From Looking to Looting in Legends & Lore

by Dantracker (Kenneth McNay) on October 5, 2011

In this week’s Legends & Lore I was pleased to see something that I could praise. One must understand, Monte Cook’s writing is difficult to praise, and difficult to critique. Unfortunately, it is far too easy to criticize. So today I’m going to take this opportunity to praise what is deserving of praise as I analyze this week’s Legends & Lore column.

If you haven’t read Magic and Mystery by Monte Cook, take time now to read it. Pay special attention to the poll results at the end of the article. As you might have guessed if you read my article, Tip of the Iceberg here on Dungeon’s Master last week, I didn’t like Cook’s proposed new skill mechanic and I fell into the 12%.

The Expectation of Magic

D&D instantly conjures fantasy tropes of magic and mystery in a setting with notable parallels and stark contrasts. In such a setting the grand power of magic is expected; so too is the presence of magical items imbued with extraordinary powers. Yet we, as gamers, often look upon such wonders as commonplace. Cook has his own theories about why and chose this as his topic for the weekly column. He sees a flaw in the advancement of characters that require magic items to supplement character stats. He sees player entitlement belittling magic items to a form of currency. He also describes a loss of fascination due to the flooding of magic items in player-centric publications and descriptions of settings or adventures. In each case he is absolutely correct.

As I learned to DM, I also recognized similar concerns. When I began to present campaigns and adventures, I learned that magic items can be a potent reward and still maintain their special properties if I practiced my presentation. Magic items can serve well in other purposes also.

One tool for removing reliance on magic items as an advancement requirement is by using the Inherent Bonuses described in the DMG2. It gives an option to remove or reduce magic items with less concern for the math falling behind. There’s even a check box in Character Builder that allows players to turn this feature on or off for their character.

Another resource is the monster builder tool among the adventure tools or customizing a monster by hand. The DM can adapt a monster’s HP, defenses, attack and damage numbers, in addition to other aspects, to be more suitable for the party it’s about to face.

Craving Adventure

Although the core story of D&D has grown far beyond the limits of dragon slaying and dungeon looting, the excitement that comes from a thrilling adventure remains one of D&D’s most appealing qualities for new and experienced players. A good DM engages the magic and mystery of storytelling to incorporate characters and players in a lively setting with paths to adventure. The magic items which characters acquire can be used to shape the precedents and prospects of the campaign setting. Players may customize their PC, but the DM has tools to influence how characters act and deal with obstacles by selectively placing magic items in the treasure they find. Also, the DM can place treasure according to the logic of the world, rather than the requirements of the game system.

Players are encouraged to engage in collaborative story-telling to enrich the gaming experience. Their characters have goals, motivations and emotions that come to bear on the world around them. They may specifically seek out items which they need to fulfill their quests. This sort of cooperative campaign building heightens the value of magic items by tying those items to class features, damage types, monster weaknesses or iconic powers.

Much of this is spelled out in the DMG and DMG2. There are also countless resources available online and in right here in the Dungeon’s Master archive.

Learning by Doing

A DM must learn the craft through practice. Anyone can spend time reading the books, blogs, and forums, or discussing with others, listening to podcasts, and borrowing ideas from literature or film. Yet, nothing will serve quite as effectively without practicing the art-craft of storytelling as a DM. Cook goes so far as to say that providing a DM with guidelines arms a DM with knowledge – free to do what is fitting. I’ve referred to some options above.

For this I have to give Cook some well deserved praise. He learned what many of us have learned through our own process of growing into the shoes of a DM. Ultimately, the heart and soul of D&D still burns brightly in 4e D&D; it was not lost. A DM that learns to design both setting and adventure can make the rare, mysterious and fascinating magic items a driving force in D&D. I say kudos to Monte Cook for learning this and sharing his experiences with us.

