The new Essentials rules are making massive changes to how magic items work. While I agree that a change is needed to magic items, I do not think that the new Essentials rarity classifications are going to help much. In this article, I will identify what I see as the major problems with magic items in D&D, and how I think magic items need to be redesigned.
The Problem With Magic Items
The problems I see with magic items are:
The Christmas Tree Effect. Ever since WotC introduced magic item slots, they introduced the Christmas Tree Effect. Because you could have a hands item, a waist item, a legs item, a head item, etc., and because you had enough resources to buy an item for every slot, you might as well shop (or craft) for an item for every slot, no matter how out-of-character it may seem. This results in most PCs walking around by 8th level with magic items covering their body. The items that fill these slots are not even tailored for the character. They are simply the best option in that slot from a purely mechanical analysis. The existene of the slots create the need to fill the slot.
I particularly dislike the Christmas Tree Effect because it has no literary or mythological basis. It is a phenomenon that exists solely in D&D not for any story or flavorful reason, but is created by the mechanics themselves.
The Plus Effect. The +X item is an iconic item in D&D, but it is a sacred cow whose time has passed. In 4e, it has finally been acknowledged that the game is more fun when the math is balanced. +X items muck about with that math. As a result, players are required to upgrade a magic weapliment for attack bonuses, magic armor for AC bonuses, and a magic neck item for NAD bonuses. These items are, in my opinion, lazy game design. If the only benefit you can imagine to grant is a flat numerical bonus, don’t award anything at all.
Magic items should be wondrous and rare. +X items make them mundane and pedestrian. Any math bonuses that are required to make the game work should be inherent in character level progression, not the result of items (or feats).
The Overwhelming Effect: Magic items can feel so necessary that they dominate a character's theme. Items should be accents, not defining qualities. The exception would be artifacts, around which whole stories revolve. The One Ring and Stormbringer, for example, are artifacts. Elric is defined in large part by his relationship with his sword, and Frodo is defined almost entirely by his relationship to the One Ring. But other characters have items that flavor the character. King Arthur's Excalibur is famous, but it doesn't define Arthur. Hermes' flying sandals are mere flavor for this god. That is how the majority of magic items in D&D should feel.
The Solutions to Magic Items
Make the Math Inherent, not Acquirable. A simple change is to convert all +X requirements to inherent bonuses. This should not only include the +X expected from Expertise Feats, magic weapliments, magic armor, and magic neck slot items, but also bonuses to Skills (other than training), and numerical bonuses from masterwork armor.
Eliminate Body Slots. Limit the possession of permanent items (what I will call “Flavorful” items) to three, with no restriction on body slots (other than common sense). There is no limit to the number of temporary or group items a pary might find.
Acknowledge How Parties Use Items. Items should be grouped into four categories: Fragile, Fraternal, Flavorful, and Artifacts. Most items should be Fragile. Potions and scrolls, for instance, make good Fragile items because they do not last long enough to define a character or unbalance a game. Fraternal items are useful to an entire group and should be presumed to be owned by the entire party. Carpets of flying, and healing items, for instance, are useful to everyone and should be treated as communal property of the party. Flavorful items are permanent items that players craft or purchase, but do not generally find. Artifacts are more or less how they exist in 4e: unique items that are themselves plot points incarnate and should rarely if ever be introduced into a campaign.
Change How Parties Acquire Items. I know the previous change is a big one. How can you not find Flavorful items? Most items found should be Fraternal items or Fragile. I envision that any Flavorful item – I’ll use Catstep Boots as my example – also have a Fragile version. So if you find Catstep Boots in a dungeon, they are ancient items from a bygone age. The magic in them is wearing thin. After a few uses of the item, they disintegrate. (Perhaps you roll a die after every use to see if the item falls apart.)
Flavorful items would be manufactured by the party at the mid-levels. This represents their ability to now recreate the glorious works of that magical bygone age. However, because each PC is limited to three items, the Christmas Tree effect is limited. Most of a party’s items will be the Fragile and Fraternal that the PCs find in adventuring, with the Flavorful items being a handful of signature items unique to their character.
Manufacture of any items should be limited to items five or more levels lower than the creator. This also limits the ability of items to dominate a character’s identity, and ensures that the items found in treasure remain wondrous and precious.
Embrace Reflavoring. Powers than come from items need not be restricted to a specific type of items. While a Catstep Item might be described as usually appearing in the form of boots, there should be no reason – particularly with the elimination of body slots – that one could not have a Catstep Hat, Catstep Gloves, or a Catstep Brooch.
I think making the above-referenced changes to magic items would go a long way to correcting some of the problems that have plagued magic items since the inception of the game. Magic items can once again be both precious without dominating a character’s identity. They can be potent without being indispensible.
I'd also like to give credit to my wife, who helped crystallize my thoughts in this matter, as well as the Frothy Friar, whose blog on a similar topic made me rethink my position.
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