Post-brew podcast Episode 5: +3 Rings for the Elven Kings
Welcome to our 5th episode of Homebrew University’s Post-Brew podcast! This episode is a follow-up to yesterday’s Homebrew University: Magical Items for a Magical Solution by Kyle Taylor (Stormchaser, @stormchaser6) in which he discussed how to homebrew magic items that are personalized to your Adventuring Party, scale as they level, and – of course – are fun to use! Today, Kyle sits down with Demiplane’s Peter Romenesko to talk 5e magic items, attunement, and how to use magic items to create a compelling narrative arc for your campaign! Join for the homebrew, stay for the fun story examples at the end! And, if you have a great homebrew magic item story, share it with us on social, we’d love to hear it!
So, kick back and enjoy a brew with us – or read the transcript of their conversation below!
Peter: Hello Everybody and Welcome to our fifth episode of Homebrew University’s Post-Brew Podcast! This episode is a follow-up to our last article, which is Magical Items for a Magical Solution – also, if you’re a Lord of the Rings Fan, you may also know this as the +3 Rings for the Elven Kings. We have Kyle here, who is the Grand Master of all titles in the Post-Brew podcast. So, seems like we have another Lord of the Rings fan here. Kyle, how are you doing today?
Kyle: Great, Pete. Nice to be back. Glad you liked the title.
Peter: Oh, it’s good. We’re going to drip Lord of the Rings references, I think, throughout the podcast today. We should have a contest at the end to see who can pick them all out. [laughs] But this is great. Today we’re going to talk all about magic items, which is something I’m really excited about. We’ve had a great run. We’ve talked a little bit about armor 2 episodes ago, then last episode we were talking about weapons, and in each case we talked about the role that magical properties could have in those things. But today we talk a little bit more about that, a little more beyond the +1 and +2s. So, if you could, maybe if you don’t mind just to get started for those folks that haven’t read the article yet, do you want to provide just a quick summary of some of the thoughts that you had regarding magic items and what might be an important kind of core foundation before we start off on me interviewing you and asking you really tough questions about a tabletop game?
Kyle: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think the thing about magic items is that you don’t want them to just be run-of-the-mill, standard, just a part of the game. They get boring, you know? And magic items should be exciting. You don’t want people to just be ticking off another thing on their list, you want to throw something in that’s magical – literally magical – and have people get really excited about it.
Kyle: So, different principles that you can apply to get there, I talk about those in the article. One of them is personalization. You want to have items that mean something to a character, because if they mean something to that character they’re going to mean something to the player and that’s when you get your roleplayers really invested in the game. And then you take that further by making, essentially, custom aspects of these magical items that are tailor-made for your players. And this is what I kind of go into, you know, you’ve got these different things, how you’re going to customize items, how you can maybe make them more interesting than just doing a numerical bonus to a stat, how you can actually make them do things that a player might not otherwise be able to do with their character, and you open up a whole new window of opportunities. And that is what makes the game fun and what makes things interesting and it’s what keeps your players engaged with the items that you’re putting into the world with them.
Peter: Awesome. One of my favorite things that you brought up, which really I’ve seen you use a few times now as we’ve been kind of talking back and forth, is this context of homebrewing some rules regarding attunement and tying that to the proficiency bonus. And what I like about that is, at least I know my favorite part of the games is when you advance. Advancing to the next stage is really valuable and the proficiency bonus is like the kind of over-arching measure of advancing. That +1 to the proficiency bonus gets you to the next tier.
Kyle: Yeah, you’ve got that right.
Peter: Yeah, it’s an awesome way to think about it. And one of the things that you’ve done in the article that I thought was important was tie the number of attunement slots to your proficiency bonus. And so, it shows some sort of progression or a reward, if you will, for advancing through a story. And then having the magic items potentially take up more than one spot, or more than one slot, if you will, based on how powerful they are. And so, I thought that was a really cool system and I would encourage folks to go in and read that. So, with that as foundation, I wanted to ask the first question for today, which is: for you, personally, when you’re going through and you’re crafting magic items, when do you decide that attunement is needed? What’s the difference between a stone that provides +1 to a saving throw or maybe an attack roll or something that may not need attunement, vs. a +2 longsword that does? As you’re thinking through these, what are the characteristics that make you think attunement’s needed?
