Although it is a staple across both video game and tabletop RPGs, the concept of the magic item shop wasn’t around for the first generation of Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn’t until 2nd Edition that the interaction of gold and magic items was a conversation point, and in that case it involved using gold to craft magic items rather than buy or sell them. When RPGs entered the digital arena in the 80s and 90s, it was common to integrate equipment and character progression in such a way that you were practically required to spend your hard-earned GP, Gil, and the like on better gear.* By the arrival of 3rd Edition, D&D incorporated this mindset by giving practically every non-artifact magic item a price along with explicit spell prerequisites and feats for crafting them. It was also here that we got the “wealth by level” concept, where instead of being used to gain experience points the primary empowerment of gold was for the PCs to buy magic items so that their characters can keep up with the opposition in combat. 4th Edition continued this tradition, but by 5th this was dropped. On the contrary, one of its selling points was that magic items would be optional in regards to making effective characters.
*This article has a good discussion on the history of the concept.
While this change was welcomed by many, there was a bit of loss. Buying and selling magic items were possible in the core rules, but were relegated to an optional and slow process in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. A persistent problem of 5th Edition was the lack of expensive things for PCs to spend their money on, and what existed was mostly guidelines and flavor text by the DM doing the heavy lifting. The Wanderer’s Guide to Merchants and Magic is dedicated to reviving the older concept of magic item shops and the broader supernatural arms trade. This book provides us with not just 23 sample shops and their proprietors, but 120 new magic items, 4 adventures, a comprehensive list of gold piece values for nearly all magic items in the core rules, and wealth by level guidelines balanced with these new rules in mind.
Chapter 1: Commerce of Magic
Our book opens up with discussing the design principles and overall guidelines for its mission statement. The first is that magic items which provide flat bonuses to values such as attack rolls are the most unbalancing in that they impact bounded accuracy. They are thus priced as being more expensive than the average magic item. The book also recommends either reducing their availability or disallowing stacking bonuses to avoid breaking the RNG. Similar guidelines are applied to magic items capable of transportation, with flight, teleportation, and the like being accordingly more expensive. There’s also discussions on handling potential balance disruptions like PCs deciding to rob a magic item shop or what happens when they get their hands on items which turn out to be too powerful. In regards to the former, there are sample security measures given, and much like other high-risk high-reward trades is likely to be guarded by powerful individuals. The sample shops in the book reflect this.
We also have guidelines for pricing magic items: they’re based on a combination of factors, from the value of their utility to adventurers who are most likely to come upon them, the value of their utility to society at large, and their overall usability such as consumables and attunement being factored into this equation. The book also mentions that all Artifacts and some Legendary Items don’t have listed prices on account that they are unlikely to be “traded for mere coin.”
Character Wealth discusses how being able to buy magic items will make PCs more powerful than if finding such items was left more to chance. So a more detailed set of guidelines for wealth based on levels and tiers is provided, along with a recommended amount of magic items per PC based on tier. The Wanderer’s Guide presumes a high magic campaign where these kinds of items are prevalent, so in regards to cheap and common/uncommon magic items it shouldn’t be too unbalancing for PCs to get their hands on a bevy of minor charms at later levels.
Bargaining Rules is a new sub-system introduced for PCs to haggle over the values of magic item prices. It’s a multi-step process done for each item desired for purchase, consisting of an appraisal check to determine the item’s value and a Persuasion check to make a counteroffer which can lower the price on a success. Magic item merchants typically sell items for more than their actual price (typically up to 150%) before bargaining is done, and technically speaking a PC can make an infinite number of Persuasion checks although merchants may grow tired of the haggling and never sell below 50% of the item’s value. Merchants won’t raise the price on a failed roll, but instead will remain at the current value. This can also be used for selling magic items with the roles reversed. Merchants can also have biases, where their initial markup of magic items can be lowered or raised based on a PC’s race, class, background, or other such qualities.
