The problem of Magic Items in D&D, part 2 million

September 16, 2010

Reading the full Mike Mearls interview on the Escapist, there’s this interesting bit that reflects what I’ve said about magic items for years:

One of the things we found is that in 4th, 4th really exacerbated it, but it was an existing problem in 3rd, if players can buy anything, it really limits the design space that you can put out there. You can come up with this really interesting design for a flaming sword and eventually every player in the group will be able to buy them. Then you get back to this thing which you first saw in 3rd, where everyone in the party can fly, everyone in the party can teleport, skill checks become irrelevant because everyone has the Climb feat, everyone has slippers of spider climbing, things like that. It turns the game into almost a superhero game. Which is fine, if that’s your style, but it’s not necessarily the default.

What we can do with magic items is we can portion them out and say Here’s a subset of magic items that players can buy, and those are the common items. The uncommon items are the ones which they need to find, and those have this basic range of power within them. And then there’s rare items, which are even more powerful, and like uncommon ones, you can’t just go out and buy them, you can only find them. The great thing about that is, it lets us do things like here are boots of flying, here’s a pair of boots, they just let you fly. Because we know that it’s not possible for everyone in the group to get those, unless the DM wants that to happen, then that’s fine. The default is that maybe one person in the group can fly places. Having played a campaign where I was a dwarf warrior who had wings of flying, if the entire party can fly, it’s much easier to dominate encounters or dungeons or adventures.


I played a game where everyone could just fly around and it puts so much pressure on the DM – you go from thinking, I am building this fantasy world, and creating these locations and this entire campaign to just thinking how do I deal with this group of five people who can fly around? It distorts the game to the extent that unless the DM wants to do that, we don’t want to force it on a DM.

The big problem about buy-able magic items is that they effectively break the issues of siloing powers and abilities and niche protection.

I hope they also look at stuff like the smaller items which can also break expectations: take alchemy- you can buy a vial that does 1D10 elemental damage, not a big deal right? Buy 10 of them, put them in a cheap satchel, swing, and throw at the next big bad you want to hurt real bad. 10D10 is not what the game expects from 1st-3rd level characters, but because items are cheap, buyable, and not limited like character powers, it’s easy to break system expectations with them.

Thing is, once gold becomes a direct effectiveness resource, instead of a tertiary one that drops off quickly as you level, you need a completely different design philosophy in terms of your game mechanics.

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