DnD 5e - Practical Guide to Using Magic items
Last Updated: October 16th, 2020
Magic items have been a part of Dungeons and Dragons since its earliest days, taking inspiration from fantastic works of fiction like the named swords and magic rings of Lord of the Rings, Hercule's lion-hide cloak, Aladdin's magic lamp, and all manner of other stories. Equipment is nearly as integral to an adventurer as their skills and spells, and adding magic items to that equipment can be a powerful tool for any Dungeon Master.
In this article, we'll discuss how, when, and why to use magic items in your game to make your game better and more fun, but without throwing off the balance of the game.
Should I Use Magic Items In My Game?
Short answer: Yes.
Magic items are technically an optional rule, and DnD 5e is (allegedly) balanced so that the game works without magic items. To some degree, that's true. Even in cases where enemies have resistance to non-magical weapon damage you can often overcome those resistances with spells like Magic Weapon. Unlike 3.x and 4e, there's no wealth-by-level curve that you need to strictly adhere to in order to stay on track with the game's math as you advance. You technically don't need magic items for 5e to work.
But magic items are among the most flexible, interesting, and impactful rewards which a DM can offer their players. The can solve a host of problems in your game, they can provide interesting plot hooks, windows into the lore of your campign and your setting, and as a player they're almost always exciting to recieve.
How Many Magic items to Award
If you use the Random Treasure rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide, your players are going to get magic items (unless their luck is truly horrifying). My Practical Guide to Campaign Planning details the progression of treasure rewards over a 20-level career, detailing the points at which players will typically recieve magic items. While this progression is somewhat slow and includes considerably more expendable items than permanent ones, it's a helpful barometer for when to award magic items. If you stick to this progression you'll do just fine, but don't feel rigidly bound to it.
You may prefer to use the rules for Awarding Magic Items detailed on pages 136-136 of Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which involves much less math and rolling on random tables, but you'll need to do more planning to figure out where to put items for your players to find. Note that the table in Xanathar's assumes a party of 4 is sharing the items (and more/fewer players would share the same allotment of magic items), while my Practical Guide to Campaign Planning breaks things down per player, so players aren't getting fewer items because they have a 5th party member. Neither option is wrong; do what makes sense for your game.
While I'm going to spend a lot of text discussing permanent magic items in this article, don't overlook the value of expendable items like potions and scrolls. These are great ways to expand characters' options while adventuring, and since they have limited uses (typically once per item) you don't need to worry too much about players unbalancing them game by over-using them.
If you don't want to concern yourself with deciding when to award magic items, consider using my Random Treasure Generator.
Problems With Magic Items
Before we go wild and hand your party Holy Avengers at level 2, let's discuss some hazards and what you can do about them.
The first and most obvious issue with magic items is that they affect game balance. If you give a fighter a +1 sword, they're better at fighting. One +1 sword might not be a problem, but when everyone has +1 weapons and +1 armor and +1 shields suddenly all of your monsters can't hit and they're dying faster than expected. Items that add numerical bonuses, that expand characters' limited resource pools (spell slots, etc.), and otherwise push characters past their normal limitations can all upset the balance of encounters.
If this starts to be a problem, consider using a slightly higher CR. Treating your party as 1 or 2 levels higher can be just enough to get things back on track.
The "Christmas Tree" Problem
Your party's rogue has 12 magic items. Several of them were cast off by other party members or they purchased them or... something. All of these items have unique effects that must be tracked and managed. Charges recharged, bonuses tallied, etc. Every items adds a little more work to play that character and a little more work for the DM to keep the game running smoothly.
Similar to a christmas tree, if you put too many shiny baubles on one character, it's going to look bad. The official rules expect a character at level 20 to have 5 or 6 permanent magic items. That's a perfectly manageable number, and you should be very cautious to go beyond that.
The official rules only have on limitation on this problem: Attunement. But not all magic items require Attunement, and plenty of really good ones don't +X swords, shields, and armor don't require Attunement and they're extremely powerful.
