Re-Post: Regarding Magic Item Glut

And now we come to one of my most popular posts from the old blog. Going back over it a bit, I realize that I disagree with some of what is said here. For example, +1 items do have their place (I did place three of them in Night of Samhain, after all). I’m sure I’ll get to talking about that at some point, though. This is just an intro. One thing I do really still like is the Numenera method of using cyphers to give players neat, single-use magic items that then disappear afterwards.

Oh, and don’t steal magic items from your players. That’s kind of a shitty thing to do. Also, my style is kind of Angry GM-ish here. I don’t recall if I was reading his work yet, but I don’t think so. That makes this kind of odd.

 What is Glut?

The dictionary definition of Glut is “an excessively abundant supply of something.” When it comes to magic items, however, I feel that it only covers a portion of what I mean when I say Magic Item Glut. Magic Item Glut is what happens in a campaign when, for one reason or many, the magic items in the campaign have either over-shadowed the characters or lost all meaning within the campaign. This could be because you, as a DM, have awarded your players with an abundance of magic items so that they cease to have individual identities. For instance, the magic golem-shattering hammer forged by the dwarf-king Anguir is viewed as “just a +1 weapon” when compared to the other eight +1 weapons to which the party has access. It could also be that players have a weapon that is so powerful that they use it in excess, above all other options, or view it as a “win button.” This is a problem in my current campaign, for example. I placed a magical bow forged from the bones of an adult blue dragon in a dungeon. I thought a cool power would be for it to release the dragon’s breath weapon once per day. That’s 12d10 lightning damage. The players came to possess this bow, and now use it at the start of EVERY major encounter. It’s their Win Button. There could be other problems that arise that contribute to magic item glut, but those seem to be the most common.

So then, obviously, the question becomes:

How do we avoid Magic Item Glut in our campaigns? And if we can’t avoid it, how do we solve it?

Avoiding Glut

Obviously, the goal should be to avoid magic item glut in games altogether. Here’s a few tips to help keep magic items cool and special in your games.

+1 is the Plague!

This is obviously impossible for many d20 games like Pathfinder, where it’s inherently necessary to keep getting better and better magic items. But in 5e and similar games, keeping magic weapons and armor away from numerical bonuses prevents players from losing interest in potentially-cool items just because their generic +2 weapon has bigger numbers. As a rule, D&D players gravitate toward weapons and armor with higher numbers. It doesn’t really matter how cool and special that suit of mithral ring mail is if the player’s already using +1 full plate.

How do we make up for this? Cool effects, of course! A longsword that, when drawn, has a blade composed of half-cooled magma? Awesome! A suit of leather armor that chameleons its wielder when they press themselves up against an object? Friggin’ sweet! A light shield with regenerating manticore spikes that you can launch at your enemies? Bitchin’! A seemingly-simple piece of sackcloth that, when held aloft, allows you to surf along water like you’re on a friggin sailboard? Blow me down, that’s cool!

It’s about making items interesting and special, not “powerful.” And if you’re thinking “but Chris! I’m not nearly as smart, interesting, or creative as you! How could I EVER come up with interesting magic item effects?” Then worry not! Really, it’s as easy as taking an existing item and removing any numerical bonuses it normally grants.

Reductionist Reasoning

I’m really reaching for titles, aren’t I? Anyway, avoiding numerical bonuses in favor of cool abilities is all well and good, but it unfortunately leaves us with a problem. If players keep getting these cool items, and have no desire (or ability) to clear their inventory of these items like me after a dungeon in Dragon Age, then you’ll still run into the problem of glut. Too many items likely means that the items themselves will lose narrative value. Volcanus the Magma Blade and Krist’uul the Frost Slasher become “fire sword” and “ice axe” when accompanied by 25,000 other “cool” and “unique” weapons, armors, wands, rings, and other ephemera.

The easy fix to this is to just reduce the number of magical items the players gain as they adventure. A character can really grow an attachment to Volcanus if they wield her for 5 levels straight.

However, this solution does come with its own set of unfortunate consequences. For instance, I like giving villainous boss enemies cool magical weapons, as I’m sure many of you do as well. That evil king kind of becomes cooler when his sword is black as night and hisses like a snake when he swings it around. And when players kill the king and pick up his sword, they want to hear that it does something cool. Not that it’s just…well, black as night and hisses like a snake. That’s neat, but it doesn’t really “do” anything for them. Similarly, players can get bored with treasure hordes when all they find is the same gold, gems, and art objects the whole time. So how do we solve this issue? How do we keep things fresh and exciting without over-saturating the players’ inventory with magic equipment? I see two real solutions here.

