The Architect DM: On Magic Items – Part 1

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.


  1. I actually create characters who enjoy magic items. I just played a wizard named Bres who is far more interested in things like eternal chalk than a battle staff or new robes. Love for magic items are really about how you see them fitting into the game you play. Some players just want to have the super munchkins and that’s all gear will mean to them. Others want magic to be amazing and wondrous.
    I’m looking forward to the next part.

  2. Although I didn’t do it with my current campaign, I think for my next campaign I will use the inherent bonus system. The main reason for this is that the biggest problem I have found with magic items is that the players just get so many of them over the course of the campaign that they stop being special. This is made particularly more troublesome do to the 6 item tiers for the “Big Three” slots.

    The one thing that I have started to do in order to help alleviate this is spending more time on creating back stories for the items I do hand out. So when, for instance, the avenger decided to take the Covenant Agent paragon path, I scripted out a ceremony wherein the Church accepted his request (a rare occasion for the church but granted due to the dire circumstances) and then bestowed upon him one of the Church’s most sacred relics, a falchion that was only ever given to those servants of the Church who had the most pressing need. As the falchion was given to the avenger, it spoke with him telepathically and seemed to indicate it knew him. All in all, mechanically it was just a Vicious Falchion +3, but it is also clear to the player that its likely there’s a lot more to come from the blade than that. The character now handles the blade with a lot of reverence, etc.

    Giving a bit of story to items makes them that much more memorable to the players and also makes it less of an issue (in the eyes of the players) if you do not give out a ton of items. Even if two items are mechanically the same, the players will prefer the item that has some story or meaning behind it. It also has the added bonus at time of creating more roleplaying moments for the players.

    In the end I think we both have the same sort of idea. Reducing the number of items makes them more significant. It also makes it a bit easier for the players in combat. Even if a customized item has a lot more abilities (to offset the fewer items) its still easier for the player to make decisions because there are fewer “cards” or items or powers, etc., to check. They don’t have to sift through 8 or 9 different items in addition to the rest of their powers, so it goes a lot quicker.

    All of this is a really long way of saying I like the general idea you present here and see a lot of potential for really compelling items with this system.

  3. I was going to give a long-winded response, but Gargs said it all. Amen to that.

    I guess I was never as interested in magic items, so I sort of accidentally gave out fewer in my campaign. It’s worked out just like you postulated: the players each have a small number of items, and maybe one that they’re really attached to. They seem open to finding more. It probably helped that I didn’t use wish lists. My best success with magic items, though, has come through creating custom artifacts. They’re much more powerful, and they have enormous significance to the world and story.

  4. What do you think of just not handing out magic items and giving out all gold? Gold is the mechanism for letting players choose their own magic items, after all.

  5. All the way back to 1st edition you got items nobody used. Selling items you find has always been part of the game. You shouldn’t care if they don’t want to equip every single thing they find over 30 levels and players shouldn’t expect that either, wishlist or no

  6. Kenneth McNay says:

    i grew somewhat frustrated that a select few players had more interest in a collection of weapons rather than becomign attached to one best choice weapon. I’m really looking forward to MME for cursed items and a slightly different look at items with more engaging properties.

    I tried to insert Blackrazor into a campaign, but the player best suited to carry the blade didn’t seem to understand the serious danger of its cursed nature. When he initially touched the blade, i told him he lost 4 healing surges immediately. He even later learned that it sucked up surges on a crit. as an avenger, he found crits more often than other PCs. Still, he never really realized what a curse it brought upon his PC. It was a disappointment.

    Hopefully seeing some patterns for cursed items and possibly other artifacts in MME will help me rebuild Blackrazor in such a way that it truly becomes a danger to the entire party as it was intended.

  7. Magic items. I don’t think about them much as a DM anymore. I give out the parcels as we go along, picking items for each character in turn. I’ve never had even one player fill out a wish list for me, so typically when someone’s character pops up in the benevolent item rotation, I ask them what slot they’re looking for, and choose an item at the appropriate level.
    That being said, half the group that I’m running for aren’t invested in 4E at all. They’ve got their heads up in 3.5 still and don’t really do much deep optimization in 4E. So that could be part of my problem.

