The Architect DM: On Magic Items – Part 2

Last week I looked at some issues I’ve been experiencing with magic items in 4th Edition D&D and some possible solutions. This week I’d like to talk about some other possible solutions as well as just some general concepts related to magic items that hopefully generate some interesting ideas for how to handle magic items in your D&D campaigns. There were some fantastic comments on last week’s post and I’m going to incorporate some of the topics or ideas brought up there into this post as well.

The biggest thing that I meant to mention last week but didn’t get to was the Inherent Bonus rules for 4th Edition that allow you to run a game without any magic items at all and the math will still work for the players. There are a few different ways to use these rules, but my preference is to give player’s the inherent bonuses and then allow them access to all common magic items, a few uncommon magic items, and then hand out one or two more powerful magic items per player. I prefer thinking about these more powerful magic items as simple +1 items, even though they will mechanically be one plus higher than the inherent bonus the player’s currently have. In this way the magic items are still incredibly good and give the character’s an advantage, but at any given level they will still only be +1 or at most +2 magic items.

Breaking the Rules in All the Right Ways

The first thing that I changed about magic items in my own campaign was leveling up player’s primary weapon and armor instead of handing out new parcels as they leveled up. This isn’t so much of a change as a different way of handling the parcel system. The second thing I did was allow the players to break the rules and combine two separate items in specific cases. For example, my players very quickly found themselves wanting to have +3 Dragonclaw armor that was also Summonable.

I’m a big fan of the “say yes” style of DMing, but I also happened to agree with my players on this point. Since Summonable armor is the same level and cost as basic magic armor, I decided it was no problem at all for my players to make any piece of armor also Summonable for a small additional cost for the special enchanting. We’ve been doing this for well over a year now and through an entire tier of play and so far, not surprisingly, it hasn’t broken the game in any way. The only thing it’s done is given my players armor they’re happier with and possibly given them access to one additional ability.

Making Magic Items Special Again

I’m a big fan of how magic items were designed in 4th Edition compared to previous editions of D&D, and I’m also a big fan of them being in the Player’s Handbook instead of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but I believe all of the issues that I’ve brought up in these posts come from the way those magic items are implemented in our games. This is actually not a bad problem to have, because the way items are implemented can be changed by every DM as they see fit whereas a deeper design issue would be a harder problem to fix.

By using the inherent bonus rules we are allowing the implementation of magic items to make them feel more special again. This shouldn’t be surprising because it takes them from being “must haves” to being a bonus that lets characters go above and beyond their normal capabilities again. With magic items becoming more of a bonus and less of a required part of the system, I feel it will also become easier to develop interesting and unique stories around those items much as several people suggested in the comments to my first post.

The other benefit to this implementation is that if a player already has the inherent bonuses, then giving them a magic item with multiple properties and one or two usable powers makes a lot more sense because those powers are the majority of what the item is providing them. I believe that if the 4th Edition PHB were re-released with inherent bonuses as an implied part of the system, then we would see these kinds of magic items throughout the paragon and epic tiers for the game.

Building Story by Building Items

As someone pointed out on the previous post, the image I’m using for this series if from the Wheel of Time series (which I highly recommend you read) and features a character creating an item. Unfortunately this kind of situation is not always an option in our D&D games, but if you do have the opportunity I can’t recommend it enough to let the players/characters create magic items.

Something that I have tried in my current campaign and wish I had implemented better because I really like the idea is having situational descriptions for character “finding” magic items. What I did in my game was describe how the wizard in the party found a magically infused bone from one chillborn zombie, then the party fought another chillborn zombie and he found another magic bone, and after three were found he managed to forge the bones together into a +3 Wand of Icy Rays. I loved this moment, but the problem in my game is that I believe I only described it all after the fact. If I’d presented it as written here I believe it would have been one of those quick but fun and memorable moments that we all love having in our D&D games.

Even if none of your players are natural tinkers, scavengers, or builders, I think this kind of solution can add a world of interest to magic items for any game. Maybe the wizard of the party is the only source of magic items as the other characters simply find mundane items that he mysteriously infuses with arcane energy. The wizard’s player doesn’t even need to know what’s going on, and you can even have this element of the game lead to any number of adventures as they search for answers to the mystery and gain new magic items in the process.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.