The Numenera Method

I love Numenera. I still haven’t run a successful game of it, but I ADORE the game. It’s a d20 system for the modern age—full of flavor and intelligence and wonderful, wonderful simplicity. One of the most genius methods it has for keeping up a steady flow of numenera (incredibly advanced technology, effectively magic items), is that almost all useable numenera is consumable. They’re called cyphers in the game, and they are GENIUS. Keep in mind that I’m not just talking about potions or oils. The cypher system is fantastic for creating a VAST variety of cool consumable items that keep the game interesting. Want examples? Well I suggest buying the book and rolling up a few yourself. But barring that, I’ll provide you with a couple examples. These were rolled randomly on the cypher table.

Temporal Window. Cypher. When this hand-sized pane of glass is held aloft and the command word is spoken, anyone looking through it sees events that unfolded in the window’s current location up to 1 year ago. The vision lasts up to 10 minutes, after which the glass shatters and is useless. The user determines the time period of the vision and the duration.

Subduing Light. Cypher. This vial is filled with a calming blue light. Two rounds after the vial’s stopper is removed, it fills a sphere 1d6+3 x 10 feet in diameter surrounding the vial with its light. If used in darkness, the lighting is considered dim. The light lasts for one minute. Anyone within the light is calm and passive, and cannot take hostile action. Any creature that leaves the light continues to be affected by it for 1d6 rounds thereafter. They make a Wisdom saving throw each round to rid the calm from their mind. Once the calm leaves their mind, they may once again take hostile action.

Reality Spike. Cypher. Once the command word is spoken, this thick metal spike ceases to move. Ever. Even if the spike is placed in midair when activated, it does not move from its fixed point in reality. It can be dislodged with a DC 15 Strength check, but becomes completely useless thereafter.

I can only hope that you see what I mean when I say that the Cypher system is genius. Those were randomly rolled. And I, for one, would be ecstatic as a player to receive any one of them. The system is also intentionally non-specific. That Temporal Window was “temporal viewer” in the book. It doesn’t tell you exactly what the item is, allowing you to come up with ideas on your own. That window could have just as easily been a mirror, or a monacle, or a frigging bubble wand. Hell, combining a Cypher table with a table like Hack & Slash‘s 50 Interesting Pieces of Treasure presents nearly limitless possibilities.

One question that is easily raised against the Cypher system, however, is one of balance. What if a level 2 party comes across a cypher that can emit a devastating heat beam, or teleport them across the world? Isn’t that too powerful? There are two balancing factors, however, that truly make the Cypher system one of the best in gaming. First, the items are consumable by nature. There is NO WAY to make a cypher last for more than one use. Once you activate it, that’s it. It’s done. Teleport across the universe with a pair of bunny slippers? Have fun getting home. The second balancing factor is the Cypher Limit, a system that prevents characters from carrying more than two or three cyphers at once. In Numenera, it’s explained away as radiation and chemicals leading to very, very bad things if you carry too many. In D&D? Differing, unstable magics can really kill, if you know what I mean (I mean they can literally kill you. In an explosion.).

And there’s even precedent in D&D 5e for such a limit! A character can normally only attune up to 3 magic items to themselves (I use the character’s Charisma bonus in my home games, but that’s irrelevant), and no more because they have a magical threshold. The same can apply to cyphers. They’re unstable magic, and you can only suppress so many before they start harming you and those around you. These limitations mean that cyphers are intended to be used. You’re constantly gaining new cyphers, and so should be using them so that you don’t, like, implode or something.

All of this being said, what I’m really talking about when I say “The Numenera Method” is utilizing consumable items in interesting ways. Random potions are boring, and D&D players (including DM’s) generally don’t like them. They’re lame, predictable, and boring. A piece of chalk that allows you to create an ice wall wherever you draw (another randomly-rolled cypher) is cool. And it will keep players (and DM’s, honestly) interested and invested.

If you like this idea (and why wouldn’t you?), and you’re capable of coming up with cool, interesting effects on the fly, then I encourage you to do so. If you’re like me, however, and you’re not nearly creative enough to handle that, then I highly encourage you to pick up Numenera and its Technology Compendium (which includes over 400 additional cyphers).

Now that I’m done shilling for Monte Cook Games, however, let’s move onto the next solution for the “reduction” problem…

Well, That Escalated Quickly…

A very intelligent user on the Paizo forums named Oni_Sloth responded with a very intelligent, well thought out, and innovative answer when I posed a question regarding magic items. While everyone else basically repeated “wealth by level” over and over again (one reason I left Pathfinder), he talked about the escalation of items. Now, to most people, this probably sounds like “item that gets more powerful over time.” And while that is one way to do it (and a smart way, actually. Suddendly Volcanus the Magma Blade has a lot more staying power if it keeps gaining new powers), the way he posed is, I think, much more organic and interesting. And it’s something about which I hadn’t thought.

