Friday, May 29, 2020

Making Magic Items Stand Out

@JustMrLeeds on Twitter asked an astute question:

#TTRPG question for both DMs and players: How do you let your players / does your DM let you know you found magic item without just saying it’s a magic item?

I tell my players they taste iron in the air letting them know there is a magic item around they don’t already own.

I gave a short reply, but wanted to expand on it:

Image by Mystic Art Design
 from Pixabay
The Language of Magic

The first thing you may want to do is set up a language of magic items. These are descriptors, embellishments, and other memes within the campaign world that, if they are used consistently, scream "Magic item here!" when a player hears it. This also lets you add an element of Hard Magic to your campaign, as PCs will know that to get magic to stay in object X, element Y has to be added.

For example you might add one of the following to several magic item's description:
  • "It is covered in engraved ancient Suloise knotwork"
  • "It glows faintly blue when it gets close to the area of effect of your spells."*
  • "It includes Dwarven markings embedded with a shimmering red stone."
  • "It has a goetic seal drawn on it."
  • "It smells of something almost like citrus."
After you use any one of these more than once, the players will start seeing a pattern. If they ran into two magic items that had an orihalcuhm stud in the fabric, the next time you drop " The hatband is decorated with metal studs, mostly silver, but one looks to be orichalchum ." They will instantly get excited and proud of themselves for noticing the pattern.

The adventure module The Dark of Hot Springs Island is a masterclass in using this technique. Every magical faction that is, or was on the island has left magic items with a very unique culturally apropos design. For example, most of the ogres on the island have magic that  derives from the silver hair of a witch who lives among them. If you see anything with silver hair woven in, you know it is ogre magic. Likewise the elves that rulec the island centuries previously controlled their magic with chimes. If it makes music, has a chime on it, or is found near chimes it is elvish, and the PCs learn to know elf magic when they hear it. The same is true for four other factions: Each has magic with a distinct flavor that PCs can learn to spot.

The Three As

I also use a technique I call the three As of Magic Item description. They are: Anachronistic, Alien, or Active. Including one of them when you describe an always helps set an item apart when the PCs find it, suggesting that they should look at it a little harder.


Magic items aren't supposed to be subject to the forces of everyday wear and tear. They remain untouched by time. Magic items in fantasy are also often supposed to be created in a time in the distant past using forgotten arts... that is why they are gathering dust in dragon's hoards and crumbling ruins. Making something seem very old, but also good as new is a great way to make this happen.
  • Using bronze instead of steel makes things seem ancient and exotic.
  • Making things of pottery, rough linen, hide, reeds, or stone will make magic items seem strange and primitive.
  • Use older styles and words for something. If you have leather armour in your contemporary world having "cuir bouli in the style of the lost Thulean Empire" makes the item stand out. Padded armour might be linthorax instead of the newer gambesson, Chainmail might be Lorica or you might substitute ring mail.
  • Hide, Scale mail, and Ring Mail are far more ancient types of armour than padded, banded, chain, or plate... They automatically seem old. The same is true of weapons like the Khopesh, falacata, falx, cestus, sling, or greatclub.
  • Magical clothing should remind PCs of portraits of their ancestors, but look freshly dyed.
  • Include petroglyphs or hieroglyphics instead of runes or script.
  • Knotwork, geometric embroidery, or lozenge patterns might make an object seem out of time
Adding the odd modern or futuristic item might also draw attention. A modern carbon fibre tactical sword, an item with a touchscreen interface, or with flashing electric lights in a fantasy setting will grab attention fast.

You can also create anachronism by placing things in the right context. A bright shining sword in a dusty ruin, or sitting in a leather scabbard that has rotted away on a wall hangar that is more veridian than metal, for example. Or a fresh, clean robe sitting on an altar with dingy threadbare cloth surrounded by brittle, moth-eaten banners.


