In my campaigns, I often find I don’t give enough magic items as a reward, or they don’t go to the character I wanted to give them to. To address this I have come up with a simple solution: Simply enchant the items that the party already has! This tackles more than just one issue at once and we’ll explore the concept and possible benefits in this post.
A quick overview of the idea, if you’re in a hurry
- Enchant items the characters already have
- Give qualities that support their play style
- Also account for the player, not just the character
- Tie the magic item to their background
- Tell them what the item does immediately
- Strengthen the magic item over time
- Give magic items often
The Staff of Aivarus
An example tale of a magic item
Aivarus rose after the battle against the Darkfang raiders. His travel cloak was stained with dirt and blood. His soul broiled in turmoil, as it often did when he had to fight and kill. Why could these people not simply live in harmony and peace with nature? His friends did not stop him as he walked away wordlessly into the forest. They knew he would return, once his soul was soothed in communion with the ancient spirits of nature.
As the Druid stepped further and further away from the carnage, the ringing in his ears made room for the song of birds and the rustling leaves on the breeze once again. The soft moss beneath his feet returned the spring to his step and soon he felt much lighter. The scent of dew and the warmth of the early sun greeted him, as he found just the meadow to sit and commune with the spirits.
Aivarus knelt and let the palms of his hands brush over the grass around him. As he had done dozens of times before, he breathed and sunk into silent prayer. “Hear me, spirits of nature, for I have need of you”, he thought, “your child Aivarus of the Goldflecked Grove beseeches you to help prevent needless bloodshed. Allow me to save just one life where killing cannot be avoided. My eternal love and life are yours. Help me ease the suffering of this existence.”
Rarely had he felt more than a soft breeze as a sign of affirmation. But on this day he heard a faint voice at furthest fringes of his mind. “Be calm, blessed son. With each sunrise, The staff you carry shall spring a flower for you to give and bring peace to one seeking to harm others. Now be renewed and return to your people and walk in our name as the protector of life.” As Aivarus opened his eyes, the tip of his staff had sprung a beautiful flower and he knew, it would help him bring peace into the world.
Magic Items are great rewards with strings attached
A lot of the rewards in table top role playing games or role playing games overall come in the way of currency, levels (and the accompanying benefits such as skills and spells) and equipment. To become better at what your character does, you’d seek to improve on all of these areas and then become more effective in your chosen role or class. However, the time to level up can be long (depending on your approach) and the party might not even be in a place, where it’s feasible to simply visit a friendly merchant and convert their treasures into better gear.
This is one of the many areas where magic items can really help and we’ve grown used to getting them as rewards in role playing games both in pen and paper systems as well as in video games. They are also uniquely situated to really help flesh out characters and make up for their shortcomings. Some brave players accept their horrible rolls from character creation, but still find the fun taken out of a campaign, where most subsequent rolls fall short of their goals.
Magic items also allow you to introduce mechanics and effects that might be silly but fit the campaign setting really well. As I released my video on the topic, Zebra Feather on Mastodon had a great idea for a backpack or satchel that turns into a raccoon when thrown. He even went ahead and made a little illustration out of it. This is just the kind of silliness I can appreciate.
Improve the connection between character and magic item
I am not discounting the base premise of fighting a strong enemy and then gaining their powerful gear that gave you so much grief in the past. That is and remains a fantastic way of rewarding the party.
However, what if your characters got to have their very own magic items, imbued with their powers and derived from their many actions throughout the campaign? They and their gear might just become the stuff of legends themselves, rather than taking the legendary gear off of someone else and claiming it for themselves.
Better yet, you can setup magic items to not just account for mechanical preferences or shortcomings of your player’s character’s, but rather to help them feel more powerful without the need to keep track of yet another thing. If they already struggle with the multitude of things they can do, why not simply give them items that significantly improve the things they enjoy doing and have a good handle on?
