At 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.