Worlds of Design: When There's Too Many Magic Items

If you’ve GMed a long-standing campaign where players reached fairly high levels, you may have run into problems of too much magic, or of too many low-powered magic items (such as +1 items) in the hands of the heroes. What to do?


While you could simply buy up the surplus, there are other ways that don’t put lots of gold in character’s hands. These methods can be built into a game’s rules (as in Pathfinder 2 “resonance”) or they can be added by the GM.

Limit the Supply (i.e., limit ownership)

The proper game design way is to severely limit supply, as could be done in a board game. No magic item sales. Middle-earth is an example of a world with very few magic items.

But what about joint campaigns, where several people GM in the same world? New GMs, especially, will tend to give away too much “to make people happy.”

But that’s a setting thing, not rules/mechanisms. An RPG designer doesn’t control the setting, not even his or her own.

In these days where “loot drops” are the norm, where every enemy in a computer RPG has loot, it’s really hard to get players accustomed to a severe shortage of stuff to find. So limit usage, or provide ways to use up the small stuff.

Limit Usage


  • Tuning to just three (5e D&D)
  • Resonance
  • Easy to come up with other methods
5e D&D’s tuning of magic items to characters is one of the best rules in the game, at least from a designer’s point of view.

Pathfinder 2 beta was using resonance (level plus charisma), whereby use of a magic item uses up some of your resonance for the day, until you have no more and can use no more magic until the next day. It was more complex than that, with you “investing” in items that could then be used all day. There are lots of ways to use the idea.

Destroy Them

The D&D method was fireball or LB with failed saving throw. But that was so all-or-nothing that even I didn’t like it. Moreover, the tougher characters tend to end up with even more magic items, relative to others, because they fail their save less often; that may not be desirable.

Have everything (most, anyway) wear out. This is a hassle if you have to track something like charges or uses. I assign a dice chance (or use a standard one for a type of item), and the player rolls after each use (or I do, so the player won’t know until the next time they try to use the item). When the “1" comes up, the item is done, finis, kaput (unless you allow it to be “recharged”). For example, 1 in 20 failure rate is obvious; roll a 1 on a d20, that’s it. With two dice you can make 1 in 40, 1 in 50, whatever you want. If you want armor, shields, and other passive defensive items to wear out, rolling once per combat might do.

Burn Them Up


  • My Skyrafts
  • Furnace Helms in Spelljammer
  • Rituals?
I devised something called Skyrafts, made of segments of Skystone (of course), that could slowly fly when powered by magic items. So you could sacrifice something like a +1 sword to get X miles of travel, X being whatever a GM wishes. The more segments (carrying capacity) in the Skyraft, the more magic it consumed. Yes, this could be expensive, but if your world has become infested with +1 items, this is a way to get rid of them.

Furnace Helms in SpellJammer accomplish the same thing, but only if you’re running a Spelljammer campaign.

You could also devise powerful ritual spells that consume magic items.

“Enforcers”

These are people who seek out wimpy characters with magic items much too powerful for them, and take them away. I don’t do this, as it doesn’t make much sense to me. But it could in some contexts.

I'm sure others have devised yet more ways to limit the influence of magic items.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Ramaster

Explorer
This article reads like it was written 10-15 years ago. Most of these are really bad ideas. Resonance was a universally panned mechanic, on the latest podcast JB said that they had taken it out of the system for good with no replacement. "Enforcers" that come and take your magic items (and succeed, because otherwise it's just a combat encounter I guess) is one of the greatest "feel bad moments" I could possibly imagine (both as a player and as a DM).

"Too many +1 items" is a total non-issue on the d20 system. +/-5% on the RNG is not enough to imbalance a campaign and if you are worried that the PCs will sell the items to gain wealth and then buy powerful items just limit that ("There is no one here interested in buying your items/has enough cash"; "There are no magic items here for sale that are better than what you already have").
 

