Article Header Image
Magic Items
D&D Alumni
Steve Winter

Since Siegfried's mighty sword Nothung—or perhaps Elmer Fudd's "spear and magic helmet"—weapons and devices imbued with great magical power have been part and parcel of heroic myth, literature, film, and even opera. It's no surprise, then, that "magic items*" play such an enormous role in D&D. Yet while they've been around since the very first published booklets, their importance and power have risen and fallen through the editions.

(* Except for the 2nd Edition years, when they were more properly called "magical items." Harumph.)

Two categories of magic items arguably hold the player's imagination more than all others: swords and rings. Is it any surprise these are the items that play central roles in both The Ring of the Nibelung and The Lord of the Rings, the two most famous fantasy works of the last three centuries?

In early editions of the game, a character's chance to hit (called THAC0, informally at first and officially by the time of 2nd Edition) didn't rise as quickly as monsters' ACs, especially for characters outside the fighter classes. A +1, +2, +3, or even greater magic weapon became the quickest way to raise your hit chance back into statistically worthwhile range.

Simple probability wasn't the only reason magical plusses were necessary. Certain monsters could only be hit by magic weapons, and those monsters became more and more common as the characters gained levels. A particularly cruel DM might let heroes swing away, describing hits and misses based on the creature's AC and letting everyone roll damage for the hits, without ever pointing out that none of that damage was piercing the creature's magic. By the time characters were 3rd or 4th level, they could expect to encounter such creatures, making magic weapons all but mandatory.

The best way for players to receive magic items was through the orchestrations of a careful, prudent DM. More often, however, they cropped up randomly as a result of a roll on the Treasure Types table. Treasure type N (from Basic D&D), for example, allowed a 40% chance to include 2-8 potions. Not bad … but treasure type A allowed a 30% chance for "any 3" magic items. As these were selected randomly via the magic item tables, players could wind up with something so weak they had no use for it or so powerful it would throw the game out of balance.

With magical items in such high demand, and certain types of them (healing potions, scrolls of protection) almost mandatory in every adventurer's backpack, it didn't take long for the idea of a "magic store" (Ye Olde Magicke Shoppe) to appear in every city and town. Once you can buy something in a magic shop, it's only a small step to buying anything.

All of this unwarranted and illicit trade in magic items inevitably led to backlash. Page 92 of the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide included this astounding paragraph. It's quoted here in its entirety because it's so unusual in its message and tone:

Just as it is important to use forethought and consideration in placing valuable metals and other substances with monsters or otherwise hiding them in dungeon or wilderness, the placement of magic items is a serious matter. Thoughtless placement of powerful magic items has been the ruination of many a campaign. Not only does this cheapen what should be rare and precious, it gives player characters undeserved advancement and empowers them to become virtual rulers of all they survey.

This is in part the fault of this writer, who deeply regrets not taking the time and space in D&D to stress repeatedly the importance of moderation. Powerful magic items were shown after all, on the tables, and a chance for random discovery of these items was given, so the uninitiated DM cannot be severely faulted for merely following what was set before him or her in the rules. Had the whole been prefaced with an admonition to use care and logic in placement or random discovery of magic items, had the intent, meaning, and spirit of the game been more fully explained, much of the give-away aspect of such campaigns would have willingly been squelched by the DMs.

The sad fact is, however, that this was not done, so many campaigns are little more than a joke, something that better DMs jape at and ridicule -- rightly so on the surface -- because of the foolishness of player characters with astronomically high levels of experience and no real playing skill. These god-like characters boast and strut about with retinues of ultra-powerful servants and scores of mighty magic items, artifacts, and relics adorning them as if they were Christmas trees decked out with tinsel and ornaments.

Not only are such "Monty Haul" games a crashing bore for most participants, they are a headache for their DMs as well, for the rules of the game do not provide anything for such play -- no reasonable opponents, no rewards, nothing! The creative DM can, of course, develop a game which extrapolates from the original to allow such play, but this is a monumental task to accomplish with even passable results, and those attempts I have seen have been uniformly dismal.

