Magical Items not Mundane Items

by Norman J. Harman Jr.

Nov, 2002

Make a commitment to yourself that every magic item your players pry out of you will be special, have a name, history, previous owners, secrets, etc. Spend an equivalent amount of time on each item as you do on each NPC. Your goal is to have each item be notable and prized by the player who obtains it. And, not just another +1 weapon. This is doubly important for campaigns where magic is more common. Fudge is a great system for this as it can take the focus away from stats and numbers if you want it to. Being insanely flexible helps too.

Personally I’ve pledged to never have any +x items. There is no such thing as a +1 sword in my world. The closest match is something like a sword possessed by the soul of a great fencer that increases the wielder’s sword skill rank, among other things :) or a scimitar of elf slaying that changes -1’s into +1’s when used vs those nasty fey folk. Since there is no long list of spells in the rules, items aren’t just copies of spells either. No wand’s of magic missiles here.

Make Items Special

Each magic item gets a 3x5 note card which is given to the lucky new owner (keep a separate card or notebook for secrets about the item the player is not yet privy to) Hopefully this is a bit of a psychological trick. It’s something tangible that the player receives, can hold, point to, wave in the air, throw across the room when it fails, and most importantly that can be taken away. It also gives plenty of space for descriptions, pictures, known history and so forth. Occasional additions to or outright replacement of the card can be made as the player learns more of the abilities or history of this item. The back of the card is reserved for player notes (where she keeps it, thoughts on how it works, great actions she has accomplished with it.) Even very common items such as crossbow bolts of lighting (many of which are issued to Alnorian calvary troops) get a card outlining the ‘class of item’ if not each and every individual instance. Potions might be treated the same way.

Never tell the player what the magic item does. Even if you want them to know don’t just blurt out “You hit the gong and walls come tumbling down.” Relay that information in a mural on the wall of the temple in which the gong was found. Or in a song or story the players heard several sessions ago. Or leave them clueless and in the dark. One example I’m anxious to use is presenting the players with a treasure of 5-10 bottles of potions, elixirs and rare alchemical components. Unfortunately, the carefully scribed labels have fallen off into a pile at the base of the potion rack. So, the players know what they got, but not which one is which. In describing and creating magic items it’s best to be vague, so that you can add/change things later. But, if you do change something, don’t get caught. Make the players think that it was that way all along and they just hadn’t figured it out yet. Being too secretive can backfire. In one campaign I ran druids were bestowed magical torcs upon leaving the grove for the greater world. This torc would allow the character to change into various animal forms based on level. Even though he spontaneously transformed into an animal several times, it was never linked to his torc. The druid missed out on an advantage and never even realized he had a powerful magic item around his neck. The player later told me he had completely forgotten about the torc and thought the transformations were gifts from nature.

Make Items Unique

When describing an item the players have found describe that particular item, “This staff is a 5’ long smooth metal rod capped on one end by a large translucent bluish-white crystal.” Not, “Staves of lighting are from 5-6 feet long and often have crystals incorporated in their construction.” Describe in specifics, not general terms. Look for key details to call attention to. Not “a crystal” but “a large translucent bluish-white crystal.” If the character asks a question, latch onto it and make the item personal. If she asks “What’s in the crystal?” Never say, “Oh, nothing just a translucent bluish-white crystal.” Do this “The crystal, a many faceted ovid, captures your gaze. The feeble torchlight seems to be reflected and amplified within its depths. It’s dim orangish hue transformed into pure white. The reflections remind you of moonlight sparkling off the frost white snows of your long missed homeland. Startled from these pleasing visions by Johan’s firm hand on your shoulder. He claims that you’ve been entranced for several minutes” Maybe that’s too schlock ridden for you and I couldn’t pull that out of thin air (maybe I would take a moment to write the player a note) but, you get the idea. Don’t forget about sounds, tastes and smells the item might posses or generate. Depending on how magic & morality work in your world the item might be keyed to a certain school of magic, radiate ‘evil’, or allow creatures of powerful magical aptitude to sense it from afar. If your players become accustomed to certain senses being associated with certain magic items you can capitalize on it to create great atmosphere and immersion. For instance, from frequent past usage the party’s scout knows that invisibility potions smell strongly of lemon. While in the dark dungeon of despair he makes his detect hidden roll. Instead of saying “Uh, dude, you detect something sneaking up invisibly” you blurt out “You smell something, you can’t quite place. It gets stronger, you *know this smell. It’s lemon! And now its quite strong indeed.”* Hopefully he won’t say “Huh?” and force the assassin to garrote him into silence.