What resources do you use when building encounters? Do you rely more on pre-published material or do you prefer to create as much as possible yourself? When it comes to magical items do you let the players choose their own loot or do you assign it randomly? Have you rewarded your players with any of the new items from Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sentack October 5, 2011 at 3:17 pm

When I started, I went with the DMG guidelines of handing out magic items. Now my players are level 11 and I find this guideline rather silly. It’s just too much stuff and it’s not so much about losing the “magic” in magic items. It’s partly about just how powerful a lot of the stuff is when players start picking through it. Part of this was my fault. I allowed Dragon articles with supervision, but never saw the effects of individual items really effecting the whole game that strongly. The end result was a lot worse then I anticipated.

I might prefer if I could scale back the items to 1-3 cool items per player and that’s it. Potions of Healing not counting. And not so much because I want players to ‘cherish’ their items. I just don’t want them to have so many damn extra powers and properties. It just gets damn crazy sometimes when players have so many powers and features that just break any encounter I throw at them.

2 Carda October 5, 2011 at 4:39 pm

One interesting thing I’ve noted in the discussion thread re: Monte’s article is the number of people who are entirely against the idea of magic items being removed from the standard math of character advancement. I also recognized quite a few usernames in that thread.

Turns out most of them hang out in the Character Optimization forum. What a surprise, right?

These are the same players who tell a DM that he’s “doing it wrong” if he takes issue with the entire party attempting to bring horses into Forge of the Dawn Titan (because apparently “horses in 4e don’t panic”).

I’ve been on both sides of the screen, so I’d like to believe I’m capable enough to see both sides of the argument. As a player, you like to get the “phat lewtz”, sure… but if you can just buy everything, it does kind of lose its appeal after a while.

I played in a 4e campaign (which itself was one or two small chapters in an ongoing epic-length storyline that so far has spanned almost a decade of gaming; that is one dedicated DM, lemme tell you) where the Holy Avenger, a “rare” magic item by current standards, was actually rare, by which I mean there really only was a single Holy Avenger in existence. It was actually a major plot point that the party’s paladin was the one wielding that particular sword.

Now consider if the party had instead been able to buy whatever gear they wanted. If you can buy a Holy Avenger at any old store, you can’t exactly make a major plot point out of it, can you?

So I completely agree that magic items shouldn’t be a commonplace thing. If anything, they should be LESS commonplace than they are now. If the party can craft it, great. If not, then the players shouldn’t expect to be able to walk down to the Mall of Faerun and go shopping for ridiculously powerful armor and weaponry. (And don’t even get me started on the forum member who was complaining about the fact that he can’t turn a profit by making magic items according to the Rules As Written.)

3 Rabbit is wise October 5, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Fire Monte Cook… I mean has he never heard of inherant bonuses… you’d think someone like him would at least load up a character building before writing such an ignorant article… to hell with firing him lets kick him off earth, to the moon Cook to the moon

I just thought I’d beat anyone else to the punch lol

4 Sunyaku October 5, 2011 at 7:23 pm

I’ve asked my players for magic items wishlists, but few have given me any suggestions. Based on how they play their characters, I ended up searching the compendium myself to come up with a number of items they might be interested in. For these items, I have a random loot table that I occasionally pull from. In general though, I prefer that magic items come in the form of specific quest rewards, or ‘special’ monster loot.

Unlike the Encounters program or public play LFR, in my campaign, monsters actually USE the magic items they possess. And if a PC defeats such a monster, the item becomes their prize.

