How to Create a Magic Item

11 09 2008

I’d like to tackle the magic item creation process with the spin that I usually take for my games: start with meaning and derive mechanics. I’ve tried to make the nature of the process abstract enough to be applied to any particular system in which you’d like to introduce a magical (or the equivalent of that) creation and still be practical enough so you can just sit down and follow the steps.

As always, the goal is efficiency: the procedure that follows strives to be simple and easy to follow and also produce solid, usable results. So get a pad of paper, notebook, PDA or text program and let’s do some forging!

You are here

The way I see it, there are mainly three venues to start our item creation process. These three are, however, not equal starting points. They have an inverse relationship between ease of use and usefulness. What that means is that the easier it is to get started with one item, the less it adds to the whole process… for the most part. On the other hand, don’t worry about it, because you will have to tackle all three before we’re done, it’s just a matter of what helps you get started the most.

So here they are, from easiest to start with to hardest to start with (and, at the same time, from less juicy to more juicy.)

A) What the item is

B) What the item does

C) What’s the situation?

The first two items are pretty self explanatory although the last one can be tricky. To make sure we’re on the same page, let us briefly review what those items are together.

What the Item Is

Simply put, this asks for the physical aspect of the item in question. However, there is more than meets the eye. What if the item was a bronze sword and is now a flaming tongue of blue fire attached to a hilt (no blade whatsoever), or what if it was a book that was made to look like a ethereal purple hat?

We can start with a) what the item is now or b) what the item was (if applicable.) If there was a fundamental change you might want to get both a) and b) done now, although you certainly don’t need to. Whatever you decide make sure you include 3 details about the item if it is a reasonably common thing (from your player’s -not necessarily character’s- point of view) or 5 details if it’s something obscure.


The pair of gloves had some strangeness looming over it. You wouldn’t say that from a distance since it just looked like regular leather work dyed in dark paint, but if you touched them you would feel a cold smoothness that no regular skin has. What is more, the interior was cool and comfortable with a nice silk texture to it.

You can add as many details as you’d like, although I do not recommend going over board. There is something that I call the 1-3-5 rule that applies to descriptions in general. It basically says that when describing something (situation or a thing), you should make it so that it has either one, three or five characteristics or details. If I don’t remember incorrectly, it was based on a study that stated that we tend to better remember things that are structured with an odd rather than even number of characteristics. That being said, 1 thing is usually a tad little to make it ‘special’ (although it can certainly be described like that to the players at first) and 5 it’s going to tax our brains a little too much. I find that 3 really hits the target as the best number and, as you see, it’s not very hard to produce a description like that.

What the Item Does

For a lot of people, this is the happiest part of the whole thing. Still, we have some notes and steps to go through.

1) Answer this question “What makes this thing magical?”

You need to answer it in a way that would make sense for the characters (remember, those are the imaginary beings running around in the imaginary fantasy, not your snack munching friends.) If you are stuck try this: describe the item in the way an old drunkard would if more booze was offered for the description. You do not need to be precise (it’s often useful if you’re not) and you can lie, cheat and twist reality as much as you’d like.

2) If you have a list of spells or powers that magic items have to be built from… Refrain from using anything on that list for the description!

If you sit down and write (oh yes, this is all written baby) “Bastard sword of magic missiles” I will personally send my ninja pandas to bite your sorry little ass off. We will get to the specifics (in case your system absolutely, totally and completely needs them) when the time is due.

3) You don’t need to be specific.

If you listened to me in step number 2 (if you didn’t that knock on your door are the pandas) you’ll start noticing that most times magic is (or can be) thematic. You will notice even more when we deal with the third item on the first list (the situation), but for now do yourself a favor and start thinking in broad terms.

You can certainly have a “sword that bursts into flames” as a concept idea, but since we’re here why don’t you take it a little further. So you have a fire sword, what else is related to fire? Heat, light, passion, movement, demons, hell, knowledge. Not only you can think of this, but also think of all the uses you could give to each one of this elements. You don’t need to write a manuscript, but make a point of writing a little list like this one, since it will give you a core area or a magic theme for your item, even if you don’t end up using the things listed directly. Remember that the item does not exists as just as an encapsulated effect slapped on top of a piece of gear.


You fellas should watch out with this mittens, they’re not for the everyday customer ya see? I got em from a man who got em from a man who took them from our late Duke Orson… The duke was a strange and dark man and many a fearsome hunk feared his presence. But here’s the thing, he never took the bloody things off! My cousin Silvia, she’s done well fer herself ya see… she’s a professional courtesan and shares beds (or floors, or carpets… ya get my drift) with at least 12 big names round here.

