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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.


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


High level. You could almost throw a stone to find a high level retired adventurer working as a bartender cleric constable blacksmith or whatever.
I don't remember a number of spellcaster smiths though who could make magic items.

Waterdeep in 3.5 had one smith where they specified class and levels "Brian the Swordmaster: Brian (NG male Illuskan human fighter 4/expert 16)"

"His years at the forge and as an armar of the guard have left him with a powerful build. Brian is a skilled swordsmith, the best in the city, and a master armorer."

He is also
a secret lord of Waterdeep

It does not look like he can default make magic weapons without a spellcaster partner doing all the magic.

In 1e Waterdeep he was a 12th level fighter.

Brian the Swordmaster
12th level fighter
Brian the Swordmaster is a Smith of skill. His nickname is a title of proficiency in his craft, although he has gone beyond the skills of a swordsmith, and is now a master armorerin short, Brian is as skilled a smith as it is possible for a human to be, able to craft items of lasting durability, beauty, and exquisite workmanship.

The closest to a specified magic item crafting smith in 3e would be the clergy at the church of Gond the Wondermaker where the high priest has a technosmith prestige class and teams up with the smith guilds to make constructs.

In 1e there were two other classed smiths mentioned in Waterdeep too but neither can do magic:

Master: Hawkun Orsund (6th level fighter, Master Hammer),

Master: Hallthor Duzmund (12th level fighter, Master Smith)

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@Voadam older editions is relative to 5e, I'm including 3.x & adnd2e
My point is that my version of Greyhawk is more cosmopolitan and a more open society, not as tightly regulated by guilds, not so dominated by very local feudal interests. Something similar happened in Japan, but I was thinking more of Germany/Italy in the 12C.
You interpreted my clarification about edo's travel restrictions and such backwards. It wouldn't be a huge ordeal for a medieval traveler to find what direction they needed to travel in order to find the nearest monastery. Worst case they could ask around for the village elder and work their way towards whomever is responsible for sending/receiving taxes till they got to someone who knows or helps fund it.

You don't need to fast forward to renesance for monasteries though. Just looking for an older one that was still in operation I found Saint Catherine's in Sinai Egypt as an example from one particular faith that has & is still operating ever since sometimes around 548-565AD. Just to find a similar one in Europe specifically I found "According to Bulgarian archaeological and historical research, the Monastery of Saint Athanasius in Chirpan, Bulgaria, is the oldest monastery in Europe, founded in 344 by St. Athanasius, also known as Athanasius the Great. It's also the oldest cloister in Europe.". The power and capabilities of wizards is significant enough that finding a monastery that facilitated cross copying of spell books would be even easier, especially in a world where villagers are likely to remember they guy who helped kill those zombies/goblins/etc harassing the town on his way through wanted good directions or whatever.

None of this is to influence how your game world needs to run or not, I'm talking about the cemented legacy left behind by the early use of Vance's dying earth treatment of spell book access & cross copying still present in the current editions core books despite the fact that the wizard class &it's spells have changed to such an incredible degree when spells were so powerful it still made sense.

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Another thing I forgot about was that in 1e and 2e, Dwarves could create magic arms and armor without being spellcasters. I don't recall if it was ever stated how this works, but there's a good example of it in Rob Salvatore's The Crystal Shard with the forging of Aegis-Fang. So maybe, if Dwarven smiths can crank out magic items, there might be an economy for them in Dwarven cities?


Another thing I forgot about was that in 1e and 2e, Dwarves could create magic arms and armor without being spellcasters. I don't recall if it was ever stated how this works..

The 1e DMG implied demihuman NPCs of maximum level would obtain the ability to craft magical items through esoteric racially specific items. It also strongly implied no PC could ever learn this ability. So presumably 8th level Dwarven fighters with knowledge of smithing were the source of certain dwarven magical arms and armors but it was handed waved into background. In general, 1e AD&D tended to embrace at the same time that the PC's were special and vastly superior to bulk of the worlds NPCs, but also that there were NPCs that were just cooler and more special than the PCs ever could be. Thus "NPC classes" back in the day often referred to "boss monster" classes that were just vastly more powerful than PCs, and NPCs often had attributes that PCs could never reasonably get or obtain by virtue of being the bad guy or ruler or whatever.

The net result of this along with the other decisions about crafting in magical items is that most tables never say any crafting occur because it was so heavily DM driven and Gygax's inclinations were always to warn DM's to not be pushovers for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the campaign as opposed to warning DMs to not be too stingy and thus frustrate the players (though to be fair, he also warned against that). But in the case of making magic items I think he raised the barrier too high.


1e DMG page 116:

"Magic items are made by high level magic-users, except those items which are restricted to clerics and special racial items and books, artifacts and relics. Books (including tomes, librams and manuals), artifacts, and relics are of ancient manufacture, possibly from superior human or demi-human technology, perhaps of divine origin; thus books, artifacts, and relics cannot be made by players and come only from the Dungeon Master. Dwarven and elven manufactured items — the +3 dwarven war hammer, certain other magic axes and hammers, cloaks and boots of elvenkind, magic arrows, magic bows in some cases, and even some magic daggers and swords — are likewise beyond the ken of player characters of these races. Only very old, very intelligent and wise dwarves and elves who have attained maximum level advancement are able to properly forge, fashion, and/or make these items and have the appropriate magicks and spells to change them into special items — i.e., these items are likewise the precinct of the DM exclusively"

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Ah Gary, don't use a sentence when a huge paragraph would do as fine. So here we have a completely unnecessary section telling you that NPC's can make magic items in ways PC's can't. Fantastic!

Amusingly, "max level" in this case is 9th for Dwarves* and 5th for Elven Fighters.

*Well it would be 8th, but apparently only NPC Dwarves can be Clerics in the PHB. Not sure why that even needs to be stated in a Player's Book.

At least until Unearthed Arcana is printed, I think, since it allows Dwarven Fighter/Clerics.


Even in 3.x, there was a way to bypass xp cost for item creation. There were feats. There was Ambrosia, Liquid pain, Liquid joy and you could always use sacrifices ( not item, but my personal favourite template from Libris mortis, necropolitan, has xp cost in sentient creature sacrifices).

And even back then, there were dms that didnt use xp and started using milestone leveling so xp for item creation got thrown out. Pf1 just codified it almost 15 years ago.


Victoria Rules
Which made the jump from strength 18 to strength 19 absolutely hilarious.

We fixed this by making each increment in exceptional strength be its own integer, such that 18.00 became 24 and what used to be 19 became 25. Our expanding the Cavalier's percentile-increment system to all classes kinda forced this in order that 18+ Strength values would work the same as any other stat.

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