The cancellation of Mordenkenian’s Magnificent Emporium has created a little bit of speculation. The edition is already bordering on too many magic items as there are two full books (the Adventurer’s Vault series) already crammed with magic, so there doesn’t need to be many more. But, Essentials added the barely supported rarity system to magic items, and there are precious few Common magic items or Rare magic items.
If you count all the Rare items in the Compendium, there are only... um... well, actually I'm actually not sure how many Rare items there are. Despite the recent Compendium update (designed to make the Compendium easier to change and customize), you still can't search items by Rarity. And even the few items made retroactively Rare (such as the vorpal sword or holy avenger) are still listed as Uncommon. But that's another problem. Still, there’s maybe five or six Rare items in the game.
There are a number of problems with Mordenkenian’s Magnificent Emporium, most of which I discussed in an earlier blog. To briefly reiterate, it’s an item book for a game that already has a plethora of magical items. It seems aimed at Essentials players but isn’t an Essentials book, so to them it would be just yet another book on the shelves. The other D&DE products have a list of “what’s next” inside the box or on the cover, so new players know what books to buy to complete their collection. But Mordenkenian’s Magnificent Emporium wasn’t part of that list, so it doesn’t stand out to new players, not any more than the dozens of older books. And the name doesn’t readily identify itself as a book of magic items, and sounds more like a location book detailing a chain of magic stores (which would be kinda cool, but a better Dungeon article than physical book).
The only reason for a Mordenkenian’s Magnificent Emporium is to add an acceptable amount of Common and Rare magic items, because the D&DE player books and DM Kit failed to do this (likely to sell this book. Oops).
And it’s a little frustrating to have to buy yet another book because they tweaked the game. While I love the concept of rarity and agree it adds a certain je ne se que to magic items, it was just was not supported or reflected in the rules updates or following releases. If 98% of magic items are Uncommon then they might as well all be Uncommon, and Common items just a level lower. As it currently stands, magic item rarity seems like an idea they thought was too cool to sit on until 5e (not entirely unreasonable, as the current staff will not likely be the people involved with the creation of 5e) and a fix for the problem of PCs having full licence to create any item in the game without restriction, cherry picking items to synergize with their build.
Buuut, the content for the Mordenkenian’s Magnificent Emporium has already been written. It's been developed and designed and edited and prepped. So it would be a waste of time 'n' money if the content didn’t end-up being used. I’m expecting it to appear in Dragon but I’ve heard other speculation that it might end-up as random cards like the Fortune Cards or Gamma World ‘s omega tech cards.
And that’s the topic of this blog.
The idea is simple enough. You have random packs of cards, each with a different magic item on each card. There are already Common and Rare magic items, so they distribute themselves nicely. The catch is there needs to be a reasonable amount of Uncommon items. You buy a pack of cards and get a couple Common items, a couple Uncommon, and a Rare. There could also be new boons, new alchemical items, and more.
It also sells itself well. Instead of planning treasure, a DM just pulls cards, perhaps buying a deck just for that game. It cuts down on prep time while also giving the player a physical representation of the item.
But, we need more Common and Rare items and we shouldn’t have to buy cards to play the game as intended. And non-random magic item distribution is how 4e was designed. The books actually argue against this.
But let’s discuss the pros and cons and possibilities.
First, random cards are actually rather inexpensive. For the price of one hardcover book of magic items you could get ten or more packs of 8 cards for a potential 80 magical items. It’s a cheap investment. DMs could ask players to buy packs as a way of giving back to the game, providing their own magical items. This is a fair alternative to shouldering the cost of a book that cannot be shared or split when the group separates.
Random loot is also super-fun. No, really. I’ve played enough Warcraft to know the thrill when you finally win a rare drop, or when the boss has the perfect loot for your character. Just ask Las Vegas about the unexpected thrill of victory. Having your party pull that perfect Rare magic item that will define your character for the rest of the tier is impossible to replicate with the random element of cards.
