The Magic Item Compendium and Theories of Arcane Distribution

Wizards of the Coast is releasing a Magic Item Compendium reprinting 750 magic items from previous publications and Dragon Magazine articles, while adding in 500 new items.

In anticipation of its release later this month, they’re running a series of articles by Andy Collins, one of the book’s designers. In the first article he talks about how many players focus on a six specific classes of magic items and tend to ignore almost everything else. He’s right — when creating or buying their own magic items, players tend to focus on what gives them their biggest bang for their buck, so items like +1 long swords and gloves of dexterity +2 win out over rods of enemy detection or helms of underwater action.

He sees this as a flaw that needs to be remedied — from his point of view, all of the magic items (or at least a good many of them) need to be tweaked so that they’re more attractive to players. This would lead to more purchases of alternative magic items, and increase the overall diversity in the game.

While it’s hard to draw conclusions from one article, if the intent of this book’s revisions is to make little used magic items affordable and attractive to players, then they took the wrong approach.

Distributed Magic

While they raise valid points about why players buy magic items, that’s only half the game. The other half is what the Game Master includes as treasure, and I think that’s how you include these kinds of magic items in the game.

Sure, the paladin might always choose a shield +3 over a rod of enemy detection but if he finds said rod while clearing out the sacked and fallen temple of his god, well, that’s something else entirely, isn’t it?

It’s not like World of Warcraft where you might go and liquidate any magic item that isn’t immediately useful to you — in Dungeons & Dragons (or at least our campaign), you hold on to these kinds of things and over time that helm of underwater action you looted from a goblin dungeon at 5th level becomes you signature item when you get to 10th.

Mad Ozzie’s Discount Arcana

In discussing this on our group’s message board, it seems that we may be somewhat unique in this regard. In Living Greyhawk and other mass campaigns, players spend gold to buy their share of the magical loot, and as such, will almost always choose those items that help their characters now, rather than something that might offer role-playing or tactical opportunities down the line.

It also appears that in other campaigns, players often sell their magical treasure, seeking to maximize their gold to continue their quest for the ultimate arcane buffs for their characters.

If that style of play works for them, great. But in terms of storytelling and developing campaign depth, I think such an approach short changes the game.

Tactics for Diversifying Magical Loot

The single biggest thing a Game Master can do to boost the diversity of magic items in his game — and to get players to hold on to more unique magical items — is to imbue them with something you can’t get from gold alone: significance.

Take that rod of enemy detection. It’s not the most amazing magic item in the Dungeon Master’s Guide but imagine the cleric who finds it, sells it, and then meets up with members of his church. “Ah yes, Sir Dwayne … you did a most exceptional job of liberating the Lost Temple of Durn. In doing so … did you happen across a certain magical rod? It would glow most strongly when enemies were nearby, and it is a holy relic thought lost long ago. But if you found it … what do you mean you sold it??!! Are you mad?”

Suddenly, players realize that the items they find in a dungeon might be more than just loot … and that simply unloading it at the nearest magic item dealer might not be the greatest idea.

Or how about that helm of underwater action? It’s useless on land … but one of a Game Master’s best tricks is to mix up the environment. Perhaps two adventures down the road the players encounter a dungeon where a goodly number of the passages are flooded? Or they must enter a sewer to hunt down some murderers … and find themselves nearly drowning in sewage waste? Suddenly, at least one of them may think “if only we still had that freaking helm!”

Finally, you can increase a magic items attractiveness by increasing its uniqueness. For example, one of the most memorable magic items in our campaign was a wand of lightning bolts that did a point of damage to a character whenever said his own name or the pronouns “I” or “me”. Instead, he had to say “K’sograh”, which was also the wand’s command word. It didn’t cause him to cast a spell whenever he said his name (I’m not that cruel) but it provided more than a few moments of comic relief. It also brought about a startling change in the character. For whatever reason, be it fate, luck or just the new name, K’sograh suddenly became much more competent on the battle field.

The rod of enemy detection might have its range doubled for a particular class of creatures (such as the sworn enemies of the church, murderers, or demons) while the helm of underwater breathing might allow a character to summon an aquatic animal when used in fresh water.

Any of these things makes the magic item just a little more interesting and gives it the sort of hook that breaks through a player’s constant metagaming and might give them pause on their way to the magic dealer. “K’sograh” had a major effect on its wielder, and its something that we still talk about fondly years later.

You don’t get that from a +1 sword.

Granted, the tweaks the designers are discussing may add more diversity to the game, eliminating those omnipresent minor magical swords in favor of something more unique, but breaking a magic item system that worked pretty well for the last six years isn’t the best answer. A magic item book that focused more on the art of magic item design — adding more quirks, traits or special effects for those swords, advice on how to create memorable treasures, all of these things would serve to make the game more like D&D … and less like an offline World of Warcraft.