Design & Development03/16/2007

Magic Item Compendium, part 3
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 the last two installments of this column, Magic Item Compendium lead designer/developer Andy Collins talked about evaluating the magic items in D&D, including those selected to appear in the book.

This week, he concludes his three-part series with a glimpse behind the curtain, showing you portions of the design guidelines created to help craft the new items that would appear in the Magic Item Compendium and beyond.

After spending many days poring over the thousands of magic items previously published in Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks, we realized that we couldn’t just tell the writers working on the Magic Item Compendium to write a bunch more of the same. Strong precedents for compelling magic items were simply too few and far between, and too many of our long-held assumptions about magic item costing and power design were proven inaccurate or outdated. Before the first new item could be written, we had to craft a set of guidelines that would help those writers hit more singles, doubles and home runs, and fewer weak grounders to the second baseman.

We needed a design guide.

This kind of document is exactly what it sounds like—a guide that explains the proper method of designing a particular type of game element (in this case, magic items). It answers those pesky questions of “how” (and, ideally, “why”) to ensure the writer crafts a mechanic appropriate to the game.

Of course, just writing a functional item that follows the rules isn’t enough. We had enough of those already; we needed exciting new items that explored new territories, utilized new resources, and rewarded new tactics and character builds. So our design guide wouldn’t just be about crafting a balanced item; it would also lay out new areas of design heretofore unused… or at least underused. While this article doesn’t go into details on that topic, you can check out Magic Item Compendium co-designer Eytan Bernstein’s Product Spotlight articles for more on some of the new magic item categories we put together for the book.

So Mike Mearls, Stephen Schubert, and I (with input from various other folks in the R&D department) crafted a document that would lay out in basic terms the process of writing a magic item, from concept to power design, step-by-step.

Appropriately enough, the first section of this design guide is called “Where to Start.”

Just as with spells, the toughest part of designing a magic item is often the initial concept. It’s all too easy to think of a magic item as just a spell or three sitting inside a ring, rod or cloak, but that’s not going to get you anywhere interesting.

To help you get started, try thinking first about what kind of character you want to create an item for. If you want to create some items for the raging, Power-Attacking barbarian, that leads you in a different direction than if you’re building something for the studious wizard who likes to have plenty of tricks up her sleeve.

That second paragraph may seem obvious, but one of the most common design traps is forgetting that you’re designing something intended to be useful to characters playing the game. Too many writers start with the story of a new game element, or even just a name or image, and never get around to deciding why a haracter in the game would actually use it. If you’ve ever wondered why the players in your game can’t wait to sell off the new magic item you’ve placed for them despite its ten-page back story, here’s your rude awakening.

Next, ask yourself what kinds of effects that character might find useful beyond the obvious first few (stat boost, AC boost, etc.). Barbarians tend to go through hit points pretty quickly, thanks to their relatively poor AC, so anything that gives him extra hp or quick healing would be pretty useful. They’re more mobile than most warriors, so effects that encourage the barbarian to move around more easily on the battlefield (Climb/Jump bonuses, ignore difficult terrain, charge in weird directions) are good places to explore. And of course, anything that makes the barbarian’s rage more effective (longer duration, more abilities, etc.) would be interesting as well.

After overcoming the hurdle of realizing you’re designing a game piece, you have to put yourself into the shoes of the would-be user. What does the character want to be able to do or do better? And believe me, the low-hanging fruit is already gone—the game doesn’t need any more static bonuses to game statistics—so you’d better get creative.

Once you have a list of interesting effects, start assembling them into items. A typical item should have about 1-3 effects, all of which are interesting to your target character. It’s best if the effects are all of a roughly similar power level. You can pair a potent effect with less-potent effects, but make sure that your weakest effects are still interesting to a character who buys the item for the best effect.

Here’s another area where the game has gone horribly wrong in the past. The chaos diamond, for example, costs 160,000 gp and lets the owner cast spells including the potent word of chaos (an 8th-level spell) and the, uh, much less potent lesser confusion. Seriously, would the character who can afford this item and who thinks the latter spell’s whopping save DC of 11 is still meaningful please step forward?

On the other hand, the helm of brilliance offers the side benefit of making your weapon a flaming weapon, which is a pretty minor compared to the other effects it offers (and to its 125,000 gp price tag). However, an extra 1d6 points of damage is always welcome and useful, even if it’s only a minor upgrade to your damage output.

Voila! You have designed a magic item. Of course, you’re not really finished until you give it a name and assign a price to the item. See Choosing a Name and Item Pricing for tips.

