How to make legendary items feel special

Magic items should feel special. Right?

So… why don’t they?

Naming conventions don’t help. It’s hard to get excited about something called a +1 longsword.

Magic item shops don’t help either. 5e intentionally eschews magic item pricing, but it existed in previous editions, and many DMs feel compelled to bring it back. Once a magic sword comes with a price tag, magic items quickly stop feeling magical, especially when gold is no object. (Incidentally, I have yet to see downtime rules for magic item crafting which don’t leave me with a similar feeling.)

You also don’t want to give out too many magic items. Think about the rarity categories. Even a +1 longsword is ‘not common.’ A +2 weapon is ‘rare,’ and a +3 is ‘very rare.’ Treat them as such!

This may be controversial, but I think the 2014 rules for magic items are actually pretty solid. If you follow the advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for awarding treasure, a typical character will only find six permanent magic items over the course of a 20-level campaign. For a weekly game, that’s maybe one every couple of months. If magic items are rare, they start to feel much more special.

(Sidenote: when 5e was in the planning stages, the designers intentionally wanted to move away from the high-powered superheroics of 4th edition and back to something more grounded like 3rd edition or even AD&D 2nd edition. To that end, 5e is meant to be balanced without magic items. Whether they succeeded on this is up for debate.)

All this got me thinking about some of the rarest magic items in the game: legendary magic items. (Or perhaps I should say ‘the rarest magic items players should expect to find’: artifacts also exist, but they are essentially plot devices.)

Even if you’re lucky enough to play a campaign to 20th level, the odds are your character will only find one legendary item. No, really, one. They won’t appear much before Tier 4 and definitely not before 14th level, and if they are part of a monster’s hoard, that monster should be at least CR 17: liches, death knights, and the oldest of dragons. Legendary items are meant to be exceptionally rare.

And as such, your players may very well have an opinion about the sort of item they want to acquire. But if we don’t have magic items shops, how are characters meant to seek out the item of their choice? How can we give players any agency in all this?

One solution, of course, is they don’t. And as a DM, you choose what magic items the adventurers find, and place it in the next dungeon for them. But isn’t this a bit… arbitrary? Forced? ‘Oh, how convenient: the holy avenger is just sitting in the next chamber.’

Alternatively, the players don’t have any agency about it—and neither do you. Instead, let the dice decide what they find. Maybe there’s a place for this approach, but if you’re only going to get one legendary magic item in the entire campaign, it feels like the sort of thing that shouldn’t be left to chance. ‘Oh, er, great. A ring of water elemental command. Thanks?’

I submit that there is a better way forward. Don’t make magic items for sale and don’t award them randomly. Instead, design adventures around them, and make the items a cool adventure hook.

I want to do more of this sort of thing. Players love magic items, and they love getting to pursue magic items. So point them towards the ones they want! ‘Legend has it that item x was lost long ago in dungeon y by NPC z’ … that kind of thing.

Let’s have a look at some examples. With any luck, there’s something for everyone here. You’ll need to go to my Patreon for the full article, but here’s a taster:

+3 studded leather

Have you considered why a suit of armour is +1, +2, or +3? We all know what it gives you—a bonus to Armour Class—but why is this the case in the fiction? According to the Player’s Handbook (page 14), AC represents ‘how well your character avoids being wounded in battle.’ It doesn’t provide a bonus to Dexterity checks or saving throws, so presumably it magically protects you from attacks somehow. A magical force field like mage armour, perhaps?

Anyway, we digress. +3 studded leather is arguably the best light armour in the game. It’s almost as tough as chainmail but for a fraction of the weight and with completely unhindered movement. It is also extremely hard to find. Your chance of rolling this item on Magic Item Table I is 1 in 600. Only +3 plate and +3 half-plate are rarer.

Your adventurers might find the +3 studded leather:

  • among the spoils of a githyanki raiding party in the Astral Sea;
  • in the Feywild, as a gift from one of the archfey;
  • in the vault of an ancient elven (or drow) city like Myth Drannor;
  • in the City of Brass, as a prize in the Sultan’s arena;
  • worn by the world’s finest assassin.

Go to my Patreon for eight more examples.

No magic item shops

Resist the urge to introduce a magic item economy and make your legendary items feel special. Every legendary item is worth an adventure in its own right.

If you like what I do, please support me on Patreon or buy my products on DriveThru RPG. You can follow me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Bluesky @scrollforinit, X @scrollforinit, and Instagram @scrollforinitiative. And if you want to make my day, you can buy me a coffee here.

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One thought on “How to make legendary items feel special

  1. Good points made, especially regarding ye olde magick item shoppe.

    Another way to make items more unique is to provide them with an equal amount of mechanical drawbacks, kinda like the tables for artifacts in the 1e DMG.

    In my home game, I apply drawbacks to most magic items, and players (so far) enjoy the extra choice of ‘do I use the item or not?’

    But to each their own.

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