The "Adventurer's League" organized play organization has rules for limitations on how many magic items a character can own, which is intended to keep characters portable without a mountain of magic items unbalancing things when one player takes their walking christmas tree to another table where other players have fewer items. This limit does not include common, consumable, or story items, so your players don't need to choose between their +1 pointy stick and a potion of healing.
The following table is taken from the Adventurer's League Player's Guide version 9.2:
|Tier||Levels||Magic Item Limit|
Pathfinder 2e has a similar limitation: Characters are required to "Invest" their magic items after completing the equivalent of a Long Rest. Characters can invest up to 10 magic items each day. This puts a cap on the christmas tree effect, but also allows players to cycle through multiple items if they own more than 10 and might need to change their equipment for the day. This system doesn't adapt perfectly to DnD 5e since Pathfinder uses a wealth-by-level system and magic items are an expectation, but it may still serve as useful inspiration.
DnD 5e doesn't have many rules around "stacking", which is the idea of multiple effects adding atop one another. If you get AC bonuses from several places (a shield, the Shield spell, the Shield of Faith spell, etc.), those bonuses all "stack", adding their effects together. This is generally expensive due to resource limitations, action economy, etc., but magic items can often exacerbate these issues. If you have a character with high AC, handing them +X armor is only going to make that worse.
There are numerous items that stack in ways which can be problematic. A Cloak of Protection provides a +1 bonus to AC and saves. A Ring of Protection provides the same effect. A Luck Stone provides +1 to all Ability Checks and to all saves. If a character has all three, their AC is good and they get +3 to every saving throw. That's a very durable character, especially if they're adding that on top of something like the Paladin's Aura of Protection. It's easy for players to use these sorts of items to put themselves mathematically out of the reach of anything which you would normally consider a level-appropriate challenge for the party. And that's just items that require attunement. If you add on +X armor and shields you can get a character's AC so high that they're basically unassailable.
If possible, try to avoid awarding numerous items with stacking bonuses. This will be easier at low levels, but it may become difficult as you add more items to the mix. Your players might also seek out these items, provided that you allow magic items to be traded in your game. It also means that you can't use the same magic item to help address characters' weaknesses, such as awarding two rings of protection to a party with two characters with terrible AC.
You might also rule that numerical bonuses from magic items don't stack, so no matter how many items they pile on, their various cloaks and rings of protection only total +1 to AC/saves. If you go this route, I strongly recommend excluding armor and shields from this rule, otherwise the presence of magic items makes using a shield much less appealing.
Trading Magic Items
At some point your players are going to ask if they can buy or sell magic items. Just like any other part of their character, sometimes they'll find that their character isn't benefiting from an item they have, or that there's something that they want but haven't found. So they'll go looking to make a trade.
In addition, Players accumulate quite a bit of gold throughout their careers, and the game doesn't want players to spend that gold buying an arsenal of magic items to make themselves invincible. Paradoxically, there's very little to spend gold on in DnD 5e. Hirelings and land are options, but most games involve traveling to far-off locales, so owning a castle is often a disappointing choice. Magic items are more directly beneficial and frequently more satisfying to own.
How Difficult Should it Be?
Trading magic items is intended to be somewhat hard in DnD 5e. The Dungeon Master's Guides rules for trading magic items are borderline nonexistent, listing ranges of price which are so cavernously large that they may as well not exist. Xanathar's Guide to Everything presents considerably more useful rules on page 126 under a section appopriately titled "Buying A Magic Item", but just as the existence of magic items technically isn't an assumption, you shouldn't feel bound by the rules which Xanathar's presents for players to acquire magic items.
It's important to ask yourself how difficult you want it to be for players to find magic items. This answer may change throughout your campaign, becoming easier when they're in major cities or in populous explanar places like the City of Brass and becoming more difficult when players are in sparsely-populated areas.
