Friday, June 24, 2011

Question on magic items

One of the ideas that I've seen a lot lately is that magic items shouldn't have pluses; they should go back to "being cool." I fully agree with the sentiment because it is how I like to play my games, but it actually goes against my positive system assumptions mantra in that it is easier to make the pluses automatic than it is to pull them out of the math to go back to the old way.

Also, people need stuff. Magic items are stuff and if you can't give out meaningful rewards, players get a little disenchanted. Maybe you have a uniquely mature gaming group, but most people need stuff.

I haven't put too much thought into magic items just yet, but two ideas have generally risen as potential solutions.
  1. Characters receive inherent pluses at a level appropriate to balance the math. Magic items also provide pluses but also other beneficial effects. A character may either use their inherent plus or the plus of the item and gain its beneficial effect.
  2. Characters receive inherent pluses at a level appropriate to balance the math. Magic items increase the effective level and also provide other beneficial effects. So if characters receive an inherent +1 at fifth character level, a +2 weapon would confer that benefit at 3rd level instead of 5th.
Each solution has some immediate problems.

Solution One
There is something awkward about the first solution. The idea that a character is "inherently +3" but only benefits at "+2 and flaming" because he is using a magic sword feels like the sword is somehow a cursed sword. That isn't the intent and maybe this solution could be fixed with just a little PR.

The benefit of it is that it introduces interesting tradeoffs. There will be times when a player could attack at +10 but will instead attack at +9 to benefit from an item. That is sort of neat and it opens up to door to give high level characters who should be wielding +5 weapons a +2 weapon with a litany of benefits. It also builds in an expiration date to weapons so you get to reward players without over powering characters. A +3 weapon replacing a +2 weapon is incrementally only +1.

Solution Two
The second solution first suffers from a vocabulary issue. The +1 level vs. +1 attack dichotomy would have to be replaced, but that is a small issue. The bigger issue is that the benefit is situational. Let's presume that inherent attack bonuses are at every 5th level. A +4 sword provides no benefit, then, to a 5th level character. This will encourage GMs to give higher plus weapons because they want to push characters to that next step.

At the same time, the benefit always scales which means a weapon is always incrementally powerful. That might at first seem like a benefit, but compare it to solution one. Under solution one, we could introduce the Mace of Kings, a +5 mace that is the scepter of the king. When wielded by the young prince (level one fighter) after his father's death, the Mace of Kings hugely empowers him. If the villain (level 20 cleric) steals it away, he was inherently +5 and so gains little. There is a moderating influence to inherent bonuses under solution one that is absent in solution two.

The plus side of solution two is that at different points in character progression, they'll value different things. A +3 weapon is really valuable at level 7 because it brings you up to the +2 tier. But at level 9, you might be willing to swap it out for a more interesting +1 weapon. Variety is fun and this solution promotes it.

Feedback is appreciated--
  1. What do you look for in magic items? 
  2. What did I miss? 
  3. Which of the solutions do you prefer?


  1. Just bite the bullet and take the stupid plusses out of the game. What you're talking about here is making sure that everyone always has every plus the same as everyone else and then has a few actual magic items on top of that. Seriously, take the time to rework the math, figure out what target numbers you want at what levels and make the mechanics reflect that. You're only exacerbating the problem by leaving these phantom bonuses in the system for no reason.

    In addition, neither of these solutions is especially good. The first inherently introduces magic items that potentially aren't as good to use as hitting people in the face with your bare hands, which sort of raises the question of why characters should be excited about them in the first place. The second just goes back to the 3.5 version of magic items that explicitly push characters off the RNG, which means everybody needs a magic item to keep up, which is the EXACT SAME PROBLEM YOU'RE TRYING TO FIX.

    Neither of these solutions gives any reason for people to be excited about finding magic items or provides a way for someone's ancestral magic sword that their father left for them to be equally useful at 1st level and 20th level. Which is also a problem.

  2. Well I disagree on two accounts.

    The first is that neither of your solution address my initial point that people need stuff. At the end of the day, this is a game and so the needs of the people playing it really are important. If the core rules don't address the people, then they'll make up house rules that satisfy whatever need is missing. That isn't a good solution.

