When the Plus (+) No Longer Matters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on May 29, 2012

When an adventurer begins his career he’s always looking for magical treasure. Even in a magic-rich setting a +1 sword is a coveted item. As the character advances he will seek more items with even higher plusses. After all why stick with a +1 sword when you can have a +2 sword? But eventually the plus no longer matters. Believe it or not there comes a time when the player realizes that the plus isn’t the most important part of a magic item. Eventually an item’s power or ability is deemed more integral to the character than one more plus.

Our home campaign recently moved into the epic tier. During a recent adventure the heroes completed a major story arc and were rewarded with treasure suitable to their level as well as a level 30, +6 bow. Although two characters in the party use bows and both currently have +4 bows neither player was interested in the item. They were content to keep their level 17 and 18 weapons respectively than trade up for a level 30 magic item. These are players that are among the greediest I’ve ever played with (and I mean that as a compliment) yet they both felt that it severed their character better to keep their current +4 bows than trade up for a +6 replacement. In both cases it was because of the importance of the power their current weapons gave them.

At low level you don’t care what the weapon’s power is, if it’s magic you take it. And for a while anything that’s got more plusses is deemed better. But eventually the PCs reach a point where they have suitable resources in the form of gp and rituals that they can be more choosy. If they really want a Sunblade or Thundering Weapon they’ll either pay to upgrade a lesser version of the weapon or sell loot that’s not one of these coveted items in order to get the gp they need. So even thought there’s a shiny new Flaming weapon in the treasure horde, players would rather sell it than use it.

Identity

At first the weapon itself – sword, hammer, bow – is what defines the character. But as the PCs advances the powers that magical versions of these weapons possess will become more of their signature than the weapon type. Two Dwarven Fighters who both carry Craig Hammers may be confused for one another initially, but when one finds a Flaming Hammer and the other a Frost Hammer the magic items go a long way to helping these similar PCs gain individuality. Once that identity is forged it may be difficult to convince the player to change weapons just because it’s +1 more than the one he’s currently using.

Synergy

By paragon tier most PCs have magic items filling almost every slot on their character sheet. They should also have suitable gp to fill any empty slots. This gives paragon characters a lot of freedom and flexibility to find, acquire, steal or purchase magical items that will best serve them, regardless of their class or race. A character that is a specialist in any sense of the word will find the items that help him fulfill that niche. And once they start to get the items they want, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll give them up.

For example, I’m playing an Eladrin Warlock who has maxed out everything to do with teleportation. He’s got an Eladrin Ring of Passage (+2 to distance teleport), Planestrider Boots (allowing him to teleport around corners), and the Robe of Eyes (to ensure that he can’t be blinded thereby gimping all his cool teleporting powers). No matter what other Rings, Boots or Armor are dangled in front of me I’m not going to give up these items. These are integral parts of who this character has become as he worked through the levels. He’s the teleporting guy and all his powers and tactics revolve around this. So even if the DM dangles +6 armor in front of me, I’m not going to trade in my +4 Robe of Eyes. Sure the +2 to AC will help me considerably (I’m really soft compared to many of the allies) but the power of my current armor is not something I’m willing to pass up for any reason.

Inherent Bonuses

In campaigns where PCs use the inherent bonus system the plus really doesn’t matter as much. In fact I have a paragon level character who still uses the +1 Frost Blade he found at level 2 even though he’s now a level 15 PC. Inherent bonuses level the playing field so that it’s not necessary for me to trade up to be useful. However, inherent bonuses will only keep you even with the pack; they won’t let you surpass it. So even in a campaign with inherent bonuses PCs can still benefit from items that will provide bonuses higher than the inherent bonus. They can still be better than the next guy if they find a really cool magic item with a really high plus. So although there is less determent to not upgrading items, it’s impossible to get an advantage without more plusses.

Drawing the Line

When I realized that characters eventually reach a point where they genuinely don’t care as much about more plusses as they do about the power of their items I started to ask myself where the shift happens? At what level or point in a PC’s development does this shift occur? Can you pinpoint it to a specific level?

Although I don’t think there’s a definitive line, there are certainly some prerequisites that have to be in place before greed is pushed aside for practicality. I see this happening during the mid-paragon tier. The requirements as I see them include magic items in almost every slot with the weapon, implement, armor and neck items being at or near the PCs current level. The PC needs to have sufficient powers to carry him through multiple encounters, so he needs numerous daily and encounter powers. And finally the PC needs to have enough hit points that taking an extra hit or two because their armor wasn’t +1 higher won’t really change the course of a battle. Add everything up and you’re talking about levels 15-20.