I suggest a 5-step scale for how easy it is to find magic items. We'll use purchasing a car as an example because that's often an easier comparison than buying a magic staff that turns shoes into griffons or something similarly fantastic. Cars are an expensive, important purchase, but people still buy and trade them enough that there is infrastructure in place to support it.
- Private Sale: At this tier, magic items are only available for exchange between individual owners. People owning more than one item would be unusual, and they probably keep a magic item because it has sentimental value or because they're using it. People might sell, trade, or give away magic items for a great price, for an equivalent item or one that they want more, or as a reward for doing them a great service befitting the value of the item. If this were a car, it would be like buying a car from or selling a car to someone you knew across town. Maybe you trade them your sensible sedan for a pickup truck because they just took a desk job with a long commute and you're taking up a hobby that requires hauling large objects.
- Public Exchange Forum: At this tier, there are organized forums in which magic items are exchanged. In a game like Dungeons and Dragons this likely means a real forum where people meet in person and look for items to buy, sell, and trade. To draw a real world example, this is a bit like a car show or an in-person version of Craigslist. You might browse other peoples cars or advertise your own in hope that someone wants to make a trade.
- Local Dealers: At this tier, professional traders have businesses dedicated to buying and selling magic items. These businesses are run for profit, so the dealers are incentivized to sell their wares for as much as they can get. While this dramatically increases availability, it also likely increases the price you'll pay. This is equivalent to a singular local car dealership. Depending on the population, they may be the only place in town. They'll have more options than private exchanges or public forums.
- Competing Dealers: At this tier, there are enough professional traders that there is a competitive market. Traders will attempt to obtain stock which other traders can't match, and they'll try to undercut each other's prices to attract business. This is like those clusters of competing car dealerships that seems to accumulate in the same city. Why are there like 5 dealerships right next to each other? Competition.
- Trading Network: At this tier, there is a robust trading network which makes the magic item trade flow constantly. Items are moved about and traded rapidly, and stock might change every time a wagon or a ship comes into town. This is a bit like a network of real-world car dealerships, often tied to some larger chain of dealerships which can exchange inventory between locations to get products where there customers need them, or can at least send customers to the right place.
The rules presented in Xanathar's Guide to Everything is somewhere around tier 2 or tier 3 on the list above depending on how you choose to describe the outcome of the Buying a Magic Item downtime activity. Let's call it tier 3 for our purposes. From there, we can adjust the results of players' rolls on the Buying Magic Items table. For each tier up or down, adjust the number of magic items available for purchase, such as by adjusting the size of the die on the Buying Magic Items table. For example: If you were using tier 5 and your player rolled on the table and got 1d4 items from Table F, you might show them 1d8 instead, or you might give them 1d4+2 if you want a more reliable result.
Be cautious if you go this route. The Buying a Magic Item activity costs both gold and time, and if a player dumps time and money into finding magic items it can be really disappointing to find a collection of items which they either can't afford or can't use, like a barbarian finding a trader who sells nothing but spell scrolls. Consider cheating a little bit and offering some items which your player might be interested in. There are reasons why DMs roll behind the screen, and this is as good as any.
Setting prices for magic items has got to be one of the most random and arbtirary rules in the game, but that doesn't necessarily make it bad. Xanathar's presents a table for randomly determining magic item prices, and it's perfectly fine to use the table or just to take the average of a roll. If you do roll, players might find magic items at an incredible bargain, or the seller might be demaning an outrageous price which the players aren't willing to pay. Technically the same trader might have two identical items with different price tags.
However you set prices, be prepared to answer the inevitable question of "why does it cost that much?" If the price is really high, maybe the item has some historical significance. If it's unusually low, maybe it's got some bad association like being used in a crime or maybe the seller's cat has slept on it for a month and now you can't get the hair off of it even with magic. If you just use the average listed price, maybe that's just the going rate for that item.
Xanathar's offers a small table of potential complications when purchasing magic items. These are intended to dissuade players from buying too many magic items, and there aren't enough options that you can safely use them back-to-back. Once your players see the seller murdered twice in a row they might get the idea that you don't actually want them to purchase magic items.