Kyle: When you’re considering attunement, there are two ways to look at it for start. The first is kind of the mechanical balance that you were just discussing, but then you also want to consider what attunement is going to mean in the context of this item in terms of the story. You’ve always got these two sides of D&D. And, so, when it comes to the mechanics, as most people will know, magic items are divided into rarity categories in 5th Edition D&D. And this is really key, because attunement as a balancing factor essentially limits the number of items of this type that you can have and so you can afford for the item within its category to be a bit stronger if it’s got attunement. So it’s something that you might slap on an item when you want to maybe pull it back a bit into the category that you’re intending for it. And a really good example of this is if you compare the Cloak of Elvenkind with the Boots of Elvenkind, just in normal D&D. And Boots of Elvenkind, they give you advantage on stealth checks. It’s that simple. Easy item, doesn’t require attunement. The Cloak of Elvenkind does require attunement and it doesn’t just give you advantage on stealth checks, it also gives others disadvantage on their perception to see you, and of course that combination is really powerful, you know? You’re rolling two dice, taking the better, they’re rolling two dice, taking the worse. But for that extra power you pay, because you have to give up an attunement slot. And so it’s things like that where you want to look, because just saying all of this has a certain power level, I’ll need attunement for it, like, in the overall scheme you can’t really do, because it depends on where you’re aiming to put it. But if you know where you want it to go and you know where it is, then you can use attunement to maybe pull it back one way or not put attunement on it if you want it to be on the stronger end. And that’s really where it would fall mechanically. Now, from a story perspective that’s, of course, completely different, because I would absolutely encourage all Game Masters to put attunement on items that are really custom, important items for a character’s arc, because it’s not just a question of power, it’s also the idea that this one character has a bond with the item. And that’s really important, that’s really part of what I was saying before with how you get items that matter. And, especially, and I think I mentioned a really good example of this, actually in the article, where we talk about Thor’s hammer? I think that’s really a popular bit of imagery there when you think of attunement having a magic item that only responds to one person or to people that meet certain criteria, be it in Norse mythology or in the modern Marvel comics. And I think that that is a really good example that people can intuitively see how applying attunement to an item really changes the meaning of it.
Peter: Right, awesome. And I think for me what also is fun is the concept of – I think we call them “curses”, but maybe the better term is “burdens”. The concept of when you attune to something or maybe if you were to attune to something that isn’t meant for you, there’s a heavier burden that comes to play. I think about, like, the burden of carrying the ring, you know? And you have one small halfling who can carry the ring and carry the burden, and others by having that, you know, if others were to take it, it’s more difficult. So, it’s like this one person has the advantage. Others could try to put it on, but it’s harder for them or it’s more difficult or they don’t get as many things. It almost reinforces that point, if you have a plot revolving around a single item. And so, it’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought about attunement as a story factor until I really read this, to me it always was just a ‘oh yeah, it’s a mechanic’ and just write it off as a side bar. I really liked it here. So, yeah, thought that was really interesting.
Kyle: Lord of the Rings there with the One Ring, that’s actually really important, because that brings me back to one of the points that I mentioned in the article, which is scaling. And if you look at Tolkien it’s talked about how Bilbo or Frodo will turn on the ring and they become invisible. And that is representative of the power of a hobbit, essentially.
Kyle: But it’s talked about in Lord of the Rings that that might not be how just anyone responds to wearing the ring and how when someone like Gandalf or Galadriel would put on the ring, take on that power, it would be awe-inspiring and terrible. Because of the kind of power they could wield through the ring, it would be far greater. And that really shows how an item might respond differently to a character of a different power level and I think that’s something that I certainly really like to build in and you have these charges and abilities, even, that will activate or not depending on how high level the character is.
