Upcoming 4e Item Rarities and the Great 4e Rebalancing

Full of rare itemsAt Gen Con 2010, Wizards of the Coast announced that items in 4th edition D&D would have rarities including common, uncommon, and rare. To me, the most interesting piece on this is that most existing items will be considered “uncommon” thus unavailable for purchase at most magic shops and only for the DM to distribute.

On the surface it doesn’t seem like much of a change. Deep down, however, it is a change that can completely rebalance 4e, particularly at higher levels.

At the D&D New Products Seminar, and on this post from Mike Mearls, it was stated that, from Essentials on out, items would fall into categories of common, uncommon, and rare. Most existing items, he stated, would fall into the “uncommon” rarity. Items in the “common” pool are items with pure static bonuses such as neck slot items, armor, bonuses to skill, and weapons with +1 to +6 bonuses and no other effects. Potions and some other items will no doubt be included.

So why does this matter? It matters because it is the combination of item powers mixed with class, paragon path, epic destiny, and class power effects that often unbalanced the game. With these item combinations much more rare, PCs are more likely to stay balanced. Let’s look at a few specific instances where we’ll see this change.

Rebalancing Elemental Resistance

One example of this rebalancing is in resistances. Given full freedom to pick any magical items, many players will choose as many items as possible with elemental resistances, probably starting with necrotic. These resistances become so common that entire sets of monsters lose effectiveness when their primary damage type is resisted by an entire party. Orcus’s aura 10 necrotic resistance is all but worthless to an epic-tiered party who will very likely all resist necrotic 15. With randomly generated uncommon loot, an item with such resistances will be rare and when a player wins it, they will be very happy indeed. Elemental resistances will be rare enough not to adversely affect the amount of damage a monster SHOULD be doing. We DMs no longer need to compensate for the resistances of the PCs.

Rebalancing Critical Hits

Critical hit bonuses are another area greatly affected by this change. Some character classes gain substantial increases to the threat range of their critical hits. Some even gain powers that let them auto-crit. Such a character is likely to pick out weapons with higher crit bonuses or other powers that trigger off of critical hits. Stacking these items and abilities together creates huge surges in damage output. Removing these items from the stack puts critical damage back in line. Again, sometimes a character may receive such an item randomly but they’re likely not optimized to use it.

Making Magic Items Fun Again

This change also makes treasure a lot more interesting. Instead of players cherry-picking the most optimal items for their character, they now only get maybe one or two items with any extra powers beyond static bonuses. Some DMs, myself included, will likely randomly generate these items to make them even more interesting. It will add a random element to the story that neither the players nor the DM could know beforehand. It’s like the difference between an open Magic the Gathering competition and a sealed deck league. Suddenly that item you never really cared about could seem very valuable indeed.

Shattering Character Optimization

The subculture of D&D players who love optimizing characters aren’t likely to be affected by this but it does give DMs control over whether to let such characters exist at the table. Those that love to optimize characters in theory are free to do so but the likelihood of seeing the proper set of items to build such a character at the table is completely in the hands of the DM. Most DMs, myself included, will choose to distribute such loot either randomly or in small doses to prevent such optimizations.

Having seen what optimized characters can do to a high-level game, I, for one, welcome our new loot-nerfing overlords.

Speeding Up the Game

Speed ends up being another benefit of limiting magic items this way. With characters possessing fewer items with encounter or daily powers, their character sheets get smaller and their options fewer. Fewer options makes choices faster and thus speeds up the amount of time a player takes to finish a round.

The Danger of Bumping Up Damage

Back in June, WotC released an update that included new math for monster output. This new math dramatically increases the amount of damage monsters put out, particularly above level 10. While DM’s like me have been used to dropping refrigerators on our parties just to keep them threatened, we’ll now need to be a bit more careful. Resistances will be lower, escape effects will be more rare, and damage mitigation through healing and temporary hit points will be seen less often. We’ll need to hold back a little bit, run a bunch of fights, and see how the new math works with characters possessing fewer uncommon magic items.

The Optimal Time to Introduce the Rules: Dark Sun!