AriochQ

Explorer
"Too much" is a phrase very relative to the campaign. I have DM'd, and played, in both magic rich and magic scarce D&D games and neither was a problem so long as it fit the campaign. The real problem only arises when characters have too many items in a magic scarce campaign. This is usually the result of a Monty Hall style DM. In those cases, destruction, sale, or theft are your only real options (given the system rules are already in place and major alterations deep into a campaign would be poor form imho). While those options may hamper immersion in the short term if done poorly, the long term game balance is probably worth it. A good DM will find ways to rid players of excess magic items by working it into the existing story structure (the village needs a sacrifice to the rain gods, a wedding gift befitting a Duke, etc.).

In cases of high level characters having collected a ton of items, I find the action economy usually becomes the limiting factor. They may have a ton of options, but they can only do one thing per round.

One thing I always tell newer DM's running a home game, "err on the side of too few magic items, it is far easier to give more out later than to take them back".
 
I think resonance could work if tweaked. What about non-magic-users can only use, or bring forth, magical effects once per level. After that, there's only a 2 in 6 chance of success... the sword erupting in flame, the healing potion restoring you, or the ring turning you invisible?

Yes, I'm thinking of this through an OSR lens, not Pathfinder.

VS
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
OP, I found that reducing the number of items, while at the same time improving quality, brought the magic back into magic items for my players.

If the game expects you to have a +1 item, and 2 minor items by the time you hit 4th level, rather than dump a bunch 12 minor items on the players, I would merge those items into something cool. So maybe the fighter finds Lightbringer, a +1 greatsword that can cast light 3x day, and make you lighter(featherfall) 3x day.
 

lyle.spade

Explorer
I must say this: the title should read "Worlds of Design: When There Are Too Many Magic Items." Call me a grammar nazi, but "items" is plural, and thus requires "are" and not "is." This a common error in spoken English, but a grammar-checker ought to pick this up when writing.
 

Banesfinger

Explorer
Gandalf: "There are many magic rings in the world, Bilbo Baggins, and none of them should be taken lightly."
Perhaps if every magic item also has a drawback?
E.g. +1 magic sword, but goblins automatically make the wielder their primary target.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
I prefer my method, "Don't care."

And in OSR, you give the spare magic to your henchmen. With enough henchmen, you never have too many magic items.
 

Koloth

Villager
In many recent game systems, magic has become standard equipment and as characters go up in levels, they are supposed to get a certain amount of magic stuff. It quickly loses the feel of 'magic' and becomes just another tech thing. It has also been so well defined it is almost boring. You have ring slots(2), weapon slot, shield slot, neck slot(1), etc. And each slot seems to have a limited range of functions. Almost like a plug and play piece of electronics. Here, plug in a +1 ring of protection, a +2 armband, and a belt of strength. Oh, your character isn't working well in combat? Replace the ring of protection with a ring of ....

Maybe if a character has more then X magic items, there is a chance of a random effect anytime any of the items is used. Yes, your +1 ring did add to your armor class so the orc's swing missed you but you now have a rather strange smell and the orc is now looking at you with... well lust! Make your saving throw vs Orc grapple.
 

lyle.spade

Explorer
I prefer my method, "Don't care."

And in OSR, you give the spare magic to your henchmen. With enough henchmen, you never have too many magic items.
Good points, both. Anyway, "too many" is subjective in this case, and so it's entirely based on what sort of story the group is trying to tell, and what sort of world they're trying to model.
 

Ryujin

Adventurer
I find that limiting bonus stacking usually results in players voluntarily trying to sell off lesser items for the cash. Also, them acquiring followers or other NPCs gives them someone to pass such lesser items on to.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The problem I find isn't so much that there's too many magic items (if such a concept even exists). It's the distribution within the party that causes headaches: newer or less-lucky* characters end up with not that many, while older established and lucky* characters end up with lots. And as this is all to do with the PCs and their players, it's not like I-as-DM can enforce any sort of redistribution on the party.