It may seem facetious to say that a magic item is “designed” before you set a price, but the gold piece cost associated with a game element is really one of the least important parts of its design. (Of course, it’s one of the most important parts of its development, but we’re talking about design here.) It’s not the price of a jar of Keoghtom’s ointment (or its mention in Dragon 354's Order of the Stick) that makes it interesting, it’s the range of effects it offers. The price only makes it an appealing (i.e., efficient) purchase or an unappealing (i.e., inefficient) purchase, not an interesting item.

I’m skipping over the “Choosing a Name advice.” Not because it’s unimportant—on the contrary, a cool item name can really help sell it to players—but because I want to keep talking about pricing.

First of all, don’t stress out too much about pricing your magic items. The development team reviews all prices, so any number you pick will be looked at.

That said, selecting a price for an item is an important part of the item’s creation. Designing an item’s effect without also choosing a price is a lot like designing a spell effect without assigning it a level—you’re not really telling the reader who’s supposed to be using it.

Hey, didn’t I just say that an item’s gold piece cost wasn’t an important part of design? Yes, but here’s where it’s important to note that the design phase is only one part of the overall creation of a game element. Development and editing are two other crucial phases, and they often have very different opinions about what’s more or less important. To a developer, price is crucial, because it’s half of what determines the overall efficiency of a game piece (which in turn determines how many players want to use it). That’s why so much development time is spent properly costing game elements, from the level of a spell to the point cost of a D&D miniature for the skirmish game. If you need a refresher, go back to Part I of this series to review what I said about costing. I’ll wait here for you.

Anyway, when a designer sets a magic item’s price (or any other game element’s acquisition cost), he’s effectively telling the developers “this is when the item should be appearing in the game.” Of course, the game doesn’t always allow the clearest of communication on this front. Setting a new cleric spell at 3rd level is a much clearer signal of intent than setting an item at 2,500 gp, even though both will probably show up at about the same time. That’s a minor flaw of D&D’s magic item system, but it’s hardly impossible to overcome.

Got all that? Good, ‘cause this next part is really important.

Pricing magic items is as much art as science. Don’t treat the DMG formulas as if they’re going to give you “the answer.” Except for a limited number of items, these at best provide you a starting point. (That’s why Table 7-33 is titled “Estimating Magic Item Gold Piece Values.”) In particular, be wary of the “Spell Effect” and “Special” sections of that table—they can take you to terrible destinations if you’re not paying attention.

Every DM whose players have demanded that the always-active amulet of true strike should only cost 2,000 gp (“It’s just a first-level spell!”) is nodding right now.

Rather than slavishly adhering to formulas, think about how much you think the item might be worth in comparison to other sought-after items. “Sought-after” is the key term here—just because your item seems to have about the same power level as a helm of underwater action doesn’t mean it should cost 60,000 gp, since nobody ever buys a helm of underwater action (nor do they keep it if they find it).

Instead, look at the items that players actually buy and keep, and make sure that your item seems like a reasonable choice next to a sought-after item of similar price and body slot. Yes, it’s hard to compare an amulet that lets you swim and breathe water with an amulet of natural armor +4, but if you estimate that the first item is worth about 30,000 gp, you’d better believe that players will be weighing those two against each other. Gloves of super-thievery sound cool, but if they cost 4,500 gp they’d better be at least as interesting as the 4,000-gp gloves of dexterity +2.

Replace “sought-after” with “Big Six” (you did read Part I, right?) and you’ll realize that we’ve come full circle. If Emerson played D&D, I’m sure he’d agree that accurately pricing a new magic item is a lot like building a better mousetrap; while the whole world may not quite beat a path to your door, player characters certainly will.

(Though if that path gets too beaten, you may want to make sure you’re not giving your mousetrap away too cheaply.)

I hope these insights into the design of the Magic Item Compendium (and of magic items in general) have been useful… or at least moderately entertaining. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I could talk about magic item creation just about all day long and into the night... in fact, just wait for this month's Sibling Rivalry, as well as next month's D&D Podcast.

(Hey, when you work on a book as much as I did on MIC, you either learn to love the topic or you burn it out of your brain, never to speak of again. I’ll leave it to you to decide which you’d have preferred, but here I am anyway.)

I could, for example, natter on about how to use pricing bands and significant digits to simplify the costing of items, or describe the many traps to avoid in designing your items. (Tip #7: Don’t create items only useful to town merchant or the archvillain.)

Instead, I’ll leave you folks to discuss your opinions on those (and other) matters related to magic items on our message board. If it turns out that there are still questions out there demanding another peek behind the curtain, just give a holler.

I’m not going anywhere.

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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