style is refreshing, rare, and dying in the industry. I consider you an authority on RPG immersion and I use your site as education to those who want to learn it. Huzzah, and thanks.

    PS- I’d love to see some political posts concerning your thoughts on the new administration.
    Monday, February 09, 2009, 8:17:11 AM

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    […] ei tietenkään ole mitenkään uusi (mm. The Alexandrian on kirjoittanut siitä jo aikaa sitten), mutta omakohtaisen kokemuksen myötä se tuntuu nyt kovin […]

  3. DanDare says:

    This has reminded me of a magic item I invented on the spot for an old D&D campaign. Two largish, clear crystal marbles. Their magic was that the light that entered one would exit the other.

    The players loved those marbles. They spied on people by leaving a marble in a viewing spot and watching through the other. They left one outside in a secret but sunlit spot as they entered a dungeon, bringing sunlight with them. And so on.

    Think I might revive them for my 5th Ed game when I get it going.

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