    My second point of contention is that I think you may misunderstand the twin proposals. The first proposal embeds the numbers into the math (as you suggest) such that people can have magic items or not. The benefit of that proposal, though, is that there are scenarios where the bonus of the item is superior to the plus, and that creates a tactically interesting moment.

    The second solution actually doesn't replicate 3e because the bonuses are, again, inherently provided. The difference is that you can access them a bit quicker. So whereas 3e gave you the +1, this brings you one level closer to getting the +1 or is 1/5th as powerful innately. This introduces more gradation and allows the powers of the weapon to be more important than the pluses while still introducing the opportunity for the pluses to differentiate characters and weapons.

    To your last point, the first solution does not let an ancestral weapon be equally useful at 1st to 20th but that is deliberate under the first solution. The second solution actually does let it be equally useful FAR BETTER than 3e or 4e does today.

  3. You misunderstand me. I think that magic items are very important to the game, but that magic item pluses need to die in a fire. Seriously, your proposed fix for 'magic items give pluses' is 'give the pluses to everybody anyway'. It works, but it would make so much more sense to just take away the need for the pluses in the first place. Then the magic items you give out can just have active abilities or situational benefits instead of having to have something to do with flat numerical bonuses.

    Your first proposal is bad because if you're actually giving people magic weapons which may or may not be better than a straight up normal attack, here's what's going to happen. People will carry around golf bags full of situational weapons, and select the perfect wedge for each attack. They will be constantly sheathing their weapons in the middle of battle to take out a different weapon for no apparent reason. There will be people that will be holding a magical sword they uncovered in the haunted depths of the Faerie King's tomb and then they will put it away in order to hit the monster in the face with their nonmagical iron sword because the numerical bonus is better than the situational benefit of the Faerie Sword. That is a terrible idea.

    Your second proposal is exactly the same stupid numerical inflation that you're trying to get rid of, except it's spread out more. It doesn't matter if the numerical inflation comes at a rate of +1 attack per +5 bonus on the sword or whatever, because the actual benefit of the sword is to give you higher numbers. Which is incredibly boring, and I assume is the reason that you're trying to fix the christmas tree paradigm in the first place.

    Lastly, the ancestral sword. I totally agree that 3e and 4e both suck at this kind of idea. I wasn't saying that they were better in any way than your ideas. 3e WBL was awful and was plagued with the sort of numerical must-be-this-tall bull that you're trying to fix. 4e was even worse from what I've seen of it. The only way I could think of to make this work is to just have fewer magical items, make them more special, and have them level up alongside you, providing more interesting and powerful benefits as you level up. That way when you find a cool and exciting magic item it stays relevant for your entire career instead of having to sell it later to buy a new item just in order to keep up with the rest of the party.

  4. Haha, alright. Duly noted. But we still haven't addressed the issue that people need stuff. I know it might not seem like a glitzy thing to focus on, but it really is important. If you don't build in mechanisms by which to make people feel rewarded and like they are progressing, people will house rule in mechanisms. After the fact house rules are never as good as prima facie rules.

    The better solution is for designers to build in mechanisms by which the people playing the game can tailor it to their desired tastes. Some people like pluses (some consider them a "sacred cow"--although it is one I am more than willing to slay). Given that many people want them and they are a useful platform upon which to give rewards, how do we address their removal? Do you think straight powers will be enough? Do we introduce new types of powers? Should we introduce the ability to add additional powers to existing weapons?

  5. If a flaming cutlass isn't cool enough for your game just by virtue of BEING ON FIRE, there's something seriously wrong.

    You're totally right though, it's a tough subject. On the one hand you can go with generically useful weapons like 'this sword makes any people explode when it touches them' or you can got he other direction with situationally useful weapons like 'this sword penetrates an arrowhawk's damage reduction AND ONLY THAT'. But that just leads to people either picking one weapon and only ever using that (the first idea) or carrying around their golf bag (the second idea). So you would have to walk a very fine line in between where all weapons are somewhat useful but some are better in some situations than others. But you should never get into the situation where using a weapon is seriously worse than not using a weapon.

