D&D 5E The Role of Magic Items in early D&D (and today!)

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
I often make the comment that magic items were important to the balance of characters in early D&D. I often cite the intelligent magic sword, which was stated to be a Fighter's answer to a Wizard's magic staff.

Modern D&D has changed the role of these items over the editions- 3e made them an assumed part of character development, and 4e went so far as to make them player facing, points of customization equivalent to Feats.

5e has placed them firmly in the DM's hands, and go on to suggest that, in addition to being optional (as in, not assumed as a part of character development), they should have sharp limits on how many can be used at once.

I have my own thoughts about this, as magic items appear in official adventures, and most campaigns, and there's a sidebar in Xanathar's that discusses the value of being able to overcome resistance to non-magical weapons, and which abilities become more valuable if none exist in the game. It seems that Wizards of the Coast has said "we assume magic items will be use, but we're not going to try and balance them- use at your own discretion".

It's often cited that magic items like Winged Boots and Rings of Invisibility are not just ingrained in the zeitgeist, but can even be said to be necessary for characters who lack magic to overcome higher level challenges. In the old days, we'd assume casters would use these spells on their behalf, but with the advent of the concentration mechanic, it's become much more of a hassle to cast Fly on the Fighter, as that locks off other spells you could cast.

Thus 5e has established it's own paradigm, which the DM's and players have adapted to (or not) in various degrees. But I'm not here to discuss that, specifically.

Instead, I was reminded while making another forum post of a magic item my Thief (yes, it's that old of a story) once possessed.

The Shadow Cape, from The Book of Marvelous Magic.

"This powerful cape is of immediate benefit to thieves as it bestows a +25% bonus to hide in shadows attempts. Any character may use the item, however, and any creature not wearing metal armor can hide in shadows with a 25% chance of success. In addition, the cape enables the wearer to magically travel from one shadow to another; the effect is identical to a magic-user's dimension door spell (360-foot range, no chance of error), except that the user must be in shadow to activate the cape and must arrive in a shadow. The shadow cape can be used for magic travel three times per day, but misuse (such as an attempt to travel to a lighted or occupied area, which will fail) does not count as a use. Any fire, normal or magical, can instantly destroy the cape unless the user makes a successful saving throw vs. spells."

In 5e, this wouldn't be a magic item, but a subclass feature, surely! It got me to thinking how many magic items were designed with that in mind, to grant new and unique abiities to characters beyond what they gained from their classes?

Was the role of magic items to be more than just treasure or the source of bonuses, but actually a means by which to provide players with actual character abilities, that the game designers were unsure of how or when to grant player characters?

What amazing items of old have simply been discarded because the various paradigms lost the ability to comprehend their value?

I know many items, such as the Rod of Lordly Might suffered in the 3e era, as their multiple functions made them very expensive, and thus, simply not worth owning, compared to multiple other items.

In 4e, many items were simplified and toned down, as befit their new status as points of character customization.

Now in 5e, such items are often assigned to the highest of rarities, likely never to be seen by players, because we no longer have any idea of how they affect the balance of the game.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I feel something important to the identity of the game has been lost, but I have no idea how to recapture that sense of wonder created by the Ring of Human Influence, the Helm of Brilliance, or Arbane's Sword of Agility.

Surely, such items have powers that do more than simply take the place of class abilities- they can fundamentally alter the game's balance in unforseen ways!

So I'm curious how others feel about this. Are the magic items of old simply old junk, best discarded?

Have you found ways to use them without feeling that the game has veered off into uncharted territory?

What favorite magic item of past editions do you miss, or was your personal favorite?
 

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cbwjm

Legend
I think the old school magic items (many of which have been updated over editions) were definitely ways to specialise your character. I remember back in the day wands of flame that had multiple fire spells in the them, staves of elemental power, that were recharged by absorbing the essence of an elemental, rings of djinni summoning! Elven chain was a much bigger deal back in 2e, allowing for a fighter/mage to cast magic in armour which helped fill the fantasy of a battle-mage armoured up and ready for battle.

Then you get the weapons like mace of disruption, flametongue, and luckblade. Many of these are likely still in 5e, but there was a definite gleam in a player's eye when they got one of these because magical items were the way that they gained additional features. Also, back before 3e, if you didn't have a weapon with a high enough +, you just straight up couldn't hurt some enemies. 3e mitigated this somewhat though until 3.5 the damage reduction was generally so high that it may as well have been immunity.