Use props. Encourage artistic players to draw, sculpt, or craft their items. Bring a gong for the player to bang on. Use a tarot deck for the Deck of Many Things. Play some thunderous sound effects when the wizard hurls a bolt of lighting from his staff. Change the light level/color as the dagger that glows when orcs are near activates. Get a cow’s horn or bugle for the Trumpet of Courage. Try food coloring, juices, and other liquid flavorings for potions. Be sure to let your players know before hand that they may “Dump your icky concoction into the plant” and pretend they drank it. I know a GM that uses flash powder with miniatures for fire based effects. You’ll have to decide yourself and gauge what level of this your players enjoy. Some might think its hokey and distracting, but others will love it.

Keep Items Important

Once a player has a magic item, don’t forget about it. Defiantly don’t let the player take it for granted. Peasants will ask to see it. Collectors will try to steal it. Have the players hear songs or stories that mention it. Perhaps an heir of the original owner thinks it belongs to them and takes her claim to the king. Ask them where they keep it. If on their person put it in danger; of being broken, getting rained on, or pickpocketed. If at ‘home’ the place should be broken into and ransacked but the item fortunately was not stolen, this time. How do they store it? Does it need maintenance? Perhaps some fungus(magical) starts growing on it. “Brave sir Hadley what *is that fuzzy brown stuff on your Holy Avenger?”. If it fits the character, encourage them misplace it for a few days *”Oh, here it is in my other robes.” Don’t make every event negative. It shouldn’t be a constant burden just to own a magic item (unless you want it that way). An artist or scholar might want to see it, even pay for the privilege. Perhaps a great wizard asks to copy it. Having a wizard owe you a favor should be worth something. Events involving the players’ magic items shouldn’t come up every 5 minutes either. Say, once every third session something about one item occurs or whenever the players complain about there not being enough phat lootz.

Design of Magic Items

When designing magic items leave most everything undecided and flexible. Just get the basics or germ of an idea and decide the particulars as they are needed. Although, this makes it hard to write down items for gaming magazines it provides many tools to the GM. They can be used to deny players trying to abuse the mechanics or reward those being creative. Great for plot hooks, moving the current story forward, anything really. Players come up with great ideas, you should always be prepared to steal them as your own. For example, I started one campaign (not Fudge) by giving each character some minor magic item. One player had decided her elf was a black sheep and ran away from home. I decided that she had borrowed her family’s sword on the way out of the forest. Later I screwed up and let ghouls, which were too tough, tangle with the party. They had rendered unconscious or paralyzed every valiant hero save the elf(immune to paralyzation). It was going badly, three ghouls vs. the poor elfy when she rolled a ‘20’. At that moment I knew what her family’s sword was, a vorpal blade of ghoul slaying. Off went the first ghoul’s head and the last two were dispatched soon thereafter. I played it as if I had made the sword that way from the beginning and the elf player had finally activated it with the natural ‘20’ vs. ghouls. I’m sure the craftier players suspected some tomfoolery but they were happy not to be rolling up new characters and kept quiet. A sad day in my GMing career but not the disaster it could have been.

Try some random and/or flaky items. They combine being unique, vague, and flexible. Best of all, players tend to come up with great ways to (mis)use these items. (See Notes to Mimi’s Wand of Armor below) Bags in which random things are found, robes with similar pockets. Items that amplify or are keyed to what the character is thinking, a ring of weather control which creates weather based on the wearer’s mood. Items that change effects based on phase of moon or how close they are to some object. Instead of fudging dice rolls, well I still fudge rolls, I try to equip the party with some item like this that I can make do things when the party or plot needs it.

Sample Items

Wizard Doll’s

History: Court wizards are fond of creating these dolls and presenting them to princes and boyars in order to maintain, er, pleasant relations. The Tzar’s personal collection is said to contain dozens. Prince Guba, an accomplished wizard, is said to have created the first magical doll of this type for his daughter, Negoshka, a hundred and seventy years ago..

Description: A Wizard’s doll is an enchanted variety of a folk craft common throughout Novaka. It is a wood or very rarely metal, vaguely egg-shaped doll, richly painted, carved or embossed. That divides horizontally in the middle revealing a slightly smaller doll of similar construction within. Another doll awaits inside this one and so on until only the smallest sliver of wood remains, the baby doll.

