Friday, March 13, 2009

Magic Items Are Dumb

The biggest thing that bothers me about D&D - any edition - is the prevalence of magic items. They're bland, they're too common, they don't feel magical... anybody who's been playing the game for a while has heard these criticisms. In fact, they've probably voiced them at one point or another.

Magic items served as a way to mechanically differentiate your character in early editions of the game, when one 5th level fighter was much the same as another. Dragon magazine would publish multiple articles decrying "Monty Haul" DMs that handed out magic items like candy corn on Halloween. Yet every NPC in the published modules and campaign settings was bristling with the things.

The "game balance"-focused design 3rd edition made things even worse by hardwiring magic items into its expectations for characters of a certain level, so that if for some reason you didn't have the "expected" items by the time you hit a certain level, you were going to get creamed by the encounters that had been designed for you.

I like 4th edition plenty, but where it really dropped the ball was on magic items. Early previews and hype coming out of Wizards of the Coast promised that the days of carrying around six different magic swords were over, but really, all the game did was make it more obvious how many points of bonuses you were supposed to have by the time you hit a certain level. Also, the game made it even easier for characters to create their own magic items. This is sort of good, because it means that you're no longer just hoping the DM gives you the "right" items - you can just make them yourself. This is also sort of dumb, because the real solution would have been to just make the characters competent enough that they wouldn't need piles of magic items.

I currently play a wizard in a weekly 4th edition game, and I guess it's neat that our characters can pretty much get whatever they need when we need it, but it seems really flavorless and boring to just say "my wizard spends 3000 gp and makes a sword +2" or whatever. I understand that the 4th edition designers were just trying to make it easier for players and DMs to do what they had already been doing for years, but really, I think the "D&D adventurers are magic item Christmas trees" trope is one that should have ended up in the junk heap along with "fire and forget" spellcasting. I can get behind the idea of a character with a magic sword, or magic boots, or a magic shield. I'm less interested in a character that has all three.


  1. I've seen this typified elsewhere as "Only D&D could make a flaming katana seem lame." Even Michael Moorcock parodied the chandelier o' gear look in his short story "The Stone Thing".

    The magic mall was one of the things that ruined 3E for me. Magic items make great icing, but they're a crappy cake. Sometimes a character should be able to hold his own through inherent badassery, but D&D3 as written just doesn't allow this (the BoED Vow of Poverty feat is nothing but a sticking plaster on this gaping wound).

    The idea that the magic items are in the 4E PHB still has me hyperventilating into a paper bag. Where's the mystique? ;)

    There a few people out there trying to make magic items cool and mysterious again though. Taichara's blog ( - look out for the excellent Fluid Edge), James Mishler's "Monsters & Treasures" ( ), and the "El Raja Key Arcane Treasury" ( ) are three that spring to mind. Mandatory side-effects - like all magic items have in "Iron Heroes" - seems to be key...

  2. I do read (and enjoy) Taichara's blog, along with Mishler's and Maliszewski's. Coming up with a cool backstory and description for a magic item is fine, but as long they continue to work the way they do in D&D, players are still just going to write down "sword +2" on their character sheet.

    I remember reading that Mike Mearls (creator of Iron Heroes, regardless who whose name was stuck on the cover) wanted the 4e rulebooks to include a chart that just plain told you what the item bonuses to various stats were supposed to be at certain levels, so that you could easily excise magic items and just give the bonuses. I did not see that chart anywhere, sadly.

    Earthdawn handled magic items beautifully.

  3. Since you enjoy Earthdawn magic items, what are your opinions on Artifacts in 4E?

    That elusive chart might arise in PHB2 (along with the barbarian, druid, etc.)

    Also, have you tried the character creator software by WOTC?

  4. Honestly, I haven't read much about artifacts - I didn't want to spoil the mystery, since I'm a player rather than a DM - but they seem pretty neat. One of the other players in our campaign just got an artifact that we're all very worried about. Now that's a magic item!

    I was hoping it might have gotten thrown into Martial Power, since it would be useful if you wanted to do a martial-only, low-magic campaign, but now I kinda doubt that chart will ever appear. At least it wouldn't be too hard to reverse-engineer it.

