Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Magic Item Reset (VI): Level and rarity distribution

One of the main differences that come up when you jump from designing a bunch of magic items to planning a full, standalone set is the need to find the right spread of items over levels. I don’t think this was a high priority for the designers of 4E, as the first PHB had an irregular level distribution for its items (with some slots barely featuring a couple of options at certain tiers), whereas the Adventurer’s Vaults just used brute force, giving us so many different enchantments that you ended up with plenty of options at any given level, anyway. However, I intend to use a relatively limited amount of items, so making sure that they are distributed as evenly as possible across levels becomes far more important. In today’s article, I’ll explain how I approached this challenge and, in a related note, how I dealt with item rarity.

Why Rarity?

I think it’s worth dedicating a few lines to the subject of rarity. The item rarity rules were introduced in the Essentials books, classifying magic items into three categories (common, uncommon, and rare), and restricting item crafting to just the common ones, to the dismay of more than a few fans. Unfortunately, item rarity hasn’t received much support since then, except for a errata that turned most existing items into uncommons. Which is a pity, because rarity doesn’t work all that well when tacked on an existing system.

On the other hand, designing an item collection from scratch can really make rarity shine. The main advantage, from a designer’s point of view, is that it gives you freedom to create items that would become problematic if PCs could freely craft them, stacking them in multiples or acquiring them for negligible amounts of gold at higher levels. This is most evident in, though not limited to, items with encounter or daily powers. Without a rarity system, any item daily power is prone to exploiting at higher levels, which is why most of these powers had to be released with an abysmal power level. Encounter powers aren’t much better off, since they can easily become at-will powers once a PC can buy a bunch of a given item. By moving these powers to uncommon items, we can forget about these issues, and focus on the items themselves.

The other upside is the introduction of rare items, which are scarce and awesome. Rares cover a middle ground between regular items and artifacts, and in my experience can add a lot of excitement to the process of monster looting.

Assigning level and rarity

As I explained in a previous article, one design decision that I made early on was to have all of my items scale from heroic tier to epic. This was meant to make item lists much easier to navigate for players, but also streamlined the design considerably. Basically, I was left with two item categories with different requirements with regards to level assignment. On the one hand, there are what I call primary items, which is how I refer to anything with an enhancenment bonus: weapons, implements, armor, and neck items. Each of these items would have 6 different versions, ranging from a +1 enhancenment bonus to a +6; internally, I would use the +1 version as a reference for level, so that every primary item would have a level between 1 and 5. On the other hand, secondary items (i.e. everything else) would have 3 different versions, one for each tier. In this case, the level reference would be for the heroic version of the item, and levels would vary between 1 and 10.

When assigning item levels, I followed these rules:
- The total number of items available at any given level should be stable. This meant that I had to spread item levels as evenly as possible, across all tiers.
- Power should grow with level. This is kind of a no-brainer, but I’ve seen too many items in the game miss this crucial rule. Of course, when dealing with wildly different effects, assessing power is far from a hard science, but no item should feel patently weaker than another of lower level. An exception would be that primary items will almost always be stronger than secondary ones. As for different versions of items of the same level, it bears mentioning that primary items don’t always need their additional effects to scale, since increasing the enhancement bonus is usually enough. As a rule of thumb, for these items I tend to give scaling only for powers and properties directly related with damage or resistance.
- Primary items of level 5 need to be scarce and strong. For a primary item, level 5 is a tricky point, since we’re just one level short from increasing the enhancement bonus. It’s difficult to make a level 5 item strong enough for players not to want to automatically replace it with a plain magic item with 1 more point of enhancement bonus. Ideally, the decision between a level 5 item and the level 1 item immediately above it should be a hard one.

I also applied the following rules regarding item rarity:
- Common items should be straightforward, and with few or no powers. At-will powers can be used in a common item, as they can’t be exploited with PC crafting, but daily powers are out of the question. As for encounter powers, they should only appear on worn items (i.e. those you can’t swap during an encounter), since otherwise it’s too easy to use them in multiples as virtual at-wills.
- Uncommons are more complex, can have any power, and are at least as strong as commons. It’s not necessary for all uncommons to be stronger than their common counterparts, but they should never be clearly weaker. This is a point where the official item set often fails, because encounter and daily powers as a base mechanic are generally not as effective as continuous properties. For this reason, I have to put special care in making any power-based uncommon item playable, if not great. Daily powers in particular are usually very difficult to get right.
- Rares should be amazing. A rare item should not break the game, but it will definitely be better than a non-rare of similar level. Rares will typically have multiple abilities, and it is strongly suggested that at least one of them is something exciting that can’t easily be replicated by other items.
- In primary items, average level should increase with rarity. If you look at my lists, you’ll see that most common weapons tend to be in levels 2 and 3, whereas uncommons lie around 3-4, and rares have a relatively high proportion of 5’s.
- Each rarity needs to work on its own. This applies mostly for commons and uncommons - it’s not enough that items as a whole have a uniform level spread and cover abilities for all class roles, but the same has to apply when looking just at the items of one rarity.

1 comment:

  1. This series of articles is excellent. Thank you. Linked by SabreCat via ENWorld.