Today, I’m looking at magic items, as requested by ramius613 a little while back. I’ve mentioned magic items quite a few times, but I don’t believe I’ve dedicated an entire blog to the fail that is 4e’s magic items. Or, at least not since 2009 and this embarrassingly early blog.
I think my biggest problem comes from the inherent lack of rarity of magic items. Magic items are assumed for the math of the game. It wasn’t until the DMG2 and its addition of optional inherent bonuses – a full year into the edition – where a low(er) magic game became possible. And that rule is buried in the back of the book, hidden under a wall of text. I can never find it when I needed and often turn to the Dark Sun book where the rule was reprinted with much clearer formatting. But I still have to hunt for the page.
Even then the option is binary: you have no magic or you have standard magic. Because the numbers don’t stack you cannot have low magic, relying on the inherent bonuses for the math but awarding the occasional magic item as something extra special.
4e also ranks magic items in a hierarchy that starts at level 1, which would be a +1 weapon or suit of armour. But, the way the parcel system is designed, you only find items above your level, and will never, ever find a level 1 item as treasure. And as the ritual to make magic items is level 4, the party will also never craft them. This means you will never, ever see a standard +1 longsword in this edition. Once the most common item in the game, it has vanished from prominence due to a quirk of math.
I don’t like this. By making magic items mandatory they become much less special. They’re expected. Commonplace. And they’re awarded far too early in the game.
Now, not every change was a bad.
4e did kicked magic items in the bag of holding. Which was not unreasonable. Magic items were the customization element of every prior edition – especially 1e and 2e, which lacked feats and skills. Most classes needed magic items to define their character, as they were nothing without their arsenal of enchanted doodads. Magic weapons and wondrous items gave fighters something to do in end game combats, and allowed crazy game-breaking deeds. 3e was particularly bad for magic, both requiring it for its loose math (in the form of mandatory stat-boosting items, which includes magic weapons with plusses) but also to further distinguish characters. More than any edition, 3e had “Christmas tree” heroes with their garlands ‘n’ lights of magical accessories.
When making the new edition the designers decided to end magic items as a necessity. A character’s class would define what they do, choices they made when levelling-up would be how they were customized. Every class would have meaningful choices in combat each and every round.
Giving magic items a level was also a good idea. This makes it easier to decide if an item is appropriate but also allows items to "level up" with the characters. One of the problems with past editions is the item treadmill, where magic items are continually dumped and replaced, and heirloom items ("my father's sword") are discarded for new magic weapons found in random dungeon rooms. Because items all have a level it's easy to just increase an item's level and move on. A DM can just say "everyone's items increase by +1" and move on without having to crunch numbers, figure out gp value, or wealth-by-level.
I like that, I really do. Good ideas all around. On the surface, removed from the math, the above seems perfect. The game allows for both play with magic and without magic, for low magic and high magic. In theory…In practice, well, you've read the intro and know what I think.
Things looked like they were going to improve more with Essentials and the new item rarity system: Common, Uncommon, and Rare magic items. Great idea that, as not every item should be as frequent and some items are just inherently more impressive and potent. Although, I imagine this was as much a way of reining in players creating and crafting the perfect item for their character, Min/Maxing their build.
D&D should be all about choice, not just for the players in combat but for the DMs and worlds. The game should be customizable, something you can make your own. 4e leans a little heavily towards a single style of play, and especially with magic items; an assumed play-style for the sake of balance.
4e magic items are extremely weighted for combat. Too many items, usable all the time anytime, could break encounters in earlier edition. So 4e lined them up against the wall and nerfed them execution style. Items that granted powerful benefits like invisibility and flight or changed statistics were often especially hard hit, now being limited to a single daily use of their defining ability. Every item became only useful in combat, typically only providing a minor tactical advantage. Many once potent items are now inferior to racial powers. Why pick-up a ring of invisibility at high Paragon when you can just play a gnome? A dragonborn with the right Paragon Path can fly At-will, negating the need for winged boots.