    Daily item powers seem to have left everyone I know pretty uninterested in 4e items. My players, when given a choice, will pick a modest item with a property over a really powerful daily item. Even potions are more popular than traditional items.

  8. @Noumenon: Just handing out gold can work, but you need to be careful. If your players are optimizers, letting them pick their items makes it much easier for them to get the truly broken combos. That being said though, if your players are not overly optimizers and/or are willing to respect when a certain combo creates too big of a problem, then it can definitely work. You do though still lose a bit of the sense of wonder though when the items come from the local magic item merchant rather than having been found in the dragon’s hoard, etc.

  9. Hunterian7 says:

    Having played through 3 epic campaigns (we delve a lot, three times a week) I’d say that we haven’t run into this problem. We use the treasure chart from the DMG and rotate magic item rewards. We then pick what magic item we want. Did I mention we don’t use a DM?

    However, the idea of a magic item getting more powers opened up through each tier is a good one. You would have to implement the restrictions on daily magic item usage though. An epic sword with four daily powers would be cheese if each can be used- even with the silly rarity system in place (which it isn’t in our delves). Limiting that sword to one daily use with four power options would be cool.

  10. I noticed this same issue, only much earlier than you did. My last game by level 8 my players were already bored with whatever treasures I dropped. This was probably partially my fault for not scouring the compendium and forums for better items before I dropped something in. Regardless, by level 11 I was really frustrated with the game and it sorta fell apart.

    On my next campaign that’s been going on for a year now I decided to entirely opt out of dropping treasure for the players. Instead I drop obscene amounts of gold with the idea that they can take that gold back to town and buy exactly what they want. No disappointment!

    Since this makes shopping a much bigger portion of the game I made up a random chart to make shopping a little more interesting and so far people love it.

  11. Dixon Trimline says:

    It almost feels like previous editions have conditioned us to build our characters AROUND a collection of cool magic items, especially since back then, you needed to have a +something magic weapon just to hit the enemies. Now, finally, we have reached a point where the characters are cool and capable all by themselves.

    Looking to fantasy fiction for inspiration, has there ever been a item that outshone the character that wielded it? Is Sting cooler than Frodo? Is Stormbringer cooler than Elric? Is Excalibur cooler than King Arthur? And when I ask these questions, I should word it like this: Would you rather play [object] or [person]?

    I’m really looking forward to reading your other thoughts and solutions on magic items.

  12. @Kenneth That’s funny, I actually lament that 4e is so focused on making characters (and character builds) focus on “one best choice weapon,” and so that I can’t make as effective a character who uses a lot of different weapons. But each person has their own preference πŸ™‚

    We’ve recently been using a combination of inherent bonuses and story-based magic items (mostly flavored as “mastercraft” weapons in our heroic-tier game), and it’s fit me very well.

  13. I felt that in 3.5 your character was defined largely by the magic items they had. They played a large part in what your character did, probably more so than any other feature in the game save for feats. Even your character class didn’t matter all that much if you had the right feats and items to address any situation that hit you.

    With 4E the characters themselves are so much more powerful in comparison that magic items take a back seat (the very back). I agree completely with the magic powers vs. player powers thing and that they work great in heroic tier because of how few options you have. The higher you get though, the less likely you are to waste actions on various magic items when you have so much better options already built in. And then they’re basically a use and forget item that does little to nothing until it’s had time to recharge. It’s like every item became an Eternal Wand from Eberron 3.5, and while those were cool for the times, now they all seem to have paled in comparison.

  14. The only problem with giving magic items more cool features and powers in higher tiers of play is that it just contributes to combat slowdown due to information overload and analysis paralysis from all those options.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but if I were to re-do magic items in 4e, I would add a lot more flat “always-on” bonuses and properties to the most desirable (i.e. rare) magic items.

    For example, you talk abou the Holy Avenger seeming meager. Give it a few more properties or very simple powers, such as, 1/day, you can automatically crit with a radiant attack, or an “always on” property of resist X necrotic.

    Higher levels of play are always going to be about complexity, but great power need not be complex. Especially when it comes to magic items, which shoud be more elegant as fits their nature.

    Excalibur wasn’t complicated to *use*, but it had quite a story and was powerful. Why can’t all magic items be looked at this way, especially in paragon and epic tier?