The example he gave was…well, I’ll actually just quote him.

“Example: one player wanted the ability to fly, they were low level so I did not want to give it him permanently yet. Later on during the game they fought several people, these people were flying. When they searched their bodies they found a wand of fly with a few charges left, the player took it and got the flying he wanted but it was limited. This limitation meant he could not spam it and he used it sparingly until he was strong enough to get a magic item that give him fly a certain number of times per day, in much the same fashion. He had to kill a person to take it from them, this person was the bad guy for that adventure. Finally at higher levels he was given a set of magical wings that granted him a permanent fly as a boon from the king for all his service. ”

That’s…well, that’s pretty genius, actually. Placing items that progressively get you closer and closer to your goal within a campaign is a great way to retain engagement without bloating the game. I have a character who literally wants to become a dragon, and this idea of subtly placing magic items that eventually lead toward that goal is fantastic!

Honestly, I don’t have much more to add. Utilizing escalation in your game, whether through an overt “growing item” or the subtle placement of progressively-stronger magic items that lead toward an ultimate eventuality, is a fantastic method of avoiding Magic Item Glut within a game, and is a solution to the problem that reduction of magic items presents.

Baby, I Was Born This Way!

Okay, so there’s kind of a third option, as well. However, I only consider it a bit of a half-measure, since it presents some of the same problems, and can lead to Magic Item Glut, of sorts, on its own. This is, of course, the idea of doing away with magic items in many cases and just granting the players powers. While this can be useful if interspersed with other methods, it presents its own issues.

Granting powers instead of magic items allows players access to non-traditional abilities without filling their inventory. However, it can lead to some of the same issues. Too many powers and suddenly they get lost in the milieu of other tricks your character can perform. It becomes its own sort of glut. In addition, I don’t know that I could come up with excuses for the players to get superpowers as often as they would normally be getting magic items. Finally, it takes away from player agency. One of the best parts about magic items is when the players get to debate over who gets the item. When you’re handing out super-powers, though, they don’t get that choice. Bob gets to fly, Shawna gets to shoot lasers from her eyes, and Jo can turn into a frog. Why? Because the DM said so.

Detraction aside, however, this isn’t a terrible idea, if used properly and sparingly. If, for example, the characters are under the employ of a powerful deity or archmage that can grant such powers temporarily, there’s no reason to not grant the whole party fire breath for 1d6 days while they take on frost giants. It could be a neat way to mix things up in between magic items, but I wouldn’t call the method reliable in the long run (though I am now imagining a campaign where players steal powers mega-man style from defeated foes as a primary mechanic).

When It’s Already Too Late

All the cool cypher systems in the world won’t fix a game that’s already broken. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you end up with Magic Item Glut in your campaign, and you just need to fix it before it gets any worse. How, though? What methods can you use to fix the problem once it’s already infected your game?

Talk it Out

Probably the best option—and frankly, the most mature—is to just talk it out. Whether you’re a player or a DM, talking about a problem you’re seeing in the game is the best option. This allows a compromise to be made without causing any real damage. Everyone feels included in the decision because they ARE included. As a DM, it would be your best bet to take this route before any of the others I present. Talk to everyone and make sure they understand your thought process before presenting them with options. Whether this means that the issue is resolved out of game—selling some of the players’ excess stock, for example, or making the decision to weaken a super weapon—or in the campaign itself—working together to come up with a method of item-loss or item-de-powerment—this is really the best option. And it’s definitely the method I’m going to be using with my group before I take any other action.

Steal ’em!

Let me make something clear. With the potential exception of the third option, all of these methods will be looked upon as “dick moves” by the players. And you know what? Sometimes pulling a dick move and stealing the players’ shit is necessary.

Thievery is a pretty low place to sink, and it’s very, very difficult for me to endorse as an option. That said, it does have its advantages. For example, as has been put forth by many others across the internet, it’s a great way to get the players to go on a quest. It’s rail-roady and your players will likely see right through it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s likely to work. It’s also a good way to keep particularly powerful items out of the players’ hands until they’re “ready” for them.

Can I just reiterate how much I hate writing this? It’s, like, painful.

Sometimes items are just too strong for a particular level. A bow that deals 12d10 lightning damage once per day in a 90-foot line, for example, probably shouldn’t be in the hands of a 6th-level party. Stealing it until they’re, say, level 10 or so presents a…

*HEUGH*

Sorry. I just vomited all over my shoes.