Use complications sparingly enough that players feel like it's at random, but not so infrequently that it feels like you only did it that one time to make a point. If players are purchasing a magic item for the first time in their time playing DnD (not just the first time for a character), considering using a complication to establish that buying magic items isn't like buying a sandwich. Sometimes your new car gets wrecked on the way to your house, and sometimes the guy selling you a Flametongue gets robbed and murdered before you finish counting out your hundreds of pounds of coins.
If you want a random solution, try this: roll a d4 every time a player attempts to purchase a magic item. On a roll of 4 or more, a complication occurs. Every time that players attempt to purchase a magic item after the first (even if they fail or decide not to make a purchase), add 1 to the roll. Reset every time a complication occurs to reduce the possibility of back-to-back complications without totally removing the possiblity. Use a different die or adjust the threshold to trigger a complication as you see fit. For example: If you want really rare complications, you might use a d4 but require a roll of 5 or more, or you might use a d6 and require a roll of 6 or more. If you want common complications, you might use a d6 and require a roll of 4 or more.
Making Magic Items Interesting
While magic items are often interesting based solely on their mechanical effects, if you're not taking the time to detail them you're missing out on an opportunity to create and share something incredibly interesting and engaging.
Describing Magic Items
Items of different kinds will justify different levels of effort to detail and describe them. A potion of healing might justify a few words like "it's the color of the sky on a clear day and smells of mint", but if you give your player a Nine Lives Stealer you should give that horror the detail it deserves.
The Dungeon Master's Guide includes 4 tables on pages 142 and 143 which offer four ways to customize the description of an item. This are a great starting point, and even if you don't actually use the tables it can often be inspiring to roll on them and see what comes out. Here's an example:
Potion of Healing (Common): This item was created by a Human. This item was once carried by a great hero, and has a well known history. This item has the "Strange Material" property (See DMG pg. 143). This item requires attunement, but prevents attunement to new items.
That serves both to illustrate how you might get something incredibly interesting out of the tables, but how it doesn't make sense to apply those details to every item. I would put those details on a Luck Stone and consider that a cool item, but obviously they're silly on a potion of healing.
That example was a product of my Random Treasure Generator with the generator set to always generate details for magic items. Sometimes I run it just to see what crazy stuff comes out.
Magic Items as Story Device
Beyond their traits, what they look like, and how they behave (quirks, curses, etc.), magic items can be a great way to provide a window into your setting. Magic items have a history, and since they don't deteriorate naturally over time they can often be incredibly old. Having changed hands numerous times, appearing in historical events like wars, or being associated with a famous person or creature can all tie magic items into the lore of your setting.
For example: In 4th edition, dragonborn characters were frequently depicted using items made of bone. Swords with bone hilts, polearms that used toothy jaws in place of a metal blade, etc. were common throughout official art. You could give your players a flametongue longsword with a handle carved of dragon bone in the ancient tradition of the dragonborn, and that tells you that dragonborn craft flametongues, that they carve stuff out of dragon bones, and that there's a long-standing tradition of dragonborn crafting magic items.
Doing this often enough can establish a sort of "language" which you can use to imply things about magic items in your setting. Different cultures will craft items which look and behave differently based on culture, available materials, and the needs of the original users.
For example: in a homebrew setting I've been planning for a while, the world has gone through a series of long-term cultures achieving and then losing world power. The first were aboleths and mind flayers, then dragons, and humanoids. Magic items from each era have distinct appearances and frequently have different functions. Items from the aboleth/mind flayer era often look spooky, might use psionics instead of magic, and are only rarely weapons or armor since mind flayers rarely need those sorts of items. Items from the dragon era are often made with dragon scales or bones, and are frequently branded with the name of their original owner because they were awarded as gifts to great champions for doing things like slaying rival dragons. Items from the humanoid era tend to fit more into common expectations of how magic items look and work, so a +1 sword looks like a real-world sword and might have a glowing pommel or magic runes or something.
