D&D 5E Accounting for magic items in fifth edition.

FallenRX

Adventurer
Accounting for magic items in fifth edition is always been a bit confusing to most people and players, people always assume, fifth editions balance requires no magic items, or anything, and that magic items, are simply separate from the core math of the game.

Recently due to some words said by jeremy crawford about how 5e monsters assumes players will be at peak performance, this actually clarifies one aspect of the rules involving magic items pretty easily.

Which is this table here in the DMG.

Magic Item Rarity​

Magic Item Rarity
RarityCharacter LevelValue
Common1st or higher50-100 gp
Uncommon1st or higher101-500 gp
Rare5th or higher501-5,000 gp
Very rare11th or higher5,001-50,000 gp
Legendary17th or higher50,001+ gp

With monsters assuming this, i ran the tables and found this mostly to be true.

5e monsters are designed in mind that players will be attacking it with their best resources for about 2-3 rounds loosely.

Medium encounters last on average about 2 rounds.
Hard about 3 rounds.
Deadly also about 3 rounds but can go into 4.

And testing a basic party with this concept, ive found it actually hold quite true.

So then i noticed? What if i gave them magic items, and what i found was that magic items are balanced around the rarities up to a certain tier of play.
Common and Uncommon are for Tier 1(1-4)(max power 3rd level spell)
Rares are for tier 2(5-10)(Max power 6th-level spell)
Very Rares are for tier 3(11-17)(max power 8th-level spell
And Legendaries are for Tier 3(17-20)(max power 9th-level spell.)

And i ran the math of this accounting for this, and what i found is, it doesn't really STATISTICALLY affect the encounter balance much at all, its really negligible at best as long as you give them the magic item rarity that fits the tier of play they are in. A 5th-level character can get rare magic items and it will not meaningfully affect the encounter balance much, we are talking like a 2.5 to 2.2 change at most unless in these circumstances. Which is.
A. The monster has resistances bypassed (this is only an issue in tier 1 and early tier 2, after that it doesn't matter), in this case you can accurately just decrease the difficulty tier of a monster by 1 to account for this.
B. Situational edges. Stuff beyond raw damage of attacks, more situational stuff like everyone in the party having flying boots and they are fighting something without flying and a ranged attack
Though this can happen even without magic items.
C. Every single character has a magic item that gives them the absolute maximum power of that magic item rarity tier. This is VERY rare and unlikely to happen as few items in each tier have that level of power, let alone in a manner every single character can use it in a round, even then those items tend to be 1-time uses at most. So even then the math tends to hold.

The game seems mostly balanced around this magic item acquired at these tiers of play really, and they are always a boon, but always a minor enough one that most encounter building is statistically not really affected by it much at all especially as you get deeper into the tier of play. Encounter building only is affected a bit when you give them an item 1 tier too soon.

Then your probably wondering "whats the deal with them saying you need no magic items, and such like this"
This was basically them talking about the Magic Item Treadmill of 3e and 4e, where for the sake of balance against monsters you needed the bonus from a magic item after a certain point in the game, putting you on a treadmill where lower level magic items werent useful because they didnt have the bonus you need, and you always needed to be on the treadmill to keep up with the math.

This is not the case in this game, and this was them pushing back against that old idea. Magic items are always a boon, BUT you do not need to them to keep up with encounter math at all, even without magic items, you can hit most targets, and do damage equal to their CR rating, and thats fine, or have other nonmagical means to bypass immunity.)

But on that end, the boon as long as they get them in a certain tier of play, wil not be big enough to unbalance your play unless you give them a rarer magic item too soon, as the powers of that magic item will usually not be too far off of the power of the PC's in that tier. On that note though, due to this, the strongest magic items end up being the +items such as +1 Weapons, or Arcane Grimores, as they push the math a bit in your favor. But in that case, even then the damage increase from it, ends up being relatively minor on the chart overall and is likely to not break . the encounter building too far either way as long as you give it to them in the tier appropriate.

Using this though if you want a super precise magic item balance that doesnt slant at all, you can just opt out of giving them + items, and only give them magic items that give them spells/magical effects no stronger than the highest spell slot they could cast at the time. If you want magic items but wanna keep it on the weaker end, you can just give them magic items from 1 tier lower then where they are(Only common magic items at tier 1, uncommon at tier 2, rares at tier 3, Very Rares at tier 4). This leads to pretty balanced results.

Do what you will with this, and give me your thoughts.

TLDR. 5e's math assumes you get the specific rarities of magic item in each specific tier, no sooner no later, and are balanced around that, if you follow that, it doesn't affect the balance of the game statistically much at all, and mostly just gives more utility, and such.(though situational edges can still cause some issues but that is always the case even without them.)
 

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TLDR. 5e's math assumes you get the specific rarities of magic item in each specific tier, no sooner no later, and are balanced around that, if you follow that, it doesn't affect the balance of the game statistically much at all, and mostly just gives more utility, and such.(though situational edges can still cause some issues but that is always the case even without them.)
I have found that the Players Tactical Abilities is much more powerful than magic items. Yes magic items can add a lot of capability, and DPR, to a character or party. But I've found the swing from that is much less than the swing I find when playing with different Players.

I've had parties with roughly equivalent characters where they can easily take on deadly challenges all day long, until they run out of resources. While other parties of players are on the edge of TPKs with a single hard encounter.

Adjusting for encounters, and the adventuring day, based on a party's magic items is much easier, for me, than adjusting for a new set of players who tactical skills I don't (yet) know.
 

ad_hoc

(they/them)
It is actually very robust.

in my curse of strahd campaign a character got a holy avenger very early due to luck of the tarokka reading.

It didn't ruin the game or anything.

In my current campaign the party of 4 at 6 level have a shield guardian.

It is a huge increase in power and yet there is still a lot of tension and things could still quickly go bad.
 



FitzTheRuke

Legend
I've often felt that two things happen with magic items: 1) they're too weak to feel magical, offering something boring (like with +1 items) to feel all that magical; OR 2) They wildly add a massive benefit (like, say, a Flame Tongue giving you an extra 2d6 fire damage every attack, or a belt of Giant Strength turning your 8 STR rogue to a 23 STR powerhouse).

I don't like either option, NOR do I like the treadmill of previous editions, getting weak items at low-levels and powerful items to replace them later.

So, I've been working on a system that makes "mundane" (IE non-magic) masterwork items that can be purchased (expected at levels 1-6) and then you start finding magic items, that increase in power as you level up (think of it as Attunement Depth - the longer you spend wielding an item, the more powers you unlock in them, or synergies you achieve, or you just plain learn how to use them better, the fluff is up to the player and the item). But it boils down to: DM gives you a cool item. Every time you level up with it, DM gives you another ability (or enhances an ability).

So Flame Tongue, for example, might start by only giving you a sword that also works like a torch (and deals slashing AND fire damage). Then it might give you +1d4 fire damage, or give you produce flame as a cantrip (you can fling the fire at targets!); LATER (Higher Levels), it might do +3d6 fire damage & you can use it to draw yourself a Wall of Fire even!)

I haven't worked out all the details yet, but I'm working on it.
 
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