In 5e, magical items are cool, but I have enough other things going on with my character that I don't really feel like I'm missing out if I don't get them for a while. If I ended up with just a +1 weapon on a fighter, I'd probably fine with it. This isn't a bad thing, but back in 2e and basic, I really wanted magical items, which were generally easy to get since those older games were basically loot piñatas.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Magic items could be character defining in earlier editions. This has a nicely mythic quality to it--as there of course various famous examples from myth and legend--and really made sense in the game. What could be a better incentive to adventure?

5e is the flexible edition. I have seen sessions were items hardly mattered, and some games where they were hardly present. But in my last session as a DM, two scrolls and 1 periapt made a huge difference, and in that game there is an intelligent sword that does cool things, but also creates issues for its owner. In another game, a magical musical instrument has turned out to be highly relevant. It all just depends.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
Very good questions.

I do feel that 5e approach to magic items is closer to 20th century editions than 3e or 4e, meaning less structured and more wondrous. And for my tastes that's a good thing, as I dislike both the "magic as technology" approach as well as the magic items market economy (although you can still somewhat have those in 5e if you wish).

Actually, the Shadow Cape could definitely be a 5e magic item for me. Most of the time I run older edition adventures and sometimes use their magic items as-is without even converting them (obviously not when they mention different rules, that cape grants some % bonus so I would certainly replace that with a + bonus).

I am not afraid to grant a magic item that breaks the game, because I am not afraid to later take it away, not bluntly but for example having it degrade or developing negative effects.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
4e went so far as to make them player facing, points of customization equivalent to Feats.
This really isn’t accurate. Magic items could be found in player-facing books, yes, but you didn’t automatically get them at fixed levels like with feats, and you didn’t really choose which ones you got. There was an expected progression like in 3e, sure, and if you wanted some particular item or items you could ask your DM to put it/them in the adventure. But that’s not really new. You’ve always been able to ask the DM to include something in the game if you wanted it, and they’ve always been able to say no. The only difference was that 4e actually encouraged (but did not mandate) the DM to accept such requests. Ultimately, it was still entirely up to the DM what magic items to award, how many, and how often. There was just advice to include items the players would like, and what bonuses the system math expected at what levels. Heck, with the intrinsic bonuses optional rule, a DM could even keep up with expected progression without awarding any magic items.
 
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Yora

Legend
In early D&D, magic items are the customizable class features of characters. That's the main mechanical function of weapons and armor restrictions. Fighters can use any weapons, clerics only maces and hammers, and mages almost nothing. (In B/X, they get only daggers and nothing else.) On the random treasure tables, magic swords are much more common and potentially more powerful than maces and hammers. This means in practice that magic swords are for fighters and magic maces for clerics. Because the fighters probably already have better swords than whatever magic maces the party comes across. Similar limitations on who can use other types of items serve the same purpose.
 

I think 5e is sort of headed in a direction I like but it's not quite there. I like the concept of magic items being optional but as long as you have monsters with resistance to mundane weapons and characters with +3 armor, a +3 shield, and a +3 weapon changing the math of the game, it's a hollow claim. I'd rather either go full transparent, like in 4e, where the item math is an assumed part of the character progression or something beyond 5e, where you're limited to 3 attunements and magic items just do cool things instead of changing your character math.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
5e kinda does a mix of the oldest, older, and newer past editions.

You can run it like the old editions where magic items are seen as class and race features for certain classes and races. Magic items are chosen to be character defining and massively effective.

You can run it like 3e and 4e were +X magic items are expectation and gates for level content and wondrous items are handed out with extreme care. You can even do like 4e and let PCs disenchant and enchant items freely and easily to get more desired but weaker magic items.

Or you can go the low magic or no magic route and deemphasize magic items altogether. Adding them only for certain challenges or cutting out such challenges from campaigns altogether.

5e is close to hitting the sweet spot. The only thing it missed in a quick glance is having some monsters with magical equipment of their own. There are no monsters for the DMs who actually give their players magic items as it isn't an assumption.
 

