Magic Item Complaints and Corrections

I was thinking recently about magic items and their design, and specifically about complaints I have seen about them.

D&D 3.x evolved to the point where certain magic items were expected. This led to some distinct complaints.

Complaints

Magic items are boring.

I have to agree. The customary set of magic items (the “Big Six”) is incredibly tedious and uninteresting… but by conventional design more or less mandatory in order to be able to play with the big kids.

Challenge analysis and design now assumes the presence of these particular items because if they are not accounted for they make things too easy. Never mind that PCs are designed to be bullies picking on weaker creatures, per encounter design guidelines, it’s that +4 sword’s fault (and the +5 armor the character needs to protect himself against the opponent’s +5 sword that he covets).

Magic items are transient.

Pretty much. The need to keep enhancement bonuses maximized results in item churn as PCs acquire newer and better items just to keep up. There is little to no incentive to keep the older items (except character quirks, I suppose) rather than taking the new, better ones. Even upgrading comes across as kind of dumb, since it means having ready access to someone able and willing to do so.

An occasional upgrade makes sense, but bringing your gear back to the shop every week or two (or every dozen encounters or so) gets kind of silly. Even the magic shoppe where you can now afford to buy stuff you couldn’t afford before (another unhappy design quirk) isn’t quite as silly.

PCs become Christmas Trees

Oh yes. They had to set a hard limit on the number of magic items each character can use because over time they end up with so many. Boots, gloves, cloak, helmet, armor, weapon (possibly multiple), rings, and so on… and that’s not even the full set.

The significance of any particular item is reduced, especially when you have multiple items providing essentially the same benefit and stacking. This is most notable with armor class — amulet of natural armor and ring of protection both stack with magic armor, and you can probably find items that will give you dodge bonuses — which stack with everything, include dodge bonuses.

Interaction and Stacking are Confusing

This adds to the previous complaint. Not only are PCs expected to have a lot of magic gear, much of it stacks. How many ways can you improve your armor class?

Magic Items are Science Items, with Mechanical Effects

Most magic items have strictly mechanical effects.

  • Flat bonuses (these will go up with upgrades, or more likely replacements with better items). Useful, but boring.
  • Spell trigger items (wands and staves). Lets you cast a spell (that you could conceivably learn and cast, at least someday, since it must be on your class spell list). Useful, but boring.
  • Spell completion items (scrolls). Again, lets you cast a spell (at greater cost than a spell trigger item because you don’t get a big bucket of them, so no bulk discount) that you could conceivably learn and cast someday. Useful, but boring.
  • Potions are much like scrolls for everyone (except limited in level of spell they apply to the quaffer, and as I recall there are other limitations on the spells that may be so cast). Useful, but boring.

In other words, clearly defined in effect, and very regular in construction and use. All in all useful, but boring.

In fact, most magic items do nothing that a spell cannot, and that is a death sentence for fantastic magic items. In order to get interesting magic items, let alone exciting ones, it must be possible for items to do things not possible with spells.

I think I’ll need to get into that in greater detail in another post, perhaps later this week.

Corrections

Let’s rethink things a little. Let’s consider what happens if we change our assumptions about challenge analysis and design so that magic items are ignored.

What does this do?

First, it gets us off the “mandatory item” treadmill. You don’t need to have the +5 weapon and +5 armor just to keep up (and if you don’t have it, you expect to suck and die horribly — because conventionally that is what will happen).

In fact, if everything is designed with the expectation that you don’t have the “Big Six” (that is to say, enhancement bonuses), then if you should happen to somehow get one it becomes significant again. A +5 longsword, rather than being expected in your toolbox, becomes pretty impressive.

Think about that — a +5 longsword that actually makes you unusually good at killing things, rather than just letting you keep up… and if you happen to not have one, you’ll still get by.

Second, removing such effects goes a long way toward fixing some wicked power imbalance in the game. Spell casters gain hugely by keeping their casting-related ability scores topped out, to the point where everyone else can’t keep up because they have to spread their defenses too broadly in order to accommodate this (see Recalibrating Saving Throws).

