Monday, January 21, 2019

How I Include Magic Items in My Campaigns

This grew out of a Quora question on how "generous" DMs should be about handing out magic items. The answer, of course, depends on the sort of campaign you want. But I strongly err on the side of caution (or "tight-fisted stinginess" according to some of my players).

While I’m notorious for not giving away magical items, but the truth is, I give out lots of magic items. It’s just that most are one-use get-out-of-jail-maybe-not-so free things. Like a shield fashioned of rowan wood that can nullify a single spell of third level or lower, but shatters when it does so. That works well for me, but not for thee. So keeping in mind the needs of your own campaign and what brings the fun for you and yours, here are some suggestions about how to give out magic items:

What do you want the PCs to be able to do?

You might love werewolves and want to get lycanthropes into the campaign as quickly as possible. Or maybe you’ve got some great ideas for undersea adventures and don’t want the PCs too hampered with not being able to breath down there. Or maybe you think dragons are the bee’s knees but don’t want the PCs to flee in terror due to their fearsome aura. Maybe you want a jet-setting campaign that has the PCs chasing clues from one end of the world to another (cue the red-like map from Raiders of the Lost Ark). Or you want them to encounter lots of unique and alien cultures but don’t want their interactions bogged down by language barriers.

Magic items that remove hurdles that impede everyone getting to the fun are the first things you should think about giving out. Just make sure you’re not squashing someone’s character concept (a lie-detector when one of the players wants to play an Inquisitive), or short-circuiting what is the fun for you (like removing logistics as a concern when you really want a big, long-distance hex crawl).

Like unto this are…

What can’t the PCs do that might be important?

5e assumes the average group to be four players and a DM. Even with the game spreading around abilities like healing, that can mean that something gets left out. If the PCs are woefully lacking in stealth, or tanking, or healing, or intelligence-gathering, give them some magic to fill that gap.

Once you’ve got these bases covered, you may want to…

Take it slow.

It’s easier to give additional magical goodies than it is to take them away. So be stingy at first. If you’re not sure if you should give them a particular ability, make the item have limited uses (like a wand or potion).

Also, keep in mind that 5e is built around bounded accuracy. You can blow that up if you give away lots of things that improve AC. Avoid giving away magic items that raise ACs at all, and try to keep ACs below 24 if at all possible.

But if you’re going to do all that, you’ll probably also want to…

Make it cool!

If you give out fewer items, that means you can spend more time on the items you do give out. Give them names and histories. Who else used this item in the past, and what did they do with it? Are there those who particularly hate the item due to how it was used in the past, or who might feel it rightfully belongs to them? Will people recognize the item and admire the PCs for having it?
Does this item have cosmetic effects (cool lights or veiled in a bloody mist) that make it stand out? Are there side effects to calling upon its most potent powers? Does the item need special care or recharging?

Taking the time for even cosmetic changes can make the magic in your campaign unique. This is one of those areas where a little extra work will go a long way, especially as players realize that their treasured magic weapon isn't from a generic list in the DMG, but something special, made just for their campaign. You also have the players' undivided attention when you talk about treasure, so here's your best opportunity to include exposition you want remembered.


Anne said...

I think Numenera's approach is interesting. Give out lots of magic items. You can only carry a couple at a time. They only work once. It runs entirely contrary to my usual mindset of hoarding and scarcity. You might as well use it, and use it up, because you're missing out on more cool things by just carrying it around and making yourself unable to take any others you find.

Recently I've been relatively generous in my DCC game, but I don't want the characters getting bogged down with dozens of them. I'm thinking of saying that when you die, any magic items you held die too. Or maybe that an item can survive a character's death once, but you still know that its presence as a tool the party can use isn't permanent.

trollsmyth said...

Anne: I absolutely adore how Numenera handles cyphers. The virtuous cycle of burning cyphers to go to interesting places, get more cyphers in the interesting place, rinse, repeat works really well. And since cyphers are dangerous to amass and deciding what to do with a large pile of cyphers is an interesting problem for players to solve, GMs are not tempted to turn it into the Red Queen's Race.

In my college game, I briefly ruled that if your character failed a save against something like a lightning bolt or dragon's breath, your gear had to pass a save as well or be destroyed, including magic items. But that lead to a lot of rolling and really slowed things down. I like the idea, but I've yet to discover a solid way to execute it.

BTW, very nice looking blog you've got there. Folks should visit it.

Anne said...

Thanks, Trollsmyth!

Maybe if there was only a single save that determined the fate of the equipment, it would go faster?

The quickest way would be you, the judge, pick one item to be at risk. The save decides if it survives.

A little slower, the player picks one item that definitely survives, then you pick one item that's definitely destroyed, then a single save decides the fate of all the other items, collectively. Either only one item is destroyed, or only one survives.

Ruprecht said...

Give magic items personalities and have them be jealous and finicky about working when certain other items are carried. Let the characters decide if its worthwhile.

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