Brandes at Harbinger of Doom has some good thoughts about 5e magic item creation. He points out its problems: creating a cool item is not a good time investment (it takes 5+ years of downtime to make a very rare item and 50+ years to make a legendary one), and, once you’ve created it, you sell it at a loss.
Harbinger’s solution is to add optional item creation ingredients, some of which speed up and some of which cheapen the process. This strategy has a bunch of benefits.
A DM can dream up all sorts of magical ingredients: rare herbs, star metal from a fallen meteor, that sort of thing. But right now I’m primarily interested in trophies – that is, harvestable pieces of monsters. Trophies come with a whole list of extra benefits.
When collecting monster trophies, you have to steer clear of some pitfalls. It won’t be fun if:
OK, on board? Good! Brandes is writing up a more detailed set of magic item ingredient rules, but in the meantime, here are my simple trophy rules, which you can bolt right on the existing 5e item creation rules.
First, I’ll summarize the official DMG rules (pp 128-129):
It costs 100 GP to make a common item, 500 for uncommon, 5k for rare, 50k for very rare, and 500k for legendary. It takes 1 day per 25 GP of cost. You must be 3rd level to make any magic item, and 6th, 11th, and 17th for Rare, Very Rare, and Legendary respectively.
What can you make with a trophy?
Let’s make the new rules tidy enough to fit on a Post-It note:
An item’s cost and creation time can be reduced by 1/5 with a trophy from a thematically linked and level-appropriate monster (treat the item’s minimum creator level as the monster’s minimum CR). You can use multiple trophies if they’re from different species. You can’t lower creation cost below 100 GP.
For instance, a trophy suitable for a “very rare” item – monster CR 11 to 16 – will take the place of 10k GP of cost and 400 days of labor.
This means that a trophy is worth 1/3 of a level-appropriate treasure – so it’s a pretty big reward. But it isn’t just a generic cash coupon. It can only be used in thematically appropriate recipes. A hellhound’s fangs, for instance, might only be useful for making items with fire powers. Furthermore, more appropriate is better. Here’s another rule for the Post-It: The single most fitting trophy for a certain magic item counts double, and the CR restriction is waived. For instance, a troll heart would pay for 2/5, not 1/5, of a Ring of Regeneration, even though trolls are CR 6 and very rare items normally require CR 11 trophies.
Do the characters know these recipes? I’m thinking of trophies as “player empowerment” treasure. If the players kill a monster and ask whether any parts are valuable, the DM should freely tell them which piece is used in item recipes, and then flip through the DMG and tell them one or two item recipes in which it could be used. (There may be more which the players can discover through experimentation or research.)
Where do you get a trophy?
If the players want to make a specific magic item, and they ask about searching for ingredients, the DM should flip through the Monster Manual and tell them one or two monsters thematically related the item. The DM should also provide a world location or two (not necessarily nearby) where these monsters can be found. Tracking down a monster doesn’t always have to be huge production. It might be a single incident during the course of a larger journey, a sort of player-selected random encounter.
Not every monster is magical enough to warrant taxidermy. Let’s go through the 5e monster types.
Aberration: Not a good candidate for trophies. Your magic items would have too many mouths. Only a few oddball items like the Tentacle Rod require aberration trophies.
Beast: Beasts aren’t suffused with magic. You can’t get any magic trophies from killing a beast, even a big one like an elephant or a weird one like a winged snake.
Construct: Constructs might use trophies in their creation, but they don’t leave any when they die.
Fiend: Fiendish trophies are good only for a handful of evil items.
Humanoid: Like beasts, you can’t get trophies from humanoids.
Ooze: Oozes are practically garbage. Not much value can be extracted from them.
Plant: Not much to be gained by messing with twig blights and the like either.
Undead: Undead are sort of like constructs – they’ve had two lives already and are pretty much used up. There are a few exceptions for powerful undead: lich phylacteries, demilich gems, and mummy lord wrappings can be useful for some high-level items.
Celestial: Pegasus wings (brooms of flying) and unicorn horns (periapt of proof against poison) are highly sought after by evil wizards who must be thwarted by PCs.
Dragon: A dragon’s trophy is its scaly hide, which can be turned into a suit of armor.
Elemental: Every elemental, except summoned ones, leaves behind an elemental mote. These are good for dozens of magic items, including the various elemental-command items and anything that shoots fire, pours water, grants flight, or is carved from stone.
Fey: There are only 7 fey creatures in the MM, of which the most common PC targets are hags. Their evil eyes are used in items related to sight and disguise.
Giant: Giant hearts are used in lots of magic recipes, including ogre gauntlets, giant belts, frostbrand and flametongue swords, and, from troll hearts, various healing items. Harvesting pieces of good or neutral giants is evil.
Monstrosity: This is the main trophy-bearing monster type. There are no less than 50 monstrosities in the Monster Manual – hey, it’s practically in the name of the book – and each bears a different trophy. Peryton shadows, purple worm stingers, umber hulk eyes, displacer beast hides, rust monster tentacles, and all the rest fetch good prices from the wizards in the city.
Speaking of prices: how about buying and selling trophies? When ready-to-loot dungeons aren’t available, I imagine that monster hunting is the next most lucrative career for adventurer types. You might have a 1 in 6 chance of finding a buyer for each trophy in each big city. Here’s another rule: If you do sell a trophy, you typically get half its item-creation value (50 GP for a CR 3+ monster, 500 for 6+, 5k for 11+, and 50k for 17+). On the other side of the bargain, if you’re trying to buy an item to speed up your magic item creation, you might be able to get it at half price – if it’s available. In a major city, the DM should flip the Monster Manual open to three random pages. If any of the monsters on those pages have trophies, they’re available.
This mini-economy solves the 5e rules problem that prices an item at less than its creation cost. The monster trophy market means that people rarely pay full price to create a magic item.
OK, that’s all the rules I’ve got. Let’s see how we’d make a random legendary item. I just flipped open the DMG and found the Rod of Resurrection. OK, what creatures of 17+ CR could make generous donations to its creation? Obviously, a phoenix feather is the most appropriate trophy. The Phoenix isn’t statted up in the 5e MM, although the DMG suggests it as a monster you could easily make by modifying a roc or giant eagle. Because it’s such a fitting monster, I’ll make the phoenix feather worth 40% of the item creation cost – 200,000 GP – and waive the normal 17 CR requirement for a legendary item. Other good ingredients for this item are suggested by the item’s illustration in the 5e DMG, which shows a gemmed rod with a skull on one side and a winged head on the other: a demilich is CR 18 and a solar is CR 21. Either a demilich gem or a solar’s last breath can be used to reduce the item’s cost by a further 100,000 GP. (Killing an angel for its last breath is quite evil.)
So far everything I’ve said has been focused on monster parts. A lot of it is just as applicable to other magical ingredients. Herbs, rare metals, and relics might have levels too, based on the dangers of their area, and provide exactly the same magical benefits. Their locations should be reasonably transparent to the players, at least in terms of general area, and finding the items needn’t always be a game-session-devouring quest. Making magic items can be flavorful and fun without needlessly derailing the campaign.