Chad Perrin: SOB

29 August 2008

magic items without expiration dates

Filed under: RPG — Tags: , — apotheon @ 08:55

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

I tend to prefer a somewhat lower-than-average magic level for a fantasy RPG world. To my preferences, magic should be special — and as such, it needs to be rare, or at least shouldn’t be commonplace. The way most D&D games go (and, I would assume, the way most Pathfinder games will go), magic items are just ways to improve a character’s ability to level up faster. The typical treasure-churn of traditional D&D games, where characters pick up a better magical sword and throw away (or sell) the old sword because its bonus is one lower than the new one, just strikes me as sad and silly.

The Necessity of Magic:

On the other hand, the game is designed with magic items in mind. It’s expected that characters will have magic items to enhance their capabilities in encounters. There’s even a general estimate chart for determining how many GPs’ worth of wealth a character should have at a given level in the DMG — presumably, mostly split up between money and magic items (though some of that money might be converted into land holdings, et cetera). To simply cut most magic items out of the game — especially if you don’t want to “compensate” the PCs by dumping a deluge of gold coins on them — pretty much just screws them over if you don’t completely rework the rest of the way the game plays out.

I’ve tended to be pretty good at adjusting the power levels of things in my games to balance them out in the past, but I’m not entirely used to the sheer frightening nuclear weapon yield power of certain spellcasting classes in 3E. I’m having a little bit of difficulty balancing this stuff out — there’s a sorcerer in my game that has quickly developed a reputation for being able to lay down the law in standard combat encounters upon reaching a level where he can cast lightning bolt and fly spells. During a jailbreak, he turned a hallway full of lower-level guardsmen into crispy critters in pretty short order.

Now, of course I can (and do) skew things in a manner that ensures the other characters’ talents get a chance to come into play, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s an obvious power imbalance if the other PCs lack magic of their own in the form of high-power gear. It’s a difficult balancing act, trying to keep the game from turning into a constant treasure-churn without throwing off the comparative power levels.

In Search of a Solution:

Something I’ve had percolating in the back of my head for months now is the desire for a way to give characters the power they need from magic items without necessitating a treasure churn process. A number of different approaches to this have occurred to me, including a heuristic sort of means of translating magic items they would have gotten into special abilities intrinsic to the characters, some straight per-level bonuses (such as a Base Defense Bonus to balance out the Base Attack Bonus increases), and modifiable magic items.

I also considered the Weapons of Legacy approach — but designed such that they don’t destroy the intrinsic capabilities of the characters themselves in the process (since that seems to be a significant problem with the rules in the Weapons of Legacy book). I ultimately discarded it because of the fact that it doesn’t really solve the whole problem, but only mitigates it a little. Not everything can be a Weapon of Legacy without both making the game a bit duller and significantly damaging suspension of disbelief in the “specialness” of the things.

What I really need is a way to give characters the benefits of magic items, perhaps with actual magic items, but let those benefits grow with the characters rather than having to be periodically replaced because you’ve outgrown that Sword of Magnificent Power you acquired eight levels ago. More than that, it has to do so without taking an idea that would work great as an extreme rarity and turning it into a commonplace commodity. It also has to be entirely believable within the context of the game, and has to be believable for every adventuring party in a campaign world I run.

As of tonight, I’ve come to think that characters should perhaps acquire some kind of resources, in an out of character metagame sense, that can be translated into the same sort of benefits you get out of the magic item treasure churn. I’m considering two different approaches to the idea.

Two Approaches

In both of these approaches, the idea isn’t so much that characters’ weapons just spontaneously power up at semi-regular intervals as that they become more invested in their favorite pieces of gear and thus forge some kind of connection with them that grants greater capabilities through their use. As an alternative interpretation, I might completely change the very concept of (permanent, non-consumed) magic items, such that they are not specific, static repositories of easily defined power; instead, each has a sort of character or essence unique to it, and as a character becomes increasingly attuned to it, he or she begins being able to manifest greater power through the use of the item.

Experience Equals Gold:

The first approach was inspired by the notion of that chart in the 3.5 DMG that gives guidelines for how much wealth a character should have at each level. At first, my idea was to just give the PCs some fraction — perhaps half — of the wealth the guidelines suggest, and let them spend the rest on bonuses and special abilities for their gear. Ultimately, however, I decided that introducing yet another number to the game, and having to figure out where to draw the line between money and magic, might be a touch problematic. I’d much rather use experience advancement as a guideline.

