Play Your Next 5E D&D Game With Immersive Magic Items
A refrain from fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters I have seen in public forums and other social media is this: “How do I make magic items more exciting?” There are two approaches to this I’d like to share, regarding the rarity and special nature of magic items in 5E D&D.
A yuan-ti nightmare speaker as seen in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Volo’s Guide to Monsters. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]
5E D&D magic items as story treasures
First it is important to consider rarity of magic items. This rarity means more than what is stated under the name of the item in the Dungeon Master’s Guide or any other source. I mean the scarcity of magic items in a setting as a whole. If you wish to make something special make it more rare. When your setting doesn’t drip with magical swords, staves and other permanent magical artifacts the possession of these magic items becomes even more desirable.
Potions, scrolls and the like can still exist if you so choose. These are consumable magic items in the setting but are still not be taken lightly. The required education, alchemy and materials to make even these temporary magic items becomes a series of dangerous quests. Acquiring the expertise, herbs, gems, horns, powders or blood to make but a handful of magic items takes on new meaning. The more powerful the potion, the more rare and dangerous the materials.
This creates two dynamics. It adds value to any magical item. They become status symbols, badges of courage and tales to be sung in taverns and fest halls for generations. They become the targets of thieves, black markets, nobles and cults. This also creates tension and drama in your setting. It generates rivals, heroes, allies and villains. Monsters who possess the raw materials needed to create magic items now take on a monetary value. Should these monsters be revered by cultures, cults or kingdoms then you now have political issues adding to the drama and tension.
If the egg yolks of a chimera are needed to create a wand of fireballs not only does an adventurers have to risk facing the feared scourge of the Hygaldt Pass, Korgathar the Chimera, but also risk upsetting or involving cults of Demogorgon or Tiamat. Either might have a vested interest in keeping this creature alive. Now you have risks on two fronts — the physical and the political. You have a quest to a remote mountain pass wrought with it’s own dangers and the test of keeping an egg fresh on the way back. A whole adventure spawned from a desire to make one wand. Why the risk to make one wand? Because none currently exist and a noble who wants the royal throne needs it for his assault on the royal armies. Tension. Drama. Consequences. All from the creation of one magic item that may well tip the balance of power in your setting, all spawned from a scarcity of any magic items.
The next way to approach this issue is making magic items a little more special. There are methods and tools doing this in the DMG like tweaking the origin and giving an item color, determining the creator and purpose, quirks and minor properties. There are also guidelines for creating sentient weapons. I humbly submit we take this further. A lot further.
Magic items that change, grow in power or alter the owner over time are well established in fantasy literature. Additionally these items may contain secrets in their origins that unlock new paths of adventure and make the owner (and their companions) ask more questions. This creates player engagement. Such items may unlock new abilities as the character gains levels, and may require they take on additional tasks, perform rituals or defeat foes to allow this to happen. An item that was not sentient may become so. This fact could be teased out through dreams, visions or perhaps the ghost of the actual person trapped within appearing briefly. Consider the effect on a character or a whole party when one discovers the item they have been carrying for the last year was alive and remembers everything they have seen and done, and may even hold secrets they need. An item that gains sentience becomes more than just an object. Now it’s also an NPC.
To demonstrate such a twist I’ll use an uncommon magic item that often gets discarded the second something better comes along, the staff of the python. I’ve chosen this because it is more than just a magical staff. It has an inherent risk. Since this staff can change into a constrictor snake it risks destruction should the snake be killed in combat. This raises an opportunity. What if it’s transformation isn’t from a staff to a snake? What if it’s from a snake to a staff? Now you have questions. Why? How? Who would turn a snake into a staff? Now it has history. Who would turn a snake into a staff? Better yet, what if the snake isn’t just a snake, but a person?
The 5E D&D Monster Manual contains an excellent example of a sentient race that can transform into a snake — yuan-ti. This unlocks an entire culture and possibly a cult behind the item. Consider the following example of taking a simple staff of the python and making it more.
Ashwalla the Cursed — Staff of the Python
The ironwood shaft of this magic staff is carved in the form of a snake twisted like a rope, smooth and polished but without varnish. The deep brown stain on woodgrain takes on an almost gemlike quality in the right light. It is a standard staff of the python with some notable exceptions.
While you are attuned to the staff your hands smell acrid and you develop a taste for raw fish and possibly arboreal creatures like squirrels, monkeys and other tree dwelling species. Dining on these creatures causes you no ill effects aside from the possible disgust of the fellow characters.
When the staff is exposed to moonlight you hear faint, difficult to understand whispers. After being so exposed to moonlight on three occasions you determine it is the voice of a woman. If the staff is in the form of a giant constrictor snake during this exposure to moonlight on the third night you hear the name Ashwalla as the snake hisses. The truth behind this name takes some time to unveil. The tale of Ashwalla is one of rivalry, treachery, deceit and betrayal. This story unravels as you gains levels and complete certain tasks.
