Save My Game
Upgrading Magic Items
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Upgrading Magic Items

I'd love to see an article about magic items and the party's ability/likelihood to upgrade those magic items from a visit to town. The party in my game likes to take shopping trips to large cities, like Waterdeep, for the express purpose of upgrading magic items. The rules in the DMG are of considerable help when these shopping trips take place, but creating magic items seems as much of an art as it is a science. There seems to be a certain "fudge factor" that's important to magic item creation/upgrades, but doesn't really come across in the DMG. For example, the DMG states that a magic item might grant an Insight bonus to AC, yet I can't find any specific magic items that grant such a bonus. One of the sidebars in the DMG magic item section mentions that it would not be fair to allow a character to get a bonus to STR from both bull's stength and gauntlets of ogre might.

Should players be allowed to upgrade magic items like this? If so, are there any hard and fast rules that can be applied (in addition to the text of the DMG) that make this process easier for the DM? Any other advice about magic item upgrades? Save my game!

-- sorites, Wizards message boards

If you're asking for rules that make it easy on the DM when it comes to creating and upgrading magic items, you're in luck! The magic item creation rules in 3rd Edition D&D are light years more organized, intelligible, and systematic than in previous versions of the game. In the olden days, it was all about researching or discovering (and then collecting) exotic ingredients and obscure processes and then engaging in an extremely complex item creation process involving high level spells (for wizard-types) or vague requirements for prayer and consecration (for divine casters). This article examines the issue of magic item upgrades within the context of the DMG. For additional options, you might also consider Weapons of Legacy -- this supplement introduces legacy rituals that unlock the hidden powers of magic items as their owners rise in levels.

Hello? Hello? What's wrong with this thing?The rules now are pretty direct and specific in what you can do and what it costs. To upgrade an item, it has to be something that is upgradeable. The obvious place for this is weapons and armor -- add a bigger enhancement bonus or a special ability. The net cost is equal to the total cost of the final item less the cost of whatever enchantments were already on it. You can add entirely new abilities to an item, subject to the restrictions on what that item could do (e.g., you could not add fireball to the powers of a wand of lightning bolt because, by definition, wands can carry only a single spell. You could, however, add the power to cast fireball to a rod of splendor or a darkskull). The cost of adding powers to items is described in the tables on pp. 284-288 in the Dungeon Master's Guide, including adjustments that may apply for adding powers to carried items (a discount for multiple abilities) versus for worn items (a 50% surcharge for extra abilities) or other factors.

While the basic rules are pretty straightforward, a few tips might help when dealing wih your excessively clever players and their efforts to bend things in their favor.

1. No Double-Dipping

This rule is simple and direct. Bonuses of the same type overlap and do not stack. You can't benefit from both gauntlets of ogre power and bull's strength because both provide an enhancement bonus; the higher bonus supersedes the lower. That's why you are not allowed to benefit from both a belt of strength and gauntlets of ogre power. Note that a few obscure spells (e.g., elation from the Book of Exalted Deeds or aura of vitality from the Spell Compendium) that give a morale bonus to ability scores rather than an enhancement bonus. If you allowed a PC to find or buy an item that gave such a bonus on a continuous basis (a word of advice: DON'T!), they could stack. These are OK as short-duration (one round/level) spells for temporary boosts, but could be highly cheaterous to allow on an essentially permanent basis.

Table 7-33 allows characters to create items with save bonuses and AC bonuses of nonstandard types (e.g., insight, luck, profane, sacred), but not other types of bonuses. It doesn't explicitly state it, but this is a good hint that allowing 'exotic' bonuses to other things (such as ability scores), even if you can find one or a few oddball exceptions where they pop up in the game, is probably not a good idea.

2. No Double-Wearing

Another simple rule is only one item (or set of items) for each 'body slot'. This is pretty clearly spelled out on p. 214 and p. 288. At high levels, you may get PCs who want to spend extra cash to make their items 'no-slot' items, which doubles the cost (see table 7-33). Yes, this means you could wear four sets of bracers or three cloaks, and this may violate common sense or at least your aesthetic sense when thinking about a PC with a stack of hats and helmets on her head, but it's perfectly legal in the rules. It's actually not the most cost-efficient thing, though, because in 3.5, adding a second ability to a 'slot-restricted' item costs only 50% extra, not double as it did in 3.0. Rather than encouraging PCs to pursue no-slot items, you might encourage them to pursue this option instead when they're in town getting their upgrades.

3. Be Wary of False Limits

The Dungeon Master's Guide on p. 282 provides the option to allow discounts in item creation (and therefore upgrade) costs by limiting use of the item to characters with a certain level of skill or of a certain class or alignment. (You could argue the same should be offered if feats are required to use the item.) This makes sense, in a way, but it is also a gaping loophole for characters to create items that have a specific discount for their character ("Hey, what do you know, this item requires a good-aligned ranger with at least 10 ranks in Survival -- why that's me! Give me that 20% discount!").

Ummm, no. That's the way it's written in the rules, but my suggestion is that this rule should apply only when you, the DM, design items for general campaign use. To allow this discount for PCs creating their own items is like handing out free money. The temptation to fudge it is too great.

4. Once is Too Often

Be careful of PCs who want to add limited-use abilities to their stuff. If your campaign works in such a way that only a few combats happen each day, those single-use effects are just as good as items you can use all the time -- multiple uses are irrelevant when you don't need to use them more often. A single, powerful effect can tip the scales in a way that frequent, lower-level effects do not. You can, for instance, make an item that does a 15th level horrid wilting once per day for less than it would cost to do a 4th level spell (7th level caster) such as enervation at will. There are advantages to the lower-level, frequent-use item, but when they beat the main villain's SR and wipe him out in one shot with a finger of death instead of having their lower-level lightning bolts and such shrugged off by energy resistance or SR, it gets pretty annoying.

The same phenomenon occurs when creating a staff with higher-level effects that cost multiple charges. A staff that does circle of death at a cost of 10 charges costs about the same as a wand of flaming sphere; you can do the latter 50 times instead of just five before you run out of charges, but the difference in effectiveness is obvious.

The rules are there for a reason, but consider adjusting the cost modifier for infrequent use items. The ideas outlined above are some of the major loopholes or concerns to watch out for when thinking about upgrading (or creating) magic items. We will continue this subject in more depth next time.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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