Chad Perrin: SOB

11 September 2008

Special Item Advancement

Filed under: RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 12:57

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

In magic items without expiration dates, I bemoaned what I called the “treasure churn” approach to magic item acquisition in the typical D&D game. In short, my point was that it devalued magic items themselves — meant to be special items of Great Power, but relegated to the status of “easy come, easy go” as a character advances in level and outgrows earlier magic items, thus requiring items of greater power to replace them. I proposed fixing the matter by either instilling the major benefits normally acquired through magic items in the person instead or by coming up with a good system for handling special items that can grow in power with the character in a manner that is both reasonably well balanced and well-suited to maintaining suspension of disbelief within the context of the game world.

Most of that SOB entry focused on the idea of items that grow with the character, but only in the most general of terms, discussing some vague concepts for how to handle such items and initial impressions of how they may be incorporated into a game, but not really nailing down a solid system to implement. This entry represents my first attempted at a system complete and fleshed out enough to actually put into use and playtest with my current D&D gaming group before I make it a permanent system for future Pathfinder RPG games I run (since all future campaigns I start that might have otherwise been D&D are likely to end up being PRPG instead).

I tailored the system to use the GP values for special items as presented in the PHB (which discusses masterwork items), the DMG, and the Magic Item Compendium, in particular. I made that decision because the ideal way to do it — with a simpler point system using much smaller numbers — would essentially require recreating a whole system of relative item power value, which is not very easily portable. I may come up with such a system in the future, but for now I’m just going to go with the GP value numbers I can get out of existing books.

Note that this system may change slightly if I find discrepancies between the special items of D&D 3.5 and those of PRPG that require further massaging of my system, but I think it will work admirably well as-is with the materials in the D&D 3.5 books at least. My major concern is with how smoothly and easily this system might be incorporated into the way we do things in my games, once the players encounter the rules. If that works out — in other words, if playability turns out well in playtesting — all I’ll need to do after that point is tweak and polish a little, I think.

The main body of this entry consists of four sections: Acquiring Item Enhancements, Masterwork and Special Material Items, Special Item Traits, and two sections of notes — one on how traits should be used titled Traits Are For Character Background, and one touching on how one might conceive of special item concepts titled Creating Special Items. Without further ado, then:

Acquiring Item Enhancements

At even numbered levels, a character accumulates item enhancement points — akin to feats, but for possessions rather than the person.

Those points can be spent on discovered, unlocked, imbued, or otherwise manifesting special abilities of magic items.

(edit: I don’t know what I was smoking when I first wrote this, but I got the formula all wrong. The following paragraph has been fixed to reflect the way it should read.)

The maximum gold pieces’ value of magical enhancements that a character can access in a single item is equal to the sum of all natural numbers up to, and including, the character’s experience level, multiplied by six hundred. The formula for this is:

  300 x s(L) where
  L = character level
  s(n) = 1 if (n = 1); n + s(n - 1) if (n > 1)

Laid out as a chart:

  Level:    Maximum Value:
     1             300
     2             900
     3           1,800
     4           3,000
     5           4,500
     6           6,300
     7           8,400
     8          10,800
     9          13,500
    10          16,500
    11          19,800
    12          23,400
    13          27,300
    14          31,500
    15          36,000
    16          40,800
    17          45,900
    18          51,300
    19          57,000
    20          63,000

The costs listed in the DMG for bonuses (such as weapon and armor bonuses) are cumulative, not total. Therefore, a +2 armor having a base cost of 4,000 for its magical bonuses is actually a combination of 1,000 for the +1 and 3,000 for an additional +1 on top of that, producing a cumulative bonus of +2.

Finally, each one of these special item enhancement pseudo-feats is worth roughly a +1 enhancement bonus value — making a +1 added to a new item much less costly than a +1 added to an item with a +4 value already for a total of +5. The magical enhancements in the DMG and Magic Item Compendium are all given values in a manner that makes them translatable to and from enhancement bonuses in terms of their value with relative ease, thanks to the correspondences drawn between certain non-numeric magical enhancements and numerical enhancement bonuses. The rough equivalency of actual value numbers for those items that do not correspond in value with numerical enhancement bonuses because they have static GP values means they’re relatively easy to handle as well, in that a character simply cannot acquire for his or her special item a static value enhancement whose value is higher than what he or she could acquire as a bonus or bonus-corresponding value.

Any magic items that exceed these value totals should be regarded as special items to be handed out only sparingly and with deliberate plot-driving needs in mind, at the GM’s discretion and not the players’ insistence.