Kyle: Because the question of how much power can you channel. And that brings us back around to what you were saying before with the scaling of the attunement slots, it’s how much power can a character of this type bear? And of course that’s measured by their level.
Peter: Right, right. That’s awesome. That’s really cool. So, let’s talk a little bit about scaling. And I know that we had said, we’d talked about the article and the role of a mundane, +1 sword, which is ironic, you know, the oxymoron of – or I guess the juxtaposition of – those two terms. Mundane, +1. But let’s talk about magic items and you bring up charges and the ability for magic items to consume charges, to perform special abilities in some way. Do you see a world where the +1, +2 modifiers and charges come together? And if you were to think about those, +1, +2, +3s, what tiers would you put that in? If you’re a Game Master who has a player that- they go out and they hit things and so they want to be better at hitting things, so they’re begging you for a +3 sword or a +4 sword, because they want to hit all the time. How hard should we be hitting the brakes and when do you know when to jump from a +2 to a +3? How do you think about that when you design these things?
Kyle: The scaling of numerical bonuses for attack and damage and so on in 5th Edition is actually pretty well defined, which makes our lives easier, of course. You can see this from the rarity tiers, so if you’ve got +1, +2, +3 on weapons they go uncommon, rare, very rare. And when it’s on armor or a shield it goes rare, very rare, legendary. So, the defensive ones are one step higher than the offensive ones. And you can pretty much stick to that and the nice thing is that there is a table in Mordenkainen’s. That’s the one. And, it’s actually in Mordenkainen’s book…or was it Xanathar’s? Yeah, okay, it was Xanathar’s. Exactly. It was Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. There’s a table in there that describes essentially the progression of how you should roughly give out magic items to your party by level. And that makes it really pretty clear to see, because you can see that they should not be going above uncommon items at tier 1, they shouldn’t be getting more than a +1 sword.
Kyle: And it goes up pretty steadily. So then looking at tier 2, you can get +2, at tier 3 you can get +3, and of course that is overlaid with the same set of bonuses for armor, so, again, you shouldn’t be getting +1 armor until you’re tier 2, you shouldn’t be getting +3 armor until you’re tier 4. But this is all actually pretty well laid out and if you stick to that framework, essentially, then you shouldn’t fall afoul of any balance issues. So that makes it very easy.
Peter: That’s awesome. We talked about weapons. We talked about armor. And as someone who has played a few wizard characters, how do you think about modifying your spell-saving throw or your spell attack bonus? Do you touch that? Is that something that you mess with?
Kyle: So, attack bonus is easier than saving throw, in a sense, because it’s basically the same as putting +1 on a sword. It’s a roll to hit AC, you’re going to have the same impact on balance as that. And, again, it can be fended off by, say, a +1 armor, +1 shield, whatever. So, the kind of innate balance of the weapons is there, so it’s no problem at all to give +1-+3 to a spell attack at the same rate as you would to a melee attack or a bow or something, that’s fine. Saves are a little more tricky, you want to be a little more cautious, just simply because it’s more difficult to get bonuses to saving throws as well. And you always want to have equal and opposite magic items available so that there is that sense of equality on both sides.
Kyle: So there are items like the Cloak of Protection that will give +1 or something. If you’re going to give out items that will also give +1-+3 to saves, then you can do the same on the saving throw DC, you know? Because then you’ve got that quality of action and reaction. At what level you should do that? I would be inclined to say that a +1 bonus to the DC of your saves is probably more on the power of a level of a +1 to AC than it is on +1 to attack, so it’s more maybe like a tier behind. But whether or not you can give them out? Absolutely, you just need to keep in mind what the implications of doing so are.