Not everyone will be happy with these new rules. Players used to having piles of magic items in two-inch thick Sears & Roebucks catalogues will scream the first time they’re randomly given a piece of gear. I know I’ll have to finish my current campaign before I can introduce such rules. My players are just too used to getting their own way. That’s going to stop as soon as the campaign is finished, and then I’ll have the perfect time to spring such rules on my players: Dark Sun.

Characters in Dark Sun are lucky to have half of an old rotten jawbone to fight back the hordes of cannibal halflings and fire-breathing desert scorpions. They’ll be lucky to find a chitin plate to strap to their ass, much less a +5 suit of Black Iron Godplate. When drops of water are rare on Athas, that one particular magic item is almost non-existant. Dark Sun is the perfect time to get your group used to seeing items less frequently and the perfect time to get them used to the fun of finding an uncommon sword with a strange power they might never have looked at before.

My Only Complaint

I have only one major complaint when I consider these new rules. I wish they had done them two years ago. For two years I’ve had to house rule my way around the increased power my players possessed when they handpicked their magic items. Sure, I could be blamed for this since I let them essentially pick what they wanted, but I didn’t know any better. I didn’t realize how much a necrotic resist 15 breastplate could be. Now I know and now I’m happy to see the changes.

It will be a few months before we see them fully realized but for me that’s just in time.


  1. Well thought out commentary. You’ve definitely offered more than a knee-jerk response to the issue for sure.

    For me I like the fact that they take out the limit on magic item uses. Tracking your magicc item encounters and dailies was just on further thing to track and a further PITA.

    Overall I’m excited about this tweak to the rules.

  2. Speaking as a DM – I’m glad they’re getting rid of the awful “magic item use per encounter” kludge. I dropped it on my own game as a house rule a while back – but then my players are not optimizers and we never ran into the problem that that kludge was supposed to resolve so it hasn’t been an issue for us for a while. Still – it was a clunky “fix” to something that was only a problem because of the decision to let all magic items be treated like accessories that you could buy.

    I like the idea of a tiered setup for magic items, and the idea that a character should only really be expected to have one “major” magic item per tier sounds like a really good idea. I’ll have to look to see how they’ve implemented these tiers to see if I want to backfit them into my own game or not.

  3. Alphastream says:

    I wrote up some thoughts here: http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/25687877/Dragon_390_-_Countdown_to_Essentials:_Magic_Item_Rarity&post_num=24#463148861 In general, the new rules just seem like they are half-baked and a stage in development versus a true solution that is tried and tested. I would hope that after the years we have taken trying to convert skill challenges and traps into meaningful rules WotC would know to more fully think through big rules items. Magic item rarity has unnecessary CCG titles that hurt their chances at converting 3.5 players, has big impacts on RPGA PCs, has big impacts on long-term home campaigns, and isn’t likely to actually be a much better system. I can argue that most of Essentials feels like a point in development. With Essentials classes, no big deal – they are just another build. With magic item rarity, this does impact everyone’s game. Do we really believe this will balance PC magic? What happened to the idea of magic items not defining our PCs? Why is the baby on the ground outside, surrounded by discarded bathwater?

  4. My only real problem with the change is an increased reliance on the DM to police things. With the rules before, it was expected that even with a completely permissive DM, the simple game rules would keep things mostly in check. Items shouldn’t really be overpowering in general, in my opinion.

    Regardless, Mike seems like he has an idea of what he’s doing, and I’ll wait to see the final results before complaining.

  5. Jason Richardson says:

    Hello Mike,

    You say “randomly generated” a couple of times in this commentary and how that will help “balance” some stuff out. I agree. But, are you sure magic items are now randomly generated? Has that been stated somewhere? I hope that it is true; randomly generating treasure sings to my old-school heart!

  6. will heroic tier rare weapons be +1 or +2?

  7. I am of two minds with this rebalancing.

    as a player, i am king of “Min/maxing”(optimizing) but i do it in such a way that i covet the static abilities magic items. i play a seeker, and with gear like Bracers of Archery, Eagle Eye Goggles, Gauntlets of Blood, Duelist’s Longbow, so on and so forth i can optimize my damage and to hit numbers. effectively turning my controller into a striker without losing my controlling cantrip. i find that static abilities in a long enough time line can out pace daily power magic items in terms of usefulness.

    as a DM, i can already see the munchkin problem forming, so a rarity loot table that shows the more powerful items as off limits in terms of magic store availability makes it much easier for me to nip the problem in the bud. it also makes what ever item i give them that much more special.

    in the game in which i am a player, i see the frustration in my DM when even at heroic levels poison resist and necrotic resist 5 are common and monster breaking.

