Magic items are pretty much a trademark of fantasy, be it a novel, a film or a roleplaying game. Almost all fantasy worlds have magic items in them, some have less and some have more, but they share one very important aspect: they are magical. And that doesn't mean that they have powers, it means they grab our imagination. A good magic item, is indeed magical, it not only feels magical for our characters, but for us, players too.
Here you will find a collection of tips, and the way I do magic items personally. It doesn't matter what power they have in your world, or how common they are, you can use these ideas in any kind of setting that has magic, and magical items.
This is very important. You can apply this to "mundane" items as well, a great weapon doesn't have to have magical properties or even special materials to have something better: A story or even a Legend to it. If you have a detailed history in your games, which the players are familiar with, you can hide hints of a great weapon in tales and myths. The blade of the first elven king could be a relatively simple sword, ornamented with some leaf motives and maybe an emerald pommel, and appear in legends. If a blade like that appears in multiple, different stories in your world, it will carry a weight. A sword that was present in the history does not need cool powers to be awesome. Have your half-elven player that seeks his roots find this weapon, and to him it will have a meaning more than any random +1 sword. Like your NPC-s, your magical items should have a place in the world, and not just randomly appear in loot chests.
Magical weapons hand owners previously, and those owners probably had their adventures as well, maybe those adventures shaped the world. Gandalf and Thorin in the Hobbit had swords that were feared by all goblins, because their previous owners did kill a number of them using these weapons. They didn't have to be powerful +3 vorpal blades, they could have been simple masterwork, or +1 swords, and yet, they had a story to them, and they added something to the game apart from their stats.
Magical weapons, especially in settings where magic is not too common, leave a mark in history, and usually don't disappear without trace.
Another cool thing, your players don't have to know the story, as rarely the items will come with a small booklet detailing their history, but it can come up any day, in any game. This adds depth to your world.
Here are a few simple steps to help you create a story behind magical items:
-Write down the names and occupations of the previous owner, or owners, and how they acquired the item. What happened with the families of the previous owners? Some people might have a claim on it by birth, or it was stolen from a Dragon's hoard, and now it wants it back...
-Make up a few notable encounters that happend in the item's "life", and their effects on the community. Maybe at some point this item was used to overthrow an evil king, and has major legends about it in a village that suffered during the tyranny.
-Find out how well known this item was throughout history. Some items are just more famous than others. Maybe the item was well known at certain times, because of it looks, or the special materials it required...
-How excatly did the weapon got where it is now? Did someone hide it, and might come back for it later, or it was hidden away to keep it safe? (or keep the world safe from it?)
By answering these questions, you will have a pretty good idea about the item, and we haven't really talked about its properties yet.
This can be connected to the story of the item, but not necessarily, so I wanted to take them apart, because many things depend on the origin of an item.
Every magical item has an origin. They don't just pop out from nowhere and place themselves conveniently in large wooden chests. The origin of magical items can influence a lot of things about it, and it also adds depth to it. Having a +1 dagger has a completely different feel to it than to have a sacrifical dagger that was created to let the blood of virgins for dark and necrotic rituals.
When talking about origins, there are quite a few questions to ask, answering them will help you to flesh out more of the item.
-Did someone create the item to be magical at the first place? If yes, what was its purpose?
-Did the item become magical by accident? Maybe a dragon's blood spilled on it, giving it magical powers, or a spell was miscasted... Items created by accident look like mundane items, and they might have odd properties.
-Did the item become magical because of divine intervention? Maybe the hero asked for help, and the gods blessed his blade? Or an item might have became cursed, when it was used for evil reasons? Which divine used their powers to bless/curse the item? The domains of the divine might influence the items properties.
Quirks and minor abilities
Why do we remember Bilbo's sword, Sting? Not because it was elven made, or it could cut the thick hide of the cave troll, but because it glowed when orcs and goblins were near. It is not the major ability of the blade, and as we have seen in the books, many other weapons possessed the same quality, so it wasn't even unique. Probably the weapons of elven recon teams were enchanted similarly to warn them about their enemies, but it was memorable.
When creating magic items, you should add small, seemingly insignificant abilities that help the players visualize, and remember them. A flute could be warm to touch, or a wand could have small leaves growing from it. None of these things have to be actually useful, just have them. A player will think more fondly of something that he can easily visualize, and remember. With the same +1 dagger example, if the blade seems like it was drenched in blood recently, and it might be constantly dripping with it feels different.
These quirks could be related to the origin of the item as well, so this dagger maybe turned into a magic dagger accidentally, as it was repeatedly touched by the the dark magics of necromancers.
It doesn't matter what story and legend a weapon has, in most cases the abilities of it will affect your game more, so they are obviously very important. I personally don't believe in simple magic items, I like them to have more abilities and coolness to them, than just an attack bonus. If you prefer keeping your items low powered (I don't), you can still add cool abilities, but remove the numeral bonuses, so instead a +1 shortsword, it becomes a normal shortsword with some abilities. It still counts as magic weapon, but it doesn't cut deeper than a normal blade.
What I like to do, to make them feel unique and different, is to add some effects to it, but they wouldn't come up too often. Recently, in a 5th edition D&D campaing, I gave one of my players the following weapon. It had abilites in style more like an artifact than a "normal" magic weapon, but in power it was barely over the usual +1 weapon.
Hammer of Storms/Hammer of Thorns
The hammer had two different forms, a large wooden mallet, adorned with thorny vines, and a hammer made from shattered stones held together by magical energy what appeared to be lightning. The hammer switched forms randomly at every dawn. On an even roll it remained in the same form, on an odd roll it changed.
In each form it had different abilities.
In the Hammer of Thorns form it would grant the ability to cast Entangle 1/day, and also on a critical strike it would automatically cast Ensaring Strike
In the Hammer of Storms form, it would grant the ability to cast Thunderwave 1/day, and also on critical strike it would automatically cast Thundering Smite
You can do similar stuff to any magic item, add cool abilities. This weapon didn't really change the way the game was played, the critical strike abilities only came up two times, and the 1/day spells are both first level, they didn't really gave too much power in the hand of a 4th level character, but the weapon is memorable, and really cool.
So that is my guide how to make memorable, and cool magical items. I hope you enjoyed it, and find it useful.
Thanks for reading