In the traditional Dungeons & Dragons game, magic items are things carefully crafted by divine or arcane spellcasters. These individuals decide on what they want to make, gather the requisite materials and then work through an elaborate process of harnessing magical energies and imbuing them into the chosen item. This process works well in a high-magic campaign setting, where clerics, wizards and others are relatively common it's not unusual to find shops dedicated to buying and selling such treasures.
For a low-magic and historically-inspired setting, however, this doesn't fit so well. For one thing, the characters who can harness such magical energies are few and far between. Furthermore, the tales regarding those relics that do exist describe a different process entirely. Take, for instance, some of the relics associated with the Christian religion. Veronica's veil was just an ordinary cloth, but it was rendered holy by its contact with Jesus during the Passion. There are many similar examples associated with various saints, where items that they used, and even parts of their bodies, become relics.
The legendary treasures previously presented provide more examples of this process. The highlander's broadsword is one such, the blade that finally killed Blackbeard after he's been shot and stabbed more than a score of times. The same can be said for Captain Kidd's hanging rope, Danseker's shillings, Hatuey's macana and the Mission banner. Each of these things was simply a mundane item until it became embroiled in important events, wielded by individuals who would make their mark on history. One can imagine that, if these events were being played out as part of a roleplaying game, they would make for epic and memorable moments.
In this same way, a GM can use the events of a campaign to create new legendary treasures. To do so, one should look out for noteworthy happenings during adventures. Some of the possibilities include the following:
- A character scores a critical hit to defeat an important foe.
- Somebody attempts a daring action that could have distinctly negative consequences, but manages to succeed.
- A PC makes a tremendous sacrifice to benefit the rest of the party.
These moments should be fairly easy to recognize, since they provide the stories that the players and GM's tell for years afterward. A hard-pressed warrior could throw a dagger to cut the rope of a chandelier, sending it crashing down on an enemy to powerful to defeat in regular combat. A roguish type might stab his rapier into the gullet of a kraken, while the rest of the party is grappled in its tentacles. A gunslinger could manage to snipe a fleeing enemy at long range with his pistol, preventing its escape. Whatever the case, these events should be noteworthy as far as the course of the campaign is concerned, and should not happen often.
As far as the bonuses are concerned, these could be a normal +1 enhancement bonus, or they could be more specific to the event in question. The aforementioned pistol might gain the distance quality, while the rapier in question could become keen. It's important to keep in mind, though, that such benefits should be distributed as evenly as possible between the PC's to prevent imbalance, hard feelings and the like.
In this way, characters in a historically-inspired pirates game can gradually accumulate magical items—in addition to those acquired as part of treasure hauls—without going to town to purchase them. An added benefit of this system is that it helps to weave the PC's into the tapestry of the campaign setting, just like the heroes and villains, saints and sinners who came before them. Imagine having a group of pirates raiding settlements of the Spanish Main during the time of Henry Morgan. If a GM then ran a game during the time of Blackbeard, items used by characters in the first series of adventures could become treasures in the second set.
This also provides the GM with a chance to introduce new items tied to specific NPC's in a campaign. For instance, a recurring enemy could possess an item that he uses frequently, and perhaps has used to defeat or escape from the PC's. By the time they manage to defeat him, the PC's can claim that treasure, which has inherent value and makes a fine trophy of their victory.