RPG Blog Carnival: Designing a Magic Item

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival, hosted by Codex Anathema, is all about magic items. Since I am designing magic items as a reward incentive for donating to my Extra Life campaign, it seemed a good time to discuss my design process a bit. So let’s talk through a magic item I am currently writing up for one of my donors.

If I’m designing something for myself, I usually have something in mind based on my campaign. When I design something for others, I ask them to give me some details: what game is it for, is their a particular theme you would like it to follow (the Fae, undead, elemental, etc), would you prefer a weapon, armour, a wondrous item. While I am happy to make something up out of whole cloth, if I can get answers to at least a few of these questions I can build something that fits into their campaign and has verisimilitude. Given how difficult a process constructing a magic item is meant to be in most games, no one makes one on a whim. They have a purpose, a need, and these details will help me craft toward this need.

The brief I got from my donor included these details:

  • It needed to be a weapon useful against a vampire
  • It couldn’t use sunlight in any way (there was already an item based around sunlight)
  • It’s for D&D 5e

Pretty straightforward, but already it gives me some interesting possibilities. And I liked not being able to use sunlight, as that kept my thoughts from going down some fairly predictable paths.

One other restriction I set for myself: the item could not be made by a wizard or cleric. I wanted to make things a bit more interesting than that. After all, you’d generally expect something “blasty” from the wizard, and while that’s effective it’s sort of boring. Similarly, clerics are sort of purpose built to deal with vampires and other undead. So they would create something very holy and smitey, but ultimately a bit boring.

Since this is for D&D, this left me to choose from sorcerers, druids, warlocks, or bards. I dismissed the sorcerer and warlock for much the same reason as the wizard. I thought they’d both create something that focused a bunch of arcane power at the target. All that would really do is turn the character using the weapon into a temporary “wizard lite”, doubling up on whatever the arcane casters were already doing. That left me with druid or bard, and since I have a soft spot for bards my thoughts wended in that direction (thought I did go down the druid track later as well).

Bards are not often associated with creating magical weapons, so for a bard to undertake such a thing, there would be a really good story attached. Seeking revenge for a lost love, while a bit obvious, is firmly in the bard’s wheel house (or orchestra pit, to keep things musical). But losing someone they loved to a vampire, while awful, doesn’t inspire the necessary drive to create a weapon to destroy a vampire, at least in my opinion. But what if the lost love was the vampire in question?

I pictured a bard, deeply in love. One day they discover their lover either was always a vampire, or had recently been turned by a vampire. Desperately they try everything they can to redeem their lost love, turn them away from this evil path of preying on innocents. Only when it becomes clear that they are too far gone, does the bard enlist the aide of a smith to forge a weapon they can use to end their love’s rampage and give them release in death.

So immediately I know two things: I need a weapon a bard would tend to use, and its effect on vampires needs to be something a bard would conceive. Immediately my thoughts went to a rapier, imagining the moonlit duel that must have occurred as the bard faced off against their love. I also knew I wanted this to be a named weapon, as opposed to just a “+1 sword of vampire slaying”. Any self-respecting bard would give their creation a name. As I pondered this, one popped into my mind: Remembrance of Sorrows. Suitably poetic and tragic, the perfect name for a rapier created and originally wielded by a heart-broken bard against their love.

But what does it do? As I said previously, I already knew I didn’t want anything blasty or smitey. Any group going up against a vampire likely had characters who could toss those powers around, doubling up on those would be boring. But the name suggested an interesting possibility. What if the name given to the rapier wasn’t just the bard’s lamentation, but a poetic way of describing its intended effect?

Imagine if you will: a vampire does terrible, unspeakable things. They no longer have a conscience, and that lack insulates their psyche from the horror of what they inflict on others. What if Remembrance of Sorrows forced them to confront that horror, for a brief moment piercing their conscience as the rapier pierces their flesh? Yes, it plays a bit fast and loose with vampire lore, but I think any DM worth their salt would allow it to stand, if for no other reason than to play those juicy moments of the vampire, stunned and reeling from feelings of grief, shame, and loss to which they thought themselves immune. *chef’s kiss* It’s too tasty not to allow!

So let’s sum up: we have a grief-stricken bard who creates a magical rapier to defeat their love, fallen to vampirism. The weapon is not only effective in its own right (being magical it bypasses the vampires resistance to it), but carries a specific power that attacks the vampire’s psyche forcing them to confront the terrible grief and shame of their deeds. Psychic damage is the obvious choice here, and one to which a vampire is not normally resistant. I think a Wisdom save or be stunned would also be in order; so overcome with grief is the vampire that they literally cannot comprehend the world around them at that moment.

Normally at this point I would post the finished write-up for you to look over. But as I am creating this for a friend who donated to my Extra Life campaign, I am saving the finished version for their campaign. Which as it happens, they will be sharing with their patrons over on their Patreon. So if you would like to see the finished version of this item, and get access to some amazing fantasy fiction besides, I highly recommend visiting the page of Rhonda Parrish and becoming a patron. You will love it, I promise!

I hope you found this bit of insight into my design process useful. If I had to sum it up into one sentence, I might say, “Let the needs of the story dictate the mechanics”. Figure out what the magical item is for, how the specific creator might approach that need, and the story (and the item) will follow from there. If you have questions or want to talk to me about your own design process, feel free to leave a comment here or on Twitter. And if you’d like a magic item for your campaign, all you have to do is make a $5 donation to my Extra Life campaign. See you next Monday!