DMing : Handling Magic Items

The DM should keep all the following information in mind when dealing with magic items.

Placement As Treasure

Including magic items as part of a treasure is a vital task of the DM. It's also a delicately difficult one. It can be tempting to hand out powerful or particularly interesting items too soon or too often. (A smaller number of DMs make the opposite mistake - being too stingy and handing out too few magic items.) A single overpowering item can ruin a whole campaign - but if the PCs don't get enough magic items, they won't be powerful enough to deal with the challenges that have been balanced for characters of their level. The treasure tables were designed to help in this regard (see Random Treasure). Occasionally, however, you'll want to give your players items you have hand-picked as especially suitable for their characters. Feel free to do this more and more as you gain experience as a DM and - most important - as you become familiar with what the items can and can't do.

Remember that magic items can and probably will be used by the NPCs who own them. If an orc chief has a +2 longsword in his treasure hoard, most likely he'll use it in that final battle with the PCs champion. Creatures such as a medusa or a lammasu might be able to use a necklace of adaptation, and even a dragon can drink a potion.


Most magic items come into the campaign as treasure found by the PCs. When they find a new item, you have to describe it to them. Describing magic items to the players verbally requires a little forethought on your part. You don't want to say "You see a +2 short sword and a wand of web on the table." That gives away too much information. Presumably, a character can't tell what bonus a magic weapon has by looking at it, and can't know a wand's spell by its shape. Even if he or she could identify an item in this way, that should be because the ability to do so is something that you have consciously decided to incorporate into your game.

You have three choices when describing magic items:

Magic Items Appear Mundane: Magic items don't look like anything special. Only detect magic or a suspicious/curious/lucky player (see Trial and Error) allows the PC to discover that the stick he's been using as a backscratcher is really a staff of the magi. The benefit to this method is that players are always curiously examining everything. The drawback is that the players are always curiously examining everything, taking a great deal of time away from the action. You also run the risk of making magic seem dull because magic items are nothing special to look at.

Magic Items Appear Distinctive: Magic items glow, pulse with power, and are covered in runes, gems, and ornate workmanship. In this flashy sort of campaign, appearance usually has a direct relationship to the power of the item. Magic swords glow, and particularly powerful magic swords (encrusted with gems or carved entirely from single a pure gemstone) glow particularly bright. The item's appearance also may be clue to its powers. A wand of burning hands could be carved from cedar or redwood with a fiery pattern etched into its surface in gold leaf. Boots of speed might be stitched with the image of a runner on their sides. The benefit of this approach is that magic items always seem grand and marvelous. The drawback is that they also become obvious, to the point of being ostentatious.

Magic Items Vary in Appearance: Magic items vary greatly in appearance, from unremarkable to exotic-looking. (This is the default method. Magic items described in this chapter were handled in this way) Sometimes great power lies hidden within modest housing. Other times, items indicate their function or level of power in obvious ways. This case-by-case approach has the benefits and drawbacks of both methods above and allows you to focus your level of detail where and when you want to.

Identifying Items

When PCs find magic items as treasure, they're going to need to figure out what to do. The following methods are available to identify magic items.

Trial and Error: This is often the first approach that a group of PCs tries once they believe they've found a magic item. It's a fun part of any game. Without access to spells that tell what an item does, PCs are free to experiment. This usually entails a PC attempting to use the item. "I put the ring on and jump up and down, flapping my arms," a player might say. If the item happens to be a ring of flying, then the experiment (and good guesswork) should be rewarded. Or, the player might put the same ring on and ask if she feels anything. In this case, a DM might say, "You feel light-headed and your stomach lurches upward," or even "You feel particularly light on your feet." With items that are normally completely consumed, allow for minor experimentation. A sip of a potion, for example, might be enough to give the character a tingling sensation and some clue to its function.

Close study of an item might provide some information. A command word could be etched in tiny letters on the inside of the ring, or a feathered design might hint that it allows one to fly. In such a case, a Search check (DC 15 or maybe 20) should reveal the clue.

You might also permit a character to attempt a Spellcraft or Knowledge (arcana) check (DC 30) to determine if she can attune herself with the item's power or if she remembers reading of it once in her studies. The PCs may want to consult bards, sages, or high-level spellcasters who might be able to identify items either through their own spell use, prior knowledge and experience, or research. They might know some details or rumors about an item's history as well. Such consultants always want something in return for the information, of course.

Spells: Obviously, the easiest way for characters to discern whether an object is magic is to use detect magic. That spell can also be used to find out a little about an item. When focused on an item, it can determine the school of the spell or spells embedded within, as well as the general power level of the item (based on the caster level). When a character uses detect magic on a magic item, the information you provide often serves as a clue to a smart player for identifying the item. Because of this, always be clear about the school of the spell and the caster level. (See the spell description for exact details.)