When each doll is first ‘opened’ some magical effect manifests. It happens only once and is somehow related to the nature of the doll just split. The exact effect is never documented and debating what it will be is one reason these gifts remain popular.

Sample doll effects:

Vedomye zheny(wise woman) - An ancient, wrinkled crone, peasant cloths and holding a black kettle. When opened one nearby fire/oven will become temporally enchanted. If no cooking apparatus is close, a fire and kettle will form/emerge from the ground. This mystical oven/kettle knows what the doll’s owner needs better then they do and will magically prepare it. If they are sick or wounded, a healing tea will be brewed. If they are about to embark on a hard day’s travel then a nourishing and energizing stew will appear. If they are lovelorn, well you get the idea. At the next sunrise the enchantment fades / fire & kettle returns to the earth.

Tzar’s army - Doll is of a stately costumed soldier of the Royal Guard. Summons 2-4 mystical beings (spirits of past soldiers) that will obey the orders of the doll’s owner until they vanish at daybreak.

Winter scene - Not a doll but a finely painted landscape of a sleigh and team speeding past a warmly lit Izba. Soon after splitting this doll the jingling of bells and neighing of horses will be heard. If there are appropriate ground conditions a magical sleigh will briskly arrive steps away from the owner. Otherwise, the magic is wasted. Pulled by a barely visible team of phantom horses it will transport four adults and a small amount of equipment with great speed over ice and snow. Disappearing at journey’s end or the next sunrise whichever occurs first.

The Guard - One side has a typical stern faced foot soldier dressed in blue, and the other side has the same soldier dressed in red with a slight grin. After several moments a man dressed in blue will appear (walking out of the woods, entering the bathhouse, etc.) He’ll offer to serve as guard and watchman in order to repay an ill-defined debt. The man has senses far superior to those of any natural being. Although, avoiding combat, he performs his guard duties admirably. After a day or so the man will change his dress to red and at some point will betray the owner (leading an enemy to camp, stealing horses when needed, etc.) at which point he will indicate the debt is paid and leave.

Magma staff

History: It is said that at the source of every volcano is a sliver of stone chipped from Surt’s big toe as he stumbles around deep in the underearth. (Surt == blind god of fire) This sliver still burns with Surt’s anger and from it pours all the magma that eventually makes its way to the surface destroying any village unlucky enough to be near. The only way to staunch the flow of lava is for a great hero to plunge into the heart of the volcano and remove this sliver. This is how the magma staves became known to surface dwellers. This staff was long the possession of the Drazk Doublebeard, high priest of the Pilzn Druegar Dwarf clan. When the great wyrm Alganor roasted and ate every last Pilzn Dwarf the staff was presumed to have been become part of Alganor’s vast hoard. That is, until today when it was found by three intrepid adventures half encrusted by minerals, in a subterranean pool

Description: This Magma staff is composed of rough obsidian. About 4’ in length and varies in a cone shape from 1”-6” in thickness. It is quite heavy. Always painfully hot to the touch it readily melts snow, wax, and similar materials. It will spoil items vulnerable to heat it is stored with.

Upon command copious amounts of molten rock, volcanic gasses and other deep and fiery things ‘shoot’ with a low whooshing sound out the larger end. Being hit by this will hurt a lot! But, the stream is slow, short-ranged and easily dodged. Depending on the ambient temperature, which will quickly rise the more magma is spewed about, the magma will cool and form a weight- bearing crust surprisingly quick. By laying layer upon layer barriers can be built or ramps formed over walls.

This item is one which it’s up to the players to surprise the GM with effective uses, or for the GM to add effects as needed. Perhaps, ‘drawing’ a magma pentagram opens a gate to City of Brass. Maybe, if used too often, fire elementals will start appearing along with the magma and gases.

Mimi’s Wand of Armor

History: It depends on your campaign world. But, if owned by an antagonist their flunkies ought to be sporting a wild and varied array of protective outerwear.

Description: About a cubit in length. Wrapped in leather and banded at one end with thick wire like that used for chainmail. When activated, depending on the type of armor produced, strong odors of a tanning works or scorched metal and forges will emanate from the wand and target. This smell will spread far and linger a good while. In addition a loud clang of hammer on anvil will sound out for metal based armors.

This wand will create a random suit of armor on its target. It only works on living targets. There is no way to tell what type of armor will be created.

Sample random armor chart.



something exotic, mithril, suit of samurai


plate mail


chain mail




padded, hides


reinforced leather


scale mail


split mail


full plate