Magic Mishap Items

Not every magic item is the pride and joy of the artificer who crafted it. Of course, some magic items aren’t made intentionally to begin with. These are the weapons bathed in the blood of elder dragon’s last heartbeat, staves held by mad wizards when they perform the ritual to attempt to achieve godhood, cloaks caught in the explosion when a crashing spaceship hits a medieval school of alchemy, or rings struck by a bolt of pure chaos when the wildmage breaks the lich’s soulvault. Often these accidental magic items take well-recognized and familiar forms—swords of dragonslaying and staves of might—but sometimes weirder items result from such accidental imbuements.

But even when a magic item is the end product of an exacting and meticulously planned eldritch process, sometimes you don’t get what was expected (or desired). You are, after all, dealing with magic.

There’s a word for a process that gives you exactly the same result when you attempt exactly the same procedure, but magic ain’t it.

So What Makes a Mishap?

While a GM doesn’t have to use specific rules defining when a mishap magic item happens—sometimes the background of a weird one-off bit of loot isn’t something anyone can or should duplicate—but it can be fun to offer players a chance to be involved in the creation of the weird and wondrous. Here are some common causes for items-gone-wrong.

Bad Recipe

It’s a well-known rule in cooking—if the recipe is wrong, the result will be wrong. If magic times are created by an ordered, recorded, duplicatable process, that recipe is the key to avoiding mishaps.

By that same logic if the recipe is bad—be that because the moldering old notes couldn’t be perfectly copied out, or because they were written in code that is incorrectly translated, or that a previous artificer added an intentional mistake they themselves knew to avoid just to serve as a safeguard—anyone trying to follow the mistaken instructions may get a result that’s just a bit off true.

Failed Saving Throw

When an item is exposed to the rigors of adventuring, sometimes either it or its wielder fail a saving throw. Sometimes, they Badly fail a saving throw. If an item is too burned, too shocked, or too close to a ray of defenestration, sometimes it gets a bit wonky. This is a perfectly reasonable backstory for any item (“Well, we were bathed in a chimera’s fiery breath, and my cloak of protection just hasn’t been the same ever since. So I am willing to part with it for just a bit less than I’d normally charge…”), but a GM should be cautious when using it on items in player’s possession. It’s a fair call if the effect in question is a custom creation designed to produce such results (“The scrambling field of the magebreaker constructs has been known to mangle more than just spells.”), or if presented as an alternative to an item being destroyed. A GM could even let a player choose to put an item as risk as an alternative to facing death or unconsciousness (“Although you failed your save against petrification, you got hit right on the hands— if you’d like for your magic gauntlets of brilliance to take the brunt of that attack you can avoid the effect yourself, though you don’t know what that’ll do to the gauntlets.”). But you probably don’t want to mess with a player’s hard-earned and beloved holy sword just because they failed a saving throw against ghoul paralysis—that’s not fun for a lot of players.

Rushed or Incomplete Procedures

This is largely the same as a bad recipe, except you can offer it as an intentional short cut. If a player doesn’t have the wealth, prerequisites, time, or proper conditions to make a magic item, might warn the player that failure could result in a mishap, or could have that be a complication the player discovers only after a sword of flaming is first drawn from its sheath.

A GM can always offer a chance for a player to try to take a short cut, with the warning that it’s not 100% likely to succeed. You can allow an item to be crafted at 75% of the normal cost, or in 75% of the normal time, or both, but a difficult skill check is required to do so successfully. And that check is made in secret by the GM.

GM Sabotage

If there are artificers and alchemists making magic items, there’s always the possibility of someone going out of their way to make those effort go awry.

Whether that’s just intentionally recreating one of the other circumstances we suggest (swapping out ingredients secretly, rewriting a recipe, placing a stone from a zone of chaos magic in the basement of the magic sword factory) or coming up with some new, specific way to throw a monkey wrench in the magicworks (a mishap curse could be placed on an artificer’s tools, or an imp released into the workshop to imbue fiendish evil into each item halfway through its creation), there’s no reason making magic items wouldn’t be at least as subject to sabotage as military planning or construction.

Zone of Chaos Magic

Sometimes there are just places in the world where magic goes horribly wrong. Perhaps it’s the ruined wreck of a magewar, the land above a trickster god’s tomb, or the one mountain where an interstellar spaceship crashed and it’s hyperdrive began playing havoc with the eldritch fabric of spacetime.

