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The Balance Restored: New Rules for Magic Item Rarity

But I want it NOW!” ~ Veruca Salt (Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, 1971)
This week, WotC’s Mike Mearls posted a new “Countdown to Essentials” article regarding some rather major changes to magic items.  Entitled Magic Item Rarity, it discusses how magic items will be sorted as Common, Uncommon, and Rare, and redefines how the Enchant Item Ritual works in the game.  There had been some hints about these changes during the D&D Product Seminar at GenCon 2010, although this recent article gives considerably more information than mere hints.

It is also not surprising that these changes to magic item distribution come clinging to the coat-tails of D&D Essentials.  One of the most challenging concepts for new Dungeon Masters is what an appropriate magical reward looks like, and having not structure in place to guide D&D 4E newcomers into avoiding becoming “Monty Halls” seems like a very good idea to me.  I know from personal experience that in my early Dungeon Mastering days I swung back and forth between “too much” and “too little” in my treasure distribution, and it took time and experience to find that “just right” balancing point.

And reactions from D&D gamers seem positive about these changes, if the web forums and blogs can be any indication.  Mike Shea posted an excellent commentary on the blogsite, weighing the pros and cons of the new Rarity System.  Upcoming 4e Item Rarities and the Great 4e Rebalancing had some great points to make, and was very favorable to the new system, as were the comments that followed.   Of course, various D&D 4E forums sprouted Magic Item Rarity threads to debate the new rules.  EN World Forums ended up with a pretty good sized thread entitled Essentials: Magic Item Rarity Explained, it’s actually good! and for the most part, responders seemed to agree with the original poster.  Few saw the new rules as a bad thing, and like the comments on Mike Shea’s blog, seemed fairly positive.

Frankly, I think these rule came in the nick of time for Dungeon Masters, as there were some real issues with the “free-for-all” system of Magic Item creation and the “wish-list” concept that was put forth in the 4E Dungeon Masters Guide.  In fact, the placing of Magic Items in the 4E Players Handbook, coupled with “wish-lists” and an unregulated Enchant Item Ritual seemed to suggest that the control of Magic Items was actually in the hands of the Players – not the Dungeon Masters – which could not be farther from the original core traditions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Back in the day…

Traditionally, in AD&D, magic items were entirely controlled by the Dungeon Master, and Players did NOT make their own items – period!  It was not the cost of magic items that was the limiting factor, but the spells involved with their creation.  For you see, every magic item required a Permanency Spell to be used to complete its creation.  The spell was 8th Level, and could only be accessed by a 16th Level Wizard, which inherently limited the population of artificers in the land automatically.  After all, in a game where Level 20 was pretty much topped out, how many Level 16 and higher Wizards are expected to be meandering around the countryside?   Add to that the nasty side-effect that the Permanency Spell had a very good chance of causing the caster to permanently lose 1 point of Constitution score, and you have a population of Mages who went a bit pale and skittish at the prospect of churning out a few +3 Long Swords.

In fact, after much pondering, I had worked out that it was likely only monsters made magic items, because old AD&D monsters had no Constitution Stat to destroy by some magical side-effect.  It sort of even made sense that powerful entities like Liches, Demons, Devils, Djinns, and Effrits were behind most of the magic items created throughout time, making them as rewards for their followers or coerced to create them by powerful Characters.  And certainly Deities might also create items for their followers, although the magic items from them would most likely be Prayer Beads and Holy Avengers, but it still meant that magic items were being made by entities which did not depend upon some spell to finish off an item.
There were a few Dragon articles regarding making magic items, but the methods were usually a bit extreme.  I recall one of my AD&D Characters, a Wizard in fact, making a pretty nifty dagger using a method recommended in an article – he just had to lose about half a million experience points to make his new weapon!  But at least the experience points were replaceable over time, and the dagger was really pretty neat and a defining point for that Character.

So Magic Items also appeared in a D&D Campaign as “random” treasure, mostly as loot found after a monster had been slain and its lair sacked.  Now many Dungeon Masters, myself included, rolled some random treasures, and selected other items specifically, so it was never really completely random.  In the adventure, you wanted to reward Players, and so conscientious Dungeon Masters would place some specific items which were meant for a particular Player-Character.  But that was not bowing to a wish list – it was a real reward for being a hero!   Magic Items were still rare and wondrous, and even though there were a few cursed ones out there, finding a magic item was very exciting for the Players.

