Years ago I was struggling with a dilemma - when players start out they have no magic items. Them through adventuring, they find weak magic items but keep 'trading up' as they advance in level. Not a big deal, really, but I had two problems - would you really just sell/cast aside the sword you did so many heroic deeds with because the new one is shinier and where did all those magic items come from?
Then, while I was considering this, I re-read the entry on Rings of Elemental Command.
That was it - items that grow with your characters.
Keep in mind , this was more than 20 years before Weapons of Legacy was printed and 30 years before I read that book!
Anyway, I came up with two major ideas that have crept into and out of my campaigns over the decades since.
First, some magic items are magic because of what they are and how they've been used rather than from being enchanted by a mage or cleric.
Example: At 2nd level Lyon the Paladin finds a well-made sword forged of an alloy of meteoric iron and mithril. Although not enchanted, it is +1 to hit and damage because of its excellent quality. At 3rd level Lyon is part of the defense of a remote border fortress when waves of Orcs attack. When catapults finally punch through the outer curtain wall Lyon stands in the breach, alone, holding it against the Orcs until archers can drive them back. After the battle he kneels and praises God. Now his sword is still +1 to hit and damage, but it is a magical bonus. Further, if Lyon is fighting alone against multiple foes he gains a +1 to A.C.
At 5th level Lyon is part of an expedition against a demonic chapel. During the fighting an evil cleric uses a magic item to summon a horror from the Abyss. Undaunted, Lyon fights bravely against the fiend. Although badly wounded, he still prevails. Bathed in the ichor of this magical creature the sword is now +2.
Over the years Lyon engages in a duel with an anti-paladin, overthrows a tyrant dominating a small Halfling nation, and slays a kraken after being dragged beneath the waves. At 14th level his sword is now a +4 Defender and almost as much a companion as a weapon. Now, much older and wiser, he once again faces a terrible foes from the Abyss. Chanting a litany Lyon closes with the fiend and does battle. After a long struggle Lyon severs the fiend's whip hand and then shatters the demon's sword, finally impaling the demon through the heart. The demon topples forward, snapping Lyon's sword in two under it great bulk.
Lyon, knowing it is but a tool, struggle to push the sadness from his heart - the sword has been with him for so long! As he struggles with the warring emotions a winged figure appears. In a few moments it is holding Lyon's sword, as whole as ever, in its hands before returning it to the erstwhile paladin. Trembling, Lyon grasps the +5 Holy Sword of Demon Slaying and thanks God for his mercy.
This sort of arc can take all sorts of directions - a thief's gloves slowly become Gauntlets of Dexterity; a cleric's mace becomes, eventually, a Mace of Disruption. Just beware of two things - don't go too fast and don't use it as an excuse to railroad players! How I try (and sometimes fail) to use it is as an encouragement to heroic action - when the players know that dramatic actions can have a direct effect they are encouraged to make the broad gesture, to take the great risk.
Second, some magic items need to be activated in stages, over time. This was the first idea I had, from the Rings of Elemental Command. I though that, rather than have one event trigger all the powers each power needed a different event. This can be very simple, such as needing to discover different command words. It can also be complicated, such as, oh, this
Example: When 1st level Korbok the Mage finds a wand with a scrap of paper that has the word 'emburn' on it. An Identify spell indicates that it is a Wand of Burning Hands with 98 charges and, well, maybe more; the results were a little murky.
At 4th level Korbok is going through the library of an evil sorcerer that his party had defeated when in a book of arcane lore he finds a reference to 'emburn' and 'fulmose'. With a bit of (very careful) experimentation Korbok learns that the Wand will also cast a Wall of Fire with the second command word at the cost of two charges.
At this point Korbok suspects that there is even more to the wand so he travels to the City of One Thousand Islands to visit the various libraries and search out sages. After a few weeks (and a few pounds of gold coins) he knows that there is another power in the wand and a way that might unlock it. He returns to his villa and goes through a process almost identical to researching a third level spell. After the proper expenditure of time and money Korbok succeeds in his roll but instead of learning a new spell he unlocks the wand's third power - the ability cast a Fireball at the cost of a charge.
Now, I certainly don't do this is every magic item in the campaign. Far from it. But I do make it common enough that the players look at every single magic item with interest and (my main goal) a sense of wonder. Since I use a lot of unique or non-standard magic items it returns that sense of potential I think magic items should have. Is that just a +1 dagger or a Dagger of Orc Slaying that needs to be unlocked? Is this a Robe of Armor, A.C. 4 or a Robe of the Archmage?
It also allows me to introduce fewer magic items into the campaign without the players feeling under-rewarded for their efforts.
Last, and certainly far from least, these simple mechanics are a toolbox of plot hooks, quest openers, and ways of separating players from treasure!
Is anyone else trying anything similar?