* - magic items can break in my game, as per the "destruction method" noted in the article...and when they break they sometimes go 'boom', which on rare occasions can lead to what we call a meltdown: a cascading series of magic item failures and wild surges where the outcome of one triggers the next.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
The proper game design way is to severely limit supply, as could be done in a board game. No magic item sales. Middle-earth is an example of a world with very few magic items.
You know the crazy thing is... no Middle Earth isn't, at least it wasn't in the near-past of the setting.

The entire economy of the Dwarves of Moria was founded on mining and selling mithril. Bilbo's (and later Frodo's and then Sam's) mithril shirt was a commissioned piece for an elf prince. The Dwarves of Erebor and Men of Dale continued this and were manufacturing magical firecrackers and whatnot for Bilbo's party. Presumably they weren't just selling to long-distant rich hobbits, though it's not clear who was buying.

Admittedly, Tolkien left a world design hole the size of a Peterbilt with this one, but it's pretty clear: Magic item sales were a thing in the Third Age.
 
Is this a real article, or did someone write an outline and publish it by accident?

In any event, the problem should be solved with magic item design. There never should have been such a thing as a "+1 sword" to begin with: Either the +1 is necessary to stay on the proper power curve, in which case that math should be built into the class's attack mechanics already, or else the +1 is not necessary to stay on the power curve and it shouldn't exist because it imbalances the game.

Good magic item design evokes the feel of the memorable elements of classic fantasy, like the One Ring or Stormbringer. (I wonder what would happen if you wore the One Ring while wielding Stormbringer?) The point is, these aren't magic items you use for a few levels and then sell or hand off to a henchman, nor are they items that offer only trivial mechanical benefits. These items add to the story by offering the Faustian dilemma of power vs peril, risk vs reward, and they help to define a character instead of just modifying his stats.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I think resonance could work if tweaked. What about non-magic-users can only use, or bring forth, magical effects once per level. After that, there's only a 2 in 6 chance of success... the sword erupting in flame, the healing potion restoring you, or the ring turning you invisible?

Yes, I'm thinking of this through an OSR lens, not Pathfinder.

VS
There are ways to make resonance type ideas work. For instance, items of a certain power level may well not play nice with each other. In my 2E to houserules game, I more or less posited that a character can only bear one item of legendary status---Rod of Law, Hammer of Thunderbolts, just to name two in the game---without serious consequences. That much fate encapsulated in an item in the hands of one person, or in one place, is dangerous. I've more or less embraced a magic item economy for lower end stuff, but there's really only so much of it worth buying and supply is uncertain. This campaign is pretty cosmic in scope, though, and the PCs are leading a group that sucks up resources pretty nicely.

Thinking through a 5E lens but it generalizes reasonably well, of the best cures for grindy magic items IMO is to make most items handed out consumable or things that augment a PC without qualitatively shifting their abilities. For instance, an item I devised is nifty but limited in scope. Currently one PC has the Lesser Belt. It's a cool item, but by no means is it overwhelming.

Belt of Timely Resilience (Uncommon for Lesser, Very Rare for Greater, Requires Attunement)

Both gith races, being planar travelers, frequently encounter exotic hazards. They have manufactured these belts to help protect against such unpredictable hazards. A Lesser Belt of Timely Resilience has 3 charges. As a Reaction when required to make a save, the wearer can activate it, thereupon rolling all saves until the end of their next turn with advantage. A Greater Belt of Timely Resilience functions exactly the same way but it has 7 charges and all saves are made at an additional +2. A belt recovers D3 charges at dawn.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
In any event, the problem should be solved with magic item design. There never should have been such a thing as a "+1 sword" to begin with: Either the +1 is necessary to stay on the proper power curve, in which case that math should be built into the class's attack mechanics already, or else the +1 is not necessary to stay on the power curve and it shouldn't exist because it imbalances the game.
YMMV, I suppose, but I believe that a magical sword should be better than a non-magical sword. Whether or not you can figure out how to balance it from a game perspective, it's necessary for traditional fantasy settings.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with a setting where some people have magical swords and others don't, and where having the better sword gives a substantive advantage. And if the sword is going to help you in some way, then it absolutely makes sense for that to come in the form of increased accuracy and/or damage. A sword that lets you fly, or deflect fireballs, may be more powerful and more useful, but it's not better at the thing that swords are supposed to do; it's not better as a sword.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
"Too much" is a phrase very relative to the campaign. I have DM'd, and played, in both magic rich and magic scarce D&D games and neither was a problem so long as it fit the campaign.
Absolutely.