    I am a D&D Insider subscriber and I do use the Character Builder. It's pretty good, but I am still really frustrated with WotC's lazy decision to make all their software run on Windows only. (That means I installed it on my work computer - shh.)

  5. There is a really quick fix for your own game if you don't like the Christmas tree effect. Just subtract one level from the monsters in the game for every five levels the PCs have.

  6. Yeah, magic items are a necessary evil in the game.
    Giving too many exp. points/treasure is even worse. D&D went totally 'Monty Hall' from the beginning. I realized early on (within the first few months of DMing @ the age of 12, 26 years ago...RPG's are not rocket science people) that by giving a reward (XP) for rewards (treasure, magic items) was ridiculous and that level progression would be too rapid...especially after name level when characters would continue to become more powerful yet the XP goals siezed to increase. Obviously allowing higher levels of mastery to be more and more easily attained, instead of more difficultly as it should be.
    What do you learn from carrying an extra gold coin? I do continue to give XP for magic items discovered/earned (not purchased or traded for) since they needed to be wielded and commanded in the proper ways. This is what keeps them 'magical'. The only way to earn a reward for a reward is by discovering a new magic item which are almost always generated randomly by myself. This keeps them 'mysterious' as most of the time I (the DM)don't even know what I am going to roll up. In my game if you lose your +2 Dragon Slaying may never find another as I have only given one out in 26 years!!! All my players know how rare certain items are. After 26 years of playing with the same basic core group of players the highest level character is a 14th level cavalier that was stripped of his palladinhood back at 6th level for bad mouthing/renouncing his diety for not helping him out of a particularly tough jam. To this day we have found no need for new rules, we still play our variation of 1st edition which we edit as we see fit to this day. One other thing I still stick to the rule that you need to enchant item, be 11th level, etc. to make magic items...the highest level wizards in our campaigns are a couple of half elves who are 11th level each...both have built labs but have been so busy adventuring neither have had time to create a magic item yet....So, 26 years of real time and about 10 years have passed in the game and still to this day NOT ONE PLAYER HAS EVER CREATED A MAGIC ITEM!!! They leave that to the non-adventuring community of arch-mages and dwarves, etc. because they are adventurers! Adventurers find stuff they don't get thrills out of sitting in labs or over anvils...who ever heard of such a thing? As an adventurer would I want to spend the next month making one low-level item or should I try to find a dozen randomly powered ones??? I really don't think that the first item created will be very powerful or artful. It will most likely be a slaying weapon or a ring or such...I mean just put yourself as a DM or player in the shoes of your character when you make these common sense decisions. That is part of what 'role playing' is about people.

  7. (cont.)

    Seriously though, it should take a human most of his best years from 21-40 (20 years) to become a true master of his class. By eliminating XP for coinage your game will progress at the proper rate which is about 1/5th the rate that has been used by most DM's. Think takes a wizard 4-6 years of schooling to learn to throw a magic misslie but then by running around randomly in dungeons we has learn to hurl meteor swarms within the next 2 years?!?!?!
    Magic items are a great way to boost your characters power in between periods when you are gathering enough XP to level up. Which in my campaign could take anywhere from a day to a few years depending on circumstances, in life and in the game. Earning XPs is a function of what level you are in relation to your partners, how often you play that character, how well you play and how difficult is the challenge you are undertaking. I do tailor adventures to fit the avg. level of the party. However, when a group gets good at working together and starts walking too easily through adventures geared for their level, I step it up. the next time out I will throw an adventure 1 level higher than 'recommended' and then give out a greater story award for completion. then when that gets easy I will throw one 2 levels higher at them next. I continue to tweak things until a death or 2 occurs then I scale it back a bit. Feel your players out over time and you will learn what they should be able to handle. What fun is the game if it is not challenging??? If death is not a part of adventuring why is it considered dangerous?
    With that all said compound the fact that the XP progression has been broken from the start with the fact that it is way too easy to gain magic items especially if players can create them...I wouldn't have played the 'main stream' version of D&D longer than a few months. As my campaign stands today I run 11 different parties simultaneously with my core group of 6-8 players that have stuck with me for decades....we all swear to have the best game on the planet and are very proud of each PC in our game, just about. There are some ne'er do well's but most are heroes at least one count over...

    Dennis Emanuele