While I applaud the ability to have a character not defined by their gear, I miss the opportunity to choose to have a character defined by their gear. They swung too far in the one direction. There’s no opportunity for an Arthur with Excalibur, Bilbo with his ring, or Elric with Stormbringer, or the various Greek heroes, with their single signature magical item. There’s some opportunity to do this with artefacts, but those really are the Name items of the game and should not be thrown around lightly just to have a signature item. Someone's name is already on the item, it's never really yours.
And while the idea and concept of item rarity is excellent, the execution has been poor. Underperforming class options were tweaked in Essentials but items remained the same, so it’s no more impressive to get a Rare item than an Uncommon. And there were an insignificant number of items updated to Rare or Common status. While the Compendium was redesigned to more easily be tweaked, it’s still not possible to search by rarity and not all the items retroactively named “Rare” have not been changed to reflect that.
Fixing Magic Items
One fix I quickly adopted was changing the type of the inherent bonuses to attack and damage so the inherent bonus would stack with that of magic items. That way, in a campaign world where magic is rare and special, I don’t need to skip right to a +3 sword so the level 9 character can see a mechanical bonus.
The catch with this fix is that I have to be carefully with higher plus items. With the math being consistent, a +1 bonus is always a +1 bonus and special, and a +4 to +6 bonus is game breaking. If I award a +5 weapon there won’t be any additional properties as the attack; the bonus itself is impressive.
This adds some nice DM flexibility to the item system, ironically making it more reminiscent of 3e. For those who skipped that edition, 3e had mix-and-match magical bonuses that equated to a magical plus. A property might be considered equivalent to a +1 or +2 bonus. This was problematic, as characters could “build” their magical items, customizing them with multiple complementary abilities.
With 4e’s hard math making even a single +1 a nice bonus, it’s a matter of looking at an item’s property and powers then deciding if they're impressive and interesting by themselves. How fun is the property? Is it good enough paired with just a +1 or does it need more to be desirable? An item with many small powers or a single game-changing power doesn’t need more than a +1, even at high levels, but small very situational benefits might be alright with a +2 or +3.
Playing with the rarity system is also fun, tweaking how items work based on their rarity. This is much more of a heavy fix, not to be engaged in unless you really have too much free time on your hands. Specifically, changing the numbers of powers items have or their uses per day. Common items should typically lack impressive Daily powers, only having small properties, or very minor powers. We don’t need many Common variants of the “big three” items (weapon, armour, and neck) – four or five are sufficient – but there’s plenty of room from the other slots, with items granting fun little benefits. These should primarily be fun, cosmetic items (or consumable and/or alchemical items). Magic items that you can just add to your game with no purpose in combat. Toys that wealthy Eberron folk might indulge in to make their life easier. Such as a mug that directs you to sources of alcohol, or chalk that can never be rubbed off*.
*These are real items in 4e
Uncommon items should have the standard Daily power paired with a moderate property. Fairly standard. We have plenty of these and most of them are well designed for what they are. If a little boring...
If I had the time and energy I’d consider looking at the Uncommons and adding more out-of-combat powers to the weaker items. Small, situational perks and abilities. Powers that do things similar to rituals.
Rare items are where you can have some real fun. I think Rare items should bend the power curve a little, with multiple powers that can be used more often. Here is where you see items with an At-will power and a Daily power. They can be designed to be a little more risqué and game breaking. As they’re Rare and cannot be crafted, only the DM hand’s them out, trusting they will only be handed out if the DM really wants them in the play.
I’d also like to see more Rare items emulating rituals or with powers that function out of combat. This is one area where 4e’s heavy gamist slant works to the advantage of role-playing and creative thinking. They can outright say that certain powers stop working in combat or stop at the start of an Encounter. For items that might overlap they can have their powers end when a Standard action is taken, allowing a PC to gain some use during a fight so long as they forego attacking.
This does run the risk of breaking adventures, but no more than many racial powers. 4e has become a game where some races can teleport or fly or explode into dozens of tiny razor-sharp crystal shards as easily as other races walk or shoot a bow.