Worlds of Design: When There's Too Many Magic Items
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  1. #1
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    Worlds of Design: When There's Too Many Magic Items

    If you’ve GMed a long-standing campaign where players reached fairly high levels, you may have run into problems of too much magic, or of too many low-powered magic items (such as +1 items) in the hands of the heroes. What to do?


    While you could simply buy up the surplus, there are other ways that don’t put lots of gold in character’s hands. These methods can be built into a game’s rules (as in Pathfinder 2 “resonance”) or they can be added by the GM.

    Limit the Supply (i.e., limit ownership)

    The proper game design way is to severely limit supply, as could be done in a board game. No magic item sales. Middle-earth is an example of a world with very few magic items.

    But what about joint campaigns, where several people GM in the same world? New GMs, especially, will tend to give away too much “to make people happy.”

    But that’s a setting thing, not rules/mechanisms. An RPG designer doesn’t control the setting, not even his or her own.

    In these days where “loot drops” are the norm, where every enemy in a computer RPG has loot, it’s really hard to get players accustomed to a severe shortage of stuff to find. So limit usage, or provide ways to use up the small stuff.

    Limit Usage

    • Tuning to just three (5e D&D)
    • Resonance
    • Easy to come up with other methods

    5e D&D’s tuning of magic items to characters is one of the best rules in the game, at least from a designer’s point of view.

    Pathfinder 2 beta was using resonance (level plus charisma), whereby use of a magic item uses up some of your resonance for the day, until you have no more and can use no more magic until the next day. It was more complex than that, with you “investing” in items that could then be used all day. There are lots of ways to use the idea.

    Destroy Them

    The D&D method was fireball or LB with failed saving throw. But that was so all-or-nothing that even I didn’t like it. Moreover, the tougher characters tend to end up with even more magic items, relative to others, because they fail their save less often; that may not be desirable.

    Have everything (most, anyway) wear out. This is a hassle if you have to track something like charges or uses. I assign a dice chance (or use a standard one for a type of item), and the player rolls after each use (or I do, so the player won’t know until the next time they try to use the item). When the “1" comes up, the item is done, finis, kaput (unless you allow it to be “recharged”). For example, 1 in 20 failure rate is obvious; roll a 1 on a d20, that’s it. With two dice you can make 1 in 40, 1 in 50, whatever you want. If you want armor, shields, and other passive defensive items to wear out, rolling once per combat might do.

    Burn Them Up

    • My Skyrafts
    • Furnace Helms in Spelljammer
    • Rituals?

    I devised something called Skyrafts, made of segments of Skystone (of course), that could slowly fly when powered by magic items. So you could sacrifice something like a +1 sword to get X miles of travel, X being whatever a GM wishes. The more segments (carrying capacity) in the Skyraft, the more magic it consumed. Yes, this could be expensive, but if your world has become infested with +1 items, this is a way to get rid of them.

    Furnace Helms in SpellJammer accomplish the same thing, but only if you’re running a Spelljammer campaign.

    You could also devise powerful ritual spells that consume magic items.

    “Enforcers”

    These are people who seek out wimpy characters with magic items much too powerful for them, and take them away. I don’t do this, as it doesn’t make much sense to me. But it could in some contexts.

    I'm sure others have devised yet more ways to limit the influence of magic items.

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!

  2. #2
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    This article reads like it was written 10-15 years ago. Most of these are really bad ideas. Resonance was a universally panned mechanic, on the latest podcast JB said that they had taken it out of the system for good with no replacement. "Enforcers" that come and take your magic items (and succeed, because otherwise it's just a combat encounter I guess) is one of the greatest "feel bad moments" I could possibly imagine (both as a player and as a DM).

    "Too many +1 items" is a total non-issue on the d20 system. +/-5% on the RNG is not enough to imbalance a campaign and if you are worried that the PCs will sell the items to gain wealth and then buy powerful items just limit that ("There is no one here interested in buying your items/has enough cash"; "There are no magic items here for sale that are better than what you already have").
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    "Too much" is a phrase very relative to the campaign. I have DM'd, and played, in both magic rich and magic scarce D&D games and neither was a problem so long as it fit the campaign. The real problem only arises when characters have too many items in a magic scarce campaign. This is usually the result of a Monty Hall style DM. In those cases, destruction, sale, or theft are your only real options (given the system rules are already in place and major alterations deep into a campaign would be poor form imho). While those options may hamper immersion in the short term if done poorly, the long term game balance is probably worth it. A good DM will find ways to rid players of excess magic items by working it into the existing story structure (the village needs a sacrifice to the rain gods, a wedding gift befitting a Duke, etc.).

    In cases of high level characters having collected a ton of items, I find the action economy usually becomes the limiting factor. They may have a ton of options, but they can only do one thing per round.

    One thing I always tell newer DM's running a home game, "err on the side of too few magic items, it is far easier to give more out later than to take them back".
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    I think resonance could work if tweaked. What about non-magic-users can only use, or bring forth, magical effects once per level. After that, there's only a 2 in 6 chance of success... the sword erupting in flame, the healing potion restoring you, or the ring turning you invisible?

    Yes, I'm thinking of this through an OSR lens, not Pathfinder.

    VS

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    OP, I found that reducing the number of items, while at the same time improving quality, brought the magic back into magic items for my players.

    If the game expects you to have a +1 item, and 2 minor items by the time you hit 4th level, rather than dump a bunch 12 minor items on the players, I would merge those items into something cool. So maybe the fighter finds Lightbringer, a +1 greatsword that can cast light 3x day, and make you lighter(featherfall) 3x day.
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    I must say this: the title should read "Worlds of Design: When There Are Too Many Magic Items." Call me a grammar nazi, but "items" is plural, and thus requires "are" and not "is." This a common error in spoken English, but a grammar-checker ought to pick this up when writing.

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    Gandalf: "There are many magic rings in the world, Bilbo Baggins, and none of them should be taken lightly."
    Perhaps if every magic item also has a drawback?
    E.g. +1 magic sword, but goblins automatically make the wielder their primary target.
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    I prefer my method, "Don't care."

    And in OSR, you give the spare magic to your henchmen. With enough henchmen, you never have too many magic items.
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    In many recent game systems, magic has become standard equipment and as characters go up in levels, they are supposed to get a certain amount of magic stuff. It quickly loses the feel of 'magic' and becomes just another tech thing. It has also been so well defined it is almost boring. You have ring slots(2), weapon slot, shield slot, neck slot(1), etc. And each slot seems to have a limited range of functions. Almost like a plug and play piece of electronics. Here, plug in a +1 ring of protection, a +2 armband, and a belt of strength. Oh, your character isn't working well in combat? Replace the ring of protection with a ring of ....

    Maybe if a character has more then X magic items, there is a chance of a random effect anytime any of the items is used. Yes, your +1 ring did add to your armor class so the orc's swing missed you but you now have a rather strange smell and the orc is now looking at you with... well lust! Make your saving throw vs Orc grapple.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
    I prefer my method, "Don't care."

    And in OSR, you give the spare magic to your henchmen. With enough henchmen, you never have too many magic items.
    Good points, both. Anyway, "too many" is subjective in this case, and so it's entirely based on what sort of story the group is trying to tell, and what sort of world they're trying to model.

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