What Do You Mean All My Magic Items Are Gone!

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 6, 2011

The fastest way a DM can unite all the players into wanting to do him unspeakable harm is to even suggest taking away all of their magical items. The more items they have and the more powerful each item is, the more likely that the DM would face real bodily harm for going through with this suggestion. Nothing angers players more than taking away items that they earned.

Over the many years in which I’ve played D&D one common problem I’ve faced in every edition is power creep. Nothing has changed the balance of power in my games more than magic items. As soon as one player gets something that’s a little bit better than the rest of the party, everybody else wants one too. No, want isn’t a strong enough descriptor. The rest of the players feel entitled to something just as grand. So the DM eventually gives everyone else something to bring them in line with that first player. The cycle repeats and before you know it the power level of the party is exponentially higher than it has any right being at their current level.

Better item means better attack scores, higher output and higher defenses, which means that the DM needs to throw tougher monsters at the PCs in order to challenge them. When the PCs defeat these creatures (which under normal circumstances they’d have no business fighting in the first place and would normally not have a prayer of defeating) they expect treasure commensurate with the monster’s increased level. And the cycle continues.

When this happens and magic items become extremely plentiful in a campaign it is referred to as a Monty Hall style of gaming. I’ve had this problem in every edition of D&D that I’ve ever played. Many blame the DM when this happens, but I’ve found that most DMs would rather be too generous than too stringent.

My regular gaming group is currently level 19. As we approach the epic tier I took inventory of the sheer quantity of items we possessed. At this level every PC had an item filling out every slot on their character sheet. And in most cases the level of all items was relatively close to the level of the PCs. For example, at level 19 most of my character’s items are between levels 15-20, with one exception. I have more gold than I know what to do with and a bag of holding (my only non-paragon level item) full of consumables and potions – all of which are also between levels 15-20.

After each gaming session the DM asks us to update our treasure wish list. I’ve found that for the past few gaming sessions I’ve left the list blank. There isn’t anything I want. In fact, I don’t even want to upgrade the items I do have. I want the challenge of having armor and weapons that aren’t the same level as my PC. As it is I find most encounters fun but not challenging and the array of items at my disposal is a big part of why that is.

So I’ve been thinking about doing the unthinkable. The next time it’s my turn behind the DM’s screen I’m seriously considering taking away all of the party’s magic items. As level 19 PCs they should still be able to overcome most balanced encounters. And it will be a challenge, that’s for sure.

I know that this very suggestion could result in my players strangling me in my sleep, so let me qualify my statement and explain how I’d accomplish this. First and foremost I’d implement the inherent bonuses (introduced for the magic-poor Dark Sun setting). This would give the PCs enhancement modifiers to attacks and defenses in line with their level. So the level 19 PCs would get +4 to attacks and defenses regardless of the weapons or armor they were using.

The real challenge is explaining both in and out of game how and why such a radical move occurred. In the past I’ve used monsters to accomplish this goal. Rust Monsters, or more accurately a large pack of them, is a tried and true method. Players hate it, but they can’t argue that a metal sword consumed by a Rust Monsters is gone. I’ve used other creatures that absorb magical enchantments, some from obscure sources like Dragon Magazine and others I’ve made up myself. Fortunately in 4e we now have the Dweomer Eater, a member of the rust monster family, that doesn’t destroy swords and armor but will leave them completely unenchanted.

The other way that I’ve accomplished this is to have the entire party captured. If your PC is imprisoned then it stands to reason that all of your gear was removed before you were thrown in a cell. The advantage of going this route is that the items still exist and the PCs will try to locate them as quickly as possible. It doesn’t solve the power creep problem, but it is a good way for DMs to remind players just how awesome they can be without all of their stuff.

I must admit that since I’ve begun playing 4e D&D power creep hasn’t been as bad as it was in previous editions (but it certainly still exists). Treasure bundles and items with levels have certainly helped keep things more or less balanced. My real issue is with the quantity of items players can have equipped and the plethora of powers that it gives them.

