Posting about the South Pointing Chariot reminded me of the idea of awkward magic. I don't like the idea of charges for wands, staves, and rods. Charges seem too much like rounds in a gun and they are too hard to keep track of. I think for some items enough awkwardness might fulfill the same function as charges- to limit the outright power of an item. So here are some thoughts on ways you might make magic items awkward:
Physically awkward: heavy and bulky like Branwalather's Bridge, or tall- too tall to get through certain tunnels. Maybe it's like a big tarp that makes something invisible only when unfolded and thrown over the object.
Physically fragile: It could be very small and prone to be lost if dropped-- Earring of Gem Detection?-- or easy to break-- an Egg of Holy Protection?
Awkward to activate: Maybe it requires three people holding hands to give you a sense of which direction the strongest magic in the area lies, or maybe it takes a whole day for the brass figurine to dig enough to make a passwall-like effect. Only works in silence? Only works when the user sings a certain song. Once a day use is more granular than normal charges and may be easier to keep track of, maybe even 4e's once an encounter and just say the rest of the time it's doing some abstract kind of ambient recharge.
Requires Fuel: This is very similar to charges except easy to keep track of-- make it usable each time you use a piece of valuable fuel. Similar to Dowd's Lanthorn from the Caverns of Tsojcanth, (although it burned fuel in a bookkeepy kind of way, I'd rather say 1 gem gives you 1 fireball). And because that lantern running out of fuel meant death that makes me think of . . .
Consequences: Sure, use the wand of frost as much as you want, you just age 5 years each time. Makes me think of the wizard in the Sinbad movie. Once a DM let me pluck some wish-giving leaves from a tree, only later did I find out each leave plucked meant someone had died. I felt guilty, your players might not care. But that makes me think of . . .
Creepiness: Okay, your players may not care, but if npcs keep seeing them dribbling fresh blood into the Golden Guide, it will effect how npcs interact with them and thus force them to care-- if they want to buy, sell, or rent anything anyways.
Any other ideas?