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The Next D&D Homebrew: Ending Magic Item Dependency

skill challengeOne of things I really came to hate in D&D 4E was the whole idea of magic item “wishlists”.  While I don’t mind dropping a magic item into a game now and then that I know a player has been longing to see in the hands of their character, I disliked the idea that the magic items treasures I was handing out were not so much rewards as what amounts to a kid’s Christmas toy list.

Hey, in real life I may have a beard and a belly… but I’m a Dungeon Master, not Santa Claus!

But I think the scarier part of the magic item wishlist concept in 4E is not that players want to do them, but that the game actually requires it!  Discovering that magic items, and more specifically their bonuses, are literally hardwired into the very foundation of the combat system was a fairly disturbing concept, because of the demands the game puts on the Dungeon Master.  Literally, in D&D 4E, failing to “reward” characters with upgrades will literally doom the heroes to defeat after defeat at the claws and teeth of the monsters in encounter after encounter!

So in order to prevent certain defeat, a Dungeon Master needs to hand out three magic items per character every five levels: a set of magic armor, a magic neck slot item, and either a magic weapon or implement, depending upon the class.  That means if you are using DMG Treasure Parcels with a five character party, it requires that 15 of the 20 magic items are armor, neck slots, weapons or implements.  That leaves only 5 optional items every five levels which can be wondrous items, magical ammunition, or head, wrist, waist, boots, finger, or tattoos!

Clearly, this is an unacceptable ratio of the magic items handed out, and reduces much of the fun and pleasure of discovering strange and unique magic items in an adventure.  Players literally come to expect that 75% of every magic item they find will be already geared toward a particular character in the campaign, and magic items become humdrum instead of reasons to celebrate.

So the real question is: How can we fix a combat system dependent on magic item upgrades, without having to overhaul the entire system?

Magic Item Dependency

Just to find out how bad the dependency on magic items is, I sat down with character builder and some spreadsheets and started doing the math of monster defenses versus player attacks, and monster attacks versus player defenses.  I won’t bore you with the full details of what I found, but here are a few facts I gleaned from the research:

  • By Level 10, a weapon-using character, without magic enhancement bonuses, will only be able to hit a monster’s AC about 45% of the time, 35% if it is a Soldier type monster.  By Level 20, it drops to 25%, and 15% versus a Soldier.  Implement wielding characters are 10% worse off at these levels, because unlike mundane weapons, mundane implements have no proficiency bonuses!
  • Conversely, by Level 10, monsters will hit characters in non-magical heavy armor 55% of the time, will hit non-magical light armor 60% of the time, and non-magical cloth 70% of the time.  By Level 20, the chances to hit heavy, light, and cloth increase to 70%, 70%, and 80% respectively.
  • By Level 10, characters without magical enhancement bonuses from neck slot items to increase Non-Armor Class Defenses will be struck by monsters around 90% of the time, and the chances of being hit will increase to 110% by Level 20.

Premise: These numbers are based upon an 18 in the characters primary ability scores, and take into account ability score increases over the levels from 4 to 20.  It takes into account the basic one-half level bonus increase for characters, and uses the updated monster attack and defense formulae from the July 2010 Errata Update.  The premise also assumes at least a +1 ability score modifier from each pair of scores which generate NADs.  This does not take into account NADs bonuses from classes, nor attack and defense bonuses from feats.

Clearly, this shows that the basics of 4E combat is completely dependent on magic item bonuses to the characters’ attacks and defenses in order to balance out the constant increases to monster attacks and defenses.  Certainly, character bonuses from powers, as well as debuffs cast upon the monsters, can improve the chances of survival, but in almost all cases where the characters are caught without their magic items, they will find themselves impossibly outmatched by equal-leveled monsters.  And the numbers just get worse with monsters which are higher level than the characters!

Gone are the days from the old editions, when a DM can capture a high level party and drop them naked into a dungeon, and expect them to use their powers and prowess to escape!  Their captors would have to be substantially lower level than the heroes for there to even be a small chance of escape, let alone the recovery of their equipment.

The Homebrew Solution

Ironically, the easiest solution to fixing the math issues in 4E combat so that armor, neck slot, and weapon/implement magic items are optional again, rather than mandatory, comes from Wizards of the Coast itself.

In the Dark Sun Campaign Guide, the authors created the concept of Inherent Bonuses, which would be used to help keep characters attacks and defenses up to par against the monsters of Athas.  Under those rules, a character would them use either the Inherent Bonus to their attack, damage, or defenses, or would use the enhancement bonuses provided by their various magic items, whichever bonuses were greater.  This would offset the setting’s relatively “magic poor” nature, since heroes were only getting about half the number of magic items they would in a standard D&D setting.

While I cannot reproduce the chart here, for obvious reasons, those 4E gamers which are still using DDI’s Character Builder can take advantage of the Inherent Bonus rules by simply checking the appropriate box in the Manage Character section.  This will update the character sheet with the bonuses as appropriate for character level, and equipped magic items.

