Nov 022011

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.

Story Time

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.

And leave.

(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.

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Jonathan Baldwin

Jonathan is a firm believer that the best way to make friends is to game with them, and that nearly any problem can be surmounted with a well rolled d20 and a sense of humor. Regrettably, his professors do not agree with him, which leaves him with the challenge of balancing his gaming habits with his studies. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  11 Responses to “The One Real Problem With Magic Items (And How To Fix It)”

  1. Great post. I love when the party complains about an NPC villian “using their treasure” against them. Remember magic items are prvilege not a right.

  2. You’re really singled out the issue here- players are the problem. As the DM, I’m pretty sure that’s always the case. 🙂 Let’s take a psychological progression here. Players are interested in having fun. Having fun usually means doing cool things with their characters and overcoming their opponents. Magic items let them do cool things and overcome their opponents. Therefore, getting magic items means having fun. Over time, acquiring magic items becomes the focus of the characters as that is their method of having fun.

    I’m not convinced about your proposed solution, but you have given me some serious food for thought, which is the sign of a great article. Well done!

  3. Good article. Magic items should add to the story without eclipsing the PC’s and you have some solid ideas here. I’ve always liked the idea of signature items that “grow” with a hero, I think that is more in keeping with classic heroic fantasy. King Arthur didn’t keep “trading up” Excalibur.

    Currently I’m running a Warhammer Fantasy Campaign (since last spring), and the players havn’t even seen any magic items. Correction; the ones they’ve seen they’ve been responsible for destroying and ridding the world of their malign influence. In fact, I havn’t even awarded any “treasure” in this campaign. The PC’s work for a Templar of Sigmar (witch-hunter) so they are on the payroll. It’s been an interesting experience eliminating the focus on “stuff”. In our case the “treasure” of the campaign has been information and influence.

  4. While, technically, what you’ve written is the idea behind artifacts, I do agree that the magic power of an item should be untapped through some playing around at least. Still, I like the idea and may end up using something similar in my game.

  5. Earthdawn does something similar with their magical tiems. A player can spend experience to increase what an item can do based on learning more about the item, occasionally performing related quests to the Item’s themes, and generally having their legend grow around them using the item.

    My fundamental problem is simply I want to tell stories, loot doesn’t make the story more interesting to me. If the items are unique enough … it might make things more interesting.

    As far as the sword-stealing scenario goes … it seems like it was a fail for both the players and the GM. A TPK as a consequence (while a reasonable consequence given what happened) seems like it has two negative results. 1) It completely ends the campaign. And 2) it runs the significant risk of the gaming group disbanding.

    With that said, if I had been GM’ing I would have first called a break in the action and asked the players what sort of stories they really want to tell … since having good characters robbing innocents isn’t the type of story I would expect to be telling as a GM for good characters. After that discussion, I probably would have just rolled with it … I would have made a nasty consequence for the character that claimed the sword (like the sword possessing the character and compelling him to bring the rest of the party to justice for their crimes), and 3) forced an alignment changes for the characters involved because they clearly aren’t Good or Lawful.

    Not sure if that would have been enough, but it might have kept the campaign going. Shrug.

  6. This is really cool. It’s a flavorful way of solving the problem.

    At the same time, I like the idea of still being able to find magic lying around in tombs and whatnot. But if any trace of a bloodline – no matter how faint – is enough to cause the magic to work for you, that could make randomly found items extra cool. “Hey, this sword works for the party fighter. Wonder what distant ancestor of his was in his tomb?”

    Also makes it easier to designate certain items for particular party members – nothing like dropping some loot for the underpowered bard only to have it snatched up by the rogue. (I think the most egregious example of that I’ve ever seen was a paladin who wasn’t even proficient with scimitars trying to claim one that had obviously been crafted by some forest spirits for the scimitar-wielding party ranger – including a note written in elvish tied around the handle.)

  7. I love it when I come back to a post and see all the things people are thinking…

    @ John Lewis : You’ve hit the nail right on the head. I want Excalibur, not some +1 sword that I’m going to trade in for a completely different +2 sword later. If a hero DOES trade for a new weapon, it should mean something momentous – the fulfillment of a prophecy or something.

    @ forged : My understanding was that this particular DM’s philosophy was to let the players do what they wanted, then hit them with the natural consequences of their actions. In this case, the natural consequence of murdering someone for their +2 sword, wearing that sword openly in the town full of people who loved her, and then trying to stage a terrible rescue plan during an execution… seem pretty reasonable. But you’re right, at some point I’d want to ask, “hey, what kind of story IS this? I thought you people were supposed to be heroes.”

    @ Swordgleam : Thanks! And I love that idea – that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. I like the idea of there still being some magic to be found, too, whether because it belonged to a character’s ancestors, or because the deeds that spawned it were so earth-shatteringly powerful that the magic lingers decades after the old hero’s (or villain’s) death. That sort of thing should be kept for items that play the part of the MacGuffin, though. 🙂

  8. It is funny that this article was posted during a similar train of thought I was having. I was just grinding my teeth at the prospect of having to update my wishlist for my current DM.

    The problem is not the updating of the wishlist, but the simple fact is that we do not have to work to get anything we want. Here defeat the monster, get your +5 Footpad Friend’s Dagger.

    There is no more need to be a good roleplayer in this case. You just have to play.

    Good article.

  9. John mentioned above that our group hasn’t even gotten any magic items, and we’ve been playing for several months now.

    Of course, I’m not sure magic items are even available in Warhammer Fantasy. Really, it doesn’t matter, though, because I don’t think any of us have missed them.

  10. I had some similar thoughts recently. One was to allow magic items to be upgraded by “ambient magic” from killing the Evil Sorcerer; and even make mundane items magical in the same way. This is basically the same as what you have.

    Another idea I was toying with (but haven’t implemented) was: what if all magic items are intelligent? Most can’t communicate (not even empathically), and most have little more than low animal cunning, but it would be interesting. So persuading the magic sword you looted to work for you is akin to trying to handle the enemy’s pet dog after it saw you kill its master!

  11. I’m playing a Pathfinder game where for the most part we collect the magic items off of our fallen foes. We keep the occasional one we want, destroy the ones that radiate evil, and sell off everything else. It isn’t my game but if I was DMing, I think I’d offer some sort of bonus to the price of upgrading items vs. buying new ones because ultimately that’s what I’d want to see with a group of road adventurers. Maybe something where it costs like 5 times the normal price to create a new magic item but existing items can be upgraded at cost but at 1/5th the time frame.

    I really like the idea presenting here for magic items. Basically you’re talking about Warehouse 13 style magic items where some great action of renown triggered the magic spark in the item.

    And for the record, those sound like horrible players but I’d love to play in that game just for the craziness of it.

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