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Can we get The Libram of Unambiguous Design… please?!

I just read the Magic Items Excerpt from the new D&D Essentials product, the DM Kit, and I had to resist the urge to face-palm myself.  Not because a lot of what was said had been said before – one of the Essentials Preview already discussed the nature of item rarity – but because of the mixed messages we seem to keep getting from the development team.DM NO

Now please do not get me wrong:  I like a lot of these changes to the magic item system!  I like the explanation of what makes magic items common and what makes some of them rare and uncommon – where the non-common items were designed by powers reaching back into the distant past, maybe even during the Dawn War.  I also think that the changes to the value of magic items, when (and if) they are sold, make a lot of sense to me.   I disliked the idea of all magic items, regardless of power level, all being worth a tiny fraction of their value.  And the idea that selling two uncommon items would net a Character enough gold to make a stab at buying a more “preferred” uncommon item seems pretty logical to me.

Magic item rarity also lends itself to a great distribution pattern, as described by the excerpt:

On average, about half of the items that characters find as treasure are common items. The other half are uncommon magic items. About one magic item in eight is rare, so these items show up only about once every other level the adventurers gain. On average, that means that any given character will acquire one rare item per tier of play, and will rarely own more than three.

So given the 40 magic items distributed during the ten levels of the Heroic Tier, the heroes are expected to find about 5 rare items, so that each one of them will have something really special heading into the Paragon Tier.  As a DM, this distribution ration of common to uncommon to rare items sounds perfectly reasonable to me!

But where I start balking at the new system of magic item distribution is when the DM Kit excerpt brings up those two 4-letter words I find really offensive: “WISH LIST”.

From my recollections, Jeremy Crawford was applauded (loudly) for his comments during the D&D Preview seminar at this year’s GenCon, where he claimed that the rarity system was designed to put control of magic item distribution back in the hands of the Dungeon Master, and out of the hands of the Players:

“[Rare and] Uncommon items will be the purview of the dungeon master.  DMs will control how these items get into the hands of the players.”

And Bill Slavicsek went on further to comment about wanting to “…give the power back to the dungeon master with regard to high end items.”

But yet in this recent DM Kit excerpt, we saw a complete back-pedaling from the concepts discussed at the D&D Preview seminar:

The trickiest part of awarding treasure is determining what magic items to give out. Tailor these items to your party of characters. Remember that these are supposed to be items that excite the characters, items they want to use rather than sell. If none of the characters in your 6th-level party uses a longbow, don’t put a 10th-level longbow in your dungeon as treasure.

One way to make sure you give players magic items they’ll be excited about is to ask them for wish lists. At the start of each level, have each player write down a list of three to five uncommon items that they are intrigued by that are no more than four levels above their own level. You can choose treasure from those lists (making sure to place an item from a different character’s list each time), crossing the items off as the characters find them.

So from this excerpt, the development team has decided that Dungeon Masters really DO NOT have any control over the items he or she is handing out after all!  By this philosophy, it is bad for us to hand out magic items which are not absolutely useful to the party, and further, if five Players hand you a list of 3-5 uncommon items, then the Dungeon Master really has control of only two magic common items each level.  Funny, that does not sound like much control to me at all.  In fact, it sounds as if by the time a Character turns 11th level, the Hero would be slathered in 8 magic items, all of them useful, with 4 of these uncommon and hand-picked by the Player to optimize the Character.  Of course as DMs, we do have control over the one rare item we hand out, as well as the other three common items which the Players have no choice about, but is this really being in control of the magic item distribution for the campaign?

I think I want a little more control over my D&D game than what this excerpt suggests.  I want there to be the occasional magic item, like the example of that magic longbow, which is not readily useful to a party, which could be sold and used to buy some other item or just be turned into residuum to use in rituals.  Maybe it might inspire a Character to select it, and then add a power or even multi-class, building the Character in ways he or she never considered before.  And I certainly do not want my choice of magic items to be limited to just common items, with the Characters telling me they know best what powerful items should appear in my campaign.  I think that the idea of the wish list, as described, is nearly the same level of control over magic items that Characters had before the changes and the new rarity system – excepting that they cannot manufacture uncommon and rare items themselves anymore.

And besides, if each Character has a wish list that is being filled, how can a DM introduce the anarchy that can ensue when an item turns up that several Heroes will covet and want to possess for themselves?

