D&D 5E Analysis of "Typical" Magic Item Distribution

Joe Liker

First Post
Sorry for reaching back in time, but I wanted to address this:

5e, on the other hand, does not provide any guidelines on how to adjust encounter difficulty for magic items. So, assuming a CR 17, 18,000 xp Adult Red Dragon is a Medium difficulty, moderately challenging encounter for a party of four 17th-level PCs with no magic items, how would it change if the PCs have, between them, 9 uncommon, 4 or 5 rare, 3 very rare and 1 legendary permanent magic items? Would the encounter difficulty remain Moderate, or would it now be Easy? If the encounter difficulty does change, and the DM wanted to adjust the encounter difficulty to make it Moderate again, how much more xp worth of monsters should he add? Would another Adult Red Dragon be enough? Would it be too much? It really isn't clear to me.
Speaking from my experiences building encounters for a 5e group with a reasonable amount of magic items, I'll say you're on the right track, but you're looking at it ... oddly.

Don't use the XP budget table to label your encounters as "easy" or "hard," or try to recalculate what "easy" and "hard" mean based on the party's equipment. There's no meaning in those labels once the fighting starts, so why bother nailing it down?

What I do is look at the "moderate" column of the budget and use it as a reference for what non-geared, non-optimized adventurers can handle. I then use the "hard" column if the party is well-geared or optimized, and I move over to "deadly" column if both. This is what I use as a baseline for what I consider a moderate challenge for this party.

If that still seems too easy, I can adjust from there, perhaps using the "deadly" column of the party's level +1 as my new ceiling.

To be honest, though, I usually don't bother with the table. I prefer to plan encounters based on what is called for by the narrative. But the table is a nice reference when I'm unsure (or don't care) how many monsters are in a certain place. The only real purpose it serves is to keep you from inadvertently killing the party, right? So just use your instincts and get a feel for what your group can handle, and everything will be fine.

It's far more art than science!
 

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Dausuul

Legend
Based on some rather crude calculations, using the champion fighter as a baseline, here's what I come up with for "effect of magic items on PC power level."

+1 weapons and armor: +1-2 levels
+2 weapons and armor: +3-4 levels
+3 weapons and armor: +5-6 levels

Of course, this is averaging across the level range, with extra weight on the second tier (levels 5-11) since those are the most commonly played. The actual impact will vary widely based on all kinds of factors.
 

I'm not entirely convinced that bringing up old editions that didn't use bounded accuracy to show how improved things are is really the way to go. I guess it's like the democracy theory about how Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.

I only brought up the other editions because someone else mentioned 4E.

Yes, 5th edition is the most bounded randomness of all the editions of D&D. That doesn't mean that its internal design covers the corner cases of 5+ unplanned for swings in hit or defense. Therefore, it either shouldn't have made such things possible (stop at Gauntlets of Ogre Power, don't have a 21-29 stat version for just one of the stats / don't have +3 armor _and_ +3 shields; shields can be magical without further +s, honest), or delivered appropriate and sufficient guidance in the relevant books for the effect of magic items.

I feel like we're arguing on the basis that these items are common or expected. The belt of cloud giant strength is a single number on one of the tables. Ditto for storm giant strength, fire giant strength, and frost giant strength. +3 shields are only on the second rarest table, and +3 armor is on the rarest table, and there's never a guarantee that you'll find the exact armor that you're looking for. Not to mention that even if you do find a load of items that cater exactly to your character, now none of the other people in your group have very good items, and you may not even be able to use all of them because of the attunement restrictions.

People like getting magic items. There's nothing wrong with a Phandelver level of magic item awards; in fact an idle look at pretty much the entire history of D&D is that not only do people like getting magic treasure, adventures like _giving_ magic treasure. You're not going to find a lot of adventures that give out a single magic item only every 10 encounters or so, but that's exactly what the game is suggesting you do. It's disingenuous to balance a game around no magic items, suggest that folks keep to a drastically low number of magic items (remember that +1 sword you get at 4th level might be the only weapon your character gets ever), actually give out buckets of magic items, _then_ claim that balance problems from magic items are no big deal because the DM has to decide to give them out in the first place.

I'm going to repeat this again: Phandelver was created before the monster manual, and before the DM's guide as a starter adventure for getting people into 5E. It was never meant to be the first adventure in a long running campaign, it was simply to give a taste of what was to come.