Cards also solve the problem for WotC of having all their content available in the online tools. The Rare cards could easily have a code that could be entered to unlock content, similar to how the super-rare cards in the Warcraft CCG can unlock pets or mounts in the online game. Codes in books are impracticable, but codes in boxed sets and on cards are much more possible.
It's also cheap to store and produce. There are dozens of products on the markets for storing cards and protecting cards. Cards are just thick paper and easier to print than a large hardbound book. WotC knows their cards and it's something they're good at.
It's also an easy way to attach art to magic items. It's not just your new magic sword, it's the sword with the blue-green blade and golden hilt shaped like an eagle. It might be tricky cramming the magic item text and a picture onto a card, but it's not impossible (They might be best going with oversized cards, or fold-out cards).
Cards are also handy. There's a reason TSR went with spell cards back in the days of 2e, and why 4e has a solid background of power cards. Using the Legacy Character Builder you could even print off a concise character card of hp and defences and another of skills, playing your character entirely from cards. All of the relevant information is there, at your fingertips. It's a handy bit of game design made popular by most modern board games.
Cards are also easy to store and transport, being light and compact. Books tend to be heavy and take-up a lot of space; and you have to bring all of a book with you, you can't just bring along the two or three pages you need. But you can bring specific cards while leaving the rest behind.
The largest con is the random nature. If you need a new magic item for your half-orc slayer, you don't want to have to go through a dozen packs of cards looking for an elusive item. And while the price point of cards is deceptively cheap, the actual price of the content is steep. To actually get the same content as you would find in a book you would need to spend money buying endless doubles of Common magic items you already own.
Piracy is also much more of an issue with cards. In Magic there is a competitive aspect that keeps players legit: you don't want to lose to someone with a deck of knock-off cards. But home play tends to be a tad more lenient to piracy, especially if someone at the table already has a copy of a book or product. If WotC starts pushing and selling the awesomeness of random loot, then many DMs will just print off scanned copies of the cards. If someone drops $40 on cards looking for an item only to get unwanted crud, they might feel a little more justified searching for a Torrent and firing-up the ol' laser printer.
Which leads into the other issue: existing content. Right now, I can legally print off a giant stack of Uncommon magical items from the Character Builder and could use that for random treasure. With so many items already in the game, randomized cards seem like less of a pressing purchase, especially if the content ends up in the Compendium or Builder.
There's also an issue of quality, as has become apparent yet again with Fortune Cards. Rare cards are just that much better, and so Common items have to be that much worse. Now, 4e already has Common items be simple and unimpressive, but a TCG would turn them into trash cards, barely worth being pulled. To keep people buying more and more decks there needs to be better cards and Rares of varying quality and type, which leads to even more wasted purchases and items of plain inferior quality.
Realistically, that just means many magic items become unwanted garbage to the players. And that should never, ever happen. When your players are discarding +1 swords as vendor trash you know your game is a broken joke, and when they're discarding Common magic items by the dozen then you've drifted to absurdity and beyond even the realms of Monty Haul.
4e is already “that edition” where you will never, ever see a +1 sword. That edition where even the most famous and impressive magic items only offer a minor tactical advantage in combat. Adding even more “meh” items just further depreciates the specialness of magic items.
But how about a middle ground?
I’m thinking of something similar to Gamma World, with a set of non-randomized cards sold as a very sizable starter set. All the Rares and Commons you will ever need in 4e, which are also added to the Compendium and Builder. But, for extra options, there could be small expansion packs for those seeking a little extra or wanting random loot.
If WotC does go to random cards, they should NOT have the same arrangement of cards as standard CCGs. Common magic items should still be treated with respect and some measure of rarity. There should maybe only be three magic items in a pack: a common, an uncommon, and (maybe) a rare, with the remaining cards being single-use boons, favours, or consumable magic items, where having multiples and doubles doesn't break the game and is encouraged or a benefit.
But I think I'd still rather have a big Dragon article of only Rare items.