Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Re: The One Real Problem with Magic Items

Jonathan Baldwin wrote a great article over at Stuffer Shack. (which is redundant- all the articles at Stuffer Shack are great articles) His article gave two examples where players, regardless of alignment or character motivations, went out of their way to gain magic items from anyone at any cost.

When I recently played through a 4e adventure, we had 3 options to stop the BBEG. First, we could go search out some ancient magic items that would help us kill him. Alternatively, we could blah blah blah or blah blah. That may not have been the DM’s exact words, but that’s all I remember, followed shortly by the party whipping our horses in the direction the DM pointed out for the magic weapons.

There is a problem there obviously. Gaining magic items are an overriding issue in most games. Jonathan had his say on the problem and his solution. He made me think about it. A lot. 

Players are the Problem
That was Jonathan’s assessment. All I can say is, “Preach it, brother!” I think the only time players aren’t the problem is when I’m not DM’ing. Even then, players account for most of the problems.

You, a player, want to have fun playing the game. Usually that involves facing challenges and overcoming them. Ideally, you’d want to do this in a way that is totally awesome and lets you do cool stuff. Magic items help you defeat challenges, and they have powers that are totally awesome and let you do cool stuff. By this logic, getting magic items will let you have fun. Therefore, a player places a large focus on attaining magic items because it lets you have fun. Not to mention that getting the magic items in the first place involves challenges and overcoming them, and soon you have a self-feeding magic item obsession.

4E is so (theoretically) based on balanced progression and a standard attack/defense value per level, that any little boost you can get to increase those specific attributes makes a large difference. One of the most accessible ways to get this increase is magic items. So anytime a player can find a way to increase their chances of gaining those resources, they take it.
Players want items because they are an instant way to:
  • Let you do cool stuff
  • Let you gain an advantage

Jonathan’s solution is to take away the plug and play nature of magic items- make it so even if you find a magic item, you can’t use it because it’s not yours unless the spirit of the weapon decides you can use it. Your own items can become magical based on your power and what you’ve done. Thematically, it’s nice. Mechanically, it means the DM has decided to dictate how any magical items in the campaign are used or distributed. While this solves the problem, it feels heavy handed.

I would rather give the players incentive not to go power hungry for magic items and still provide a means to keep them accessible. I want them to have the choice to go after magic items if they want, but make it an actual choice instead of a reflex action.

Inherent Bonus
This is the first thing we can add and the easiest to implement. Inherent bonuses mean that your magic item bonuses come naturally with level and are not dependent on your equipment. For those who aren’t aware, inherent bonuses give you a +1 to your attack bonus, damage and defenses at level 2 and every 5 levels thereafter. I would change this slightly so that you use either the magic item bonus OR your inherent bonus, whichever is higher. Characters may grab a more powerful item here and there, but that bonus would be fleeting and last only a level or two until their inherent bonus caught up. At least there’s a choice between taking a temporary boost to your character and sticking with an item that’s better suited for you.

With inherent bonuses, players don’t need to trade up their magic weapons, armor and neck items. They find the one they want that fits with their character and they can use it throughout their career. I may even have the item level automatically scale with inherent bonuses to make sure the secondary effects stay valid throughout the character’s career.

Some magic item powers could be considered inherent as well. This would take magic item powers and turn them into divine boons, mutant powers, bloodline powers, etc. A pureblood dwarf could develop the power of Dwarven Armor as a natural ability through their strong bloodline. A tiefling devil-worshipper could invoke flames on whatever weapon they are using, magical or not. Stuffer Shack has interesting ideas for that here.

The Fourthcore Armory introduced a new “item” type called gambits. (and they’re working on a Gambit compendium right now) Gambits are special powers that you can call on to represent your contacts, allies, connections and practically anything else that isn’t represented by an actual item. For instance, a rogue belonging to the thieves’ guild can have a group of thugs “materialize” in the back alley when he needs some extra muscle. You can have an airship swoop through and extract you from a sticky situation. You can do something cool. Which is all an adventurer wants from their magic items anyway.

