Worlds of Design: The Problem with Magimarts

I dislike magic item stores ("magimarts") in my games. Here's why.

I dislike magic item stores. Here's why.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Magic items are a part of every fantasy role-playing game, and wherever player characters meet, someone will want to buy or sell such items. What the players do among themselves is their business, in most cases; but when non-player characters (NPC) are involved the GM must know where magic items come from, how rare they are, and how hard it is to produce them. [Quoting myself from 40+ years ago]

Magimart: Still a Bad Idea​

I don't like the idea of "Magimarts" -- something like a bookstore or small department store, often with a public storefront, where adventurers can come and purchase (or sell) magic items. I said as much over 40 years ago in an article titled “Magimart: Buying and Selling Magic Items” in White Dwarf magazine. My point then still stands: at least for me and in my games, magic-selling stores don’t make sense.

They don’t make sense from a design point of view, as they may unbalance a campaign or cause power-creep. From an adventure point of view such stores partly eliminates the need to quest for specific powerful magic items. From a realistic point of view they would only provide targets for those who are happy to steal.

The Design Point of View​

From a game design point of view, how experience points, gold, and magic fit together makes a big difference. For example, if you get experience points for selling a magic item (even to NPCs), as well as for the gold you get, adventurers will sell magic items more often. If adventurers acquire scads of treasure and have nothing (such as taxes or “training”) to significantly reduce their fortunes, then big-time magic items are going to cost an awful lot of money, but some will be bought. If gold is in short supply (as you’d expect in anything approaching a real world) then anyone with a whole lot of gold might be able to buy big-time magic items.

Long campaigns need a way for magic items to change ownership, other than theft. As an RPG player I like to trade magic items to other characters in return for other magic items. But there are no “magic stores.” Usability is a big part of it: if my magic user has a magic sword that a fighter wants, he might trade me an item that I could use as a magic user. (Some campaigns allocate found magic items only to characters who can use them. We just dice for selecting the things (a sort of draft) and let trading sort it out, much simpler and less likely to lead to argument about who can use/who needs what.)

The Adventure Point of Views​

Will magic stores promote enjoyable adventuring? It depends on the style of play, but for players primarily interested in challenging adventures, they may not want to be able to go into a somehow-invulnerable magic store and buy or trade for what they want.

Magic-selling stores remind me of the question “why do dungeons exist”. A common excuse (not reason) is “some mad (and very powerful) wizard made it.” Yeah, sure. Excuses for magic-selling stores need to be even wilder than that!

I think of magic-item trading and selling amongst characters as a kind of secretive black market. Yes, it may happen, but each transaction is fraught with opportunities for deceit. Perhaps like a black market for stolen diamonds? This is not something you’re likely to do out in the open, nor on a regular mass basis.

The Realistic Point of View​

“Why do you rob banks?” the thief is asked. “’Cause that’s where the money is.”
Realistically, what do you think will happen if someone maintains a location containing magic items on a regular basis? Magimarts are a major flashpoint in the the dichotomy between believability (given initial assumptions of magic and spell-casting) and "Rule of Cool" ("if it's cool, it's OK").

In most campaigns, magic items will be quite rare. Or magic items that do commonplace things (such as a magic self-heating cast iron pan) may be common but the items that are useful in conflict will be rare. After all, if combat-useful magic items are commonplace, why would anyone take the risk of going into a “dungeon” full of dangers to find some? (Would dungeon-delving become purely a non-magical treasure-hunting activity if magic items are commonplace?)

And for the villains, magimarts seem like an easy score. If someone is kind enough to gather a lot of magic items in a convenient, known place, why not steal those rather than go to a lot of time and effort, risk and chance, to explore dungeons and ruins for items? There may be lots of money there as well!

When Magimarts Make Sense​

If your campaign is one where magic is very common, then magic shops may make sense - though only for common stuff, not for rare/powerful items. And magic-selling stores can provide reasons for adventures:
  • Find the kidnapped proprietor who is the only one who can access all that magic.
  • Be the guards for a magic store.
  • Chase down the crooks who stole some or all of the magic from the store.
Maybe a clever proprietor has figured out a way to make the items accessible only to him or her. But some spells let a caster take over the mind of the victim, and can use the victim to access the items. And if someone is so powerful that he or she can protect a magic store against those who want to raid it, won't they likely have better/more interesting things to do with their time? (As an aside, my wife points out that a powerful character might gather a collection of magic items in the same way that a rich person might gather a collection of artworks. But these won’t be available to “the public” in most cases. Still just as some people rob art museums, some might rob magic collections.)

