Items, items, and more items. I went over items last time, I’m going to go over items this time, and I plan on going over items at least once more after that… and I could still do it again. There’s a lot to items in Dungeons and Dragons – they’re the means to every end, and the almost always the end reward too.
Now, once more into the dungeons!
A Table of Maths +1
As an intro, I’m going to offer up a table. This is a very nice table, taken from the Dungeon Master’s Guide and heavily tweaked by me. I’ll be referring back to this table frequently, as it lies near the heart of my item-balancing technique.
|Rarity||Character Level||Max Spell Level||Reference|
|Common||1st or higher||1st level||potion of climbing|
|Uncommon||1st or higher||2nd level||wand of secrets|
|Rare||5th or higher||3rd level||rope of entanglement|
|Very Rare||11th or higher||5th level||frost brand|
|Legendary*||17th or higher||N/A||efreeti chain|
*Even though they are classified as “legendary,” sentient items and artifacts are not included.
Now, let’s go over this table, which hereafter will be referred to as “The Table,” real quick.
The “Character Level” column refers to minimum level a character should be at when they obtain an item of that rarity. The “Reference” column simply gives the best reference item I could find that has no weird requirements or restrictions, and doesn’t just cast a spell.
Finally, there’s the “Max Spell Level” column. This is a vague idea of the highest level spell a given item should be able to cast. It’s based on the maximum spell slot level available to characters of an appropriate level, give or take. Since a 5th level spellcaster can cast 3rd level spells, an item available to 5th level and higher characters should be able to cast no higher than 3rd level spells.
However, as you’ll see when we discuss it, that final parameter is extremely flexible. So, let’s get going!
Some Assembly Required
Magic items are generally found as loot from adventuring – very rarely will shops sell anything more than limited use potions and scrolls, and 5e (sadly) does not have a very robust crafting system for players to make their own magic items.
These items come in several varieties – common, uncommon, rare, very rare, and legendary. Their names reflect both the power and rarity of the item – a common item will be weaker and more easily found than an uncommon, while a rare item will be more powerful and hard to find than either.
In this post, I’m not going to be touching on either legendary or sentient magic items. Both of those have their own set of rules and concepts, and really can’t be lumped in. Legendary items were included on The Table only for context.
To make talking about all of this easier, I’m going to separate items into a few different categories. The first split is between items that cast spells (which I’ll call “Spell Items”) and items that do not cast spells (which I’ll call “Ability Items” for reasons that will be explained later.) The second distinction is between consumable and non-consumable items, with the former being addressed at the end of the post.
Manual of Itemization
When making an item, there are three main things you need to consider: restrictions, charges, and attunement. Each of these are key in deciding the strength of an item, as well as what its intended use is. These three things lie at the core of the item balancing act, and so can be considered some of the most important concepts to know when making items.
- Restrictions are the requirements that some items have which restrict their usage to members of a certain class, race, or alignment. Items with restrictions need to be designed a bit differently than others – where an item that gives the ability to Turn Undead once a day might be rare or even very rare with no restrictions, having it as a cleric-only item could bump the rarity down to uncommon.
- Charges are the number of uses an item has. Some items have unlimited uses, and can simply be used whenever. Others have a certain number of charges, and using different properties of the item might expend different numbers of charges. Besides deciding on the number of charges, you also need to decide whether or not those uses recharge (and how often they do so).
- Attunement is a mechanic by which a character spends a certain amount of time during a short or long rest attuning the item to themselves. Characters can only have three items attuned at a time, so any item that requires attunement needs to be able to compete for its place. The fact that a character can only have three such items allows these items to be slightly stronger than usual.
Besides rarity, those are the main aspects of an item. For the most part, nothing above is limited by rarity, except for with the common rarity. To my knowledge, there are no common items that require attunement, have any restrictions, or have rechargeable uses.
Items that cast spells are, at least from what I can think of, the majority in the DMG. It’s just so much easier to have an item cast a spell rather than design an effect from the bottom up. However, there still is work to be done.
Charges are a staple of spell items, since charges can be most directly compared to spell slots. When I’m making an item, that’s always how I determine how many uses an item should have, but more on that later. For now, the beginning to any spell item is to identify (get it?) what spell you want the item to cast.
After you have the base spell, there’s a couple of other initial considerations. You can make the version of the spell cast by the item slightly different than normal, such as limiting it to self only, lowering the number of targets, or giving it other conditionals. All of these things can effectively lower the power of your item, letting you pretend that the level of the spell is, at most, one lower than it really is. At this point, you should decide on the rarity of the item based on what you have now.
Quick Note: I should also point out that not all spells are created equal. For instance, the driftglobe, an uncommon item, can cast the daylight spell... which is 3rd level, when The Table says an uncommon item's max spell level should be 2nd. This is because, frankly speaking, daylight just isn't as strong as most other 3rd level spells (in most situations). Unfortunately, this is very much up to personal opinion, so always expect argument if you decide a spell isn't as strong as it seems.
Now that you’ve gotten the basics of the spell down, the next step is to determine charges. I have a very specific method for this which has served me quite well, which I’ll be outlining below.
- Step 1. I’ve decided to make an uncommon item that casts a 2nd level spell. I’ve put no special limitations on the spell, and the spell is standard for its spell level.
- Step 2. Using The Table, I check to see what character level is associated with the rarity of my item. The Table says that 5th level characters are lowest level characters who could get my item.