Peter: Right, right. And I also think it’s one of those things where those should come – my personal belief – is those should come at a cost. I think when I look at the role of hitting someone with a stick vs. going through and wreaking chaos on reality, by the time you get to 3rd or 4th level spells, that can really change the way your landscape works, if your player is the only one that has that. So, even if it’s an item that certain characters have in the world, and that enhances that spell-save DC and they know that they’re not the only ones that have it and others will use it, that’s one of those things where I think it helps, but, boy, I’ve had it where that can really ruin – or not ruin – but it really amplifies the wow factor of a mage. And, in particular, when you start throwing lots of baddies, lots of small baddies, if you continue to do that in the higher tiers, you know – here’s 8 minions and a big bad – those 8 minions can find themselves in a rough spot because their saves are poor and you’ve amped up your mage and they’re crowd control. Of course, there’s always the change it happens anyways, it just leans in their favor.
So yeah, awesome! I was very interested in hearing your thought on that one. So, let’s talk a little about the lower levels. Let’s talk about intro weapons and intro magic items – not just weapons, but magic items in general. One of the things I was curious was this concept of adding a cost. Is there a way to… I think about the dark side of the force, you know? You get a little bit more power, but it comes at a very grievous cost. Is there something like that in the magic item world that you’ve seen or that you’ve seen work well or you think about? Some access to quick power, but perhaps in doing so there’s damage or there’s disadvantage. Almost like your magic version of savage attacker. Anything that you’ve seen work well?
Kyle: Well, I think that what you’ve really got to consider here is what is the tone of your campaign, because this can work very, very well, but only if you have a game that maybe has that dark edge. And 5th Edition in the way it’s written in general is supposed to be kind of very open, that’s why, for example, they took away racial penalties.
Kyle: Dwarves no longer have a penalty to charisma. It’s a game that has enabled concepts, it’s kept very open, and so it’s very rare that you’ll find something that brings disadvantage, because the onus is essentially left on the DM to say, ‘no, okay, but that’s the kind of campaign I’m playing, I want to bring in cost and make things that little bit more gritty.’ That said, I think it can be a very, very fun thing to do. I think one of the furthest ways you could take this is I’ve actually gone to the extent of giving out a level before.
Peter: Oh, wow, okay.
Kyle: And this, this is fun because it was a level of warlock, because the character makes a deal, right? And, of course, then the kicker is the deal. You’ve got to wait until that comes calling and you think, ‘oh, what have I done?’.
Kyle: [laughs] So, you know, but yeah, yeah. Exactly, absolutely you can throw in things where power has a cost and this can be things like stat drain, even, where you go mad in a fight, but then afterwards you are left drained, you’re left weak, and you have to be careful about how you time that, because you wouldn’t want your enemies to catch you when you’re passed out. So you can do things like that. You can do things like, things that are akin to the Vampire’s Bite, so you get left with a reduced max hit points until you can take a whatever kind of rest it is that you want to reset it on, be that short or long or whatever.
Kyle: Or even to the extent of going into spell-slot drain, where you actually have these spell-slots that will not restore until you maybe undergo some kind of dark ritual or something. So there are all sorts of ways that you can kind of draw back and say, ‘okay, you’re going to have this big boost of power, but it’s going to cost you’. And you have known costs associated with that. There is a lovely item, which will grant an increased max hit points. I’ve got this with one of the players in my campaign, they have a silver chalice and they fill it with water and the water turns to blood and they drink the blood and it’s like casting. It’s a bit like False Life.
Kyle: They get more and more additional hit points before the fight, if they have time to prepare and drink all this. But they take only half of all divine healing, because that’s the curse of the item. So, with necromancy they can boost themselves in advance, but later, you’ve got a cleric come to heal you, it’s only half as effective because you are resistant to that healing. There are a lot of interesting ways to work in pros and cons there.
