No New Magic Items

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 7, 2011

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.

What Changes?

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.

Related reading

Looking for instant updates? Subscribe to the Dungeon’s Master feed!


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lahrs December 7, 2011 at 9:45 am

I do believe, as you mentioned, you would have to ramp up the magic items as loot though or start using inherent bonuses to compensate or the monsters would eventually have an unfair advantage.

I like the idea for RP reasons, especially if it was a decline as they leveled up. So overtime the resources would become more scarce. Prices would shoot up, services would become more rare and alternatives could spring up as well. If healing potions were all of a sudden scarce, maybe they would have to seek out shamans or druids to make something from the forest, which may not be as potent or possibly come with side effects (using the potion would require two healing surges instead of one for example).

I do not believe rituals or potions should go untouched. Components are expensive, so maybe a raid on a lich’s apocathary would be necessary. Maybe that magic item they just found, which the party can’t use, could be used to barter for something they can. So many possibilities. I think I might just use this at some point.

2 Chris Brennan December 7, 2011 at 10:01 am

You could also put limits on “permanent” magic. Maybe it only lasts a lunar cycle, season or year depending on what the creator invested in the creation. Maybe it only lasts the lifetime of the creator. More expensive or rare components might increase a long duration. Truly permanent magic might drain permanent Con or HP from the creator.

3 Sentack December 7, 2011 at 10:35 am

DM’s hate giving out items. They feel items need to feel more special and/or they cause a bigger balance problem over time.

Players love items because they are the only real reward they get in the game. Gold losing value if they don’t have any magic items to purchase.

You could throw at players castles, gold, favors from the king and flying ships. And except for possibly for the flying ship, none of those don’t feel like a real reward for many people I know who play. Magic items, not just plain old +3 Magic Longswords, but real magic items are the one reward they look forward to. Take that away, and you take away the one thing they find that offers a real sense of reward for doing things in the game.

So what do you have left when the items are gone? As a DM, I think the idea of restricting items is wonderful. When I put my “Player” hat on, I hate not having lots of cool items to look forward to. Yes we have the plot, yes we have the goals. But what about ME, the player. What do I get to look forward to?

So, as a DM, now what?

4 wrathofzombie December 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm

This is something I like about swords and sorcery. Magic items are from powerful mages and beings and gods that time has forgotten. They have rested in lairs and dungeons and ruins for centuries. The ability to create these wonders has also been lost with the passage of time, making them highly prized and terrifying.

I’m also a fan of magic items A) having a story and B) costing something to use. The more you rely on the magic item the more it corrupts your soul, scars your flesh, assaults your mind with visions, etc.

5 Philo Pharynx December 7, 2011 at 12:25 pm

One change is to eliminate the generic common items. If you are having fewer items, then don’t waste time having one of them be a generic +1 sword. I’d also eliminate the ability to completely identify a magic item with a simple short rest or spell. That will let you know the base enhancement bonus, but you have to work to figure the rest out. Track the history, do certain quests, kill a certain type of monster. This gives you the ability to reward the players multiple times with a single item. Once when they get it and as they figure out each ability or power.

Yes, this essentially makes items into artifacts. Go with that. Maybe all magic items are gone except for artifacts. Maybe magic items never existed except for a few created by the gods themselves. This brings it to a whole different level. Owning one of these items makes you a potential power in the world – so long as you can hold on to it.

6 Kiel Chenier December 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Oh +1 swords, always taking a beating from RPG bloggers.

I agree, though. I’ve often thought the implementation of a ‘craft’ skill would be interesting, with (almost) all magic items needing to be made by the heroes themselves, and the resources to do so being dropped or gutted from monsters/villains.

It’d make customization of items all the more rewarding for PCs, while making ‘found’ magic items all the more special and rare.
Kiel Chenier´s last blog post ..My bit about Tieflings

7 Gargs454 December 7, 2011 at 4:28 pm

This is actually somewhat (though not quite) similar to an idea I have for my next campaign. The idea being that the arcane power source as a whole is becoming drained, making rituals and crafting difficult (if not impossible) and also being used to explain the inherent bonus system.

What I like about this is a) it makes the items that are given out that much more enjoyable for the players and b) it provides excellent story opportunities for the campaign. I think that if you are going to limit, or even eliminate, magic items, you really should make it a vital element of the campaign. If you do so, I think it can make for a very fun game. If on the other hand, you just say “few to no magic items will be available” and there is otherwise, no story explanation in game and no story payoff, then the game will suffer. All in my opinion of course.

8 William December 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm

I HATE giving out treasure. I hate wishlists. I hate it all. All of it. There is nothing more banal than giving out magic items that aren’t Artifacts. So I came up with the following system for my game. I give out Wonderous Items normally. Combined with the inherent Enhancement Modifiers it works really really well.

Magical Items
You have three magical items. A weapon or implement, armour, and an aura.
You have four points for each item to “enchant” it for the following costs.
1 Point: Add one property.
2 Points: Add one power

Weapons & Implements
You can use any normally available (non-enchanted) weapon or implement. It deals 1d6 per enhancement plus on a critical hit.
Properties and powers can be taken from enchantments for weapons, implements, and hand slot items. Weapon group restrictions from the enchantments still apply.
You can also modify your crit dice, using the same pool of points you use to add powers and properties, for the following costs:
1 Point: Increase crit dice to d8s.
2 Points: Increase crit dice to d12s.

