I’m sure that magic items in D&D have been talked about for countless hours, but with Wizards of the Coast finally releasing Mordenkainen’s Magical Emporium for 4th Edition in September and my home campaign nearing the middle of the epic tier I’ve been wanting to talk about them here. The handful of times that I ran 3rd Edition D&D I was guilty of handing out items of a much higher level than the party, but I would try to balance it out with concepts like staves only having a small number of charges. The players/characters always loved it, but I would hear from other D&D players outside of the game that they didn’t like what I was doing and that they had the impression it was “contrary to the rules of the game” or something like that. I didn’t mind them much, but was very intrigued by what they were saying.
Now in 4th Edition the magic items are in the Player’s Handbook (instead of the DMG), we have item rarity levels, and the way that magic items function in the game has changed quite a bit from when I started playing with 2nd Edition. In the heroic tier of my campaign I was pretty happy with how the magic items worked out, and I even have a character in my game that is STILL wearing the Acrobat Boots he found in the very first adventure. My players really seemed to enjoy finding and wearing new magic items; many of the item types such as gloves, boots, and helmets stood out as extremely useful during adventures.
The Walking Armory Dilemma
Things started to change roughly coinciding with paragon tier when the players became much less excited about new items, possibly because they’d been playing the game for a year, began to have too many items to manage, or they were hesitant to replace items they were already using. The one thing that I did change to counteract some of these feelings was allowing the players to keep the same armor and primary weapon and simply level up the items with the characters. At present my campaign is up to level 23 and I haven’t given out a single magic item since before they hit level 20. I’ve heard one or two of my players mildly complain about it but only in the capacity that they know the rules suggest giving out a certain number of items (and that number is more than zero).
I’ve reached a dilemma where any magic item I give out to the party has to go through several layers of inspection to determine: A – who wants it, B – who it is best for, and C – who doesn’t already have a better item equipped of that type. The odds are extremely high that any item I hand out is going to fail one or more of those inspections and that’s disappointing for everyone around the table. My solution has been to not worry about them at all and instead focus on the players, characters, and the stories we’re telling. That said, I’ve been brainstorming some possible solutions that I plan on using in future games of D&D.
Solution: Make the Items More Magical?
I know a lot of people have debated (and complained) back and forth, on and on, about the differences in magic items across editions. I’m not looking to do that, but I am looking to improve how magic items work for me when I run D&D. My impression is that the magic items in 4th Edition work pretty damn well in the heroic tier, so that doesn’t really seem like it needs fixing to me. If I change anything in the heroic tier it might coincide with the item rarity rules in that players will only expect 1 or 2 really good magic items and might have a handful of uncommon ones on them as well.
My solution, though I am still brainstorming it, is that I believe magic items in 4th Edition should have a number of abilities that is a fraction of the numbers of abilities characters have. In the heroic tier, characters will have between 4 and 11 powers and their magic items 1 or 2 special abilities (counting properties and powers). Once characters reach the paragon tier they will have as many as 15 powers and in the epic tier 17 different powers. I think that in order to truly stand out in these tiers of play the magic items need to have more abilities. Even the Holy Avenger, a level 25 magic weapon, only has a Property, Daily Power, and then the special ability that it can be used as a holy symbol as well. When you compare it to the kinds of powers characters are using in the epic tier the weapon can’t help but fall kind of flat. If a heroic item has 1 ability and a heroic character has 4 powers, then I think an epic item should have 4 abilities while epic characters have 16 powers.
Don’t Give Them Anything Because They’re Jerks!
The first step to solving my problems with magic items is to give out less items in the heroic tier. By the time my party hit paragon I tried to make sure almost every character had as many items as they could carry. If I avoid this, then the problem of replacing items becomes less of an issue. However, I’m not talking about starving the players of magic items, I’m just thinking about spreading the number of items out more evenly over the three tiers of play. I’m also going to attempt to fix the problems I have with magic items by giving out less items as the tiers progress but have those items be more powerful.
What I mean is that if I look at how many magic items will make everyone around the table happy and that comes out to 3 per character per tier then in the heroic tier I, as the benevolent DM that I am, will hand out roughly 3 magic items per character. If I go at a rate of 2 adventures per level, then with 5 players I would be handing out 15 magic items across 20 adventures. However, during the Paragon tier I will opt to give most of the characters only 2 magic items through the tier and I would probably opt for several of these to instead be upgrades to items that they received earlier by adding properties and powers to the existing items. As you can probably guess, the epic tier would only involve 1 magic item per player and many of those would probably be further upgrades to items they already have.
More to Come
Now that I’ve written it out, I’m fairly happy with this solution although I’m sure it comes with its share of fiddly or clunky bits. At the moment I’m looking for a different solution than simply not doing anything with magic items in the epic tier as I have been doing. I’m planning on handing out some boons, some special abilities/powers, but no matter what if I’m playing or running D&D I can’t get far without thinking about magic items so I wanted to work things out.
I’ve labelled this post as “Part 1” because this post was almost entirely consumed by my primary idea for solving most of my problems with magic items in an ongoing 4E campaign. Next week I’m going to talk about other aspects of magic items, some other possible solutions, and I’m confident some good ideas will pop up in the comments here that I’ll want to discuss further as well! Thank you for reading this psuedo-brainstorm session, and I’m excited to hear what other people think on the topic or what solutions you might have come up with so please share!
Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.