We (and by “we,” I mean, “overly critical D&D players such as myself”) like to refer to problems we have with the game and pretend that they’re someone else’s fault. The truth is we probably just know too many people with bad attitudes.
My point: there IS a problem with magic items. That problem is D&D players. Not ALL D&D players, mind you. Maybe your group doesn’t have problems with magic items. But I know the guys I hang out with do, and I’ve heard about more than a few groups who do as well. The problem, however, isn’t what they think it is.
Let me illustrate my point with a story. And possibly another story, afterward, if I remember to include it.
The first story: I have a friend who, in the course of his regular game, witnessed the death of another character in the party. Now, rather than anything that would make sense in character, rather than mourning the loss of a dear friend and comrade in arms, the first words out of his mouth were, “dibs on his magic items.” An attitude that not only screws up the expected loot/level and makes things unfair for the old player’s new character, but that also makes no sense in a culture that probably would bury a warrior with his sword so he’d have it in the afterlife. Assuming he has no family to inherit it.
The second story: (I’m sure this story is out there somewhere under the title of, “The Worst D&D Players EVER. Of All Time,” or something similar. It is not MY story; I do not own it, nor do I make any claims of originality. It was related to me by my cousin.)
I am told a tale of a group of players who, on learning that the sword on the wall of the town sweetheart (seriously, nice girl, everyone in town loved her like a daughter) belonged to her father who was an adventurer “back in the day,” the GOOD aligned players went off the rails and immediately began plotting how their characters would steal it from her.
They came back to the shop in the dead of night, and started moving furniture. Not terribly stealthily, I might add. They got the sword off the wall, but by the time they did they had woken the poor girl up and she was blearily coming down stairs (it took forever for her to succeed on her listen check, what with the penalties from being asleep). Now, rather than do the smart thing and pull a Grinch on her (“Why, little Cindy-Lou Who, I’m just sending this tree back to the North pole so I can fix the lights and bring it back.” EPIC BLUFF CHECK), they panicked. And they killed her.
Then they panicked some more.
Then they decided to clumsily hide the body under the floor boards.
(It’s a sign of how terrible I am that my first thought wasn’t even, “well, that’s cold,” it was, “they should have IMMEDIATELY gone out of their way to get her res’ed.”)
Next morning, naturally, the town is freaking out over the horrible horrible murder. So one of the characters (with the distinctive white sword now buckled on his belt) decides to go investigate and see what he can find out, and is promptly arrested and scheduled for hanging by an angry town (justly so,) while the other players scream, “you took it WITH YOU?!?”
So the rest of the party decides that they’re going to rescue their companion. They wait until just before the hanging, and, in the middle of the angry crowd they draw their weapons and prepare to fight.
The DM facepalms for about the millionth time that evening, and the characters are all subdued and hung along with the first one.
Now, I have a number of points that I’m probably trying to make on some level (several of which can be better expressed by reading this slightly related piece from Cracked) but the main one isn’t that these were just terrible, terrible players. It’s that this shouldn’t have even been a thing.
Magic items aren’t too common. They’re too easy. They’ll put out their magic for just anyone. It’s a terrible, terrible truth. They should be a little more challenging if they want adventurers to respect them. How can we respect them if they don’t respect themselves? Okay, that’s enough of that terrible metaphor – I hope you take my meaning.
What can be done about this problem?
I’m glad you asked.
A Better Way
Here’s an idea. Wondrous items and such remain basically unchanged – let’s face it, that’s what happens when a wizard has a bit of fun. Magic weapons and armor and the like are the actual difficulty, and they’re the easiest part to fix, too.
The solution is surprisingly simple, but it comes in a few parts. The first: magic items are only magical because of the deeds of heroes and villains.
In other words, that magic sword started out as a perfectly ordinary sword (or maybe a family heirloom), but became magic when a brave adventurer took it with him and accomplished something heroic. The more heroic the deed, the greater the power. Villains can do the same thing – it’s about the STRENGTH of the deed, not necessarily morality. Unless we’re talking about holy relics.
That flaming sword? Someone used it to kill a flame-drake, or a fire elemental, and in that burst of heroic effort it was changed.
Mostly, this means that the power to make magic items is in the hands of the players by virtue of their being heroes. It’s up the the DM to hand out things that make thematic sense based on the challenges they have overcome. Essentially, don’t give “items” so much as “boons with the item descriptor.”
Part 2 is the rough one: magic items are attuned to the spirit of their creator, and unless re-attuned through new great deeds, their power fades with time until they are no longer magic. A magic item will seldom behave the same for two different heroes.
As a result, there are no stores that sell magic swords; there is little point in stealing the magic sword from a dying hero because its power will fade with time. A sword (or armor or whatever) should be passed on to a warrior’s family if s(he) has one, or buried with them if they do not.
Now, there’s a minor exception here – a blood relative or someone the hero named can access at least part of an inherited weapon’s power. But only if it was the hero’s (or villain’s) will that they hold it. Through their own heroic (or villainous) deeds, they can then restore the weapon’s power.
Last point: a magic item’s power is touched by all who have wielded it, if their deeds are sufficient.
It might not be identical, but there should be some notion of history if a hero claims a sword of prophecy from an ancient tomb.
Basically, this should work fairly similarly to the way Tourq presented magic items at the beginning of Classic Fantasy, or the way I’ve talked about them on several occasions since: multiple benefits stemming from one “source;” separation of crunch from fluff. Crunch-wise, the only requirement is giving items (or boons) that have something to do with what’s actually happened in the game, and rendering any stolen items useless on the grounds that the way they were taken wasn’t heroic enough. The fluff is what makes it interesting.