Magic Items are one of the core engagements of Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. They are better rewards than gold, more impactful than most NPCs, and define characters as much as their abilities do. With that in mind, shouldn't magic items be spectacular? If they are some of the most essential elements of the game, why are we still finding +1 Swords at the end of a dungeon?
For a lot of Campaigns, we're not. +1 Swords are paseé, and we've moved onto something a degree better. We find boots of striding and springing, animate shields, and if we're lucky, a flametongue. We're doing better than we were 5 years ago but-
Are those items memorable? Or can you find them in a 'build guide' on an old forum somewhere?
Let's make magic memorable. It's easy to start. Here are a couple ways you can do it.
Aesthetics Make Memories:
There is a reason that all the legendary weapons in video games glow, sparkle or flash. Making sure that something stands out from the crowd is an easy way to make it feel exclusive and powerful. 'That must be an end-game weapon! It's on fire!'. It makes other players look at their basic hammers and wish that they had a sweet fire axe.
The goal of magic weapon appearance is to make the players feel like the LV80 Paladin strutting their stuff with a golden longsword. It also has the added benefit of letting the Dungeon Master draw attention to the magic item and use it as part of setting a scene. Whether it's in combat or not. Consider the following options.
"You tap the Staff of the Storm King on the ground, rather than the simple click of wood on stone, thunder echoes around the chamber and hairs stand on end as static fills the air."
"You swing the tidal cutlass at the pirate reaver. He barely jumps out of the way, only getting hit by the water splashing behind your swings."
Both of these are incredible ways to make sure players remember how cool their arms and options are, even when they miss.
"But wait," you say even though this is an article, "that first one wasn't an appearance thing at all, I bet that staff doesn't even glow."
To which I say, you're right, and thanks for helping with the audience participation part of this post.
One advantage of DnD over video games is that we're able to pull from all the senses. A magic item doesn't need to glow, it just needs to be different from the standard version of that item. The Tidal Cutlass constantly drips water, the gauntlets of the Sea God make the wearer smell like a sea breeze, the 'Graveraiser' chills the air around it.
There are a million ways to spice up magic items with a single passive element of aesthetics that will make them fit into the world as a piece of wonder.
Plus, it gives you something to talk about when your barbarian slashes the dragon with the same axe for the eighth round in a row.
Attunement and Charges for Flavor and Fun
When a player sees the words 'requires attunement' on a magical item, they assume that it just means they need to swing it around for an hour to form a magical bond. When a player hears 'charges,' they understand they are getting them back at the end of the day. These are the standard ways to handle attunement and charges from a strict balance perspective.
You can use the attunement and charge systems to make your items feel appropriately mythical. Take attunement, for example. Attuning to a weapon being communicated as 'I am going to attune to this weapon during this short rest' feels like it's a piece of equipment in a game. You dragged and dropped it onto your character sheet and blam, now you have a +1 longsword.
To make an item feel suitably unique and magical you can add a condition to attunement. A simple example would be an Undead killing weapon that only attunes to you when you kill an undead while wielding it. It's a short sword until the player proves themselves, but once the player attunes, they feel like they've earned the right to add the weapon to their character sheet, instead of checking off a box.
Charges can be a little more finicky than attunement, seeing as you don't want to make a situation where the player can get a million charges from repeatedly fulfilling a condition you set (Protip: Maximum charge amounts are your friend). Still, items that have requirements to build up charges can make the players play around those conditions. Does the rogue's dagger get charges when they kill an enemy from behind? Then the rogue is always going to try to go for the flank. Does the paladin's shield gain a charge when they defend an innocent person? You'd best believe that paladin is going to become a champion of justice overnight.
Even if you don't want to change the playstyle of your players, changing how charges are worded can be awesome. "The Tidal Cutlass gains one charge each evening, at moonrise," is awesome. The moon makes tides, it makes sense. "The Tidal Cutlass gains one charge at night," is a video game line.
The Backstory of Magical Items
Every item came from somewhere, and every item has a story behind it. Even if the story is as simple as a sparingly used 'you cannot find any information on the Staff of the Storm King, and nobody you asked seems to know anything about it.' It adds a level of realness to the items and makes them tangible.
That being said, a backstory is simple and somewhat limited. There are only so many items in the world with epic tales behind them, but each and every item should have a story element that is not connected to its direct use. It should be something the players can know about the item to make it feel like it wasn't just added to the game so they could use it.
For example, 'A Ring of Belonging' a ring that transforms to look like the signet ring of a random nearby noble house. It's an uncommon item, and the players might even see more than one during their travels. So, what can you say about it? It's not exclusive, it's not that mystical and there is no epic tale to discover in an old tome, but something we can let our players know is what the world thinks of the Ring of Belonging.
Nobles hate the Ring of Belonging, those rings make a mockery of noble bloodlines! How dare they pretend to be a member of a house they're not? If someone is caught using a Ring of Belonging, they will be thrown out of the city.
Sure, the example above is a mostly negative example, but it feeds into the story of the item and how it plays into the game. Knowing how the world reacts to the items can be a way to make sure that the items feel like part of the world instead of a line on a character sheet. It changes the way that they use the item. Nothing mechanical about the item has changed, but now they may think twice before wearing it around a friendly noble or try to plant it on someone to get them arrested. A single line added to the story of the item can make it stand out in the world.
If you want to spice up your magical items so they are something the player remembers, you can do three easy things:
Add Aesthetic Properties to the item, look, feel, smell, anything.
Change up the attunement and charge mechanics, so it's not a formality
Add one line of story to every item your players find
If you do all of this, I promise that your players will keep their items in mind, and maybe, just maybe, remember that they found a magic item that solves this puzzle four sessions ago.