So they don’t want items to be cool…

In a recent Wizards’ blog, Peter gives an insight into the R&D of magic items. He says:

The achievement of this design goal makes the discovery of a magic item often a prosaic event: unless it’s a piece of the character-building puzzle you’d been seeking (in which case you probably already knew how you would get it), it’s not that exciting.

Translated by me… “magic items are intentionally boring.” Peter himself says that the items that they can publish (ones that don’t break the game) don’t feel magical and that they’re’s nothing that they can do about it.

This the same problem I had with Chatty DM’s post on 4e economy which is on the side of allowing players to just choose their items….

Where’s the magic?

Now that I’ve finally be able to put words to my discomfort, this is the first time I’ve really felt let down about 4th edition. The reason why I enjoy the fantasy setting is for the wonderment and magic (if I just wanted super-powered items I could play a superhero game). There’s something neat about coming up with creative uses for invisibility rings, glowing swords, ice bows, and exploding apples. And I do miss the old days of hunting down powerful wizards to get ahold of their spellbooks.

Peter’s solution to this problem is to have the DM house rule special items or to use artifacts for the cool items. I don’t like the artifact suggestion because I enjoy coolness/uniqueness of an item and not necessarily its powers. Putting the burden on the DM is slightly better because you can tweak the power and fun-factor of item without having to go through too much process. The downside is that this does create a burden for the DM; if she is trying to run a mathematically-balanced campaign, she will need to keep all the party loot in mind when crafting an encounter.

What’s the player to do?

Let’s say you have a Duelist’s Epee +1, a nice but uninteresting weapon? Well you can beef up it interesting factor with fluff:

  1. Create a back story. Perhaps it was awarded to great duelist Agamar by Queen Cordelia three centuries ago for winning the grand tournament at the feast of Bahamut. It came into your posession from your father who killed Agamar’s scion in a duel to the death.
  2. Add flair. The Epee has a blue ribbon tied around its hilt that snaps in the air when you deliver a quick strike. Perhaps it has red-enameled holster that was a gift from your character’s mother the day he set out adventuring.
  3. Add effects. The tip glimmers silvery in the light and whenever you make a critical hit it leaves behind a silver-covered wound. The effects would have to be cool and agreed upon in advance, so they would have no numerical consequences for the game or lasting effects (so much for vorpal).

Another thing you can do is level up your existing magic items. One of the challenges of 4e is coming up with meaningful treasure parcels that suit the characters. Instead of having the DM hand out a 7-level sword in a parcel, convince him to let you level up your 3rd-level sword to the 7th-level version at the appropriate time (plus a monetary treasure worth the sale value of the 3rd-level item). This way you can carry along the item’s back story and fluff throughout the whole campaign.

It would be interesting if there were ability charms one can place on arms an armor. Something like a frost charm that adds the equivalent power of a +1/Frost weapon to an existing weapon (and would stack with its powers). Once again this gives an existing item longer life but allows for some interesting customization and flair. I’d be interested in hearing about any rules that describe how to do this in a balanced way.


6 thoughts on “So they don’t want items to be cool…

  1. Yes, absolutely, I can make any given item cool – I can even design it to “level up” with the character in cool and dramatic ways, so that you keep using your Father’s Sword for the duration of the campaign. Easy peasy.

    But I can’t do that with a dozen items at once, and that’s where the real problem lies. Dramatically, I want a small number of signature items, but mechanically the players have incentive to fill every slot they can, and that’s where I find the dilution really occurs. This gets even more pronounced when you start talking about items which have a potent but boring mechanical bump (like +1 to saving throws).

    My take on the argument for making magic items for your home game that WOTC cannot is to make them more powerful, but have them use more slots, so to speak. Yeah, it’s hard to justify in the abstract, but the whole slot system is an abstraction anyway. If you do this then it lets you do things like the more classic Frost brand or Flaming Sword, where there are also resistances and specialized damage boosts baked into the weapon.

    And yes, it’s absolutely just a bit of sleight of hand. Maybe you can get the same benefit from a sword, a belt and some boots, but it just seems cooler to me if it’s all in the sword, even if it means forgoing a belt and boots.

    -Rob D.

    • I think Rob pretty much nailed it, it’s the quantity that’s a problem. His idea of using up more slots is pretty interesting though. If you look at fantasy stories, the heroes are rarely decked out in magic gear. Usually, yeah, they have a leather doublet if any armor and then a supremely powerful magic sword. Or a magic armor but mundane weapons, etc. I think there’s some merit in the idea of a magic item being “bigger” than its form would suggest.

      I think the whole magic item issue might demonstrate an underlying divide in the player base though. Coming at it from something like WoW or Diablo, the item mill is a key part of the experience. You’re always seeking out new magic items to replace old ones and always slightly improve. D&D4 was built to somewhat follow this model. Trying to make magic items individually special, to make them have narrative rather than mechanical weight, is to shift the overall mode of play away from item and monster hunting and into the realm of story games.

  2. So I wonder what would happen if you just threw the item slots idea out the window? If you ensure that you can’t stack effects, like resistances and ability score bonuses, then you could have an item that grants as many as six or seven different kinds of bonus or effect, and the player wouldn’t feel the need to “collect the set” of items to fill slots.

    • For my own homebrew low-magic-item approach, I treat each slot as a category/keyword (Movement, resistance etc.). Let you build powersets, like schools of kung fu or magic, that fill the gap.

      -Rob D.

  3. @Rob,

    I too think the idea of “multi-slot” items would help with balance and coolness. I’d resolve the slot issue by saying “some types of magic interfere with each other,” the way metal armor used to affect arcane magic. So if I had a scimitar that added 2 to the character’s speed, it would be overridden by the +5 Stealth on the boots, but as soon as those boots came off the +2 speed would take affect again. I think some of the 3e wonderous items worked this way.


    I don’t think 4e precludes story based play, but there is a definite and pervasive “balance” that the designers are going for, which I think sacrifices some of the flavor.

    • @Michael
      Oh no, I don’t mean to imply that it precludes heavily story-based games. But I think that the way it actually does get played veers away from the idea of “magic items as a story.”

      To me it’s the same question as why do parties go around killing tons of monsters. Why isn’t the story about hunting for and learning about one big monster, leading to an ultimate confrontation? The game supports that mode of play, but I don’t think it’s the common mode.

      I’m trying to point out the distinction between what people’s expectations and common play styles are, and how trying to shift one element of that can vastly alter the feel of the game. Uniquely potent magic items or monsters kind of change the genre in subtle ways.

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