Behind the Screen: The Legendary Chuck Item…

2009 May 14
by Dante

I had a Dungeon Master in college that would handcraft a special (usually awesomely powerful) magic item for each member of the adventuring party and sprinkle them throughout the campaign. Some we found, some we didn’t (and found out about it later), but they all shared some common charactaristics.

These items would be exceedingly powerful. Some had a drawbacks, but in general they would be described as legendary, unique, or spectacular. We even took to calling them “Chuck Items” in the honor of our DM himself.

Usually these items were crafted outside the normal rules system for creating magic items. They would sometimes have complex combinations of effects or very specific rituals that had to be done to activate abilities. They often had significant lore surrounding them that would unveil itself as the campaign unfolded.

An example was a bow that SR’s character came across named Harvester. It had numerous colored gems inlaid in it that could be activated to do different types of elemental damage. Each time you used the colored gems, the bow was drained and it had to be recharged by killing undead. If you activated all of the gems at once, it would do an immense amount of damage. Unbeknownst to her, Chuck later told me that each time she did this there was a chance that the bow would be destroyed but it did not happen during the course of our campaign.

(If anyone is interested in the D&D 3.0 stats for this item, I am told that SR retains a copy she might be willing to share!)

Learning from the Master

I have employed this same pattern in my campaigns. The process of creating an “outside the box” awesome item tailored to your players is alluring, but I have often found that if you don’t temper it with a drawback or some sort of control mechanism it can heavily unbalance your game.

Since we’re quickly approaching the end of the Keep on the Shadowfell module and the beginning of my original campaign content, I am thinking more about how/if I am going to execute this process for my new campaign.

A few words of encouragement: making a tailored magical item that suits a player character is a GREAT way to heavily involve them, especially if you give the item a rich background or legend to go along with it.

The player feels special and gets that moment of sheer excitement every time their awesome toy does what it is supposed to do. To me this is essential to a satisfying D&D experience, especially for new players.

A question to those that have come before

For those of you Dungeon Masters out there: have you tried something like this yourselves? Players, have you ever received a tailor-made item? If so, did it improve your gaming experience?

Finally, if you’re reading this: thanks Chuck. They just don’t make D&D moments like that anymore!!

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Dave The Game permalink
    May 14, 2009

    I did something similar in my last 3.5 game. Everyone got a “master item” before the finale. It was a bit rushed or I would have spread them out, but they were all tied to the characters’ stories. My favorite was the item for Bartoneus’s Bard: A legendary “Axe” that bard were proficient with that functioned as a musical instrument, axe, and crossbow that bards were proficient in. He had to assemble the components as he went (including troll hair strings).

  2. Sean permalink
    May 14, 2009

    We did this even all the way back in basic set/1st ed AD&D days – it was actually "easier" then since magic item creation was less structured. One campaign highlight in particular was a local DM who every 3 or 4 years would dust off his "bring your best" short module arc – which, if you survived, ended with you walking the Pattern and becoming aware that you were a scion of Amber… my character's reward for that was a katana which had certain pattern characteristics imbued into the blade, as well as some other character specific traits which unfolded as we learned more. Each character at some point or another found something similar to them.

    The big thing he did that made it fun was that we didn't get all the cookies at one time – you got enough up front to make you go "Wow this is cool!" but then you started realizing there was more to it – both good & potentially limiting – it in fact led to several other campaign arcs where other DM's in the group would expand on the items in some way & everyone greatly enjoyed it all.

    So yes, it's a great idea & I like your thought of starting it early & letting the item "grow" with the character.

  3. Todd Bradley permalink
    May 14, 2009

    This sounds way cool. Sadly, I haven’t played in a game where the DM took this much time to create original material since the Reagan administration.

  4. Gordo permalink
    May 14, 2009

    I once had a dagger (found in a torture chamber) that was ugly as sin and as dull as Yanni. Its trick, though, was that if pressed against flesh for more than five seconds, it immediately heated up red-hot. Excellent for torture, obviously, but also useful against anything sensitive to fire, to which it would do double the damage of a normal dagger.

  5. Dante permalink
    May 15, 2009

    Wow, I love hearing these stories of other people’s cool gear!

    @Todd: I’m sorry to hear that, maybe we can solve that problem for you one of these days! 🙂

    @Sean: Our DM had a similar process of trotting out the capabilities, so there was this fun discovery process of finding out everything that your weapon/item could do. It’s great stuff.