And if the adventurers found something non-useful, Magic Items could also be sold and traded for other items in most major cities.  I recall adding a “magic shoppe” to at least one major medieval metropolis, and it would contain a selection of random magic items for which Characters could barter.  Usually these establishments were run by Arch-Mages who kept their wares in magically sealed glassteel cases, watched over by trained beholders to prevent shoplifting, so Heroes had to play nice if they wanted to get rid of their unwanted items for shiny new ones.

The death of tradition…

But eventually, D&D Designers started loosening the restrictions on creating magic items, and in 3rd Edition, the ban on Player made items was pretty much removed.  With the expenditure of time, a little cash, the casting of the right spells, and a few hundred experience points, any Player-Character could make a magic item.  The 3.5 Ed book, the Magic Item Compendium, was like a dagger in the back of every Dungeon Master who wanted to keep magical items rare and wondrous things.  Formulas were given for the making of every item in that book, and most magic items could be made with a few simple spells.  In fact, most magic items could be manufactured by fairly low level casters, so gone were the days where you would need an Archmage to make your +2 magic platemail or new flametongue longsword.

Soon I found that Players in my own D&D 3.5 campaign used the Magic Item Compendium like a Sears Wishlist Catalog, commissioning every Wizard or Sorcerer in town to make them custom magic items on a whim.  The few magic items I dropped as loot in an adventure seemed ludicrous compared to what the Player-Characters wanted to have made, and clearly the system was out of my control, and in the hands of the Players.

Disturbingly, D&D 4E just perpetuated the 3.5 mindset about Player control of magic item creation and distribution.  The only limiting factor in 4E was in the finances – treasure parcels kept money flowing into the adventurers’ hands at a slow and controlled pace, and magic items could be sold or “dusted” into residuum at a 20% return. So while the Enchant Item Ritual could be used by nearly anyone, it still cost piles of gold (or residuum) to make items, but there was still no limit on which items could be created.

And the Enchant Item Ritual was one of the major arguments I had with some of my 4E Players, particularly, in how they would know what magic items were available.   Like I would ask: “How do you know how to make a Supremely Vicious Weapon, if you had never seen one, or found a recipe for one?”  Players, of course, refused to consider this question, and fought tooth and claw for the right to make whatever items they wanted from the Adventurer’s Vaults and other sourcebooks.  And some demanded that I play Rules As Written and offer them the right to have a wish-list so they did not get any worthless items, because random items were “unfair”.

So faced with a trend toward min-maxing and munchkin optimization, I did what I felt was the proper and responsible thing for a Dungeon Master to do – I said “NO”.

My House Rules

My current House Rules regarding magic items – and I laugh here because they are only “house rules” in the face of the RAW – is to use the traditional method for distribution of magic items:  I roll them up randomly.  In fact, has a fantastic random generator for magic items called Quartermaster that can create a level’s worth of treasure parcel in only a few clicks.

Admittedly, I not entirely randomly, as I do select a few items to place specifically to make sure Characters are rewarded properly and provided the basic gear for adventuring.  About half the items I give out each level are neck slots, armor, implements and  weapons, but I always let the whimsy of random chance throw in a few odd items.  And many of these odd items are kept and used fairly regularly, even though they are not “Best In Slot” or would have appeared on any Player’s wishlist.  Items like Green Thumb Gloves, a Phantom Soldier, and Caustic Gauntlets have all been found, frowned over, and then cheerfully used in encounter after encounter, and chances are very good that none of those items would have been requested by the Players if they had their way.  And I do not allow the Enchant Item Ritual to be used, despite continuous protestations from my Players, although the Transfer Enchantment Ritual is completely allowable and, in fact, lauded by me.  I love the Transfer Enchantment Ritual, as it saves me any concerns about handing out a magic item in the wrong “form” to be usable by the adventurers.

I also still use “magic shoppes”, although they are more like curio shops and pawn brokers, wherein Characters can go and find a selection of three to five random items for sale or trade.  And I am not above dropping a magic item in one of these shops that makes the Characters drool and start pooling their cash in order to make the purchase, because there is no such thing as lay-away!