For those players doing their character sheets by hand – or in the event that WotC shuts 4E players out of Character Builder when D&D Next comes along – I created a quicker and simpler rule instead of using the Inherent Bonus table:  The Hero Bonus.

The Hero Bonus acts just like the Inherent Bonus, in that it supersedes any enhancement bonus from a magic item if it is the higher of the two.  The Hero Bonus houserule can be used in place of the Inherent Bonus rule by players without access to DDI Character Builder or the Dark Sun Campaign Setting book.   The Heroic Bonus does not stack with magic item Enhancement bonuses, and players should adjust their character sheet to reflect which bonus is higher at any given level.

Starting at Level 3, all characters get The Hero Bonus as a +1 bonus to Armor Class, Non-AC Defenses, Attack bonuses, and Damage bonuses.  The Hero Bonus increases by +1 every 5 Levels the character gains (ie. Levels 8, 13, 18, 23, and 28), topping out at +6 at Level 28.  Incidentally, these particular levels were chosen based upon the levels of enhancement bonus increase for a basic magic item with no particular special abilities, and kicks in at the midpoint between the increases.  For example, a +3 Magic Weapon is a Level 11 item, while a +4 Magic Weapon is Level 16, so The Hero Bonus +3 comes at Level 13 (11+16 = 27/2 = 13.5, round down to 13).

And for the purposes of critical hits, I’m using a houserule which allows the Inherent Bonus (or The Hero Bonus) to increase the number of critical hit dice if the character is wielding a lower level implement or weapon.  In other words, if a character has an attack/damage Inherent Bonus of +2, but is only wielding a +1 weapon/implement, they still get to roll two dice when they crit.  That way, the character is not penalized for additional critical hit damage simply because they have not gotten an upgrade in a few levels.

Now admittedly, using either the Inherent Bonus or The Hero Bonus rules in a 4E game is not as effective as getting a magic item upgrade every five levels.  In fact, there are a couple levels every now and then when the heroes will be off by a +1 bonus.  They will therefore be 5% less likely to hit when they attack a monster, and monsters will be 5% more likely to hit them in an encounter.  But this can be offset by a number of ways, mostly through use of certain feats such as Improved Defenses and Teamwork Defense, which will become more desirable for maintaining a defensive edge, just as the use of various weapon and fighting style expertise feats will help characters when attacking.

Power choice will also play a greater role under these bonus rules, as powers which grant additional AC and NADs, or which lower monsters defenses and ability to hit will become more important than raw damage output.  Ability score placement will also be more important, and players will have to bolster certain ability scores with increases in order to increase a low defense score, rather than just boosting the score that grants secondary damage effects for the powers.

There are some great benefits to using either Inherent Bonus or The Hero Bonus in almost any campaign setting:

  • Characters can be offered a wider range of magic items as rewards, instead of being forced to seek required upgrades to armor, neck slots, weapons, and implements.
  • Characters can retain a lower level magic item because of the powers it possesses, and do not have to forego them for an upgrade, simply to gain an enhancement bonus.
  • Feats and power choices will become more important than for just dealing raw damage, and character planning becomes more about those choices than expecting a magic item to fix everything.
  • Dungeon Masters and Players no longer have to deal with lengthy “wishlists”, and magic items become a true reward once again.

And one additional benefit is that using these bonuses does allow DMs to run unusual encounters at higher levels where the heroes do not have the benefits of their magic items.  Perhaps there are some strange places in the Astral Planes or Elemental Chaos where magic does not work, or because the heroes have been captured and their items taken from them.  Regardless of the reason for the loss of magic items, the characters will only be minorly inconvenienced in these circumstances, instead of nearly crippled and helpless against foes of their level.

Conclusion

I’m currently using the Inherent Bonus houserule in my campaigns, and have been enjoying the freedom to no longer be tied to wishlists and to have to worry if characters have gotten an armor, neck slot, weapon, or implement.  I am handing out far more magic items for other slots, and the players are really enjoying seeing more wondrous items and magical ammunition appearing in the campaign.

And I should note that since starting to use the Inherent Bonus rule in my Forgotten Realms campaign, one of my players has already fallen back to using his old low level Sunsword instead of his higher level Vampiric blade.  He had always loved the special effects of wielding a Sunsword, and felt that it was far more appropriate for his character to use than the “questionable” effects of his other weapon in combat.  In fact, other player-characters have been looking at the old neck slot items and armor packed away in storage, and deciding whether or not to use them for their encounter and daily powers, since they no longer have to put the enhancement bonus as the primary concern.

