One of my favorite things to do as a DM is create a magical item for one of our main characters, either my PC or one of Jonathan’s DMPCs.
Since he’s the primary DM for our two-person game, I try to avoid pulling anything from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and I also steer away from creating anything that’s too powerful.
Instead, when I’m crafting a custom magical item for one of our characters, I think about what cool or interesting abilities it would be nice for that character to have. The spells the magical item contains should
- coincide with the types of magic the character is drawn to, and/or
- be in line with the spells they like to perform, and
- not be very far removed from their current casting abilities.
For that final suggestion, as a general rule, I would say that the magical item doesn’t need to be more than one spell level higher than what the character can already cast. So, if your caster has access to third-level spells, maybe the magical item can cast a fourth-level spell, but it would need time to recharge afterwards.
The Woodland Moonlight Dagger from our Magical Items post is a good example of this. The blade allows my character to cast Speak with Plants, a spell she enjoys using but wouldn’t necessarily always have prepared.
It also has Awaken, which is one spell level above what she can cast now, but, as far as fifth-level spells go, though it is powerful, it’s not going to overpower combats in our game. Awaken has a long casting time and isn’t going to be used very often.
The spells are all druid spells as well (or perhaps Cantrips, which I think can be mixed between classes with little danger), so they are spells that would be reasonable for her to be able to learn.
In the case of the Woodland Moonlight Dagger, it was something she found while I was DMing, and she had to work and get help to mend it, so she wasn’t able to use it for a while. I also gave it a long attunement time.
You’ll notice that I took several steps, both in terms of the item’s properties and its usability, to prevent it from being overpowered. Speaking of, if you haven’t yet, we’d love for you to peruse our ideas about the primary character being empowered, not overpowered.
Embedded in the Narrative
Grounding how a player acquires a magical item in the story—their world and narrative—makes that item and the magic in your game more special.
Yes, it’s nice to find magical items in loot after a combat, and that should absolutely happen as well! But customized items should be even more meaningful and memorable.
Character-Designed Magical Items
An easy way for a character to acquire a magical item is to work on it and design it themselves. Preparing a magical item is a great way for a character to spend their downtime.
As a quick note: Players, you need to be in dialogue with your DM to make sure they’re ok with this item you have your heart set on.
My character, for example, has a Healing Spirit totem. She acquired a special piece of wood from an ancient tree and had her friend carve it into the shape of a wolf, which is the shape her spirit takes. She then spent several weeks casting the Healing Spirit spell into the item until it was able to sustain the spell to cast it once per day.
Healing Spirit is powerful as far as healing spells go, but she really only uses it during combat, and so it’s not quite as over-powered as that spell can sometimes be, and it works beautifully narratively in combat.
Incorporating Discovered/Given Items into the Story
With custom magical items the characters come across that they haven’t crafted themselves, consider having your NPCs help them find it as a way of incorporating it into the character’s backstory and increasing their connection with others in the game.
Another strategy is to locate the item within the larger histories and political structures at play in your game. My character’s Woodland Moonlight dagger, for instance, was taken from a druid colony by one of the spies who betrayed them, leading to the destruction of their community.
Its incorporation into her story, however, allows it to return to the natural, healing connections from where it originated. When possible, allow the items to have a history all their own to add to your world’s lore.
A Longer-Form Example
Below, I’ve included an example, adapted from our own duet, of how a bard might come upon a magical viol that, when played over an extended period of time, allows him to read others’ thoughts.
This story and item were originally posted on our website for writers and world-builders, Grove Guardian Press, but I think it works well here as a more detailed illustration of how to embed a discovered or given magical item in your narrative.
A Magical Item Story for a Bard
Before heading back out on the road, your friend and mentor, Deci, asks you to stop in for breakfast with herself and Leigh. Deci was really important in getting your career as a traveling musician started, and she’s continued to help grow your fan base here in the city so you can always count on gigs when you return. You’ve developed quite a large local following which is, well, unsurprising considering your skills.
No one else in town, though, is as devoted to you as Leigh. She’s had a crush on you almost since the moment of your arrival at The Gilded Spoon several years ago.
Five Years Before…
Angry from a fight with your parents, you stormed out and began walking the streets, trying to calm down and decide when you might be able to leave the city and strike out on your own.
That evening, above the general din of people going about their business, a beautiful, husky voice caught your ear, the rich alto capturing an earnestness and passion you hadn’t often heard in other performers.
The voice belonged to a handsome brunette woman in simple garb with brilliant hazel eyes. Her posture was comfortable even though The Guilded Spoon was packed, and many had stopped, just like you, on the street to hear her play. The bangles about her wrist swung gently in time with her own movement, accentuating the lackadaisical confidence you have since grown to deeply admire in the woman you now know as Deci.
The Magical Viol of Emotions
You told the two of them that your stop in town this time would be brief as you have several gigs lined up for the coming weeks, some in unknown locales. In honor of your success and growing renown, Deci and Leigh have called you in for a special breakfast at The Spoon. After some hemming and hawing, they produce, with delight, a magical viol that they “found” a few days before your arrival.
Your musical mentor is difficult to read in these instances but, you gather from Leigh, it is possible that, in her passion and particularity, Deci may have relieved a previous owner of an instrument she believed them unworthy of.
With a twinkle of mystery and delight, Deci hands you the instrument, explaining that it will help you read your audience better.
The Magical Viol of Emotions allows you to cast Sense Emotion after you’ve been playing for one minute, Calm Emotions when played for two, and Detect Thoughts when played for five without counting against your spells known or taking spell slots.
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