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Sunday, 2nd November, 2008, 11:48 PM #1
Novice (Lvl 1)
Treasure Troubles Resulting in Item Points
The treasure troubles started with Anna Ademia.
Anna was a Frost Maiden. She had been born with a tiny white scar on her back, cold to the touch. It grew as she did, sending out criss-crossing tendrils of frost down her legs and up her neck. She was twenty-two, now. The snowy patterns ringed her face, and brushed the backs of her hands. In a year or two more, it would cover her completely, and she would fall into an enchanted sleep, and her sisters would come to ferry her to the ice hall under Rundis where the Frost Maidens together dream of the day Hidris awakes them to the final battle at the turning of the age.
But two more years to prepare for the final battle, and she was to become an elite sword maiden in that time. Maedris, her matron, had concluded her training at Rundis with the advice that battle, not training, made true veterans. Handing her a bastard sword, she had been sent forth into the world with a single mission: "Master this blade." Time was short, so Anna lived hard. She barely slept. She sought battle at any opportunity. In time, she would reforge what Maedris had given her into the diamond-frost blade of her elite sisters, and fight hard to master it.
In game terms, Anna was a level 1 Fighter, with a mundane bastard sword. I planned to follow the Kensai Paragon Path, and make up a Frost Maiden epic destiny when things got that far. I planned to enchant her one sword as a frost weapon at every tier, and as some flavor, say the unique magic of that blade would turn it harder and more transleucent, until at last she held the famed diamond-frost blade that was the signature weapon of the elite swordmaidens of Hidris. Heck, maybe I could talk the DM into letting me make the last enchantment a little special. Who knows.
That all seemed pretty good, so I determined to save every last copper of Anna's income until I could enchant a +1 Frost weapon. It was only two levels out, and 680 gp. After that, I could worry about little things like defenses.
So I waited and saved . . . through level 1, level 2, level 3, level 4. That was about seven weeks. Let me tell you, that's a long time not to buy any items for your character. Partway through level 4, finally the goal appeared on the horizon. Just another hundred gold or so, and I could do it. And then we fought some random orcs, and one of them carried a Christmas present for Anna: A +2 Adamantine bastard sword.
Well, it was nice. Very nice. But I refused it on the spot, much to the astonishment and irritation of the DM and other players. (They didn't know my story; we were on a rotating DM system, and I wanted to reveal things slowly over time, if at all). They argued with me. The DM had gone looking for a cool item just for Anna--as the rules had told him to do--and it was the biggest item we'd see for another level. The damage output was way better than what I was carrying, and the benefit to the party of me hitting 10% more often was not something to be ignored. Well, since my spine is made of wet noodles and I have a history of not standing up for my character concepts, I agreed.
I simply made up my mind to save every cent of Anna's income until I could afford a +2 Frost weapon. It was only four levels out and . . . *sigh* . . . 3400 gold. But in my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn't going to happen. The odds of a DM handing out a +3 weapon of specialness before then were high. And we'd have the same conversation again. And I'd give in again. And even if they did hand out a frost weapon, it wouldn't be the one Maedris had given her, and I had wanted the enchantment to come from Anna herself.
A little warning bell sounded in the back of my head. Why was the DM handing out +2 items before I could afford +1s? It wasn't just Anna, it was happening across the board. +2 neck items were flowing out of the treasure like water, and we'd never even seen +1s. Heck, we didn't even have enough money to buy them yet! The hope of enchanting all our own magic items had started to fade. That Enchant Magic Item ritual scroll we'd had for a few levels . . . well, we still had it. Most of the treasure dropped by random foes seemed designed for one of the charaters, and it certainly trounced anything we could buy ourselves. We were better off dropping hints to the DM than buying items, and by far the biggest and most character-defining items were up to DM fiat.
