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

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Epic
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.
IME it was reasonably common for players who did pick up a a craft $thing feat& group members with those folks that took oneto ask the GM if Bob's PC could supply the experience when Alice made a particular magic item for Bob's PC. Talking about things I've seen as a player, been asked as a GM, & stories I've heard from people I never even met back then.
 

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cbwjm

Seb-wejem
Indeed.

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.
If I ever run 2e again, the way I fixed it was by making % strength separate from the 18 strength requirement allowing warriors with lower strength to gain additional bonuses. If a fighter has a 14/51 strength, they gain a +1 bonus to hit and damage, as well as an increase in lifting capacity.
 

Staffan

Legend
If I ever run 2e again, the way I fixed it was by making % strength separate from the 18 strength requirement allowing warriors with lower strength to gain additional bonuses. If a fighter has a 14/51 strength, they gain a +1 bonus to hit and damage, as well as an increase in lifting capacity.
Revised Dark Sun had a different solution. Since Dark Sun characters can have up to 20 in their stats before racial adjustments, and there are races with +1, +2, and even +4 to Strength, it was fairly easy to bypass the whole Exceptional Strength thing and get a 19+ Strength. So in Revised, they instead gave all Warriors +1d4 to Strength and introduced a new Strength table that basically put the old percentiles at 19-22, and expanded the rest upward:

1714684797832.png
 

Voadam

Legend
Revised Dark Sun had a different solution. Since Dark Sun characters can have up to 20 in their stats before racial adjustments, and there are races with +1, +2, and even +4 to Strength, it was fairly easy to bypass the whole Exceptional Strength thing and get a 19+ Strength. So in Revised, they instead gave all Warriors +1d4 to Strength and introduced a new Strength table that basically put the old percentiles at 19-22, and expanded the rest upward:

View attachment 360936
I only had the original one so I never saw that, very interesting. It is a bit of a downgrade on human fighters.

Humans had 5d4 or 4d4+4 for stat generation in Dark Sun so they now could go to a 20 Strength with +2/+4 as a max while before a core non Dark Sun humand fighter with 18/00 would be +3/+6.

Their revised 25 strength +4/+9 is the old 21 Strength which you could get with a girdle of frost giant strength.

1714686569025.png
 

Staffan

Legend
I only had the original one so I never saw that, very interesting. It is a bit of a downgrade on human fighters.
It is a downgrade, because it means you don't get super-strong for having a 19 instead of an 18. On the other hand, every warrior gets the +d4 to Strength, unlike exceptional Strength where you only get the benefits if you happened to roll 18.
 

cbwjm

Seb-wejem
Revised Dark Sun had a different solution. Since Dark Sun characters can have up to 20 in their stats before racial adjustments, and there are races with +1, +2, and even +4 to Strength, it was fairly easy to bypass the whole Exceptional Strength thing and get a 19+ Strength. So in Revised, they instead gave all Warriors +1d4 to Strength and introduced a new Strength table that basically put the old percentiles at 19-22, and expanded the rest upward:

View attachment 360936
Oh wow, I never noticed that.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
It's an interesting way to do it, but it does significantly lower the ceiling for Half-Giants, who, at least in the first version of Dark Sun, paid a hefty price for their ridiculous strength.
 

cbwjm

Seb-wejem
So I never noticed that the Dark Sun charts were any different, but now looking back over it the constitution chart is also different, allowing for non-warriors to gain more health with scores above 19.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Revised Dark Sun had a different solution. Since Dark Sun characters can have up to 20 in their stats before racial adjustments, and there are races with +1, +2, and even +4 to Strength, it was fairly easy to bypass the whole Exceptional Strength thing and get a 19+ Strength. So in Revised, they instead gave all Warriors +1d4 to Strength and introduced a new Strength table that basically put the old percentiles at 19-22, and expanded the rest upward:

View attachment 360936
That table skips a few steps: there should be a +1/+3 step and a +3/+5 step. Put those in at 19 and 23 respectively, such that +3/+6 is at 24, and it'd be exactly the same as what we use.
 

Starfox

Hero
@Voadam older editions is relative to 5e, I'm including 3.x & adnd2e

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.
Yeah, the church is the great exception. They maintained an international infrastructure during the dark ages when no-one else could. Greyhawk lacks this kind of church, and doesn't have any equivalent in another field. Nor is wizardry really equivalent to any other guild. The journeyman system as its believed to have worked in the early medieval period was literally about journeys. You studied your craft as an apprentice in one town, but once you got your journeyman credentials you had the opportunity to journey to different places and learn from different masters. This spread know-how and made the state of each craft similar over large areas. If a new technique was developed in Paris, it would soon spread to the rest of Europe.

But this is not how I imagine wizardry to work. I guess my idea of paranoid wizards actually comes from Gary Gygax and the early DMG, to me this seems to be the norm of how wizardry is seen in RPGs. DnD and Ars Magica certainly has similar ideas about this secrecy of wizards. In history, the idea of technological state secrets is actually a fairly recent one, perhaps 19C. Rather, the problem in medieval history was getting people to accept new ideas, not to keep those ideas secret.

I guess what I'm saying is that you're right, there really is no historical precedent for magic being kept secret. There is precedence in fiction.
 

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