Please feel free to comment or give feedback to these houserules, as I would welcome to hear if anyone else uses this or a similar method in their own 4E games.  And if anyone wants additional information about the research I did and the big bad math used in this blog, please let me know, and I’ll shoot you over a copy of the spreadsheets – the statistics were kind of interesting when I was coming up with the houserules, but were far too long and far too dull to reproduce in their entirety for the purposes of this article!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Art courtesy of Wizards of the Coast Player’s Strategy Guide, 2010


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

Comments

7 Responses to “The Next D&D Homebrew: Ending Magic Item Dependency

  1. Michael says:

    I remember back in the era of 3.x, when Wizards released their d20 Modern ruleset, that the classes (Fast Hero, Strong Hero, etc) all gave varying levels of defense bonuses. In addition, you simply just got a bonus on damage roles equal to half your level (If I remember correctly). I really liked how there was no BS mechanic for making weapons better or deal extra weird types of damage in a gritty, modern setting and instead the party focused on getting *different* items or a *variety* of weapons and armor.

    I’m not a huge huge fan of 4e but I think this houserule goes a decent way towards fixing some of the linear-numbers bloat that it represents. Good work.

  2. Jess says:

    I think this is a great idea, and is similar to something I’ve done in my campaigns, though I structured it a bit differently. I completely agree that being tied to magic items holds up the game, and prevents the flexibility in magic items that D&D should have. I’ve implemented a house rule that allows the ability to upgrade magic items to the next “level”, letting the items scale along with the characters should they desire to retain their weapons for aesthetic or thematic reasons. In addition, this gives the game the flexibility to be low magic, with limited access to magic items, or at least at shift in focus from magic items to other things, like rituals and alchemical items.

  3. Dave Wainio says:

    I haven’t crunched the math yet, but it occurs to me that the other way to approach the problem is sinply modify the monsters. The characters don’t have to change anything that way. Sure, without a bonus listed to use instead of a magic item, the highest bonus item might look like the best choice.

    But a reverse chart of a reduction to defences and to hits by monster level could be easily produced. I’m just thinkingthat there is enough to track and calculate on a character sheet anyway so why not hide the system change behind the DM screen so to speak.

  4. toomanykades says:

    Maybe I haven’t read the DMG properly and lets face it I certainly haven’t read it cover to cover or maybe I just don’t know how to play dnd4E properly but I have never dished out magic items like this when I DM.

    I didn’t even know you needed to.

    As I read more about older editions I realize my group, with me as DM, is playing some amalgam of all the editions without us even realizing. We just do what makes sense for the story and use the 4E rule books when we need to consult something.

    I reckon it’s up to the DM to make sure the party live or die. If I’m balanced and fair they will get a challenge and if they make bad decisions they will suffer. My group knows they can die and its up to me to keep them alive through monster tactics. Heck some weeks we only have 3 folk at most playing. A leader, and two strikers but I can balance the encounters/skill challenges to be difficult or easy depending on the story.

    I’d feel a bit removed from the game if all I did was quote from the book when it came to rules. I think a DM needs to be more interactive with their decisions.

    Being a DM is about building social skills to balance all the wants and desires, fears and phobias of your group and having them enjoy sitting round a table each week for a few hours. If you get them talking about the story points in between weeks, or when you’re out of the room, then you’ve succeeded.

  5. Dave says:

    It’s ironic how many blog posts I’ve seen about this problem in 4e, when 3e also makes assumptions about the magic items a character of a specific level will have. It even says so explicitly in the 3e DMG. The only difference is that in 4e it’s easier to figure out what those assumptions are numerically. As a result, we now have nice solutions (like yours) to this problem, but only for 4th edition. =)

  6. Alphastream says:

    Inherent Bonuses first appear in the DMG2 (p.138, A Reward-Based Game), should some readers have that book but not (shame) own the DSCS. In my own games I find that the balance I want is really simply achieved by:
    - Inherent Bonuses
    - Magic items are extremely rare (once per 5 levels or so) and primarily utilities that are interesting or shore up a PCs’ areas rather than providing stacking or character-build options.
    - Use Dark Sun defenses (about 2 lower than normal)
    - Use Dark Sun level damage for monsters (a bit above MM3 levels, adjust to taste)
    - Keep encounters at no more than party level +2 unless your group is particularly strong.

    We use a fairly similar system with the Ashes of Athas organized play campaign. We use inherent bonuses, reward very little magic and have no wish lists, we limit campaign material (including Dragon), and as a result the combats are very challenging at party level +2. We have basically found we can’t ever use level+3 and we routinely TPK our first playtest tables (though we are getting better at toning things down). It’s the reverse of my experience authoring for other mid-heroic organized play. The best part is this is all pretty core. There are no crazy rules to remember, just lowering monster defenses and increasing monster damage.

  7. @Dave W – I had considered the monster modification solution, but as a DM, I already have enough on plate preparing adventures and organizing games without having to fix each and every monster I want to use – although admittedly, I do make alot of my own monsters and reskinned versions anyways. But I figured the Inherent Bonus solution (or The Hero Bonus, if you use the quick method I proposed) was an easy one for the characters to handle on their end, and meant that if I did use a stock monster from MM3 or later books, I would not have to tweak all it’s attacks and defenses.

    @Alphastream – I never noticed that the Inherent Bonuses were in DMG2 – thanks for pointing that out! I was thinking they were mainly used in DSCS but it’s good to know that they made them part of the mainstream ruleset.

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