One of my gripes about D&D, especially later editions, is the profusion of magic items. After a few levels every character seems to be carrying around with him a huge collection of magical artifacts. I think it really reduces the mystery and specialness of magic items. Having a sword +1 is barely different from having a sword. In my current game, I’ve tried to make any magic items the players find feel really special and different. I noticed at last night’s game that it actually appears to be rather successful, which has really pleased me, especially given that it really wasn’t as hard as you would think. Here’s a few minor things I’ve done and the effect they’ve had.
Adding a minor detail to the item goes a long way. One player found a sword described to be “very finely made with a large ruby pommel.” Another has a staff that is “a gnarled stick of wood with various feathers and fetishes attached to it.” These are pretty minor and not terribly original, but the fact is that I don’t give that level of detail to normal equipment, and so it stands out. I noticed as a result my player doesn’t say “I swing my magic sword” or “I use my sword +x”, he says “I pull out my ruby pommeled sword” and everyone around the table gets excited.
Make up command words. The staff above has charges that cause extra damage when expended in combat. When the players discovered this I made up a command word on the spot: “breeshk”. It’s a nonsense word I made up that felt right given the primitive appearance of the staff and the fact that it was taken as treasure from a gnoll camp. Now my player never tells me he’s expending a charge from the staff, he merely shouts “Breeshk!” as he rolls his attack.
Tie it to the location. One of the best things I’ve stolen from Stonehell is the magical material known as vaedium. What I love so much about it is that in Stonehell there is no description of what it is or what it does, just that it’s a metal with a magical nature. While my players were exploring Stonehell they found their very first magic weapon: a sword +1. I decided it was in fact made of vaedium, which causes it to glow very slightly and imbues it with its power. When the players tried to have it identified, the sage was stumped — he told them it had none of the usual enchantments upon it, but rather it appeared the very material it was made of was imbued with magic. I still told them that mechanically it was a sword +1, so they got their money’s worth from the sage, but it’s become known now simply as the vaedium sword. My players probably still wonder if there isn’t more to this sword than simply the +1 enchantment. So do I.
I noticed this all last night as the party has its first serious encounter with a monster that required magic to hurt it: a group of three shadows. The shouts of “breeshk!” and the descriptions of the ruby pommeled sword and the vaedium sword really made it feel like the party was pulling out all the stops, bringing to bear the full power of their magical resources.