    One possible route you could take would be to have people get magic items and then purchase benefits for them. This has a few effects: people would be more attached sentimentally to their magic items because it feels more like it's 'theirs'. You can also let them customize it for the particular campaign, so if you're in Ravenloft you don't have to worry about people not having weapons that are effective against undead, and so on. So if you had a generic magic item like FLAMING CUTLASS then you could have branching paths of upgrades people could pick from as they level up in order to spec it out however they like. And one route leads to lighting people on fire when they hit them and one path leads to shrouding them in smoke, and so on. As long as you're creative you're never going to have to go down the route of giving out RNG breaking benefits just because you can't think of anything creative.

    I'm also of the opinion that there are too many magic item slots in D&D. I'd trim it down to maybe 5 or 6, since it makes it easier to remember and makes the magic items people do get more special.

  6. I think CJ has very convincingly championed the cause of getting rid of those stupid magical plusses from a mechanical point of view.

    Let me expand on it from an aesthetic point of view.

    Let's say Billy is a character with no ability to see magic auras or cast Identify (I'm mainly experienced with 3.5).

    Billy finds a mace and a dagger in a dungeon.

    1)Billy charges and swings the mace at a goblin scout. "Ah this is a superbly balanced weapon!" he thinks as he effortlessly dodges a knife blow and crushes the goblin's skull in a sweeping counterattack.
    2)Billy charges and swings the mace at a goblin scout, and it twists in midair to strike the goblin in spite of the awkward angle of the strike. "It's like the weapon killed the goblin despite my lack of skill." Billy notes in part relief and part unease.

    Then Billy notices another stealthy scout, who is about to blow a horn to alert the hundred-strong goblin army to Billy's presence! In desperation, he hurls his dagger. It only grazes the goblin, but the goblin immediately staggers and blunders in a circle, with a look of confusion that transcends species. Billy rushes over and finishes it just as it shakes it's head free of the strange mood that had come over it.

    You may or may not have guessed that the weapons were a +1 mace and a dagger that causes confusion on hit.

    In the mace fight option 1, Billy doesn't know the mace is magical. He is the one swinging it, and it is his job to do so. The effect is subtle and seamless. It also doesn't feel magical.

    But in option 2, where the mace was noticably performing beyond his ability to wield it, Billy had a bit of his thunder stolen. If it did that at +1, the mace would be visibly dragging Billy's arm around by the time it was +5!

    You really have to choose between a mace that feels like just masterwork, and a mace that does the fighting for him, making him less important. Yuck.

    Now remember the dagger in the other scenario. Billy knows it did something Billy couldn't do from his own skill; confuse a goblin into forgetting what it was doing.
    It is not stealing his thunder; he threw it with his own skill, did the amount of damage it rightly should have. It did something special and unexpected, which is expected from now on. Billy knows that this is a magic dagger that will cause confusion and will use it in appropriate future situations.
    The magic complements, rather than takes credit for, Billy's combative ability. Billy would no more be jealous of the dagger for confusing the goblin than he would a giant eagle mount for being able to fly him around.

    In conclusion: Magic is good, plusses are bad.
    Magic does something special that the character can't do with a mundane object. It doesn't do the character's job for him, it does it's own job for him.

  7. I couldn't agree more with John Pratt-magic item pluses aren't thematically interesting, and they're hardly tactically interesting either, especially with as tight of a mathematical foundation as you're designing into your game.

    Let me explain what I mean by that. Let's say your game expects the average PC to have a 60-70% chance of hitting across all levels, based off of abilities, feats, stocks, trades etc. You've built in an inherent bonus to the system that can override magic item bonuses if it's greater. So a character in this hypothetical scenario might have a +2 inherent bonus to attacks at 10th level.

    So let's say that this 10th level character finds a +1 Dagger called the Dagger of Eternal Youth. It's a +1 blade that drains vigor and beauty from the target, giving the wielder some benefits physically and socially. Evocative? Yes! Fun? Yes! Now what are the chances that the character is going to use this weapon over a non-magical dagger that will receive a better chance to hit?

    You might say the chances are pretty good-it's a tradeoff between more accuracy and slightly more damage and a cool and interesting effect. But I say that it's a trap. A character's trades are really the meat of what they do in combat under your system, meaning that they already embody a lot of what is mechanically interesting about a given character. A barbarian's trades might give him temporary hit points, or send him into a rage, or give him the senses of a wolf. All of those are cool things to do. A character doesn't get to do any of those things if the attack linked to them doesn't hit. So the choice is more along the lines of "do I want to use something cool, or something practical?" I'm thinking that out of the gate one should make sure that as often as possible the cool (and fun) choice for a character is also the practical one.