  1. I appreciated these two articles a lot. Thanks again.

    I’ve allowed the reasonable combination of magic properties as well, up to a cumulative level of 10 in any single item. Above that I asked them to keep the properties isolated to one item. I just had them pay the price as though they were buying or enchanting two items.

    Unfortunately I’ve found myself redesigning enough items that I can’t honestly say I love the way they’re designed in 4E, but it has been easy enough to tweak and create until I have what works best with our group. I’m starting to think more experimentally about magic items after reading your article.

    I’m partial to the idea of having a single NPC or organization that are the source of all magic items in the campaign, and both the PCs and villains have to go to them for any crafting or enchanting. Or maybe the PCs themselves can start to train with the group and eventually craft their own items. Lots of possibilities.

  2. I really like the idea of combining magic items into one item. Do you have a formula per se of calculating the cost or do you just kind of wing it when it comes up? I’m guessing that if they wanted Summonable Deathcut Armor +1 for instance you wouldn’t charge them the full price for the level 1 item and the full price for the level 5 item (or maybe you would and I just missed that). At any rate, another great post and definitely a great idea about combining properties as well as the finding of the various components.

  3. I’ve used an Artificer as a ‘source’ of magic items. If he can’t make it, he often knows who in town can.

    I also prefer the low magic route since it offers fewer options for the players… i,e. combat speed and decision making.

    The biggest detriment to all this, is… Character Builder. It won’t support custom work.

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    I would be very cautious about combining items. The example of Summonable is one that doesn’t cause many problems – it’s a minor ability that doesn’t get any better (i.e. adding summonable to a +5 armor benefits the characters as much as adding it to a +5 armor). In fact it can be invaluable in certain types of games. If the players are in a social scene where armor is inappropriate, then it makes a sudden transition to a combat scene much easier. (Trust me, it’s really hard to scale an encounter where some party members are at full strength and others don’t have any of the rnomal tools of the trade.)

    But other ways of adding powers can be problematic. Adding an item with just a daily power to another with just a daily power isn’t too bad. I’d add a restriction to only let one of these powers be used in an encounter. When you start adding properties to the mix it has a lot of potential to get gross.

    For the idea of items with multiple powers or items that evolve, I’d go with the existing artifact mechanics. It adds a roleplaying aspect to it, especially when they don’t know why their item is gaining and losing powers. It’s relatively easy to divorce the enhancement bonus from the other mechanics and scale up the bonus based on level. Anothe way to make artifacts more complex is to give them different motivations with their own set of powers/penalties. For one example, a sword was created to fight elementals and the player knows about this and works to keep it pleased. But one day he finds it’s upset. What he doesn’t know is that the sword came from a scism between two genasi clans and byf fighting the clan that forged it, it becomes upset.

    The idea to create magic items by defeating certain types of monsters or doing legendary deeds is very cool. It’s one thing to kill a dragon and find an item in the hoard. It’s much cooler to pull your blade from it’s heart ad the blood soaks into the blade, causing the sword to catch fire.

  5. Darkplane: Thanks, glad you’ve enjoyed them! When I say I love how they’re designed I’m speaking more to 4E vs. previous editions, I feel like it’s a LOT easier to modify them now and that the foundation/framework is a lot stronger (and easier to see where balance lies, even if you’re just breaking balance anyway). Having a single source for magic items in a world is interesting, because I think that’d give a nice twist to finding magic items in the wild – they become even more precious and valuable because they’re free of the control imposed on them.

    Gargs: I believe for the Summonable thing I just had them pay a small fraction of the item’s cost to get the armor double enchanted. Summonable is the same cost as basic magic armor, so it was tough to decide if it should be free or not. Thanks!

    uhf: It is a huge headache that the Character Builder still doesn’t support custom feats, items, etc. However, thankfully, a pencil is always going to be an easy way to house rule things (just print from CB and then change things). I agree it’s annoying though.

    Philo: That’s exactly why I did the Summonable combining with armor, and honestly after my player’s found out I was willing to allow it they haven’t really wanted any other combinations of items. That said, I’m still not very concerned about the mixing and matching of magic items and I don’t even think I’d put a (one daily power from this item per encounter) limit on things unless both powers are equally good and the choice between the two becomes interesting for the player.

