About this Series: This post is part of a series about some of the new concepts in 4th Edition, particularly ones I had a hand in designing. It will judge which aspects succeeded and failed, and rate how close the mechanic came to its goals and how beneficial it is to the game experience.
This is all my opinion, and your tastes or experiences might give you a higher or lower opinion of whatever I’m talking about. There’s also a wide span between the great examples of each mechanic and the weakest, so I’ll often qualify my opinion when I’m talking about the potential versus the reality. The first two posts appeared on my old blog. I might move them over here someday, but for now you can read about epic destinies and paragon paths there.
Let’s talk about magic items.
Magic items underwent some pretty big changes from 3.5 to 4e, and even more once Essentials dropped and altered treasure allocation. The topic gets even deeper once you bring in alternate rewards like boons, but let’s leave those out of this conversation (though I consider them a good addition to the game and an overall success).
Magic items in 3e were a mess, but often an exciting mess. As your reward for all the accounting you needed to navigate the system (sometimes using XP for the currency, not just gp), you could get some really powerful, interesting items plus oddball creations that begged for some creative thinking. But the system also had a way of making magic items less magical. As people learned to expect having certain plusses on their weapons, grabbing the right stat-boosting items, and carrying an assortment of wands full of often-used spells, the appeal of mysterious items began to wane. Magic Item Compendium addressed one of the big problems by allowing magic weapons to have both a plus and a special ability without radically increasing the cost. Items had moved from a reward given out by the DM to an expected character tool. So what would 4th edition do to address the way magic items had headed? Where would we go right and where would we make mistakes?
- Bonus Modifications: 4e moved to a more predictable bonus structure by assigning attack and defense bonuses between three slots, and making a fairly predictable assortment of skill bonus items divided by tier. The sort-of-implied bonus expectations of 3e had become explicit in 4e, making them easier to figure out for the casual player. The new structure did the job of making it harder to accidentally make a bad character, and it removed the most egregious items that granted huge bonuses for relatively little investment.
- Simplification: Items were made easier to use. The item slots were codified from the start, and decreased in number from the long list in Magic Item Compendium. The expectations on the DM, and the system for distributing treasure, also became clearer. The parcel system (since replaced with a more randomized system) held the DM’s hand through placing treasure. All this led to a system that needed less attention, which is probably best for a system that should take a back seat to the core parts of a character.
- Iconic Class Items: With items of certain types (staffs, orbs, rods, totems) tied to classes, they gave a better visual hook for character using them. But see “Narrow Focus” below.
- Outgrowth of 3e: The 4e item system is a reaction to the 3e system and what it had become. I think a lot more could have been learned by looking at other versions of the game, when items were more “special.” The 4e system works as an extension of what had happened in both the previous edition and in video game RPGs, but did it reflect the way items should feel in D&D? A rehaul of the mechanics should have been based on a closer examination of what type of experience the items were meant contribute to. 3e’s direction should have only informed 4e’s, rather than defining it.
- Oversimplification: Items had been overcomplicated, and they needed to be stripped down, but the new system went too far. The game didn’t really need weapons stacked with four different enhancements, but too many items got reduced to just “+1 bonus to damage rolls” or a mediocre daily power.
- Milestones and Daily Uses: And speaking of daily powers, the uses per day system was unwieldy and didn’t really carry its weight. Essentials removes it entirely, and I doubt anyone will miss it much.
- Narrow Focus: A small number of items that work best for a particular class or race is fine, but the proliferation in 4e got out of hand. If I make an Invoker, how many of the 408 rods in the Compendium will even work for me, much less be something I want?
- Quantity: Notice how I just said “408 rods?” You see the two books full of hundreds of magic items? Just filtering through them for a single character can be a nightmare. Some thematic organization can help though. Item sets and Insider articles written to a theme can both help narrow down items and give them a much better story hook than the couple lines of text.
- Off-Slot Bonuses: There’s a strange phenomenon in Adventurer’s Vault where items that aren’t in the neck slot grant bonuses to non-AC defenses (like the belt of vim). This seems to have been short-lived, but usually such major deviations from a standard occur later in a game’s lifespan rather than in one of the very first supplements! It’s quite likely these were put in to make up math discrepancies; I just don’t think they were the right way to achieve that goal.
- Moved to Player Side: Items had become something PCs relied on and players expected to have as an integral part of their characters’ builds. There was a fork in the road: Go farther toward making them a player resource or turn back the clock an edition and put them more squarely in the DM’s hands. We went with the first option, and magic items appeared in the Player’s Handbook. The rules and responsibilities were still split, though, since PCs were still expected to find most of their treasure in hoards created by the DM. I’ve seen a number of people on each side of this argument: players who want the freedom to build their character how they like, and DMs who miss being able to surprise their players or place interesting—but non-optimal—items.
- Essentials: We haven’t really seen where the current WotC team plans to go with the new item rarities. What I’ve seen so far isn’t particularly inspiring. If rare items end up being more powerful or rule-bending (by which I mean less tied to standardized game mechanics, not “game-breaking”), it could be very cool! So far, we haven’t seen enough to really tell where this system is headed.
- Selling for Half: I’ve heard complaints about having to sell items for 20% (again, this changed somewhat with Essentials), but people also talk about selling and buying items less often. That means more time for actual adventuring, so I prefer it that way.
If you got the 3e system in the mail, it would be inside a hard, sealed plastic shell. Once you pried or cut it open, you’d find a jury summons and a $20 bill. The 4e system would be inside a easy-open, reusable box. You’d pull out a coupon for canned peas. It’s a bit of boring, but a well-packaged one in many ways. Essentials has already changed the packaging. When we get whatever the content from the canceled Mordenkainen’s Blabbity Blah becomes, we’ll see whether we got a better present.
Why did magic items turn out less than stellar? I was a designer on Adventurer’s Vault, so I should have some insight, right? Well, it all comes down to time. Magic items were one of the last things to get done in the 4e core book design process, and AV was slated to be one of the first supplements. We were still wrapping our heads around how the magic system worked, and I think it was still being finalized, when we needed to crank out hundreds of items! Given a little more time and focus, I think that book could have looked more like Adventurer’s Vault 2. (And in that alternate universe, Adventurer’s Vault 2 could have gone farther into unexplored territory and story-based design.)