Break ’em!

A slightly less douchey move than stealing items is breaking them. The only real advantage here is that it feels better and more righteous to go on a quest to repair a magic item than it does to chase down the asshole the DM used to arbitrarily take away your shit because he thinks you’re a fucking child who can’t handle “big kid” toys.

It also offers the opportunity for instant power balance. In the above example super-bow, using a creature that, perhaps, siphons magic to feed could de-power the bow just enough that it’s not killing everything in one hit. Perhaps reduce the damage to 12d6, or 6d10. Still powerful, but not shredding everything in sight in the first round of combat. Or maybe use the situation to completely change things up and shift around the power into something more useable in everyday matters. Maybe the bow shoots lightning instead of arrows, now, dealing 1d10+Dex lightning damage all day long, instead of bursting 12d10 on the first boss that looks at you funny.

Still don’t like it. But I do admit that using it creatively can be effective.

Give ’em Away!

This is my favorite option of the quartet, because it involves the most agency on behalf of the players. It’s most-effectively used in situations where the players have too many magic items and need to unload. The short version is that you encourage the players to give some of their magic items away to needy NPCs. The trick of it is convincing them that giving away any of their hard-earned magical equipment is a good idea.

This is a method that really depends on your group. If you have a bunch of greedy players that hate the idea of giving up any of their items, even if they can’t remember their names, then this is not the route for you. If, however, you have a group that enjoys role-play and world-building, then this could actually be—gasp!—fun! Letting them sort through their magic items and get to know them better will give them a chance to really choose which ones they like and which ones they don’t. And, in turn, the players making this kind of donation can lead to benefits should they ever come back. Having the town throw the players a feast when they return because they were the ones that gave the town hero the sword used to slay a local bandit lord can really be a morale booster. Not only will they feel that their donation mattered, but they will feel truly appreciated because it was THEIR decision to donate the item in the first place.

Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect 200 GP

This is similar to stealing the players’ stuff. The big difference here is that there’s a bigger excuse, and, honestly, if you’ve resorted to the “fable” method (I.E. jailing the PCs and taking all their stuff from them), then you may have run into other campaign issues.

Jailing players is one of those touchy areas that feels classic, but seems like a really dickish thing to do in practice. In video games, all of your stuff ends up conveniently in a chest down the hall for no reason. Any DM will tell you, however, that this makes no sense. If the jailers had the wherewithal to capture a bunch of heavily-outfitted adventurers, they’re sure-as-shit not going to keep their epic equipment in a chest down the hall. They’re going to divide that stuff amongst themselves, or ship it off to their base of operations, or something else that will leave the players penniless without any of their cool stuff.

But, honestly, sometimes that can be a good thing.

Look, campaigns get out of control. We all know this. Whether it’s due to magic item glut, shoggoth-like convolution in plot threads, or something else entirely, sometimes you have no choice but to either quit or soft-reboot the whole thing. Jailing the players and taking their stuff is a method that, I think, everyone might be comfortable with. It’s a great way to introduce a new villain, establish stakes, and put the players in a position where they have to think outside the box and use whatever is available to them to escape. It’s predictable, and definitely not the most creative option out there, but I still like it, despite its proximity to downright thievery.

In the End, Does it Even Matter?

The entire thought process behind Magic Item Glut and avoiding it is that it becomes a distraction to your game. If it doesn’t ever come to that, then you don’t have a problem. It’s as simple as that. Sometimes, being superheroes who can do a million things at once and take down incredible threats with ease makes for a fun campaign, and that really just comes down to you and the rest of your crew around the table. Use my methods, or don’t. I’m just presenting ideas that I hope will help you if you have a problem.

Before I close here, I thought I’d provide us all with my favorite thing to come out of this post…

Volcanus, The Magma Blade. Weapon (Unique). Requires Attunement.

This longsword is seemingly normal while sheathed. But once drawn, its blade is revealed to be composed entirely of slowly-cooling magma, somehow held in the shape of a blade. It deals fire damage on attacks, instead of slashing damage. In addition, it has 5 charges. When you hit an enemy with Volcanus, you can spend 1 or more charges. The attack deals 1d8 additional fire damage for every charge expended this way. Once all charges have been expended, the blade is completely cooled and deals slashing damage until it regains at least 1 charge. The only way to restore charges to Volcanus is by immersing it in flame. For every 10 minutes the blade spends immersed in a fire the size of a campfire or larger, it regains 1 charge.

Until next time, ladies and gentlefolk. Good Gaming.

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One thought on “Re-Post: Regarding Magic Item Glut

  1. Pingback: How to Make Masterwork Items in 5th Edition D&D | Loot The Body

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