An Aside: Magic Items, Balance, and Monte Cook, part 1

First off, I should put in the disclaimer that I’ve mostly avoided the Legends and Lore column on the D&D website after reading the first couple — they were pedestrian observations that felt more like going through the motions rather than writing with interest to an interested audience… Maybe that seems harsh but it really was the impression the articles left me with. I realize that I’m a long-time gamer and for a newer person in the hobby, maybe, those columns were more insightful — so I’ll back off that criticism and just say, they didn’t offer much to me so I stopped reading. Is that more fair?

To move past disclaimers and get to the point — I’ve been thinking a lot about Game Balance (!) lately and since I just wrote about Stuff in D&D it seemed like Monte Cook’s article on Magic Items was well timed. I liked what he had to say for the most part though I do think he’s a little out of touch with the 4E crowd and the things that make them actually like the game — which could be a problem if he has much say in “whatever it is they’re working on.”

I liked what he had to say about magic items not being an expected part of character advancement. I remember when 4E was in development hearing some discussion that 4E would break with 3.5 and the “Items you just gotta have!” model. But 4E ended up tying items (and very specific item-types) more closely to advancement than at any point in the past. I realize that later on we were given an official, optional system for inherent bonuses (which I have applauded before). I think the problem is bigger than that though. It’s about expectation.

Put it this way. When I played Diablo II for the first time I played a barbarian, with axes. The whole game I kept finding the most awesome swords that I would have loved to use — but I had focused on axes so I just kept selling them off. But the next time through, playing a barbarian I said to myself, “Clearly, swords are better, I’ll go with using swords this time.” All I found that time — awesome axes my other character would have loved… And that both amused and frustrated me — but I didn’t care that much because Diablo II is a linear little story that I play through to squash monsters, pick up treasure and go ever deeper into the “dungeons.” It’s a mostly solitary experience (even in multiplayer) with a limited set of options and goals. Not so D&D (at least I hope not).

I’m actually both less and more annoyed at useless magic items when I play D&D. I want items I can use, items my character will like to have (and have for a long time), but I also really don’t care about finding that “ring of swimming” because, hey, it’s still a magic ring, right? I might find a use for it. And maybe, if I kill a bunch of trolls and find a bag of holding full of potions of water-breathing, well, maybe that rumor I ignored a couple weeks ago in the port-city about a sunken treasure ship suddenly starts to seem like a likely adventure… It’s a thought, right? And Monte Cook talks about this — about using magic items to shape the game — which is cool, but I’ll bet those that rant against the quantum ogre might have had a fit of apoplexy with the scenario I just described above… That certainly seemed heavy-handed, didn’t it? But was it? Well, that’s talk for another day — I don’t want to wander too much off topic.

I suppose that my feelings about this stem from my tendency to see the game as a story about the party and if it is sometimes coincidental, well, life in the real world can be too sometimes. So when I find a useless magic item, I either get rid of it or I look for an option where it might be useful. I mean, let’s be more subtle, shall we — maybe I find that bag of water-breathing potions in a troll lair… I immediately can think of three more options for them that aren’t as heavy-handed as my first option. Maybe the trolls were planning something they needed these for. And my PC could find out why. Maybe they belonged to an adventurer that the trolls killed before he got to the place he was going where he needed these and I can find that place too. Or maybe I see a bag of potions of water breathing, I take them to the Port City to sell because they seem like they’d be really useful to someone there and when I get there I stumble into a new (completely unrelated) adventure. Argh, still on the tangent.

But the other issue is making magic items feel special. Making them magical again. I think one of the reasons this would fall a little flat in D&D is, again, expectation — because one of the best ways to make them special again is to make them rare. You get to 20th level, you might have three magic items. And those three are great items, with rich histories, but you know, rare. Even in 1st and 2nd editions, this wasn’t true. D&D is game where magic items are much more common, from healing potions to wands of wonder, it’s all about handing out the magic.

A second point is that even if you changed the dynamic of the game to make treasure a “reward” again, it would involve some basic changes of assumption (especially in a 3.5 model) if you removed things like Healing potions, wands of cure light wounds, etc. Healing surges go a long way toward this, but healing surges don’t work quite right for me as is, so I’d need to tinker with that more too before I was happy.

And then, even though Monte Cook makes a blithe comment about making magic as “high” or “low” as you want, I think that ignores the basic idea that most D&D worlds (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and Eberron) are worlds full of magic items and worlds where the idea of “selling” a magic item is actually a possibility. You want to make magic items more magical? Uncouple them from the economy. That would help.

But then you have to ask questions about PCs making magic items? Should they be able to do this or does it just make those items another commodity on your character sheet, like rations and torches? This seemingly simple question opens up a whole other set of questions so I’ll pass on it for now and come back later…

I realized that I’m up over a thousand words and I didn’t get around to game balance… okay, part two to come later…

Thanks for reading.


3 responses

  1. I don’t quite know what to make of the legends and lore articles, a part of me sees it as a little bit of graduated exposure to help habituation to the eventual change that is coming. that is a tuff crowd to play to though as they have been tempered or inoculated against any change to the current system after going threw the last edition war.

    I think your right in that there was never really a dearth of magic items in 1st and 2nd edition, at least not how my early adolescent self played 😉 i don’t know what the solution is, all I can go by is feel and in the current 4th edition system magic items don’t do it for me and don’t feel special. i saw it shake out through the eyes of my players who were there even in the early days d&d where there was initially excitement at getting an item that gave way to meh at the continual upgrading,sheer amount of, and generally unexciting properties.

    although I know that a lot of players love the magic items system in both 3.x/pathfinder and 4th edition. do you think there is a system that can satisfy both?

  2. I certainly think there is a system that can satisfy both.

    I think there is a system, really, that can satisfy all the parties and it could work side by side in the same game.

    Do I think there will be? No.

    But there definitely could be. And I have plenty of ideas how.

  3. I’ve always thought that magic should be more like the stories than D&D – really, really low level. So when I discovered Cantrips I started collecting them and replacing the powers and spells in all the magic items with similar spells and powers from cantrips

    Eventually I had HUNDREDS of them(

    So it kept magic just as common, but it was very rare that something was “D&D level” and when it was, it was a valued treasure that you wouldn’t DREAM of selling.

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