That didn't seem right. And I knew I'd seen it before . . . in 3.5 epic. As you well know, the Epic Tax increases the price of any magic item deemed 'epic' by tenfold, for no particular reason. Early on in epic, before our income caught up with the new economy, we could buy as many pre-epic items as we wanted, but truly character-defining epic items were utterly dependant on the DM's whims. To his credit, our DM at the time took pains to craft an epic item specifically for each character, but the reception was disappointing. Where his read was good and the player was open to that kind of influence, the response was tepid gratitude. Where his read was poor or the player was defensive about character development . . . the results ranged from open conflict to quiet resentment.
It wasn't just that DM, either. When the tables were turned, and that DM went back to playing and my husband took up the chair, the two of us worked together to craft an item for the character that had been missing. Now, we knew that character and player very well, and spent hours designing something we were sure was appropriate, a crowning memory. And then we excitedly sent the player a note about the item before putting it in the game, and the response was . . . polite rejection. Surprise!
So . . . the Epic Tax, on the whole, had sucked. The DM just had too much control over the loot, and players had too little part in their own characer development. They dropped hints for the DM, and sometimes the DM followed up on them. They shared design notes, and sometimes the DM used them. And sometimes not. And there was no money with which to fill in holes in concept or otherwise express things--you were stuck with what you got.
And 4E was feeling that way from the start.
Our 4E test game ended and the group did a reset. We reimagined our characters and started a new campaign, and I'm in the chair this time. I had given them 5500 gp at level 5 to spend on any items they liked (yes, I know that's more than the DMG says. Hush.), and we had just picked up Adventurer's Vault. I found the results spectacular.
Cas, our minotaur barbarian on a quest to understand the meaning and value of blood, carries a big Battlecrazed Axe, a weapon that feeds on blood itself. Iconel, a wizard who specializes in the study of force and fog, wields a +2 Master Wand of Magic Missile, pushing foes all over the field. Illishan, an amnesiac and dishonored warrior, carries but a single memory of the past: a giant +2 Frost fullblade, granted to him by a people he has forgotten and abandoned, as an award for great valor.
There are more examples, but these get the point across: Items are a key part of character creation. And remembering Anna, I began to look to the future with fear. The awesome items tied into the backstory are only going to last so long before they start to look lackluster compared to what monsters drop. The DMG said to drop things appropriate for the characters, but I didn't trust my judgement--I'd had a hard time offering suggestions during chargen, and was wrong as often as right. And anyway, I didn't want to shadow character stories with bigger items. How lame is it to be carrying a memory of the past that you have to set aside for what you picked off a random bandit's body?
I was really nervous about filling out those higher level treasure parcels. It's with powerful items that near misses are deadly. It's easy to reject an item your character can't use, no matter how powerful it is. It's harder to reject a powerful item your character can use, but which is totally wrong. The Frost Maiden isn't going to be tempted by a fire sword, and the Paladin isn't going to look twice at the vampiric axe even if it's +4. But those really near misses--the ones where the item is powerful, and it's sorta kinda right, and you're not giving up all that much and the group needs you to use it . . . those are the items that kill characters bit by bit. It takes an alert and strong player to say no to that, and that's the sort of conflict the treasure system seems to guarantee will happen every week.
For the first few sessions, I was distracted with other things, and I figured I could ignore the problem for a while. I converted a couple of the higher level magic items into their full gold value, partly to make the players' eyes pop at the size of the horde, and partly reasoning this turned an MI level 8 parcel into an MI Level 8 Coupon parcel. Where I did put in magic items, I limited them to utility things--a generic +2 neck item here, some minor Boots of Forgettable Buff there. I stayed far, far away from big weapons and such. But such ad hockery wasn't going to last forever. What had been a knee-jerk reaction to my experience with Anna was going to have to develop into a more principled system.
So, today I sat down with the treasure parcel tables to do some math, figure out what was going on, and come up with a principled solution.
So here's what I found.