The identify and analyze dweomer spells provide much more information.

DM Explanation: Eventually, you might just break down and tell the players what an item is. That's okay, particularly in the instance where the item adds a bonus to actions the PC is already taking. A PC using a +2 sword, for example, eventually notices the amount that the sword is helping him and can thereby determine its bonus. Use this option if it becomes a pain for you to keep mentally adding +2 to all the character's attack and damage rolls with that unidentified (to him) item.

Magic Items and Detect Magic

When detect magic identifies a magic item's school of magic, this information refers to the school of the spell placed within the potion, scroll, or wand, or the prerequisite given for the item. If more than one spell is given as a prerequisite, use the highest-level spell. If no spells are included in the prerequisites, use the following default guidelines:

Item NatureSchool
Armor and protection itemsAbjuration
Weapons or offensive itemsInvocation
Bonus to ability score, skill check, etc.Transmutation

Using Items

To use a magic item, it must be activated, although sometimes activation simply means putting a ring on your finger. Some items, once donned, function constantly. In most cases, using an item requires an activate magic item action that does not provoke attacks of opportunity. By contrast, spell completion items are treated like spells in combat and do provoke attacks of opportunity.

Activating a magic item is a standard action unless the item indicates otherwise. However, the casting time of a spell is the time required to activate the same power in an item, whether it's a scroll, a wand, or a pair of boots, unless the item description specifically states otherwise.

The four ways to activate magic items are:

Spell Completion: This is the activation method for scrolls. A scroll is a spell that is mostly finished. The preparation is done for the caster, so no preparation time is needed beforehand as with normal spellcasting. All that's left to do is perform the short, simple, finishing parts of the spellcasting (the final gestures, words, and so on.). To use a spell completion item safely a character must be high enough level in the right class to cast the spell already. If he can't already cast the spell, there's a chance he'll make a mistake (see Scroll Mishaps for possible consequences). Activating a spell completion item is a standard action and provokes attacks of opportunity exactly as casting a spell does.

Spell Trigger: Spell trigger activation is similar to spell completion, but it's even simpler. No gestures or spell finishing is needed, just a special knowledge of spellcasting that an appropriate character would know and a single word that must be spoken. This means that if a wizard picks up a spell trigger activation item (such as a wand or a staff) and that item stores a wizard spell, she knows how to use it. Specifically anyone with a spell on his or her spell list knows how to use a spell trigger item that stores that spell. (This is the case even for a character who can't actually cast spells, such as a 3rd-level paladin.) The user must still determine what spell is stored in the item before she can and activate it. Activating a spell trigger item is a standard action and does not provoke attacks of opportunity

Command Word: If no activation method is suggested either in the magic item description or by the nature of the item, assume that a command word is needed to activate it. Command word activation means that a character speaks the word and the item activates. No other special knowledge is needed.

A command word is the key to the item's lock, as it were. It can be a real word such as "Vibrant," "Square," or "Horse," but when this is the case, the holder of the item runs the risk of activating the item accidentally by speaking the word in normal conversation. More often, the command word is some seemingly nonsensical word, or a word or phrase from an ancient language no longer in common use. Activating a command word magic item is a standard action and does not provoke attacks of opportunity.

As mentioned above, sometimes the command word to activate an item is written right on the item. Occasionally it might be hidden within a pattern or design engraved on, carved into, or built into the item, or the item might bear a clue to the command word. For example, if the command word is "King," the item might have the image of a king or a crown etched in its surface. A more difficult version of the same clue might be the name of the local king when the item was made. In this case, the character has to conduct some historical research to identify the name.

Knowledge (arcana) or Knowledge (history) skills might be useful in helping to identify command words or deciphering clues regarding them. A successful check (DC 30) is needed to come up with the word itself. If that check is failed, succeeding at a second check (DC 25) might provide some insight into a clue.

The spells identify and analyze dweomer both reveal command words.

Use Activated: This type of item simply has to be used in order to activate it. A character has to drink a potion, swing a sword, interpose a shield to deflect a blow in combat, look through a lens, sprinkle dust, wear a ring, or don a hat. Use activation is generally straightforward and self-explanatory.

Many use-activated items are objects that a character wears. Continually functioning items, such as a cloak of resistance or a headband of intellect, are practically always items that one wears. A few, such as a pearl of power, must simply be in the character's possession (on his person, not at home in a locked trunk). However, some items made for wearing, such as a ring of invisibility must still be activated. Although this activation sometimes requires a command word (see above), usually it means mentally willing the activation to happen. The description of an item usually states whether a command word is needed in such a case.

