4e Success or Failure: Magic Items

Magic Item LaboratoryAbout 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.

The Score

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.)


  1. The Magic Item system / economy is one of the few things I think still need fixed in 4e, and WotC has done a pretty bang up job with addressing my other issues (ie removing the Daily item use limit and returning magic item distribution to the DM).

    I think a large part of the ridiculousness of the exponential increase in magic item costs is largely due to the desire to keep certain items out of the hands of lower leveled characters. I think if the decision was made to keep magic items in the hands of the DM entirely this requirement for costs to rise so much wouldn’t have been such an issue.

    Personally, as I’ve said before (http://www.myrpgame.com/2010/12/08/killing-and-resurrecting-dds-sacred-cows/), I think it would have been better to just eliminate the pluses granted to attack/damage and defenses via magic items, at least on a level to level basis…and focus on the special abilities of those items. They’re already almost all the way there by using Inherent Bonuses.

    You could still have those ‘precise’ weapons by having a property where the weapon give +1 or +2 to attack rolls, but now it truly is a bonus as opposed to something to just keep up with the Monsters (which is where we’re at now with ‘expected’ pluses).

    I’m really hoping, as you say, that WotC makes Rare items worth it. They should be fracking cool. I don’t care if they’re powerful, but they need to be much more interesting than the Staff of Power or Holy Avenger is now.

    I’m also happy about putting control over the magic item distribution back into DM control. My players definitely used magic items as just another character creation tool as opposed to ‘rewards’. It certainly elimianted Potion of Clarity spam.

    Some of my players are unhappy with it, but it’s annoying that having certain magic items became an entitlement.

  2. I think Chatty hit it on the head when he said that the new work horse of D&D was the combat powers which puts the control of the game back in the player’s hands. (As opposed to putting an item in the player’s hands.)

    In many respects a low magic campaign suits 4e better.

    And yes… I find 4e magic items mind numbingly similar. I got around that by using a game mastery deck to select a type of item, then searching through a ‘vault’ to find something like that of the right level. I’ve pulled out things that I would not normally have even looked at, and those have been favorites for the players.

    I’ve used an appropriate magic buy and sell system in my games. (i.e. build for half price, sell for half price) But part of that is that 4e was aiming away from players getting settled down. However, I feel that getting settled down was a key aspect of older D&D. It meant that you had to establish more about your characters than combat. It made them feel more real.

  3. The oversimplification of items and expected number of items per character are both things that I’d love to see changed. I’d really prefer to have fewer items per character, but have those items be more meaningful.

    Arcane Springboard’s idea of not having enhancement bonuses by default sounds good to me. It’d make the focus of the item on its effects rather than just keeping up with the monster math.

  4. When I started, I loved the ease of the treasure parcel system. But picking out items for lv1 characters is easy. They’re level 17 now and I hate playing the shopping game for them. I would give anything to not have to hand out items unless it made sense in relation to plot.

  5. Magic items in 4th Edition are a failure. I get what they were going for, but it doesn’t change the result. If magic items aren’t exciting, then they’re just another boring subsystem to have to manage.

    Fewer, more detailed and powerful magic items is the clear way to go. I also think it was time to kill the sacred cow of the +1 sword. A numerical bonus doesn’t feel magical. Perhaps there could be a magical effect that would grant a +2 to attacks, but it should at least be described. And, this way, we can take the bonus requirement away from the math.

  6. I wish that 4E had really focused on the initial design goal that was communicated, where “magic items do not define the character”. That was sort of true in PHB, but gone by AV! It was soundly trounced in Essentials, where Mearls wrote about items that… wait for it… define your PC!

    In AD&D you might have tons of magic (thanks, Gary!), but seldom an item that was seen as fundamental to a build. 3E and 4E create this, but don’t compensate for it on the DM side. A DM can always adjust, but the balance is never in the right place. And, over time, most players and DMs begin to feel that the system has given them a Faustian bargain. You fight for these items and then find yourself with predictable lame items. I think Dark Sun’s inherent system and the setting begging you to give out very little magic has been a breath of fresh air for 4E.

    I hope the next iteration of D&D truly gives story-based magic a shot. Let the PC shine, not their hours spent cheesing out what loot has ridiculous synergies with their build, choosing powers and feats because of an item, forcing the DM to give out a particular lame static bonus item, etc.

    In the meantime, some simple fixes might be to not allow duplicates of any item to apply in a day. And, have a maximum cap on the number of bonuses (even if they stack) that can apply to any die roll. No more than three, for example, keeps things a bit more meaningful and opens up some magic item slots or feat choices for more interesting options.