To make up for my refusal to allow the Enchant Item Ritual, I have dispensed with the ridiculous notion that all magic items are worth a measly 20% of their value.  It simply does not make any sense.  Instead, I allow Characters to trade their magic items to curio shop for 80% of their value against the purchase of an item of equal or lesser value.  If 80% of the value of one item covers the value of a lower level item, it is a done deal, with the merchant making out like a bandit.  If traded against an equal level item, the Character must cover the remaining value in gold and gems.  This is still a profit for the merchant, as he gets to trade one item of equal level for another, and still get 20% of its value in cash to boot.  I only allow one magic item to be traded for another, and the system has worked fairly well so long as Characters are not allowed to trade multiple low level items for a high level one.  No merchant would allow that anyways, as they would find it difficult to profit from having to sell more low ticket items.

And even when these new rules go into effect, I will probably still use my “barter” system, although I will have to modify it slightly due to the new magic item resale rates – Uncommon items now sell for 50% and Rares for 100% of their value!  I am very pleased though that this new Rarity system is coming into place, as it finally Restores the Balance, and puts ALL treasure distribution back in the capable hands of the Dungeon Masters. And I know I am not alone in my feelings on this topic, as I am sure many other DMs are breathing a sigh of relief to be in control again of the “loot.

Is it any wonder that the Design Team was given a round of applause at the GenCon D&D Preview Seminar when they merely hinted that this change was “coming soon”?

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Acknowledgements: Images from Player’s Strategy Guide by Wizards of the Coast

About The Author

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.


7 Responses to “The Balance Restored: New Rules for Magic Item Rarity

  1. TPK says:

    I actually like the Wishlist concept as a DM, because it gives me hints as to what players want. Equipment has always been an important part of D&D characters and thus taking it more or less completely away from a player just doesn’t make any sense to me. It also is quite difficult for me as a DM on my own, to pick proper magic items, that my players actually benefit from.
    Sure, you can’t do anything wrong with that +2 Magic Weapon, but if I accidently hand out a nice totem that enhances some shaman powers when my group’s only totem-user is a druid … well d’oh. And there might be more subtle nuances where this approach might go wrong.

    I typically as a DM do it somewhat like this: I pick about half the items I give out every level from the various wishlists; the rests are my own choices. So the players can never rely on their wishlist. There is still a chance someone would get something she really likes, but there is an equal chance it is one of my own choices.

    In my group no one can enchant magic items, sop I don’t have that problem. I do have another one though: Quite often the players find nice stuff and can’t use it, because this elf’s body is quite different from for example a halfling who wore that piece of armor last. And if you hand out rewards that are usable only much later … well you pretty much lose the reward-characteristic of the loot. Reward needs to be connected to an action and thus should occur as soon as possible. Well, well, I’m a DM, I can improvise.
    .-= TPK´s last blog ..Freakshow Gruppen =-.

  2. The Last Rogue says:

    Awesome stuff. A really good look back and discussion of the topic at hand.

  3. @TPK – Wishlists have an inherent problem, which is that there are some Players who will want to min-max not only their powers but their magic items as well. There is really only 3 or 4 items that a Character “needs” – enchanted armor to increase AC, a neck slot item to increase NADs, a magic weapon, and a magic implement. All other items are really a bonus – a reward to Characters that might be fun to have around in various encounters.

    The Wishlist has a flaw in that some Players will select the best and most optimized “need” items and become over-powered. Mike Shea’s article brings that fact up when he followed a Wishlist and let Armor with 15 Shadow Resistance fall into Players hands, which made them all but immune to that damage. No, I don’t think I will ever agree to a formal Wishlist, but I do keep my ears open at the table, and might consider throwing in an item now and again which Characters talk about wanting. That seems more like an exciting “find” rather than something the Players have demanded I give them.

  4. TPK says:

    Well, the claim to optimize is legitimate, I don’t have a problem with that as a player, and I don’t have a problem with it as a DM. I agree about really “needing” an item. There is not much you really “need”, but there are things that are helpful and there are things that are … well … not really that helpful. If you get handed a neat frost weapon, but don|t have anz powers and feats to benefit from it, nor do you get into situations, where this weapon is actually useful, then where is the reward factor of this item?

    A reward is meant to help the players after all. If you mix wishlist and non-wishlist items, you can be pretty sure, that every now and then a player gets something that she feels like is a true reward. Of course, if you hand out items, that actually are helpful, because you design situations around them, that’s also quite helpful, but for me that is hardly ever an option, because I work and need to prepare adventures, so I am often stuck with using predefined adventures. Which means, since I have little chance that an item I pick will matter especially over the course of several sessions and maybe adventures.

