Magic Item Side Quest

Posted on June 1, 2010 by


The following article comes via Tim, from the Random Thought Parade blog.  He had a neat idea about creating side quests for the acquisition of magical items, and he asked me if he could share it with readers of my blog.  Enjoy!

Magic Item Side Quests

Powerful magic items are big rewards for players – loot feeds the greedy roleplayer and makes the power-gamer more powerful.  Still, choosing and distributing these items can be a lot of work for the DM.  Some DM’s have their players make item wish-lists – this is great as it not only takes some of the burden and pregame work off of the DM’s shoulders, but also ensures that players receive items that they really want.  Other DM’s simply give treasure parcels in gold pieces and art objects and have their players buy the magic items.  In either case, the players are rewarded and the DM has less prep work to do.
Still, these methods can have their issues.  Where exactly does that beetle swarm keep the Vanguard Axe?  How did the large club-wielding ogre come to carry a halfling-sized set of Shimmering Robes?  What if a powerful enchanter or “Magical Item Emporium” just doesn’t fit into your narrative?  Additionally, given the choice, the players may have a hard time finding spots on their wish-list or spending their hard-earned cash on items that may benefit the whole party, such as Bags of Holding, potions, and ritual components.  The DM also has the responsibility to make sure the loot is divided fairly and that nobody gets too big of a share at a time.  Depending on the group, these can be non-issues or a large problem.
An alternate (and I think fun) way to distribute magical items, especially the Weapon/Implement, Armor, and Neck slots that are so key to 4E D&D, is to remove these items from the normal treasure parcels and turn the acquisition of these powerful items into side quests.  This has several advantages: the DM can decide a narrative-appropriate location for the items, the players receive items that they want and are excited about, it is up to the players and not the DM the order in which the items are obtained, and it can add adventures that branch off the main story of the campaign.  Here are some suggestions for a DM to add Magic Item Side Quests to your game:
Step 1: Player Wish-Lists
Gather a list of items that each player wants to obtain for their character and pick the items that you want to add side quests for.  They don’t need to be questing for Eternal Chalk or a Healing potion – try to pick items from the list that are particularly powerful or useful.  As mentioned before, weapons and implements, armor, and neck-slot items are the best candidates, but don’t count out particularly good items from any category – anything that the player would be excited to receive and would be willing to work hard to obtain.
Step 2: Create Parcels
Combine the items you have chosen from the player’s lists and sort them by level.  Create item parcels of similar level from between one item and the number of players you have (try to make it no more than one item from each player’s list so one player isn’t being rewarded more than another).  Small parcels will be short quests and allow the party to decide to help one PC increase their power quickly.  Large parcels will be longer quests and reward more or all of the players but will obviously take longer.  Tailor these to your players, too – if you know they just want to take quick breaks from the main storyline and will decide to help each PC in turn, make more smaller parcels.  If they would like to make longer forays or have trouble with one player’s greed overrunning the needs of the others, make more larger parcels.
Step 3: Decide Parcel Location
Where are the items located?  This is a chance to put some classic fantasy tropes into your game.  Maybe they are:
in the mountain horde of a dragon;
in a stinking den of gnolls;
in a hobgoblin warlord’s tower;
last in possession of fabled explorers, who headed to a forgotten temple in the wilderness and were never seen again;
buried in the tomb of a long-dead hero;
stolen booty of planar Gith pirates;
in the pocket dimension of a powerful, long-dead wizard.

Alternately, perhaps the parcel is owned by a noble, official, or other NPC and can be offered as a reward for performing a service, in which case the side-quest could be nearly anything.  Any situation that sounds fun should be a possibility.  Again, it should be something short (1-2 encounters) for a small parcel of items and longer for a larger list.  It should also be tuned to the level of the items – lower-level items should be in easier locations and higher-level items should be in more difficult locations – in general encounters of several levels below up to the item’s level. 
These side quests are also a chance to take a short break from the main story of your campaign – you can add wilderness travel to a city-based campaign, clear-cut evil monsters in a story with gray morals, dungeon delves to a game of political intrigue, or even inter-NPC conflict to a game of monster-slaying, if the party is, say, asked by one NPC to steal something from another in return for the wanted item.
Step 4: Integrate the Side-Quests
All that remains is to introduce these quests to your players.  There are many ways to do this; for example:
Perhaps the streetwise party rogue has many contacts and can track down the last known location of the items.
Maybe they learn the location form a learned sage or a great library.
The party (or an NPC) could perform a divining ritual that would reveal where the items are.
Feel free to link these into the main storyline of your campaign, either by adding elements of the main story to the side quests or adding hints of the side quests to the main story (props to Dave the Game here for the linking in his 5×5 planning method).
Now that these big-ticket, PC-specific items have been removed from the loot of the main story, make sure to put treasure in the main encounters that benefit the party as a whole or may be shared by several PC’s.  Ritual books, scrolls, and components, potions and other consumables, many of the Wondrous Items, magical mounts and vehicles, and items from the oft-neglected slots (arm, hands, head, to a lesser extent feet) make great treasure that the players will be glad to have, but may not have chosen to purchase or ask for given the choice.  Have fun adding Magic Item Side Quests to your game, and I hope these tips help!

If you are a reader with an idea that you’d like to share with other new DM’s, send me an email at newbiedm @ with your proposal and we’ll see if we can get it published.