Remember when magic items used to be mysterious and cool? The excitement of finding a new sword, ring, or cloak was the highlight of the evening, second only to vanquishing that pesky foe. These days it seems we have our checklists of magic items we want for our character and if that item is not in the treasure trove we just took, we will trade that magic hammer in and get what we really wanted to begin with. It has all become routine.
I often wonder if this is because we have been playing the game for so long or simply because as we grew older some of the magic lost its luster when it came to finding new magic items. Have we become too familiar with all the available magic items that we have simply become characters with a list of necessary items to complete the build or the concept?
Why Magic Items Lose Their Luster
From the familiarity standpoint there is certainly a case to be made that many of us have been playing for a long time. We probably know the descriptions of the more popular and frequently acquired items like the back of our hand. Rings of protection, cloaks of resistance, bags of holding – all must haves and something even first level characters know they want those items. It doesn’t take much for our characters to soon just have shopping lists. This does not do much to keep the magic and mystery in magic items.
Then on the other hand we sometimes get caught up with builds of characters. Builds aren’t just reserved for the optimizers, builds are also for certain concepts a player wants to roleplay. Inevitably builds seem to come with their own shopping lists in order to complete these builds just the way we want them.
And finally there is the naming convention some of the more common magic items use. Longsword +1, Ring of Protection +3, Cloak of Resistance +2 and so on and so on. This naming mechanism really depicts the magic item for the pure mechanical advantage it is.
Bring That Shine Back
There are a lot of factors conspiring against keeping the magic in magic items for anyone that has been playing RPG games for many years. What can a GM do to help put the magic back into magic items?
Kobold Quarterly just released the first in a short series on removing the game mechanic “plus” value from the item by substituting in a name for that level of bonus. The first article talks about weapons and armor and suggests a bastion shield would note a +2 shield bonus and +1 bludgeoning weapon would be a “thumping” mace. You can of course change these designations, but the article is certainly a launching pad for coming up with your own naming conventions to step away from simply listing a numerical modifier.
Another thing a GM can do is build a little history behind the magic item. Who had this ring or cloak before? How did it end up tucked away in a trunk in the back of this orc’s cave? Perhaps there were some initials sewn into the cloak or engraved into the inner band of the ring. The player may never fully investigate the history, but he will quite likely remember that the cloak he wears had initial sewn into it when he found it.
Sometimes the manner of getting the magic item into the character’s hands can make a difference. I had a GM give one of my characters, who at the time was a two-weapon ranger type, a finely crafted bow via a minor goddess. This shifted my character’s whole motif with him retraining feats and such to learn to use this bow more effectively. The character even went as far to turn in a magic sword he had obtained previously to a deity’s temple so he could focus on the bow.
Most games I play in have access to the ever popular “magic shop”. Magic shops can certainly vary under different GMs though. One way to help make magic items a little more special without banning magic shops is to just limit their availability of items a bit. Do not assume that any item a character ones can be found in the magic shop. There should be some scarcity to not quite so common items. Sure, a bag of holding? Good chance the shop has that or can get one pretty quickly. A +5 Holy Avenger? Eh, not so much.
By limiting the magic shop’s supply a little you can help make going to a magic shop feel more like going to Half Price Books hoping to find that legendary Deities and Demigods book with Cthulhu rather than going to WalMart to buy a gallon of milk. The scarcity is not to punish your players, but to let them know sometimes it takes a little work to get just what you are looking for.
Tackling the lost luster of magic items is not an easy task for groups that have lost it. The GM will have to work a little harder with some of the suggestions made above to make magic items fun again. Add in that it is a fine line between keeping the player happy and trying to put the magic back into magic items the task difficulty further increases.
Still work with your players, you do not want to deny them characters they find fun. But maybe that item they desire so badly isn’t available at the corner magic shop just yet. Maybe that noble in town happens to have one that he is offering as a reward for clearing the family crypts of the undead that have infested it. The extra effort needed to gain magic items just might make it that much more special to the character and put some of the magic back in to magic items again!