In cases of high level characters having collected a ton of items, I find the action economy usually becomes the limiting factor. They may have a ton of options, but they can only do one thing per round.
This is where having some economy actually helps. You may end up with a fair number of not fantastic items you want to move and are looking for something more interesting/useful as you outgrow what was cool gear when you're in mid-levels. In a long-running Greyhawk campaign I played in (from 1998-2007, off and on) we often had to deal with Kondratis, the City of Greyhawk Wizards' Guild Mage of Exchange. What a pain in the @$% he was, but he was also one of the few people who could move and/or find an item or spell. He was also a great quest giver as sometimes he knew about a place that might have a desirable item... information costs, of course. In my currently running Astral game, the PCs often deal with the Mercane for items they want and/or want to move. Similarly, the Mercane have been quest givers, once time hiring the PCs to handle a problem rather than charging some expensive cost for high level spells they wanted to buy.

Having a functioning economy does require maturity on the part of the players, though, and it helps if the prices for items remains not entirely clear, reflecting the fact that magic items are much more like the art, bespoke clothing, or custom/rare instrument markets in the real world, and not an ordinary commodity market, where you can just buy stuff off the rack. But of course that depends on the feel you want.
 
There's absolutely nothing wrong with a setting where some people have magical swords and others don't, and where having the better sword gives a substantive advantage.
Tell that to the guy who doesn't have a magic sword. Actually, climb into a DM's seat and tell Player B his fighter doesn't get a magic sword even though Player A's fighter got one.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Tell that to the guy who doesn't have a magic sword. Actually, climb into a DM's seat and tell Player B his fighter doesn't get a magic sword even though Player A's fighter got one.
Right, and I think this pretty much nails a lot of issues: Much of what causes problems isn't really regarding the setting at all. A game where one PC grossly outshines the others will often be problematic for "'round the table" issues.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Is this a real article, or did someone write an outline and publish it by accident?
As odd as the posts can be, they usually spark some good discussion.


In any event, the problem should be solved with magic item design. There never should have been such a thing as a "+1 sword" to begin with: Either the +1 is necessary to stay on the proper power curve, in which case that math should be built into the class's attack mechanics already, or else the +1 is not necessary to stay on the power curve and it shouldn't exist because it imbalances the game.
In D&D long ago magic weapons really did represent qualitative shifts in the PC due to the fact that there were many monsters that couldn't be hit by non-magic weapons at all. So they were really, really valuable.


Good magic item design evokes the feel of the memorable elements of classic fantasy, like the One Ring or Stormbringer. (I wonder what would happen if you wore the One Ring while wielding Stormbringer?) The point is, these aren't magic items you use for a few levels and then sell or hand off to a henchman, nor are they items that offer only trivial mechanical benefits. These items add to the story by offering the Faustian dilemma of power vs peril, risk vs reward, and they help to define a character instead of just modifying his stats.
I'm not sure I'd totally agree, though I do like legendary items that are more than just mundane. The problem is that these are almost plot devices and drive the story a lot. It's OK with Elric because he's really a one man band and the story is pretty much about him, but I think it's potentially problematic with a lot of parties to have that much dramatic real estate taken up by one PC's interaction with their sword. The trick is finding a space between really mundane grindy items (e.g., pretty much all of 4E's items) and something that's too big for the campaign.
 

Advertisement

Latest threads

Advertisement

Top