Horwath

Hero
This really isn’t accurate. Magic items could be found in player-facing books, yes, but you didn’t automatically get them at fixed levels like with feats, and you didn’t really choose which ones you got. There was an expected progression like in 3e, sure, and if you wanted some particular item or items you could ask your DM to put it/them in the adventure. But that’s not really new. You’ve always been able to ask the DM to include something in the game if you wanted it, and they’ve always been able to say no. The only difference was that 4e actually encouraged (but did not mandate) the DM to accept such requests. Ultimately, it was still entirely up to the DM what magic items to award, how many, and how often. There was just advice to include items the players would like, and what bonuses the system math expected at what levels. Heck, with the intrinsic bonuses optional rule, a DM could even keep up with expected progression without awarding any magic items.
yes,

but you had rituals that transferred enchantments from one item to another?

What, we got some useless club, but it's +3 flaming? 8hrs later... Look my brand new +3 flaming greatbow.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
yes,

but you had rituals that transferred enchantments from one item to another?

What, we got some useless club, but it's +3 flaming? 8hrs later... Look my brand new +3 flaming greatbow.
Well in the original rules, you lost residuim when you disenchanted. So you went from a +3 greataxe to +2 greatbow.

Errata gave you 100% back but only for rare items.
 


aco175

Legend
Newer editions seem to have watered down the power of the DM over the players and classes by expanding the class and giving the complexity to the player. 5e magic is not the toy in the Cracker Jack box like it was in earlier editions. There are now feats and sub-classes that expand the character and allow for impossible things the PC can do over another PC of even the same class. There is no need to multi-class to fit a concept or hope you get a magic item to allow you to do something cool.

There is still something cool about getting an item, but just not as cool as it was.
 




Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
yes,

but you had rituals that transferred enchantments from one item to another?

What, we got some useless club, but it's +3 flaming? 8hrs later... Look my brand new +3 flaming greatbow.
The residuum you’d get out of disenchanting a magic item wasn’t enough to enchant another of the same rarity. It was functionally just a more flavorful version of buying and selling magic items in 3.Xe.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
I've found the magic items have gotten progressively less exciting.

I've expounded on how magic items were one of my biggest disappointments in 4e, and in 5e, they're so... timid. Like even after making them optional, unbuyable (in any reasonable way) and locked to DM fiat, they still fear making them too powerful or interesting.

The bland, blank +X weapon is still there and even worse as they're not allowed above +3, most items are Long Rest locked, which is one of the problems which was a problem back in 4e, they aren't allowed to provide actual bonuses because bounded accuracy--meaning a booster item is usually useless to the characters that would want them because they set the score you've been pumping all game instead of giving a bonus, and then some of them have the outright gall to be 'minutes per long rest', requiring pointless bookkeeping in the game that simplified away bookkeeping that had a point.

And there's way fewer of them even a decade in.

I want good items back. I want purchase and crafting back.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Newer editions seem to have watered down the power of the DM over the players and classes by expanding the class and giving the complexity to the player. 5e magic is not the toy in the Cracker Jack box like it was in earlier editions. There are now feats and sub-classes that expand the character and allow for impossible things the PC can do over another PC of even the same class. There is no need to multi-class to fit a concept or hope you get a magic item to allow you to do something cool.

There is still something cool about getting an item, but just not as cool as it was.
While I agree there are other options to increase a PC's utility in oddball ways compared to AD&D, I am finding that getting a magic item is back in the cool category since they're no longer quite so market driven. Finding something cool and interesting is, once again, worth something, even if it wasn't part of your character's preconceived mojo.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
I love how 5e has handled magic items. They are not character options by default.

I use random treasure tables and it is up to the PCs to work with what they get. This is all part of adventure, not knowing what will happen and how it will change your character.

As a side note, when people say D&D is too easy or doesn't work after being pressed for details often they have magic shops in their game (some form of the players choosing magic items for their characters. Sometimes this takes the form of them expecting the DM to place the items they want in the adventure for them to 'find'. It all amounts to the same thing).

There have even been long threads on message boards about how a DM is flat out bad or mean for not providing the items the players want. It is a common view of 'optimizers'.
 

Horwath

Hero
Because they served 2 purposes

Enchant Magic Item was to empower players to get the magic items and effect they wanted.

Disenchant Magic Item was to empower DMs and ensure that treasure rewards were always stronger than crafted items.

It's an option that is sorely missed by me.
moving magic.png
 

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