Thursday, January 03, 2013

D&D Magic Items: A Lament


If you haven’t read any of my previous laments on Alignments, Spell Components, and Troupe Play, I would encourage you to do that.

In the original D&D when a player-character wanted to make a magic item, it cost EXP.  EXP was used as a resource that could be spent, not just accumulated.  The idea was, you were giving up a little bit of your power to make something more powerful.  This is very Tolkienesque, and may in fact have been inspired by the creation of the One Ring. 

I like the idea of EXP being able to be spent on character advancement OR magic items.  It’s very primal in a way, and evocative of fantasy literature.  It forces players into making a choice and provides an alternate form of character advancement beyond the mundane level-up rules.  No doubt there were a number of players who really liked this system.

However, there were many that didn’t.  As a result, as the editions of D&D rolled out, it cost fewer and fewer XP to make a magic weapon.  By the time DnD 3.5 came around, it became insanely easy to make powerful magical weapons without sacrificing much at all.   Take a generic wand of fireballs for instance.  (I say generic tongue in cheek)  The XP cost to make a WoFB was around 600XP IIRC.  Unlike the olden days when you would be excited to find a fireball wand with five charges, the 3.5E one came with a whopping 50! With 50 fireballs to lob at anything that moves, how long would it be before a character recovered those 600XP?  No time at all.  So the ability to make more powerful magical items became less costly to the players, and therefore much less of a meaningful choice.

As a corollary, less powerful weapons became commonplace finds in many treasure hordes.  Take the ubiquity of +1 Longswords for instance.  They’re everywhere in D&D supplements from the 90’s and 2000’s.  There’s nothing special or really magical about them at all.  It didn’t cost anyone anything to get them; it was just a result of normal adventuring.  As a result, they lost all their specialness. 

But this is the system’s fault for having so many darn creatures immune to non-magical weapons.  Magically infused items are now required just to play.  Look, weapons are already amazing enough on their own.  By cheapening the effectiveness of non-magical weapons, the designers of contemporary fantasy roleplaying games cheapened the experience of having or earning magical weapons.  Especially in 4e where having magical stuff became part of a character’s expected progression.  The result is an arms race where everything just spun out of control and nothing was special to anyone anymore.

Along the way, a lot was lost IMHO.  Take weapons with personalities (Egos) for instance.  In the earliest days these were really cool.  Think of weapons like Excalibur and The One Ring.  Players and DMs didn’t just roleplay characters, they could roleplay items as well.  However, these things were very powerful, and by the time the Book of Artifacts came out for AD&D2e, severe curses and awful side effects were tacked on to sentient weapons permanently (even though the book protested they weren’t).  Oh the potential that was lost!  What about sword cults?  What about weapon deities?  What about cultures who were led by an inanimate object with an Ego?  What about options for quests to free the soul in inside the sword or mace or whatever?  These things were only explored in a most superficial way in D&D.  It’s a shame no other game took with the idea and ran. 

One of my biggest problems with item crafting in games in DnD4e and in Pathfinder is that they stick to what is in the spell section.  And I don’t expect it to be much different in DnD 5e or whatever they’re calling it.  It would be impossible to create The One Ring in these systems.  Why?  I’ll tell you what I suspect.  The new design ethos is to make sure everything is so mathematically balanced that GMs don’t have to worry about breaking the game.  They don’t want to harm the play experience by granting players the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.  Yes, giving a player an overly powerful sword can cause HUGE headaches.  But figuring out that you can take the sword form the player by using a thieves’ guild, and thus give the player a new quest to retrieve the sword is an awesome learning moment for young GMs.

So, my call to action is for someone to design a game that makes magical items more purposeful and special than current incarnations of fantasy roleplaying games.  Make them matter both mechanically and fictionally during play.  A magic item must be more than something immune to rust monster blood.  It must be an heirloom, a cause, an enemy, an ally, a calling card, and beautiful memory.




James Wilson said...

I'm a fan of magic items being plot elements. I tend to run low magic campaigns, low in regards to items at any rate, and can appreciate what you're suggesting here. Calling a mgacial sword just a plain old +1 sword is kind of unimaginative, and whereas this would be a very valuable asset at early levels ends us just being called 'my +1 sword'. Appending names to each and every item is a great way to force an identity upon the players, that there is a story in every enchantment.

Troy_Costisick said...


Ah, that is an excellent point, James! Naming items does make them mor special, I should have mentioned that in my article. The weapons in Norse mythology always seemed cooler to me because they had names. Thank you for posting! :)



Blaise Pascal said...

I'm uncertain how naming would actually work, though.

It's one thing when King Ogmar calls forth a sword from his treasury and, as he hands it to you, declames "This is Frostfoe, forged from starmetal and quenched in the molten lava of Mount Locknar by Fafnir, mage and servant to my great grandfather, King Arnok, in his war against the giants of the north. I give it to you to aid in your quest to stop their rise again."

It's another thing when "As you enter the room, you can see it was the sight of a fierce battle, with the decayed, skeletal remains of several giants scattered about. In the center, in a mixed pile of bones, you can see human remains in armor seemingly under giant bones, as if the fighter was trapped by the weight of a dead giant. There is a sword of apparent high quality, untainted by rust and decay, on top of the armor amidst the giant's remains. Despite the chill in the room, the sword feels warm, even without touching it."

In the first case, the name is clear, but in the second?

One could argue that magical items should be so rare that every magical item would have a legend and name (essentially be an artifact, in AD&D terms), and there is some merit in that approach. But most FRPGs are not played with so little magic in the world.

Lobo Gris said...

Another pet peeve of mine as a player was always the expiration factor.

So in an early arc in the campaign, my character got this awesome +2 frostblade, an inheritance of his late father and a reward for his services to the king. Fast-forward some levels, and by then most characters are wielding +3 demoslaying greatswords of purity, and perhaps if I play my cards ok I could get the legendary Sword +5 of Godly Dearh. So now my old +2 family heirloom is considerably inferior, and there is no point in me using it anymore...

A nice solution I found is using some house rules for "evolving" magical items, but it still presents some wrinkles one has to keep working on.

pup67 said...

I, too, have toyed with the idea of evolving magic items, or, perhaps, newly unlocked powers of old magic items. Possibly the characters could find some magical gem or wire that could be added to a magical weapon by a wizard. That would give the wizard something to do and a way to gain xp while giving the warrior a souped up weapon, too.