With that simple established set of descriptions, if I offer my players a staff that looks like twisted adamantine with tentacles come out of the top they'll know that it's from the aboleth/mind flayer era, it'll probably do something psionic, and it's probably cursed to harm humanoids who use it. If I offer them a dagger carved from a gigantic tooth with a bone handle, bound together by strips of leather and scrimshawed with draconic script, it's probably going to do elemental damage but it's not likely to eat your brain or something.
If your players don't pick up on the subtle clues you're burying in the magic items that you give them, using magic item traders as expository devices is a great way to bludgeon your players with information. Rather than saying "the trader has a +1 shield and a wand of magic missiles for sale", have the trader describe how the shield was a relic of a dwarven warlord's honor guard and how the wand of magic missiles was crafted by elven scholars in the snowy north to protect them from giant owls who would attempt to prey on them during lean winters.
If you ever go a little too far in describing a magic item and accidently introduce some information that you don't want in your world (maybe your world doesn't have owls or something), remember that you're delivering information through a fake person, and people both lie and repeat incorrect information all the time. Maybe that wand was stolen and fenced using some made-up story and the trader who your players meet doesn't know any better.
Using Magic Items to Improve Your Game
Beyond being a ton of fun, you can also use magic items as a way to address problems in your game. They're not a panacea, but they're pretty close. However, you need to know when and how to use magic items to fix problems so that you don't just trade one problem for another.
Addressing Character Dissatisfaction
After playing a character for a long time, sometimes you'll find that they're not as fun as you want them to be. Maybe they're not performing as effectively as you thought they would, or maybe they're just not as much fun as they looked on paper.
In those cases, a magic item or two can go a long way. If your character is a half-orc champion fighter because you like big critical hits, giving you a cool greataxe that does something cool on a critical hit can make that build more exciting. If you brought a combat monster barbarian with no social skills and you have trouble contributing outside of combat, an Alchemy Jug can offer you an amusing way to creatively address problems without resorting to violence (or at least free drinks which you can share). Sometimes your player just needs an extra button to push to make their character more interesting and fun.
Correcting Party Imbalance
I write a lot about character optimization. People use that information (and guides from other creators) to create mechanically effective characters. But not everyone does that, and at many tables you may have broad differences in how much players optimize their characters. This can be especially problematic in situations where one player doesn't optimize and they're constantly outshone by the rest of the party.
Before you use magic items to address this issue, make sure that it's actually a problem. If some of your players are less mechanically effective, they may be perfectly fine with that because they favor other parts of the game and so long as they're not totally useless they're having a good time. Throwing a magic item into the situation may actually make the game less fun in such a case.
If you do choose to use magic items this way, there are some hurdles. You need to be sure that the item goes to the character who you intended to recieve it and that they benefit as intended. Sometimes you can just ask players to respect the intent here, but it's usually more fun if there's an in-game explanation for it like a player recieving the item as a gift from an NPC who they're attached to or as a personal reward of some kind.
Picking what item to award can be especially difficult here. There are few go-to answers. Simple numerical bonuses are often enough, but since those are so portable it can be difficult to prevent players from trading those within the party. Often your best bet is to look for items which are only useful to the character you're seeking to benefit, like a magic holy symbol for the party's cleric or a greatsword for the party's only martial character.
Compensating for Missing Capabilities
Magic items can also help address gaps in a party's skillset. If your party lacks a healer, consider abundant potions of healing or even a wand that casts Cure Wounds. If your party can't dispel magic, a spell scroll or a Dispelling Stone can provide a powerful solution to problematic magic. If your party can't fly, a sufficiently large flying carpet will allow your party to get around both in and out of combat.
Magic items are cool. Use them in your games, but don't just throw them in like they're just shiny trinkets atop the pile of otherwise unremarkable gold. Use them to make your game better.