More Thoughts on Magic Items!

No more +1 Swords?

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.


10 Responses to “More Thoughts on Magic Items!”

  1. LS says:

    I very much like this line of thinking. D&D is, by it’s very nature, high fantasy. I’d love to be able to dial it down to low fantasy without too much trouble. Maybe some sort of CR conversion could be worked out. Something like “if you max your magic items to 4 per character, with a weapon bonus of no more than +2, then increase all monster CRs above 6 by 1, and all CRs above 12 by an additional 1. ”

    I don’t know though, I’m just spitballing.

  2. Eric says:

    I just wrote a article on +1 swords in my Ganth setting. Making magic items more special and unique.

  3. Oz says:

    This is very much like what I am trying to do in my latest hb20 (home-brew) campaign. Instead of there being easy access to permanent magic items, they will be a lot more rare and a lot more individualized.

    Because of the way my rules-brew works, magic items are no longer necessary to advance defenses.

  4. Brandonshire says:

    I’ve actually been thinking about this a fair bit lately. My plan for the next 4e game I run, whenever that turns out to be, is to use inherent bonuses, and to give out somewhat fewer items, and do it much more randomly (and probably with a bigger emphasis on wondrous items and consumables).

    I’m really looking forward to magic weapons and armor being less important, and more interesting, and having an items level matter a bit less, since the item bonus and the inherent bonus don’t stack. I figure if one person get’s a +2 weapon a level or two before they get their inherent bonus that bumps them up to +2 that’s ok. They’ll be slightly ahead of the curve for a level or two but everyone will catch up pretty quickly. Honestly this isn’t too much different than the regular treasure parcel progression where people don’t all get the “next tier” of magic items at the same time anyway.

    I’m also looking forward to having items having a longer “shelf-life” with characters since the to hit won’t bonus wont’ matter much. Sure they may eventually want to upgrade for any extra damage or crit damage or whatever, but I imagine someone keeping the awesome magic sword they found early in their careers for a long time (I may also implement rules for upgrading items rather than replacing them).

    I probably won’t change the monetary treasure the characters find, in fact I might even bump it up again, but I’m planning to give them a lot of other stuff to spend their money on (some common magic items might be available to buy but not too many), like castles and stuff like that, boats, maybe even air-ships, all sorts of stuff like that.

    I really think the inherent bonus system should have been standard in the game to start with, and i’m excited to use it in my next game!

  5. Rory Rory says:

    LS, a CR/EL system for low or no magic could be fun. Not sure how it would work, but the current CR/EL system in 4e is something I really appreciate it for planning fights, even though I tend to focus on the higher end of the scale to really challenge my party. Having a modular system where you adjust CR/EL depending on what magic items or other features you are using would be handy.

    I will check out your article, Eric.

    Oz and Brandonshire, I keep toying around with doing similar things in my campaigns. So far, I have made a few incremental changes: I’ve given everyone a free item bonus to damage since I feel like that is something almost everyone wants anyway and it is annoying to have a 4th must-have item. I have also severely limited the number of uncommon items, taking a page from the item rarity 4th edition uses now. And I’ve limited the number of really powerful signature items players can have to 1 or 2.

    I am thinking of using inherent bonuses, but frankly one of the big things stopping me is I can’t figure out if there is a way to get them to work properly in the D&D character builder for armor. It seems like the character builder doesn’t currently factor in how armor improves as you level by upgrading to masterwork armor with higher AC bonuses. So that means more manual adjustments to character sheets, which is a pain.

  6. Brandonshire says:

    I have to admit the armor scaling thing is slightly new to me, as it didn’t come up in my last campaign (where they only got to 5th level as we finished up), but I’ve seen some grumbling about there being some bugs in the CB related to armor scaling and masterwork armer, so it’s possible that that’ll get ironed out in the next update or two. (There may also be some work-arounds, I haven’t really played with it). I feel like it’s probably something that can be worked around though, if I only have to fiddle with armor and not any other type of magic equipment then I still feel like that’s a win for what I hope to do!

  7. 1d30 says:

    What you’re coming up against is the inflation that occurs when you have inflows of money and magic but no outflows. Video games have been dealing with this since day 1. The easiest answer seems to be shutting down the inflow so the bathtub doesn’t fill up.

    Instead, think of ways to get the treasure out of the campaign. You might do standardized upkeep costs (such as 100 GP times character level per month, or 0.1% of XP in GP per month). This replaces inn costs, paying for stabling and food for your horse, replacement of normal adventuring gear damaged by wear, etc. Training cost is another way of getting money from players. Both were part of 1E AD&D.

    You could use the Carousing rules from the Jeff Rients blog. PCs spend money in town to have a big party, but there’s a small chance of some mishap. The PC gets XP equal to the gold spent. The gold can’t be saved, it is permanently gone, so having a PC own an inn and the other PCs go carousing there doesn’t work.

    Another treasure outflow is decay of magic items. Items with charges, or single-use types, are cheaper than permanent ones but do eventually get used up. A magic item may have an activation cost, such as the holy sword that only works when you anoint it with sacred oils that cost a bunch of money. If you want to use the sword on that adventure / game session / week, you need to spend the money. Maybe there’s a magic Wand of Fire that has charges and does a few different fire-magic spells, but it could be replaced by a demon-summoning jar from which said demon demands a gift in gold or magic to use his powers (which are identical to the Wand of Fire, or maybe not).

    There’s also the real downer way of managing outflow – theft and breakage. When the Red Dragon blows you up, even if you survive, maybe your flimsy Cloak of Invisibility gets burned up too. When traveling through town, the Fighter might get pickpocketed and lose a bunch of money or even a magic item! But these are pretty lame ways of doing it especially in an already low-magic campaign.

    You can manage a lower inflow of magic by forbidding magic shops. The PCs must adventure to find magic items. Any magic items they don’t want can be sold to private collectors or other adventurers, and rarely some NPC adventurer will put a magic item up for sale. Of course, that adventurer will be backed up by his fellow party members and hired goons, so theft from the seller isn’t really much of an option. If you have other money outflows (such as carousing and strongholds, monthly maintenance fees or training fees) the players won’t feel like they have tons of cash and nothing to spend it on.

    Another way of slowing magic item inflow only works when you don’t have magic shops: the magic items they find are often not combat-type. If there are magic shops, they can sell these undesirable magic items and buy magic swords and armor, which defeats the purpose. Non-combat magic items would be things like a portable camp oven that magically heats up, dust that cleans and dries a whole person it’s sprinkled on, or a jar that magically preserves things sealed inside it. There might be creative ways to use these in combat (smack someone with the hot oven, sprinkle the dust on an ooze or mold monster, seal a dangerous mold in the jar for use as a scoop-and-throw projectile later) but it’s not like a wand that shoots lightning. Having magic items on their character sheets may help the PCs forget that they don’t have a dozen items for combat magic. And having general magical tools gives them different ways to interact with the game world, not just stab or burn it.

  8. The Skree says:

    In many of my games, I like to use the idea of an heirloom-style item similar to World of Warcraft. An item that is tied to your character, either through background stories or something that is awarded during the early stages of a campaign that can continue to grow with you. Obviously, these items can pose an interesting challenge to balance and subsequently reduce the need to hunt for better weapons or armor, making treasure rewards feel less like major milestones. I wanted to talk about what lead me to use these items in many of my campaigns and why I really like the concept.

    Random treasure is really boring – mechanically speaking.

    That why I made this guide for creating Heirloom or Scaling items that work with the players identity. I also include a fun example from my last campaign. Check it out!

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