using monster trophies to create magic items

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.

  • It potentially matches item creation to the time scale of a D&D campaign.
  • It cheapens item creation to the point where you might make a profit from it, while limiting such profit by the supply of rare ingredients.
  • It introduces new types of loot for the DM to give out.
  • It lets you subdivide magic items, so that, if you wish, you can have frequent rewards without overloading the players with treasure.

    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.

  • They let players make decisions up front. Normally treasure is a sight-unseen reward bestowed on players after the fact. But a pair of highly enchantable gorgon horns, for instance, is a treasure that you can see approaching with a gorgon under it – treasure on the hoof, as it were.
  • They give characters an in-game reason to kill monsters, supporting the meta-game reason (earning XP).
  • They validate an intuition many players have about the game world (“Surely I should be able to sell this wyvern poison!”)
  • They potentially add player-directed objectives to the game world map. (“There’s a place called Valley of the Chimera? I could use some chimera horns for my Ring of the Ram!”)

    When collecting monster trophies, you have to steer clear of some pitfalls. It won’t be fun if:

  • it seems morally repellent. Collecting trophies from innocent intelligent creatures should be treated as an evil act.
  • it seems too much like ingredient farming in an MMO. Make sure that you don’t introduce any grindy MMO stuff like low drop rates or stacks of required items. You should only have to kill one wyvern to get your wyvern ingredient.
  • it introduces too much bookkeeping. Players have no objection to keeping track of treasure, but to make things simple, you shouldn’t have to render a dragon into like 10 things. Each type of monster should only have one trophy.

    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.

    Inferior 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.

    Superior types:
    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.

  • 5 Responses to “using monster trophies to create magic items”

    1. Rich Howard says:

      Sent over here by Brandes’ post. I love this idea and will be stealing it.

    2. Sean Holland says:

      I think demons, devils and such should be perfect for harvesting for magic items, flexible, easy to use, like they want to be made into items . . . they just taint their final product.

      So, a perfect shortcut for the wizard on the go, sure they produce tainted items, but they are cheap and quick to make.

    3. Shieldhaven says:

      Building on Sean’s idea, maybe some supernatural beings (angels and fey especially) can contribute their being to the creation of a magic item without suffering harm, if the believe the creator or intended wielder to be worthy. This makes their “parts” into loot from social encounters (so that you aren’t stck making only evil items from the things you can justify murdering).

    4. 1d30 says:

      To reduce bookkeeping, MMO-style farming, and rules overhead, you could just include very specific instances where item creation might not take forever.

      1: The First Chimera’s horns, bathed as they’ve been in the blood of countless kings, could be used to create a Ring of the Ram (or one of various other specific magic items). The horns from any of his children? Not so much.

      2: A meteorite falls and everyone from the town is scrambling to gather pieces from the wilderness. Bandits, local lords, tax collectors, random peasant gangs, other adventuring parties, royal rangers, etc. This one meteorite would be good for making magic weapons and armor – but how much of it can you collect?

      3: Every dragon can breathe one gout of its magical breath that is so pure, so powerful, it surpasses any other attack the dragon could make – but only once in its lifetime. Many don’t get the chance before being cut down. But a desert caravan in their journey through the Glassy Waste was attacked by a Blue Dragon and their guards slew it – and a far larger Blue swept in, crying in anguish. As the caravan’s wizard fled by turning into a horsefly, the great dragon gathered its energies and blasted the whole area with a torrent of lightning, slaying everyone else. The wizard says the body of the young dragon remains there, entombed in a pillar of still-hot glass anointed by the tears of its mother. You could probably pry out its skull and stick it at the end of a Staff of Thunder and Lightning, right?

      4: Any old regular dragon hide can make good armor. Assuming you killed it with only blunt weapons and a minimum of magic. And the AC of the armor will be based on the AC of the dragon, so if you want really good armor you’re gonna be whacking on a really tough dragon with not-so-great weapons. (AC 4 lower sounds good if you’re using 1E, giving AC equal to Leather +1 for the weakest to Leather +5 for Red and Gold) (whereas in 2E with far stronger dragons, you might want to say it’s 8 lower and if the bonus would be higher than +5, the armor becomes the next heavier type. Since a max-age Red Dragon is AC -11 and that would be Leather +10, instead we keep bumping it until the dragon-hide armor is equivalent to Field Plate +5). I don’t see a problem with people skinning every dragon they kill, or knowing that they can get armor off every dragon, because this kind of thing is entrenched in Bulettes, the hides of Aurumvoraxes, Giant Otter pelts, etc.

      5: If you kill a golem, you can dig out its golem heart and it saves you some time and money in creating the same type of golem. But there’s a % change the golem secretly hates you and will take the best opportunity it can get to screw you over. But come on, how frequently does a Wizard go down to few enough HP that his golem could take him out with a single hit? Probably every time he rolls out of bed with a hangover.

      This lets the DM put the things in his campaign kinda the same way as loot. But this loot needs a spellcaster who can make magic items to get a benefit from it, and the loot isn’t a single item that’s already been determined but a range of items that the PC could choose from.

      The downside I’ve seen in ingredient-driven magic item creation is that the ingredients are too common. Once you get to the heart of the Great Glacier and carve out a chunk of ice to become a Frostreaver Axe, why don’t you just carve out another 900 chunks and get to work? When you finally discover the purest spring in the land and pick a clover for your Luckstone, why leave all the other clovers sitting around?

      If the PCs manage to kill a phoenix, is it going to drop just one really good feather? And if the feather can be used to cut a lot of cost from magic item creation for things ranging from Potions of Healing to Staves of Resurrection, everyone’s going to be willing to buy some. Pretty soon the phoenix looks like it’s worth millions in feathers – why does it even need a treasure type?

      Pricing an item at less than creation cost is fine by me. The player can choose to dig through dungeons hoping for a Cloak of Displacement, or he can spend the fat stacks of cash to make one. Should wizards be able to churn out magic items from factories belching imps from mystical smokestacks? I believe that there should be no more profitable venture in D&D than adventure, otherwise no character would ever do it. I’d put the creation cost at triple sale value, or double if you have a unique trophy (First Chimera, not just a Chimera) plus it saves a lot of time.

      But this really comes down to how much control you want players to have over the direction of the game. At low level they’re confronted with barriers at every turn, and as they rise they gain more options. Being able to make magic items should be a significant ability, but it should it completely change the nature of the game? If magic item creation is in any way easier than adventuring for magic items, you have a divide between the former game where finding a magic item is interesting and full of potential, to a latter game where all that matters is that the item is not on anyone’s shopping list so we’re going to sell it to “buy” the exact magic items we want by paying creation costs.

    5. Andrew says:

      I recently wrote a blog post with some high level ideas for the sorts of things you could use for components that weren’t monster parts; .
      Hope that noodling helps.

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