Peter: Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s a really creative way of thinking about it. My favorite is kind of the nuclear option, which is – and we talked a little bit about charges – you have one or two abilities that use a reduced amount of charges, maybe they can be used one or two times before the charges hit zero. And then you have the option that takes all of the charges and destroys the item. That’s my favorite one, is just like okay, if you do this, it’s going to be a ‘wow! That’s crazy! I can’t believe you did that. We’re going to remember that for a long time’. And one of the Adventures that we ran, which was great, was this concept of they were treasure-hunters and they found this book. It was a book with almost a small case with crystal coins in it. And there were 6 crystal coins and some of them were missing, so there were only 3 crystal coins left. And they used the crystal coins and it was the equivalent of like a 6th or 7th level spell, but they consumed that coin, it was gone forever. They were never going to get it back, but it was a consumable item that had really high power. And everybody talks about that. They talk about, ‘well, I was hired to get these coins, and we were going to get a reward for them, but I’m choosing to opt out of the reward in order to use this crystal coin in this fight for us to get out’. So, it’s like a high-powered consumable that they can use, which was a lot of fun. And then to have the charges be almost like physical objects, they could see this book has 3 charges, but really it’s 3 coins. It’s a fun way to make things more epic.
Kyle: There’s the choice to make a sacrifice as well.
Kyle: Then people remember that.
Kyle: That story point.
Peter: Right. Awesome. Let’s see. I think the final thing I want to talk about…nah, we’ll see if it’s final. We’ll see if it’s final. We got all day. I’m sure the listeners have all day, too. One of the things I’ve wondered about, and I think warlocks are a great example of this, I’m a Game Master so obviously the only player class I want to pick is the warlock, because it comes with an NPC right away, and you can tell an awesome story, and there’s all these cool things, I can do this, I can do that. Since I’m a Game Master I never get to play, so I’ll do all the classes and I’ll be good at everything. Or I’ll be average at everything, but not really great at any of them. And so, therefore, I pick warlock. And I think about their evocations and the things that they get. Or the bard, I mean, and having some unique abilities with the dipping in other classes. And I was curious what you thought about using class abilities as magic items or as the result of magic items. Would you ever use certain class abilities like, you know, the battle master’s maneuver die, Sneak Attack at a low level, maybe Wild Shape, would you ever use class abilities that would offer a character of a different class to borrow those abilities? Is that something that you would do or would you rather caution that?
Kyle: So…maybe? But the point of caution is: what is your party make-up? And if you don’t have anyone else in the party who’s doing that, then you can feel more free to maybe say, ‘okay, this character has a special item that lets them have access to something they might not otherwise’. But you don’t want to be stepping on the druid’s toes when you give the rogue Wild Shape.
Kyle: So, you need to consider not just a single character, but what the full make-up of the party is, because generally speaking, when we do game design, you don’t want to step on any class’s toes. When you’re writing things in general you want to make sure that you’re not taking away what makes a class special. But when you’re looking at a specific campaign, you’re more free, because you don’t have every single class present in a party. You have maybe 4-6 in a typical Adventuring Party. So, then you can say, okay, it makes more sense and this fits that character, but you don’t want to at the same time take away the opportunity of one of your other players to shine.
Kyle: So, I’d say that’s as much a social question as it is a mechanics question, in a way. You need to be aware of who you’re running for and what kind of characters there are.
Peter: Right. Yeah, I would agree. That’s a great point, especially when you say, like, ‘oh yeah, you can be a cleric and you don’t have to be a healer’, and then everyone’s clerics and no one’s healing. You know, they all have the ability to, but maybe there’s an item that you can use to help keep them running their all-cleric campaigns, and not have to worry about healing. I guess that’s a healing potion. [laughs] Maybe that’s a bad example. An all-warlock campaign is probably a little better example.
Kyle: You’re up to talking about party roles, basically.
Kyle: You know, if there’s a party role no one wants to fill, maybe you can pack it into a magic item. That’s a valid perspective, sure.
Kyle: Like I said, just as long as you’re not stealing the spotlight from someone who wants to be the one doing it.
Peter: Exactly. I think that’s a great point. It’s a good… Social awareness in a game full of pretending you’re somebody else. Who’s everyone else pretending to be, too?
Awesome. I guess, final question as always, just…what’s your favorite magic item that you’ve seen or that you’ve created that you’ve put in? What’s something that you think is just like… You’re on a podcast, people are going to listen to it, now is your time to share, like, ‘this was so cool, I really loved this’.