So the thing is, she shook the blankets with Orson once or twice and told me that he always worse these darned gloves, even in bed! She also said that it made her sick to be touched with them. She is a pro but it must have made her really sick, because she never saw the Duke more than twice even though the money was shiny and plenty!

What’s the Situation?

If you have read the blog before you will know that I like this question… a LOT. This category (or item, or whatever) is the best in terms of input-output economy (more on this later) but sometimes it’s also the hardest to come up with. This item has several sub-areas, but they can roughly be divided in two groups.

A) What is the situation now?

Where is the item? How did it get there? Has the magic in the item changed? Is it “out of charges”? Does the person/s who have the item, know what the item does? What is it being used for? Is anyone looking for it? Is anyone trying to hide it?

B) What was the situation then?

Why was the magic item created? Who created it? What was used in the creation? How was the process conducted? Did it require any pacts with otherworldly entities? Was it eventually used for its original purpose? What was it used for? What happened afterwards?

The questions previously listed are merely examples to get your mind started but you can add and subtract as many as you would like here. Also the division between A and B assumes some sort of of time separation between the creation of the item and present day, this is not mandatory and you may disregard anything that doesn’t make sense to you.

Thinking about all of this at once is not a very good way to go. It will be daunting, and you’ll try to make a ‘cool story’ which is absolutely not the way to go. What you need to do is to brainstorm and get a lot of ideas on paper or whatever medium you use. Remember that having ideas and trying to think if they’re good at the same time is not a good idea, so go for quantity instead of quality here alright?

At some point (which might take minutes, or only 3 seconds) you’ll hit something that really strikes your “Oh my good, I’m soooo doing this” chord. When you get there, keep the same process but now start brainstorming new things about that particular situation. Do so until you feel you have enough material. Again, it does not have to make much sense, nor be really pretty. We’re going to take care of that in a second.

“But how are we going to do that Fred?!” I’m glad you asked.

Enter the ‘Why’ Method

Yes, I’m sure you saw it coming. Specially if you’ve been here for a bit. The ‘why’ method is my personal power tool and we will be using it in this case as well. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can click [here] and read about it. If you’re too lazy, it basically means that you’re going to take all the little details that you’ve produced so far and are going to ask either Why or What to them.


The gloves are very smooth and cold.

A) Why is this? Why are they specially smooth and cold?

B) What is this? What kind of smooth, what material does it resemble? How cold is it, does it ‘burn’ to the touch?

You can then apply the same process to each answer that you get. It’s easy, it’s fast and you can get excellent results with it. I do recommend you read the article since it has a bunch of tips, ideas and examples to get you started. What I meant at first about the items that are easier to start with give you the least final input, meant that starting with the situation will give you the most amount of material to apply this with.

Example (for What’s the situation?):

The rain dashed through a circular opening, ran vertically through 100 feet of dark and rotten space and landed mostly on top of Orsen. Malvas Orsen was enjoying one of Duke Argard’s most precious belongings, a little (not really) contraption he proudly named “The Poison Funnel.” The poison funnel was a sort of tower, it was certainly a sort of enormous cylinder, that had been erected in a hill near the castle. The unlucky fellows who were sent to the funnel found themselves at the bottom of a strange building which was smooth as silk and made from stone cold as ice.

This, of course, was not the extent of the fun to be had there. The tower walls were partially hollowed and were home to hundreds, thousands of small icara spiders. These fiendish critters were not local and god only knows how much Argard had to pay to have them brought to his realm. The spiders were little fragile things, but their poison was terribly effective on the human nervous system. It didn’t actually kill outright, but it provoked acute jolts of pain that most times made a grown man faint. When faced with as many as the tower had, the person would literally die of pain, their brain collapsing and their heart beating to oblivion at 100 miles per hour.

For Orsen, however, this was not the case. He sat at the bottom of the funnel, eyes lost staring straight ahead, his mind in a completely pure and unblemished place of anger. He sat there through boiling middays and chilling storms, he sat through bites and scratches and pints of deadly poison. You see, Orsen had been betrayed. He had served the noble who then had stolen, raped and later murdered his wife… and now he was being dispatched in this foul way because Argard did not want to be remembered of the unsuccessful romance.

Orsen had been left totally and unrepairably alone. He woke from his catatonic slumber at the fourth day, still alive and surprisingly strong. He also found that there were mountains of dead spiders around him, they had died by biting him. Orsen would later find that his very flesh was poisonous and his blood pure venom, there was not time for it now. He worked as if possessed by a strange presence, and in all probability he was. For a full day and a full night he worked and at the beginning of the fifth day he was wearing the fruits of his labour. Born from the skins of a thousand dead icara spiders were the dark leather gloves that he would wear from then on until the day of his passing.

Come Again?

