Design & Development03/09/2007

Magic Item Compendium, part 2
Magic: The Compending

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.

In Part I of our behind-the-scenes series of insights into the crafting of the Magic Item Compendium, the author discussed the problems inherent to many of the magic items published for D&D, and the various costs that players must pay to use magic items in the game.This week’s column covers the task of collecting and updating the hundreds and hundreds of magic items that found their way into the weighty tome.

When Stephen Schubert, Mike Mearls, and I sat down to plot out the creation of the Magic Item Compendium, we knew we had a big job ahead of us. After all, we’d seen how much effort went into the Spell Compendium.

But while we used Spell Compendium as a general model for our work, we decided to take a slightly different direction. Rather than aiming for a complete re-presentation of a subset of books, we chose instead to cull the very best concepts from the entire library of the 3.0/3.5 Edition. (Well, the library up to what was then the present—we hadn’t yet perfected the time-travel technology to see what was still to be designed.)

So we pulled out our giant stacks of sourcebooks, from Tome & Blood to Tome of Magic, and started compiling a list of every magic item we’d ever published. We pored over dozens of issues of Dragon Magazine and searched through dusty old archives of online columns. We even paged through the Diablo-themed D&D supplements—I’m telling you, we were thorough!

The Great and Near-Great

As part of crafting that list, we evaluated each item we found, rating it to see if it might make the grade for re-publication. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to reprint every single item—in fact, we eventually ended up with less than half of the over 2,000 magic items that we found. Initially, I remember worrying that we might not have enough room to do the game’s massive collection of magic items justice… but that proved not to be the case. (Remember what I said last time about all the awful items out there? Well, this was the proof that supported the theory.)

We found our “5-star” candidates easily, from the sonic weapon property in the Miniatures Handbook (with variants in many other places as well) to the memento magica from Races of the Dragon. These no-brainer items—most of which were already seeing use in the game—would likely go straight into MIC with only minor adjustments at most.

The next tier comprised those items that cried out for inclusion but which we knew would need some tweaking to improve their value and playability. Items such as the warlock’s scepter from Complete Arcane, the bow of force from Arms & Equipment Guide, and the ring of adamantine touch from Book of Exalted Deeds all had compelling concepts—in other words, good initial designs—that just needed a little TLC from the development team.

The Remaining Sparks

But these two categories were just the low-hanging fruit of our search. We wouldn’t be able to fill the book simply by picking up all the items that were already 80% functional or better. No, we’d have to dig a little deeper to find those items whose dry descriptions or convoluted effects concealed a spark of creativity and potential in-game excitement; a spark that we could fan into a flame (if not necessarily a conflagration) by judiciously developing their costs and effects.

Some of these rescued items would, during later development, prove diamonds in the rough—compare the new versions of the relics in MIC to those originally presented in Complete Divine for an example of this—but we believed that even the simplest of them held the promise of “somebody out there wants to pay hard-earned gold to own me.” The rod of enervating strike (Planar Handbook), boots of dragonstriding (Draconomicon), and jumping caltrops (Arms & Equipment Guide)—these items and many more we felt merited a second chance in the minds of players and DMs around the world.

Each time we identified any item for inclusion, we also noted the kinds of changes needed to bring them in line with the mainstream collection of magic items in the game. But we weren’t comparing these to just any old items in the DMG; no, these had to compete with the top tiers of items available to players.

A Case of Three Fixes

In some cases, the fixes were pretty simple; in others, they required more mental gymnastics. I’ve collected three of the entries from my list of items from the DMG II to explain the reasoning behind some of the changes.

1. Domain draught: remove last sentence of effect; change price to 3,000 gp

This example shows two kinds of fixes we made. The most obvious one is the price—less than half the item’s original 8,000 gp cost. While gaining access to a domain’s granted power and spell list is pretty useful, this is just a one-shot item that doesn’t dramatically increase the character’s power level. Dropping the price to a mere 3,000 gp means you still think twice about downing one of these, but it’s now viable to a much broader range of characters.

The other fix is more delicate and goes to the item’s playability. Here’s the original sentence in question: “If the imbiber gains access to a domain that is opposed to her alignment and prepares domain spells from its list, she might need to atone for that deed (DM’s discretion).” Removing that sentence eliminates a statement that put the DM in the position of having to adjudicate the effectiveness of the item. While DM adjudications are a crucial part of the game, there’s no need for the rules to go out of their way to complicate his life.

Here’s another one from the same book:

2. Rogue’s vest: extra damage applies to skirmish, sneak attack, or sudden strike abilities; change untyped Reflex save bonus to competence bonus; change price to 18,000 gp

At a basic level, this vest is a reasonably functional item. However, we wanted to find ways to provide greater item support to the broad array of classes available in the game; hence the expansion of the vest’s effect. Does a scout feel odd picking up an item named for another class? Maybe… until he starts benefiting from its effects.

Untyped bonuses (particularly in easy-to-stack categories like magic items) are ugly, so we slapped a type on the Reflex save bonus that made it still useful when paired with a cloak of resistance, but not infinitely stackable.

Finally, we dropped the price by more than a third. At nearly 30,000 gp, it was an item only affordable to extremely high-level characters (since it’s not one of your most important pieces of gear). At 18,000, one can imagine characters in the low double-digit levels wanting one of these.

And one last example, again from the DMG II:

3. Rod of grievous wounds: change CL to 9th; change spell prereq to mass inflict light wounds; change effect to 1d8+5 damage; change to 3/day

The caster level and spell prerequisite changes are just minor tweaks to better match the effect; the interesting part is the second half.

As a general rule, we believe that fewer, more potent uses per day is more interesting and fun than a greater number of uses of a weaker power. While the price (a mere 2,000 gp, or about the same as a +1 weapon) is low enough to make this item affordable to the right level of character, its 1d8 damage doesn’t really inspire fear in enemies even if available five times per day. What character or NPC really wants to bust out a measly 1d8 damage five times per day? Doubling that damage output makes it comparable to a real attack against adjacent enemies. To avoid raising the price we dropped its uses per day from five to three.

The Forsaken Remainder

What we left behind after this long search was, quite frankly, a massive collection of ineffective trinkets, uninspiring spell replications, or just flat-out boring junk. That sounds pretty harsh, but more than anything it reflects our growing understanding of what makes a magic item interesting to own and use. The “tech” of designing magic items has lingered in a fairly primitive state for quite a while, while classes, feats, prestige classes, and spells have received a much larger share of the attention.

Of course, we couldn’t let that sad fact remain true… but that’ll have to wait until next time, when I give you a glimpse into the Design Guide we put together for the freelancers who’d be creating the new items for Magic Item Compendium.

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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