Armour
You can use any normally available (non-enchanted) armour. It gains a masterwork type appropriate for your current enhancement bonus.
Properties and powers can be taken from enchantments for armour, arm slot items, feet slot items, and head slot items (and waist slot items?). (Armour type restrictions from the enchantments still apply?)

Aura
Your aura has no effect by default until it is “enchanted”.
Properties and powers can be taken from enchantments for neck slot items, Companion slot items and tattoos.

You have three magic items and they last through your career. There aren’t any +1 Swords or Staffs, there are only the Artifacts I hand out, background items, and Wonderous items now and then. When I place an item based award, it’s Campaign changing.

All that being said: I LOVE any game with little amounts of magical gear. The characters feel more epic because it’s not their items that make them powerful and special: it’s their abilities.

9 Wolfgrim December 7, 2011 at 6:25 pm

I think your system is a great idea William! For the last three years that I have heavily run 4th edition campaigns I have always felt that the players are given too many magical items. They seem to care very little about the loot that they find. Finding the right time in a campaign to reward players has always been a struggle for me. I tried the orginal system from the 4th edition DMG and I found it to be too generous. Players at my table felt that they did not earn the rewards that they had been given. Not to mention that I always find it a pain to looks through several books to give a player a piece of gear that they usually don’t care about. In my most recent campaign I decided to give each shop keeper two to four magical items that would rotate every two weeks to a month (in game time). The price of these items were high, but players coveted magical items much much more than they previously had. I have also decided that I would give players items of value instead of gold. Gold simply got boring. Players had to accept what they were offered for their finds or haggle with the shop keepers, which in turn had players feeling that they earned their hard earned cash. With this new theme in my campaigns I have found that players care about the items far more, even if they can’t use it. Give a warrior a magical glass orb? He’ll hold onto that baby for awhile, whereas previously he would chuck it out immediatly. I highly recommend to any DM that they lower the number of magical items they dish out. If any DM’s that their players are under powered they can fix that by implementing the natural bonus system found in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting for 4th edition.

10 Paul S December 7, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Another good article. I believe this would be great for story hooks in a ongoing campaign. I myself am going to use this premise in my paragon and epic level tiers when the characters in my campaign reach those levels. Right now the players are in the heroic tier. The idea for the world lacking in magic would be a greater incentive for the adventures to go out and explore the world to obtain magical items. Instead of being just an after thought for more loot or just getting geared up for the next adventure. There would be more meaning to the whole idea of getting magic.

11 Sunyaku December 8, 2011 at 12:48 am

This gave me a nifty campaign Idea. You could have players start out in a unique campaign world… Athas prior to the loss of magic/gods. Then the players can be a part of the cataclysmic events that took place, possibly finding themselves transported through time, and when they are in modern Athas, of course, “metal” items are rare– let alone “magic” items.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..I have a Plastic Addiction

12 Paik the Kenku Monk December 8, 2011 at 7:59 am

I am reading Richard Lee Byers The Haunted Lands trilogy. In that the Spellplague has happened and many magic users and items were destroyed or driven mad as Catti-brie was in RA Salvatore’s Drizzt novel (Witch King I think). Why not do that in a campaign if you want no magic items or to at least decrease them? A a hook the group could investigate what happened and why.

13 Sentack December 8, 2011 at 11:01 am

I find it odd that nobody else has issues with it’s players with finding the idea of taking away all the magic items less fun then making magic items “special”. I guess my experience is a tad localized.

14 Gargs454 December 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm

@Sentack: I guess I should make myself more clear. I agree that eliminating magic items altogether — particularly for an entire campaign — would not be fun. Magic items are one of the great joys of the game imho. Rather, my preference would be to make them more rare than they are now, while at the same time making them more interesting. Put some story into the items. Get the players to treasure their items, etc. The problem with a lot of magic items is that players only really like them as long as they are still useful. They don’t want to keep that first magic sword they found at level 1 because they know it won’t be powerful enough later on. But, if you take that sword that they stumble across early on, and then slowly have it unlock more properties and greater bonuses as the character levels, then you have a more enjoyable system (all in my opinion of course).

15 Sentack December 13, 2011 at 9:57 am

@Gargs454 I shouldn’t have stated “All magic items” but reducing them so much that you’re giving less then the standard “4 items per 5 levels and enough gold to buy the 5th.” My players seem to think that if you take away that one item per level, then you’re taking away THE reward of the game. Trying to make an item special might work for some, but for some but it’s not as ‘interesting’ to some and seems like a cop-out from giving more items. Specially when some of the later items are much more interesting and having that moment were you ‘outgrow’ your old item and upgrade to a new item, is important to some players.

I, with my DM hat on, hate the number of items I pass out. I, with my Player hat on, love all the magic items I get, specially if I should be getting a level every 3-4 sessions, which is slow by the guidelines but still decently fast for how a lot of people I know, have played in the past.

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: