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
Oh, I don't either. House rules are generally less than useful when talking about the mechanics in the books, though.
Perhaps, but the thread topic is edition-neutral (no matter what forum its in), so I feel comfortable talking about different ways the concept can be expressed.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
I don't think that is accurate. I think this is mostly about magic shops of any kind and to what level are you able to buy and sell magic in the setting. To what extent is a magical item available for sale the way other items are.

I don't think you are really contradicting me. I think the OP makes clear that even in his default conception, there are "magic shops" of a kind and that certain low-level items such as potions might be available in limited numbers. So yes, the argument is really about to what extent a magic item is available for sale the way other items are, but "to what extent" when we are not talking about "freely available" the way rations, torches and iron spikes are, is a broad topic with a lot of fine graduations. The question at hand is something like, "Can I just expect to go into a town and buy a significant item like cloak of resistance or a girdle of health they way I would expect to buy torches, rations, and normal arrows?" The OP isn't saying that there aren't magic shops, but that there aren't magic shops with an inventory of significant items.

Which seems to me to be the 3e model with the suggested gp limits based on population of settlements and so decently available minor magic for sale but rarer for more powerful magic.

Sort of. I mean in a broad way I agree with the 3e model that some gp limit based on the population of the settlement determines what sort of goods can be purchased in it, but I think both myself and the OP would balk at the price points that 3e sets because those price points imply the existence of magic marts and I think were commonly used to justify them.

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In the 3e default magical marketplace you need to go to at least a large town to be able to buy a 2,000 gp +1 sword and that is the most powerful magic weapon available there. To get an 8,000 gp +2 sword you have to go to at least a small city. 50,000 gp +5 or equivalent swords cannot be bought at large cities, you have to go to one of the world's metropolis's.

And here is where I get into an argument about "to what extent" because the 3e guidelines are much more generous than I would be even when playing 3e.

Here is my reasoning. In 3e a gold piece seems to be about the daily wage of a common laborer. That is to say the economy works on a gold standard of super prevalent and abundant gold so that gold is not worth as much as you might expect. But even if 1 gold piece is just a daily wage that could translate into terms easy to relate to the modern world to like a single gold piece being worth $80 or more. So when you see a guideline that says in a town of 5000 people items of up to 3000 gold pieces can be purchased presumably "freely" what that is saying is equivalent to saying that in a town of 5000 people that items of up to $240,000 in value can be obtained relatively freely. A common interpretation of that in the 3e era was that there existed a magic shop a town of 5000 people where any object the player could conceive of that was worth less than $240,000 was on the shelf.

I've lived in a town of 5000 people before. I think the idea that in a setting presumably less industrialized than our own that there exists a shop for buying things worth $240,000 in every smallish town is unreasonable in the extreme. Like maybe when you get up to the legendary metropolises of my world you might find a small selection of items in that price range available off the shelf. Now, you could certainly try to commission the creation of objects in that price range in a legendary metropolis. But in no fashion would I consider a town of 5000 people to be a place where somewhere there is a display rack of +1 magic weapons available.

I think "walk into any town and expect virtually whatever magic item you desire to be available for purchase and already on the shelf in a sort of magic big box store" is not what everybody in this thread is discussing when talking about magic shops and trade in magical items.

I think we are talking about this difficult to talk about concept of "extent" where we quantitize what is available. I do agree that no one - not me, not the OP - is talking about the absolute existence of no magic shops as he gives examples of the sort of magic shops he'd be OK with. But I also don't think I'm erecting a straw man to say that there was a sizable body of people that adopted the magic-mart based on readings of 3e like you provided, and I think it is worth critiquing what that does to the game when they are available and whether that is as "necessary" as some claim.
 
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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
I don't think you are really contradicting me. I think the OP makes clear that even in his default conception, there are "magic shops" of a kind and that certain low-level items such as potions might be available in limited numbers. So yes, the argument is really about to what extent a magic item is available for sale the way other items are, but "to what extent" when we are not talking about "freely available" the way rations, torches and iron spicks are, is a broad topic with a lot of fine graduations. The question at hand is something like, "Can I just expect to go into a town and buy a significant item like cloak of resistance or a girdle of health they way I would expect to buy torches, rations, and normal arrows?" The OP isn't saying that there aren't magic shops, but that there aren't magic shops with an inventory of significant items.



Sort of. I mean in a broad way I agree with the 3e model that some gp limit based on the population of the settlement determines what sort of goods can be purchased in it, but I think both myself and the OP would balk at the price points that 3e sets because those price points imply the existence of magic marts and I think were commonly used to justify them.
The Profession Skill gives us insight. First we have:

Untrained laborers and assistants (that is, characters without any ranks in Profession) earn an average of 1 silver piece per day.

If by "common laborers" you mean a character with a 10 Wisdom and 4 ranks of Profession (who somehow forgets they have a Feat at level 1 that they can use to boost their check above +4 and thus gain more money per day), then yes, that would be 1 gp a day.

