top of page

Magic Beneath the Tree

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to you all! We hope the season is bright for you and yours.

While it's the season of giving, let's talk about one of our favorite things to do as DMs and GMs: creating magic items!!!

For most games you'll be perfectly fine using all of the dozens of hundreds of magic items that are out there. But maybe you want to offer something unique to your game that reflects the special types of magical forces in your world, or the options you have available just don't work well for your players. Nothing spoils the mood of victory quite like a magic item that no one in the party can use or wants. So here are some tips on how to create the perfect in-world gifts for your Player Characters!


More than a great hobby, this is a super easy technique for tailoring magic items to suit your party, particularly weapons and armor. Often times publishers will put very specific, cool effects onto particular types of arms and armor. But in a world where many players (our lead designer Krasiph included) are after that all important aesthetic, it can be a bummer to get a really cool great sword when your character is entirely focused on bludgeoning weapons. This problem actually becomes mechanical when a PC has invested in damage-type-specific feats like Crusher, Slasher, or Elemental Adept for spell-based damage.

Fortunately the fix is very easy: just change the underlying item type! Does that axe of the dwarvish lords really need to be a battleaxe? Or an axe at all? It could just as easily be a warpick or hammer - just as thematically "dwarvish" as an axe.

Sometimes certain abilities for a magic item might not make sense in a different shape. For example, the animated shield wouldn't work well as a breastplate or other type of armor; the benefit is that you get the AC without using your hand to wield it, but that was never the case with a breastplate anyway. Where this line falls can vary. For example, a sword of sharpness feels like it needs to do slashing damage for its effect to make sense. But you could just as easily flavor the extra damage and loss of limbs as bludgeoning damage that crushes the body to the point of inflicting permanent injury. But should vorpal swords be unique and keep their snicker-snack-iness to themselves? That's for you to decide.

A Little More Juice

There's that moment when you get it; the perfect magic item! That thing that compliments your abilities and will define your playstyle... and then there's the next moment when you find the upgrade. It can be sad to say goodbye to an old item, especially one that's been with you for so long.

And then there's also the instance where a Game Master finally figures out the perfect item to give a player, but the item is just too underpowered compared to what that character is going to be facing. Do you give it to them anyway and hope it's still cool?

Both of these problems have the same solution: give items buffs.

The sword of wounding is a great example of a magic item that is cool and flavorful, but might feel underwhelming at higher levels. Sure it's already rare, but would the player keep using it if they found a +2 sword of the same type? Hitting more often (and harder) is going to be very compelling, even if they love the wounding weapon's effect and have a sentimental attachment. But instead of forcing them to choose, you could give the original sword a cool buff! Even something as simple as +1 to attack and damage will give the blade more longevity. And the narrative of how that increase in power comes to pass can be a really fun moment! Did the paladin's god invest them with greater power? Or perhaps the fighter was able to imbue ancient runes of power into the weapon using their downtime.

Stealing is Caring

What should you do when nothing that already exists will do? Maybe you're GMing for a veteran player that is looking to be surprised with something unexpected, or you're trying to find something for a character that has a unique build - one that isn't represented in the typical magic items.

One thing that's important in game design is niche preservation: the idea that different builds, archetypes, classes, etc. should have unique abilities. If a Fighter could do everything that a Bard does, then what is there to make the Bard feel cool? So as a general rule of thumb, you shouldn't allow one major archetype (classes in D&D, playbooks in Powered by the Apocalypse, etc.) to do the same thing that another archetype can. If they can do the same thing, then there should be some sort of difference that sets them apart.

For example, monks and rogues can both Dash as a Bonus Action. Rogues can do it all the time, but monks have to spend a ki point. However, monks have more options that they can do with their bonus action, including attacking twice! So monks feel like a toolbox of limited use abilities, whereas rogues can consistently do a more limited set of on-theme things.

Now, why are we talking about niche preservation in a post about magic item design?

As with all rules, the key isn't just knowing about the rule and following it - but also knowing when you should break the rules. In this case, breaking niche preservation can be a really cool way to provide powerful abilities to your players without having to design them from scratch.

Does the sorcerer act like a classic bard? Well what if they had an arcane focus that allowed them to spend some number of sorcerer points to duplicate the Bardic Inspiration ability?! That would be a cool way of recognizing this character's unique take on the sorcerer class without having to design something from scratch! Similarly you could give the melee ranger a set of armor that allows them to spend a spell slot to enact a barbarian Rage ability. Or, if they are more in-line with classic druid themes, a cloak that allows them to use Wildshape once per day.

Here's the key to breaking this rule: don't pull features from an archetype that is already represented in the party.

If you give the party's cleric a prayer book that duplicate certain parts of the wizard class, but there's also a wizard in the party.. now you're doing exactly the thing that niche preservation is meant to prevent: you're stealing the thunder of another party member. Using this technique should always focus on making the person receiving the magic item feel cool without making another party member feel less cool/unique.

Share the Magic

Do you have a homebrew magic item you're particularly proud of? Leave a comment and tell us your story! Or hit us up on social media. We love to see what people are doing out there in the world of TTRPGs, so let's capitalize on the season and share the magic!

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page