In Book of Wishes, we had a small section on Magical Variations. In it, we talked about how magic is an art and not a science, and it is important for casters to “color” their spells to their own personalities. In D&D, I use to have mages choose a style of magic missiles that suited them. One of my guys was a mentalist and a mage - a real academic, so his missiles were purple hexagons that flew in geometric patterns. An elven F/MU archer had his missiles look like his arrows. Another guy’s were “bolts of crimson light”. We also often varied the way the guy cast his fireball. Did it just whoosh out of nowhere? I know one started as a marble and went out to where it belonged and exploded then. Another was more of a wave of light that exploded - this was cool and odd because it really used water imagery for a fireball.
But I’ve been thinking about these things, and I really want to take it another step in my games. In Legend Quest, we do use the same types of imagery for magic bolts and fireballs, even allowing magic bolts to actually be fire or lightning or whatever (no change in damage done, but sometimes the type of damage matters). But what about magic items? I’ve used a lot of imagery around talismans. Talismans are enchanted objects that you cast spells through and augment the spell. We don’t hand out “wand of fireballs” that casts the spell for you. LQ gives you access to a wand of fireballs that may give you more range, a bigger area of effect, or increased accuracy (yes, or more damage). Typically the talisman glows when in use or something like that - some are cool, others are boring. (I can’t always amaze on the environmental stuff.) But what about defenses? Most game have some manner of protective magical items. How do they look when they’re working? The knight in my current campaign is getting a shield from the spirit of super bronze. I haven’t decided exactly what it will do, but it is either going to protect him from physical or magical attacks, but how? Here, I want the magic to manifest as a force field. When it protects him, I want a coppery (bronzey?) glowing half sphere to flash into existence and block the attack. There is absolutely no reason for a divine to grant a gift to a mortal if that gift doesn’t impress the hell out of the people around him.
So how does a ring of protection +1 work? or in Legend Quest an amulet of defense-physical +5 (or greater). Does it glow? Does a little circle of energy appear and block the attack (like the three little shields for the SDF1 on Robotech)? Does it change the patterns of fate or luck and thus warp reality? Does it matter? Yeah it matters. If the effects are visible, then the winners know they have to find the magic item on the guy while looting him, because they will have seen some of what it does. That sounds pretty good when you’re the winner - not so good if you’re the loser. But how does a +1 ring work exactly? It doesn’t sound like it should work. I mean, after all, it’s a tiny ring. It certainly isn’t blocking the attack itself. Where it could really matter is if the protection manifests as a dark grey circle that blocks the attack, and later the party finds another that manifests in the same style. Now they know that there is an enchanter working for the enemy, or at least selling to anyone willy-nilly. This could spark its own adventure as the good guys need to shut down this enchanter to stop him from buffing up the bad guys.
Honestly, I don’t think you really want to explain every little trinket and how it functions or manifests. Adventurers carry too many trinkets to keep track of them; you really don’t want to complicate it by trying to remember how each one looks. But the divine stuff should definitely manifest in a flashy and remarkable way. Divines survive on adoration and fear. Having the bad guys $#!+ themselves when they see their best attack glance off a divine shield literally feeds the gods. They’re not going to pass up that extra energy. For the important items, it makes sense to have their power visible, even if it is just atmospheric.