First, I looked at the prices of magic items by level. Here are the prices:
1: 360 x5 . . . 6: 1800 x5 . . . 11: 9000 x5 . . . etc. 2: 520 x5 . . . 7: 2600 x5 . . . 12: 13000 3: 680 x5 . . . 8: 3400 x5 . . . 13: 17000 4: 840 x5 . . . 9: 4200 x5 . . . 14: 21000 5: 1000 x5 . . . 10: 5000 x5 . . . 15: 25000
So then I started to look at the gold-only income for a player. Now, this is optimistic. Rituals cost money, and your DM might be sneakily converting some gold into potions of healing. But assuming neither of those happens, here's what you get per player, per level:
1: 144 x5 . . . 6: 720 2: 208 x5 . . . 7: 1040 3: 271 x5 . . . 8: 1360 4: 336 x5 . . . 9: 1680 5: 400 x5 . . . 10: 2000 1-5: 1359 6-10: 6800
Anyway, the upshot is that if you combine all the gold you get over the five levels in a magic item tier, you can afford two items in the tier. And not just any two. It's the cost of the top and bottom item, or two middle items. That seemed pretty reasonable to me until I thought about it--there are three key slots: weapon, armor, neck item. Everyone's got three major items to keep up, and you could spend all your gold just getting two of them to not lag too far behind your level. Heaven help you of there's, say, a truly definitive shield or ring or something that you'd like to get.
Still, I like the curve, though the actual amount of income seems low. Saving for 5 levels (that's like . . . 10 weeks of tabletime!) just to get a mediocre item requires a lot of discipline. But the curve in general seems balanced; if I want you to be able to buy four items at your tier, I could just double the amount of gold you get, and it's not likely to spill over into other tiers and let you get something too big. So that's good.
The real shock came when I compared that with what the DM hands out for magic items. What do you get over the five levels of one of these tiers?
1: L2, L3, L4, L5 2: L3, L4, L5, L6 3: L4, L5, L6, L7 4: L5, L6, L7, L8 5: L6, L7, L8, L9
To summarize, over five levels, you pick up the following six items:
Your tier: Two you pick, two your DM picks. And your DM picks the more powerful ones, on average.
Next tier: Two the DM picks.
As a final note, when adding players, the DMG encourages you to add more high level items, and not to add any gold. So the DM stranglehold on the loot gets worse. (We'd been playing with seven characters for a while . . . and it was brutal. One of our players hadn't happened to pick up any magic items by level 4, and didn't have the money to buy a single level 1 item either.)
That whole thing is a recipe for the DM picking all of the most character-defining items, and the player maybe, possibly, having the ability to fill in a few cracks. Unpleasant.
So now that I understood what was going on, what to do about it?
The solution offered by the DMG is poor. It says the DM should solicit wish-lists from the players, and then put those items in the game. But that's silly; we don't provide the DM with wish lists for feats and powers, and ask him to build the character. That would suck. The point is for the player to have control. Yeah, strange and wonderous things should happen, and the DM should surprise you sometimes. But come on. Having the DM pick off of a list is simultaneously hokey and too powerful. Even the most benevolent and perspicacious DM is going to screw it up way too often. If you really want the players to pick their items, just give them the gold and cut out the middleman!
It was clear I was going to have to do something else.
But there were bits of the current system I liked. It's an improvement over 3.5 in a lot of ways. Non-random treasure is a big win. Consistent treasure value is a big win. Ease of putting things into the game--just pull it off a list!--instead of rolling and rolling and rolling was a major win. Even separating magic items out into tiers and keeping the players' power level even and predictable, as much as I complain about the effects of the Epic Tax, is a win.
Beyond that, I like how many items you get. Six over five levels is nice, especially when only three are taken up by key attack and defense items--weapon, armor, neck. I like that you get some items that are conspicuously powerful--so you can play the guy with the Big Freaking Sword and it stands out against the rest of the party. Yeah, I like what you get. I just don't like who picks it! The DM picks the most powerful four out of the six, for every character? No thank you. It should be the player. Those bigger magic item parcels should be coupons.
