D&D 4e Item Issues

One of the announcements at Gen Con was that with the release of essentials  items will now come in three rarities: common, uncommon, and rare. To summarize:

  • Rare items can’t be created by players. They’re very special, and the general idea is that a player will have maybe one of these in their possession at any given time.
  • Uncommon items also can’t be created by players, and are the purview of the DM with maybe a few exceptions. Pretty much all magic items currently available are going to fall into this category (though I suspect your basic “magic item +X” will be common.
  • Common: These are easily purchasable and can be created by players. Again, my suspicion is that these are things like a basic magic item with no frills.

Revisiting items has gotten me thinking about the philosophy change behind items from 3.5 to 4th edition:

  • Christmas Tree Effect: 3.5 suffered from the Christmas tree effect, where players were often more defined by their items than by their abilities. A mid to high level character had a long list of items for boosting various defenses and stats that they basically had to go through to have a viable character. 4e is supposed to solve this by condensing the items a player HAS to take to just a few. Everything else is supposed to be supplementary, adding a cool power or property here or there but not overwhelming anything.
  • Items are special: An added bonus of this is supposed to be that items now feel more special. A +3 flaming sword is a lot cooler if it’s one of my three major magic items rather than one out of twelve or thirteen items I have on my check list as must haves.

So the question is, has 4e succeeded in this noble goal of cutting down the number of items a player needs and making them feel more unique?

My Answer: Yes, but only because the bar was set pretty low by 3.5. A character not only basically require a lot more items than it might appear at first glance, but certain items can dramatically effect the balance of a character, favoring certain builds more than they probably should.

I go through the goods and bads of items in 4e below:

  • 3 Core Items: Making there be three major items goes a long way towards “fixing” the 3.5 problem. An item to boost attack and damage, to boost AC, and to boost the other defenses definitely makes getting a handle on items a lot easier. These three items definitely form the core of your character’s possessions and if everything else were truly gravy, I’d say 4th edition has done its job pretty well as far as items are concerned.
  • Item Bonuses to Damage: Alas, the ugly item bonus to damage rears its terrifying and hideous head. Interestingly, items that give these were virtually non existent in the phb and didn’t come along until adventurer’s vault. With bonuses ranging from +1 to +6, item bonuses to damage can’t really be ignored, and virtually ANY well built character needs some form of item bonus to damage. For many characters, this means picking up another item, such as bracers of mighty striking, making for a core of 4 items a player needs instead of just 3. For other characters, it simply means a much more restricted set of items to choose from; any spell caster that can use a staff, for example, probably wants to pick up the staff of ruin for its scaling item bonus to damage.
  • Properties: Ah, the bane of character balance! These items have properties that are often especially potent, making them absolutely essential picks for certain builds. Sometimes this basically necessitates the addition of another item to your repertoire. Other times, it severely limits your realistic choice of viable weapons/implements. Examples of items in this category are fencing boots, which give a +1 to AC and Ref when a character shifts, making them a default choice for most characters in paragon tier (also exceptionally cheap by those levels!), and the phrenic crown, which reduces a players first saving throw against a psychic power. The jagged weapon is another example of this, giving the coveted 19-20 crit range early on that otherwise a character would generally have to spend a feat to get at epic tier.
  • Energy Types + Keywords: Weapons and implements that allow you to mess around with energy types and keywords of your powers at-will are truly annoying. Not only do they create havoc with theme, but they also allow for pretty overpowered combos, such as frost weapons that take advantage of everlasting frost to give +5 damage to most attacks, or psychic weapons that allow every attack to give a -2 to attack using the feat Psychic lock. Part of the fun of making characters is stringing together powers with energy types and keywords to take advantage of cool feats. Being able to do it with a simple weapon choice feels pretty obnoxious.
  • Encounter Powers: Not surprisingly, items that give good encounter powers are pretty powerful picks and tend to be standard gear for many characters. They’re usually not so powerful as to be absolutely essential, but they’re the default choice for that slot and players will definitely seek them out. Strike-back gloves and counter-strike guards are good examples of these; they give extra attacks during a battle, which is often almost as good as an extra turn, making these potent picks that players really can’t justify turning down if they can afford them. Furthermore, at a certain level these become so cheap that basically everyone takes them unless there’s something better to grab at.
  • Critical Damage: Items that give a bonus to critical damage are pretty potent since they work so well with items that give increased critical ranges. Vicious is a good example of this, providing a d12 crit die for only 1 step above a normal magical item of its level.
  • Daily Powers: For the most part, daily powers are what I like to see out of item powers. They often have very nice effects but you can only use a few of them, and once you’ve used them they’re gone for the day.
  • Weapon/Implements: Something I really like are weapon/implement combos. These do something that items should do, achieve balance for classes that rely on weapons + implements by combining them into one handy item! Things like song blades and pact blades are cool in theme and allow the classes that use them (bard and warlock respectively) to play on the same field as classes that use only one implement.

