Not every game will involve magic items. They’re technically an optional rule, and granting magic items is up to the Dungeon Master. However, in my experience people on both sides of the DM Screen typically enjoy magic items, so it’s not common to play a campaign without them. As such, it’s helpful for players to understand the basics of how magic items work.
Magic items offer a variety of fantastic effects to improve your characters capabilities, ranging some simple effects like clothes that are never dirty to the reality-bending effects like the Deck of Many Things.
Table of Contents
- Buying and Selling
- Identifying Magic Items
- Cursed Items
- Wearing and Wielding Magic Items
- Activating Items
- Magic Item Resilience
- Special Features
- Sentient Items
- Further Reading
Magic items are groups into 5 rarities: Common, Uncommon, Rare, Very Rare, and Legendary. The rarities have no specific effects on the items, but indicate a general tier of both rarity and power. The table below lists the rarities and some example items taken from the SRD.
Note that the majority of Common items weren’t introduced until Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.
|Common||Potion of Climbing, Potion of Healing|
|Uncommon||Adamanatine Armor, Bag of Tricks, Shield +1, Wand of Magic Missiles, Weapon +1|
|Rare||Amulet of Health, Armor +1, Shield +2, Wand of Paralysis, Weapon +2|
|Very Rare||Amulet of the Planes, Armor +2, Shield +3, Wand of Polymorph, Weapon +3|
|Legendary||Deck of Many Things, Holy Avenger, Luck Blade|
Buying and Selling
Buying and selling magic items is more difficult than selling a goat or an old sword. For more on selling magic items, see Downtime, earlier in this guide.
Identifying Magic Items
Some magic items require the user to form a bond with the item to use it. This bond is called “attunement”. Depending on the item, attunement may be required to use some or all of the item’s effects.
To attune an item, you must spend a short rest focused on only that item while being in physical contact with it. This can’t be the same short rest used to identify the item’s properties. During this time your character may practice using the item, study it, or take any other narratively similar action to learn how it works. If the short rest is interrupted, the attunement attempt fails. Otherwise, at the end of the short rest you become attuned to the weapon and gain an intuitive understanding of how the item works and how to activate its magical properties, including any necessary command words.
An item can be attuned to only one creature at a time. If another creature attunes to that item, the attunement to the previous creature ends.
A creature can be attuned to no more than three items at once. Attempts to attune to a fourth item fails.
A creature’s attunement to an item ends if the creature no longer satisfies the prerequisites for attunement, if the item has been more than 100 feet away for at least 24 hours, if the creature dies, or if another creature attunes to the item. A creature can also voluntarily end attunement by spending another short rest focused on the item, unless the item is cursed.
Not all magic items are purely beneficial: some magic items are cursed! Curses on magic item wary widely. Sometimes it’s as simple as being unable to remove the item, but some magic items force you to take certain actions or give you vulnerability to some types of damage. Fortunately, these items are rare in most campaigns.
Even the Identify spell doesn’t reveal if a magic item is cursed, so in many cases you need to either look for clues (provided that the DM provides them) or gamble by using the item and finding out what happens. If you find yourself affected by a cursed item, you can remove the effect with remove curse or similar magic.
Wearing and Wielding Magic Items
To use a magic item, the item must be worn, wielded, or held in the way that a mundane item of that type would be used. Armor and shields must be donned, clocks must be worn on the shoulders, and swords must be held.
Magic items usually fit or can be used by creatures of any size, either because the item is adjustable or it magically resizes itself to the wielder. However, some exceptions may exist: an item might be restricted to creatures of a certain race, a certain size, or any number of other restricitons.
5th edition Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t have strictly defined “slots” for magic items. You must wear both items in a pair of items like gloves or boots, you must wear items in a “normal” fashion (rings on fingers, helmets on heads, etc.), and you can only wear multiple items where it makes sense to do so (two rings are fine, but not two hats or two helmets). Otherwise, you’re free to wear and use as many magic items as you like. In general, use common sense: If you could do it comfortably in the real world, your character probably can to. When in doubt, consult your DM.
Some items must be “activated” to use their magic effects. While a +1 sword can simply be used during an attack and +1 armor can just be worn, items like portions and wands need to be activated. This is done by taking the Use an Item action on your turn (see Actions in Combat)
A command word is a word or phrase that must be spoken for an item to work. A magic item that requires a command word can’t be activated in an area where sound is prevented, as in the area of the silence spell.
The published decriptions of magic items don’t include a command word to activate them. Ask your Dungeon Master what the command word is, and if they don’t know consider offering them a suggestion based on the item’s effect. For example: a Broom of Flying is activated by a command work. You could borrow from popular friction and use a command word like “up broom”, and hope that everyone at the table catches the clever reference.
Some items are used up when they are activated. A potion or an elixir must be swallowed, or an oil applied to the body. The writing vanishes from a scroll when it is read. Once used, a consumable item loses its magic.
S ome magic items allow the user to cast a spell from the item. The spell is cast at the lowest possible spell level, doesn’t expend any of the user’s spell slots, and requires no components, unless the item’s description says otherwise. The spell uses its normal casting time, range, and duration, and the user of the item must concentrate if the spell requires concentration. Many items, such as potions, bypass the casting of a spell and confer the spell’s effects, with their usual duration. Certain items make exceptions to these rules, changing the casting time, duration, or other parts of a spell. A magic item, such as certain staffs, may require you to use your own spellcasting ability when you cast a spell from the item. If you have more than one spellcasting ability, you choose which one to use with the item. If you don’t have a spellcasting ability-perhaps you’re a rogue with the Use Magic Device feature- your spellcasting ability modifier is +0 for the item, and your proficiency bonus does apply.
Some magic items like a wand of polymorph have charges that must be expended to activate their properties. The number of charges an item has remaining is revealed when an identify spell is cast on it, as well as when a creature attunes to it. Additionally, when an item regains charges, the creature attuned to it learns how many charges it regained.
Magic Item Resilience
Most magic items are objects of extraordinary artisanship. Thanks to a combination of careful crafting and magical reinforcement, a magic item is at least as durable as a nonmagical item of its kind. Most magic items, other than potions and scrolls, have resistance to all damage.
Artifacts are practically indestructible, requiring extraordinary measures to destroy, and enacting such measures is often the subject of a length adventure.
The rules for published items include text for how they work and what they do, but they provide little detail about the specific appearance or origins of each item. With the exception of Artifacts, most magic items are reproducible, so even legendary items might have multiple copies in existence. If you want your items to be a bit more interesting than “+1 sword”, use the tables on pages 142 and 143 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide to add interesting details to your items.
Some magic items are sentient, meaning that they are intelligent and have a personality. These items are rare and their rules are complex, so you probably don’t need to worry about them when you’re first learning the game. If you’re ever fortunate enough to encounter such an item, see page 214 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Artifacts are unique items of absolutely tremendous power. These items are single items with well-known names like the Deck of Many Things and the Hand of Vecna. If you encounter one of these items in a campaign, it’s probably a major part of the story. You won’t find the Sword of Kas in some random chest in a cave unless the Dungeon Master decided to put it there. In the strange event that you need the rules for artifacts, you can find them on page 219 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
if you’re a dungeon master, you may also enjoy our Practical Guide to Awarding Magic Items.