  7. Thanks for this insight.

    I do think that saying there are 408 rods is overegging it a little, considering that there is a separate line item in the Compendium for every enhancement bonus variation of each rod. The actual distinct number of enchantments is probably between one third and one fifth of that number (not every enchantment has all variations from +1 to +6).

    I am right with you though in that the essentials revamp of item distribution feels unfinished. I particularly consider the mass designation of almost all of the pre-essentials items as uncommon to be irksome, and the lack of follow-up is painful. Yes, existing items can be houseruled, and DMs can make up their own rares, but one of the attractions of 4E for me has been that such work isn’t as necessary as it might have been previously.

  8. For me, the single biggest mistake that 4e made with regard to magic items is to treat them as a necessary component of the character math under player control. 3.x created — especially as played in Living Greyhawk — normalized the concept of the “magic item superstore” and players began to expect to be able to buy awesome weapons in even the smallest of hamlets.

    By magic magic items a part of the underlying architecture of the task resolution math, 4e made magic items not merely currency but also assumed and needed items.

    Excalibur should be a unique reward and not the item needed in order to keep the percentage to hit at proper levels.

    I love a lot about 4e, rituals for example, but the magic item economy impacts the fun and usefulness of rituals and other items. When characters have a predictable amount of gold per level, which allows for a predictable bonus to stats/skills that gets undermined if the character decides to cast a ritual…then the character never casts the ritual.

  9. I love this take on 4E magic items. It’s a great alternative.

  10. I, for one, find magic items in 4E to be a complete failure. When combined with guidelines on how to parcel out treasure, they could easily be done away with and replaced with additional bonuses and powers originating from the character’s class.

    In particular, I think it’s very sad that the impact of a magical item in 4E cannot be magical. Everything — the bonus, the powers — is just a mundane extension of the existing d20 bonus/power structure. Magic items ought to do things that are beyond the purview of otherwise available class features.

    As an aside, one of the more interesting things I read was an interview with a 4E designer who was chafing against the restrictions the designers were under when creating magic items. He encouraged DMs to create items which broke the rules.

  11. Though the 3e “Christmas Tree Syndrome” was a problem its designers failed to foresee, and the ease of crafting changed the dynamic a lot to “expected items” and player entitlement, the 4e magic item system was one of the major turnoffs to me. The gp costs were insanely high and all the items did very, very little. That, in addition to the commoditized powers and “roles”, made me not play 4e at all.

    I agree with several of the other commenters that going to a DM-grant system from the 3e-introduced player-entitlement system is the only way to get rid of the corrosive effects that “expected items” have on the game dynamic.

  12. i loved magic items in 4e until rarity reared its head

  13. Kinda cool to see this post come up right around the same time I posted my rant about how I wanted to refresh 4E for myself. One of the big culprits for me? Magic Items. As they are in 4E, I want to completely do away with now. Doesn’t mean I don’t want “magical items” in general, but as they’re presented they just don’t suit me. I want the wondrous, sought after things…..not the +3 you found in a trash can.

  14. Good insights, but I don’t think they go far enough. Here is what I would like to see in the next revision, whether it be found in 4.5e or 5e.

    1. Remove + attack and defense, and make those bonuses inherent.
    2. Limit bonuses to saving throws. As a player, I love them, but they can be stacked to the point of absurdity.
    3. Change the ratio of items with Daily powers vs. Encounter powers. Right now it seems to be about 80/20 — closer to 50/50 would be better.
    4. Beware of making too many powers use Immediate actions.
    5. Assign magic item levels carefully. Many 4e items have ridiculously inappropriate levels — Goblin Stompers are level 6 while Acrobat Boots and Boots of Adept Charging are level 2???
    6. Create separate Power cards for item powers in the Character Builder. The green/red/gray color scheme is very handy for quickly finding a power and determining when to use it.

    and my own pet request, though many may find it strange:

    7. Create a build that focuses on making and modifying magic items. I’ve always loved the idea of supplying fellow party members with goodies, and greatly enjoyed the role in 3e, minimally supported as it was.

  15. like artificers right?

  16. I think I’m going to hold judgment until Mordenkaiden’s Emporium comes out.

  17. What I would like is a system that recognises that different groups want different levels of magic in their game. Isn’t D&D meant to be about playing out the fantasy world that you want? It should be simple and system-supported to run both a high magic or low magic (or even no-magic) campaign. Right now every campaign is either predictable and exactly the same magically – or house-ruled.

