Tuesday, December 2, 2014

D&D's Magic Item Problem

In the days from OD&D through AD&D 2nd edition, magic items were an essential part of the game. Not only did magic items differentiate characters, but they filled in important abilities such as extending spellcasting for magic-users and clerics, overcoming the immunity of magical creatures to normal weapons, or granting special abilities to characters.

However, starting with specialization, non-weapon proficiencies and kits in AD&D 2nd edition and skills and weapon mastery in Rules Cyclopedia D&D, versions of D&D began to provide more flexibility, power and differentiation than in the past. By the time 3rd edition rolled around, characters were more able to customize, easier to multi-class, and could toss around more spells. Plus magic items became easier to make, particularly wands, scrolls and potions. The reasons for using magic items diminished, but the availability of magic items increased, making them basically assumed in the balance of power. This continued through 4th edition, and overall this made the fantasy games in D&D feel less and less like the genre fiction.

One of the things I like about 5th edition is the reduction of the reliance on magical weapons. While people online may complain about the new magic item creation rules, my thoughts are: 1) in my day, Uncle Gary gave us almost no rules on magic items— you were expected to go out and earn your magic items; and 2) the prevalence of magic items in D&D has always been annoying and totally out of character with the genre. If it takes forever to make scrolls, potions and wands, that's a good thing. Your spell-caster has at-will abilities and, from my perspective, good number of more powerful spells per day. But honestly, having a character laden with magical weapons, wands, and the like seems out of step with the fantasy fiction model we are supposedly emulating, where magic swords or cloaks or whatnot are typically rare and powerful if they exist. Certainly Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Conan didn't whip out their magical swords and potions all the time.

Currently, there are no magical items in my campaign. I'm more likely to introduce magical items with a twist than a basic sword +1 such as an intelligent weapon or an artifact; or magic items with limited uses or specific applicability. That seems more like the genre fiction I grew up on.