But you could also have someone with a +1 Wisdom bonus thanks to the non-elite array and, if Human, another +5 to Profession checks off of Feats to net 10 gp a week, lol.

But having met a lot of Average Joes over the years, it turns out that people IRL are rarely optimized for their jobs, so I imagine most people are raking in less than 1 gp a week.
 

Celebrim

Legend
The Profession Skill gives us insight. First we have:

Untrained laborers and assistants (that is, characters without any ranks in Profession) earn an average of 1 silver piece per day.

I didn't even want to get into that because it represents a holdover from the broken Gygaxian economics where he made the NPC economy into something resembling realism based on research while making the PC economy unrealistic based on gamist concerns resulting in pricing inequities that shouldn't exist. If you take that seriously though, you end up with a gold piece worth $1000 or more and then you have low tier magic items worth the equivalent about $2 million.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I didn't even want to get into that because it represents a holdover from the broken Gygaxian economics where he made the NPC economy into something resembling realism based on research while making the PC economy unrealistic based on gamist concerns resulting in pricing inequities that shouldn't exist. If you take that seriously though, you end up with a gold piece worth $1000 or more and then you have low tier magic items worth the equivalent about $2 million.
Yeah. Best to use research to make the whole economy into something resembling realism.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Yeah. Best to use research to make the whole economy into something resembling realism.

Or make the whole economy gamist. But what ended up happening is that he made the prices of things that he didn't value as dungeoneering supplies or PC accoutrements priced in silver pieces at a price of 20 s.p. to the gold, while things that he did value as dungeoneering supplies were priced in gold.

What this meant as that you could hire porters, diggers, and commodity items in silver pieces and then use that labor and raw materials to make things that were priced in gold pieces. It also meant that common laborers could buy food but not livestock (because horses) or houses (because castles), so the economics of peasant farming just didn't work at all.

He's attempted in places to justify that by citing things like the Klondike gold rush as an example and claiming that the prices in the book of dungeoneering supplies are hyper inflated the way mining supplies in the Klondike were, but that only works if the cost of transport from areas of non-hyperinflation to the area where the dungeon is is also extremely high and working out that consistently was not anything anyone ever did. So typically what you saw instead is the prices taken as base prices and people just ignoring Gygax's Klondike analogy.

But worse, if we were in the Klondike then the price of labor - hiring a torchbearer or a porter or a man-at-arms - should also be similarly hyper-inflated. But Gygax doesn't do that either.

The point is the dual silver/gold economy that last shows up in places like the description of the profession skill in 3e never worked.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
It has always bugged the hell out of me that you find coins in even amounts like that. What I do is that the last bit is rolled randomly, so if I got 70, what I would do is roll 1d10 for the last bit and end up with 61-70 gp With that copper I'd roll a d100 and end up with 901-1000 sp. Using the above numbers I ended up with 66 gp and 986 sp.
Doing it that way also accounts for their maybe not finding every last coin and-or dropping a few on their way out.
 


Staffan

Legend
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!).
Also, the DC was pretty low: 5+caster level. Given that you'd generally have a Spellcraft skill of +level+3+Int, and that there's nothing that says you can't take 10, that's basically impossible to fail.

In PF2e they solved it by making item creation basically useless (not sure if it changed in the remaster or not). Basically, as a downtime ability you can Craft. Each day you Craft, you generate a certain amount of value toward creating the item in question. But you could instead spend that time on the Earn Income downtime activity, which would earn a similar value and then you could spend that money on buying the item. Crafting does have the advantage that you can always use your own level on the Earn Income table instead of the level of whatever jobs the GM feels are available, but that's usually a marginal difference.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Also, the DC was pretty low: 5+caster level. Given that you'd generally have a Spellcraft skill of +level+3+Int, and that there's nothing that says you can't take 10, that's basically impossible to fail.

In PF2e they solved it by making item creation basically useless (not sure if it changed in the remaster or not). Basically, as a downtime ability you can Craft. Each day you Craft, you generate a certain amount of value toward creating the item in question. But you could instead spend that time on the Earn Income downtime activity, which would earn a similar value and then you could spend that money on buying the item. Crafting does have the advantage that you can always use your own level on the Earn Income table instead of the level of whatever jobs the GM feels are available, but that's usually a marginal difference.
Well the DC's remember assumed you had all the requirements on hand, such as access to the right spells, Since that often wasn't true, the DC's would go up, which is where that skill optimization comes into play.

This reminds me of the 4e approach to this sort of thing, where one could use a Martial Practice to forge a sword...or just go out and buy a sword. The advantage of being able to make it is to circumvent the possibility that what you want isn't available where you are, not to give you a discount.

Which would have been fine in 3e, if you didn't need all the other requirements like Feats and very specific spells known.

EDIT: another problem when discussing 3e's take on magic items is that later in 3.5 the developers completely changed their approach to magic items in The Magic Item Compendium- YMMV as to how well this played out.

I thought Healing Belts were a great way to make parties less reliant on Clerics, but others felt they were a pox upon the game.
 
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