Putting the Wonder Back in Wondrous

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 23 September 2010

Unfortunately, many of my discussions on twitter of late have focused on one little gripe I have with the Essentials line. What I would like to do for a moment is to shift focus away from that and talk about what I do love about the new books, starting with magic item rarity.

As a new DM, magic items gave me a lot of grief. I feared my players would not be as content with a standard +1 sword when they could, at least in their mind, have a flaming +1 sword of doom complete with a magic item daily power. Also I really hadn't had the time to learn how the various items affect their character builds, at least not enough to dole out magic items on a consistent basis. So I asked for wish lists, which often were filled with the most magical of magic items and the magic items themselves lost a bit of their wonder.

To address this problem, and to bring back a bit of the magic of older editions, WotC introduced magic item rarity. Now I know some of my friends roll their eyes at this, but I happen to really like it. Many items are still common, you can buy your amulet of protection and boots of stealth anywhere fine magic items are sold, although finding those shops or craftsmen might take a little time. The more uncommon items, however, are now something to be found.

So what does this do? First, it guides DMs to making magic items part of the story instead of cheap fashion accessories (a low shot, I know). Really want that feyleather armor? You may want to check out the elven enclaves in the city. Who knows what else you might find there.

Second, it makes the choice of magic items more important and which ones you choose help define your character. According to the new Rules Compendium, players should gain one rare item per tier of play. Since these rare items will often have multiple powers and be a bit more complex, they will be the defining items your character carries. For me, I'm going to work very closely with players when picking these out or creating our own. Uncommon items will comprise about half the magic items characters find in treasure. These items tend to have one power associated with them, again giving flavor to the character who possesses them.

Lastly, this rarity system allows us to bring back truly wondrous magic items. Sure, we had the artifacts system before this and my guess is that the rare items will look pretty similar to them. But since the PCs can't pick them up at their corner store, these items won't overpower the game.

So, I'm really looking forward to this part of the game. My stories will make more sense, the treasure won't feel quite as bolted on and overall I think it will lead to a better experience at the table. How about you? Are you going to use the rarity system?


I'm definitely going to use the rarity system. From the beginning of 4e I felt there needed to be something between the run-of-the-mill +1 Swords of the world and all-out artifacts. Never seemed right that I could theoretically walk into a shop and purchase a +5 Holy Avenger. As a DM, I wouldn't have allowed that anyway, but now I have RAW to back up my choice.

The only big issue I face is that my current party is almost to level 4, and they all have at least one item that is now considered "rare". Does that mean they are SOL until they reach 11th? Can't see that.

One question: which Essentials book contains the magic item rarity table?

I didn't see a magic item rarity table in the two books I have (rules compendium and Heroes of the Fallen Lands) but they do have a list available on their website of which non-essentials items are considered common. I think they'll add to the list down the road, but I'm just guessing.

As for them being SOL until 11th, there are ways around this. I don't have my DMGs in front of me, but there are ways to level a magic item with the PC. These also can be part of the story.

Oh, that's right. It was in the last errata. Now where did I put that pdf?


I think evolving items were discussed in one of the two Adventurer's Vault volumes.

I'll need to do that too. At level 2 (new campaign) they have 2 magic items (level 1 and level 2), and I like the idea of some rare magic item being hard to get. I didn't really think about this concept but now I will. It would help the players as a hook to take a mission/assignment/quest to get it.

I am a new DM. You recommend asking players for a magic item wishlist? Would I be setting up disappointment if they didn't receive what they wish for, for whatever reason? I'd almost feel like I'd have to give them items they wish for.

My players are some of the nicest ones in the world, so they weren't a big fan of the wish lists, partially for the reasons you discussed as well as the lack of surprise they would have when the received them. The way I finally got them to tell me something was to ask them this question:

"Your character is walking down the street in Newham and he can't believe the item he sees at a significant discount. Which 5 items could it be and why?"

What I did was create a big list out of them, added a few items of my own, and randomly picked. Sure, the result wasn't great, but it helped get us through something of an awkward phase for me.

