From Muradin’s Hammer of Justice, The Lich King’s Frostmourne and Diane’s Gideon, to Frodo’s Sting and Elan’s belt of Masculinity/Femininity – many heroes are as well known for their magic items as they are for their deeds with them. But what about magical items in your campaign?
Loot is an integral part of any D&D campaign. Players can’t wait for those moments where that shiny glint catches their character’s eyes. Finding out what those rare and mysterious items they’ve found are, is one of the biggest part of the game – but how do you decide how to make the most of this?
There are a number of approaches to making items available to your players.
LF Magic swords plz
The first method characters have to acquiring items is by spending their hard-earned loot. Gold, platinum, precious gems – they all serve one main purpose for players: paying for those sweet magic items.
The most basic approach, especially for newer DM’s, is to have the DMG and/or the Arms and equipment guide handy, give them enough of a read-through to know roughly what’s where, and when your characters get to any town with a half-decent magic shop, ask them what they’re looking for and decide there if what they’re after is something they’d be able to find. Availability would largely depend on the resources of that town, and it allows your players to build their characters as they please – it’s a good approach for more combat-oriented games where role-play takes a bit more of a backseat.
The other approach to shopping, the one more oriented to a truly immersive shopping experience, is to decide beforehand what’s available. There are two ways to go about this: The first is by pre-planning what kind of wondrous items certain shops are likely to have, and planning their stock. You can do both according to what your players might be looking for and what the world you’ve built is likely to have available. Alternatively, you can take the completely random approach.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and the DMG both have tables, simply determine what types of items each shop would have, and roll, baby, roll! The random element might not yield as many items that would interest your players, but the random element often leads to some unexpected gems making their way into your campaign.
Whatever methods you use to populate your stores, your players will be hunting down items in town as well as in dungeons.
Need or Greed
Players will always expect to find loot in dungeons, out in the wild, in bandit camps, or in the cold, dead clutches of whatever big bad they spent four sessions trying to kill.
As with populating shops’ shelves with sparkling, shiny stuff, the random approach works well for loot out in the field. For my first campaign, I would mark off how many treasures the party had earned through searches and encounters, and at breaks, or at the wrap of the session, I would actually have them roll, and check against the relevant tables. It broke immersion a bit, but they got really into it, and the high rolls ushered even more excitement than most critical hits in combat.
Alternatively, you can figure out what items are where before the session starts – Either by deciding what fits in with your adventures, or by rolling in the same way. In some cases, the uncommon magical items rolled for certain creatures could even help flesh them out a bit. For example, a group of bandits could simply be a bunch of thugs with swords and crossbows, but if they happen to have a bag of holding, they could be led by an alchemist who’s constantly chucking bombs at them from out of the bag? Or one of them seems to catch arrows out of the air nearby them, only for your characters to realize they have a pair of gloves of missile snaring.
Using unusual magic items against your players can also demonstrate interesting uses for them, and with the wide range of wondrous items out there, the sky’s the limit. If you don’t find a particular item you’re looking for, however, you can always create your own.
Whether it’s because your players have something very specific in mind for their characters, or that you had a great idea for an NPC – If the items in the books don’t suit your needs, there’s nothing preventing an enterprising DM from creating their own items. Maybe you have a player who wants to use the legacy weapon rules, but the options there don’t quite fit? Or you have a powerful mage in your campaign with a specific issue, that an item made by them could easily solve.
Either way, the trick with items, as with any homebrewing, is to maintain balance. Powerful items can be cursed, especially if you need to nerf an item after giving it to your players, and realising it is just too strong. Doing so can even be a wellspring of story elements. While players generally don’t love it when their cool new toys get taken away, balance can be achieved without ruffling too many feathers by framing the newer limitations as them being discovered over time. For example, if an item can only be used a certain number of times per day or week, is a much better adjustment than just turning their 4d6 into 3d6.
The inverse tends to be a less important factor – an item being less powerful than expected doesn’t tend to be a problem. The only exception there is if the item was given to a particular player, to help them keep up when they were falling behind – in which case giving an item unlock-able abilities can be a fun way to lead players on quests to find ritual materials.