Kyle: Favorite magic item. There’s just so many. I mean, you’ve got classics like the Vorpal Sword from Alice. Everyone loves to hear about that kind of thing, but I often find that the magic items you really remember are less obvious and more insidious. There’s one that I’ve got going on right now it just changes everything because there’s a rogue, there’s a mask, and when he’s wearing the mask and someone loses sight of him, they forget they saw him. This is a very high intelligence save, so maybe they remember, but basically people just forget him, if they’ve seen you while you’re wearing the mask. That is – it’s not just something like a powerful ability or something, it completely changes how you play the game, because it opens new doors and lets you do things like you can have a conversation with someone and disappear and they don’t remember that that happened. That really can turn some things on its head. I think it’s really the more subtle but very influential magic items that I think really often have the most impact.
Peter: Yeah. That’s awesome. For me, I think about there was a great campaign I played that a friend of mine was running and I was a paladin and I remember we had this opportunity to get a Ring of Mindshielding. And the thing about the Ring of Mindshielding is, obviously, it protects you from intrusion, if you will, while you’re wearing it, but if someone else’s soul is in the ring, they can communicate with you telepathically. And so it became this really cool story arc where the person that’s soul was in the ring was actually crucial to the broader campaign. And so it became this 3rd element of well, who do you listen to, you’ve got the Party’s goals, you have the opposing force’s goals, and then you have this ring that is… it’s not so much that the item is talking to you, but it’s this person who’s trying to tell you here’s what happened to me and here’s why this occurred. And you can’t stop the communication, they can bother you at all times, and so when you’re going through and you’re fighting some enemies that are able to go in your mind, especially at some of the mid-tiers or higher tiers, that’s really valuable because as a Game Master you can pit being able to read minds and you can be listening to what everyone is saying, but they know that, they know what you just said. The Game Master knows it and now the NPCs know it. And so everybody was like, ‘put the ring on, put the ring on. We’re going to talk about this now, put the ring on.’ And it was kind of a group cone of silence, if you will, that the Game Master let happen, but then when the ring wasn’t on it was like this ‘oh man, if we say something out loud they’re going to know’. So it was really interesting, you know? And being able to say, like, the Game Master goes ‘that’s a terrible plan, you’ve forgotten that they can do X, Y, and Z’. And like only one person can hear it. And so, it’s just a great way to interact with things and everybody remembered that, and everybody really recalled back to that. So things like that make me really remember it. But we did… I will say also the second one. We had a Vorpal Sword battle royale moment where there was literally, we walked through a portal, everything transformed into a battle royale, it was the party against other parties, and there were a bunch of loot tables and every time you opened a crate everybody rolled and got an item and one of our characters got a Vorpal Sword and in the final – you know, for the final blow for the final boss nat 20-d on the Vorpal Sword and they cut off their head and they instantly died and all sorts of things. And so, that was a really fun one. And then when we left the battle royale all the weapons were gone. But it was really fun. For the time that we had it, it was a great 8-week story, you know, 8 different sessions that were going into this battle royale that ended up being a really fun change of pace and was a great way to just throw a bunch of magic items at everybody and see what happens. So, anyways, those are my fun stories.
Cool. Well, I’ll tell you what, we’re going to leave on that note, because now everyone else is like ‘I want to tell my stories, too’, so if you’re listening to this, now you can start texting your friends, ‘hey, remember when?’ and if you do that then I think we’ve left you in a good spot. So, Kyle, thanks again. This is great.
Kyle: Yeah, thank you, Pete. I always have fun with these.
Peter: You know, it’s a lot of fun talking about roleplaying games and just sharing stories and all those things. So, this is great. This is great. I’m excited for the next one. Everybody, thanks for joining us. We look forward to next month when you get to see our next Homebrew University and Dr. Kyle, thanks again, we’ll talk to everybody soon.
Kyle: See you next time!
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