As far as wish lists go, I am still unhappy that the concept has refused to die, and the concept keeps finding its way into product after product.  After some careful consideration, I think I am going to use a slot priority system instead.  At the beginning of each level, I am going to ask the Players to write down what their choice of priority for the top three slots they want to fill in on their gear sheet.  For instance, a cleric might say that his top three priorities are to get an implement (holy symbol), a set of armor, and a neck slot item.  A rogue might be looking for a weapon, a foot slot item, and a hand slot item.  But these are just slot preferences, and no specific magic items are being named.  Then as DM, I can decide which items I want to distribute, based upon what items are most needed by the party of adventurers.  And of course, some items might be useful to two or even three members of an adventuring band, which opens up all manner of role-playing opportunities for deciding how an item will be awarded.

After all, the schadenfreude a Dungeon Master gets from watching Player-Characters squabbling over a choice bit of treasure, and agonizing about who should get it, is one delicious little perk of being on the other side of the screen.  And I do not think I am ready to give up that perk, just yet.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

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.


9 Responses to “Can we get The Libram of Unambiguous Design… please?!”

  1. Philo Pharynx says:

    Wish lists are an answer to the problem of when a GM provides an item that doesn’t fire up the player. I’ve seen it at times before. I will admit that some players are whiny little bitches that won’t be happy until they have a specific set of perfect items. But I’ve seen cases where an item really doesn’t fit the character for some reason. In the worst case it’s an item that is redundant because of class features of feats that have already been taken. Sometimes they like the benefits of the lower level item thay have rather than wanting to switch up. In addition, any item that is not used by the party is worth 20 or 50% of the value of a used item. Some parties get less treasure. And if one character gets several less useful items, then they perform worse than others.

    But I have some ideas for solutions.

    1) Replacement items. Keep track of the items sold or broken down for residuum. If they have enough of these, eventually add in an extra treasure parcel down the road to balance things. I wouldn’t replace items in a gold-for-gold exchange of the “lost value”, but I’d make sure that they got a few more items down the road. Some of these will be consumables. Consumables are generally not preferred treasure because they go away. but if the players know they are “bonus treasure”, then they feel better about it.

    2) Goal lists. Rather than have the players specify exactly what they want, have them give goals that guide you to items. “I want to have more effective sneak attacks.” “I’d like some fire resistance.” “I’d like more movement options.” Each of these goals can be met in different ways. They give the players something they’ll find valuable without specifying exactly what they need. This also helps avoid disappointment in rare items.

    3) Periodic reshuffling. I give out items pretty randomly – some will be useful, some not so much. But then once or twice a tier, I’ll have time pass and they can rejigger their magic items with the gold piece total as if they were a new character of that level. They know they’ll get what they want eventually, so getting unusable items along the way is less of an issue. Often they keep certain items and simply raise the level.

    4) Make them work for it. If they want a specific item, let them search for it. Maybe it’s a highly guarded formula to make it. Maybe a rival PC has one. Maybe there’s a rumor that the bearer of the sword of badassery was slain by the dragon of the southern spire.

  2. Dan McAllister says:

    Wish lists are in no way a binding contract, enslaving the DM to the whims and control of the players. Never have been, Aren’t now. They give you, the DM, a list of items the players would like to see their characters pick up. Having a list of 3-5 level appropriate items to choose from per character is plenty of variety (unless your players are all asking for the same items, which i suppose could happen…) but even then there is no reason to give them out from these wish lists, aside from maybe satisfying your players, which I fail to see as a bad thing anyway.
    Over the course of each level, assuming a 5-character party, the recomendation is to give out 4 magic items. Isn’t this suggestion just as bad as the one planting the idea of the dreaded wish lists? I mean really, shouldn’t you be the one deciding how many to give out as well? (/sarcasm)
    The suggested 4 magic items per level would be 2 common. 1 uncommon, and DM’s choice on another uncommon or maybe if you judge it is time for one, one of the rare items you see being set loose upon your campaign at the suggested pace of one every other level, on average. Of the 40 suggested magic items per tier, only 15 are suggested as being ones the players want and ask for. Onerous? I think not… And those 15 are coming from a list of 12 (if the players all ask for the same 3 items each every level, not very likely, but possible if the players like to play with your head, I guess…) to 250 items (if each asks for 5 different items per level…). I’d guess you’d get around 150 or so “unique” requests. So, sounds like plenty to choose from to me and it’s actually kind of nice having the choices pared down to 150 from the thousands of choices, even if I can ignore the paring if I choose…
    Just remember, wish lists are still not forcing your hand as DM. They are there to help, not to enslave you, Genie-like to your wish-making masters. Everyone knows how that situation turns out anyway… :)

  3. UHF says:

    I think the point is to eliminate the culture of ‘make your own’ magic items. I can see that totally ruining an adventuring party. Wish lists are less offensive than that.

