In almost any fantasy campaign, the presence of magic is a given. Usually the heroes are slinging spells, finding magical weapons, loading up with enchanted camping gear, or finding ensorcelled puzzles. But how often does magic become mundane, a character's possessions read more like a shopping list than a collection of wonders? Does every town have a Walmart of Magic where people can pick up a +1 Dagger and six pack of Diet Coke? Are clerics just well-dressed medics and wizards a walking toolbox? That's not the campaign I like to run.
Let's tackle these cases one at a time.
Making Spells Interesting: My favorite method of making spells interesting is to draw on where the spellcaster learned the spells. If the caster was raised and taught in the sweltering heat of equatorial jungles, the forms of her spells will be drastically different than a caster raised in the northern ice wastes. Note, I'm not suggesting changing the game effects of the spells, just how they are presented. Its an easy way to bring some flair and character to your spell-casters and keeps the magic from becoming boring.
Example, our jungle mage casts magic missile. Well, instead of jets of magical fire, hers appear as glowing snakes that spring to strike at their targets, the wounds feeling like bites instead of burns. The sleep spell might feel like drowsing due to sweltering heat. Even the mount spell might summon a creature more logical for the jungles than a horse.
Giving Weapons Some Zing: While you could take time and develop interesting histories for every magic weapon they find, from who forged it and everyone who has owned it before, that likely won't enhance the game experience. Think of its appearance. Does it glow? Does it have an unusual sheen? Is the blade inscribed? Is the style of the weapon old-fashioned or from a time forgot?
And when the weapon is used, it should display its pedigree. Perhaps it flashes when it strikes another sword or shield. Or it sings as it flies through the air. The wielder may feel strength coming from its handle. The blade may slice through armor like it was cloth. These sort of descriptions can remind everyone that a magic weapon is in play.
What about the +2 Soup ladle?: As players get more experienced, more wealthy, and more ambitious, they'll want to pick up lots of handy little items from the Dungeon Master's Guide. Most popular are your varities of Bags of Holding, followed closely by skill enhancers like a Hat of Disguise. Many of these items aren't made to be flashy or reveal their nature to the uninformed. So how can you keep that hint of magic to otherwise utilitarian tools? Perhaps its less what others see but what the user feels? Maybe that soup ladle gives the user the feelings of home. The Hat of Disguise gives a heightened feeling of confidence. The Bag of Holding might impart some very strange sensations when you slip your hand inside.
Environmental Magic: Magic places should definitely impart palpable feelings to those who enter them. Sure, evil places offer foreboding, good places calm and warmth, but many places will be more ambiguous than that. Does their hair stand up on end? Does the temperature change? Is there a distinctive scent that is out of place? Do the colors around them seem different? Are the tones of things heard different, more musical? How has the magic affected other things like plants and animals in the area? Are there strange substances appearing in corners? Has it attracted unusual creatures?
I hope these have given you some new ideas for making magic as special as it deserves to be in your campaign. Jim Davenport