This may be another one of those cases where playtesting will be the true deciding factor here, but even with allowing adventurers to bring over magic items from other editions, I haven't once in multiple sessions found them to be game breaking.
 

keterys

First Post
I feel like we're arguing on the basis that these items are common or expected. The belt of cloud giant strength is a single number on one of the tables. Ditto for storm giant strength, fire giant strength, and frost giant strength. +3 shields are only on the second rarest table, and +3 armor is on the rarest table, and there's never a guarantee that you'll find the exact armor that you're looking for. Not to mention that even if you do find a load of items that cater exactly to your character, now none of the other people in your group have very good items, and you may not even be able to use all of them because of the attunement restrictions.
That's actually sorta the point. The DM's guide provided a random treasure distribution system that I don't expect to be used, insufficient guidance for deviation, and no matter how "unlikely" the interaction of a couple of these pieces are, it would have been awful nice to just give us interesting items (they did a ton of those!) instead of some of these pure math items that do the system a disservice.

I've already seen conventions and the like do "Bring an Xth level character with Y magic items of Z rarity" and heard tales of how stupid items like the giant's belt made those events. It's not an entirely theoretical exercise.

I'm going to repeat this again: Phandelver was created before the monster manual, and before the DM's guide as a starter adventure for getting people into 5E. It was never meant to be the first adventure in a long running campaign, it was simply to give a taste of what was to come.
I'm not sure why it bears repeating... but, noted!
 

FireLance

Legend
That's the nice thing about 5E. If you're that worried about magic items breaking bounded accuracy (which they don't) then don't give them any magic items. The game doesn't assume it, the characters will do just fine, everyone will be ok with it.
That's pretty much in line with something I concluded fairly early on. 5e seems to work best if you don't give out any magic items. Ever.

That's.... that's the point. Magic items are supposed to screw up stuff; if they didn't, why bother having them be magic? Magic items are rare, special, even unique. If everything in the world becomes more powerful the second you pick up a +1 sword, what was the point of that sword?
I would like to correct this bit of cause and effect, though. Everything in the world doesn't get more powerful just because you find magic items. Rather, you start to encounter more powerful monsters. If you previously encountered a CR 3 Young White Dragon, you now encounter a CR 4 Young Black Dragon. And even that is a function of your new (higher) level rather than the fact that you are now better equipped. The apparent correlation is because both the discovery of magic items and the increasing level of challenge from the monsters encountered are driven by the same factor: increasing character levels.
 

fuindordm

Explorer
That's actually sorta the point. The DM's guide provided a random treasure distribution system that I don't expect to be used, insufficient guidance for deviation, and no matter how "unlikely" the interaction of a couple of these pieces are, it would have been awful nice to just give us interesting items (they did a ton of those!) instead of some of these pure math items that do the system a disservice.

Just like the AD&D DMG! :) Doesn't everyone have a story about randomly rolling up the Wand of Orcus in a treasure hoard?

Frankly, I think the 3E magic item creation system, while robust, ultimately did more harm than good by making certain items both easily attainable and inordinately desirable. I'm happier with this vague system, whose only drawback is that I (the DM) have to think about the effect of the item on encounter design.
 

That's pretty much in line with something I concluded fairly early on. 5e seems to work best if you don't give out any magic items. Ever.

Best? Well that's a matter of opinion. If you think best as in the easiest to give an adequate challenge, then yes, I suppose you would be right. But best being the most fun? Probably not.


I would like to correct this bit of cause and effect, though. Everything in the world doesn't get more powerful just because you find magic items. Rather, you start to encounter more powerful monsters. If you previously encountered a CR 3 Young White Dragon, you now encounter a CR 4 Young Black Dragon. And even that is a function of your new (higher) level rather than the fact that you are now better equipped. The apparent correlation is because both the discovery of magic items and the increasing level of challenge from the monsters encountered are driven by the same factor: increasing character levels.

so, players increase in level, therefore they will get better magic items, therefore they will fight harder monsters. So everything's number goes up one tick all at the same time. This is the problem I'm talking about. There's no actual bonus for getting a magic item because everything increases to compensate for it. In 5E, if you would fight that white dragon, you fight that white dragon, but now you are slightly better at doing so with your magic item. The 100% perfect challenge doesn't always equate to the most fun, as difficult encounters and easy encounters can all be fun in their own ways. I've simply found that building an adventure with the monsters I want to use first, and then worrying about challenge second, is much easier in this edition than doing the opposite in 3.5 and 4. This seems to just be ending in an edition war that I'd prefer not to get into now though, so I'll leave it at this.
 

keterys

First Post
Frankly, I think the 3E magic item creation system, while robust, ultimately did more harm than good by making certain items both easily attainable and inordinately desirable.
Agreed!

