Friday, April 22, 2011

The Magic Item reset (I): Why I hate magic items

Forget about feats, powers, or paragon paths. The most bloated, cumbersome and fun-killing part of D&D 4E are the magic items. For a game that is basically about killing monsters and taking their stuff, picking treasure too often feels like a chore rather than a reward. Today I will discuss why I feel this way about one of the sacred pillars of D&D, and in subsequent articles I will present my ideas on how to improve this situation.

It’s the item selection

To be clear, my gripe is not against the basic framework of the item system, which I find rather solid and well thought out. Nor am I opposed to the much maligned rarity system introduced by the Essentials books - on the contrary, I see it as an elegant solution which had the misfortune to come out three years too late, receiving zero support. No, the problem that plagues magic items lies in an element that is much harder to fix: the selection of items sucks.
It’s not that there aren’t fun, interesting items out there - but, to get to them, you have to filter through overwhelming amounts of junk. One of the stated design goals for items in 4E was to de-emphasize the importance of a character’s equipment (at least, compared to previous editions of the game), and while I consider this a noble purpose, it led to too many worthless pieces of gear. Even worse, a small minority of items were inadvertently (I assume) implemented with a much higher power level, overshadowing all the filler, but also the few interesting options that also existed. Ironically, this turned the process of choosing an item into a treasure hunt of sorts, with players digging through piles of stuff in order to find the rare gem.
This is compounded by the fact that a lot of items have very narrow applications, only being useful for characters built in a specific way, and sometimes even referring to specific class features - which is a compelling idea, but reduces even further the percentage of useful stuff for any given character. This approach requires printing huge amounts of items in order to provide minimal support for each possible build - and, given the wild variance in item power level, it implies that some classes will randomly get much more mileage out of their gear.
To sum up, the main problems I identified were the following:
  •  Most items are terrible.
  • A very small fraction of items are extremely strong.
  •  Items are too narrow.
  •  There is just too much stuff.
Unlike other game issues I have previously addressed in this blog, this just isn’t something that can be addressed by houseruling a few dozen (or even a few hundred!) items. The sensible solution would be to just give up on it, and either accept the tedious searches to compile each wishlist, or eschew magic items altogether in favour of inherent bonuses. But why be sensible, when you can be bold? I decided to try out a radical approach, which would require considerable efforts and was highly likely to end up as flawed as the original implementation: I would forget about the existing item list, and create a new one from scratch. I called this the Magic Item Reset. In future articles, you will see the design process I followed, and what came out of it.

Article index

1. Full item list

2. Item lists by slot

3. Optional rules

4. Articles on design


  1. I am really looking forward to this

  2. I'm looking forward to this. I concur that magic items in 4e are not handled all that well.

  3. Oh man. Between this and Save Versus Death's upcoming Fourthcore Armory, 4e items are about to have a friggin' renaissance. Looking forward to it!

    (Unfortunately, feats need pretty much the same treatment, for the same reasons...)

  4. I completely agree. One of the biggest offenders is the myriad of charge-boosting items, as it's gotten to the point where unless you're a multi-attacker the only way to keep up in the DPR race is to spec for charging. Booooring.

    Someone on the WotC forums recently posted a Gouge-wielding WIZARD that put out impressive striker-level DPR when charging. The Wizard is functionally the complete opposite of this type of character, which just goes to show how specific items sets can completely overshadow the functionality of an entire class.

    Personally I don't think that the various damage boosters (Horned Helm, Vanguard Weapon, Surprising Charge, etc.) should stack, and the Bade of the Berserker should only provide a bonus to defense vs. OAs when charging, not make you immune to them altogether. Charging should be a good option, but it shouldn't overshadow PCs that choose not to go that route.

  5. Hey, you need to update this index with the links to the newer articles!

  6. Thanks, I had missed a couple of articles. It's done now :)

  7. Awesome! I just recently bought Essentials and was really puzzled once I figured out that there just are no more magic items available. I couldn't make it through the first level without fudging loot rolls!

    This is just what I needed. It would be very cool to see it compiled into a single document. I especially like that you haven't messed with the rules much. Just dropping a new set of magic items in is straightforward enough.

  8. I really liked this, and I'm going to start using it in my new games. My question, though, is if you had a fix for the feat bloat?

  9. I don't have a full fix for the feat bloat issue, but I've definitely been giving it a lot of thought. I have a project for a complete revamp of 4E feats, but that will take a ton of work, and I'm not even halfway yet.

    Anyway, my alternate feat system, if I ever get to complete it, would follow these design principles:

    - Cut the taxes: There would be no feats for expertise, focus, improved defenses or extended critical ranges. The numerical bonuses currently granted by these feats would be given for free to all PCs.

    - Two feat tiers: I would create two feat categories: "greater feats" and "lesser feats". A PCs feats would be split evenly between both categories (likely granting a lesser feat in levels where you get a utility power, and a greater feat in those levelts where you don't). Greater feats would include cool combat-related stuff, while the lesser feat slots would let you take weaker stuff like Skill focus or Linguist, which are trap options under the current framework.

    - Siloing: I love how multiclass feats work under the current system. They are very strong and interesting feats, but you can only take one of them. This means that picking a multiclass is a highly interesting decision for a player. It also has the advantage that you can have 40+ awesome multiclass feats in the game without incurring in major power creep. I would take this principle one step further, creating a lot (likely betwen 5 and 10) of feat categories, each of which would only let you choose one among several(hopefully) powerful and cool options.

    - Generic options: The current model of specific feats for each class build, race, and combination thereof, is unsustainable. In order keep the number of feats within reasonable limits, I would need to remove class and racial feats. To replace class feats, I'm thinking of using feat categories that are restricted to characters of a certain role or power source (granting benefits directly tied to that role or source). Racials are more tricky, but I'd like to have generic feats that interacted with racial powers, racial utility powers, and perhaps other features like racial skills or proficiencies. A few feats linked to character origin (fey, natural, shadow) might also work, here.