Whatever the reason, it’s a zone of chaos magic now.

An item taken into such a zone might temporarily become a mishap magic item (the cloak of elvenkind is a cloak of bad advice that only speaks elven, until you leave the area), allowing GM and players both to enjoy these quirkier qualities as a temporary addition to a campaign. Or magic items damaged within the zone might pickup a mishap modifier until repaired, or even permanently. And, of course, if anyone is so foolish (or brilliantly madcap) as to intentionally make a magic item with a zone of chaos magic, they’re practically asking to get a mishap.

Mishap Modifiers

Most mishaps are primarily functional magic items, that just have an odd quirk that is clearly not intended (unlike the few complete a cacophonies of chaos presented later in this book). These are items that serve well enough, but slightly inconvenience their owner from time to time, like a mule that won’t go unless you sing it a song, or a bootstrap that you have to tie because the buckle is too lose.

They can be considered very-minorly-cursed items, functional but with little mishap about them that only comes up from time to time, under just the right circumstances.

As a GM you can select a specific mishap magic to go with an item, or roll 1d20 to assign a mishap modifier at random. In general items with mishap modifiers should be treated as having the same value as non-mishap items, at least in terms of loot in the PCs’ hands, though they might require just the right customer (or collector!) to ever sell or trade away if their quirk is known.

Major Mishap Magics

While most Magic Mishap Items have fairly minor mishap modifiers, sometimes an item is such a major mishap that it’s hard to say what happened. These are the things of legend, or at least comedy sketches, but they are also much closer to being real cursed item. Add them to a game mindfully, or as entirely temporary or optional things for players to pick up.

Consumable Mishap Items

One of the best ways to introduce Magic Mishap Items is with a few eccentric consumables. There’s always the risk players just won’t ever use them, but they also don’t take up as much treasure value and important gear space, so players are more free to carry them around “just in case” they might be useful. Two examples of mishap consumables are presented below.

