Magic Items & Rewards

May 18, 2008 at 4:16 pm
filed under Roleplaying
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(Edit: changed some formatting. Changed “Reliquary'” to “World of Darkness: Reliquary.)

There’ve been a few excerpts from 4th Edition up lately: Economy and Reward and You and Your Magic Items.

It turns out that I have a lot of thoughts about this stuff that I haven’t written down anywhere. This may turn out to be a series of posts that is mostly for my own benefit. And judging from how 4e handles a lot of this, it may end up being moot. Still, I will press on!

In 3.5, monsters dictate the treasure. Based on that, the DM rolls on the appropriate table to determine what treasure the monsters have. The tables are balanced in some way so that your party will get, on average, X magic weapons, Y wondrous items, Z consumables, and so on. This can be upset depending on what monsters you send after the PCs, but let’s set that aside.

Random treasure: advantages

A big advantage of randomly generating treasure from a table as opposed to flipping through the book and picking items yourself is, first, that it’s pretty easy. When rolling on a treasure table, the reward isn’t based on your level of creativity times however many monsters or encounters the players defeat. Sure, you can come up with a unique item a couple of times. But every single time?

There’s also a lot of entertainment that arises from the unexpected. Put another way, you, as the DM, might not think to give them a certain item for any number of reasons. But there’s something about magic items that flips a switch in players’ minds. They think of all kinds of clever ways to use it, defying your expectations over and over. I love it when an item like that becomes iconic for a given campaign. As a corollary, sometimes an item that you would think is overpowered ends up not being all that ridiculous, and your campaign is the better for it or perhaps hardly affected at all.

There are some pretty compelling down sides, too.

Random treasure: disadvantages

One of them is useless magic items, which can come in many forms. Example: scrolls or potions for second or third tier spells that are easily forgotten or that no one would use anyway. Another type of useless item is a plague of low level items that aren’t worth a whole lot individually, but add up quickly if you have many of them (e.g. a collection of +1 items when everyone’s already got +1 or +2 items).

A separate issue but worth mentioning here is the inevitable proliferation of usable items. You can end up with a bunch of items in the form of consumables, wands, and wondrous items. Many of them are pretty good, but will you ever use them? The amount of complexity this can add to a character is also non-trivial.

The worst kind of useless item are the ones that are cool but the wrong weapon or armor type. It’s not quite fair to call them useless, because they might actually be useful. It’s just that you have to do a bunch of math to figure out if it’s actually worthwhile, such as when a good weapon drops and the fighter’s specialized for another weapon. This a little sad to me because I think using a magic item should be a no-brainer most of the time. Magic items should be awesome!

And then of course there’s another issue: random magic items. I may’ve mentioned this before, but on some level I want D&D to be a more serious and less game-y. When push comes to shove, I prefer White Wolf’s way of handling things, with a higher fluff-to-crunch ratio. Magic items should be unique and flavorful, right? At their best, magic items in fiction have a story or some amount of mystery. And if you look at books like World of Darkness: Reliquary, there are a lot of those.

There’s nothing stopping you from doing this in D&D. However, as the game goes on the probability approaches one that the player will replace his grandfather’s breastplate with something better. And to some extent, D&D is a game. You might be inclined to say that generic magical items are more like video games than roleplaying games, but you’d have it backwards: random magic item drops came from D&D, not the other way around.

I’m also pretty sure this is true of the dynamic where items you find in the wild are better than items you make on your own. Let’s set that aside for another time, though.


There are a lot of potential solutions!

One solution for dealing with the “grandfather’s sword” problem is Weapons of Legacy. As you level, the item gets better, and you can also do things to unlock other powers inherent to the weapon by undertaking quests. I really like this idea. I don’t own the book, but given that it’s ~20 days before 4e hits, I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to go out and buy it.

I heard a number of solutions mentioned on one of the D&D podcasts, too. One is to hand out only gold. Players can buy or make what they want. Another is to request a list of desired magic items from players. Now you have some guidelines for what they want, and you can give those out and be fairly sure they’ll want them. As pointed out by Dave Noonan, these are both like handing out custom treasure, in that you lose the serendipity of random wondrous items.

My own untested method is something of a hybrid. I’d figure out what a player wanted, assume a magic weapon of similar type drops, and roll its properties randomly. If it’s a crappy property like Vicious, re-roll. Wondrous items are random. If they’re really dumb, I re-roll. I suspect Evan (the DM for our Pathfinder game) does this at least in part, and so far it has worked pretty well.

Still, this has a number of at least theoretical problems in 3.5, mainly because I’m not sure how I’d balance this. How do you determine how many items to give out and how often? Some monsters have ridiculous treasure and some have none. Since the system is random, the main guideline that I can see is the NPC table, which more or less explicitly says that by level N, you should have items +X. That will at least tell you if your players are even in the right ballpark in terms of basic gear.

Also, with the exception of the “all gold” method, none of these address the problem with consumables and wands. I’m still not sure what to do about that, but it’s not that huge of an issue in the couple of 3.5 games I’ve been in and run.

Rhymes with “Boar Tea”

Of course, while I think about this, there is 4th Edition lurking in the background. 4e seems to take aim at many of these problems. The rewards excerpt in particular seems designed to solve many of these problems. It may render this discussion moot! That’s a topic for another post.

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