    In one of my groups my shaman has a neat Armor of Dark Deeds. But what’s the point? I hardly get into situations, where I benefit from Combat Advantage, and if I can hardly use the special benefit of the armor, I don’t feel like it matters at all. And that’s really bad. A treasure that doesn’t really matter to me is hardly a good reward.
    It would be even worse, if I now started to design / retrain my character around this piece of equipment so it would be easier to benefit from it. Because in a few levels I might as well be stuck with the choice of staying inside an “underpowered” suit of armor, or taking something new, after I have invested quite some options into making a reward work for me.

    My players, when I DM, mostly don’t get what they want. But about every 3 Levels they will run into one item from their wishlist without having an idea what that will be. I don’t think that is wrong. I think totally ignoring a wishlist and risking a player always being unhappy with their rewards is a much bigger problem.

  5. @TPK – Well the first thing I would wonder is how you, as a Shaman, ended up with Armor of Dark Deeds, when an item like that is clearly more efficacious in the hands of a Rogue? Did you not have a Rogue or Assassin in your party who would have benefited more from that armor?

    I understand your feelings about wishlists, but really, the only reason your Players feel dissatisfaction about their treasure is because THEY HAVE A WISHLIST. If Players did not know all the treasure that’s out there, if WotC had allowed DMs to play treasure rewards closer-to-the-vest, and if magic items had not been printed in the Player’s Handbook but in the DMG like in the “old days”, then perhaps Players would view EVERY magic item as a reward, instead of feeling vaguely unsatisfied because it was not the “perfect” item from their wishlist.

    The first 20+ years of D&D consisted of random loot drops, and it was never an issue before now. Players tried to find a use for every magic item they found, even the not so exciting ones, because they viewed all those items for what they were – special rewards. Oh sure, some Players wanted a Vorpal Sword or a Holy Avenger, or a Helm of Brilliance, but rather than whine about the DM being unfair and ignoring their “wishlist”, they did something else – they asked the DM, ever so nicely, if perhaps a special quest/adventure could not be added to the campaign to let them track one of these “holy grail” items down. And I can tell you, that having DM’d since the beginning of AD&D, I have written dozens of those kinds of adventures, and they are really pretty darned meaningful to the Player when they finally happen. Heck, one time when one of my Players completed this brutal undead adventure I created in order to obtain his Holy Avenger for his Character, “Jonathan the Holy”, he went out to the local Seven-Eleven and bought a case of beer and we all spent the post-game celebrating and toasting his good fortune “back at the tavern”.

    And whereas you view Characters making adjustments in their feats and powers to optimize an “odd” treasure like your Dark Deeds Armor as a bad thing, I think it makes Characters more dynamic. And besides, no change made to a Character is written in stone – if you change 4 things (feats, powers, skills) to make the armor work for you, it only takes 4 levels to change back if you upgrade the armor. I just don’t see that as a big hardship, but demonstrates the influence of the armor over a Character, leading him truly down a path of Dark Deeds. Sounds like great role-playing to me.

    Naw, I am still unconvinced that wishlist are anything but trouble, and am glad WotC are phasing them out. Characters can enchant all the common items they want to make sure their to hit, damage, and defensive bonuses never fall behind the curve as they level up, but the real good magic item rewards – uncommons and rares – are firmly back in the hands of DMs, where they belong. Call me “old school”, but I like it that way.

  6. TPK says:

    To answer the bit about the shaman: Yes indeed, this group does not have a rogue or any other character benefitting a lot from CA. And those that do (our melee fighters mostly), don’t typically use leather armor. And even if we did, let’s assume the rogue was already properly equipped with an armor fitting for her, and my shaman was having a hard time keeping up (she still is, but that seems to be more of a systematical issue than one of equipment). So I took the armor.

    Actually, I really disagree on that (random treasure distribution and lack of wishlists). When I played AD&D 2nd and D&D 3.5 we didn’t have wishlists. And in the starting days we had a lot of random drops. And that was horrible. It could happen that quite some of those drops were magic wand after wand (yes, I exaggerate a bit on purpose), helping the rogue maybe, the wizard for sure, but your (okay, not yours. Mine.) fighter was stuck with the same (t)rusty old longsword she started with.

