What if it was no longer possible to make new magical items? We don’t often focus on the magic item creation side of the game; we just assume that somewhere in the background new items are being created. When your PC needs new magical items he can usually got to “Ye Olde Magic Shoppe” and purchase what he needs. But if the supply of new items stopped how would the economy of D&D change and what would that mean for your campaign?
How things play out really depends on whether or not you’re introducing this idea to an existing campaign world where magic used to be plentiful and is about to dry up, or if you’re establishing this as the norm for a brand new setting. If the PCs and other inhabitants of the world don’t know any differently then this is just going to mean a shift in the way your players think about acquiring items. If items have always been rare then the world’s mentality should reflect this. The idea of a party walking around and each PC having 10 or more magic items would be absurd. But if this is a sudden change then the only way to acquire new magical items is to find them in a treasure horde or take them from someone else. Both situations present interesting challenges and both could make for a very interesting long-term campaign.
The idea of a common or generic +1 sword goes out the window in world where magic items cannot simply be crafted at will. If you want an item you have to be smart or lucky. The economics of the world will demand that items be catalogued and inventoried. People will track the whereabouts of powerful magical items. Once an item is catalogued the inhabitants of the world will take steps to ensure that it never gets lost. The idea of random treasure will become a thing of the past. Every item will have history.
This brings up the issue of ownership and legacy. Knowing the item’s history and who owned it before you will matter. Ownership over items believed to be lost may be disputed. Descendants or fellow adventurers of the previous owner may claim ownership rights even if the PCs risked life and limb to slay a Dragon and retrieve it. A world with fewer magic items means new problems for those who possess them.
Quest for items will become necessary if the heroes want to get their hands on any magical items at all. PC won’t be able to spend all those coins that they find on newer and better items. In a world where magic items are in short supply the prices will go up, assuming you’re even able to find someone willing to sell.
What Stays the Same?
In many of my games the PCs are free to purchase items they can afford, ususally with no restrictions on level. But is it realistic to believe that merchants could get their hands on enough magic to warrant an entire shop in this changed world? Would it not seem more likely that once someone got their hands on a magic item they’d covet the treasure and refuse to part with it? What would be more likely is that these shops would have to be adapted to suit the new world.
In order for this kind of radical change to work in any gaming world I think three important concessions are need. The first concession is in regards to maintaining balance. The power level of 4e D&D assumes that PCs will have appropriate gear for their level. By limiting magical items you’d have to use the inherent bonus system in order for the PCs to be competitive. The second concession is to allow the creation of consumable items, such as potions. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the creative process that goes into making a magical sword is not quite the same as the creative process for brewing a potion. The third concession is to leave rituals unchanged, except rituals that can create magical items.
In a world with a set number of permanent magical items, consumables will become incredibly importation and much more common. In most of my current campaigns I only see the PCs use Potions of Healing and Potions of Clarity. But if the same PCs were to lose their magical armor and cloaks I think we’d see a lot more variety in the kinds of potions used. Suddenly Potions of Resistance and Potions that increase the PCs Fort, Ref and Will will get used with much greater frequency.
Making Rare Items More Valuable
If there is no way to ever make new magical items then you know that some evil tyrant will try to make his own collection more valuable and make himself more powerful in the process. The easiest way to do this is to destroy magic items. This could be especially devastating in a game where a villain is more easily defeated by certain magical items.
Think about an evil Lich Lord that fears the touch of a Holy Avenger. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume this Lich would try to find and destroy every Holy Avenger remaining in the world before one can be used against him. Many other intelligent and powerful monsters have likely come to the same conclusion and will seek to destroy the items that they know could be used against them. Suddenly the PCs are not only looking for a special magic item because it’s cool but because they need to find it before the forces of evil can destroy it.
The other possibility is the hoarder. It’s not too hard to imagine a king stockpiling magic items. Should the kingdom ever find itself at war with its neighbours, this king’s army will be well equipped. Under normal circumstances the king doesn’t give his regular soldiers any of these items. He can’t afford to lose a single magic sword if a disgruntled soldier leaves the kingdom. Instead the king lets enough people know he’s got this arsenal in his keep and makes sure his enemies realize the folly of attacking his kingdom. An army with magical swords and shields will have an incredible advantage over one that does not.
Can It Work?
Do you think the idea of no new magic items could work? I know that some groups would be appalled by any suggestions to limit or reduce the number of items they have or can hope to get. But for those more open to the rich role-playing opportunities this presents, how do you think it would go over? Do you see this idea having a stronger impact if dropped unexpectedly into your camping world (you wake up one day and no new items can be created)? Or do you think this is something that needs to be discussed with the players and introduced at the beginning of a campaign? Perhaps this work better as a paragon or epic spanning adventure arc; the magic is gone and it’s up to your party to bring it back. Let the discussion begin.
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