Monte Cook recently talked in a Legends and Lore article about magic items.
I touched on the idea of going without magic items in a previous article, but I thought it would be worthwhile to consider Monte's points in more detail.
What would D&D be like if magic items were a reward for clever or lucky play rather than a necessary part of advancement?:
Magic items are more special: If magic items aren't a necessary part of advancement, one of the big benefits is that it can feel more special when you get one. Basically, you didn't HAVE to get the item, so finding it feels like a real accomplishment either because you took an extra risk or lucked out in a lucky roll on a table. What does this mean for actual game-play?:
- Fewer Items: It would be difficult for PCs to get the same number of magic items over the course of a campaign and have them still feel like special unique rewards. As it is, by paragon tier most PCs have their 3 major items covered and most other slots filled as well. The "Christmas Tree Effect", where players feel like there is a list of must-haves items, is still around even if some of the items aren't quite as essential any more (an item bonus to damage and bonuses to defenses still feel pretty important to me). With those "requirements" removed from game-play, one could imagine a system where each PC has only 1 or 2 signature magic items that distinguish them from other characters.
- Different Items for each PC: In keeping with the theme of making magic items feel special, you probably don't want to end up with a situation where each PC still has copies of the same item (two flaming swords, for example). This is probably not difficult to accomplish, as rolling on a chart or introducing different magic items into the campaign world will easily allow for a lot of item diversity. However, you would probably want to emphasize making the magic items unique but similar in power, as there will be no mechanism for PCs to self-balance by picking up the same magic items if one is noticeably more powerful than the others. Otherwise, you risk a bunch of players who resent the one who managed to pick up the awesome item that no one else can get.
- Less Treasure (or alternate ways to spend it): As it is, players are given enough treasure to buy about one magic item a level, which has such an inflated cost that pretty early on an adventurer could probably retire and live like a king for the rest of their life for the mere price of one magic items. If that is no longer the assumption, then players probably are going to be finding less treasure in general, since there is a lot less to spend it on. They could always rob a bank or do something else to get them tons of cash, obviously, since that is one of the perks of removing the monetary system from character advancement. However, if they do get those windfalls or the system is still generally designed to shower them in treasure, then there had better be new stuff to spend it on. Rules for buying castles, hiring troops, and maintaining estates are obvious choices, though you could also imagine cool rules for bribery, maintaining a certain quality of life, etc. Basically, something needs to fill the gap for spending treasure or PCs need to be finding a lot less of it.
Magic Items aren't necessary for game balance: If magic items aren't tied in with a character's advancement, then their acquisition must not be required to keep the game balanced, right? In other words, if I never acquire a magic item during my adventuring career, then I am probably still able to take on level appropriate challenges.
- Weaker or More Esoteric Magic Items: If the game is still balanced (i.e. fun and challenging) without magic items then it had better stay balanced when getting magic items. In other words, acquiring a certain magic item shouldn't make the game less fun or significantly less challenging. Obviously, PCs should get some kind of benefit from acquiring a magic item, but it should not allow them to trivialize an encounter or even get a significant edge in MOST encounters (rather than in specific encounters where you feel rewarded for finding that dragon-slaying sword before fighting the green dragon that has been terrorizing the country-side, for example). After all, D&D is partly a tactical fighting game, where you carefully select your powers and position yourself optimally on the battlefield; it would be weird to trivialize those decisions with one overly powerful item. What would these magic items look like? I imagine more one-use effects (potions or necklace of fireball type stuff), items that give benefits to specific situations (flaming sword, dragonslaying weapon), quirky magic items (such as portable holes and the like), and items that are more useful to roleplaying encounters rather than combat (crystal balls, hat of disguise).
- No more +1 Swords?: Keeping +1 (and higher) items in a system where you aren't guaranteed (or very likely) to pick one up feels pretty weird. These provide a very obvious tangible benefit that FEELS like its linked into character advancement, even if the rules were changed so that this wasn't specifically the case. To use an extreme example, imagine designing a fight for a party where one or more PCs have +5 Swords versus a fight where no PCs have any magic weapons. You couldn't design the same fight for both groups! It would be pathetically easy for the group with +5 Swords or super hard for the group without them. Bonuses to hit and damage are so obviously beneficial and so intrinsically linked with the math of the game that including them in a list of possible magic items and trying to balance them with, say, the ability to throw a fireball once per encounter would be a major headache, and one that I would prefer to avoid as a DM or a game designer.
In short, I would love it if magic items in D&D felt less like requirements I need to keep up with my power curve and more like the unique character defining artifacts we read about in literature and see in movies. However, implementing such a system involves A LOT of changes to how D&D currently (or has ever) handled magic items. I, for one, don't want to return to the dark ages of picking a few monsters from the Monster Manual and honestly having no idea if the party is going to suffer a TPK or breeze through the fight with no problems. Removing magic items from the power curve and keeping the game fun and balanced definitely seems possible; we might just need to give up that +5 Holy Avenger to achieve it.