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.