The other problem that magic-rich parties face is that no one really feels that anything their PC possesses is really that special. In the articles What’s a +1 Sword? and Who Owned Your Magic Sword Before You Did? we focused on magic item rarity and the importance of incorporating it into your game. Unfortunately in most games I’ve played in, the players and their PCs have no real appreciation of just how unique magic items are. Take them all away and then watch the party fight over a +1 Sword. Suddenly they all appreciate the value of the party’s only magic item.

Do you think that the abundance of gear leads to power creep in 4e D&D? Has anyone resorted to stripping the party of all magic items? How did you do it? How did the players react? Did you give them back their stuff or did they need to build up their inventory one item at a time? What about the players? How would you react if the DM all of a sudden took away all of your magic items? Would a really interesting in-game explanation for such a radical decision affect your opinion at all?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dungeon Maestro July 6, 2011 at 9:53 am

An old favorite was Mordekainen’s Disjuction. Or MKD’s as we called them. Don’t think it exists in 4E though. On the other hand, 4E magic items are much less powerful than their 3.5 counterparts. Plus a smart DM uses monsters which don’t haul around bags of treasure too. That’s always a good way to go about dealing with that issue. However it’s always the magic item crafters you have to keep an eye on. I wrote an article a while back about how to make money crafting in 4E. It’s actually a pretty cool little loophole they left in the system.
See Crafting for fun and profit in 4E.
http://dungeonmaestro.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/crafting-for-fun-and-profit-in-4e/
Dungeon Maestro´s last blog post ..What to do when PC’s go Missing?

2 Dave July 6, 2011 at 9:58 am

It’s interesting, because the char op boards at Wizard are currently running non optimised character groups (including Essentials) as part of a ‘lab test’ series to see if the base mechanics are stable or broken. Magic items are at a bare minimum and mosts groups are performing fine against +3-4 levels vs. encounters @ level 30.

3 Fronch July 6, 2011 at 10:09 am

I played in a home game like the one you’re describing, where the players made wish lists for the magic items they wanted, and we ended up pretty much in the same place you are.

It’s tricky, because early on, if only one or two people get magic items, the other players get jealous. And if the DM just gives out random items, it’s likely none of the players will actually want them.

I like the idea of using inherent bonuses, and drastically reducing the number of items given out. It might be too late for your campaign, but maybe starting over at low level (maybe even in the Dark Sun setting to justify the low amount of items) could be the solution.
Fronch´s last blog post ..“Lazy” Shaman Hybrids

4 iserith July 6, 2011 at 10:26 am

I went with inherent bonuses when Dark Sun came out and I’ve been using them in every campaign now with no plans to go back. Magic items have since been made fairly rare in all campaigns. I don’t do wishlists at all. I will tend to seed items that will be of use to the players, but almost never will they find a magic weapon, armor, or neck item. I use a ton of wondrous items now as well. In addition, I made any activatable magic item (non-property powers) require a skill check appropriate to the flavor of the item to work, moderate DC. This is because I noticed my players will tend to tack on some description and roleplaying whenever they bust out a skill. So now, most times they use an item, they activate it with some flourish and style.

In your situation, I don’t think you should take away. It’s too late for that. Just plan on the next campaign as being low magic with inherent bonuses. My game was much improved with this simple little change. The only idea I could think of for solving your issue is to get the PCs to voluntarily give up some items – either in exchange for an artifact/relic or to affect the story in some important way.

5 j0nny_5 July 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm

You might be interested to see how I run items. I call it “Inherent Items” ( http://standardaction.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/inherent-items/).