    @Gordo: That dagger sounds really cool, and “dull as Yanni” made me laugh out loud. Now those adjacent to my cube have been stopping by to find out what is funny!

  6. Obi-wan 4242 permalink
    May 15, 2009

    I am just starting to play RPGs with my kids (ages 8, 6, and 4). Our first campaign was to kill a dragon. I divided it up into 3 parts, city, forest cave, dragon lair. I told the kids that the dragon had a legendary sword, this got their attention. So we played thru all the parts and took out the dragon. It was hard to balance this sword with practically new characters but it worked. So now they always ask what the item is.

    I am keeping it simple as they are young and new. I found I dont like the math behind 2d6 so I got a bunch of extra large 12 sided dice at GenCon last year. Standard roll is a 7+ hits/heals. Then roll again for the amount. Simple. Oh and a 12 gets you a +1. I call the game “Adventure” and we use 3×5 cards for the characters. We use plastic figs from the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Marvel things they have got over the years. One thing my kids do NOT like is enemies that heal themselves. They plowed thru so many areas that I had to slow them down. I usually end up playing a healer to rez the tank and avoid a wipe.

    But the crafted items really hook them in. My daughter also thought that familiars were cool too after I got one for my healer.

  7. mike permalink
    May 15, 2009

    I once gave a pc a magic greatsword with necromantic runes and evil magic emanating from it, it functioned as a regular +2 greatsword but on a natural 20 it instantly killed the target. Overpowered you say? Well, not so much when they discovered that anyone killed in this way was magically reincarnated a week later, probably as a different race and/or gender, and were now seeking revenge.

  8. highadventuregames permalink
    May 16, 2009

    The individualized item is a great game concept….one that is greatly needed in a realm of throw-away +1 swords….

    Items that complement and grow with a character are, in my mind, the best thing since unsliced bread.

  9. ketjak permalink
    May 16, 2009

    I had a DM named Scotty who gave us each a magic item at 1st level (D&D 3.5) and each time we leveled it became more powerful. It was really powerful and I kept waiting for him to take it away after we became dependent. This thing added stat points, did damage if it was a weapon that escalated as time went on, and had different special powers each day. My take on it was that it was OP'd, but there were frustrating limitations in that the different items the party had (and were attuned to) seemed to fit each character… almost perfectly. The parts that didn't were appealing to other characters… the campaign made it to level 5 or so before our company imploded and the campaign ended, but it was interesting.

  10. Norman Harman permalink
    May 16, 2009

    As a DM I do similar things all the time.

    My current 3.5 campaign everyone started with a “personal” item that goes up in power as they level. They have become quite powerful but are due to the leveling nature fairly balanced.

    Same game I’ve used the concept of magic item sets (a few related items that have more features the more of the set you collect) from the Magic Item Compendium. The druid is seeking out the pieces of his legendary ancestor’s Storm Walker’s Garb.

    Most of the magic in my games targeted to specific players. The thief is lookin for something to be sneakier. The fighter wants more options than just charging in and bashing.

  11. Dante permalink
    May 16, 2009

    Since we were on the down slide waiting for 4e to come out I didn’t buy the Weapons of Legend book… did it have rules that helped build cool items like this or was it just their own set of cool weapons and set items?

    It would be nice to have some actual game mechanics for building attuned gear.

  12. Alva H permalink
    May 19, 2009

    I most definitely have done this. I had my “growth items”. Essentially, they were legendary items that grew in power as the characters grew in power. This was a very fun way to have an item that extremely powerful, and at the same time, it was just as useful at level 16 as level 8.

    My favorite was a bow called Flamestrike. It started out as essentially just a +1 bow (say, to a level one character) but it eventually was dealing massive levels of fire damage.

    I created a pair of short swords that could, on occasion, remove the head of an opponent.

  13. May 29, 2009

    I have been tailoring items recently, creating some wonderous combinations for my players to fiddle about with. Usually I keep magic items quite simple, but sometimes its fun to throw in weird ad hoc effects, or combine powers into something a little over the top.

  14. HartThorn permalink
    June 9, 2009

    Once had a character named Jimmy the Bastard, a gestalt Warlock/Duskblade who wielded a Great Poleaxe. Dude was a friggin melee bazooka. So eventually I pick up the leadership feat around the same time the party is getting some ‘special’ items. I took the DM aside and discussed what i was looking for: My Character ressurected his sister’s deceased spirit and bound her into his axe (as a place holder). She was a Dread Necromancer and my cohort. The eventual plan was for me to go all Frankenstein and build her a new body. That was one messed up character…

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