If anyone reading this has any ideas for what to call these item enhancement “feats”, please let me know. I haven’t come up with a term yet.

Masterwork and Special Material Items

Masterwork craftsmanship and special materials cannot be added to an item as an enhancement at some point after the item is acquired in the first place. These qualities must exist from the moment of item creation, for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

Masterwork items are able to be magically enhanced at a later time, however, just as though they were magical items. Because special material items — such as armor made out of mithral — must generally be masterwork as a prerequisite for being fashioned of such a material, they may typically be enhanced at a later time the same as masterwork items crafted from more mundane materials.

Special Item Traits

The Pathfinder Adventure Paths introduced a new optional rule: character traits. A nascent form, manifest as character background related feats, appeared in the Player’s Guide to the Rise of the Runelords AP; traits themselves first appeared in the Player’s Guide for the Curse of the Crimson Throne AP; a finalized system for traits appeared in the first Pathfinder Companion, which contains Player’s Guide materials for the Second Darkness AP. If you don’t have access to traits-related material, you might consider not granting your PCs any “free” traits at all, and just allow them to buy additional equipment value traits as described in the following paragraphs using starting feats.

In the first Pathfinder Companion, it is recommended that starting characters get two “traits” at first level — an optional rule I will be likely to employ in future campaigns. Additional traits (or initial traits, if the GM does not allow any bonus traits) may be purchased for a new character at a cost of one feat per two traits. The official traits system does not suggest this, as of my most recent observations, but in my special item advancement system traits can be spent to acquire special item value — higher cost basic items, masterwork quality, and special material construction — but no magical bonuses or qualities without the GM’s explicit approval. Generally, no magical bonuses or powers should be purchased in this manner, except possibly up to a maximum value of 150 GP (the maximum value provided in the above chart and formula for a first level character, and exactly one trait’s worth of value) for a single item — which is quite prohibitive, except perhaps for low-power potions and similarly trivial items. Otherwise, such value should be expended only for nonmagical special items, expensive items, and qualities of items, for first level characters.

Such trait expenditures for special item values start at 150, then advance according to the maximum value per level progression as shown in the above chart — thus, one trait buys 150, another buys 600, a third 1800, a fourth 3600, and so on. This only applies if spend on a single item, and any left over points of value are forfeit. If value is to be split among separate items, it must be spent on them separately, so that (for instance) four points may be spent on one item to bring it up to 3600, and two on another for 600, but no points spent on either may be shared with the other so that a strict separation of values is maintained.

Traits Are For Character Background

The above rules add up to the potential for a first-level character to start out with an item of legacy handed down by his family, gained through illicit means from some other family’s heritage, or otherwise possessed at first level with the ability to advance in power along with the character. Thus, character concepts that involve a strong attachment to a particular item for sentimental (or other non-metagaming) reasons will not (significantly) handicap such a character as he or she advances in level.

Mundane wealth may also be purchased at first level, in the case of characters whose initial concept assumes medium or heavier armor or other high-cost items but does not necessarily involve any masterwork or other intrinsically special items.

Neither legacy items nor particular spoils of material wealth should be allowed to be purchased in this manner without an important tie into the character concept as a matter of the character’s background. For instance, a legacy item might be inherited from a heroic ancestor, passed down through generations to the character who now treasures the item as a family heirloom, or perhaps the character had stolen a 1000 GP spyglass from a pirate captain (thus marking the character as hunted by pirates if it should ever be discovered he or she possessed the spyglass). The key is that traits are to be spent to flesh out character background, and not just to acquire greater statistical advantages in the game.

Creating Special Items

This section has nothing to do with in-character manufacture of special items. Instead, it relates to how you, as a GM or player, may conceive of and design a special item.

Fred, at drop the dice, recently wrote an excellent overview of a means of working out the background, descriptive details, and essential concept of special items in How to Create a Magic Item. The focus is on creating original, inspired, rich histories and characters (in a manner of speaking) for magical items. Even if you are not inclined to follow through the steps of a “system” such as he provided there, it’s well worth the read just to get some pointers for how one might think about the process of creating special item concepts.

The same sort of care should be taken, and the same intensity of imagination invested, in the creation of all special items described in this SOB entry. Even mundane, expensive items acquired at first level using traits should receive no less attention, because those traits are meant to flesh out a character’s background — not just provide a means of beefing up a min/max bundle of stats with a name. In fact, the idea of developing a unique essence, a theme if you will, for a special item is central to the very concept of special item advancement (i.e., magic items without expiration dates).


