Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Making Magic Items Unique

One of the biggest complaints that I always hear about Dungeons & Dragons and its close cousin Pathfinder is how the majority of magic items are not very unique and rather bland. For the most part, I find myself agreeing with this sentiment.

For me personally, there is nothing more boring than being rewarded the bland +1 longsword. There is
nothing inherently interesting about a +1 longsword, and because there is nothing interesting about it, there is a high likelihood the player will immediately discard this item as soon as he finds a +2 longsword, and that will be cast aside as soon as a +3 longsword is found.

So, with that in mind, I thought I'd show how you can make that simple, bland +1 longsword into an interesting and unique weapon that a character would most likely want to keep throughout his adventuring career.

The easiest thing you can do to make a weapon more unique is to simply add some interesting fluff to it. Give it a name, a unique description, an interesting background for why it has the enchantments that it does, and how those enchantments work.

For example, let's say your player's find a +1 orc-bane longsword. When they pick it up, you tell them “It is obvious the blade was crafted by a dwarf with its straight uniformity and solid build. Along the center of the blade are a number of dwarven runes that radiate a strange warmth as you run your fingers across them and a blood-red ruby is embedded in the sword's hilt.” After doing some research, the characters learn the blade is named “Orc-Slahjel”, which is Dwarven for “Orc Slayer”. A number of orc legends say the blade was once wielded by the great dwarf warrior Dorgrim Ironheart during the vicious Orc Wars of the past. A cleric of Moradin, wishing to aid him in his fights against the savage folk, engraved sacred ruins into the blade that would allow him to deal deadlier blows against his orcish enemies. To activate the runes on the blade, you must run your fingers over them while saying the word “Slahj.” The runes are deactivated when the sword is returned to its sheath.

By spending the time and adding this information, you made a mechanically bland item into a unique artifact. You've given it a cool name and unique description, a back story that explains why it has the bonuses it does, and how the magic actually works. Now the character isn't just using a +1 orc-bane longsword, but is wielding the legendary Orc-Slahjel that was once wielded by the mighty warrior Dorgrim Ironheart.

However, sometimes just adding some fluff to an item isn't enough and you'd like to add some mechanical element that makes it unique. For example, instead of Orc-Slahjel being “Orc Slayer”, it's actually Orc-Radajar, the “Orc-Render”. While it has the same mechanical elements of Orc-Slahjel, it has a unique mechanic as well. If you land a critical against an orc while wielding Orc-Radajar, you may instead use the Rend ability (exactly like the troll ability of the same name) instead of dealing extra damage.

If you are willing to experiment a little, the unique mechanic you add to the blade could be something negative. For example, Orc-Slahjel might require you to bathe the blade in the flesh blood of an orc before the runes activate. Mechanically, this might mean you have to deal 6 points of damage to an orc before Orc-Slahjel receives the benefits of its enchantments. If its enchantments are ever increased, the amount of blood it requires might increase as well.

Now, while having more unique items in the game is a good thing, you should try and make every single item the characters come across unique. The reason for this is that if every item is unique, none of them will ever stand out and you will just be creating a new set of problems. So, pick a few items to make unique and sprinkle them throughout your campaign. They will have a greater effect that way.