  15. DarkplaneDM says:

    Dixon: Yes, Sting is cooler than Frodo (in the movies at least). πŸ˜€

  16. Excellent article to show to some of my players… 4e edition is bad for DM to add flavour to magic item. Since the character have access to all the info. The only thing that counts in my campaign is when they get that super wishlist item to try there super combo… The mechanics is the only focus. If the DM add that it came from a dwarven clan and mean lots of reputation, alliance or new allies…Nope they keep the item for optimization. If i decide to try to give magic tiems…They don’t like it becuase it’s not the best for them at this lvl or this one… some of them sleep with the adventure vault i think or spend hours searching the compandium for items… I am starting to feel the DM burn inside…Maybe the spell plague is getting me ehre… πŸ™‚

  17. @Jeremy What does your random chart randomize? Prices, or what’s available for sale?

    @Kenneth McNay: Actually, the best possible situation for a cursed item is when your player knows it’s cursed but wants to keep it anyway. The worst is when they find it and immediately bury it and never interact with it again, and say “darned if I’ll take any treasure from this DM again!” I’m not sure why your player kept your version, though, the penalties for the official Wizards version are a lot lighter and include a good mix of positives and negatives to keep the player interested before it moves on.

  18. I agree with much of what has been said in the article and the comments. I found that magical items were getting very dull and I’ve experimented with levelling up of items (in naked, wine soaked rituals with elves no less) and I’ve also found that properties on items work much more smoothly than powers, which I use sparingly.

    Lately I’ve been inventing my own magical items and making them very personal to the characters. They have backstories and are designed as something that the character will treasure (naturally that doesn’t always work out).

    In addition to this I’ve been adding an ‘unknown’ property that the character can work out either through research/questing or by accident (sometimes even at the appropriate time). I’m still waiting to see how well this works out and if it generates any player interest in the long term as we’re still in the novelty stage) but it certainly is intriguing me as to how it will work out. This kind of puts these special items on a level half way between normal magical items and artefacts.

    I also haven’t left behind the idea of giving out a wand of magic missiles with 5 charges. I think if they are rare enough there’s nothing in the 4e rules that would break if you did that.

  19. I just started a new campaign in a new campaign world, and one of the things I want to try is increasing the rarity of durable magic items so that when the players find one, it is more meaningful. That also means I’ll more likely make the few they find more interesting.

  20. I definitely like the idea of leveling up magic items as the characters level, instead of getting new items. We did this in our last campaign and it worked very well. Sometimes we even changed the properties to that of other items, if it vaguely fit the story.

  21. Wow, thanks everyone for all of the comments!

    Gargs: The inherent bonus system is definitely going to come into play in the next post. Creating backstories for the weapons is definitely a great suggestion to differentiate them as well, thanks!

    Noumenon: I have my fair share of issues with gold and treasure in my game as well, but that definitely seems to be a working solution for some DMs.

    Froth: That’s definitely a good point that I sort of overlooked, but handing out an item that no one is going to use and gets sold for gold is only a shade different from just handing out gold to begin with. Also for my group there is an air of disappointment when none of them can use something, and generally someone will claim it anyway just to save it from being sold. Details, I know, but they’re still issues that I’ve run in to while playing AND running.

    Aeryn: That’s pretty similar to my situation, though I’d say only one of my players is still “stuck” on thinking in 3.5 terms. I hope some of what I discussed here and what I’m posting next week will help you out!

    Hunterian: Running delves, picking your own items, and having no DM sounds pretty damn interesting but it’s also a very different style of D&D play. I’m intrigued though! I don’t think I’ll mess with the daily item powers limit (which is gone now in 4E anyway, IIRC), instead I’ll be giving items more properties than daily powers to reduce the issue.

    Jeremy: Late Heroic is where I started to notice the issues also, but I started doing some things to alleviate the problems a bit and that helped until mid/late Paragon. I love the idea of just giving out gold and making shopping / random availability more of a thing in the game!

    highbulp: Mixing inherent bonuses and doing story based items is what I’m going towards. I’m actually a huge fan of the Masterwork rules in 4E, so I’m going to be talking about those some more as well.

