Magic Items With Charges

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 9, 2012

Magic wands used to be packed with power in previous editions of D&D. Wands were like loaded guns waiting to go off. Finding a magic wand in a treasure trove was a big deal because if it had the right magic contained within, it could drastically change a party’s balance of power. Now in 4e D&D wands are just sticks that Wizards, Bards, Artificers and Warlocks use to focus and channel their magic through.

Wands and other consumable or limited-use items used to be a big part of D&D. These items could replicate almost every power spell-casting classes brought to the table from healing to flying, from turning someone invisible to shooting fireballs. With the right items you could often make up for an individual character’s inadequacies or an unbalanced party’s shortfalls. No one was forced to play a Cleric when you could just buy everyone a Wand of Cure Light Wounds.

In 4e D&D things changed, and although there are still consumable items they certainly don’t pack the punch we saw in previous editions. By removing the abundance and variety of throw-away items, players quickly realized that there are going to be certain things unbalanced parties simply cannot do on their own.

In previous editions of D&D, I played a lot of adventures with parties of less than five PCs. With 4e it’s practically impossible to run balanced encounters for small parties or solo adventurers. The main reason is that with the overall balance 4e brought to D&D it categorized all the classes into one of four roles and made each role dependent upon the others. A party without a leader lacks healing; a party without a striker lacks damage output. We’ve come to understand that this is how 4e works and that a party has to have all the roles represented to achieve maximum efficiency.

Making a Smaller Party Work

Recently my home gaming group’s interest in 4e has dwindled considerably. Most of my fellow gamers are experiencing burnout. There are still a few of use that are keen to keep playing 4e but we don’t have enough to run a full, balanced party. In the past when we’ve run less-than-optimized parties the results were ugly. We’ve tried adding NPCs to shore up the holes but it’s not the same. What we need is a way to keep those small parties (or solo adventurers) viable in a normal 4e D&D setting. And perhaps bringing back practical, functional, heavy-hitting limited-use items is the way to do it.

In 3.5e there was a skill called Use Magic Device. By training this skill any character could (in theory) attempt to work any magic item. This allowed you to give your one-trick-pony a new and unexpected trick. We saw things like a melee Fighter with a Wand of Fireballs, a Rogue with a Wand of Cure Light Wounds, or a Barbarian with a Wand of Invisibility. By giving the players a way to use the existing mechanics to bring additional versatility to their PC they had much less difficulty playing with smaller parties. In this case all they had to do was train a skill and spend some gold. Now the party had a way to mimic powers and abilities that other classes usually brought to the table. Sure the item wasn’t as powerful or reliable as having that class represented in the party, but it as a way to make small adventuring parties work.

The Need for Balance

In a system where magic wands are plentiful and powerful there are bound to be problems. In the previous edition the only real checks and balances were the cost of these items (which wasn’t usually that much) and the need to train a skill that you might not otherwise train. The more powerful and rich a party became the more of these limited-use items they’d eventually purchase. DMs quickly realized that there wasn’t anything he could throw at the group that they couldn’t overcome with one of their wands or scrolls or potions. So although I’m leaning towards bringing back wands and other throw-away items to my home game, I’m not crazy enough to do it without some means of keeping things balanced.

Right now in 4e D&D items that can do special things are limited to once per encounter or once per day. For consumables and rituals there is often a personal cost in the form of healing surges. This is certainly a good way to ensure that limited-use items are used sparingly, but it doesn’t make them practical enough to replace a missing PC. The only solution I see is to give items charges.

I like the idea of giving magic items charges again. Like bullets in a gun, the item is only dangerous while there are charges contained within. Now we have to figure out how the charges get in there in the first place and then how a PC uses the charges to activate the item. I’d argue that for this to work the item has to be truly expendable. It’s loaded when created, used, and then thrown away. The only way to recharge it is to make a new one.

Activation

Since we don’t have a Use Magic Device skill in 4e there’s the question of activating the item. To continue the gun metaphor is it as simple as pointing the wand and pulling the trigger or does the PC need to know how to work the item? Perhaps there’s a magic word or phrase that needs to be vocalized before the item will work? Personally this is how I’ve always worked magic wands. If a command word is needed then we can tie the powers a charged item replicates to the skill most closely associated with power source of that class.

For example, a Wand of Magic Missiles replicates a Wizard’s spell so an Arcana check would be required. A Healing Word Wand replicates a Cleric’s power so a Religion check would be required. You could go one step further and say that if you’re not trained in the appropriate skill the item cannot work in your hands. This would allow Wizards to easily use wands that imitate their own powers, but make it more difficult for them to use wands that replicate powers from another class.

Mechanically I’d require a successful skill check when the item is first discovered to unlock the means of activation. Each PC can attempt the check once per day until they’ve cracked it. Each PC must make his own check. The Wizard can’t just make all the Arcana checks and tell the other PCs the activation word. However, the Wizard can assist another character with their Arcana check. Once the password is known the PC can use the wands in combat if they make another successful check as a minor action. They only have to make this check once during combat but they have to make it again every encounter. This reinforces the need for training and doesn’t make a Fighter feel cheated because he’s taken training in Arcana.

Expending Charges

Once we’ve determined how the magic is released we need to consider how frequently the item can be used. If a Wand of Fireballs has 10 charges in it, should a PC be able to use it 10 times in a single encounter? I think we’d all agree that the answer is no. Instead I think we need to look at the mechanics 4e monsters for direction. Powers that monsters use against the party often imitate PC powers. The more powerful the power the less likely the monster can use it all the time. The compromise is that the power is rechargeable. A Dragon can use his breath weapon many times in an encounter but not unless he rolls high enough on the d6 to recharge it. Off the top of my head I’d make charged limited-use magic items (such as wands) work the same way. Except the item would still have a finite nuber of charges contained within.

