A controversial topic in D&D and a few other tabletop game platforms is the use of magic items. Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is BIG on magic items. Today, we discuss how to incorporate them into a game to enhance it and keep the fun rolling.
What is this strange, glowing sword?
Rule #1: Unless it plays an important role in your roleplaying, do not make characters guess what an item does. Describe the flavor text of an item and follow up with the name and game mechanics of it. You do not want the exchange to look like this:
DM: “You find a glowing sword underneath the pile of skeletons.”
Max: “What is it?”
DM: “A glowing sword. Would you like to make an arcana check to identify it?”
That is horrible dungeon mastering. If he makes the arcana check, you are going to (hopefully) tell him all about it. If he misses the check, you are going to have an awkward time where this fully capable hero does not have a clue what he is holding. As the DM Guide states, tell them what the item is and does.
MYTH: “But it makes it more interesting for the story when they do not always know what they have. That method takes the excitement out of it.”
The excitement is what you make it. Here’s some advice to keep things fun.
Halandor’s Courage ((SPOILER ALERT FOR MY CAMPAIGN!!))
Add a story/name to magic items. Do not fall into the trap of thinking magic items are common and everybody has one or needs one. In my campaign, Harpam Halandor was a hero that singlehandedly fought off the Ruler of Ruin during the collapse of the Nerathi Empire. Songs and history books tell how Halandor’s Courage saved the world from utter annihilation. Halandor’s Courage is the name given to his Level 30 Vorpal Sword used against the Ruler of Ruin. It is buried with his body, although few know the exact location.
When a PC finds this weapon, I can give them a detailed flavor text on its appearance and hand over the stats immediately without losing any of the fun. The weapon was real enough in story and legend to carry its own excitement when one finds it.
MYTH: “But it will take too much work to name every single magic item and come up with stories for them. There’s no way this method works efficiently.”
Make Them the Story
True magic items that deserve a name or story (new, powerful weapons, armor, etc.) should not be thrown around as rewards every single session in the first place. If the characters need a new weapon or armor, have them set out specifically for it. They may learn of a single elf, deep within the Whispering Woods who crafts the lightest yet strongest armor, or a lone dwarf in the far north, who slaves day in and day out, creating the finest hammers known to the world. If its part of the story, you’ve already done the work! Just name the damned thing!
Now other items, such as gauntlets or necklaces, do not always need intense stories or names but there is still a way to make them interesting. Perhaps a duke thanks the PCs for saving his city by bestowing them matching amulets of health for their future journeys. Maybe the PCs defeat a dwarf who viciously threw his hammer at them during the battle only to discover his set of Dwarven Throwers on his arms. Both cases make sense and both have a story.
Keep items fun and interesting but not in the dark. With a good story/name behind them, its easy to hand over the stats of an item, keeping things moving, simple, and fun. No one wants an item that they cannot use because they failed an arcana check to identify it.
Lastly, always keep items within the story. If the PCs find a treasure chest full of magic items but its only there to serve as the room’s treasure, that is lamer than a crippled kobold. Keep it fun and thanks for reading!