Magic items are always going to be a staple of Dungeons & Dragons. The Fifth Edition of D&D is chock full of items that can be rewarded to players throughout a campaign.
Unfortunately, there really isn’t a thorough guide detailing how or when these items should be given… or is there?
It’s just hard to put together all the important details when the information is scattered across the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook. Let’s take a look.
Magic Items are Rare
Fifth Edition D&D is quite different compared to its predecessors with the way it handles magic items. No longer are characters allowed to be fully decked out from head to toe with magical armor, weapons and trinkets.
This is because magic items are meant to be rare. When the player characters acquire them there should be a moment of awe and wonder, further emphasizing the feeling of accomplishment.
How rare should they be?
The chart for distributing magic items can be found on pg.135 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Common and Uncommon magic items should be acquired by characters at level 1 and higher.
The party should start finding Rare magic items, like a +1 Armor or the Dragon Slayer, by the time they hit level 5.
Very Rare items aren’t found until they hit level 11, and Legendary magic items should only be introduced by the time the players hit level 17.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide doesn’t have a chart listing all the magic items according to rarity. Fortunately, the official Wizards of the Coast website offers this list as a downloadable PDF.
Grab this when possible and keep it clipped to your DM Screen for quick reference.
To further accentuate the rarity of arcane gear, most magic items in Fifth Edition D&D require attunement.
This means the characters need to spend a short or long rest to form a bond with the magic item before they can fully access the item’s abilities. This rule can be read on pg. 136 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Characters can only be attuned to three items at a time, and attunement can be lost if the item is too far from the character or if someone else attunes to the item. This is very crucial information because it means every character can only carry three magic items at all times, excluding wondrous items such as a Bag of Holding or a Driftglobe.
With the attunement system in place, players will value their magical gear more than ever.
Distributing Magic Items
Now it’s time to put the attunement requirements and the rarity chart together to figure out how these items should be distributed. The pace and type of items found will be according to tiers of play. The tiers of play are further explained on pg. 15 of the Player’s Handbook.
- Tier 1 (Levels 1-4) – at this point the players won’t be getting beyond Common and Uncommon magic items. You can introduce a few wondrous items like the aforementioned Bag of Holding and a few Potions of Healing. Add in some uncommon equipment like a +1 Weapon or a +1 Wand of the War Mage. It is advisable to make sure everyone in the party has at least one uncommon piece of equipment, whether it is a weapon, wand, cloak or armor.
- Tier 2 (Levels 5-10) – Rare items are now introduced. At this point, each character in the party should get one rare item before they go beyond level 10. Some Rare items to give out include the excellent Sun Blade, an Armor +1 and Wings of Flying. Wondrous items should also be given out – again, it is best to give one wondrous item per party member.
- Tier 3 (Levels 11-16) – Very Rare items are now given out. As with Rare items each character in the party should get one Very Rare weapon or armor and one Very Rare wondrous item. At this point, the players will be attuned to three magic items and will have a few wondrous items in their Bag of Holding.
- Tier 4 (Levels 17 and Beyond) – at this tier the players can’t attune to another magic item. Instead introduce Legendary Items, Sentient Magic items or Artifacts at this stage is to replace the Tier 1 magic items. At this stage a Level 19 Fighter would have little use for a +1 Longsword and would happily replace it with a Vorpal Sword if given the chance.
Finding Magic Items
Fifth Edition D&D discourages players from buying magic items in shops, save for a few wondrous items like a Bag of Holding or a Potion of Healing. By making magic items super rare, the players will experience a greater level of excitement when they come across one in a dungeon chest, or when they’ve spent weeks crafting one during their downtime.
Dungeon Masters can sprinkle in magic items in dungeons, either putting them in chests or by having the dungeon boss protecting or even using the item.
A Dragon Slayer sword might be kept in the resting place of a famous knight killed by a dragon and now the party has to go there, defeat the troll guarding the cave and then use that sword to beat the young green dragon wrecking havoc in the village.
A Sun Blade might be kept in the crypts far below in the surface and only by adventuring down there to retrieve it can the party defeat a vampire terrorizing a city.
Crafting Magic Items
Magic items can also be crafted. The rules for crafting can be found on pg. 128-129 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It should be noted that crafting a magic item takes place during downtime and can take a lot of time. Making a Potion of Healing won’t consume too much time, but making a Vorpal Sword is nearly impossible.
You can work around the time constraints if you desire. For example: a character at Level 1 wants a Vorpal Sword, but crafting it costs 500,000gp according to the chart. This means if he were to craft it on his own it would take 20,000 in-game days.
However, if the party has some associates like a few wizards in their main town, they could have these NPCs work together. With 20 people working together it would only take 1,000 days to craft the item.
That might still seem like a long time, but it makes perfect sense. By the time the character hits level 17, a thousand days may have passed and they may have gone through enough adventures to make him worthy of such a legendary sword.
Significance of Few Magic Items
Having fewer magic items increases the value of those available. Feel free to have an heirloom weapon evolve over time.
A character might start out with a sword handed to him by his late father. By the time he reaches level 4 the DM can upgrade it into a +1 weapon, saying the character has mastered the use of the sword.
By level 17 the party could go on a quest that would imbue that sword with the powers of a Sword of Answering.
Not only does this make the sword more powerful, but it will also increase its sentimental value for the player.
He’s carried that same weapon all throughout his journey, from level 1 to level 20, and that makes it more significant than finding new loot in every dungeon or forest.