If the power the wand replicates is a daily power it might only recharge on a 6, encounter attack powers 5-6, utility powers that don’t do damage 4-6, and at will-powers 3-6. This gives the PC the option of using the wand in combat, but it’s unlikely that they can use it every round. The frequency of use is directly related to the power being expended. And once all the charges are gone the PCs is left holding a non-magical stick.

Attack Scores and Damage

Finally there’s the question of attack and damage numbers. In order to keep things as simple as possible I’d say that the item replicates the power in all regards exactly as written. If the power is normally Int vs Ref then so is the wand. If it normally does 1d8 + Wis damage then so does the wand. Remember that this is not the PCs primary area of expertise in most cases so the item isn’t supposed to be on par with their other attacks. It’s there to address some other deficiency.

Final Thoughts

The easiest way to shore up a character’s weaknesses or make up for an unbalanced party is by adding the right magic items. This is by no means a perfect solution but it can help. There are plenty of items in the game already that may work, but I have a fondness for bringing back items with charges. As a DM I found that these items could get my PCs out of a jam but not completely unbalance a long-term campaign. The items had limited uses and then when they were expended it was back to business as usual. I think this kind of change can work in 4e and I encourage more DMs to try it.

What do you think of adding items with charges back into 4e D&D? Do you think my proposed mechanics would work or would they be too complicated to be useful? What other tricks or tweaks have you used to make small parties or solo adventurers more viable in 4e D&D?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dave Matney November 9, 2012 at 10:00 am

I randomly roll loot, regardless of what game I’m in, and one of my favorite things to roll are wands/rods/rings/whatever with charges. Often times I’ll end up with a wand with a spell that the characters NEVER prepare, but they end up using constantly (I’ll never understand why my players don’t prepare Web/Entanglement. :p).

Removing wands with random magical powers from the game is fluff-breaking. Where would Jarlaxel be if he didn’t have various wands to give him the unforeseen edge?

2 C. Steven Ross November 9, 2012 at 10:49 am

Fourthcore Armory has a pretty sweet chapter on charged magic items.

3 C. Steven Ross November 9, 2012 at 10:50 am
4 Roland November 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Love charged items. I miss them along with cursed items as well. I’m playing 4E but I won’t miss it once it’s gone.

5 Sunyaku November 9, 2012 at 7:25 pm

I just crafted an evil relic item for my home campaign that consumes a cumulative number of healing surges per use per day (e.g. 1 for 1st use, 2 for 2nd, etc in a given adventuring day). Like charges, except people are the batteries. So it doesn’t see too much abuse, however, I added the detail that you must be trained in arcana or religion to use the item.

Oh, and did I mention when you equip it, it fuses to your arm and you have to spend a healing surge or die to get it off? :D

6 Svafa November 13, 2012 at 11:54 am

I would consider combining charges with a healing surge cost. I think it might be a simpler mechanic than the recharge rules, which I try to keep limited even with monsters. This would make something like a Healing Word wand cost two healing surges – one for the person casting it and one for the person receiving it; though the latter would be receiving the healing in exchange. It also let’s them use wands repeatedly, though at potentially great cost to themselves.

My other thought is to balance the wand’s damage around the creator and not the user. This would likely increase it’s damage, so may not be desirable, but higher level crafters could charge significantly more too. The other route, would be to remove any stat bonus from the wand’s damage so that it does a straight die roll instead. This would definitely be weaker, even if a wizard was using a wand of Magic Missiles, but might be a decent balance to keep wands from out-shining character abilities.

7 Andrew November 15, 2012 at 4:55 pm

I always thought that the Charged Items idea existed to make low-level characters, but specifically wizards, less crappy at low levels. A 2nd Edition level 1 wizard is a one trick (per day) pony. Having a wand of magic missiles (or similar) gave him the ability to contribute regularly during combat and focus his wizarding abilities on non-combat stuff. To a certain extent, I suppose that applies at higher levels as well, but to a lesser extent.

If introducing magical items like that into the game to fill out missing party roles, I suspect the best way to do it is to make a “wand of magic missiles” just allow the character with the wand the ability to use Magic Missile as an at-will. The limiting factor would be that the Wand of magic Missiles casts the spell at a lower effectiveness than the character (or his corresponding wizard friend). So, a level 1 Fighter with a wand of magic missiles can rocket off magic missiles like a wizard but they only do 4 damage (instead of the standard wizards 6 or 7).

That way, characters can use abilities from another class but their own abilities are just better. It’s a kludge. You want the group with a missing character the ability to fill in that role but you want it to be surprisingly less effective than the abilities they already have.

At least that’s my thoughts.

8 Beoric December 15, 2012 at 2:14 am

In my game, one level 1 wand of fire with 18 charges costs the same as 18 level 1 vials of alchmist’s fire and does the same thing. An easy fix using the existing mechanic, and if you don’t like how low the standard attack bonus is for a level 1 item, increase the level of the item and the attack bonus (and cost of the item) accordingly.

Since a lot of wands contain spells that either let you use an at-will wizard or warlock spell as an encounter, or an encounter spell as a daily, I have also adapted a “use magic item” ability. Mine is integrated into other houserules, but you could in a pinch let a character who doesn’t use wand implements make an arcana check of the item’s level. How hard you make the check is up to you.

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