Looking at the “Fast” character advancement column in the Pathfinder RPG Beta, I see that the experience totals are almost exactly three times the wealth values in that DMG chart. Okay, so dividing that number by three — or multiplying the value of all magic item bonuses and special abilities by three — seems a little broken. It’s the start of an idea, but it’s going to have to get some wrinkles ironed out.

Feats For Magic Items:

The second approach that occurred to me tonight involves giving PCs more feats, and letting players spend some on special abilities for magic items. For instance, with Pathfinder RPG’s feat gains at every odd-numbered level, I would just fill in the even numbered levels with feat gains as well and let players spend feats on powers for magic items. Some would be prerequisites for others, most likely, and there might be some limit on how many feats you can spend on a single item. There might also be some powers that require more than one feat slot to acquire.

A variation on this might involve giving characters magic item power points at even levels that are distinct from feats, so that there’s no overlap between feats and magic item improvements. Whether this would ultimately make the job of defining the magic item advancement system easier or more difficult is open to debate, I think.

Wrapping Up:

I guess this will bear some further thought. I’m open to suggestions, and interested in discussion, if you have some to offer.

I’m sure I’ll settle on something eventually. Maybe I’ll playtest an idea somewhere along the way, mostly playing it by ear, and see how it works out. If and when I have a complete system worked out, I’m sure I’ll make it publicly availalbe — probably right here at SOB.


  1. Here’s my suggestion: everyone needs to stop trying to run low-magic campaigns. When was the last time you talked to someone and they were like “hey, I think we need to run a high magic campaign where everyone has scads of magic items and people take their clothes to the magic laundromat and the residuum needs to be swept up off the street!”

    Never. Everyone wants to run low-magic, “gritty” campaigns. I’m tired of it. I want to see PCs lit up like christmas trees with magic items.

    Comment by Patriarch917 — 30 August 2008 @ 11:15

  2. When was the last time you talked to someone and they were like “hey, I think we need to run a high magic campaign where everyone has scads of magic items and people take their clothes to the magic laundromat and the residuum needs to be swept up off the street!”


    That’s because what you described is pretty much just a very slight exaggeration of the default. Games generally are so high-magic that PCs are lit up like Christmas trees, unless someone makes a specific effort to run a game with lower than average availability of magic.

    . . . and you may be tired of people wanting to run low-magic campaigns, but I’m tired of 98% of games being high-magic campaigns, where every three or four levels (if not more often) a fighter throws away a magic sword he once thought was uber-powerful because he has a better one now. I’m tired of games where the paths of the PCs are littered with discarded magic items that are too weak to bother using.

    Comment by apotheon — 30 August 2008 @ 11:21

  3. I would also prefer high magic campaign because it has become a convention to have magical stuff in games. So such kind of things are very important but a user would be more interested if there will be high magical stuff and that must also be of some new and unique sort

    Comment by PSP Games — 31 August 2008 @ 01:27

  4. For those really wanting a highi-magic campaign, I highly recommend Rifts. I love the game, but it’s very much a power-game, especially in the magic department.

    I want to get into D&D/Pathfinder specifically because I want more fantasy and less magic.

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 1 September 2008 @ 06:20

  5. A Third Approach Advancement charts for each general class of magic items. As the PC gains XP, the items he carries advance their XP chart(s) in tandem. As they level up as individual items, their powers extend or diversify. A simple +1 sword that the character has had since 2nd level will become a formidable 11th Level Enchanted Weapon (with the properties of a +5 Frostbrand or whatever) by the time she reaches 12th.

    Comment by Vin Diakuw — 2 September 2008 @ 03:15

  6. I want to avoid having to spec out the progression of power for every single magic item in the game in advance. If I turn it into a power-buying system, the XP chart idea just becomes another minor variation in one of the ideas I brought up above.

    On the other hand, I do kinda like the idea of the item just advancing with the character, rather than spending points on different objects willy-nilly, if I go with an “all magic items work like this” kind of approach.

    Thanks for commenting, Vin.

    Comment by apotheon — 2 September 2008 @ 04:42

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