Personally speaking I’m not fond of bargaining, as it adds more complexity to a game. And in cases where the whole party may be buying multiple magic items in the same shop, that can end up anywhere from a half-dozen to even dozens of rolls.
Chapter 2: Merchants of Magic
This chapter contains 23 pre-designed merchants, their shops and wares, and rules for auction houses for DMs to drop into their campaigns. Every merchant has their own unique backstory, artwork, stat block, and in some cases minions and helpers to serve as companions, security, and the like. Details are also provided for security measures and tactics they’ll employ against those who seek to take their wares by force, what kinds of items they specialize in, and what kinds of Biases and Bargaining tactics they’ll be predisposed towards or against. Each merchant also has a unique item for sale they’ll part with if the PCs earn their trust or respect, as well as sample Quest Hooks which detail a scenario or adventure outline for PCs to get on their good side (and more importantly discounts!). A few of these Hooks are actually full-fledged adventures detailed in the back of the book. Barring a few exceptions, most of these merchants are relatively powerful, with either them or their minions being suitable challenges for Tier 3 (11-16th level) and high Tier 2 (8-10th level) PCs.
Azân the Wanderer is a former fiendish lord who was exiled from Hell after losing a rebellion against another archfiend. What began as aimless wandering turned into a newfound goal: travel the planes and worlds, pick up rare curiosities, and make a profit off of them. Azân is the mascot of this book, being the masked goggled figure on the cover and whose in-character quotes are peppered throughout the book as sidebars. He has a soft spot for underdog types, and his powerful and immortal nature means that he’s seen it all. It takes a lot to get under his skin, which makes him have a relatively chill attitude towards things. He’s also accompanied by Jaziel, a celestial in the shape of a small dog who often acts as the “bad cop” in keeping him from setting his prices too low when bargaining. Azân’s shop is a kind of magic item general store, having a little bit of everything with no strong themes.
Bronzeforge Halls is a beautiful dwarven complex located in a large city of the DM’s choosing. Brumir Bronzeforge didn’t have much talent in artisanship or battle to his family’s initial consternation. If he couldn’t earn a name in crafting or wielding dwarven wonders, he could do the next best thing and sell them to the wider world to bring honor to the Bronzeforge name. Being your typical dwarfy dwarf, he specializes in gemstones, heavy armor, weapons, and magic items of a more defensive nature. He is not a powerful individual by any means, but the Hall is extremely well-defended with elite guards, a priest with divination spells to screen customers, and display murals generating antimagic fields to defend against spell-based sabotage.
Calypso’s Curiosities is your more rustic wizard’s shop. Formerly run by the great mage Calypso, an unfortunate magical accident transformed her into a common housecat. This forced her daughter Elpha to take up the reins of the family business. Calypso uses cat-based nonverbal communication with Elpha, and observant PCs may notice this when she ends up changing the price of something when the cat lets out an annoyed meow. Calypso’s Curiosities specializes in items of use to arcane spellcasters, from a variety of wands to classical witchy things such as a Crystal Ball and Broom of Flying. In addition to Elpha’s own spells, Calypso can transform into a magical lion if slain, and Elpha has a ring that can summon city guardsmen to her location by command or if incapacitated.
Dippletopp’s Tinkery is a mobile shop owned by one absent-minded gnomish gadgeteer. Tunneling below the surface in a piloted giant clockwork worm, Ernart Dippletopp is prone to set up shop in whatever surface he breaches, which is often out in the countryside where travelers just happen to be passing; travelers such as the PCs! His wares are experimental, and he’s willing to sell unstable “alpha builds” prone to exploding on a natural 1 at half the market price. Dippletopp’s wares hew closer to the steampunk/gadget side of things, such as Folding Boats, Clockwork Swords, Efficient Quivers, and the like.
