I think of my Wyrd Greyhawk as a low magic campaign world, but in fact, it is awash in it. Magic is elemental, a fundamental natural force which permeates and penetrates all space and things in the game world, living and not. Wells and currents of magical energy dot the world, allowing for things and creatures that mundane physics would deny. Raw arcane force has properties and behaviors of it’s own, but these are not completely definable as they vary, shift, and change from time to time and place to place. The only reliable definition of magic is that, it is that which science is not.
The thing that is actually low in Wyrd Greyhawk is the PC’s ability to access and control magic, and employ it to do their bidding. Harnessing magic to create a magic item, or cast a spell is like building a water wheel in order to to use the power of a river to run a mill. Spell work or magic item creation require extensive knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as a proper location and the needed natural energy. Just as a water mill would require knowledge and skill in metallurgy, woodworking, stonemasonry, a basic understanding of physics, the necessary materials, and a strong flowing stream, so too does magic use have a great number of prerequisites.
These things are well beyond the scope of the vast majority of people in Wyrd Greyhawk. Creating a magic item requires knowledge of magic that would be on a level equal with the ability to build a wind turbine to generate electricity, from scratch, without formal schooling. Remember, there are no magic universities or schools in Wyrd Greyhawk, only individual archmages who may choose to take apprentices or not.
This makes the number of magic items and their availability to the PCs in The Game very low and infrequent, which is what the phrase “Low Magic” is commonly seen to mean in gaming terms. This allows me a game world steeped in eldritch glamour without having PC’s suffering Christmas Tree Syndrome and cheapening the weird and unsettling feeling I want magic to have. I actually employ parts of the 2E wild magic system under certain conditions to enhance the atmosphere and ensure that players never take magic for granted. But that’s a post for another day.
This post is about how the natural flow of background magic, combined with circumstance and motivating action on the part of PCs, as well as the good judgment of the DM, occasionally results in the spontaneous creation of magic items.
When a PC shows a particular liking for, and flare in the use of, a particular mundane item, I begin assigning that item Arcane Potential Points, (APPs). Each time that item is employed in a manner which is inventive, showy, changes the course of an encounter or adventure, increases that character’s stature or renown in some way, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, or is above and beyond the ordinary in some way, I award the item 1 APP. Sometimes 2.
This is a measure of the natural magic of the game world being invested in and/or attracted to the item by the heroic or infamous actions of its wielder. Some events, desperate acts performed under duress or moments of incredible luck, cause ripples and reverberations in the arcane aether, drawing currents of magic towards objects and people. Such actions need not be good in nature, but must be of consequence. I don’t tell players this sort of thing, it’s above their paygrade.
Once an item has accumulated 10 APPs, it has a chance of spontaneously demonstrating magical abilities. This chance is equal to the weilder’s chance of Saving VS Magic. If the item fails the save, it will never become a spontaneous magic channel, end of story. If it succeeds, it has become a magic item.
The DM may proceed in several ways according to the goals of his particular play style from this point.
The magic may be rolled for randomly, using the magic item lists from whatever iteration of The Game you favor and adjusting the result to fit the item. This can be fun, but nonsensical. Which may or may not be a problem for you.
The magic may be dictated by the circumstances of the event which bestowed the final APP. A troll slaying may result in the sword bestowing regenerative abilities on its user. Knocking a thief off a wall with a staff might give the staff the power to cause vertigo or loss of balance on a hit, etc…. I tend to favor this approach myself; I like symmetry and sympathy in magic.
The magic may be related to the characters backstory if you run a story driven campaign. It could be that the character’s actions have activated some destined fate and the spontaneous magic item will in some way make possible a previously unknown or unreachable goal. You could easily retcon any number of plot points into the game in this manner.
The magic may be influenced by powers divine or infernal if such are present in some way at the moment of magical investiture. It may even be possible that the item could become cursed in some way if the final APP derives from an act of evil.
The magic may cause the item to become sentient in addition to whatever magical powers may be gained. In this case, the rules for dealing with intelligent swords come into play, with all that entails regarding power struggles between the PC and the item.
Weapons are the obvious items to become spontaneously magically charged, but any item which a character uses regularly in the requisite manner may possibly become magical. This especially applies to items which are intrinsic to the characters class. Items such as a thief’s favorite crowbar, a friar’s fighting gloves, a paladin’s spurs, or items like a frying pan, a banner, a blanket, etc… May begin to accumulate APPs, if through play they become a regular part of a character’s idiom.
This system allows for magic items to be inserted into a low magic campaign in a way that doesn’t lessen the weirdness of magic, and at a rate that is controllable by the DM. Magic items that come into being this way are very personal to the characters and are treated as having much more value than the generic sword +2 looted from orc hoard #47.
You may or may not wish to inform the players of the new magical power of their item. I find it entertaining to cause unexplained events and drop hints rather than outright announce these things. If the PCs get suspicious and drop some coin on sages and mages, they may find out what has happened, but probably not how, or why. The thing that makes magic, magic is its unpredictability and ultimate uncontrollability. Science is repeatable; magic may or may not be so.
The players don’t get to manipulate this system to create magic items as they wish. As a DM of the Old Guard, I don’t need proof of rules lawyery or bad faith manipulation to get all smitey, only suspicion of same.
The pic is a clip from the center of a Frazetta painting for Karl Edward Wagner's Kane. I dig it. In my fantasy afterlife, Frazetta sits in on Gary's game in the sky and does the character portraits.