Bring the Magic Back to Magic Items

One of the biggest complaints I have with 4th Edition is that it doesn’t really feel as magical anymore. And I don’t mean the power system (I really like that), I mean magic items. Since magic items are pretty much a requirement to stay on-par (with a player replacing their complete set of weapon/implement, armor, and amulet 6 levels), they seem to have lost some of the awesome they used to have. In previous editions, magic items were expected in a way, but they weren’t necessarily required to be effective (save for getting around damage reduction). This means that magic items were special and highly valued, regardless of their level. I’ve been trying to think about how to handle this, and I’ve managed to come up with a few ideas that might help out other DMs who remember fondly the excitement of getting that +1 Longsword rather than taking it for granted that they’d get it.

The first is to start using the optional rules for Inherent Bonuses. If you’re using the D&D Character Generator, there’s an option you can choose to turn this on automatically, or you can find the full rules on p138 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. Basically, all you’re doing is removing the “new magic item every 6 levels” requirement by giving the players the bonus automatically. At 2nd and every sixth level thereafter, the PCs get a +1 untyped bonus to both attacks and damage, while at 4th level and every sixth level thereafter, they get a +1 untyped bonus to all defenses. You can change this up or break it up as you see fit for your campaign. It keeps the players on par with what’s expected of their characters by the design of the game while removing magic items from the equation.

If you go this route, you’ll need to also start reducing the amount of treasure you give out. As players as no longer expected to replace or buy new weapon/armor/amulet sets every sixth level, they no longer need as many magic items or as much gold to keep up. This does remove many of the special options from magic items, such as additional abilities and powers and the bonus critical hit damage. However, you can get around this easily by giving out items which add those bonuses, moving those bonuses to other items (the bonuses from a Holy Avenger, for example, could become bonuses granted by a holy amulet or a special helm). You can also continue to give out some magic weapons/implements/armor/amulets at a reduced frequency, but this will end up with players getting higher attack bonuses (which can be either a good or a bad thing depending on the style of game you run).

Another way to approach this problem is to allow magic items to level up with their wielders. As the player character levels up, their magic items get periodic bonuses to their basic stats. These can be based on the amount of time the character has used the item or having the item’s level equal the PC’s level (so that a player who goes from 5th to 6th level with a +1 Longsword has their sword upgrade itself to a +2 Longsword as the item itself goes from 5th to 6th level). This also allows for magic items to gain new properties as the player levels, letting a +1 Longsword the player got at 1st level to eventually become a +1 Frost Longsword when the character reaches level 3 (and then a +2 Frost Longsword at level 8 and so on). This works best if you encourage your players to be creative with their magic items, making them a part of their character backstory and ongoing development as they name their weapon and attune themselves to it in order to unlock its abilities.

If you really want this change to be transparent to the players, you can reduce all monster attacks and defenses by 1 for every 6 levels and reduce their HP by using the formula (Monster Level) * (Average Party Level / 6) (note: I’m not entirely sure that the math works for the HP, someone with a better grasp of the math behind the game please feel free to correct me in the comments and I’ll update this post). This shifts the math from the player’s end to your end, so that a PC with a mundane longsword has the same chance to hit the monster with reduced stats as they would have if they’d had a +1 Longsword and an unmodified monster. It’s effectively the same as the inherent bonus, so you’ll need to reduce treasure just as if you’d gone that route. It also puts a lot more work on you as you then have to do all the math and adjustments yourself rather than allowing your players to just add a number to their character sheets.

These are simply ideas I’ve had or modified for a problem that may or may not even exist in your games. While I miss the treasure trove of magic items from previous editions with all their strange and odd effects, it can be overwhelming and adds more work to running the game. Make sure that you give thought to how making any of these changes to your game will affect game balance and be sure that your players are still being challenged without losing their edge. Remember, the goal is to have fun and if doing extra work doesn’t seem fun to you, it’s probably not going to be fun for your players either.

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Published in: on December 26, 2011 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  
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