One way or another, home-brewed content will always have some unexpected balancing surprises, and the best thing you can do is lean into them for a good story. However, if you start making items, know that your players will want to as well…
Characters will eventually want to start making their own items. Whether through putting their smithing skills to good use, or trying their hands at enchanting, soon you’ll have to guide your players through making their own gear.
Be warned, things get pretty technical here, but also can get technical in-game, unless you use one of the more simplified methods. For a more in-depth look into the official (DMG, XGTE) methods, I recommend checking out Flute’s Loot’s article on them.
There are a number of possible ways to handle enchanting items from different sources. For each of these, there’s one common thread – for any magical item it has a (or a few) specific spell(s) required to make the enchantment, and usually at least one casting of the spell is required to finish the job.
Standard method (DMG, chapter 6): Based on the rarity of the item, there is a certain amount of gold and time the character needs to spend. There’s also a requirement for formulae, allowing you to slightly guide what’s available for your characters. The downside to this method is that it does not account for more powerful characters being able to contribute more.
Skill checks (Adapted from 3.5) – You can determine the costs of an item in the same way, but measure progress based on the actual skill of the player. Characters can contribute based on a d20 roll + their smithing or arcana skill (bonus points for both), multiplying the result by the total of their relevant skill modifier (in gold pieces per day, or in silver pieces per hour of work, or platinum per uninterrupted week). The player rolls against a DC to successfully make progress for that week/day/hour – failing means making no progress for that session, and failing by over 5 wastes half of the materials used that week (eg, 5 gp per point failed). You can also add half the character’s level to that multiplier if you feel it’s going too slowly – either way is faster than the first method, where a legendary item can take 20 years to craft, regardless of the smith’s skill.
Xanathar’s method (XGTE, Page 128): This method is much quicker than in the DMG, Legendary items take 50 weeks (25 for consumables). Also requiring a formula and materials, gathered from monsters, dungeons or locations of a CR based on the item’s rarity. Xanathar also mentions a lot of complications and additional challenges that make this section worth a read, even if you don’t follow this method. The downside to this method is not all campaigns really run downtime on a week-by-week basis.
D&D Geek’s Homebrew Method (#2): AKA the spell slot method: We’re also working on a version of this for spell permanence – The material cost of an item, as with other methods, is the buying price of the item halved. With that cost, a spellcaster needs to expend a number of spell slots into the items equal to 1/5 of that cost.
The complication here, is that the value of a spell slot is equal to the spell slot expended, starting at the minimum spell level of that item’s spell.
For example, making boots of flying, (Fly is a 3rd level spell), Noir (a 10th level wizard) uses 3 level-3 slots (for 3 points, 15 gold), 3 level-4 slots (2 points each, for 30 gold), and 2 level 5 slots (3 points each, for 30 gold), making 75 gp worth of progress for that day.
(For those who love neat mathematical formulae, have this):
5x (spell slot expended – minimum spell level + 1)
This method allows extremely powerful wizards to enchant easier items much quicker, while still requiring a lot of time for the most difficult artifacts. We’ve also been thinking of replacing the 5gp with the level of the highest spell level the mage can cast, but this still needs some play-testing.
Whatever method you use in your campaign, it’s important to be consistent. Let your players track progress on their items – this will remove a layer of complication from you as a DM.
Whichever method you use, there’s a lot of space for the crafting of magical items to add elements to your character’s stories – their efforts may bring unexpected challenges, lead them to meet unusual people in search of formulae, or even set them on a path of fame with other renowned crafters as rivals. The gathering, crafting and wielding of these magical items can only lead to more and more adventures…
In it for the loot
Whether your adventurers are getting geared up for adventure, or adventuring for wealth and riches, magic items will play an important role in their adventuring. Hopefully, you’ve got some ideas of how you can give them all the crazy bags of tricks they can hope for!
So get out there, roll out some items, and watch the sparks fly.
Have any awesome item ideas, stories about loot gone awry, or questions on making the perfect magic items? Let us know in the comments below.