Magic should be wierd, other, and sometimes unsettling. Having an object that doesn't fit the cultural milieu of the setting can really draw attention. This can be simple as using objects from a distant culture, or as complex as making things clearly not of this world. Making something seem as though it is from far away can draw attention and add wonder. After all, there has to be a very good reason why something so exotic has found its way to the PCs.
  • Items from far places so far away that the PCs cannot place or contextualize them quickly draws attention. These items must have reached the PCs homeland by strange roads because someone really valued them. In a setting based on 14th century Europe, suit of lamellar armour, a set of daishio, a maciutl, a horn bow, or a shield of reeds all can draw attention, so long as your game has a specific, established cultural milieu. If samurai wander around your port cities, a tachi will hardly seem magical just because it is a tachi.
  • Strange materials can help establish the alien-ness of a magical item. Mythical metals like mithril, adamantine, or orihachum are good examples, but mysterious resins, exotic bones, Crystal, aerolites, living wood, or alien flesh are excellent choices.
  • Describing the object using outré patterns or designs can work very well. This could be a silk screening of a location like underwater or outer space, it could be carvings of strange monsters, of it could be images that seem bizarre or mildly disturbing, like men eating monsters, sensually posed ogres, etc.
  • Associate the object with the otherworldly with demonic glyphs, angelic script, elemental jewels, or spectral parts.


Magic items don't always sit passively doing nothing. Many have a minor magical effect that constantly goes on a round them. This makes the magic both obvious and strange. It can be as simple as a glow, or simething truly wierd. Like...

Strange Magical Item Effects

d50Weird Magical Effect
1It glows a strange colour.
2It chimes the hour.
3It floats in the air the same way bricks don't.
4It smells like camphor and citrus.
5It whispers softly to itself in a dead language.
6It emits soap bubbles.
7Salt crystals form in a jagged ring around it when it sits in one place for more than a month.
8A thin crust of glitteting red Yog Crystal forms on it.
9Demonic graffiti forms on the walls around it.
10Any writing within 30' of it slowly changes to match its inscriptions if it is left in one place for a week.
11Thick flowering vines grow from it and cover nearby floors and walls.
12It drips fresh cold water.
13It drips blood.
14Strains of barely audible music surround it.
15Faces on it change to match the observer.
16It changes its style, shape, or balance to suit the person touching it.
17Wind slowly swirls around it, leaving spirals in the dust.
18Everything around it becomes clean, tidy, and sterilized.
19It crackles with electricity and smells of ozone.
20The surface it sits on grows sooty as it emits faint gray smoke and a heat shimmer, but is cool to the touch.
21It reflects the ethereal plane on its surface.
22The grim reaper can be seen in its reflective surfaces, standing behind the shoulders of others, suggesting how close death is to each of them, but one cannot see their own reaper.
23Images on it change to match the weather and time of day.
24Faces and colours on the object change to match the mood of the nearest intelligent creature.
25Corpses left within 15'of the object animate long enough to clean and maintain the item, then sit down facing it before returning to full death.
26An ornate display case appears around the object when set down.
27Current planar or planetary alignments are projected in a hologram around the object.
28It moves around slightly when no one is looking.
29It  reads information about current style and design from the creature touching it, and instantly modernises itself.
30Frost forms on metal, stone, and glass near the object.
31Ethereal bees buzz around the object if it is left alone, slowly building a hive and honeycomb around it from sweet ethereal flowers.
32Silvery spiders emerge from the metal surfaces of the object and clean and repair the object, leaving shimmering cobwebs behind.
33It emits a smell that is different for everyone near it, but always reminds them of Summer days and childhood.
34Ghostly moths flitter about the light it emits when used.
35Chittering and giggling  sounds come from the shadows near it.
36It falls to the ground in slow motion.
37It recites bawdy poetry in a childish voice if left unattended for more than a week at a time.
38Ticking clockwork is audible within the item.
39If left alone, the area around it becomes holy... becoming cleansed of impurities and dirt, filled with the smell of incense, and over time, paintings of holy icons appear on the walls.
40Brightly coloured toadstools spring up around it, which attract tiny toads and snails.
41It attracts fireflies.
42The sound and smell of rain surround it. It alwas seems damp and cool. Occasionally thunder is heard when the item is used.
43It fills up with whiskey, beer, or sake when music plays near it.
44It leaves shining crystal dust behind if it sits anywhere for awhile.
45It mutters the thoughts of a gnomish potions merchant who lives 6d100 miles away. He has no idea why, and has never seen the object.
46Shiny silver sparks pop and sizzle when it is removed from its case.
47The names of the PCs and date that they found it is engraved on it. That engraving eventually changes to the names someone else decades in the future.
48Puffs of bright, strange smelling smoke come out of it at random.
49Touching it makes you feel wide awake and sharply focused.
50Glowing writing appears in rings around it when set on stone, detailing its creator and purpose.

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