Those two points start to address the first complaint. They also speak to the second one because the need to improve boring things is reduced. If you don’t need to pump the enhancement bonuses you are more free to do other things.

As for the third complaint, I think the normalization and structuring of magic items was a useful exercise… but it sucked the soul out of magic items. They mostly became either need-to-have in order to survive (useful but boring) or let you do things that you could probably do (or have eventually learned to do) anyway. Potions are about the only exception there, and even then they are just ‘spell in a bottle’ that you don’t need someone else to cast on you now.

Specific Changes

Some things that can improve magic items.

  • First and foremost, kill enhancement bonuses. Conventional D&D (3.x, at least) has the Big Six standard effects, and expects them to be satisfied, and designs around that expectation. I described above why I don’t like this, so I would drop it entirely, or make it very rare at best.
  • Fix frozen spells. They are a power boost to characters that really don’t need them. I’d look for other mechanisms to handle similar goals, or at least model similar tropes.
  • Restrict what spells can do (I favor trimming down spell lists as the simplest approach, but setting limits on what specific spells can do can help). This makes the next point possible.
  • Instead of defining magic items in terms of existing in-game constructs (spells, mostly), design magic items to break rules.

Seriously, this last point is probably the most important. A magic item that just lets you do more of what you already could, or do it a little better, isn’t all that fantastic. Let it do something you could not do without it, and then you’ve got the potential to have something special.

2 Comments

  1. I think another important distinction is consumable vs. non-consumable. You sort of mention this regarding the bottled spell items, but I think it deserves more attention.

    1. Consumable magic items become resource management problems.

    2. They don’t unbalance a campaign (usually).

    I actually like potions and scrolls, though it’s nice when they aren’t all just common spells.

    Another option for enhancement bonuses is to cap them at +1. Then there is no treadmill, it’s either magic or it’s not (there can always be secondary effects as well, but no crazy inflation of bonuses).

    Also: name your magic items and give them history. Don’t just make them a sword +1 even if that’s all they are mechanically. They can also have in-game uses (the wielder of goblin-cleaver will be hunted by goblinoids, the holder of the sword is the true king, etc).

    • I more or less agree regarding consumable items. Single-use items are primarily a resource thing and typically don’t unbalance a campaign unless a lot of charges are available. Wands tend to be problematic; for many spells ’50 charges’ is equivalent to ‘permanent item’, and for those that aren’t a lot of items 50 charges is a lot of mojo to blow in a short time.

      If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know how much I hate the healing stick. Once the PCs bootstrap and can afford one, their range and adventuring capacity increases to the point where it just becomes a tax on the extra loot they recover. I expect to just let characters have the damn hit points and move on, rather than carry a bandolier of the silly things.

      Capping wands at 20 charges or even 10 might be more reasonable. Magic staffs are a trap anyway, but still have similar considerations. I’m leaning more toward making wands like rods, or perhaps like D&D 4e implements (aids to casting, though I’m not entirely certain what I want that to look like).

      I’ve essentially capped enhancement bonuses to +0. I allowed it years (and years — almost a decade) ago, but since straight up enhancement bonuses are usually more useful overall (see: “seen as being of critical importance”) it didn’t get much traction.

      I think all significant entities should have names, history, and relationships to other entities. However, I think this is only particularly useful in this context if there are only a reasonable number of items to consider at once. If you have one or two items (or sets of related items; it doesn’t offend me to see a suit of armor consisting of helmet, breastplate, gauntlets, and perhaps bracers that has a consistent theme and that has power that builds as you get more of the items) with this kind of detail I’m okay with it. When each PC is expected to have the Big Six and some other stuff, plus other gear that they upgraded away from, the catalogue of names gets kind of silly.

      I think one of the key steps that must be taken (and that I didn’t say explicitly, and I probably should have) is to reduce the sheer volume of magic items. In fact, to a large extent the first and third points are directly related to this purpose.

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