My weekly game, previously on Thursdays, is being shifted to Fridays to accommodate the changing schedule of one of the players. This Friday, then, I’ll see if the players all want to give this system for special item acquisition a try, and adapt our ongoing game to use this system. I suspect they’ll be up for it, and I have high hopes.

Let me know if you see any glaring flaws in the system, or have any suggestions. I don’t guarantee I’ll take your suggestions, but if I believe they’re serious and constructive, I will at least aim to consider them in the spirit in which they’re offered.


  1. Very interesting piece my lad. It has the surprising effect of making me want to pick up and read the Pathfinder RPG Beta that I have lying around in my PC desktop (although I’d be out of players for it.) So let’s see…

    With my limited experience (very limited) in D&D, one thing that instantly looked like a “danger Will Robinson” is the possibility of trading feats for traits (as noted in one of the sections.) This seems a very good idea to me, but considering a heavy balanced game (or a game about heavy balancing, or one that tries to be so at least) like D&D, I think this will create its share of raised eyebrows from some players who will be trying to compute the economic value of making this trade.

    It’s not that I am against it (quite the contrary), but it seems to me that there is some “It’s not THAT hard to roll up a new character” people that can find this a bit perpendicular to their gaming style (especially considering the amount of creation needed to really see this idea shine.)

    That being said, I’m always iffy about levels… maybe some D&D bully beat me up when I was a kid or something like that, but I just don’t trust them too much. I am also bitter, so that might have something to do with it =P . In any case the adjudication of traits could also be achieved by handing them out as threads (basically story arcs, both small and big, that the characters are involved with) move back and forth, or regarding some other variable that doesn’t necessarily work at the meta-game level. Your approach is certainly cleaner and makes for a very transparent mechanic though.

    Also, thank you for the reference to my article. I think I’ve seen you use the word system like “system” a few times, and I think I’m slowly getting the hint… a hint which I think goes a bit like “You ignorant foreigner stop using a word you don’t even know the meaning of” so I promise I’ll try to groom my vocabulary*. Is process good enough?


    • That was a joke, ha ha ha funny me.

    PS: Is there any way I could contact you by e-mail or some other means? I need to ask you a question regarding the… D&D license? I don’t even know the name. I recall you wrote a few things about that some time ago. In any case, let me know.

    Comment by the_blunderbuss — 11 September 2008 @ 07:37

  2. Any “scare quotes” around the word “system” weren’t intended to comment negatively on your use of the term, if that’s what you’re worried about. I sometimes use “scare quotes” that way, but I also use them at times to denote a term that I’m not 100% comfortable using in current context (but for which I don’t have a better term handy), and occasionally I use them for other reasons as well. I guess it’s hopelessly heuristic and incredibly context-sensitive, which is probably a failure of communication clarity on my part. In this particular case, I just wanted to make it clear that what I was referring to was itself kind of heuristic and subject to interpretation, since it’s kind of a set of suggested guidelines rather than of strict, hard-and-fast rules. If you use the term “system” with more certainty, it doesn’t bother me.

    “Process” might work at least as well, if you like. Just don’t take anything I’ve said as an indication of criticism. I’m really not as mean an ogre as some people think. In fact, I’m not an ogre at all — I’m more of an ork.

    The traits system, in case I wasn’t clear about it, is meant to be used only at character creation. The traits actually provided in the Pathfinder Companion are pretty much exactly half as powerful as normal feats. My posited use of item value traits is one that could be . . . well, dangerous for game balance. Of course, that’s probably only really a problem if you have a bunch of munchkins in the game. Within the context of a reasonably good bunch of roleplaying (as opposed to rollplaying) oriented players, I think this variation is pretty much purely positive, assuming it plays smoothly enough.

    There’s a contact page link at the top of the right-hand column of this site. It delivers directly to my email inbox. I tend to figure something like that is about the safest way to let people contact me, since that means I don’t have to post an email address publicly. If you send me a message via that contact page (and fill out the email address field), I’ll be able to email you back directly, and neither of us needs to post email addresses in the open.

    Comment by apotheon — 11 September 2008 @ 09:05

  3. […] or subtract rules to improve on what I see as flaws in the game mechanics. My recent SOB entry on Special Item Advancement — a means of dealing with magic items such that they advance with the character in a fairly […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » The Hacker GM — 12 September 2008 @ 02:16

  4. […] not specifically related to the Baran Cole “problem”. One such result of these ponderations was Special Item Advancement, an idea for a set of rules designed for adjudicating customized special items — magic items, […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » Two Levels for Everyone! . . . or maybe none. — 6 August 2009 @ 01:55

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