Table 1: Mishap Modifier Table (d20)
d20 Effect
01 Bigger. If you have the item on your person for 8 hours or more, you become 10% taller and 30% heavier for 24 hours. Your clothes and armor grow with you, but not quite enough not to give you a slightly lanky, too-big-for-your-britches look. This has no effect on your size, reach, footprint, or any other game statistic.
02 Catseye. When the item is in your possession, and for 24 hours afterwards, your eyes change radically. A common version of this is for you to have vertically slit cat’s eyes, but other versions include your eyes turning red, or entirely flat black, or even having bits of smoke curl up from their pupils. Other than making you fairly distinctive this is basically harmless. Some edgier adventurers even enjoy the effect.
03 Costly. Somehow, you lose 1d100 cp each day the item is in your possession. It may fall through a hole in your pocket, be taken as fees from a transaction, or just end up left behind when you wake up and dress from a rented room. No matter what precautions you take, even if your money is not with you, some amount of it disappears to the mishap curse each day.
04 Unseen and Unheard. When the item is on your person when an effect would normally blind you, you are instead deafened for the same duration. When an effect would normally deafen you, you are instead blinded for the same duration. In both cases, your senses are significantly scrambled, allowing you to see sounds, hear colors, and smell changes of temperature.
05 Dimension Flap. The item occasionally and randomly teleports you a short distance. When you roll a natural 13 on an attack roll or saving throw (the d20 shows a “13”), you are teleported 5 feet in a random direction. You are never teleported into a space with an environment more dangerous than the one you are in—for example you would not be teleported off the edge of a cliff or into a fire (if you weren’t already in a fire), but might be teleported within reach of a monster. You can never trigger this ability intentionally.
06 Dragonfriend. The item loves dragons. That has an upside—you can speak Draconic while the item is on your person, and gain advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks with dragons. But it also has a downside, the item makes it hard to harm dragons—any dragons, and you take a -2 penalty to attack rolls against dragons while the item is on your person.
07 Flutterby. The item attracts butterflies, even in places you wouldn’t expect to find them (though not in environments hostile to butterflies, like underwater). As long as you are on the move this doesn’t have any significant effect—the occasional extra butterfly normally goes without notice. But if you stay in one place for an hour or more, the number of butterflies nearby increases significantly. This is mostly only an issue if you are trying to be hidden while camping, and your foe knows that a bush covered in butterflies is a sure sign you are nearby.
08 Footloose. Your feet become invisible for as long as the item is on your person. This has no effect on any footwear you have, or leaving footprints, and normally has no effect on gameplay. However, it is more difficult for people to perform Wisdom (Medicine) checks on issues that exclusively deal with your feet, imposing a -2 penalty to such checks.
09 Heavy. The item is just heavier than it should be. It has 50% more weight, to a minimum of weighing 1 lb. This has no effect on its effectiveness, it just makes it somewhat awkward.
10 Heraldic. Having the item on your person for 8 hours or more causes your clothing, armor, and shield to be marked with symbols that indicate your true loyalties, titles, offices, and religion, as appropriate. You can still disguise yourself by putting on a different set of clothing, but any such costume has an 8-hour maximum duration unless you keep changing, or work such symbols into your costume.
11 It’s an item that says so. Literally, it occasionally utters the word “so,” generally in common though some have specific other languages and accents. You take disadvantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks. On the other hand, you can make any claim you want, and if someone challenges you on it, you can honestly reply you have an item that says so. You can have similar effect for items that randomly giggle, burp, sneeze, or yell “Hey stinkhead” in orcish.
12 Older. If you have the item on your person for 8 hours or more, you look much older than your true age for 24 hours. This doesn’t change what level of maturity you look compared to the standards of your society – an infant looks like an older infant, a child looks like an older child, a mature adult looks like a much older mature adult, and so on. You still recognizably look like yourself, just in good age-increasing makeup.
13 Pale. If you have the item on your person for 8 hours or more, you and all your clothing and equipment becomes extremely pale for 24 hours. Colors fade, highlights become pastel, shine dulls, and so on. The effect is not enough to alter any abilities or die rolls, just to make you notably pale. You still recognizably look like yourself, just in a sun-faded coloration.
14 Saturated. If you have the item on your person for 8 hours or more, you and all your clothing and equipment becomes extremely bright and chromatic. Colors intensify, highlights brighten, shine sparkles, and so on. The effect is not enough to alter any abilities or die rolls, just to make you notably colorful. You still recognizably look like yourself, just in particularly bright colors and contrasts.
15 Shocking. The item draws electricity and lighting toward it. There’s a downside to that—you gain disadvantage on saving throws against lighting spells and effects, and attacks that do lightning damage gain advantage against you. However, it also means if a creature adjacent to you is targeted by lightning damage, you may (without taking an action) decide to pull that lightning a bit toward you, giving the creature advantage on any saving throw, or any disadvantage on any associated attack roll.
16 Smaller. If you have the item on your person for 8 hours or more, you become 10% shorter and 30% lighter for 24 hours. Your clothes and armor shrink with you, but not quite enough not to give you a slightly loose, wearing-an-older-sibling’s-gear look. This has no effect on your size, reach, footprint, or any other game statistic.
17 Stinky. The item has a foul odor about it, though only when in use. If you pack it away at the bottom of a backpack you’re fine, but once it’s worn or in hand, creatures using scent to attempt Wisdom (Perception) or (Survival) checks to find or track you gain advantage on the check. On the other hand, while it’s easy to track you by scent, creatures doing so must succeed at a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or have their sense of smell blinded by the stench for 1d4 hours.
18 Telepathetic. The item randomly causes you to exchange surface thoughts with one creature attacking you, and the exchange causes you to both have too much sympathy for the other to do your best to kill one another. The first time in each combat a creature attacking you rolls a natural 11 (the d20 shows an 11), you and it exchange surface thoughts as if each had affected the other with detect thoughts. You have a deeply-felt sympathy for one another for the remainder of the fight, and each take a disadvantage to attack rolls against the other, and gain advantage on saving throws against effects the other creates.
19 Toast au Fromage. While the item is on your person, you have the skill to make the most amazing cheese toast.
20 Younger. If you have the item on your person for 8 hours or more, you look much younger than your true age for 24 hours. This doesn’t change what level of maturity you look compared to the standards of your society – an infant looks like a younger infant, a child looks like a younger child, a mature adult looks like a much younger mature adult, and so on. You still recognizably look like yourself, just in good age-decreasing makeup.

Some magic items just weren’t carefully thought out. Arrows of healing fall in this category.