Unless stated otherwise, activating a use-activated magic item is either a standard action or not even an action and does not provoke attacks of opportunity, unless the use involves committing an action that provokes an attack of opportunity in itself, such as running through a threatened area with magic boots. If the use of the item takes time (such as drinking a potion or putting on or taking off a ring or hat) before a magical effect occurs, then use activation is a standard action. If the item's activation is subsumed in use and takes no extra time (such as swinging a magic sword that has a built-in enhancement bonus), use activation is usually not even an action.

Use activation doesn't mean that if you use an item you automatically know what it can do. Just putting on a ring of jumping does not immediately activate it. You must know (or at least guess) what the item can do and then use the item in order to activate it, unless the benefit of the item comes automatically such from drinking a potion or swinging a sword.

Size and Magic Items

When an article of magic clothing, jewelry, or armor is discovered, most of the time size shouldn't be an issue. Many magic garments are made to be easily adjustable, or they adjust themselves magically to the wearer. As a rule, size should not keep overweight characters, characters of various genders, or characters of various kinds from using magic items. Players shouldn't be penalized for choosing a halfling character or deciding that their character is especially tall.

Only say "It doesn't fit" if there's a good reason. Cloaks made specifically by the selfish, self-absorbed drow elves might fit only elves. Dwarves might make items usable only by dwarf-sized and dwarf-shaped characters to keep their items from being used against them. Such items should be the exceptions, however, not the rule.

Limit on Magic Items Worn

Characters are limited in their ability to use certain magic items, based on the item's type. Just as it doesn't make sense to wear multiple pairs of glasses or shoes simultaneously so too characters can't stack items meant to be worn on a particular part of the body. Only so many items of a certain kind can be worn and be effective at the same time. The limits include the following:

Of course, a character may carry or possess as many items of the same type as he wishes. He can have a pouch jammed full of magic rings, for example. But he can only benefit from two rings at a time. If he puts on a third ring, it doesn't work. This general rule applies to other attempts to "double up" on magic items - for instance, if a character puts on another magic cloak on top of the one he is already wearing, the second cloak's power does not work.

Saving Throws Against Magic Item Powers

Magic items produce spells or spell-like effects. For a saving throw against a spell or spell-like effect from a magic item, the DC is always 10 + the level of the spell or effect + the ability bonus of the minimum ability score needed to cast that level of spell. For example, a 2nd-level spell's DC would be 10 + 2 (for being 2nd level) + 1 (for needing at least a 12 in the relevant ability score to cast a 2nd-level spell), or a total of 13. Another way to figure this number is to multiply the spell's level by 1.5 and add 10 to the result.

Most item descriptions give saving throw DCs for various effects, particularly when the effect has no exact spell equivalent (making its level otherwise difficult to determine quickly).

Damaging Magic Items

Magic items should always get a saving throw against spells that might deal damage to them - even against attacks from which a mundane item would normally get no chance to save. Magic items use the same saving throw bonus for all saves, no matter what the type (Fortitude, Reflex, or Will). A magic item's saving throw bonus equals 2 + one-half its caster level (round down). For example, a lantern of revealing, with a caster level of 5, has a +4 saving throw bonus if it is caught in a fireball, and the same bonus if someone attempts to disintegrate it. The only exceptions to this are intelligent magic items, which make Will saves based on their own Wisdom scores.

Magic items, unless otherwise noted, take damage as normal items of the same type. A damaged magic item continues to function, but if it is destroyed, all its magical power is lost.

Bonuses From Magic

Many magic items offer a bonus on attack rolls, damage rolls, saving throws, Armor Class, ability scores, or skill checks. Most items that add to saving throws, attack rolls, damage rolls, or AC are restricted to a maximum bonus of +5. (Bracers of armor are an exception.) Most items that add to ability scores are restricted to a maximum bonus of +6, and the bonus usually comes in multiples of 2; (+2, +4, or +6). Skill check bonuses do not have a maximum.

Bonuses of different types always stack. So a +1 cloak of resistance (adds a resistance bonus to saving throws) works with a paladin's general +2 bonus to saving throws. Identical types of bonuses do not stack, so a +3 longsword (+3 enhancement bonus for a +3 to attack, +3 to damage) would not be affected by a magic weapon spell that grants a weapon a +1 enhancement bonus attack and damage.

Different named bonus types all stack, but usually a named bonus does not stack with another bonus of the same name (except for enhancement bonuses to armor and shields, enhancement bonuses to ranged weapons and their ammunition, dodge bonuses, synergy bonuses, and some circumstance bonuses).

Armor: This is the same type of bonus that mundane armor gives a character. A spell that gives an armor bonus typically creates an invisible, tangible field of force around the affected character.