Gambits, by their nature, are non-transferable. This makes sense thematically. It also takes some of the focus off of magic being the best and only reward for characters. Think about a situation where the characters save the land and get a reward from the king. You have option 1:
“Please give me sword+4 of awesomeness, OMG, thx.”
Or option 2:
“It’s been my lifelong dream to join the Knights of the Rose.”“Granted, brave knight. Rise and join their ranks.” (And now you can use the Knights of the Rose gambit)

Item Specialization
I still want some magic items in the game as actual items. Jonathan’s idea of using items that are built for you is a good idea. But let’s have the character make the decision about what is built for them. One way to do this is to have the character specialize.

The easiest way to for a character to specialize is through feats and class abilities. If Fighty McStabalot has weapon proficiency (bastard sword), weapon focus, weapon specialization and 4 fighting style feats dealing with one handed swords, he is not going to pick up that magic spear no matter how cool it is. I know that the only magic weapon he’ll pick up is a bastard sword and I can make sure to not tempt him with a bastard sword he’s not supposed to have.

Next, we can develop and use more item sets. Item sets grant extra abilities based on how many pieces of the set you are using. When a new item comes along that would replace a piece of the item set, the character needs to weigh the trade off.

Some items may just be better suited for a character based on who they are. A priest of Melora might get extra powers out of their water walking boots than other characters. A dwarf who picked a theme or background with mining might get more use out of a Mattock of the Titans. On the flip side, a necromantic scythe might backfire when wielded by a paladin of Pelor. Magic weapons might be considered a level or two higher or lower (for purposes of inherent bonuses) depending on your compatibility.

If you use aspects, this is automatically built into your character. You may have a gear aspect. You may have a stealthy aspect that encourages you to seek out shadow based items because you can use Fate Points to trigger those abilities more often or to greater effect.

Don’t Starve Your Characters
Finally, don’t keep your players starving for magical items. The 4E treasure parcel schedule keeps the players constantly hungry for magic treasures. If you keep a starving tiger locked up for days on end and then release them into the middle of the village, don’t complain when they start mauling the first moving body they see.

Keep the magic items flowing to the players. Many of the items that don’t have a “+” are good at any level. And if you use inherent bonuses, even those are good at all levels. Don’t feel the need to give out a level 16 pair of boots because that’s what the treasure parcel says to do. You could give everyone in the party a level 11 item instead and everyone is happy.

Give out more consumable magic items. Besides getting far more items to give out, they also let you give out a much more powerful effect than you would normally allow your players to have. Again, the players get something really cool to do, which is all they want. And if you overdo the amazing effect, this is the time to do it since the item is a one shot use anyway. For more great ideas in this vein, check out Leonine Roar’s TreasureCheat Sheet: More Magical Rewards.

My plan is to provide more items, cool effects and inherent bonuses and then let the players decide what they like. Maybe the players will still go crazy over magic items. But if I can get them to at least consider other options, then it's a win. If not, then I can sic a pack of 3rd edition rust monsters on them and be done with it.


  1. HA!

    "First, we could go search out some ancient magic items that would help us kill him. Alternatively, we could blah blah blah or blah blah."

    As soon as I read this I literally laughed out loud. This could not be closer to the truth, at least with regard to most of my past groups.

    Good article, sir.

  2. I've used the inherent bonus option in a game I ran and it worked really well. The characters weren't starving for the next higher bonus. They knew it would come in time and could actually enjoy things instead of constantly trying to optimize and seek better and better weapons.
    In the same game, I ran with lots of consumables, especially alchemical items, many of which could be applied to the characters' weapons for additional effects. It put a lot of the power back in the hands of the players because they were able to customize things on the fly.

  3. Tourq: Thanks for comment. That was a true life scenario and like you said, it was hardly unique.

    Jess: Welcome to Quirky DM. Your experience sounds exactly what I'm talking about, and I'm glad to hear that it worked out. A little confirmation that I'm not completely crazy is always good.