  8. agentofnothing says:

    The big issue is if the characters have access to either an artificer or someone with the enchant magic item ritual, your characters still have a pretty big leg up.

  9. 30YearVeteran says:

    While I have seen 2 really optimized groups, with most groups I see, this will only make the game take longer to play, not shorter as presented in the article. The truly optimized groups can blow through encounters quickly (1-2 rounds), while most groups will take anywhere from 4-10 rounds to accomplish the same encounter.

  10. TheMainEvent says:

    Well, the problem with 4E is its a good system with interesting choices, but too often I felt like fun factor got lost in terms of overarching game rules. 4E magic items were the least fun, most arduous set of equipment I’ve ever used in a fantasy game. I’m certainly willing to give a new system a try. Its hard to argue that old 4E items were crowd pleasers.

  11. Could you post an example of how this works? I don’t totally understand the rarity levels. I haven’t played DnD since 2nd Ed and we always used the random loot tables to generate treasure, so people didn’t just buy what they wanted (optimizing as you said).

  12. I must say that I definitely appreciate Mike’s review and agree with just about everything he said. My current groups are run in relatively non-maxed, magic item limited settings so these changes don’t affect my groups right now. I see the wisdom behind the changes, although for some groups that enjoy power-gaming this is a bit of a blow… although there is no reason their DM can’t work with them to keep the fun of the game balanced (wish lists becoming pretty important now). I can’t see a completely random assortment items being the answer either, but something in the middle.. sometimes a nice surprise, sometimes something actually asked for or useful for the group or player. I do find it wierd that MM3 bumps up enemies at the same time that this calls for a weakening of distributed items, although maybe this will lead to some more challenging fights without taxing every DM to come up with an encounter that is too complicated or that drags on for too long.. all in all, I like where WOTC is going with this, and I echo Mike’s comments that this would have been nice a year or two ago.. oh.. and I plan to test this out on Athas.. as soon as I can get a group there ! – Josh

  13. @ 30YearVeteran At my game table high damage output doesn’t make my game short. The sheer number of choices, options, and combinations result in very long turns. Reducing choices is one of the main thing I’m hoping this new item rarity system results in.

  14. Matthew Cicci (The Last Rogue) says:

    Top notch. I, for one, am totally into the Essentials changes. From magic items to the new class structures, I’m really digging it. Anyways, thanks for the quick response to the rarity issue and the insight.

  15. I’m thrilled as a Dungeon Master that these new item rules will be going into effect. I have been battling a couple of my 4E Players over how I distribute magic items in my game. I am very strict about not letting Characters pick and choose magic items, and make it really hard for them to get an Item Enchantment Ritual performed. I like handing out items which I decide are appropriate, or simply rolling a few at random. But this did not sit well with my Players, who expected to be able to use the Adventurer’s Vaults like a Sears Wishlist catalog – and I was kinda running out of excuses for my restrictiveness other than “It’s my game, if you don’t like it, tough!”.

    But my DM’ing “danger sense” went off at the idea of letting Characters cherry pick and min-max the magic items their Characters got, and I’ve stuck to my guns on that issue, despite several post-session arguments. I’m glad WotC Developers realized the error in letting Characters have too much control over their magical treasure, and I’m glad to see the power back in my hands again.

  16. I’m always happy to see a company listen to feedback and try to tweak their rules to fit the type of game the players are asking to play. I’m not a big fan of 4e, but from an outside position, I consider these good moves.

  17. I find this an interesting change.

    The DMG1 actually states for the DM to ask players to make a wishlist of items they want for their PCs so those items can be included in future treasure parcels. It gives the power of choice to the PCs.

    Now it seems the pendulum has swung back again and it’s up to the DMs to pick items (or roll randomly if the random item table rumors are true).