That may be the harshest assessment of poor DMing ever to appear in a rulebook! The writer, Gary Gygax, pointed the accusing finger at himself as well as at lavish DMs.

Besides old-fashioned scarcity, the DM had other tools for controlling runaway magic in his campaign. The biggest were the three Cs: command words, charges, and curses.

Every magic wand, rod, or staff, and many other specific items, didn't work simply because the character wanted them to.

In order to use a rod, staff, or wand, it is usually necessary to know the proper command word. There are several possible ways to acquire this knowledge. If the item is/was in the possession of an opponent, it may be possible to learn the appropriate work or phrase directly, either by noting what he or she says when using the item, or by causing the possessor to divulge the information through force or trickery. It is common for spell-users to keep such information recorded among their hidden scrolls and spell books, in case their memories should somehow become impaired (or simply prove insufficient) and the words be forgotten. (DMG, pg. 119)

A magic item that was found without the command word was like software without the product key -- useless. Capturing a wizard's stash of wands and rods was of little avail if his books and notes couldn't also be found.

Charges were a tally of how many times a magic item could be used. Simple, expendable items such as potions, ointments, and scrolls obviously had one "charge" (though players would never stop trying to stretch a potion by taking "just a sip"). Items that carried stored spells -- the much-sought-after wand of fireballs, for example -- had a limited amount of "ammo." Kinder DMs would tell players how many charges an item had remaining. The decent ones would at least let players know when the last charge was used. The mean ones waited until someone tried to use the item to save the lives of everyone in the party, then said, "Oops… looks like you used the last charge back in town when you tossed that fireball into the tavern. Too bad."

Items that held charges couldn't be recharged, and once the last charge was used, the item stopped being magical. This changed in 2nd Edition, when recharging became an option. "Recharging isn't easy, but it is easier than creating a new item." (2E DMG, pg. 122). The biggest risk in recharging was that the item could be destroyed in the process if it failed a saving throw. Accidentally destroying the item this way wasn't any worse than having it run out of charges, however, so recharging was always worth the risk.

Curses were the final weapon in the DM's arsenal for curbing player characters who were insane with magic item-lust. Curses were wide-ranging, from the simple (sword with a -1 penalty instead of a +1 bonus) to the creative (ring of greed -- everyone who sees it must have it, and having it, must flaunt it). A cursed item was indistinguishable from a normal magic item, but…

Once a cursed weapon is used in battle it may not be gotten rid of. The owner will feel compelled to get it back if it is thrown away and will always draw the cursed weapon in battle. Only a high level NPC cleric or magic user can help a character get free of the curse. (D&D Basic, pg. B48)

The first cursed item I encountered in D&D was a ring (of course) that could turn the wearer invisible. The character who found it was an elf thief, so what could be better than a ring of invisibility? Unfortunately, it came with a heavy price. When it was activated, it also became powerfully magnetic! Daggers and darts couldn't be thrown because they stuck to the ring. Loose metal objects slid across the floor toward the invisible thief. The monsters might not see him, but they saw the trail of rusted daggers, broken chainmail links, and discarded metal spikes that were drawn to his location. As much as he searched, that elf never found a sage or high-level wizard who could undo the curse without destroying the magic completely. I was crushed, and the DM thought it was hilarious. I stopped playing with him shortly afterward. (Come to think of it, maybe the problem wasn't the curse but using the wrong command word. Hmmm … .)

Where did all those magic items come from? Obviously, someone made them. So why not the player characters?

1st Edition AD&D allowed for PCs to create magic items, but the #1 piece of advice given to the DM in this regard was, "Do not tell them how this is to be accomplished!" (DMG, pg. 116). Characters had to discover every aspect of the process through quests or trial-and-error. The challenge was so daunting for players and DMs alike that few campaigns ever attempted it.

2nd Edition AD&D took a more measured approach. Creating your own magic items was still difficult and required characters of very high level. This edition allowed for two DM approaches to the problem: the practical and the fantastical. The practical method used components that were "physical and understandable." It was simple but could be abused.