The issues – or strings attached
Here’s a list of issues I believe to have identified with magic items in my own campaigns and which I want to address with my proposed solution:
- Player’s don’t get the magic items that were intended for them and can feel impersonal
- (New) Player’s are overwhelmed with the many things they can already do and thus forget about magic items
- They don’t know what the magic items do, because they haven’t been identified
- The magic item takes up too much of the action economy to ever be used (I did not address this in the video)
- They don’t get magic items to begin with (because the DM might be too busy to properly prep them as it is in my case)
The core concept: Enchant the gear of the party
My whole idea derives from all of these considerations. As your party survives and overcomes the challenges in their story, they become more and more powerful. They contend, in turn, with more and more powerful foes. A party such as this will inevitably gain a certain amount of renown amongst the people and they become heroes in their own right. So instead of giving them new magic items they pick up along the way, I give the items they already have magic powers.
There’s a huge amount of possible approaches as to why a formerly regular item suddenly displays magical powers. Some of my favorites are:
- The item is imbued with the powers of the character’s ancestors and these are revealed over time as the character becomes worthy of them
- The power of the character themselves seeps into the items, granting them some of their own strength and abilities
- A friend or an enemy might enchant the item of a character
- The magical powers of an item they find or get through defeating an enemy might be absorbed into their own gear
- A god blesses their equipment (like The Staff of Aivarus)
- They pay someone to do it / someone in the party learns how to (or becomes more proficient at it)
- It isn’t even magical, they’ve just become so familiar with this particular item through having used it for years, that they’re vastly more proficient with this specific item than with others of the same kind
- The legend that slowly builds around the party increases their strength by way of the magic of the spoken word – as people tell the tales of the party in taverns, exaggerating their feats, some of those stories manifest as magical powers on their gear by the sheer belief of people in the world that it is so
Note that the following examples focus heavily on combat related magic items. Of course, they needn’t be just for that. They can be for social encounters, investigations, etc. just as well!
Fixing 1. Player’s don’t get the item
By enchanting the character’s gear we immediately address issue number 1. – the character already has the gear, so there’s no chance that it goes to someone else during loot distribution (bullying, stealing and other nefarious means aren’t considered here). It already is their gear and it’s likely the only one of the type they have. They’re not likely to sell it or simply give it away. It’s theirs. If you chose to enchant an item that they had before, especially one from their background, it will also have sentimental value (the most valuable of values).
In our example story of the Druid Aivarus, he was alone with the spirits of nature in a moment that befitted his character. (Almost) nobody would interfere or claim the staff for themselves.
Fixing 2. The player is already overwhelmed with what they can do even without magic items
We’ll have to think a little about what the magic items even do. Of course it’s perfectly fine to simply give your players the stats of any magic item from your rules on their gear and call it a day. But that might not help fully fix issue number 2. Here’s where I bring up a bit of a (I think) controversial opinion:
Flat bonuses can be an okay and fun reward.
A +3 to hit and damage on a weapon of a character that has used this weapon to solve almost any encounter in your campaign, because that’s what they have the most fun with is perfectly reasonable. Is it overpowered? Maybe. Give them some enemies with resistance and later on an opportunity to further enchant the weapon to overcome these. The goal of magic items should be that they feel rewarding to the player and increase their enjoyment of the character and campaign.
If a player is overwhelmed with the many things they can do simply by leveling up, then improving their core and most enjoyed game play mechanic will be a reward they constantly get to use and feel powerful with it. Best of all, they don’t have to think about it. +3 is simply applied and they’re now better and stronger. If you feel that’s a bit lame, simply allow your player to come up with an effect or something that is accompanies this bonus. Maybe the sword glows like Sting in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. This way the character also has a greater connection to the item, because it really is “theirs”. From concept to effect, it exists to fit that particular character.
Obviously you can be as creative with it as you like. If your players are fine with juggling a multitude of things they can do, all the better.