Interestingly enough, players in my campaign have not been selling a lot of these kinds of magic items, even as they level up. They decided to open a guild hall in the main city of my campaign, and have been mounting assorted “treasures” on the walls of the guild hall. :-D They’re only level four right now… by the time they are Epic tier they might have an entire museum!
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..Lair Assault Tactics for Dungeon Masters

5 Rabbit is wise October 5, 2011 at 7:32 pm

4e was the first edition I played, but I play with other guys that were from the AD&D days…
Magic Items are so overplayed… they arent special and they arent fun, after you find out you need one to take on like level creatures…
I use inherant bonuses in my campaign and most stores dont sell Magic Items that are higher than level5, and only a few in all the world have magic items up to level 10, anything beyond that is just to rare…

Now in my own personal experience this makes the items themslves a more exciting and relevant part of the world, in the way that when you hear about a powerful wizard with an awesome staff, your not figuring that its just a +3 staff of elemental kick assery, but maybe an artifact, or maybe it is a +3 staff but its one that no one else has

6 Chlar'r October 5, 2011 at 9:25 pm

A ton of magic items isn’t necessary, but I like what items there are to have some signifigance for the players – if not directly to a player’s abilities and wishlist, at least in terms of lore that can be followed-up and/or researched.

Attach the lore and abilities to the location where the artifacts are found.
Heroes of Neverwinter does a pretty good job of this.
The handbows vs kobolds and undead are great. I got my handgun vs koblds as a drop while I was in Neverwinter Wood fighting kobolds. The one vs undead became available for purchase while I was hunting vampires.

It makes sense that previous heroes who have died in crypts would be likely to leave save vs necrotic armor or radiant weapons. Just as PCs would likely have items that reflect their themes, the same is true for heroes that left treasure behind.

I’m often interested more in the fluff than the crunch.
That the items reflect the interests of the characters rather than packing a lot of punch.

7 Kenneth McNay October 7, 2011 at 12:12 am

@Sentack
I had some trouble early on in DMing my first campaign. Luckily I had a mixed bag of players that each taught something unique. One chose to give away his lower level items to initiates within his PC’s faith. Another sought out a druid’s grove to pass on her things–for a small return on the many donations she had always spread around. Another taught me of the frustration of artifacts when he complained about an artifact being able to leave the party when they goals didn’t align or when the goal was accomplished. I got to tinker with items sets too with another two characters. I found that the players willing to give away their items easily kept track of the gear their PC used and rarely forgot to cherish their things. The walking armoury waffled over decisions of which enchanted weapon to call upon and slowed down the game. The item set twins too often forgot their equipment at all.

@Carda
I don’t read the CharOp boards enough to recognize that, but I did feel a cringe at the thought of creating a game that no longer relies on magic item in advancement, yet allows players to seek out the best gear by following the trails to the greatest risk, or worse, a game that might permit random gear drops. Yet, he did say that DMs should place gear according to the logic of the world.

4e D&D did a great thing by codifying the magic items and giving plenty of variety, but provided little guidance on how to distribute the items that made sense for the setting. Also, even if the really cool enchantments are rare, the selection of magic item +n just feels so bland that I often felt a desire to make sure that I at least gave some sort of enchantment when selecting magic items.

I’ll be starting a new campaign soon that uses inherent bonuses and nearly eliminates magic items. So, one topic I need to practice is ensuring that at least everyone gets the chance to have a magic item which does more than just a bland +n as well as ensure that the magic items don’t stack up on the same character(s).

@Rabbit
I give Monte the benefit of the doubt that he’s at least read through the material and has a bit of grasp on it, but it is possible his dark masters tell him to bring up topics that will create discussion. Still, I think his writing leaves much to be desired. I don’t think he does very well at expressing his thoughts and addressing multi-faceted issues.

Still, I can think of others I’d prefer to see in the byline of Legends & Lore.

@Sunyaku
I’ve rarely gotten a response on wish lists, and I spend a good amount of time pulling items from the collection that *I* think are really neat. It would be awesome to see more of the ideas coming from the players.

I love the idea of a guild hall. I’ve got that as a possible landmark in my upcoming campaign. I don’t know if the players will jump at that, but I’ve got ideas of how they can create more presence in the campaign setting.

@Chlar’r
The lore of a campaign setting should be a strong informant of the things found. Though, I note that video games have few to no examples of permitting a player to select which items they would like to have available in shops or found in delves; they simply rely on the random element.

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