    I’m not really sure how big an impact this is going to have though in terms of power. Other than the aforementioned energy resistance items, very few items are central to an uber character’s build. Most nova strikes still center around powers rather than items for example. As long as a PC has a level equivalent weapon/implement, I don’t really see this as impacting a character’s power level much.

  18. GameMaster01 says:

    When 4E was first talked about and Mike Mearls was involved I was hoping to see something akin to Iron Heroes where magic items were rare. When they mentioned trying to eliminate the duffel bag of items that PCs carried I was intrigued but in practice all they eliminated were the scrolls and a lot of static bonuses. Players in 4E are limited to the about the same number of items as in 3 and 3.5. Now that we are two years into the game it seems a little late to be changing a fundamental design element like magic item use.

    I don’t like the change. I am unhappy about the current state where it actually costs the characters more to make items than buy them. A ritual caster needs to buy the ritual and learn it then buy the supplies to make the item and then spend time making the item. It is a lot easier to just pay the guy at the emporium to get it for you.

    I like characters that can craft magic items: the dwarven smiths and the wizard artificers. These characters are giving up other resources like wealth, feats, or character backgrounds to gain an ability that might help the party. When Martial Practices were hinted at I was excited that a fighter like Breunor from Icewind Dale could now actually make Aegis Fang. When I read the rules I saw he could now spend a lot of gold and take a feat to make a vanilla +x hammer with no special abilities.

    I am curious to see if the Ritual Caster wizards, clerics, and artificers will be similarly kicked down to the apprentice crafting level.

    A lot of people are talking about giving power back to the DMs. When did they lose the power of being a DM? The DM controls the time players have to make items and more importantly the gold they earn to pay for them. They determine which items are given as part of treasure parcels. As a DM I think the parcel system is one of the best elements of 4E after the Fighter and at-will powers.

    Having run and played 4E since the playtest modules I haven’t seen enough gold pass through player hands to make a mess of things. Yes, every melee build uses Iron Armbands of Power. That is because a flat bonus to damage is better than any other arm-slot item for a melee character.

    The items the PCs get are the best for them because they are the main charcters in the story. When Frodo is given Sting it is not a Trident of Fish Command but a blade that detects orcs: something valuable that the player might actually request.

    Finally, I don’t get how the economy will work with the change. The prices are ridiculous but by eliminating 95% of the items for sale what are the players going to do with the money they receive? Why have random items if monsters and NPCs don’t even use magic items anymore? Rare items sell for 100% gp value but what will the players buy with the gold?

    Maybe when we see the acual rules I will understand. Right now I do not plan to use the new system in October. I hope that the GMs I work with do not use it either.

  19. Well, in general, if a change annoys optimizing powergamers, then it is probably a good design choice. Aside from the usual points to be made about metagaming, powergamers and optimizers are also an incredible turn-off to new players. Want to kill the interest of a budding new gamer? Send him to an optimizer discussion board. No one, and I mean no one, will enter a roleplaying game because he’s all jazzed up about increasing his to hit by +1, improving his Reflex defense by 1, or upping his damage by another d6, especially to the uber-nerdy obsessive-compulsive levels the powergamers exhibit. Boring. Boring. Boring. It’s called Dungeons & Dragons, not Plusses & Minuses.

    I remember when I first picked up the Core Three after having not played D&D since 1e and very early 2e, thinking “What? They’re letting players choose their own magic items?” Why don’t you just let them choose how much gold they find, as well. Heck, why not just let them choose what monsters to fight? It’s basically the same principle, and it ENCOURAGES powergaming. Also, I thought, “How is it, exactly, that players somehow know the exact formula for creating every magic item in the universe.” I thought it made magic items cheap, and, oh, what’s that word again? Boring.

    However, I understand that at any given table there are something like 5 players to every 1 DM. There is FAR more material that can be created for DMs into perpetuity or near perpetuity (settings, adventures, monsters & NPCs, etc.), which is absolutely essential to maintaining a new edition for as long as possible. However, from a business standpoint, you can generate far more sales and revenue if you create material that is useful to the 5 players instead of just the 1 DM, and magic items are one of those game elements for which, if done correctly, you can generate a LOT of material (and revenue). But in earlier editions it was yet another DM element.

