Thursday, December 31, 2009

Magic Item Thoughts

I'm not a huge fan of the level of itemization in 4e. The process of filling in "slots" it both a bit too mechanical and a bit too bookkeeping-heavy for me. Thematically, I'm a much bigger fan of fewer items, but with more punch and more story.

Curiously, this is harder than it seems. You can handle the gross balance easily enough by just removing magic item bonuses entirely in favor of an automatic bonus to, well, everything (attack, damage, defenses) of +1 at 1st level and increase it by +1 at levels 6, 11, 16, 21 and 26. Call it a "Heroic" bonus, the benefit of being named characters. This pretty much guarantees the characters stay balanced in terms of numbers, but it doesn't solve the entire problem.

See, it also strips the character of a wide range of extra abilities, as many as 15 or so. Some may be minor or passive, and there are limits on how many can be used in a given scene, but that's a LOT of options (for better or for worse).

The easiest way to address it mechanically is to give more feats - if you give the character a feat at every level, that's about as many extra feats over the course of their career as they have magic item slots. This is a little out of whack since the distribution is over time, but since you can synergize with your existing feats, I feel like that comes out in the wash.[1]

There are two downsides to that approach: First, it wreaks havoc with the character builder software, and second, it overlooks the simple fact that magic items are really cool. We WANT to have a sword whose blade flickers with flame - it's just that we don't want it to be lame.

The simplest solution is to use the cool magic item rules, and only hand out artifacts. Yes, artifacts used to mean items of earth-shaking, game changing power, but in 4e they really mean "Magic items that aren't boring". They're potent, sure, but nowhere near as much so as previous editions, and they have numerous interesting (and play-driving) checks in place to make them a practical inclusion in your game.

Now, I can sense the hesitation. Making heavy use of artifacts has historically been a shorthand for monty haul style play, and in the classic usage, a single artifact can really dominate a game. Plus, can you really *trust* players with that kind of power?

To that I can only say: embrace the ways that 4e has changed the game. More than any edition of D&D, this is the story of YOUR GROUP - not Elminster or Bigby or Raistlin or Drizzt - YOU. Own it. If something looks like it's cool or interesting, then it should end up in your player's hands, not someplace where they can watch it from a distance (or worse, just hear about it). Previous versions of the game have (sometimes unintentionally) told you that you weren't cool enough for the things that regularly happened in novels. 4E makes it clear that opinion should be stuck where the sun don't shine.

So just think about it for a minute - a game where every magic item is an artifact.[2] Think what that says and does for the world, how rich it demands that things be. Power comes intertwined with stories and people, and that's as it should be.[3]

Anyway, I personally favor using all 3 (inherent bonuses, extra feats and artifacts-only) if I'm stickng to the core rules. A more complicated (but maybe more rewarding) approach is to construct item to grow with the player (and use more than one slot) but that's a while other post in its own right.

Happy new year, folks.

1 - This wasn't really an option when the game started, but now that it's mature enough (and DDI makes it easy to track) there are now enough feats that this sort of option is actually useful rather than just useful on paper.

2 - This includes minor items. One nice upshot of this is that you can get a little bit old school and encourage clever use of items in strange places. A bottle that's always full of water is a trivial item in terms of power level, but absolutely drips with story potential that is best realized when it's a one-of-a-kind (or one of a set - sets work too) item.

3 - If you take this route, there's no reason you can't use regular magic items, at least as a starting point. The trick is to remember that when you want to use an item, you need to think about what it means if this it "THE flaming sword" not "A flaming sword". Look at the Adventurer's Vault products for inspiration - they're full of neat stories about how an item came to be, but they tend to end with "and now people make copies of that" which kind of saps the juice from it. Take those backstories and bring them to life, and suddenly they're a resource for your game, not just clever color.


  1. I like what you said about the characters having names, or making names for themselves. It seems to me that another way to give magic items would be to simply have word come back to the character that "Hey! They're telling stories about you in this village. That you did ThingX and defeated EnemyZ!"