At 5th level as an action you can conjure a swarm of poisonous snakes. The swarm remains for 1 minute, after which it turns back into the original materials. You gain the ability to comprehend and verbally communicate with the swarm and it acts as your ally and obeys your spoken commands as a bonus action. Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until the next dawn or dusk.
If you conjure the swarm in dim light and the surface where the swarm appears is covered in the blood of an unwilling victim (either through sacrifice or combat), you may also use your bonus action to use the senses of one of the snakes until the start of your next turn. While doing so you are blinded and deafened to your own senses. After the first time you do this you have a dream the next time you sleep. The dream repeats after each time you conjure the swarm this way.
“You dream of a lavishly appointed chamber in the style of a high cleric. You cannot turn to look around the entire room, nor can you move. However, you can move your eyes. You see brass braziers burning in the far corners of this room, lighting the room in a flickering glow. A tapestry hangs from the ceiling in front of you, covering the far wall. The tapestry is a deep red fabric with a snake swallowing a star embroidered upon it in a gold thread. A golden snake statue spattered in blood and holding a diamond star in it’s mouth rests on a deep brown altar in front of this tapestry. Beneath your feet a growing stain of dark brown forms on a rich carpet of deep red. And then you awaken.”
At 9th level, while holding the staff Ashwalla grants you the ability to polymorph into a giant constrictor snake for one hour as an action. Once you use this feature you cannot use it again until the the next dusk. After the first time you do this under a full moon you have a new dream the next time you sleep. This new dream alternates with the previous dream every other time you sleep.
“You see yourself walking down a long stone hallway lit by iron sconces holding decoratively carved torches vaguely resembling a humanoid shape, each with the head burning. A small cord with a small jade disk dangling from it hangs from the feet of the torches. The heat of the torches makes the disks lazily spin on these cords in the current of air rushing upward. The stones of the walls and floor are smooth under your bare feet. They are cool to the touch but you are neither pleased nor concerned by this. You walk down this hall for only a little while before you come upon a circular chamber with a pool of water at the center, which lightly steams as if heated from below. Two figures in full length red robes with faceless hoods approach you as you get close to the edge of the pool. As you come to a stop at the edge of the pool, you can feel them removing garments from your body, as if preparing you for the pool. This, again, neither alarms you nor delights you.
As you enter the pool with a step, the water is harm and slightly effervescent. You settle into the pool and you can hear the two figures preparing something behind you. Glass bottles and ceramic jars clink and rattle with activity. Footsteps approach from behind and you feel ready to be bathed or anointed.
You are caught by surprise by an attack from behind. A garrote quickly wraps around your throat and you struggle to breathe. In the struggle you catch a glimpse of your face in the pool. Your face is that of a woman with beautiful features, long black bejeweled hair and green eyes like those of a snake, clearly in distress. Seeing this face awakens you from the dream.”
Your eyes now resemble those of Ashwalla — green and serpentine. This effect can only be removed by a remove curse spell.
At 10th level, the staff of the python starts trying to communicate with you through visions and dreams even moreso than before. Ashwalla appears randomly in mirror reflections standing right behind you or mixed into crowds. She appears in her full regalia and flaunts her yuan-ti pureblood beauty. Gold embroidery resembling snakes decorates her crimson robes. She wears a black obsidian or jet necklace resembling a black eight pointed star.
Ashwalla always attempts to lure you into a path leading into conflict with the yuan-ti cult of Merrshaulk, as she is dedicated to Dendar, the Night Serpent. Should you slay a high cleric of Merrshaulk with the staff of the python in it’s swarm of poisonous snakes or giant constrictor snake forms or while transformed into a giant constrictor snake yourself Ashwalla will be released from the staff and reborn anew.
The staff retains all of the powers it formally had, and you receive a loyal NPC yuan-ti nightmare speaker follower with the following change: when Ashwalla uses her Shaperchanger ability she polymorphs into a giant constrictor snake instead.
Should either the staff be destroyed, or reduced to zero hit points while transformed into a giant constrictor snake, Ashwalla dies with it. When the snake in this scenario is killed it reverts to Ashwalla temporarily, then she turns to a wooden replica of herself, then quickly turn to dust.
In this manner, one of the simple uncommon magic items takes on a rarer quality, generates it’s own story with hooks and contains a built in repercussion. The story has a beginning, middle and end — for good or ill. It has motivations, enemies and a possible ally. This entire exercise could be applied to a completely different item with infinite possibilities for story hook and drama. So, how do you make magic items more exciting? Think of them as more than a trinket for the characters to carry about. They have history. They have purpose. They have meaning. They are special.