All that and a bag of tricks
Join Demiplane Community Member Kyle Taylor (Stormchaser) in Homebrew University: a recurring blog that explores practical frameworks and perspectives to evolve popular Tabletop Roleplaying games to best fit you and your table’s tastes!
Hello Game Masters!
Vilya, Nenya, Narya. Stormbringer, Excalibur and Mjöllnir. Magical rings, swords, potions, mirrors and items of all kinds have been a staple of fantastical stories since time immemorial. In Dungeons and Dragons, magic items also form a part of the game close to the hearts of many players – LOOT!
Last time on Homebrew University, I ended by talking about some ideas on how magical items can be handled differently to in vanilla 5e. So, today we’re going to dive into the vast potential of magic items and how to introduce your own personalised effects that go beyond a simple numerical buff.
Back to the roots
From the potion that made Tristan fall in love with Isolde to the magic mirror in Snow White, magic items have formed an integral part of myths and fairy tales the world over for millenia. The sense of awe and wonder inspired by such objects is a common source of aspiration for GMs of games such as DnD, but it’s hard to capture such a feeling with a +1 longsword that, for lack of a better term, can feel woefully mundane when compared to a talking mirror that knows just what to say. The reason for this is, of course, something often repeated by game designers and homebrewers alike – balance. So, how do we go about creating interesting and engaging magic items without overpowering player characters? The answer is threefold: Personalisation, Scaling and Utility.
Personalisation is important, because, as the above examples from literature show, magic items have more impact when they act as a narrative device, rather than just another gadget for your players. An ancestral weapon with a mysterious history tied to a character’s backstory will often mean more to a player than just another item in a dungeon haul. Write items with history and meaning into your campaign, whether you tie them to the game world, a specific PC, or events that made acquiring them especially climactic.
Scaling dovetails with personalisation, because, no matter how much a player wants to keep using said ancestral weapon from tier 1 all the way through to tier 4, they will find it hard to justify if the personal item increasingly falls behind newer and more powerful options. An item that grows and develops with the character who bears it will continue to see use, even when the party reaches much higher levels.
Finally, a common feature of many of the most beloved magical items in fiction is that they do not merely cut better or protect the wearer. Magic does things. Phenomenal things. The Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter is not magical, it is useful. The biblical Seal of Solomon granted its namesake the power to control and imprison demons. Useful and interesting effects will easily make for a more memorable magic item than a simple numerical bonus.
+3 RINGS FOR ELVEN KINGS
Nevertheless, this is Homebrew University. So how do we go about turning these concepts into mechanics? The first has an answer already baked into fifth edition’s vanilla rules – attunement. Attunement is very useful as a balancing factor for magical items and an excellent way to communicate that a particular character has a special bond with an item. One of the DnD’s more famous magic items, the holy avenger, can specifically only be attuned to by a paladin. Specifying attunement criteria that pick out one particular player character is an excellent way to communicate personalisation, akin to how the mythological Norse hammer Mjöllnir can only be lifted when certain circumstances are fulfilled.
Attunement, as a mechanic, can be refined further by introducing the concept of items that take up multiple attunement slots. One effective way to implement this works as follows:
- Player characters have a number of attunement slots equal to their proficiency bonus.
- Common, uncommon and rare magical items require one attunement slot to attune to them.
- Very rare, legendary and artifact magical items require two attunement slots to attune to them.
By using this system, tier 1 characters are only able to attune to two low level magic items or one high level magic item and tier 4 characters can attune to up to three high level magic items, or many more lower level items. This helps to underline the power of high level items, without significantly throwing off the balance of the game.
A great way to build in scaling is by giving items a number of charges that limit how often they can be used, but increase with level. A total number of charges equal to the attuned character’s level is often a simple and effective rule for this. The number of charges regained each day is another parameter that ties well to proficiency brackets:
This can be applied to abilities of all kinds, but works especially well with spells that the item can be used to cast. Particularly when it comes to magic items for martial characters, the availability of a thematic selection of spells using a magic item adds great utility and also comes with in-built scaling using spell levels. Magic items can grow, develop and scale with the character attuned to them by ‘unlocking’ additional spells over time. Not only does this present the opportunity to add higher level spells to the item, but these spells can also be balanced by costing more charges per casting. Here, a good rule of thumb is one charge per spell level.
Many of the great utility items found in myths and legends can be emulated in this way, because spells that cover these powers already exist. Invisibility and fly are good examples of this. Balancing factors such as duration and concentration are already built into the spells. However, don’t feel limited by this! When it comes to designing unique magic items, such as a mask that makes those who lose sight of you forget that they ever saw you, the only limit is your imagination.
Beyond the Mundane
I hope that these concepts help you with magic item design for your own campaigns and you can find me on Demiplane’s discord server if you want to discuss them in more detail. Otherwise, have fun and I’ll see you next time on Homebrew University!
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