    For me as a DM this made things harder because a well equipped character was a lot harder to challenge than the “underequipped” fighter. On the other hand, if I did design something for the well-equipped character, the “underequipped” character might end up just watching. Been there, done that. And I found it to be very “sub-ideal”.

    Apart from that “technical issue”, there is also the issue of distributing rewards evenly for all players. You can choose not to do that, and I am sure there are players for which that approach works. But you might also end up with players who feel being treated unfair and that might in the long run spil the fun for all. I guess I am somewhat of a sucker for proper balance, so that everyone gets the chance of an equal impact on gameplay and many old-school approaches IMHO hurt this idea. (Treasure distribution being only a small part of the pain.)

    The bottom line is: If you hand out awards and don’t care who can use those awards better than other, wishlists or not, players will sooner or later notice, that something is going wrong here. Having a wishlist or knowing about magic items or not knowing about magic items will not change a thing about that. If you’re a really good DM I am sure you can handle that. I am maybe good, but I am not that good, so I view wishlists as a chance to delegate a part of the treasure allocation process into player hands. There is still enough open space left for me to go wild. Besides: The wishlists never were a hard rule for me. It’s just … convenient.

    So there was (again IMHO) an issue with treasure distribution without wishlists. And it was a really big one.

    Of course, creating quests for special items is always an option and I would do that, too. For set items. for artifacts and for stuff players really want. But it can get in the way of a planned campaign and it can be a danger: If such an item is earned through a quest you should make sure that:
    a) The character’s goal is not done with after having that item
    b) the item will play an important role in the future too. Nothing is more frustrating than sacrificing a lot to go on a special quest for a special item only to not have it matter anymore on the future.
    c) The DM should better take good care not to focus too much only on one character during such an ordeal (and that can be damn hard if the quest is only for one item for one player, but all characters shall take part in it.) Why? Let me argue from my point of view. If the paladin goes on a quest to retrieve his holy avenger, and I play a rogue and the quest takes two months with a game each week, I will not be very happy taking a back seat for 8 sessions. I go to a game session to have fun, to matter and not to be a minor character somewhere in the background. And I expect the same from and for all the other players I play with. So I don’t like spotlight adventures / quests that take a lot of time. Hell, I am probably even going to be unhappy if I spend a whole evening being a minor character.

    Now as for changing a character back and forth to adjust to an items: “Only 4 levels” might seem short. But if each level takes 4 sessions and you play once a week, that’s 16 weeks of readjusting your character. And you might need those retrains for other things, too. (At least I have noticed choices that did not work out as well as I imagined them or were not fitting for a character’s backstory upon closer inspection) So I might spend a lot of time and resources (viewing retraining as a limited resource) on things that I don’t really want to do. Again this might work for some players and it might work for me, too, but there is a good chance it won’t. Items are not the primary aspect of my characters after all.

    I am quite happy the impact of magical items with 4e is indeed not that big anymore.

    Umm. I am well aware that true old-school approaches to a game challenge the ability of the player more than that of the character, but that is a different discussion, so let’s not go there.

    …. And I have to say one thing: Thank you for this wonderful discussion :) I am learning stuff and reconsidering my viewpoints. I don’t really follow your line of viewing stuff, but that doesn’t mean it’s all wrong. If you were my DM, we’d probably run into trouble sooner or later, but I guess even then a discussion every now and then might set thigns right for me. :)
    .-= TPK´s last blog ..Freakshow Gruppen =-.

  7. Dave says:

    As a DM I always picked around 75% of the magic items with an eye towards makings ure that every player had useful stuff. Of course, back in the day (2.0 and other non D&D FRPs) the bad guys was usually making use of the magic item so you had to rip it from their cold, dead hands to lay claim to it. Of course, game balance issues were more a matter of hit or miss but somehow we managed to have fun and avoid TPKs.

    Heck, I only remember one total party wipe out in 20+ years of gaming and actually one charcacter was still alive. He couldn’t drag the other three back to town so he skinned them for something to use raise dead on. I have accidentally killed off an entire paryt as DM in a year of 4E and I onlt run it at conventions. But that’s a detour of the original discussion.

    I plan to run a 4E campaign soon (although I figure to end it after level 10 or so, so not planning on battles where everyone PC and monster has 100s of hit points) and would have clamped down on magic item availability anyway. This change will just give me the book authority to control the magiuc item flow if I get stuck with a
    ules lawyer player.


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