Circumstance: A bonus or penalty based on situational factors, which may apply either to a check or the DC for that check. Circumstance modifiers stack with each other, unless they arise from essentially the same circumstance. Example: robe of blending.

Competence: When a character has a competence bonus, he actually gets better at what he's doing, such as with the spell guidance.

Deflection: A deflection bonus increases a character's AC by making attacks veer off, such as with the spell shield of faith.

Dodge: An enhancement of a character's ability to get out of the way quickly. Dodge bonuses do stack with other dodge bonuses. However, spells and magic items never grant dodge bonuses. Only feats and special abilities can do that.

Enhancement: An enhancement bonus represents an increase in the strength or effectiveness of a character's armor or weapon, as with the spells magic vestment and magic weapon, or a general bonus to an ability score, such as with the spell cat's grace.

Enlargement: When a character gets bigger, his Strength increases (as might his Constitution). That's an enlargement bonus. Example: enlarge.

Haste: A haste bonus improves a character's AC because he is moving faster, as in the spell haste.

Inherent: An inherent bonus is a bonus to an ability score that results from powerful magic, such as a wish. A character is limited to a total inherent bonus of +5 to any ability score.

Insight: An insight bonus makes a character better at what he's doing because he has an almost precognitive knowledge of factors pertinent to the activity, as with the spell true strike.

Luck: A luck bonus is a general bonus that represents good fortune, such as from the spell divine favor.

Morale: A morale bonus represents the effects of greater hope, courage, and determination, such as from the bless spell.

Natural Armor: A natural armor bonus is the type of bonus that many monsters get because of their tough or scaly hides. A natural armor bonus bestowed by a spell (such as barkskin) indicates that the subject's skin has become tougher.

Profane: A profane bonus represents the power of evil, such as granted by the spell desecrate.

Resistance: A resistance bonus is a general bonus against magic or harm.

Sacred: The opposite of a profane bonus, a sacred bonus relates to the power of good, such as granted by the spell consecrate.

Synergy: A bonus resulting from an unusually beneficial interaction between two related skills. Synergy bonuses are not granted by magic items.


Some magic items, particularly weapons, have an intelligence all their own. Only permanent magic items (as opposed to those with a single use or those with charges) can be intelligent. (This means that potions, scrolls, and wands, among other items, are never intelligent.)

In general, melee weapons have intelligence 15% of the time, ranged weapons have intelligence 5% of the time, and items of other sorts are intelligent 1% of the time.

See Intelligent Items for more information.

Cursed Items

Some items are cursed - incorrectly made, or corrupted by outside forces. Cursed items might be particularly dangerous to the user, or they might be normal items with a minor flaw, an inconvenient requirement, or an unpredictable nature. Randomly generates items are cursed 5% of the time. If you wish to include faulty and/or dangerous magic items in your campaign, see Cursed Items for more information.

Charges, Doses, And Multiple Charges And Uses

Many items, particularly wands and staffs, are limited in power by the number of charges they hold. Normally charged items have 50 charges at most. If such an item is found as a random part of a treasure, roll d% and divide by 2 to determine the number of charges left (round down, minimum 1). If the item has a maximum number of charges other than 50, roll randomly to determine how many charges are left. For example, a random ring of three wishes has 1d3 wishes left.

Prices listed are always for fully charged items. (When an item is created, it is fully charged.) For an item that's worthless when its charges run out (which is the case for almost all charged items), the value of the partially used item is proportional to the number of charges left. A wand with 20 charges, for example, is worth 40% of the value of a fully charged wand (with 50 charges). For an item the has usefulness in addition to its charges, only part of the item's value is based on the number of charges left (DM's discretion).

Some items, such as arrows, sticks of incense, pinches of magic dust, and potions, are single-use and expendable. Such items can often be found in sets or groups. For example, it's common to come upon a pouch with more than one pinch of dust of disappearance, or a flask with multiple 1-ounce doses of a potion of cure light wounds. (Potions are priced by the vial.) These are priced and weighted in the random tables individually but you can allow more of such items when they are determined. For example, if three minor magic items are indicated in a treasure hoard and you get incense of meditation on the first roll, you might decide that all three items are sticks of incense. Such placement makes for more logical hoards of treasure and more useful finds for adventurers.

New Magic Items

In the same way that you can invent new spells and monsters for your campaign, you can invent new magic items. In the same way that a PC spellcaster can research a new spell, a PC may be able to invent a new kind of magic item. And just as you have to be careful about new spells, you need to be careful with new magic items.

Use the magic item descriptions in this chapter as examples on which to base new magic items. A new magic item needs all the information that similar, existing magic items have, possibly including activation type, activation time, and caster level. You should also be ready to determine the market value of a new magic item, even one that the PCs simply find, in case a character wants to sell it or duplicate it.

Magic in the Realms