One way a GM can put their stamp on an adventure is to include unique items in the treasure troves player characters find, or better yet, become an artifact central to an entire quest.
A great source for inspiration is to visit a local library, thumb through history books, and find some real-life items from the past.
Here are a few such items you can add to your game. (And if you need some d20-style mechanics to make the item magical, I’ve added a second description.) All four are inspired from photographs that appear in the What Life Was Like series of Time-Life books, c. 1998.
In the comments section, please share any stories of any real world legends or artifacts that have made it into your game and how the experience went.
The emperor’s goblet is a cup made of agate and gold, and inlaid with precious gems. The bowl is made of agate, with stripes of deep blue, uneven striations of pink, maroon and beige. The bowl itself is irregular, shaped like a gravy boat, wide and fat at one end, narrowing to a thin pouring lip at the other. The polished stone bowl is mounted on a stem and base of gold, which is decorated with raised relief patterns of grape leaves. The tiny red and purple gems are set in bunches of four and three within the leaves on the section of the stem directly under the bowl.
Lore: Courtiers and bards say the emperor, before sharing a drink with guests, would put his own lips to this agate cup to demonstrate that its contents were not poisoned, and thus, safe to drink. Legends say that loyal priests presented the emperor with the goblet after he made a public conversion to their faith.
Cup of Detoxification. Aura: faint conjuration (healing) divination; CL 9th; Slot —; Price 133,000 gp; Weight 25 lbs. Description: The magic of the cup neutralizes any poison that is added to the bowl or its liquid contents (or if the poison is already mixed in a liquid before it is poured into the bowl). The person holding the cup by the stem knows instantly if contents had been poisoned. Construction. Requirements Craft wondrous item, neutralize poison, true seeing; cost 66,500 gp.
Horn of the Oliphant
The horn is the hollowed out ivory tusk of an elephant of immense proportions. The ivory is intricately carved at the ends with patterns of plants and ocean waves and griffons. The great middle section of the horn is engraved with reliefs of archers, mounted lancers, warriors with swords, bears, lions and leopards.
Lore: The horn came from an elephant of legendary size once ridden by the games master as he led a parade of beasts, gladiators, charioteers and performers into the great hippodrome before a competition. It is said the animal’s spirit resides within the horn, which when blown blesses the competitors of the games.
Horn of Bestial Rage. Aura faint enchantment (compulsion) (mind affecting); CL 5; Slot —; Price 30,000 gp; Weight 50 lbs. Description: Any animal, animal companion or magical beast within 500 ft. of the horn’s sounding gains a +2 morale bonus to Strength and Constitution, a +1 morale bonus on Will saves and a -2 penalty to AC (the effect is identical with a barbarian’s rage except the subjects are not fatigued at the end of the rage. The effect lasts for one hour. Although the horn may be sounded any number of times, it is effective only once per day. Construction. Requirements Craft wondrous item, rage; costs 15,000 gp.
Iron Wand of the Druids
The iron wand is the length of an average man’s arm, from shoulder to wrist, segmented in three with the lower two-thirds tapering in girth so it can be held between forefinger and thumb. Both the top and the bottom of the wand are capped by balls. Adjoining the lower two sections are reinforcing ribbed bands. The top third of the wand features three disks set around a thin post. The lowest disk is twice the width of the thickest part of the wand, shaped like a convex lens. The center disk is flat and slightly narrower than the first. The topmost disk is slightly wider than the lowest one, but also has a convex lens shape.
Lore: The wand is said to be a focus for a druid’s powerful spells. Some say the order of the disks at the top of the wand represents the movement of celestial bodies, but others insist it is the pattern of an ancient cosmology, showing planes of existence.
Though called a wand, this items acts in all respects as a Rod of Thunder and Lightning.
Dipping Cup of Saint Brigit
This metal cup is embossed with the spindle cross that symbolizes Brigit, a patron saint of Ireland, but also a goddess of Celtic lore. The cup is attached by a great chain to the stone well which is filled by spring water in a remote highlands location.
Lore: Drinking from the cup activates its healing properties. Though the cup is secured to the well to dissuade thieves, it is a known fact that the dipping cup can only be used as a vessel of magical healing with water from that well, drawn straight from the spring. It is also known that the water itself has no magical properties when drunk from another vessel.
Drinking from the cup dipped into the spring activates a spell of greater restoration.