The fantastical method relied on impossible ingredients and unearthly processes. "Thus, to make the rope of climbing, the DM could require a skein of unspun yarn, the voice of a spider, and the courage of a daring thief. The player would then have to discover the meaning of each ingredient or the means to produce it. This, in turn, could require more research and spells to accomplish the goal." (2E DMG, pg. 116)

One of the most amusing facets of magic items from 1st Edition was the Potion Miscibility table. This came into play whenever a character drank a second potion while the first was still active in his system. The player then had to roll percentile dice on the table, abbreviated here:

01 Explosion! 6-60 hp damage to the user, and nearby characters also take damage.
02-03 Lethal poison; user dies with no saving throw.
04-08 Mild Poison; user suffers -1 Strength and Dex for 5-20 minutes.
09-15 Immiscible; the potions cancel one another.
16-25 Immiscible; one potion is cancelled, the other one works normally.
26-35 Immiscible; both potions function at half effectiveness, whatever that is.
36-90 Miscible; both potions work normally unless they're contradictory.
91-99 Compatible, and one functions at 150% of effectiveness.
00 Discovery! Only one potion functions, but its effect becomes permanent. There may be side effects.

By the time of 3rd Edition, magic item manufacture was codified in great detail and accessible to any magic-wielding character as a feat. Magic items took on an importance far greater than before, and they became more common as a result.

In 4th Edition, magic items found a new home in the core rulebooks: the Player's Handbook featured magic item tables, as well as information on the means to acquire and even create your own:

You can sometimes buy magic items just as you can mundane equipment. It’s rare to find a shop or a bazaar that routinely sells magic items, except perhaps the lowest-level items. Some fantastic places, such as the legendary City of Brass in the heart of the Elemental Chaos, have such markets, but those are the exception rather than the rule. Your DM might say that you can track down a seller for the item you want to buy or that you might have to do some searching, but in general you can buy any item you can afford.

You can also use the Enchant Magic Item ritual to create an item of your level or lower. In terms of the economic transaction, creating an item is the same as buying it: You spend money equal to the market price of the item and acquire the item. Some DMs prefer to have characters enchant their own items rather than buy them, particularly for more powerful items.

The magic item economy of 4th Edition and its associated rituals allowed not only for the creation of magic items using the Enchant Magic Item ritual, but also an item's resizing (a tragedy in earlier editions, where a suit of magic armor might be acquired, but 65% of them were man-sized, 20% elf-sized, 10% dwarf-sized, and 5% gnome- or halfling-sized). The Disenchant Magic Item ritual allows for the distillation of unwanted items into valuable residuum (alternatively, one might employ the services of a rust monster for the same effect).

Which brings us to the upcoming Adventurer's Vault 2. Take a good look at the cover. If you played 1st Edition AD&D, does it look familiar? It should. Here's what the painter, Wayne Reynolds, has to say about it.

"I was extremely happy to be asked to work on the cover image for Adventurers Vault 2. The first line in the art order referred to a black and white illustration from the 1st edition Monster Manual (originally drawn by D. A. Trampier). As it happens, I still have my copy of that Monster Manual, so I knew which illo was being referred to.

"The cover image would be an homage to the illustration in the original Monster Manual. However, the art order required that the image look like it belonged to 4th edition D&D rather than a faithful copy from 1st Edition D&D. … The trick was to make to make the image look like a 4th Edition scene but still retain enough elements to resonate with the B&W 1st Edition illustration. In order to do this, I felt I had to slightly alter the angle of the treasure chest lid so that more of the characters could be seen. It was also important that I kept the poses of the characters the same as the original illustration. So the tiefling would have his hand on the lid, the half elf would be reaching into the chest with a dagger in her other hand, and the dwarf would be holding a torch. I tried to bring a bit of character into the facial expressions just like in the original piece, too."
--Wayne Reynolds

The more things change, the more they stay the same! Our thanks go out to Wayne for creating such a brilliant homage to an iconic D&D image.

About the Author

Steve Winter is a writer, game designer, and web producer living in the Seattle area. He's been involved with publishing D&D in one form or another since 1981. Tiny people and monsters made of plastic and lead are among his favorite obsessions.