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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


I personally prefer a sword and sorcery feel of rare magic items and most of the trading being within the party.

I try and cut out shopping entirely in general.

4e inherent bonuses were right up my alley.
I don't think that the ability to buy magic items & lower availability sword & sorcery are antithetical to each other. In fact that tone makes brokers & collectors who might have the occasional thing available like get described in the video I linked in this post into extremely important contact(s) for the players to internalize keeping good relations with a high priority. Where 5e poisoned the well to make magic items pretty much trivialize & break the game is the fault of assuming no feats no magic items & deliberately awful CharOp, that's not a fault of magic items

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So people prefer that players spend a session shopping in character and talking to cagey NPCs like in Critical Role?
Hopefully not a full session, buying stuff on the way to adventure is fine, role-playing every interaction with multiple merchants is incredibly boring. I often feel like a session is wasted when that happens and tend to zone out when the group I'm playing with heads down that path.


So people prefer that players spend a session shopping in character and talking to cagey NPCs like in Critical Role?
Or you can use the downtime rules to keep it quick, which is what I do. Ideally it can be done between sessions, but it usually takes no more than 10 minutes if it happens during the session.


So people prefer that players spend a session shopping in character and talking to cagey NPCs like in Critical Role?
Depends on the group. Some people want to get it out of the way ASAP. Other people just love fantasy shopping and meeting the quirky NPC merchants. No answer is universally right, so it's up to the DM to feel out their players and decide what's right for their table.


Victoria Rules
So people prefer that players spend a session shopping in character and talking to cagey NPCs like in Critical Role?
They don't have to roleplay the shopping trips or NPC interactions unless they want to; but as it's virtually ironclad that it'll be the players asking for a list of what items happen to be available in town, I'm safe in saying they don't mind spending the time to go over said list and buy what they want (and can afford) from it.

So people prefer that players spend a session shopping in character and talking to cagey NPCs like in Critical Role?
So long as I'm confident the DM has spent lots of time and effort coming up with a coherent magic item economy, created a lot of memorable and quirky NPCs and magic item shops, and generally gone all out for verisimilitude, such that I could spend the session shopping if I wanted to, then I'm quite happy just going on the adventure instead.

Assuming the DM had enough time left to write one, obviously.


If there are magic stores strewn about the land why aren't the local lords (bandit or otherwise) capitalizing on this?
Why aren't there armies of guys with +3 swords running around?
Fantasy game economies have never made sense to me.

Edgar Ironpelt

My preference is for magic items to be available by commission, rather than in-stock at a magic mart.

I also prefer a range of special items, from the 'merely' masterwork, to common minor items, to the rare and incredibly valuable, rather than a sharp division between "Mundane, meh" and "Magic! Oooh shiny!"

The source material often has loads of magic items that aren't highly visible. Tolkien's Middle Earth, for example, has those well-known examples of magic items that are unique and can't be duplicated even in theory - but also barely-mentioned examples of magic items so common that they're sold as toys and party favors.

Trying to make magic items wondrous by making them rare will backfire if they're so rare that the PCs don't have access to them.

Making items that are unique possessions of PCs and other heroes is best done by some sort of point-buy system that's part of the character creation mechanics. E.g. the Hero system where magic items are character powers with the focus limitation, bought with character points, or where "has a magic item" is a D&D feat taken by the character.

More generally, rare & unique items that just happen to be in the hands of the PCs requires world-building with reified narrativium. Without this reified narrativium, making magic items "beyond price" will either screw up the economics of the game world, or else will screw the fun away from the players. Or both.

My preferred vision for wizards (and others) making magic items is not that they do so as an everyday job, but as an occasional special activity. E.g. a wizard will set up a lab in his tower, putter away at magical 'experiments' and slowly gain XP in the process - and then every so often he'll spend some or all of that XP to create a magic item which he sells to fund further magical experiments and his own upkeep.


So people prefer that players spend a session shopping in character and talking to cagey NPCs like in Critical Role?
Some do. Those folks shouldn't be left out in the cold, but at the same time need to understand not everyone is on board for that sort of thing - they may just want to get to the dungeon and kill/interact with things.

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