    Myself, I found a Game Mastery deck of cards for magic items. I let a player grab a card, and I pick an item vaguely kinda sorta like the picture, at the level suggested, that is beneficial to the player.

    Alternatively I pick things that I think the players would find interesting. But I’ve found this just has me drooling through the weapons and armor section.

  4. Dave says:

    I’ve always dealt with player item desires as part of the in game role playing. If a player wants a magic sword with fire powers, he tells me that his charcter is scouting for rumors of such items during the “down time” between adventures.

    If the request fits with my campaign plans I either add it to an adventure or the player hears that some group or person has one to sell.

    As to a wish list – I don’t think the expectation by the design team is that the DM has to give out those items. Thats just what the players wants – not what they get. In my world anyway ….

  5. Swordgleam says:

    I’m not sure how wish lists eliminate control. To me, they exist to make the DM’s life easier. “What do I give them as treasure after this encounter? I know; I haven’t given them anything all that optimized for them in a while. I’ll grab something off the wish list.”

    A wish list isn’t an “automatic get at regular intervals” list. It’s just a list of things the player would like to have, and a handy reference if the DM wants to reward the player or throw together a treasure parcel in a hurry. It doesn’t mean, if they hand you a list of 10 items, that they’re going to get all 10. But if they’re lucky they’ll get one or two, along with eight things you come up with.

    And if your players see it as an “automatic get” list, the problem in your game is a mismatch in expectations, not anything any of WotC’s designers said.

  6. @Philo – Your goal list idea is actually a good one and combined with the slot priority list idea I had, I think it could be a smashing alternative to obnoxious wish lists.

    As for the rest of the comments regarding the support of wish lists, I’m afraid I really have to stick to my guns here.

    I still think wish lists take control away from the DM. While it is true I could take everyone’s wish list for uncommon items, and decide which to include or not include in the campaign, you then have the problem of those uglier little human emotions getting in the way of things. Give out even one item to one player from their wish list, and then the rest of your players will be envious and clamoring for an item from their lists. It’s just human nature to wonder why the DM seems to be favoring “that guy” instead of me. And before you know it, just to keep everyone from becoming frustrated and malcontent, you’re handing out at least 5 uncommon items (or 6 or 4 or whatever you have in your group). Assuming you are using the guidelines of Treasure Parcels (4 items per level), and the new item rarity mix as recommended in the excerpt (50-50 common to uncommon), this means as a DM you’re locked into 2.5 levels of uncommon items from player wish lists. Sounds like a loss of control to me – but to each their own, and every DM has to decide what is best for their own campaign.

  7. UHF says:

    Perhaps WOTC should turn the Wish List around.

    The reality is that 4e mechanics requires a certain level of magic to be given to the players in order for their characters to even function in a level appropriate fashion.

    WOTC should had out a list of ‘appropriate’ choices. I’m not saying they should tell the DMs what exactly to do, but if you knew that your defenders are likely going to need an AC increase about now then the DM can make a good choice.

    Alternatively, WOTC could produce a set of tables that list approximately where the characters may be, and the DM can compare that to what the players stats actually look like.

  8. UHF says:

    Perhaps WOTC should turn the Wish List around.

    The reality is that 4e mechanics requires a certain level of magic to be given to the players in order for their characters to even function in a level appropriate fashion.

    WOTC should had out a list of ‘appropriate’ choices. I’m not saying they should tell the DMs what exactly to do, but if you knew that your defenders are likely going to need an AC increase about now then the DM can make a good choice.

    Alternatively, WOTC could produce a set of tables that list approximately where the characters may be, and the DM can compare that to what the players stats actually look like.

    Incidentally, a good DM is already doing this…

  9. @UHF – I agree, and I track my Characters magic items and bonuses so that I can better decide what to drop in the campaign. That way, if I notice that say the defender is getting behind in AC, I can drop in an armor upgrade. Of course, this does not always work, as there are occasions where a magic item is assigned to some other Character than who you, as DM, intended it for. But what can you do but take it in stride – you have to let the heroes make their own decisions… even bad ones.

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