My real suggestion, and I might write a post on this in the future, is to try to get a sense of the characters' motivations and find items that help meet those motivations. For instance, when I suggested the Necklace of Keys to my husband, who plays the rogue, he was very happy about that because his character is part of a thieves' guild. They also loved the Map of Unseen Lands. It's harder because you'll have to guess, but you can always make up for missed guesses. There could just be a guy they run into who needs the exact item they have and has an extra something-or-other he's willing to barter with.

I've not done wish lists yet for my game, but I've indirectly tackled that method. I keep a bit of a running tally of Who's Gotten What Toys recently in my head, and then when I plan the encounters, if the loot table for the encounter includes a magic item, I toss something in for somebody who hasn't gotten an item in awhile. This generally involves refreshing the heck out of asmor.com's random treasure parcel generator and looking through what comes up until I see something that says "oh yeah, they'll use that." It helps I know my players very well, and I try to steer the gear I offer 'em towards their play styles. (For example, my wife, the Elven Cleric of Sune, spends a large amount of time healing and non-damage hindering foes while staying out of melee. So, I ended up dropping a longbow into a loot table so she'd have a way to deal damage in a pinch without making her change her play style by getting into melee range. At least she doesn't... her wiser foes tend to notice her tactics. ;) )

However, when it comes to the end of a minor or major story arc and the gang finds themselves in a town where merchants can feasibly be found, I've used a different way to let them pick their own toys: the first time, they got 33% off one magic item of their choice that they could afford AND find (small town, I just based it on how powerful the item they wanted was). At the end of the just-finished huge story arc where they spent a very long time stuck in the wilderness and finally find themselves back in a large town, the resident Paladin caste they've helped out rewarded them with Writs of Commendation that earned them 20% off all purchases from the town's merchants.

I also now handle trying to buy magic items from a market with a simple d% test to see if it's available, rare or not found. I've made an exception for items in the three PHBs for this specific town (Scornubel, in the Forgotten Realms kingdom of Elturgard), but everything else gets checked based on the level of the item versus their level, whether it has encounter or daily powers and how large the town is. It makes it tricky to find stuff ad hoc, but not impossible. So far, the players are happy, so I'm happy. ;)

I'll use the rarity system. In fact, I look forward to it. I go back to the days of older editions. The random magic item tables were specifically weighted towards certain items. You were far more likely to find a potion or scroll, than a Rod of Lordly Might.

And forget about "player requests". My players get what magic items they find and like it. There are a few exceptions, and if purchasing an item is a possibility, then they'll be paying out the nose for such a thing.

Hopefully, the rarity system will allow me to create merchants that deal in "cheap" magical items. Every now and then needs a potion or two to get by, and I'm okay with that. However, if you want to find the "Frostfell Blade of Olgath the Merciless", you're gonna need to do some research and probably end up dying to get it. :-)

My two cents!

hah, speaking of "cheap magical items", that makes me damn tempted to write up rules for "cheap foreign knockoffs" that get sold for low price but come with a high cost. Think rules that are not as nasty as curses, but operate similarly, like: "Daily (DM Only): Triggered when player uses the daily power on this magic item. Effect: Roll a d20. On a 20, the item shatters on the next successful hit due to poor construction."

The problem I have with the item rarity system is that it was very clumsily retrofitted onto the existing 4E framework.

The way it's meant to work is quite reasonable (see this post by Mike Mearls regarding relative power levels of common / uncommon / rare items in a discussion on today's Bazaar of the Bizarre article), but at the moment the existing stock of magic item content is classified (and, in many cases, designed) in a manner very inconsistent with the system and likely will remain so.

A change with the ramifications that this has - on player choice for characters, on game design, on DM workload - really should have been left for a new edition of the game.

Today's gamers are spoiled. Balance, wish lists, encounter levels, railroading issues....the game has gone soft.

Sure you want to keep players interested and the game dynamic, but people....PC's die and not everyone has a +5 flaming NPC bane monkey slicer sword of doom.

Present a good story, offer challenges and kill a PC once in a while not so the party fears the DM, but the party should have a healthy respect for challenges so that they appreciate the value of the reward.

Magic should be magical, not reduced to charts and shops. How many heroes have you read that bought their status from Floyds Fabulous Functional Foofery Shop?

Carry on gamers.

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