Autoscaling Magic Items

A-Z 2015 "A"Many players of Dungeons & Dragons expect the power of magic items to be roughly commensurate with character level.

On the one hand, this can be pretty important to party balance. If one PC in a first-level party has a +5 weapon he will be much more powerful than the other PCs. If all the PCs in that party have +5 weapons they will be immensely more powerful than the monsters they are ‘expected to face’… while at the same time being no more resilient. Balancing encounters so they can be challenging without them being overwhelming becomes quite difficult because the party’s power in unbalanced.

At the other end of the scale, high-level PCs without comparably powerful equipment will be underpowered against their expected opponents. The PCs might in principle be more durable than their gear suggests, but lack the ability to do much because they don’t have gear powerful enough to be effective. For that matter, they might not be as durable as their level indicates because they lack the protective gear, too.

I think there is a way to redefine magic items so their power will be better commensurate with character level. I suspect that the change in definition can have secondary effects that will make magic items potentially more varied and hopefully more interesting.

The Big Six

Ever since Dungeons & Dragons 3e, there has been the idea of “The Big Six” magic items that PCs are expected to have by high level.

  • Magic weapon
  • Magic armor & shield
  • Ring of protection (or a +deflection AC item)
  • Cloak of resistance (or a +resistance saves item)
  • Amulet of natural armor (or a +natural AC item)
  • Ability score boosters

These focus almost entirely on ‘numbers’ (attack bonus and damage, armor and shield bonuses to Armor Class, deflection bonus to AC, resistance bonus to saves, natural armor bonus to AC, and enhancement bonuses to ability scores for offensive and defensive purposes).

Obviously not all characters need all six items (a non-martial character might have no use for a magic weapon), but most PCs at high level will want at least most of these, if not all.

More than that, PCs will tend to want items that maximize each of these values.

In most games I have played, PCs tend to swap out gear to ‘keep the numbers up’. Finding a better weapon often means abandoning a previously-favored weapon for the new one, most often with another PC receiving the old weapon as a hand-me-down. If the previously-favored weapon was an ancestral weapon bequeathed on the PC by her aging grandfather to carry on the family’s good works there might be a twinge or two… but the PC will still almost certainly still trade up.

A PC might, might invest in upgrading an item, paying to have the enchantment increased, but depends on ready availability of crafters able to do so, and I find it reduces the sense of wonder to something roughly on par with upgrading my computer. It’s cool to get some new and improved kit, but it’s just part of maintaining my tools.

Goals of Changes

Purposeful change involves knowing why the changes are being made and how to measure the success of the change.

In this case, I’d like to see the following characteristics of significant magic items.

  • Magic item power is commensurate with level. I’m not prepared to tamper with these expectations right now.
  • PCs are encouraged to keep items for more of their career, rather than replacing them in order to keep up.
  • Magic items have some relationship to their wielders, gravitating to those who can make best use of them.

I will observe that I am not a big fan of ‘numbers-based’ magic items. I tolerate them for balance reasons, but apart from their utility I find them bland.

Changes to Make

A very simple change could be to cause the power of magic items to scale on par with some aspect of the character using them.

In fact, let’s consider two tracks for such items. One is “the numbers”and is a function of some level-oriented aspect of the user. The other is more interesting (i.e. not just numbers) and is probably based on a different aspect of the character such as ranks in another skill, feats taken, ‘common’ class features, and so on.

This means that a “magic sword” will always have numbers roughly commensurate with the wielder’s need. It will be best in the hands of a martial character (BAB = level), not as good in the hands of a semi-martial character (rogue or cleric), and probably relatively dismal in the hands of a non-martial character (wizard).

The secondary track, though, might work better in other hands. A ‘backstabby weapon’ might work best for a character with ranks in the Sneak skill. A fighter can use it fairly well as a “magic sword” but doesn’t gain best benefit from it — almost any other magic sword will be better. The weapon can be applied to greater effect in the hands of a rogue or ranger who has invested ranks in the Sneak skill.

Effects of Changes

This looks like it can address, or start to address, each of the goals above.

Primary and secondary power are based on level-derived elements of the user. The primary effect (needed for “big six” needs) scales automatically with a major aspect common to characters, meeting the bare minimum needed to keep up. The secondary effect also scales for some characters, but not necessarily all.

Because there is no need to trade up in order to keep up, PCs will be likely to keep each item unless one with more attractive secondary elements comes along. That is, a fighter will probably accept almost any magic sword, but an icy burst longsword (assuming the wielder can access the icy burst element) might be more attractive than a holy battleaxe.

The relationship between character abilities and activation of the secondary abilities means that PCs are likely to assign weapons where the most benefit can be gained. A magic sword that acts as a +3 icy burst longsword in the fighter’s hands and a +1 frost longsword in the rogue’s hands is likely to be used by the fighter. The rogue might not be too disappointed, though, if he gets to use the +1 speed rapier (especially if it would be only a +1 rapier for the fighter).

Another consequence that wasn’t quite planned, but is not unattractive, is that it might break the need for the “wealth by level” guidelines. Those guidelines are in place in large part to prevent the acquisition of large amounts of treasure being turned into a major upgrade in personal power by buying items that are not ‘level appropriate’. Having item power scale directly with level, with effects limited by cross-ability requirements, means that excess money can be turned into choices without being turned into direct increase in power. That is, a PC might have several magic swords with different secondary effects, and choose between them at need, but has no way to get a magic sword that will provide power beyond that appropriate to his level.

Closing Comments

On the face of it, this looks like it may work. Making the must-have-for-level effects scale automatically with level removes the need to ‘maintain capability’ by constantly updating equipment. Removing this aspect of equipment management reduces the impetus to swap out weapons because a more powerful one comes along, while not completely removing the ability to ‘upgrade’ to a weapon that better aligns with a character’s abilities or interests.

This will not be to everyone’s taste, of course, and there are many things yet to be examined.

  • How are the changes actually implemented?
  • What are the functions and relationships between level-based values and the derived effects on the items?
  • How does this rules change interact with class features such as the paladin’s divine bond or a wizard’s arcane bond?
  • How are magic items created? Are item creation feats still relevant?
  • Magic arms and armor are probably pretty easily done, what about other magic items?
  • Are there other approaches that can work as well or better?

I don’t yet have answers for all of these yet. I have some ideas regarding general approach, but there is a fair bit left to do before I’m satisfied that this is solved.

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