- Step 3. I flip open the Player’s Handbook to any one of the full spellcasting classes (bard, cleric, druid, sorcerer, or wizard) to check spellcasting progression. A 5th level character has three 2nd level spell slots, and an additional two 3rd level slots that could also cast the spell.
- Step 4. I’m aiming to have my item be capable of casting its spell about as many times per day as a full spellcaster could. This varies depending on whether or not the item can cast more than one spell.
- Step 4a. My item only casts the one 2nd level spell, so I decide to give the item 1d6 charges. That’s one more cast per day than a 5th level spellcaster, so I balance things out by giving the item a chance to be destroyed if the last charge is expended.
- Step 4b. My item casts the 2nd level spell and also a 3rd level spell. So I decide to give the item 1d4 + 1 charges, with the 2nd level spell taking one charge and the 3rd level spell taking two. This means the item can be used to cast five 2nd level spells (equal to a 5th level spellcaster), two 3rd level spells and a 2nd level spell (less than a 5th level spellcaster), or any combination between the two.
- Step 5. Finally, I check over everything one more time to make sure the numbers line up. Always essential.
Another option that I’ve never tried is to convert using the spell points system (also in the DMG). Spell points can translate spell slots into simple points, which could more easily be compared with charges. However, I’ve never actually tried that method.
Things get harder when an item can cast multiple different spells of different levels. Higher level spells need to cost more charges than lower level ones, and sometimes it can be hard to balance. Generally speaking, I think items should mostly come out lower than a spellcaster – in my example above, the item that can cast a 2nd level and 3rd level spell can’t ever cast three 2nd level spells and two 3rd level spells like a 5th level spellcaster could.
Once you’ve finished all of that, you’ve got an item! Though, again, peer review is the best editing you can get, so don’t assume the item’s safe until you’ve run it past a few different sets of eyes first.
These are the items that don’t cast spells. I’ve called these “Ability Items” because they mostly mimic feats and Ability Score Increases, which I’ll explain below.
When you have a dagger +1, any attacks you make with it get a +1 to hit and a +1 to damage. So lets say you have a 3rd level rogue with 16 Dexterity and proficiency in daggers. Whenever the rogue makes an attack with a normal dagger, the roll to hit is 1d20 + 4 (+2 from proficiency bonus and +2 from Dexterity). Meanwhile, damage roll is 1d4 + 2 (from Dexterity).
If this rogue gets a dagger +1, then their roll to hit is 1d20 + 4 + 1, and the roll for damage is 1d4 + 2 + 1. Meanwhile, if the rogue doesn’t get a magic dagger, and instead advances to 4th level and uses their ABSI to increase their Dexterity by 2, then their roll to hit would be 1d20 + 5, and the roll for damage would be 1d4 + 3.
Those are equal. Getting a magical dagger +1 is equal in power to increasing your character’s attack stat by 2 using an Ability Score Increase. For me, this realization was extremely helpful. It taught me that magical items should be roughly equal to an increase in your character’s main ability score modifier.
Some items are different, however, because they don’t give direct combat benefits. Following in the trend established above, I think the easiest way to deal with these is to look at them as being equal to feats. Ability Score Increases can also be used to get feats, so the two should theoretically be similar, though the latter are usually less appealing.
The Big Tome of Common Consumables
Finally, on to two topics which don’t really fit anywhere else – common items and consumable items. Which, funnily enough, actually fit together quite well.
Common items are a bit of a misnomer, since they’re only “common” in adventuring life. It’s generally held that common items are still quite rare for “normal” people to own them or use them (Eberron not withstanding).
As far as I can tell, every common item in the DMG is a consumable. Not all consumables are common, but the opposite seems to be completely true. The common rarity seems reserved for the lowest level of consumable items, and not much else.
Higher rarity consumables are a different story. A consumable is any item that is destroyed after use, but is typically used to refer to things that have one use at most. Magical potions, dusts, and scrolls are all consumables, since they have a limited number of uses and are literally consumed when they’re used. Other items such as wands and staves are also technically “consumable” because they break or become nonmagical after expending their uses, but they’re much more like the items I’ve discussed above.
For the true consumables, the question of balance becomes infinitely more complex. When creating a consumable item, you know that its only going to have one use and one use only – no recharging, no extending, no nothing. But the players know that too, and that can lead to some weird headgames.
One of the biggest risks when making a consumable item is that it might be too good to use. If it is, then the players won’t ever use it – ever. They’ll always think that there might be a better time, and so the item will sit in the pack, forgotten.
Otherwise, designing a consumable is just like designing any other item. You can make consumables quite strong for their rarity because of their extremely limited nature, but you can’t just make them better than everything else at that rarity.
Ultimately, consumables are hard to make, but have much less at stake. No one ends up with an overpowered nightmare stick for the rest of the game if you overtune a consumable, though a single fight might turn laughable. Still, balance is important, so don’t take that as an excuse not to try.
And that wraps us up for the items article! This was a hard one to write mostly because I’ve never really consciously homebrewed an item. I’ve made plenty in my time as a DM, but I’ve never “homebrewed” one, complete with posting it for other people to critique.
For that reason, this is one that I’m particularly interested in seeing responses to. Let me know how you guys homebrew items, and whether or not I missed anything. I could’ve missed something major and completely not noticed it, simply because that was never a problem for me, personally, in my home games.
Thanks for reading!
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