    Kilsek: adding more flat bonuses/properties is exactly what I was going for in this post. Anything that has a chance of being forgotten in 4E almost always ends up forgotten at the table, or it’s a pain for the players/DM to remember it so I’m hoping to minimize those things. You’re exactly right about higher level magic items and the Excalibur analogy is perfect, thanks for sharing!

    Runeskin: those are pretty much the exact same issues I was having, so let me know if some of my suggestions help!

    EnsignExpendable: Oh man, the “unknown property”and the 5-charge wands in 4E ideas are so good I am almost certainly going to use them in the future, thanks!

    Oz: making items a lot less durable, and more rare, is what I’m thinking about for future Dark Sun games in particular. I think the ideas fit perfectly with the setting and that helps both the DM and hte players enjoy the change in rules.

  22. I started using randomness… I’d let a player grab an item from the Game Mastery Magic Item deck.. and I’d try to find something that was the correct level, and useful to the player.

    This resulted in me wishing to gouge my eyes out less (’cause looking through 4e magic isn’t too fun). And the players getting something different. (So we have a bit of the old school… “What’s this?”)

    One thing I do miss is the amount of consumables available. Seriously… Potion of Plant Control… Why did they get rid of this? In 4e terms… Blast 10, Immobilize for 1 turn. Or Burst 4 in 20 squares, all targets in area are slowed, sustain minor.

    I feel that there’s too much emphasis on combat encounters.

  23. I think your article would’ve been more effective had you explained the scene happening in the picture you used.

    From the Wheel of Time, Perrin Aybarra, one of the main characters, finally crafting a magic item. He’s arguably one of the 5 most powerful people in all of the world, with an army of at least 50,000 at his back, including a division of highly trained calvary, and only now is he getting a magic item.

    To get it he had to make the thing himself, while having a sorcerer and sorceress pour their combined magic into the crafting. Now that’s a magic item worth having and remembering.

    @Tourq. Earthdawn had this as a core concept of the game. The magic items grew in power.

    One way to make magic items memorable, rare, and exciting, is to craft them with the idea that even though they do good, they can turn on you in an instant. That really cool sword you just got? If you roll a one on your attack it’s might very well slip in your hand and take off your leg at the knee.

  24. I suggest having a peek into the “Fourthcore Armory,” a free PDF created by the talented minds at In it many weapons have the multiple (and powerful) properties or secondary effects you were musing about. For example, the lvl 2 “Sword That Shall Not Be Drawn” has this power:

    Power (At-Will): Minor Action. Draw the sword that shall not be drawn. Until the end of the encounter, you may use it as a +7 longsword that deals an extra 1d8 radiant damage per plus on a hit and an extra 7d12 damage on a critical hit. At the end of the encounter, you and your allies are teleported before a council of celestial justiciars to answer for your crime. Convincing them to spare your lives is a complexity 5 skill challenge of your level (12 successes before 3 failures).

    As you can see, an item like that can, at the very least, launch the PC’s into a new quest. Depending on the outcome of the skill challenge, the PC’s could find themselves making some dangerous oaths or promises in exchange for their lives. In any case, the event will give the party incredibly powerful allies and/or enemies to face in the future.

    It’s things like that which make magic items really shine.

  25. SonOfStewalker says:

    I was also thinking of magic items growing in power as the character held on to it. This is how some of the non-divine artifacts in the world came about in the first place. As the original character used them, the character implanted more and more of their spirit/psyche on the item, and it grew to be an extension of the character. Now these new adventurers could also have a chance to create the artifact for the next generation of hero’s.

    Of course, if the character wants to abandon the items for a new one in it’s place, that new item has to start over to grow in power.

    New powers/properties for the items would have to either be extensions of the characters powers (e.g. enhancers), their character (some new power related to how they play) or they could be added either via quests or by special enchantment (which may require quest to get enchanter to perform).

    Of course, they could have many common magic items, such as simple whetstones to give +1, candles that stay lit even in wind, healing potions, etc, but these items could be purchased or found in treasure piles. I also thought that we could use masterwork items that might be hard to purchase, but might be available by traveling to where they are made (Feywald, Dwarf Kingdoms). Finding such an item would be rare, and have some reason to be in a treasure parcel. If a powerful magic, or exceptionally mastercraft item is found, it should be used by the villain, or being guarded by henchman/underlings. It shouldn’t just be laying around in a treasure parcel for anyone to grab during combat.