  18. Eh, I think a lot of the issue was in presentation. I’ve found that by discouraging player shopping for items from the start and providing items with interesting backstory, incrementally increasing their power either by letting the players add enhancements to them or by powering them up via story elements things actually work pretty well. The dwarf fighter’s demonslayer axe was found in an ancient crypt, magically enhanced by his father, and gained its demonslaying power through action within the story. It is entirely a ‘book’ item, but an interesting one. It was neither specifically selected by the player, nor necessarily the perfect optimum item. It does however work quite well in the story. I’ve given most of the characters something along the same lines. Their other items interesting as well and I tend to dish out a goodly number of the more thematic items. There are actually quite a few of those BTW. It is not at all true that you can get the same capabilities other ways. There’s nothing that competes with a flying carpet, a bag of holding, or a figurine of wondrous power (which on a trip to the feywild has now acquired a personality of its own, one of these days it will stop being a conjuration and become a Companion Character).

    AV1 mentioned some of these possibilities in passing, but I think a lot more should have been emphasized. I’ll agree though that there are too many very similar items. One of the things that I find looking back through my 1e DMG is that there actually is a pretty limited set of variations presented. That made each one feel more special even if mechanically they really weren’t more significant than the 4e items.

  19. I am surprised by how many have expressed a dislike for the system. To play devil’s advocate a bit, I think the system can be fun. It certainly pleases the optimizer by providing a lot of synergies and construction fun as they come up with how to build a really strong (or even thematic) PC. In LFR, where we get a lot of opportunities to choose amongst items and then have various chances to just pick an item, you really can have fun constructing a PC to fit a particular vision. My burst dark pact warlock, for example, is only really possible due to picking items to fit that concept. It would be terrible without them.

    What I think happens is that this system grows old for most participants after a while, plus it presents real problems for a home campaign where the DM wants to run one way and the players are expecting these boosts. There is no easy solution. You basically have to completely abandon the system, which is what I see a lot of guys do (Chris Sims wrote about it on this site a few months ago, for example).

  20. The 4E magic item system is one of the weakest aspects of the game and the one that I have the most trouble with personally as a DM. The first problem I noticed (and there are many) is that they’re largely boring. I enjoy creating my own magic items that exist outside of those in the Adventurer’s Vaults, but then it become impossible to get those characters to work properly in the character builder (as we’re unable to enter our own modifiers to houseruled items) and you resign yourself to using what’s already been made.

    Then there’s distribution. By requiring that players amass specific magic items just to keep up, they’re taken out of the DM’s hands. The parcel system was awful (especially since the first published adventures didn’t follow the published rules) but the new Essentials randomized table approach isn’t any better. And where are the rare items?

    Inherent bonuses are a step in the right direction, but the entire magic item system should be overhauled. Monster defenses and feat taxes were adjusted with Essentials and I was looking forward to the same for magic items with the horribly titled Mordenkainen book, but now that’s been canceled.

    The Score: D-

  21. Nice crunch post – I love this kind of analysis. Looking forward to more in the series.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gato, CH News Robot and Tracy Hurley, Glimm the Gnome. Glimm the Gnome said: RT @criticalhits: New Critical Hit: 4e Success or Failure: Magic Items http://critical-hits.com/2011/01/21/4e-success-or-failure-magic-i … […]

  2. Good stuff – 4e Success or Failure: Magic Items by @loganbonner http://t.co/OGpTGxD via @criticalhiits #dnd

  3. […] was man erreichen wollte und ob das auch funktioniert hat. Im aktuellen Beitrag geht es um die magischen Gegenstände, zwei ältere Beiträge über Paragon Paths und Epic Destinies sind im Artikel […]

  4. Looks like my magic items post brought the nerd rage in the comments. http://is.gd/GDagsB #DnD

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  6. Rage= par for the Internet. RT @loganbonner: Looks like my magic items post brought the nerd rage in the comments. http://is.gd/GDagsB #DnD

  7. I’m a big @loganbonner fan, and always appreciate his insight: Magic Items – 4e vs. 3e http://t.co/6YNCpq2 via @criticalhits

  8. […] Hit‘s Logan Bonner took on the differences between magic items in 3e and 4e, and discussed whether he thought the changes were good, bad, or […]

  9. […] week, Logan Bonner posted an article over at Critical Hits, discussing the success or failure of 4e magic items. Logan was one of the […]