Steps to Make An Awesome Magic Items

Today I have a mega-long issue for you. It started out with a simple reader tip request. I wrote my tip, and then remembered an old article at the website with more ideas on the topic. I decided to merge the two and didn’t realize the website article was 14,000 words, lol.

But I went ahead anyway, because the article was just languishing as a txt file buried in the article archives.

Here now are all the tips, new and old resurrected. Let’s start with the request I received for help making minor magic items interesting:

Hi Johnn,

I just wanted to send you a quick note of thanks for the excellent resources you are putting out. Thanks to you I have tons of great ideas for my own campaign.

I run a campaign for my family. I hadn’t had a chance to play for about 20 years, but my daughter and wife both expressed an interest, so I dug my old books out of the basement and we are having a blast. My wife and daughter love to shop and they want shopping to be a more prominent part of the game.

Specifically, they want to shop for magic items whenever the PCs are in large cities. What I need help with is generating a large list of minor but still interesting items that they can find as they shop. The trick is coming up with items genuinely useful and interesting, but don’t change game balance. I am used to running a more “magic items are rare” type campaign, but I want to keep my family happy and interested so now I need to stock the shelves. I would welcome any ideas or advice you might have.

Thanks,
Kevin Geedey
Thanks for the request, Kevin! I’d like to share with you a technique I learned from marketing. This technique will not only help you stock the shelves faster, but it’ll add depth to your world, provide great roleplaying opportunities, and add a cool shorthand for gameplay.

The technique is called branding. Create brands for your magic wares to make them feel special, different, and interesting. Then use brands to create choices that are effectively duplicates without seeming that way, so you have far less prep work to do.

I’m using modern jargon here. So first I’ll explain the “branding” technique and what it is. Then I’ll get into how to add it to your campaign without breaking theme or immersion.

CREATE BRANDS TO GIVE PLAYERS INTERESTING CHOICES AND YOUR WORLD MORE DEPTH

Shoppers know their brands. They know what brands mean to price, quality, and aesthetic. Create brands in your world and attach them to magic items. The best benefit to this is you turn a Broach of Shielding – just one lonely option – into many choices, one per brand. This is a big win for you because you give players more choices without having to create new crunch or skew campaign balance.

Instead of one Broach of Shielding, you can have five:

Seagram’s Broach of Shielding – a utility brand, what you see is what you get, functional
Trimark’s Broach of Shielding – a luxury brand, expensive, posh, religious
Nine Eye’s Broach of Shielding – an arcane brand, comes with surprises – not always pleasant, sometimes creepy
Stonefist Brothers’ Broach of Shielding – a quality brand, the best quality out there, beautiful and detailed work
Snorg’s Broach of Shielding – a cheap brand, you get what you pay for, rumoured to use sand material instead of gold
Five choices, five interesting world details, but just one thing to prep rules-wise.

When you build your next store inventory, you can save time and energy by branding your items. Instead of having to come up with 20 different items to select from, you can select 10 with mixed branded options.

Further, the brands serve as a shorthand. If you had two broaches, one from Snorg and one from Trimark, do you get any ideas on how you might describe them differently? This will save you a lot of prep time, because once you get a clear idea on the traits you’ve given each brand, and you can contrast and describe in distinct fashion on-the-fly.

For example, how would you describe an Apple computer versus a Dell computer? If you are an Apple fan, you talk about design, ease of use, slick form factor. If you hate Apple, you talk about high prices and your opinion of Apple fans. It doesn’t matter which camp you’re in, you have something to say without thinking about it.

Build brands in your game world for the same great benefit.

And by brands, I’m just talking about simple identity and flavour. Not corporations who crank out assembly line baubles. Give your magic item crafters the same treatment you give to other world elements so they fit into your campaign theme. I’m just using brand as a technical term.

How to Create a Brand

Step 1: Choose the Source

Your brand will inherit traits from their source, so start with the crafter, creator, or creation process.

Who or what makes magic items in your world?

Mix up source types to create further depth. For example, a brand doesn’t always have to be associated with an NPC.

Some ideas:

Guilds
Cults
Gods
Monsters
Supernatural events
Magic zones
For example, you might give a certain kind of ghost in your game the ability to transform normal items into magic items. Legends tell of the Moroi turning their victims’ possessions into magic items:

A Moroi is an infant murdered before baptism. They are pale phantoms who never stop crying. They attack any who fail to soothe their pain (roleplay to stop their crying for awhile). The magic items they create through transformation are pale and beautiful, never aging or tarnishing, but quite brittle. Only items and materials without flaws survive the transformation.