I think the combination of item bonuses to damage, item properties, energy types + keywords, critical damage, and encounter powers are really hurting the balance and enjoyability of items in D&D. When I create a character, there’s a whole slew of items I barely skim over as I look for something awesome that fits into one of those categories.

So what’s the solution? The official solution seems to be to explicitly give the DM more power in doting out items. So players can get the basic stuff they need to function, but the DM has ultimate authority over the really cool items they get. This theoretically works but it does still leave open the question of what special items that DM should give out.

To help with that decision making process I am going to propose a set of house rules/DM advice for my next column where I codify what items I believe are should be given out either never or as a very special treat and what items can be given out more freely!

8 Responses to “D&D 4e Item Issues”

  1. paul paul says:

    The three core items are a good start:

    weapons/implements are cool. Armor is cool. Neck slot items are SO BORING. I’d be perfectly happy if armor gave its enhancement bonus to the other defenses and the neck slot was eliminated.

  2. Rory Rory says:

    Neck items are kind of boring and not super awesome to get. Though I do see a benefit of having three core items instead of two; it allows for a little more variability in what people get and allows for a greater depth of powers and such for the core items.

  3. Etherrider says:

    One other thing that stood out to me…the 3 classifications also sound like card game classifications. I could see this also leading to a new product of item cards sold in random packs!

    (Good write up with the author’s points…very insightful)

  4. Tourq says:

    Personally, I feel that one magic item should be enough for my character. I just don’t like the reliance of many. But, what can you do?


  5. Dave says:

    Tourq’s brought up another side of this problem. Some players want a small amount of magic items (it makes them more special, and fits more with literary heroes, as most only have one or two magic items, if any). However, there are also a lot of players that want a personal arsenal of magic items.

    How do you come up with a magic item system that pleases both crowds and still keeps PCs properly balanced against the monsters? I’ve yet work the exact mechanics, but I have an idea that I think works in theory. I’ll describe it briefly; tell me what you think.

    All the “assumed bonuses” (attack bonuses from weapons/implements and defence bonuses from armour and neck-slot item) are given to players automatically as they level. So what do magic items give you? Utility-like powers.

    Just like how players have a certain number of powers at certain levels, they would also have a certain number of “item powers”, gained while adventuring rather than at the exact moment of level-gain. Players who prefer a small number of magic items can instead have additional skill-powers (PHB3?) or utility powers from their class. This way, players will always have the attack/defence bonuses they are expected to have, and players will be balanced against each other regardless of their preference for how many magic items they own.

  6. paul paul says:

    Magic items can also give you a head start on your “assumed bonuses”, or inherent bonuses, or whatever they’re called – assuming such inherent bonuses don’t stack with enhancement bonuses. For instance, if you get a +1 inherent bonus to hit and damage at level 6, that +1 sword will still be useful from level 1 to 5. In effect, the only type of magic sword is +1, but it expires after a few levels.

  7. […] errata includes many of the item changes I hinted at in Item Issues. I should note that many of the item changes might not qualify strictly as errata with the new item […]

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