There are pros and cons to my method, all mentioned on the post. One is that my system keeps the epic tiered items at bay. Another is that it pretty much removes me from having to think about it. My favorite benefit is the engagement it brings to the players at each extended rest. Try it out, tell me what you think!
j0nny_5´s last blog post ..Adventure: Shadowfell (Part 7 – The Exploding Mount)

6 Sunyaku July 6, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Certainly, abundance of gear always leads to power creep. I think the capture method is one of the better solutions to the problem, and makes for a great TPK alternative… though you don’t need to knock everyone unconscious. The group could simply stop for gear/food in the wrong tavern, find themselves drugged, waking up hours later naked in a field, unable to remember where they went before they were drugged… and hundreds of miles from their starting point (certainly there’s a thieves guild somewhere that makes creative use of portals).

Trying to piece together what happened, get back to the right location, and reclaiming some of the items before they’re all sold could easily provide an arc that lasts several levels.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..Trogdor, the Burninator in DnD

7 Swordgleam July 6, 2011 at 9:35 pm

If you want to run a low-magic game or a game with few magic items, do so; there’s nothing stopping you. But once the party has already accumulated magic items, taking them away is only going to end in tears.

Magic items become a part of the character, just like feats and stat boosts gained by leveling – I played a lot and worked hard in-game, and now there’s this new cool thing my character can do.

A good in-game explanation will solve nothing unless there’s the very real possibility of getting all the gear back very soon, or it’s also accompanied by a good out of game explanation. If you explain the campaign has been suffering from power creep and promise a really kickass storyline to deal with the loss of their gear, there is a chance the players might go for it. But any other approach (especially rust monsters) is likely to lead to calls of “cheap shot” and “DM fiat” and hurt feelings all ’round.

8 Brad Einarsen July 6, 2011 at 11:15 pm

The issue with Monty Hall (Monty Haul) campaigns for me is that it leads the PCs into a seriously dangerous situation. When the PCs can deal out damage that will bring down a Type-4 Demon at 5th level they’re in trouble. Why? Because the DM has no choice but to bring out the heavy guns so the opponents can survive long enough to be challenging… well… these creatures typically do some wicked damage and the PCs aren’t high enough level to absorb it. You end up with quick combats one way or the other.

When the PCs come out on the short end of that stick then you’ll REALLY see the tears.

–Brad

9 Matt Gallinger July 6, 2011 at 11:38 pm

I have a group of solid role players who don’t like change. So I allow them to level up their magic items when they reach the appropriate level. So a 2nd lvl character that discovers a +1 vanguard battleaxe uses it until he/she reaches 8th lvl, then can level up their weapon to a +2 weapon of the same type (based on the weapon’s level with a +2 bonus).

First off, I always include an in-game reason for this happening.–sometimes it can be as simple as a treasure parcel that includes a scroll of Enchant Magic Item that allows them to level up the weapon, sometimes its a search through the town to find a wizard that will hook them up between adventures.

Secondly, my players tend to fall in love with the magic stuff they have, especially since in 4e there are way to build characters whose other magic items, feats and trained skills can help them maximize the item. If they spent 4 levels building up charging attacks to take advantage of the Vanguard weapon, they’d rather bump up to +2 then give up the Vanguard for a +2 frost weapon…

10 Ameron July 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm

@Dungeon Maestro
You bring up a couple of excellent points. I think more care needs to be given to exactly what kind of loot monsters have. Just because a player has a magic ring on his wish list doesn’t mean that a creature without fingers would have one. But that’s just how 4e treasure allotment works.

Characters can, in theory, create anything they have adequate resources for. So no matter how restrictive a DM might be a creative player running a Wizard or Artificer can still circumvent the DMs best laid plans to keep some items out of the hands of the PCs.

@Dave
I’m not surprised to hear that players are looking for a magic-lite campaign. Glad to hear it’s working. I think that’s further proof that 4e isn’t as broken as some people think it is.

@Fronch
It is certainly a slippery slope. This problem is made more complex in groups like mine where everyone takes a regular turn behind the DM’s screen. I may give out less treasure as I try to curb the power level of the party, but the next DM (thinking I’ve been too stringent) makes up for it by being over generous. Unless everyone’s on board from level 1, it’s a problem that will persist.

