You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'
It's easy to dismiss concerns or criticism about rules changes, proposed or implemented, as being a grognard, especially in D&D. "You don't like it because it's different," they'll say, "but you'll just buy it in the end." But my understanding is that with the current state of things, and particular with the Legends & Lore articles, we're supposed to talk about it. It's their way of getting community feedback, good or bad, on what they are working on.
Now I reacted pretty strongly to the most recent Legends & Lore article, Magic and Mystery. Twitter can be great about many things but a nuanced discussion of the issues is often difficult in the space of 140 or so characters, especially when having a discussion with particular people, meaning you have to put their twitter handles in with whatever you're trying to say.
So, now that I have a bit more room, let me first say that I'm in favor of the idea of removing magic items from character advancement. I fully acknowledge that the 4e system made it more difficult to run particular types of campaigns. It's also an issue I've discussed before. I love the inherent bonus system, although it doesn't fix this completely, and just felt we needed more guidance on how to use it properly. I also love the new rarity system on magic items to give a DM guidelines about what might be available and what might not be. Again, it's not perfect, but it does attempt to address some of the issues with the current magic system.
However, whatever rule system we put in place, I would love it if more guidance was provided, especially for newer DMs. When I started DMing, I didn't realize that the 4e system required magic items as part of advancement. Given the story and the group, this meant I didn't hand out as many magic items as I should have. While we didn't advance far enough for this problem to become apparent, it wasn't a big deal. But it would have been nice if things were stated a bit more explicitly.
So, it's not the suggested rule change that made me react strongly. I'm in favor, and have been in favor of it for over a year. It's the larger context of the article that made me wonder if I was being trolled by a well-known and well-loved D&D designer and whether or not I should continue to read the articles.
Instead of laying out the issues, the article states that players want a particular type of magic experience from D&D, one in which magic is mysterious. It then goes on to propose that the reason magic is no longer mysterious is that items can no longer do wild and crazy things, in part because they are part of character advancement and also because they are available to players in the form of lists.
Missing from the discussion are the reasons why the system evolved that way. Prior editions where magic wasn't as well codified as 4e had their issues as well. DMs, maybe as a way to bribe their players or under the mistaken impression that adding more cool factor always makes games cooler, frequently gave more magic items than they really should have. They then would try to take those items away from the players, who by that point, thought the DM was playing with them. Trust eroded and the game would become less fun. I personally know of one group that TPK'ed their characters because the game ceased to be fun. (See Monty Haul)
In addition, the old way required DMs to know about the magic items available and put pressure on them to keep up with the books. One of the things I loved about 4e is that each player could tell me what he or she might like and I could keep an eye out for the items that I thought they might want to have. I didn't invest in the Adventurer's Vault series because as a DM, I had enough other stuff to do. I don't want to spend my valuable planning time keeping up with every magic item out there. I just don't. It doesn't mean other DMs don't enjoy it. It just means that there are arguments for allowing players to know what magic items exist and that there isn't one default experience or desire in this area.
Furthermore, there are other just as likely reasons why magic is no longer mysterious that are never explored in the article. After 30 years of playing with magic getting by and large the same treatment, how can it be mysterious for that player? Who is to say that it's not mysterious to the new player who came to the game for the first time within the past two or three years. Maybe there are parts of the magic system that we want to be mysterious and crazy, like the aftereffects of the spell plague in the Forgotten Realms or an artifact lost to the world for thousands of years, but other items, like common spells and prayers should be, well, known.
Rather than seduce us with nostalgia or bash on players for, gods forbid, salivating over an item that perfectly fits their character concept, perhaps we should explore these issues. Also, I find it a bit difficult to talk about solutions to the magic problem only with people who primarily DM. Regardless of which book the magic items end up in, they will have to know about them in the sort of intimate detail that makes mysterious harder if not impossible. Anyway, that's where I'm coming from.