I also dislike how little control you have over *how* you get your items. I know D&D is all about Killing Things and Taking Their Stuff, but I'm a bit of a spoiled roleplayer these days. I don't want to just have a cool item, I want to have it for a cool reason. Now, don't get me wrong, plunder can be a cool reason. "I tore this fell wand from the grip of my defeated arch-nemesis the necromancer." That's cool. But that's not the only way for it to happen, and that's a pretty generous characterization of how it usually happens. More commonly, your +3 Sword of Awesome was carried by Orc 47. And it completely overshadows your ancestral blade. Lame. I want to be able to forge things or seek out a mighty wizard for a custom enchantment or have deities spontaneously imbue things or whatever. I don't mind an orc drop now and then, but come on. We're trying to tell a story here.
I especially dislike that items that are character-defining can't grow with you. Of all the ways to get items, Enchant Item is the most sucky, and that's the only way to keep the ancestral blade in action. Sure, you can transfer enchantments, but that requires the right enchantment to spawn on the wrong weapon, which is kind of a hokey. You generally wind up replacing your old gear with new stuff, and that doesn't leave a whole lot of room for you to be wearing the tattered cloak of your old master. At least, not for very long.
So I discussed it with my husband (LotharBot on other boards), because he's brilliant at this sort of thing. Here's the modification we came up with:
Don't change the magic item parcels. Over the course of a level, these are still what you'll distribute. But you no longer have to select magic items with the expectation that the players will keep them; just put whatever you want in there. Treasure talks, so use this for roleplay. Expect the players to sell all of the items a tier up from them (which will make up for what I perceive as a gold deficiency).
Since the magic items are separated into five level tiers, we'll separate the players the same way. Low Heroic, High Heroic, Low Paragon, etc. At the beginning of each of these tiers, each player is given two Item points to use over the coming five levels. These Item Points represent the two higher-tier items they're expected to get over that period. There are three ways to use them.
The first, and simplest way, is to simply buy one of the higher-tier items out of the treasure pile. If one of the bigger treasure parcels in the dragon horde appeals to you, and it's a next-tier item, spend an Item Point and it's yours. Done.
The second, and most dramatic way, is to modify an existing item in game. Any time an item you already have is used in a dramatic way, you can decide (as an immediate interrupt, which modifies the outcome of the action) to use an Item Point and improve it to the tier above your current one. For example, if you are wielding a +2 Frost Fullblade and, in the middle of a boss fight, after a long and dramatic speech, suddenly crit the boss, drop him, and force the surrender of all foes . . . you could decide that the sheer awesomeness of the action causes the weapon to improve to a +3. Flavor that how you will; perhaps magic weapons draw power from legend. Perhaps your deity blessed you. Perhaps weapons simply level up like you do. Perhaps whatever inherent spiritual nature you posess just imbued the weapon with the force of your will expressed in the action. Whatever.
The intent of this is not actually to react to dramatic circumstances (though that's cool), but actually to sometimes generate them. Since it is an immediate interrupt, you could potentially use it to turn a miss into a hit, or to get one more point of damage on a hit, or to negate a hit by an enemy (which just barely hit you through your armor). And then you have a story to tell about your amulet. "Yep, saved me from the teeth of a kraken once, it did . . . "
There are some rules for this usage. First and foremost, whatever happened has to make a cool story. If we don't all think it's cool, the item doesn't improve and you keep your point. I don't suspect this'll be too hard to regulate--it's just a stunting system. It should be the sort of cool event you only see about once a month per player; that's not rocket science. Second, the item improves to an item of the same type. Frost swords stay frost swords. As an exception, you could do something very similar if the higher level item doesn't exist at the lower level--Radiant Swords could become Holy Avengers, or Vicious weapons could become Vorpal, so long as it makes thematic sense. Third, the item level is simply set to the tier above yours. You can't use this to bump something up higher than the treasure parcels would normally give you.