Of course, any kind of magic trading offers lots of opportunities for deception. You might find out that the sword you bought has a curse, or that the potion isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Many GMs ignore this kind of opportunity and let players buy and sell items at standard prices without possibility of being bilked. Fair enough, it’s not part of the core adventure/story purposes of RPGs. And magic stores are a cheap way for a GM to allow trade in magic items.

Your Turn: What part do magic-selling stores play in your games?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
You could assume that, of course, but no system exists to give NPC's "xp" to level up. And again, there's that bit about being able to purchase spellcasting from NPC's that normally costs xp by paying more gp (5 gp per xp) which (to me, at least) implies that NPC's are apparently not very concerned about the xp losses.

Again, imagine the 3e NPC classes like Aristocrat or Expert, who probably shouldn't be adventuring to get xp. Sure there's ways to have social encounters (and you can grant ad hoc xp awards), but generally, you use the town creation rules in the DMG, if it says you have an NPC of class x and level y, that's what's there unless the DM says otherwise.

We don't know how they got to the level they are, but there's not a lot of point to track xp for every NPC in the game, they're the level they need to be.

So saying "well, NPC x won't be making magic items because it costs him xp when we don't know how much he has or how he gets it (and how fast that process is) without making up rules out of whole cloth". And if xp was really that valuable for them, I think they'd charge more than 5 gp per xp point.
Also, why couldn't there be a system to logically award xp to NPCs? I know at least one D&D-adjacent game that does it.
 

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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
I never liked the xp loss endemic to certain activities in 3e. There are better ways IMO to handle it. I would prefer a system where that kind of loss, or worse, are possible outcomes. Perhaps some sort of table with modifiers.
XP as a cost is badly handled. Pathfinder almost got it right, by having you make skill checks for magic item creation, but forgot that the d20 engine is built to give players tons of ways to optimize the heck out of skill checks (including magic items that grant large bonuses to skills!).

As for xp to cast certain spells, outside of things like Permanency, where you were at least assumed to be getting a different kind of power out of the deal than levels, it generally fell flat and people rarely cast those spells (in my experience).

Like, having other ways to "spend" xp is a neat concept, but it probably belongs in a more free form system than a level-based game, because then everything has to be balanced against the benefits of simply going up levels.

I once had a friend who used a custom xp system with his Spycraft game, which he kept trying to push on his players, who felt class levels were the way to go. Then a new player came in, said "wait, it's how much xp for a Feat?" and loaded up on a ton of Feats that gave him higher bonuses than what he would have gotten out of leveling up and (by all accounts) broke the game in half (since it's a game where combat is usually a fail state).
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Also, why couldn't there be a system to logically award xp to NPCs? I know at least one D&D-adjacent game that does it.
Would it be worth the effort of tracking it? I mean all you're really doing is putting a cooldown on NPC's who are willing to spend xp in exchange for services.

Which you can just do with DM fiat anyways. I'm simply saying that assuming that the rules for item creation hinder NPC's the way they do for players is an assumption that the game doesn't really take into account.
 



Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Would it be worth the effort of tracking it? I mean all you're really doing is putting a cooldown on NPC's who are willing to spend xp in exchange for services.

Which you can just do with DM fiat anyways. I'm simply saying that assuming that the rules for item creation hinder NPC's the way they do for players is an assumption that the game doesn't really take into account.
I think it would be more for repeat NPCs to gradually level up as the campaign progresses. Personally, if I'm going to do that I just periodically add a level or two to the NPC, but formal rules wouldn't be a bad thing.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Would it be worth the effort of tracking it? I mean all you're really doing is putting a cooldown on NPC's who are willing to spend xp in exchange for services.

Which you can just do with DM fiat anyways. I'm simply saying that assuming that the rules for item creation hinder NPC's the way they do for players is an assumption that the game doesn't really take into account.
The idea basically is that an NPC earns levels without adventuring based on how old they are, picking up new proficiencies (and levels, as appropriate) every X number of years. So you can posit a person and determine what level they should be or how skilled at their craft they are, or posit a specifically leveled or skilled NPC and determine how long they've been at it. Of course, the system I'm describing is more OSR than 5e, so it would need to be adjusted.
 



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