    This could, with some GM cajoling probably, lead the characters to give names to their items or maybe the items were given names in the story. In any case, this makes the item more of a character as well.

    There must be some way to go from there - having a favorite sword that you've named, or a trusty waterskin you always carry with you - to possessing (creating?) a magic item.

    The mechanics might be muddled, though. It would seem improbable to just turn to the player and say "ding! You're sword is now a legendary magic artifact."

    But perhaps through some ceremonial naming or whathaveyou the item becomes a character with personality and/or other attributes associated with artifacts. Maybe it was an artifact all along and it's power has just been awoken?

    I dunno, you're the clever RPGenius, I just had a half-thought idea I needed to share. ;-)


  2. @Sam Heh, Yes, in fact I'm thinking of something like that, in large part ripping off the Earthdawn RPG, which was designed to do exactly that with items - tie them to your person a story.

  3. I'm definitely not disagreeing with your approach. I think 'all artifacts' represents a terrific solution to the problem of cheap-ified magic.

    My solution is a bit different. The assumption I make is that magic items are all sentient. Artifacts have a-class sentience --they are personalities trapped in an peculiar form-factor. Garden variety magic items have sentience but on a lower level. They have very vague desires and goals, and no will. They wait to be used by someone. In this case it is our PCs. As they are used and travel with the PCs, magic items get imprinted with a character's thoughts, personality and deeds. They grow in power alongside the PC and develop a history and unique power of their own.

    What this means in play is that we'll occasionally have a discussion on the experience of the PCs and see what the weapon may have grown into. Compendium makes this ridiculously easy, as does the fact that we use laptops at the table. I decide when it happens, and the PC decides what item their current armor/weapon/boots turns into.

    It might be too touchy-feely for some, but I like it a lot.

  4. If you have a Place or Power, or Object of Power, or Something Else of Power, then it should always be something that the players can get their hands on/explore/use. Not something for NPCs. Otherwise what is it there for?

    One of the problems of the Standard D&D universes is the prevalence of magical items without the production facilities to manufacture them. I mean, how many times have your players taken time out to manufacture their own magic items. In most games I've encountered this is fairly rare.

    One solution to the D&D munitions magic problem is to allow "normal" craftsmen to create magic items. An apocathery can create "magic" potions, a weaponsmith "magic" swords, et al. [This may mean breaking the standard D&D paradigm that most NPCs are "normal" humans by giving craftsmen levels, and eliminates masterwork weapons, but I find it gives a result closer to literature where individuals seeking excellent weapons travel to famous and renowned weaponsmiths to be put on a waiting list for a new sword. <grin>]

    But if you want to leave the idea of munition-level magic items behind, then every magic item should have a history of sorts. They should each be special, and a player should be privileged to wield them. Most should have a purpose for which they were forged which should shape their destiny.

    [I like the idea in Weapons of the Gods that allow a player to entwine their destiny with one of the legendary weapons Of course, the really legendary weapons had impressive guardians/owners already. In fact the system for handing the various classes of Weapons would work well in most games.]

    @Sam: In my original D&D game I allowed players to declare items (such as swords and warhorses) to be henchmen and gain experience thereby. A heirloom sword, owned by a succession of proud warriors could become quite a potent item. One of the requirements for this procedure was that the item be named (which also shaped the abilities that the weapon gained as it progressed). That said, one of the more infamous weapons created in this manner was "Sword."

    <shrug> Just some random thoughts.

  5. I'm not sure how it fits into your hypothesis, but in our 4E Campaign we have a legacy item each that covers some of the core levelling features (to hit, defence and 'saves'). It levels as we do.

    The legacy item also gains extra funky abilities at specific points as well.

    This tends to remove itemisation, have the weapons feature significant dramatic weight and allow 'extra funky abilities'. We still have the odd items, such as my Displacer Armour, it's just it's defence bonuses don't stack with the legacy item.

    It works great, after all, I don't have a magic item, I have the Solar Bow Ashura, stolen from the Gods still living corpse when we raided his tomb. Another player has the Hammer of Maron Gor, which can literally make the Earth Tremble..and so on.

    Seems to work for us.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.