Giving out better items is part of the D&D experience. As players risk their lives they expect some kind of return on their investment. However, there is more than one way to reward a player and likewise many different ways to include magic items. I list some of the most common and some of my favourite methods to design magic items below.
Types of Magic Items
- The most common type of magic item is the one that simply gives a flat bonus (+1 sword, anyone?). These kinds of items don't really have any drawbacks and in their simplest form also don't help outside of combat. However, when weapons have a special characteristic or reputation, these kinds of weapons start being useful even in non-combat encounters as NPC's recognize the weapons.
- The cursed magic item goes hand in hand with the simple magic item. Of course, players can trigger some curses simply by equipping the item and are forced to try to find someone to remove the curse or go on a quest to do so. I was never really happy with these kinds of cursed items. As a result I ended up having the cursed item give an actual bonus and tempt them with some kind of process (ritual or attunement) to increase its power when really, the curse gets triggered instead. I also generally prefer that cursed items give some kind of benefit to the player but at a large enough cost that they start to question its worth. This kind of cursed item starts to get into the territory of the next type.
- We have cursed items. We have regular magic items. Then there is what I call the “hybrid” magic item. These kinds of items have some kind of nice flat bonus that tempts players but at the same time some kind of drawback or unreliability. Maybe the sword plays with the wielders sanity, giving hints that seem to be correct sometimes and other times have them walking off cliffs. You could consider the kind of cursed item I talked about before being here as well, as you could have an item that is more cost than benefit, or greatly more benefit than cost. An example is an item called The Gauntlet of Chance. I ran across this item during my 2e days. When you try to put it on it causes a lot of damage, tries to kill you and causes you to lose use of your right hand for a day (due to burning. Even with healing, the burning sensation remains for a day, preventing use of the hand. Without healing, it seems to unnaturally quickly heal away), but in return it grants whatever you wished for before you donned it.
- Then there is the “fake” magic item. These kinds of items aren't really magic and don't have any bonus in combat bonus (outside of morale effects), but their social or sentimental effects are real (for example, everyone thinks the sword is magic because it belonged to some famous warrior, but really he was just that good). One of my favourites types, it is sometimes nice to see a player carry two sword, a simple sword that they use for combat and their ceremonial sword that is really three older swords put together and that they don't dare risk in combat (and since it has no combat bonus, they have no need to unless their main sword is lost somehow).
- All of the above are constant. You can also have limited use items. The obvious ones are things like potions or exploding arrows or something. However, you can be more creative if you try. The current staffs and wands in 5th edition D&D have a certain number of uses that can replenish after some time, with the possibility of the item itself being destroyed if it runs out. One of my favourite items I ever had as a player was a sword that seemed perfectly normal. It had a bonus to damage and attack, but every hit with it would cause it to get damaged (notches on the blade, etc.). It could, however, regenerate itself to pristine quality in a short time when not in use.
The above types can also be combined together. I'm on the lookout for other ways to make interesting magic items, both from a story and mechanics perspective. If there are any I missed, feel free to comment.