Design & Development03/02/2007

Magic Item Compendium, part 1
Confessions of a Developer’s Mind

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development—or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This month, we delve into the creation of the latest gigantic collection of D&D goodies to hit the shelf—the Magic Item Compendium.

Let me start this column off with an ugly confession.

Most magic items in D&D are awful.

I’m not talking about +1 swords or gauntlets of ogre power, mind you. I’m talking about the hundreds upon hundreds of never-used magic items littering sourcebooks throughout the last six-plus years of the game.

Almost every book has a few of these stinkers—and some of them are chock-full. Even the hallowed Dungeon Master’s Guide is no exception; when’s the last time your character thought seriously about shelling out 23,500 gp for a rod of enemy detection, or a whopping fifty-seven thousand gold pieces for a helm of underwater action?

Instead, the majority of a character’s item slots are spent on what I call the “Big Six”:

  • Magic weapon
  • Magic armor & shield
  • Ring of protection
  • Cloak of resistance
  • Amulet of natural armor
  • Ability-score boosters

Throw in a few more common items, such as the bag of holding, boots of striding and springing (though the “springing” part’s wasted on most folks), maybe a metamagic rod or two, a smattering of easily forgotten potions and scrolls, and of course the omnipresent wands of cure light wounds—and you’ve probably covered 80% or more of the average PC’s gear list.

As soon as I learned I’d be working on the Magic Item Compendium, I knew that this was the biggest problem we—meaning the team assigned to concept and organize the book: Steve Schubert, Mike Mearls, and I—had to solve. After all, what’s the point of collecting hundreds of magic items into one big book if nobody’s interested in what we’ve collected?

The pat answer, of course, is that other items just don’t excite players… but that rang false to us. In our hearts, we knew that fun, useful items were out there—heck, even that helm of underwater action can come in handy at the right time—it’s just that characters weren’t buying ‘em… and worse yet, they weren’t keeping ‘em when the DM dropped them into a treasure hoard.

Ultimately, we realized that the greatest factor influencing the likelihood of a particular magic item being used by a character came down to its cost. On its own, this realization isn’t groundbreaking: proper costing is the most important tool any game designer uses. In chess, pawns “cost” less than any other piece (you have eight of them, after all) because they’re the weakest piece. In Monopoly, a hotel on Boardwalk (or Times Square, in the Here & Now edition) costs more money than those on Baltic Avenue because it represents a greater payday when your hapless opponent lands there. In D&D, meteor swarm is a higher-level spell than fireball because it deals more damage to your enemies, and a +4 holy sword costs more gold to purchase than a +5 sword because, on average, it’s more potent in combat.

No, the big deal here was in identifying the various costing mechanisms already in place for magic items. Obviously, an item’s monetary cost serves as the primary decision-making factor for most characters, but market price isn’t the only cost in the game. Actions required to use an item are another huge cost; if you’d rather just attack or cast a spell than activate a magic item in your pack, that means the activation cost is too high. And of course the item’s cost in “body slots” is another big one. The minor cloak of displacement is a sexy item, but then the potential buyer remembers the +5 bonus on saves he’ll be giving up by choosing it over the cloak of resistance. That’s a cost most characters simply can’t afford to pay.

The “Big Six” and other common items don’t fill up character sheets just because folks like the names, but because they’re the most cost effective items in the game. Here are six reasons why that’s true:

  1. Cheap to Buy. Without question, these items give you the best bang for your buck. With a thousand gold pieces in his pocket, what paladin is going to choose a phylactery of faithfulness or salve of slipperiness over a +1 shield?

  2. Room to Grow. Most of the "Big Six" items don't need to be replaced in order to improve that slot's payoff. A +1 greatsword becomes a +1 keen greatsword with an investment of 6,000 gp (and the help of a crafter with the appropriate level and spells)—you don't have to sell it off and buy a completely new item. Compare that to replacing your cloak of elvenkind with a minor cloak of displacement—under the existing system you have to completely replace the old item with the new item, which is much less efficient economically.

  3. No Slot Competition. With few exceptions (cloak of resistance vs. cloak of charisma; gauntlets of ogre power vs. gloves of dexterity), these items don’t fight for space on the character’s body.

  4. Easy to Understand. All else being equal, options with obvious utility attract more attention than those whose usefulness is more subtle. It’s easy to comprehend the benefits of adding two points of Constitution via an amulet of health—more hit points and +1 on Fortitude saves being the most obvious—but rather more difficult to evaluate how useful the identically priced gloves of arrow snaring might be. That’s a cost in brainpower; a subtle cost to be sure, but nevertheless a potent one.

  5. No Activation Cost. You don’t need to waste valuable actions in combat activating a suit of +3 full plate armor or a pearl of wisdom. These items let you focus on spending your turn doing what you really want to do—attack the monsters.

  6. Required to Play. Characters simply can’t compete against their foes without enhancing their attack rolls, Armor Class, and saving throws. Every one of the “Big Six” items directly improve your character’s ability to roll high.

Any collection of old and new magic items would have to find ways to make its contents appealing, even when compared to the uber-efficient Big Six.

But first, we’d have to collect several hundred items.

As an added bonus to this article, we've also included the Magic Item Record Sheet (zipped or unzipped), for your characters. We'll keep this PDF in the Character Sheets section of the website, as a convenient way for you to keep track of your many magic items!

About the Author

Andy Collins works as an RPG developer for Wizards of the Coast R&D. His recent credits include the Magic Item Compendium, Complete Mage, and Complete Scoundrel. He also answers questions every weekday as the official Sage of D&D.

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