Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Magic Item reset (II): How many items?

Having determined that the current list of magic items is flawed, and decided to build my own one from scratch, removing all the clutter and keeping just the interesting stuff, there is a major question that needs to be answered: how many magic items does the system require? The main goals of this new item list is to offer a varied and fun experience without overwhelming players with options. Also, my resources as a standalone designer are limited, so I’ll tend to err on the side of brevity. With that in mind, what is the absolute minimum amount that would still provide an acceptable degree of variety?

We can answer this by looking at the parcel system described on the Dungeon Master’s Guide. We’ll forget about the new rarity system for now, though I’ll tackle that in a future article. Anyway, the DMG tells us that for a typical 5-man party, each level of adventuring should be rewarded with 4 magic items and enough gold to buy 2 more. This means that the party will see 6 items per level, 60 per tier, and 180 over the course of its whole career. Likewise, each PC will have 1.2 items per level, 12 items per tier, and 36 items total until he reaches his epic destiny. Not all of these will be wholly different items, as the primary slots of items (weapons, armor, and neck) get upgraded frequently, often with higher level versions of what a PC already has, but this should be a decent guideline. Also, we’ll ignore about the effect of consumables and rituals, because these tend to screw the game economy a lot.

I find it most useful to examine these numbers over the course of a whole tier, and on a per slot basis. We have 9 main item slots in the game: weapon/implement, armor, neck, arms, hands, head, feet, belt, ring. Wondrous items don’t take up a slot, but they could be considered as an extra slot or two. For each of these slots, we’ll want an item per PC per tier, except for primary slots, which require two. Overall, this nets us about 12 item slots to fill in a tier for each PC, which very conveniently fits the item supply from the parcel system, as described above. However, this shows us a very important point: it’s not enough to have high raw numbers of items in the systems, they also need to be evenly distributed across slots. Our example 5-man party would require 5 different items for each slot, at the very least, in addition to the 60 total items per tier.

This minimum limit of 5 items per slot and 60 items in total per tier is useful as a reference, but won’t play all that well: all parties will end up seeing the same items, and item repetition across PCs will be too frequent. That said, a multiple of that may be good enough. For now, I will settle with a number slightly above twice this minimum, which I’ve found out to provide an acceptable level of variety, while keeping the treasure list very accessible for players to look up. The fact that it’s low enough to make item design a manageable task was also a considerable upside, of course.

I ended up with 120 items for each tier, with the following slot distribution:

- Weapon: 15
- Implement 15
- Armor 14
- Neck 13
- Feet 10
- Belt 10
- Head 10
- Arms 13
- Hands 10
- Ring 9 (no heroic rings)

Wondrous items and consumables are still unfinished at the time of writing this. Distribution across levels and rarities is an interesting topic, which I’ll cover on a future article.

Maximizing the impact of items.

So, once we know we are going to run with a low item count, how can we make sure that it all works out? I tried to follow these guidelines:
- Make each item count. As a rule of thumb, every single item should be useful (though not necessarily optimal) for at least one PC in a typical party.
- Avoid clearly superior options. There is no point in coming up with a dozen cool items for a slot, if one of them is blatantly stronger than the rest. I did make an exception for rare items, of which I will talk at a later point.
- Avoid narrow designs. The more different PC builds that can benefit from an item, the better. This means that no item should reference or require specific races, powers, or features. However, we can still make gear that synergizes particularly well with certain builds.
- Loosen up requirements for weapons, implements and armor. Related to the previous point, I think that most weapon enchantments should work with any kind of weapon, and the same applies to armor enchantments, which should at most be restricted to either light armor or heavy armor, rather than specific types. In the case of implements, the existing design actually assigns a different item slot for each category of implement, leading to huge redundancy. To avoid this, I’ll use a generic implement slot, with enchantments that can be applied to all types of implement.
- Everything scales. Under the current design, all primary items (i.e. those with enhancenment bonuses) scale, but many secondary ones (boots, gloves, helms, etc.) do not. This means that secondary slots are usually crowded with lots of items that are only useful for a short level range, which often have slightly tweaked versions with different names at other tiers. This is an inefficient use of items that I won’t be able to afford; for this reason, all of my secondary items will scale every 10 levels and have three different versions, for heroic, paragon, and epic play (except for rings, which will remain unavailable at heroic). In addition all primary items will cover the full range from +1 to +6, which gives more consistency and makes a better use of design resources.
- Use customizable items. Armor of Resistance is a design I love, because it effectively aggregates 9 different magic items (one for each type of damage you can resist) in just one item with additional options. By contrast, Fire Weapon and its elemental brethren (Cold Weapon, Lightning Weapon and so on) are terrible from a system clutter perspective, since they repeat the same concept over and over with minor variations. For my items, Armor of Resistance will be the model to follow, whenever possible.


  1. Sounds very well thought-out--of course I would expect no less from this blog. Would "Everything scales" mean we'd get +1 Vorpal weapons or the equivalent? Something feels a little weird about that. Or do rare items get exempted from that design stipulation?

  2. Yep, that's exactly what it means. I've been experimenting with the rarity system to introduce awesome items at earlier levels than we've been accustomed to. This way, players could get stuff like Vorpal Weapons or Winged Boots as early as heroic tier. On the one hand, it's true that this could detract from the epicness of paragon and epic tiers... but, on the other, you do get more rares at those levels (2 rares total at paragon tier, and 3 at epic), so there's definitely something to look forward to. And the intention with my list of rares is to make those slots very, very valuable.

    One thing I want to toy with is to expand the range of items at higher levels not with, say, epic-exclusive weapons, but with full item slots opening up at those levels (basically, like rings work). Tattoos could work that way, for example, and a Solitaire item slot also feels appropriate.

  3. Great idea, I'm looking forward to seeing how this turns out!