Campaign Development

DMs that find their adventuring party has reached the point where they no longer seem interested in more plusses need to challenge the players by presenting them with interesting choices and opportunities. In the example above the PCs passed on the +6 bow, but what if the new bow was the only way to defeat the evil villain that they’re likely to face at the end of the current story arc. Which archer will use the new (better) weapon and lose the power bestowed through his previous one? How will that PC need to change his tactics? How integral is the old bow to his identity?

When the plus no longer matters it’s up to the DM to come up with a good hook to get the players interesting in those plusses again, even if it’s just for one epic battle.

Have you had a character whose identity was so closely tied to his items that the pluses didn’t matter? At what level do you think that players give up on the pluses?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe May 29, 2012 at 10:10 am

Oftentimes, as a DM, I try to tie treasure to the plot of the story. So in my home campaign, our swordmage is currently wielding a family sword given to her by a little girl she rescued. The girl said it was her grandma’s sword (“Grandma was a hero… she’d want you to have this.”). While it’s currently only a +1 defending longsword, I don’t think the swordmage will ever part with it. To solve this, I’ve been planning on using the idea of upgrading a weapon as part of a treasure… maybe a magic pool that’ll enhance the enchantment of a weapon or a grateful fey lord’s blessing or something similar. That way she can keep the kid’s grandma’s sword without sacrificing numerical superiority. I played in a game where a rare ore was found (orium), and we found a master smith who could use it to enhance an item to the next plus-level if we left it with him for a week to pound the new ore into it.

Another way I’ve seen players hang on to older items is through the Enchant Item ritual, which Adventurer’s Vault tells us can be used to increase the enchantment on an item, only costing the difference between the two items’ levels.

And finally, I’ve been in parties where folks have hung onto weapons they don’t normally use, just for the property. Our lvl 15 dwarf warlord was normally find with his level-appropriate sword & shield… but when we hit an enemy with a nasty aura, he’d reach into his bag of holding & pull out his old +1 aura-killing spear so that we could shut off the aura for a while.

2 Alton May 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm

It is one of the things I found frustrating with 4th. Sometimes you had to take that +6 weapon, if not you would not hit. I personally do not care for the plusses, but more for the power the weapon gives me. For example, I have a +4 footpad’s friend dagger. I would not give it up for the world. Why? It is because of the plusses it gives me to damage, plus it just sounds really cool.

I find this same article can carry over to feats. There is a feat that can give a rogue the ability to use heavy blades as light blades. To me that equals more damage. It’s not me though. My character uses daggers exclusively for melee and slings for ranged attacks. It gives me my identity.

My two cents. Plus, pitons ROCK!

3 Ryan May 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm

With 4e at lower levels a +1 can make a major difference. At higher levels a well designed a +1 loses its benefit.

My reasoning is that with a well designed party a Leader can easily cover the bonus you need with an ability. This allows the player to instead have an item with an additional benefit that a Leader cannot provide or only provide in a limited quanity (such as healing).

As the DM of my group I search far and wide and discuss with my players about what gear would work best for not only them but the group on a whole.

I do love 4e for many reasons but as for gear it feels more like an MMoRPG to me.

4 Gareth May 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm

I wouldn’t agree with the thought that:

“When the plus no longer matters it’s up to the DM to come up with a good hook to get the players interesting in those plusses again”

If a player sees more value out of a property or power than a plus then thats fine. Its their choice tactically.
If a player knows its to his disadvantage to pass up on the larger plus but does so because his old equipment fits his character or story then that is fantastic. More power to him for sticking to his guns (*or swords*)

I agree that 4e has its scaling issues (and I prefer to play with inherent bonuses) but we need to remember that the group having fun is the important part, not ‘keeping everyone scaled properly’. If they know the risks but enjoy the game more their way, then great.

Note: what I’d like to see is an option in the character builder that allows inherent bonuses but also allows for the magic item plus on top.
That way magic items can be very rare, most not even having them, but if you do gain a +1 sword it really means you have an advantage, and it would be an advantage that would still be there whether level 5 or 25.

5 Sunyaku May 31, 2012 at 6:56 pm

Oh noez, the level 30 item severed my bow arm! :D

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