Dragon’s Den is exactly what it says on the tin. Imbrixia, a copper dragon, does business in an underground cave full of treasures. It’s not her lair, but that of a rival dragon whose hoard she obtained. Imbrixia has a particular sense of humor and love of riddles, and PCs who go along with either can gain an edge in business deals. Like Azân, her items range in theme, with a bit of a focus on ones which are very old and have a lot of history to them.
The owner of Golem’s Gem is an archmage who never returned from her latest quest, so her iron golem Dex has run the shop for several decades. Although Dex was made and trained by the best of the best and has the ability to sense lies and instantly ascertain the value of items, his social skills aren’t up to snuff. The shop has a variety of items, albeit a greater than usual amount of powerful and expensive merchandise such as a Manual of Golems or Belt of Stone Giant Strength.
Dex even employs classic sales tactics such as exaggerations and flattery, albeit clumsily: “This is the best sword you will ever buy – if you do not buy more swords” and “You are a handsome and likable humanoid – would you like to pay above market value for this item?”
Hestannia’s Studio is a unique kind of shop. Its proprietor, Hestannia, is a minotaur and former gladiator of great renown, dealing exclusively in magical tattoos and the inking supplies used in their creation. She has a bias in favor of warrior types and her tattoos reflect this, with most of them having the most apparent benefits when used in combat.
Illyath’s Sanctum is run by a fallen angel who betrayed an oath of non-interference to save a family of farmers from a vicious demon. Although she regrets her action, Illyath still has the unwavering moral compass of a celestial and her prices are the most fair while still being enough to sustain a business. Her wares tend towards heavenly and divine magic themes, such as a Staff of Healing or Mace of Disruption, and can even cast some of her longer-lasting spells on characters as a service or reward.
Luizhana’s Emporium of Adventuring Goods is run by an aging tiefling sorceress who decided to turn her small fortune of treasure into a larger enterprise. While she may act the part of a cranky elderly lady, she has a soft spot for young female adventurers who remind her of her early days. Luizhana’s shop lies in an extradimensional space and has a unique guardian in the form of Burp, a three-eyed magical frog with keen truesight and powerful defenses. Her wares are most favorable to spellcasting types, including a wide variety of potions, wands, and staffs.
Melvin’s Marvelous Menagerie is run by a halfling druid, a traveling shop designed to give adventurers adorable and useful animal companions. He does have standards, and may refuse to sell to customers who his animals get bad vibes from or engage in needless environmental harm such as hunting for sport or poaching. He also sells clockwork animals, several of whom serve as guardians against those who would do him or his animals harm. Melvin’s items are mostly animal-themed, but he also sells animals attuned to Safety Shells containing a useful low-level spell.
Safety Shells are a new magic item which functions similar to Pokeballs. They’re attuned to a specific CR 0 animal, absorbing them into itself if they drop to 0 HP and casts Spare the Dying on them.
Milando is a swashbuckling drow who had to flee his Underdark homeland after earning the enmity of one too many higher-ups. He is less of a merchant and more of a middleman, not having a storefront or office but instead hooking up people up with valuable items. He regards his business as something to do for fun just as much as profit, as his primary goal is avoiding a boring, droll existence. The items he sells are in line with this nature, designed to make the user’s life a little more interesting or giving them neat tricks to help them out in a pinch. Things like a Robe of Useful Items, Pipes of Haunting, Staff of Charming, or a Vial of Spiders whose contents refill over time.
Thoughts So Far: The Wanderer’s Guide to Merchants & Magic is off to a strong start. Given how many of the most popular settings for 5th Edition tend towards a high magic feel (Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, Magic: the Gathering, and Midgard for 3rd party), having details for magic item trading beyond the DMG’s relative vagueness is a welcome one. The sample merchants and shops are flavorful and well-written, and their backstories and quest hooks help elevate them to something more than faceless vendors. Making their wares strongly themed also helps in encouraging characters making decisions on who to buy from and sell to when they end up with an impressive haul.
Join us next time as we cover the rest of the magical vendors and rules for bidding on items in auction houses!