    Artifacts are a great example, but so far in my games they haven’t gone over very well and their implementation has been lackluster (possibly my fault as the DM). I think as much as possible with 4E I want magic items mechanics to be in the hands of the players but with possible DM decisions/consequences if they’re used in certain ways (see the last comment on the Part 1 post for the fourthcore example that is PERFECT for this).

  6. With regard to artifacts, I think they can be a tricky issue in 4ed given that almost all of them are designed to eventually go away — often after only a few levels. The powers/abilities are cool, but they lose the sense of specialness when they go away quickly (in my opinion).

    In my campaign the artifact I introduced is actually the main MacGuffin of the campaign and is very loosely based on the Rod of Seven parts (in that it has multiple pieces that make it stronger as each is added). The other thing I did in order to try not to let one person get all the fun is that as each piece is added, the artifact morphs into a different weapon, such that by the end of the campaign each PC will have had a chance to wield it. But to me, something like the Coat of Arnd just doesn’t seem all that interesting since its likely to have been forgotten by early paragon tier anyway.

  7. Philo Pharynx says:

    @ Gargs454: It’s easy enough to have artifacts stay for more than a tier. That’s part of what I was getting at by saying you could separate the enhancement bonus from the abilities. (though stupidly not saying explicitly) Thought you might want to either have it take more concordance to shift categories or have more categories to move through.

  8. Interesting. I’ve had pretty good luck with artifacts. That being said they aren’t at all the last word in reworking or combining items. They can add a lot to a story, and making an item that is the key focus of a story an artifact works well. OTOH the fighter’s heirloom sword doesn’t make a good candidate for an artifact, and they certainly aren’t the kind of thing that shows up often or that players would be able to create. I agree that 4e items are a lot easier to monkey with than they were in say AD&D where they could really get out of hand.

  9. Philo Pharynx says:

    Oh, I think the fighter’s heirloom sword can definitely be an artifact. After all, there’s a reason it’s been passed down for so many years. You just need the right story about a sword that sleeps until the time is right.

  10. “I prefer thinking about these more powerful magic items as simple +1 items, even though they will mechanically be one plus higher than the inherent bonus the player’s currently have. In this way the magic items are still incredibly good and give the character’s an advantage, but at any given level they will still only be +1 or at most +2 magic items.”

    So call me slow or whatever but can someone explain the math to me as to how higher level magic items are only +1 or +2?

  11. Philo Pharynx says:

    @Rich, if you rule that inherent bonuses stack with the enhancement bonuses then a +1 sword is a bonus.

  12. Well I think I get that. you get the inherent bonus of say +1 and a +1 magic sword for a +2 bonus. My question comes in at say A Lvl 16 magic weapon which in the PHB has a +4 bonus. Does it stay +4 if you are using inherent bonus or is it still +1 and the remaining difference is made up by the inherent bonus the player has accumulated at that point? Or am I even making sense/looking at this in the wrong way?

  13. Rich – thanks for the new comments and question, Philo – thanks for answering his question!

    Rich: What I suggest in the post is a pretty drastic deviation from the 4e Magic Item rules as written. Instead of handing out +4 or +5 magic items, I’m suggesting using the inherent bonus system and only ever handing out +1 or +2 magic items. The item can be of any level that you deem appropriate for the players, but let’s say you give out a +1 magic item early on in the game, because of the inherent bonuses this item is going to be a BIG help for the players early on and it should continue to be a big help for the players throughout all of the tiers. Maybe if they hit level 15 you can start giving out +2 items but by that point the PCs are becoming ridiculously powerful anyway so I’m not sure they’d even need that extra +1 to decimate encounters anyway.

    My suggestion is to completely ignore the modifier on existing equipment, and in fact my original idea was to give out a lot less magic weapons and armor, so that the rare piece they do find would only be a +1 piece anyway. I also like this idea because I think it gives the various, and very interesting, masterwork armors a chance to really become important and differentiated for the players.

  14. Okay so it is then that you just ignore the stats in the book and just say “you’re a +1, ooh shiny I’m going to make you a +2” based on whatever it is that you want to put in the game. Sounds good. I had read these articles a while back but hadn’t thought about implementing them until recently and as such figured out I was confusing myself. Thank you for the articles and thank you Philo for helping me as well.

  15. Rich: No problem, thank you for reading! Please either comment here or send me an e-mail after you’ve tried out some of this stuff and let me know how it works for you!