The first magic item I remember finding when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons was a sword +1, flame tongue. The item stands out in my mind not for its power—and it was quite powerful—but for its importance, its place, and the story implied by its name. As a twelve-year-old kid, I appreciated the extra damage and the bonus to hit, just as I would now. The mechanical qualities, as fine as they were, did not secure pride of place in the dusty attic of my mind, though. The sword sparked my imagination. It felt unique and important. It changed how I played the game. It contributed to my character’s identity and how I imagined my fighter when he charged headlong into battle, with a flame-kissed blade. More than anything else, it gave me ownership over a piece of D&D, because a sword +1, flame tongue was a thing. It occupied space in the game and it helped define the world we explored in our minds. Certainly, the flame tongue hasn’t gone anywhere. A +1 flaming longsword is more or less the same thing, right?
I’m not convinced. Oh, I understand what was cooking with magic weapons and armor in 3rd/4th Edition. There’s value in identifying the major magical properties possessed by classic D&D items and transforming them into special abilities. There’s nothing inherent about swords that give them a monopoly on the quality of flaming. By divorcing the fiery aspect of the flame tongue from the sword, you can apply the flaming special ability to a wider range of weapons. You can have a +1 flaming battleaxe alongside a +1 flaming longsword. This lets Dungeon Masters hand out magic versions of weapons the players want to use and avoid situations where the group finds the trident of fish command only to see the fighter sell the item at the first opportunity since she prefers to fight with a Bohemian ear spoon. Special abilities also give Dungeon Masters simple tools for magic item creation. One could create a unique item, say shadow mail, by combining masterwork chainmail with shadow, silent moves, and +1 armor. The player who got the armor would likely feel just as I did when I got my magic sword.
Reducing magic items to fundamental components did give DMs powerful tools to construct the items as they liked, but this process, in my opinion, cost the game. To get to those components, the game sacrificed the evocative magic weapons and armor that populated the older editions. The classic items became preconstructed items with a dash of something extra. The game defined the holy avenger as a +5 holy cold iron longsword with a little extra something-something for paladins. The game presented the flame tongue as a +1 flaming burst longsword that could launch a fiery ray once per day. For me, these items lost their appeal since we could understand them not as being something almost unique and unusual, but rather a specific manifestation resulting from combining the building blocks available to any other weapon.
Had magic items remained firmly in the Dungeon Master’s hands, the special abilities could have remained DM tools, each component operating as a shorthand rules mechanic useful for constructing items. But, we threw open Pandora’s Box when we not only expected players to have magic items but also gave them the means to create their own. A flame tongue is no longer all that special when you can create a +1 flaming shock longsword that lets you deal 2d6 extra damage each time you hit and lets you do so for less money to boot.
The 4th Edition magic item rules moved the game away from exploitive combinations by making the special ability the one thing an item can possess. You can’t, for example, create a +1 flaming shock sword in 4th Edition since +1 flaming sword and +1 shock sword are two separate items. This helped on the balance front, but it further distanced the game from the distinctive and interesting items from the 1st and 2nd Editions. Furthermore, making magic items a key component of character building—on par with choosing one’s powers and feats—stole away their mystery. The concept of the wish list created an artificial barrier between the player and the DM, and it was one often set aside. In many of my games, I’d just hand out a magic item level and let the player choose, such was the importance of magic items to character design.
As we look ahead to magic items, I have found it useful to study the evolution of magic item design throughout the game’s history and how the classic items have transformed as the game’s expectations on availability has changed over the years. Looking ahead, I can safely say that we’re retreating from how magic items are presented in 4th Edition and are moving back toward a more classic approach, where items are special, feel magical, and have a place in the world.