    So they folded magic items into the player’s sphere. In my opinion it was their worst design choice, although I understand what they were trying to do from a business standpoint.

    Side Note: Someone mentioned item rarity being part of the Essentials line. I think changes like these were already in the works, and Wizards simply folded them into the Essentials line in order to make it into the Rules Compendium. It’s not so much that Essentials is changing the game, as changes to the game are being incorporated into Essentials. It’s a good call by Wizards, even if people are a little confused by what is actually driving changes in the game.

    Another Side Note: Optimized parties aren’t a problem. If a 5th level party is playing at 7th level ability, you simply up the difficulty level of encounters to 7th, and award the party 5th level experience if they ‘defeat’ the encounter. It’s yet another reason why optimizing is such an incredible waste of time, especially if you play with an experienced DM. That said, one or two optimized characters in a non-optimized group is a much bigger problem ….

  20. The only problem I see that this change to magic items actually does anything about, is the epidemic of 3.5e characters being mysteriously transported into 4e games – and then not fitting in.

    And they are going to fix that problem by altering 4e to make the 3.5e characters fit in.

    Oddly, though, I’ve never actually seen one of these strange transportees.

    Fortunately, the other stuff they are doing in Essentials creates the problem so they can fix it.

    And of course if they have to badly damage something in 4e that works in order to create and fix this problem – nobody cares!

  21. Ahem.


  22. The only problem I see with this is the DM may not know which items the players actually want and may have a hard time keeping up with “what the game expects” people to have. What good is a level+1 item that nobody really wants? What if player A gets most of the items she wants but player B gets the cruddy leftovers that nobody wants? And as far as adding story items or nerfing/banning too powerful items, the DM already has that option in the previous item rules.

    Summary: This creates too much work for the DM, who should spend time creating encounters, not figuring out which items the players actually want.

  23. RL Burnside says:

    Problems with the rarity are that in some slots, nothing is really worth it GP-wise. You’ll be better off saving that cash to upgrade your main 3.

    e.g. Iron Armbands. Clearly, before this update they were still the only thing for melee-‘ers to wear on their arms. After the update : Bracers of Mighty Striking? Seriously… For a ranger? it’s not worth the money it’s enchanted with. Maybe for the MBA-focused classed in Essentials, but this rarity rule does nothing to fix the inherent imbalance between the items’ utility.

    Dailt item powers were almost 100% complete crap, so now they will be uncommon or rare. That actually makes sense. Because they would fail in a realistic market. Who would bother enchanting such items if no one was buying them?.

    What about Iron Armbands? They were popular, but now let’s say the factory stopped making them a and the formula was lost. Just increase the market price, or the GP value to enchant them. If you want that resist 15 necrotic item, you should be able to get one, just pay more. Pay a merchant to hunt them down on the black market. It can’t be impossible to obtain other than random loot, because why would someone spend money on stuff that wasn’t worth it?

    The static mods magic items == common theory is completely negated by the fact that Iron Armbands are uncommon. So, instead of realizing that static properties are normally flat-out better than 90% of the items with daily powers, they pull some non-sense double-think and say, well the item is uncommon BECAUSE people want it so much. It makes no sense on an economy that compared with all the other arm slot items, nobody would even bother spending gold on those items, regardless of whether they were so common that anyone could wear them.

    Only Essentials characters would bother spending 1800gp on Bracers of Mighty Striking, which for all intents and purposes, ARE Iron Armbands to them. This just nerfs the pre-essentials melee classes that don’t focus on MBAs, or other melee classes like warlords that must use their At-Wills to be able to hit with their intelligence, or spend a feat. Just increase the cost of the iron armbands to make it a tougher decision to spend that amount of gold on them or upgrade your weapon to the next + 1.

    They need to release a whole bunch of common items that are worth their GP value for this change to not push even more people away from 4e. Rules hould make sense. If the players are hoarding +necrotic resistance and eliminating Orcus’ aura, increase his aura. It’s that simple.

    If you are going against a God and do not optimize your gear to give you any chance at all of winning, you deserve to die. Quick. That said, Orcus has been trivially easy for a long time, meaning this magical “balance” ideal is complete nonsense. People can kill him without uber equipment or item optimizations, just well-built parties can kill him really fast.