The third, catchall use, is to improve an existing item offscreen or acquire a new one of the appropriate tier. To do this, tell the DM what you want and how you think you'll get it. The story has to be cool. It's entered into the canon, and will probably involve at least a nominal quest at the table.
If you haven't used your two Item Points by the time you level to the next tier, they're gone. So use them. (Though you don't lose that much if you were saving them for something in particular. You'll get two more, and they'll be just as powerful.)
So . . . pros and cons.
I think this is freeing in terms of item origin and choice for players. It removes pressure from the DM. I wasn't enjoying the deathgrip on items, and I'm pretty sure the players weren't either. It rewards dramatic roleplaying, and I'm always all for that. It sneakily introduces FYIA points, something I've always wanted to do.
I'm a little concerned about regulating the pacing. I don't think the players are all going to blow them on the first level, but that really has to do with setting the precedent for how cool the stunt has to be. We'll see. We might start with nominations.
I'm also a little concerned that the treasure is now integrated over wider windows. Items of the same tier are now all a pretty equivalent price, if they're one of your big two. I think I'm mostly okay with that, but it does mean we'll occasionally have level 6 guys walking around with level 14 items. At the end of the day, it's really not that bad--it's just a level 9 item with another +1, and he's stuck with it until level 11.
And heck. I never worry about making the players too awesome . . .
What do you think?
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Monday, 3rd November, 2008, 05:22 AM #2
Thaumaturgist (Lvl 9)
hmm, long post.
I am running into similar problems with treasures. The four man party is about to reach 4th, and they have found 8 items so far. Then one player dropped taking 2 items.
They have gotten most of the gold parcels and have somewhere around 300 gp each, which is not enough to purchase even level 1 items. I was wondering why. Instead they bought two horses and a wagon and a pair of healing potions. Thanks for running the math, it makes more sense now.
I asked for magic item wish lists, but two players don't have the inclination to search though the books for the best items and it feels weird to be taking requests. I will have to give these strange item points some thought.
I also worry about hits and misses in the items I hand out each item has had an individual descriptions, with implied backstories and crafter motivations. But this is a lot of work, and if the PC would have preferred something else it was a waste of work. I told the thief his duelist dagger would level up with him, but level 8 seems a long way, I forgot why I made this promise, I think it was something neat he did in character back at level 2. We are running 1 level per 3 sessions, the same rate we averaged in 3.5 - with holiday breaks thats 4 months before level 8.
Monday, 3rd November, 2008, 10:06 AM #3
Excellent idea! I've been having trouble putting together treasure for my players, but I thought it was a communication problem, not a mechanical problem. This works so much better.
You'll still have players upgrading every 5 levels like clockwork ("Level 8? Time for Anna's next frost sword") but it won't be every character getting two level + 9 items when they hit 1/6/11/... Also, this is still a bit stronger than PHB standard (why get a level + 2 item as suggested to the DM when you could get a level + 5 item?), but it's a minor power upgrade and all items remain viable.
Overall, this is an excellent variation. I will definitely be using this in my game, and I am confident it will be very successful.
Monday, 3rd November, 2008, 10:36 AM #4
Grandfather of Assassins (Lvl 19)
I think this could work quite well for groups that still have the DM hand out at least some treasure. Groups who think that the DM should have total control over the distribution of magic items are not likely to like it though.
My group has gone even further than item points and has been playing with a convention that relieves DMs of giving out treasure and magic items since the later years of 3e. Basically, every time you gain a level, you get to re-select your equipment, up to the standard wealth level for a character of your new level. In 4e, this translates to: one magic item of your level+1, one magic item of your level, one magic item of your level-1, and gold equal to the value of one magic item of your level-1 which you can spend on equipment, rituals, or other magic items as you want.
This does have the potential for a total swap-out of equipment once every level, so if you want a more organic accumulation of magic items, you could allow characters to gain a magic item of level+1 at every level increase instead, and magic items that have been effectively "replaced" (a +1 frost sword that has become a +2 frost sword, for example) could be converted into gold at 1/5 value, as normal. As always, you can flavor how your equipment has changed any way you want, e.g. you found it, it was given to you as a reward, you got it enhanced, it enhanced itself, etc.