In our example with Aivarus, we gave him a new, once a day, ability to calm and befriend a hostile creature. This was assuming that Aivarus’ player has a handle on everything they can already do.
Fixing 3. They don’t know what the magic item does
While identifying a piece of gear can be fun, it can also take a lot of time, require spending resources they’d rather not spend and maybe never even happen. Instead I propose to simply let the player know and wrap it into a scene that makes sense.
They don’t just learn what it does, they get to have a say in how it’s revealed (and anything else you let them have a say in). They will absolutely remember what this item does from now on, because it’s directly linked to a good and possibly epic or fun memory.
Aivarus, was vaguely told what his new ability on the staff could do. The voice said “With each sunrise, The staff you carry shall spring a flower for you to give and bring peace to one seeking to harm others” I would now whisper to or give the player a handout which clearly states exactly what the staff can do now, to avoid any confusion. Aivarus’s player would get to decide how they present this new found ability to the party, giving them a moment in the spotlight.
Fixing 4. The magic item takes up too much of the action economy
This doesn’t apply to all TTRPG systems, but I am a DnD person and something that’s sorely underutilized are Bonus Actions and Reactions. While the best way of not making the player make a choice between their regular skill set and using a magic item is to simply make the magical effect a passive bonus, it might not be the most balanced or even fun way.
Instead consider a party member that rarely does anything with one of their possibilities during their turn and give them a magic item they can use for that phase of combat or during movement. This way it’ll remain a fun addition, rather than yet another choice to make.
In our example, this would be specified with the information given to Aivarus’ player on how exactly this new “Flower Power” would work. It could very well be a reaction in which Aivarus plucks the flower and gives it to someone attacking him, becalming the enemy and causing them to peacefully leave the battlefield.
Fixing 5. There aren’t any magic items because the DM doesn’t give them
Obviously this is down to each individual dungeon master or game master. This system however can help dungeon masters such as myself to really step back from magic items as they are usually used and instead focus on improving the enjoyment of their group overall and in particular.
By not having to know a host of magic items and what they can do, then trying to pick one that sort of works with their party, then shoe-horning them into the campaign somehow so they make some sense as to why these are even there – the dungeon masters simply do what they should be doing anyway: Look at the party. What are the character’s and their players good at or are clearly having fun with? No rule book will ever be able to tell you that. This is entirely up to your party and table. Once you know that, which you should know for building engaging and fun campaigns anyway, you can put the cherry on top with customized and fun magic items that don’t overwhelm your group and don’t break immersion because you suddenly have to have a reason for that thing even being a thing.
Few players I have ever encountered enjoy lore dumps on why this magic cloak exists and how it’s super cool. Almost all players I have encountered however care a lot about why their character exists and how they’re super cool.
Magic items based on the system I have outlined here address just this problem, and for me it fixes it as well. The most enjoyment I get out of TTRPGs is seeing my party enjoy what we’re building together. Magic Items can and should be part of that equation and this way of doing things makes it a whole lot easier for myself as well.
Don’t forget about balancing, if you feel that’s important.
Even powerful classes like Druids deserve some special and interesting rewards. Allowing Aivarus to successfully commune with the spirits and gain a boon of their choosing can be done with very little preparation and still generate an amazing moment for the player and table.
Closing thoughts & the video
Whether your elderly Halfling Cook gets a whisk which can turn the floor into vanilla pudding or your druid has a Satchel that turns into a Raccoon, magic items can and should be a lot of fun. But fun isn’t the same for everyone and that goes for both players and dungeon or game masters. You might have read this and don’t agree with what I say or the concept overall. That is just fine, because it might not appeal to your idea of fun. I do hope it gave you a few new ideas and wish you a lot of joy with this crazy hobby of ours.
If you like, here’s the video I made on the topic. It’s a bit less comprehensive, but might appeal to other audiences compared to this long-ish blog post.
Follow me for more!
Come connect with me over on Mastodon and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel and maybe join for a chat during the live streams!