Any Moroi magic items the PCs acquire will be rare, and expensive if purchased. Give them a sad, tragic feel.

Another example, a quick one, is a divine event. Two armies fought. The gods got involved in the final, epic battle. The god of good won by sending blue lightning bolts down, killing the enemy leader and many of his generals. The divine lightning turned many of the items struck into magic items. As the enemy fled, these items were looted, and have since spread throughout the land. This was a one-time event, so no more such items will ever be created.

What will picky shoppers go for now? A +1 longsword from the Player’s Handbook, or a Sword of Kos – still +1 but it’s ancient, rare, and special. Or maybe they want thay Moroi blade. Slim, pale, beautiful, tragic.

Step 2: Creation Traits

Once you know the origin for a batch, series, or ongoing source of magic items, define some traits to give the brand a consistent personality.

An NPC offers a typical source. Jot down a quick 3 Line NPC with an eye toward the NPC’s work inheriting their personality and appearance traits.

A cool feature of the 3 Line NPC template is you can apply it to any source. Treat a guild like an NPC and give it appearance traits (uniforms, signs, visual cues), portrayal and personality traits, and a hook or secret. You can do this for any source, no matter how abstract.

Then use your NPC writeup to create the following key brand type traits:

Appearance – Oft-used materials or signs of their unique creation process. “See those fine engravings? Nobody gets crisp, deep, steady marks like Stonefist. It’s because they use adamantine fine point chisels.”
Style – Everybody does things their own way. Choice of ingredients, design themes, motifs. Seagram’s is always squarish, Snorg’s is chaotic with strange angles.
Quality and Durability – Strength, purity, special touches, no manufacture defects, design.
Price – Keep it simple and make four tiers => cheap, commoner/normal/game-rules pricing, expensive, kingly.
Side Effects or Quirks – “The magic items they create through transformation are pale and beautiful, never aging or tarnishing, but quite brittle.”
You can give branded items an unexpected trait once in awhile to switch things up, but otherwise stay consistent with brand traits so the players identify and remember what the standard qualities are. It’s like learning a new language, and it adds fun to gameplay when the group can speak in shorthand with each other.

“Oh, pretty! How much?”

“Hey Seraphina, don’t buy that. It’s Moroi.”

“Well, I’ll take good care of it then so it won’t break.”

“I don’t like it. It’s creepy. Dead babies? [Shudder].”

“You’re jealous because yours is just a Snorg!”

Step 3: Create a Cool Naming Pattern

Cool names add flavour, no doubt about it.

So make the naming convention part of the brand, and have it reflect the brand.

This adds fun to roleplaying, assists with the shorthand, and creates those great gaming moments when players figure something out through putting together world facts and using deduction.

“Miss, this lovely broach would only enhance your beauty.”

“Hey look, there’s an engraving. ‘Ecranare’.”

“Yes, the kindly wizard who sold this to me said it was a Ecranare Broach. It will protect you from magical attacks.”

“That sounds familiar. [GM, you said it was pale white in colour and delicate?]”

“Yup.”

“It’s Moroi! How much for it?”

A good example is Mordenkainen items and spells from old D&D. Those often had names with long or flavourful words to go with the fancy, long wizard name.

Mordenkainen’s Disjunction
Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium
Mordenkainen’s Faithful Hound
Step 4: Create a Reputation

Turn traits and brand qualities into a reputation. This adds flavour and fun to shopping.

“Nine Eyes’ stuff is potent, but it’s cursed half the time!”

If you are clear on what each brand is about, then you can wing this during play.

Better yet, sprinkle branded items into your game so reputations build themselves.

NPC roleplay can help this along.

“Is that a Moroi broach?”

“Yes, it’s called Ecranare.” [“EK-ra-NAR-ay”]

“Ah, that means shield, doesn’t it? Beautiful. Delicate though. My friend at the college had a Moroi quill. Broke right in half when he dropped it!”

Make branded items part of quest and hook information. Give such items to NPCs and have other NPCs comment and gossip. Go through the usual channels to spread a reputation to cement a brand’s identity in your players’ minds.