Why I Hate Magic Items

I don’t really hate magic items. Individually, they are a lot of fun. As a Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition player, I really enjoyed my paladin’s +2 flaming long sword, and I love his +3 imposter’s plate mail. These widgets add to my gaming experience. I hate D&D’s magic item system, and here’s why:

1) Magic items aren’t special, they are expected. In fact, ownership is built into the game. If player characters don’t have access to level appropriate items, they lose their ability to fight level appropriate monsters. The math is engineered for characters to get items early and often.

I can’t think of a single fictional character who uses six different magic swords through the course of his career, but that is expected during a D&D campaign. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings provides an excellent example of high fantasy that resembles Dungeons and Dragons; those characters received several interesting magic items each. Still, they received the one set of elven armor throughout their careers. Not only did Frodo use ‘Sting’ for most of his adventuring career, it was a hand-me-down from his uncle. Authors most often treat magic items as D&D treats its artifacts. They are rare, interesting and often plot changing.

2) I hate giving up obsolete (but beloved) items. I gave that flaming sword a name, (“Oath”) and loved using a free action to make its damage fiery. Since my Paladin is a Tiefling, the fire worked well with the flavor of the character. While I was pleased to upgrade to a +3 vicious bastard I still miss Oath.

Have you ever seen a literary character carrying around redundant magic items? Why are we satisfied to include that into our gaming narrative?

3) As a Dungeon Master, I do not enjoy the prep involved in treasure distribution. I have three motives for DMing: 1) I like to facilitate fun with my friends, 2) D&D provides a creative outlet for my storytelling and 3) I like reading modules and integrating their content into my own encounter design. I don’t have time or inclination to learn the nuances of every player character in my group. I also don’t care to familiarize myself with every magic item each may find useful.

A player generated wish list is a helpful work around, but if you’re going that far, why not let them pick what they want directly? In the game I currently DM, I only award gold, and I encourage them to convert it into items between sessions.

I’m ready for a system that allows players to have interesting items (like swords that glow when goblins approach), but doesn’t force PCs to replace their family heirlooms every three levels.

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9 Comments

Filed under 4e D&D, continuous improvement, Game Design

9 responses to “Why I Hate Magic Items

  1. Thank you! I thought I was the only one who didn’t like magic items in D&D. I’ve only played 4e from the player’s side of the DM’s screen, but I can say that magic items as the sole driving force/motive for adventure just is not fun. I bought the first adventurer’s vault and just… didn’t care.

    This is going to sound stupid, but there are just too many options. For me, it really is a part of what you said – magic items are required for the mechanics in the game. This makes a magic item seem mundane instead of unique, and aren’t we really defeating the purpose of the magic item then? Using your LotR example, it would not be nearly as awesome if aragorn, boromir, and legolas all had their own Glamdring – that’s Gandalf’s special sword, and because there’s only one, it’s whey we remember its name.

  2. You’ve made some solid points.

    I think that the Adventurer’s Vault (might be book 2) gave some suggestions about ‘leveling up’ magical items that players want to hold onto. I tend to agree that for coveted items, they do tend to be rather disposable.

    I also think DMG2 gave some suggestions for running a magic item light game. The emphasis is on increasing bonuses for feats and abilities to make up for the deficit of not having magic items. You are quite right that 4E is built on that assumption that players will get a weapon, neck item, and armor over 5-6 levels, and replace out the gear the next 5 level jump. It takes some wrangling to get around this, but possible.

  3. I’ve been running a 4e game that’s low wealth and low magic. I use something similar to the DMG 2’s guidelines for a treasure-free game. My characters each have a magic weapon at this point, but only one of them has replaced their signature weapon – the paladin throwing away his welded telephone pole hammer when he found a magic one made out of mailbox. (I don’t even know what I would give him next; carrier-pigeon-chucks?)

    I like doing things this way much better. The dual-wielding ranger treasures the scimitar she got from the town’s original heroine, and the one that the forest spirits made for her. The fighter never shuts up about his talking bastard sword (I know, I know). The cleric got his +2 holy symbol after converting an entire camp full of goblins to the worship of his goddess. The swordmage won’t talk about its broadsword, but there’s a story there, too.

    The PCs are level 7, just for reference, and we’ve been playing this campaign for about two years now. None of them have magic armor and only a couple have magic neck slot items, and that’s really about it. So there’s no shortage of interesting things I can give them as they level up; I don’t need to replace the weapons.

    I guess what I’m saying is, there is a system that lets you do this: 4e. I’m sure you can do it in plenty of other systems. You just need to change player expectations and tweak the math slightly. (I use bonus feats. No complaints thus far.)

  4. Glenn Peirce

    4e has chosen to approach the game with the assumption that you will have magic, and that magic should be predictable and balanced at each level.

    The flip side to the 4e system can be found in the 3e system, where magic made the man. However, it was unpredictable. DMs could have a well-planned encounter completely disrupted by an unnoticed magic item. Moving from game to game with the same character was also tough.

    4e could have gone with a magic-less system, but most would claim that isn’t D&D.

    • I do like that 4e was able to design a stable, predicatable system. I remember some of the design related podcasts from Wizards that discussed this issue, and they mentioned that magic items are a way to personalize your character that players tend to enjoy. I can appreciate that.

  5. One idea I’ve thought of doing is simply limiting players to a single magic item, but then awarding higher XP for encounters and challenges.

    Conversely, I’m about to write up a Classic Fantasy setting, one where magic is powerful, but rare. I can’t wait to get started.

    -Tourq

  6. Jason

    YES! Exactly. You can swing a wineskin without hitting a half dozen magic items in your average DnD game. It saps all the wonder and mystery out of the magic- well, at least it does for me.

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