Adornments and The Practical Enchanter

Unique magic items have always been part of the fantasy tradition. Thor wields his hammer Mjolnir, not a generic hammer of thunderbolts. King Arthur is the rightful king because he commands Excalibur, not because he has a +5 holy sword. This continues into modern fantasy as well, where even among ubiquitous magic items, heroes will have special versions found nowhere else. Just look at what we’re told about Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility in “Deathly Hallows” for an example of this in action.

As the above card (from the 1992 set of AD&D Trading Cards) illustrates, D&D used to do this fairly well. While the magic item lists in the Dungeon Master’s Guide described generic versions, unique twists on “standard” magic items were not uncommon. While these were sometimes mysterious artifacts of great power, more typically they had a few unusual twists that helped drive home how this particular item was unlike any other.

However, the push for normalizing magic item powers via gp costs is not without merit either. Regardless of the issues surrounding “Wealth by Level” in game-play, having a comparative scale with which magic item powers can be measured is useful. We shouldn’t need to ignore that in order to add distinctiveness to magic items.

The Practical Enchanter introduced the idea of “flourishes,” where any permanent magic item worth 10,000 gp or more had small abilities too minor to grant any sort of game bonuses, such as self-cleaning or having soft-glowing symbols. These come at no extra cost, since the abilities in question possess no actual powers in terms of mechanics. But what it we expand on this a bit? Consider a package of minor abilities, allowing for some random elements that are collectively minor enough that we can cover them all with a small surcharge.

We’ll call these “adornments.”

Adornments: Adornments are suites of abilities that may be added to any permanent magic item. An adornment costs 2,000 gp, and can only be added to items worth at least 10,000 gp. If the crafting process involved materials of unusually high quality, an extremely high check result when creating the item, or some other improvement over the normal enchantment process, then this cost may be waived, and the item receives the adornment for free (though its market price is still treated as being 2,000 gp higher).

A magic item with an adornment receives the following improvements, which are always tied to the theme of the item. An item may only have one adornment, with its abilities functioning at the item’s caster level. The specifics of each adornment are always chosen by the Game Master.

  • One 1st-level spell that can be used at will, but always has a limitation beyond that of the normal version of the spell.
  • A +3 circumstance bonus to 2d3 different skills. A particular skill may have a bonus as low as +2 or as high as +4, but the average should still come out to +3 per skill. These bonuses will only apply to certain uses of these skills, rather than all checks involving them.
  • 1d3 0-level spells, usable at will.
  • Has the functionality of 1d4+1 pieces of mundane equipment, typically with small upgrades (such as being usable slightly faster, increasing a bonus to an ability check by +1 over what the base item would offer, etc.). These will never be as per weapons or armor, though the base item may have those functions normally.

Here’s an example of an item with an adornment:

Staff of Sol Invictus: This staff is a (Pathfinder-style) staff of fire with an adjusted market price of 20,950 gp. Its adornment grants the following abilities:

  • The bearer of the staff is continually protected by endure elements, but only aboveground and during the daytime. Water deeper than 200 meters counts as being underground for the purposes of this ability, as does being in outer space or in a realm that does not naturally receive sunlight (such as the Astral Plane, the Elemental Plane of Air, etc.).
  • The bearer receives a +3 circumstance bonus on the following skill checks: Diplomacy checks against creatures with the fire subtype, Intimidate checks against creatures with the cold subtype, and Spellcraft checks to identify spells with the fire descriptor.
  • The bearer may use dancing lights, light, and flare at will.
  • The staff can start fires as per a flint and steel from a distance of 5 feet, and may generate heat (but not light) as a candle, inflicting 1 point of fire damage by touch. Both of these require a standard action that provokes an attack of opportunity.

Normally, the cost of the individual benefits that make up an adornment add up to more than 2,000 gp. A 1st-level spell that’s usable at will (presuming the caster level is 1st) would cost 2,000 gp, with an ad hoc multiplier of x0.6 for the restriction, totalling 1,200 gp. Likewise, a +3 circumstance bonus to a related group of skills, also with restrictions, would cost the same. An at-will 0-level spell (with an average of two on a 1d3) would cost 1,000 gp each. Finally, equipment functionality costs the same as the equipment in question, with a small surcharge for the upgraded usability (call it +50 gp per item).

Overall, that comes out to roughly 4,500 gp worth of abilities on average. So why are we cutting it in half (and rounding down slightly)? Because of the notation that the GM always determines what powers an adornment consists of. This minimizes the impact that adornments have on treasure budgets for magic items that the PCs locate, ensuring that the “rule of cool” that these powers represent doesn’t come at the expense of utility, while still making sure there’s a measurable impact to what they’ve received.

Of course, an item with an adornment should have its own name, and possibly a backstory to it as well. Fortunately, those can be added for free.


One Response to “Adornments and The Practical Enchanter”

  1. Thoth Says:

    I suspect that this works much better with things like Magic Item Cards – since otherwise it will be frightfully easy to forget all the small specialty modifiers and questions like “what do they have for sale” get very complicated. Still, generic magic items are indeed often quite boring,, so why not liven them up?

    I tried to offload the problem onto the players with Precepts over in this article ( ) – but that has it’s problems too; since the extra functions are set by the player rather than by the item, something like your example is what it specifically will not do.

    I kind of miss first edition, back when the items were rare enough that they could have interesting details attached without requiring an index.

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