Alright, to recap. You’ve selected one of the tree items (what the item is, what the item does, or what is the situation?) and have written a few things for it. You then grab those things and apply the ‘why’ method to them a few times to get more information. At this point, you are probably stepping out of the boundaries of your selection and into another category (maybe you started with the item and are now thinking about what the item does, or you started with the situation and are now thinking about the item), this is completely kosher. You now start doing the same process with your newly entered category, which will be both easier and faster since you now have a background to work with.

If you’re stuck, you can do one of two things: a) apply the method a bit more, and try asking different questions (see original article) or b) jump to a different category and start from there. By the nature of the process (and the way we think about things) you will probably start to build the big picture in your brain even without actually trying to build the big picture in your brain. That’s the beauty of the system.

If you’ve been following us, I’m sure you’ve seen that I started with a simple pair of gloves, stated a simple possible magical effect for them and then went on expanding the background for their creation. Also you might (I certainly do) look at all we did and see that you can now think of several other things the gloves can do: enable the user to climb walls like a spider, have a venomous touch (or some other torture like effect), have stealth effects (as spiders are usually related to that), have some sort of effect related to lust for blood (since they could be the embodiment of his desire for revenge.)

That is just off the top of my head, but I’m sure you get the point. The process takes us from one item to the other, and then takes us back to tie all the loose ends and reconsider our first thoughts. If you’re thinking that this might take a long time to do, think again: it took me from 5-10 minutes tops to come up with the item (all three points); think of all the setting information, plot hooks and possible NPCs that we now potentially have from that simple exercise!

Final Words

I must say that I wrote this piece after I read [this] article in the much recommended SOB by Chad Perrin. So thanks Chad for the inspiration. I hope you’ve not only enjoyed reading this but that you can also take what we’ve talked about here to your games and use it like the tool it is to help you get things done easier and more efficiently. I would also love to know what you guys think: what works? what doesn’t? anything that you would do better? This articles are a permanent work in progress, one that can be immensely improved with your help.

Of course, if you liked this make sure to subscribe and keep tabs on all the roleplaying goodness.




6 responses

11 09 2008

You’re welcome! (I’m Chad.) Thanks for the link and the kudos.

I love what you’ve done with this, and I’ll probably refer to it soon when I address the subject of magic items without expiration dates again. I suspect the part of my own essay that offered some inspiration to you was probably the bit about magic items each having its own unique character or essence. If I get around to expanding on my original idea in more concrete terms any time soon, I’ll have to make reference to your excellent approach to dreaming up great flavor for magic items.

I’m curious about something you said — “the much recommended SOB by Chad Perrin.” Where did you (first?) encounter such recommendations? I like to know how my stuff gets spread around, if possible.

11 09 2008

I’m glad that you found the article interesting and I’m certainly looking forward to your take on this, specially if you plan to expand your original thoughts on the matter. And yes, something about your article make that “I hate Swords +1” part of me come to the surface once again.

About the recommendations: I’m the one that recommends people to read your blog whenever I get the chance, so you’re being “much recommended” by yours truly. Although originally I think I got to your site through another blog… lost in the dusty halls of memory though =(

Thanks once again for the comment.

11 09 2008

Ah — sorry about the misunderstanding, then. I guess I misread your intent in reference to the “much recommended”. I blame the fact I was feeling sleepy and needed to go to bed.

Of course, once I went to bed, I tossed and turned until the ideas I had boiling in the back of my mind drove me forth to start recording them in text files on my laptop. One such file is related to a game concept I’m working on developing from scratch — but the other is full of materials on the subject of special items that can advance with the character. In fact, I’m so absurdly close to having a completed entry for SOB on the subject just from expanding upon the initial sketchy notes that I’ll go ahead and get the new write-up posted probably within half an hour (as soon as I reorganize my thoughts in a form presentable to the world at large).

Now that I see your nick (blunderbuss) in your response to my comment, I recognize it from comments you’ve left at SOB. I don’t recall off-hand whether you said anything that indicated whence you came to SOB in the first place, but I might give those comments another look to see if I’d just forgotten how you found me.

In any case, I appreciate the contribution to my inspiration that your essay about creating magic items provided.

11 09 2008
Chad Perrin: SOB » Special Item Advancement

[…] means of working out the background, descriptive details, and essential concept of special items in How to Create a Magic Item. The focus is on creating original, inspired, rich histories and characters (in a manner of […]

17 09 2008
How to forge a magic item « tenletter

[…] topic, however, is not the focus of my post today. Inspired, once again, by Fred from Drop the Dice and Chad from his SOB blog, I have decided to share the details of an item I created for the very […]

19 03 2012

Some really excellent content on this website, thanks for contribution.

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