@iserith
Wow, I really like the idea that activating items requires a skill check. It harkens back to the Use Magic Device skill from 3.5e.

I think that a game with fewer magic items would have a lot more alchemical mixtures and potions.

I agree that taking away the toys now is just mean. I think I might be willing to get the party to trade as you suggest, but that trade would have to be seen as something really worth while.

@j0nny_5
We ran a game in 3.5e that was very much like this. PCs decided if they wanted to spend their XP to power up items of level up their PC. It was very interesting to see who did what. The spell casters usually opted for levels where as the martial characters always powered up items. In 4e I think we’d see a more balanced approach with none of the classes really sacrificing leveling up for items. But it could be fun to try it and see.

@Sunyaku
I have to agree that the more I think about it the more a story involving capturing PCs and remove their items is the best way to test a no magic campaign. The PCs may find that all of those items were actually a hindrance. Without all their stuff they can focus on their powers and the role-playing. I really like your suggestion to have them drugged and robbed by a powerful thieves guild. That’s an adventure I can easily come up with and then sell to the players without them feeling too cheated. As long as they believe they can get their stuff back at some point they’ll be more likely to go with it for the time being.

@Swordgleam
You’re right. There is nothing stopping me from running a low magic campaign. But you’re also right in that I can’t just take items away from level 19 PCs who have always had them. I guess at the end of the day it’s up to the DM to decide how he wants to run things at his gaming table. If you start out with little or no magic items then the game has a very different focus and tone, but it’s a decision that really needs to happen at the beginning and not mid-stream. Changing after 19 levels can get a DM into real hot water and cause a lot of out-of-game tension and fighting.

@Brad Einarsen
I absolutely agree. In fact my group likes this kind of game. If the monster doesn’t have a real chance of killing PCs then they don’t feel challenged. With all of the gear currently in their possession it means that I can, and do, throw a lot of monsters at them that are way above their level. It makes for a lot of exciting games, but I keep thinking that if they just had half as many items we could keep things more in line with what the Wizards folks intended when they designed the game. You are right that when PCs are killed (and it has happened) there are a lot of real life tears.

@Matt Gallinger
I like your methodology a lot. As mentioned above this is very similar to a 3.5e campaign I was in a few years ago and it was great. I agree that there really should be some kind of in-game explanation or rationale for how and why items get powered up. Let the role-playing help guide these reasons and the game will be better for it.

I hear you regarding a near unhealthy love with magic items. I have a level 11 Paladin that is still carrying a +1 weapon he found at level 3 because it’s more significant to the story than all of the +3 swords he’s found since then. Now if only I could get Frost Bite leveled up from+1 to +2. Then we’d really be in business because I could keep my item and not fall behind in the power scale.

11 iserith July 7, 2011 at 4:50 pm

@Ameron
I suggest the skill check thing only for players who like to roleplay. I happened to notice that my players were really adept as describing things in skill challenges and often ask to use skills in combat “for effect” so they can say a few words or take some crazy action. As such, it was a no brainer to add that to magic items so that they’d get descriptive when they use it. For curseforged armor, for example, I put an Intimidate check on that (moderate DC). So when the player wants to put that -2 to attack rolls (save ends) on an enemy, they’ve got to make the check which encourages them to threaten or cajole their target in a way that adds to the scene. If you have players that would just see it as an impediment or as a skill check they can just roll and ignore, I wouldn’t bother.

I’ll add that you are correct – the players in my game, due to lack of magic items, do invest in a lot of alchemical items. It’s really rather cool when they open up a fight by lobbing grenades to soften up the enemy before charging in.

12 Naz July 10, 2011 at 9:59 am

Great Article Ameron! Not to mention many of the great follow up comments, several of you have given me some ideas for my own campaign.

