I like to look to my favorite books, games, and shows for D&D inspiration. This is a powerful tool for a DM. When looking at Pokémon, the inspiration was obvious: magic items.
In the games, you set out to collect Pokémon. You overcome challenges by using the skills of various Pokémon. In D&D, you collect magic items. Those magic items help you overcome challenges with various abilities. Given this overlap, what can we learn about better magic items by looking at Pokémon?
Exploration and Adventure
Your Pokémon journey begins with unparalleled excitement. Who doesn't want to set out on the adventure of a lifetime? A world of wonder awaits. Exploration and adventure are at the heart of Dungeons & Dragons. You can create that excitement by teasing a world of magic items, waiting to be discovered. Make some popular and well-known while others remain a mystery.
Introduce an NPC with a magic item that makes the player characters jealous. Then tell them exactly where they can get their own. A small quest to the nearby caves, while dangerous, can get them their very own! Or better yet...
Would you like to trade?
Trading Pokémon is fun and introduces tension. It's hard to give up something you've become attached to! But that sure is a nice Charizard...
Offer opportunities for characters to come across desired magic items via trade. Downtime is great for this. The NPC might be holding the key to finishing a quest. Or it could be personal.
I Choose You
Another fun aspect of Pokémon is choosing the right one for the situation at hand. In the games, you can collect hundreds but only carry or "use" up to six at a time. D&D provides a similar mechanic for us in magic item attunement.
"An item can be attuned to only one creature at a time, and a creature can be attuned to no more than three magic items at a time. Any attempt to attune to a fourth item fails; the creature must end its attunement to an item first." - System Reference Document 5.1
Lean into it by giving characters more than three magic items requiring attunement. Make them collectors. Make the choice of which item to attune to a difficult one. When players get to make those choices, magic items feel more real and involved in the game.
What? YOUR MAGIC ITEM is evolving!
Let's be real. Is anything in Pokémon as exciting as an evolution? I still cherish the memory of my adorable Eevee evolving into an Umbreon. It's iconic. You can use it in D&D, too. You might think you need some fancy subsystem or alternate ruleset to introduce evolving magic items. You don't. But if you're tempted to make one, keep it simple.
Magic items can evolve in form. Is the character making evil decisions? Maybe her sword takes on a sinister look. The blade darkens like obsidian while the hilt forms sharp points like fangs. Maybe the paladin is living up to their oath. Their shield begins to take on traits that align with their deity.
Magic items can evolve in function. As characters level up, you might decide their +1 longsword takes on the traits of a sword of sharpness. A nonmagical shield might become a spellguard shield. Add traits. Replace traits. Replace the entire item with something new.
Make the moment of evolution magical. Tie it to the fiction. When it happens, use a vivid description.
The Ultimate Prize
Foreshadow an item or two that are completely unique. One of a kind. Like Mewtwo. These items are legendary and dangerous. Sailors speak rumors of a distant island they barely escaped. Arcane texts speak of a cave in the north that no travelers return from. Sentient magic items are perfect for these legendary tales.
Pokémon lays the foundation for collecting exciting and powerful creatures. We can adopt it for Dungeons & Dragons. Tease a world of magic and mysterious items. Trade with NPCs. Evolve.