How Do You Put the Magic Back in Magic Items?

Phat l00t drops 4 all, kthxbaiRecently, Critical Hits’ Dave Chalker posted about magic items in D&D, complaining that while they are a staple of fantasy literature, their necessary ubiquity within the game takes away from any magical flavor they have, making them somewhat meaningless on any level outside of their mechanical value to the players.

This is an area of thought that is immediately relevant to me as the DM’s Little Helper. Because my girlfriend, the titular DM of this blog, finds her hands full coming up with plot ideas, designing encounters and managing the XP budget with her less than stellar arithmetic skills, I am usually the one responsible for determining the treasure that gets distributed each session including treasure intended for my own character, and is one of my primary responsibilities. There’s a reason why I’ve willingly undertaken this job: determining treasure is the least rewarding part of a DM’s job. Other parts of adventure design get significantly more pay off: Plot twists make players ooh and aah, while unique combat encounters get them primed to think about neat ways to use their class powers. A single room filled with interesting challenges and flavorful descriptions can generate lots of exploration.

Treasure, however, is a clerical burden that yields only a handful of moments of “Wow, that’s a neat find!” from the players before they plug the bonuses in and march on forward. Old-school D&D gave treasure randomly, ensuring that PCs would have to constantly return to town to sell a vast majority of weapons and armor of little use value (and became even more problematic when the DM enforces encumbrance rules). On the other hand, the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide encourages giving items that the party can use, but doing so in my mind, breaks the suspension of disbelief. (“Oh, isn’t it convenient that your bard found the Piercing Songblade +3 inside the quarters of the Necromancer Archbishop?”)

Worse still, magic items kind of have a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing going. If you don’t use them, your players eventually fall behind on the power curve to deal with monsters, even if they have high stat bonuses that, initially, make them capable of dealing with creatures four to five levels higher than they are. In that sense, the value of adventuring gear becomes purely mechanical. When you consider how many fantasy epics treat armor and weapons as objects of history and meaning, such a valuation of magical items becomes glaring: imagine if Drizzt Do’urden got rid of his scimitars simply because he needed a better attack bonus.

Still, loot can’t be eliminated from D&D as it is a defining aspect of the game that you can’t get from World of Darkness or Star Wars SAGA. Certainly there is something to be said about the appeal of window shopping through the Adventurer’s Vault supplements. I wouldn’t know how to house rule* a way out of these problems, but I believe the answer to that is the key to a more meaningful relationship between adventurers and their adventuring gear.

2 Responses to “How Do You Put the Magic Back in Magic Items?”
  1. Dave T. Game says:

    Piercing suspension of disbelief with items in 4e hasn’t come up at all- there’s plenty of story opportunity for the songblade to be wielded by a villainous enemy bard or as a reward by the barkeep that used to be a bard himself, and so on. And my experience with the “wishlist” is that people just ask for general types of items: “I wield a halberd” or “I wear leather armor” which makes it even easier to fit in.

    My problem is that, like you say, it’s just a numbers game at some level. Pretty sure we’re going to be switching to the inherent bonuses system from DMG2 and then just throwing in some more magic/personalized items, as a result of the discussion from my article.

    • I guess my problem is that I don’t really get the opportunity to plant treasure in the game properly, so suspension of disbelief is probably just a problem for us. My girlfriend the DM, as I’ve indicated, doesn’t handle the treasure and I’m not exactly in cahoots with the plot, so we’ve got a communication problem going there.

      It was easier when I knew we had a heist planned, so I could stuff gems and magical items all over a mansion, but in most cases, she can’t tell me who the “Big Bad” is for the night. We recently ended a night fighting a Warforged Titan, and as far as my newbie mind is concerned, I can’t fathom what kind of loot it’d be holding. That would be different if it were a githzerai necromancer, a hobgoblin captain or even a gelatinous cube.

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