In older editions, things like cursed items, and items with “X” number of charges where a lot more prevelent. Granted that many of them were more powerful than magic items in 4e, but they were a pretty easy way of keeping a party in check. A wand that only had 5 charges was used a lot more sparingly, while it may be worth risking a potential backlash from that cursed sword because the bonuses it granted could make a difference in a tough fight. As a DM you could concievably keep the party happy that they had magic items, but at the same time, many of their items may only come into play against the toughest fights of a given session, and not every time a moster showed its ugly face.

4e’s Equivalent for this is “Daily Magic Item Uses” which only allow PC’s to use 1, 2 or 3 Daily powers from magic items depending on their Tier of Play. I noticed early on in my current campaign, that many of the items on the PC’s wish lists were those that simply had On Equip, or Effect when it came to granting them powers. Whether they meant to or not, the party appeared to me to be trying to get the most out of their items, especially in Heroic Tier, where they only got 1 Daily use a day. Initially this wasn’t much of a problem, but as they neared level 10, I noticed that a few of the party members seemed to seperate themselves from the rest of the group. They almost never missed on a To Hit roll, they had 1 or 2 ways to completely avoid a hit early on in combat, or they almost never failed saving from an effect, or simply could transfer that effect to a differnet ally or an enemy. Another thing I noticed was that with Paragon on the horrizon, suddenly more items with “Daily” powers began showing up on the wish lists.

So, in an attempt to not dissapoint my PC’s, but at the same time keep my sanity as a DM, I started doing something I used to do all the time in older editions of the game. I began giving out “Custom” items. Some of these items had a draw back of sorts, like a ring that has a Milestone power that is pretty strong, but Dazes the PC Until the end of their next turn if they use it. One PC has an item that has an encounter power that is nice, but has a Daily Item power that is considerably stronger, but using the Daily Power will destroy the item. I’ve also tinkered with a few magic items staight out of the books, giving some “Daily” powers that didn’t used to have them, and such. The last part of my solution has been to regulate what items and components are actually Available to the PC’s. As part of the campaign story, the parties adventuring hub, a rather large and ancient city, has recently been destroyed, meaning that things like potions, residium and such are difficult or impossible to find, and much more expensive when they are found.

In the end, the party still seems quite happy with the amount of magic they have. Nearly every session, there is at least some discussion amongst them about whether they should or shouldn’t use a particular item, and as a group, I think they have become more of a team because of it. Just my two cents, I look forward to the next great article.
Naz´s last blog post ..Whyn Burae Characters

13 Captain DM July 10, 2011 at 9:01 pm

This is a problem I ended up having when I let the players all start with a +1 item of their choice at level 3. They were very adamant about it and it was my first run as the DM so of course I wanted them to have cool stuff, too! Unfortunately, I ended up throwing too much cool stuff at them, and by level 6 it was hard to build encounters that would challenge them but not outright kill’em (high AC-low damage monsters get boring after a while).

I ended up creating a monster, a giant, magical octopus, that was a three-part solo fight. I mentioned it on here before in a post about solo monsters somewhere… Anyway, after they defeated the octopus, it had a burst attack that hit the entire party with a viscous fluid that instantly drained all magical properties of items it touched. It worked very well, and the next part of the campaign had them questing to find new things and searching for an alchemical solvent to clean and restore their items.

Anyway, I don’t think the DM should HAVE to give magical items to anyone. I prefer to think they’re earned or found, not purchased or given. I really hate letting players buy them at all (potions aside), but maybe that’s just me~
Captain DM´s last blog post ..Naming Your Character – Part of the Fun!

14 Jesse C Cohoon January 8, 2014 at 7:54 pm

I really never played up to epic levels, but I had stuff that was basic. I had a twin pair of cursed -1 scimitars, because it required a magic weapon to hit them (and by the definition of magic, cursed counted). I think I had a +2 bow, but I made my own single use magic items, “arrows of fiery concussive force” by dipping them in “oil of impact,” and “greek fire.” But in that I was a ranger/ bard I relied on my spells and bardic music abilities to get through.
Jesse C Cohoon´s last blog post ..Everyday Items 2: Biomes, part 1: Plants & Fungi Part B

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