Thursday, 6th November, 2008, 11:17 AM #5
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
My group is a strange lot... They HATE both the idea of magic item shops (just buy the appropriate item for them) and the idea of tailor treasures exactly to them.
What they want? Completely random treasure, useful or not... If a parcel of a very good magic item is unuseful for them, that is all ok. They have more fun in that randomness that in min/max the character.
I am not saying that they are right or wrong. Just that this is the manner how things works for us. Some groups find more comfortable just selecting the right magic items according story and background. Others want powerful items from parcels. Yet others just want to be unsure about they get or not.
Said that, I am comfortable with the idea that monsters "drop" magic items more powerful than you are able to do or buy with money. However, if any other group has complaints with this, it is all ok. Just find a way that works for you and have fun
Friday, 7th November, 2008, 07:29 PM #6
Novice (Lvl 1)
I hemmed and hawed for a while about how wide the window should be. On the one hand, of course, you're right: five is the right number. It breaks the items up within their tiers with perfect granularity. On the other hand, when you first get your bigger item points, you can only use them for generic items. That's not too exciting. Nobody seems to want or carry the generic +x items, so I'd like a little wider of a window to work with. I bumped it up to level + 6, to allow interesting items to be accessible at every level.
Yours was probably the right call from a game balance perspective. But I like mine from the perspective of casting a wider net for moments of awesome to apply.
One obvious consequence of this is that you shouldn't lose your old item points when you enter the new tier. At level 11, +3 items in loot should no longer take your +3 item points; they're now the appropriate level for you. But you could still use those +3 item points to improve that level 10 weapon you've been waiting to take to 15. Otherwise you'd only have a night or two to manage it.
I introduced this system to the players the other night. The reaction was pretty positive. I asked, "Anybody feeling a little cash-strapped?" and got a pretty strong response. Evidently, I hadn't been the only one feeling that way. Unsurprising, really; I like story, and really only had the one item I cared about for story reasons. Our more treasure-oriented player had really been feeling the burn.
Since the characters were right at the start of level 6, we started off right away with two item points each, good for a level 11-15 item (and right now good up to level 12). The only other change I made was to remove use #3--improving an item off-screen. Basically, it's equivalent to the old wish-list scenario. If you really want to do that, we can talk and set something up. As it is, it's kinda hokey.
The pacing turned out to not be a problem. I said, "So . . . about once a session something really, really cool happens." And everybody knew what I was talking about. And when our ranger was attacking with a power that allows two attacks, and critted on BOTH attacks (double 20's, baby!), the entire table immediately recognized that that was the moment.
We'll see how it holds up long term.
A couple other nitpicks have surfaced in the intervening week. If you're inclined to be a serious bean-counter, it behooves you to carry around a generic +1 sword and improve that to +3, and then sell your old +2. I don't feel a great need to close this loophole, since it requires you to manage something awesome with a generic +1 sword while visibly abusing a system and breaking versimiltude. I don't think it'll fly. But there is the possibility. Likewise, buying items out of treasure costs the party gold, while forging them with item points is free. But it's a small difference, and the forging requires patience and effort, so I'm not too concerned.
Also, this is pretty easy to do with weapons and implements, but we're not quite sure how to do it with other things. Similarly offensive items, like a Shield of Knocking Things Over or Armbands of Hitting Really Hard shouldn't be too difficult. I'm more worried about utility items that do things like boost healing surge values or grant darkvision. It would require some serious creativity to stunt with those. We may have to be more liberal about the requirements when it comes to improving non-weapons, or the players may just have to rise to the occasion. We'll see.
I'll do a writeup and send an email out to my players with the rules and a bit of a fluff explanation. I'll post it here when I do, so others have the option to use the system as well.