There are a lot of interesting ideas for running D&D or making tweaks to the rules that sound really cool when you first think of them but that sadly don’t work out in actual play. I will explore many such ideas in this series: going over what makes the ideas attractive in the first place, explaining why they don’t work, and suggesting compromise solutions.
PCs Go on Special Quests to Obtain Magic Items: This is the kind of thing where a character or the party goes on a side quest to find an important magic item before continuing to the next big adventure.
The Attraction: What could be cooler than a side quest to retrieve your Holy Avenger? Or that cool Robe of Eyes you had your eyes on? A side quest really makes finding these items a fun unique experience. Not to mention it feels more realistic than just happening to pick up a holy avenger in the cyclops lair.
This sort of thing is a staple of fantasy literature. Furthermore, you do it all the time in rpg adventure games and in mmorpgs. Why not in D&D?
The Hard Truth: Side quests take too much time. Sad but true. In 4th edition, even a relatively simple adventure is going to take 2-3 sessions to complete and longer ones can take 6 or more sessions! A side quest, even if it’s just one fight and a little bit of buildup, is going to take a minimum of one entire session, unless you run super efficient games (which I don’t) or are willing to abstract the quest into a skill challenge (which could work).
Couple that with the fact that an average group is 4-6 people and that means A LOT of side quests if you want to give everyone equal play time and gear. Basically, unless you want your campaign to become a never-ending series of side quests (which might be okay), the whole notion is best avoided or saved for plot specific quests.
The Compromise: As stated above, you can always bite the bullet and try to capture the flavor of side quests but without all the pomp and circumstance. Maybe at the end of a big adventure, run a few quick skill challenges for players who are due for some loot and want to quest for a specific piece of gear. If they win the skill challenge, they get the gear. Otherwise, they have to wait a little longer or make do with another piece of equipment.
Alternatively, you can make the quest to get a powerful item part of the main adventure. Maybe the Blackguard villain wields a powerful cursed sword. However, when washed with holy water and placed upon an altar of Bahamut, it is transformed into the potent Holy Avenger! This method serves a double purpose of making the item feel more meaningful than some random bauble found in a treasure chest, and it makes the villain more unique. And of course a big benefit is that it doesn’t disrupt the normal flow of the campaign.
No Magic Items: In this campaign, there are NO magic items!
The Attraction: Magic items, especially the plethora of items that players tend to wrack up in D&D, are pretty high fantasy and don’t feel right in “gritty” campaigns or even typical fantasy settings. In Lord of the Rings, for example, every character didn’t have a magic sword, a magic piece of armor, and a magic cape or amulet (though I guess Frodo did, come to think of it!).
Furthermore, a lot of magic items just feel like requirements for a character, rather than cool new items. Everyone needs a level appropriate weapon/implement, piece of armor, and neck item, for example.
Plus, who wants to deal with all that record keeping and making sure everyone has balanced items?
The Hard Truth: Like it or not, D&D 4e (and just about every edition) is balanced with magic items in mind. You’d better be at least using the inherent bonus system in Dark Sun or the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 or the PCs will be hopelessly underpowered against monsters they face. Even then, they’ll be noticeably behind PCs with magic items, since they get all the side perks, such as item powers, useful properties, and item bonuses to damage, skills, and other stats.
Furthermore, magic items can be very fun, and they are one of the big ways (aside from leveling) that a player judges the advancement of their character. Getting the awesome new sword that helps you realize your build or that crazy wondrous item that adds more variety to the game can be a lot of fun.
The Compromise: If you don’t like the idea of every PC having tons of magic items, but magic items aren’t entirely off the table (they probably aren’t if you still have wizards and dragons flying around), then consider using the inherent bonuses system combined with a few signature magic items for each character, such as a cool sword and a couple wacky wondrous items. Thus players still get to have fun finding magic items and improving their characters, and you don’t have a weird situation where everyone is loaded down with must-have magic items.
In my campaign, my concern isn’t so much with too many magic items but with boring magic items, like the classic must-have item bonuses to damage everyone wants. I just did away with those altogether and replaced them with a personal trinket everyone has that gives an item bonus to damage. The trinkets aren’t magical per say, but are rather an heirloom the character carries around with them that has emotional significance and gives them confidence in battle.
Other times, I will just ban (or not give out) an item that I think is too powerful or too obvious a choice, and instead give out items that make battles more interesting rather than those that provide static increases to stats. Items with cool daily powers are usually good for that, giving a nice ability that is both interesting and not too overpowered.