I'm happier with this vague system, whose only drawback is that I (the DM) have to think about the effect of the item on encounter design.
I'd have been happier if they talked, but not pr(e/o)scribe, about the effects of certain magic item proliferation and also made less items raw changes to statistics, especially attack and defense. Shields didn't need to give an enhancement bonus to AC at all, and could have stopped at +3 (or not stacked with a + to armor) for example. Stat magic could have stopped at 19, instead of 29.

At the end of the day, I'm not going to worry too much if someone has a couple points better to hit or defense, but someone having +7 hit and damage over another (or better) is too big a swing.

Solution items - like the guy who can breath water and swim, or the one who can teleport occasionally - let different characters get the spotlight from time to time or solve otherwise impossible problems, and that is good for the game. It's interesting, it changes the gameplay in a fun and noticeable fashion. The DM can plan around them, even use them as quests to unlock gates in the campaign.

A character who almost never misses and deals twice as much damage (or more) as another character who is otherwise the same except for a couple magic items? Comes up every combat and it's not something accounted for by the system. When it could be.
 

Dausuul

Legend
A character who almost never misses and deals twice as much damage (or more) as another character who is otherwise the same except for a couple magic items? Comes up every combat and it's not something accounted for by the system. When it could be.
If Joe Fighter has a belt of storm giant strength and a +3 greatsword, and Jane Fighter has only mundane gear, I don't know why you need a section in the DMG to tell you there's going to be some imbalance there.

They could provide guidelines to factor in combat-oriented magic items when calculating encounter difficulty. They could do the same with a lot of stuff. The question is, at what point does it stop being worth the trouble? You're never, ever, ever going to get encounter guidelines that you don't have to calibrate for your particular group. That's impossible because some groups are made up of newbie gamers and others are made up of hardcore combat optimizers. 4E was the poster child for tight combat math, but when I was running 4E, I quickly learned that I had to crank up my encounter difficulty 1-2 levels beyond the recommended values. If I ran an encounter at level, my players would yawn their way through the fight. Level+1 was the absolute minimum, and boss fights had to be level+3 to level+4.

I wouldn't mind having some guidelines for magic items and CR, but I don't feel like the lack of them is a big deal.
 
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aramis erak

Legend
That's pretty much in line with something I concluded fairly early on. 5e seems to work best if you don't give out any magic items. Ever.
Nope. It works best if you give out a few +0 magic weapons with useful non-combat powers. A +0 magic weapon is absolutely adequate to bypass immunities with only very minor damage to CR/XP based balance.

If you give out none at all, certain legendary monsters become even more legendary, as fighters cannot hurt them due to magic-negated immunities.
 

Sorrowdusk

First Post
The number of rolls on the table are a very bad estimate and I'd ignore it. They don't come close to matching how many monsters you will be killing, and thus hordes you will come across, based on the XP requirements to level. For instance it's quite likely you'll be killing over 60 legendary monsters from 17 to 20, many of which are dragons and should each have a horde and you only end up with 8 rolls. This is why the treasure the published adventures is handing out is higher.

That's a loooot of "legendaries". Couldnt it be less, with say I dont know....literal hordes of lesser enemies for the barbarian to God-of-War through?
 

Joe Liker

First Post
If Joe Fighter has a belt of storm giant strength and a +3 greatsword, and Jane Fighter has only mundane gear, I don't know why you need a section in the DMG to tell you there's going to be some imbalance there.
If such a thing does happen, it's an imbalance created by the players, not the rules or the DM. The DM can only assume it's an imbalance the party is happy with for whatever reason, though it might be worthwhile to ask Jane if she's content with what she has.

I know this is beside the point you were making (which I agree with), but I thought it worth mentioning that the DM isn't working in a vacuum where loot allocation is concerned.
 

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