Greatest Hits 2012: When the Plus (+) No Longer Matters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 17, 2012

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2012. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

When I wrote this article it was to make a statement about character development. The idea was that having a magic item with a special power you found interesting was more important than whether or not the magic was +2 or +3. But when I reread this article I realized that it’s also a commentary on the abundance of magic in 4e D&D. When we have so much magic in the game it really belittles all of it.

In a game where only one PC has a magic sword (think King Arthur and Excalibur, for example), everyone will look at the item and the character wielding it as extraordinary. But when every member of the party has a magic sword none of them are seen as special. This is compounded even further if all the bad guys have magic swords. Yet this is exactly how games in the 4e D&D world play out. There’s magic everywhere. And with so much choice it’s no wonder that players will overlook some items for the promise of something more to their liking later. Or in the case of the examples I use in this article, the PCs won’t trade up to better items because they’re happy with the ones they’ve got.

Personally I like games that are magic rich. To me that’s D&D. I’ll admit that eventually too much magic can complicate things (as we’ve learned during 4e epic play) but I’m ok with that. On the opposite end of things I’ve played games in low magic settings (Dark Sun, for example) and I’ve realized that this is not something I enjoy. There needs to be some kind of middle ground and I believe that we’re seeing that shape up in the D&D Next play-test packets.

There seems to be a definite shift with D&D Next towards making magic items special again. The mechanics are being retooled so that adding a +1 sword to any character is going to be a big deal. Tack on some kind of additional special property like a fire, lighting, or acid and now you’re really got something unique. I have high hopes that there will be a lot more balance in the distribution of magic items when they land on final rules. If done right, any magic treasure will be coveted and players won’t find that they reach a point where they no longer care about the plus on their item because they’ll just be happy to have any item at all.

From May 29, 2012, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: When the Plus (+) No Longer Matters.

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 advance 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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