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.
1. Full item list
2. Item lists by slot
3. Optional rules
4. Articles on design