When a target is short by such an arrow they receive magic healing… which isn’t necessarily a greater amount than the damage done by the arrow. Worse, to ensure the arrows don’t discharge their healing magic accidentally while being jostled in transport or sitting in a quiver, their mystic potential isn’t activated until they are actually fired from a bow (or crossbow—bolts of healing can use exactly the same rules) and damage a target. When you shoot a creature with an arrow of healing there’s a 50% chance you do damage normally, and a 50% chance you heal it of 1d8 damage.

Major Mishap Items

A major mishap item is one that has more than just a mishap modifier, and is a permanent magic item that fulfills the same kind of function and position as a standard magic item. There’s a narrow line between being a major mishap item and just being a quirky cursed magic item. In general, a major mishap item must be genuinely useful in some regard, and importantly be more useful than it is hindering. But at the same time, it must clearly work in a way that no one would have attempted to create intentionally. You can do some major mishap items with just a disconnected between form and function—think of magic pants that give you better vision, or a magic storage container that doesn’t hold more than usual but does allow you to teleport. Certainly some classic magic items from myths and legend fall into this category if considered logically—there’s nothing about either a broom or a carpet that makes them a logical choice to grant the power of flight for example. Major mishap items like this are easy to create by taking a standard magic item, and given it an unusual form without changing any other rules.

The other common category of major mishap items is those that do something that initially seems useless, but actually as a beneficial side effect.

These take a good deal more careful planning and consideration, but can also be more fun in the long run. Two examples of that kind of major mishap item are presented below.

d% Effect
01-05 Next creature damaged by the imbiber within 1 round affected by slow for 10.
06–10 Faerie fire surrounds the next creature damaged by the imbiber within 1 round.
11–15 Deludes the imbiber for 1 round into believing the potion functioned as indicated by a second die roll (no save).
16–20 Gust of wind centered on imbiber.
21–25 Imbiber learns the surface thoughts of the next creature the imbiber damaged within 1 round (as with detect thoughts) for 1d4 rounds (no save).
26–30 Stinking cloud appears centered on the imbiber, but the imbiber is immune.
31–33 Heavy rain falls for 1 round in 60 ft radius centered on the imbiber.
34–36 Any time in the next 1d4 rounds, the imbiber can summon one creature. It is a rhino (01–25 on d%), elephant (26–50), or rat (51–100).
37–46 Any time in the next 1d4 rounds, the imbiber can cast a single lightning bolt.
47–49 A stream of 600 large butterflies pours forth from the imbiber’s mouth and flutters around for 2 rounds, blinding everyone within a 60 ft. cone (Dexterity saving throw negates).
50–53 Imbiber is affected by enlarge/reduce, with a 50% chance of either effect.
54–58 Darkness, 30 ft-diameter hemisphere, centered in the imbiber.
59–62 Imbiber is healed for 2 hp/level.
63–65 Imbiber ignores all conditions for 1 round.
66–69 Imbiber gains a 5-ft fly speed for 24 hours.
70–79 Any time in the next 1d4 rounds, the imbiber can cast a single fireball.
80–84 Imbiber becomes invisible, as invisibility.
85–87 Leaves grow from the imbiber. These last 24 hours.
88–90 5d4 gems, value 1 gp each, fall on the imbiber. Each gem deals 1 point of damage.
91–95 Shimmering colors dance and play over a 40 ft x 30 ft area entered on the imbiber. Creatures therein are blinded for 1d6 rounds (a successful Constitution saving throw negates).
96–97 All then imbiber’s gear (50% chance) or the imbiber’s hair and eyes (50% chance) turn permanently blue, green, or purple (no save).
98–99 Imbiber is immune for 1d4 hours to the last spell or magic effect to affect them.
100 Imbiber is immune for 1d4 hours to the next spell or magic effect to affect them.

Before spells existed, there was a powerful magic that take the form of runes—written sigils which serve as containers for magic energies.

Runes existed before the first languages were created, and are a form of writing reality-changing energy. Also known as “true runes,” each of these ancient symbols describes a single concept so powerfully that the mere presence of the rune brings some element of that concept into existence.

The ideas of runes as an alternate magic source and characters able to maximize their use were first introduced in Master Class: Runecaster. However, there are far more runes in the universe than can be contained in that one product, and it is possible for characters of other classes to gain access to rune magic through the multiclassing, or taking runic feats.

Section 15: Copyright Notice

Magic Mishap Items, 5e © 2020, Owen K.C. Stephens; Author: Owen K.C. Stephens. Project manager and Planning: Lj Stephens. Bon Vivant: Stan!

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