    Another issue is that adding numerical pluses to your game goes against your design goal of flattening the power curve. It just adds another variable through which characters can become unbalanced with one another. Here's an example of what I mean, specifically regarding attack rolls:

    Let's say you have a range of attribute mods from +5 to -5, up to +3 from bonuses due to Feats, up to +5 from stocks, and up to +3 from the use of trades that grant some sort of bonus to attack. That right there means that characters can have a potential bonus to attack rolls of +6 to +16. A range of 10.

    If you add magical items that add pluses that go all the way up to +5 you increase that range by 50% from 10 to 15. While the extremes of the range might come up fairly rarely, even in the middle ranges it means that the presence or absence of magical +'s makes a big difference. While you can fix this to a degree with inherent bonuses, it's a good general guideline that any rule you need to shore up with another rule is something that you probably don't need.

  8. If I had to choose between the two, I would pick solution one because of the interesting decision of using the weapon or not.

    However, I am not a fan (either) of the solution. I've already commented in another post on my own tinkering with the magical weapon system, so you already know some of my thoughts.

    You also mentioned the positive system assumptions when saying that magical bonuses should be automatic instead of removed. I may have misunderstood, but is this not backwards? Wouldn't it be more correct to not have magical item bonuses in the base game and then you can "move the stake forward", by adding them? I agree with your assessment that base game rules are better than house rules, but can this not be compared to your example of teleportation in the other post (where a GM house rules it in)?
    Of course, if you expect a majority of groups adding it, it might be a good idea to have rules already written, preferably optional ones.

    CJ's suggestion of "evolving" weapons sounds intriguing, though I admit to not having given it any further thought. I could see a hero becoming more attuned to the weapon, but I am in two minds about letting the player choose how the weapon evolves. On one hand it enables a player to always have a flaming weapon, if it fits his character theme, but this also means that effects that are valued higher will also emerge in all weapons.

    Magical items are indeed a fine line (the bull of sacred cows perhaps?). One could argue that players coming from systems such as D&D would be missing the bonus that magical items provide and not find them very magical. This feeling could be removed or subdued by making the rest of the magical effects more powerful, but this also increases the expected power level and may even overshadow the character's own skill.
    Removing the static bonus limits the situation of the level 1 prince finding a +5 weapon, but are still possible as long as the effects of weapons are still scaling (so where a flaming longsword appropriate for level 1 character does +1d6 fire damage, one for level 20 characters would do +4d6 - example numbers of course). This would make players want to find new weapons (even with the same, but more powerful effect), and the prince would still be able to best anyone in his level range when wielding the level 20 flaming longsword. (The situation with the prince is an interesting one as I don't have a problem with the weapon overshadowing him. Perhaps because he is an NPC, perhaps because it is so far out of his level range that it is meant to and he knows that his skill is only due to the weapon).

  9. I am pretty persuaded by the arguments. My own preference was towards removing the pluses because I find them boring, but I think they serve a valid purpose. The reason I am persuaded is that I think it opens up new options (that you've all hinted towards) that might off set what is lost.

    The legitimate argument for item pluses:
    (1) The "people need stuff" and gaining a tangible +1 in treasure is an immediate affirmation of achievement. I really can't understate that enough.
    (2) Positive system assumptions (this is for Neubert). The idea here is simple. Let's say magic items go from +1 to +5 every four levels. If you build that math into other things like BAB progression or feats, it is now embedded in the rules. If someone decides they really liked +1 weapons, they now have a lot of work to do to remove those feats and BAB and powers in order for the math to work. The other option is to make those bonuses inherent (i.e. you gain an additional +1 attack every four levels) and then people who are interested in using +magic items can just make them *not* inherent. Easy for them. That is what I mean by a "positive system assumption"--if two parties have opposing view points, what default rule most easily accommodates both parties.

    Despite the above, I am still persuaded. I actually think I'll be able to develop a strong mathematical foundation by removing the magic progression and I hope to find time to write about that soon.

    Removing pluses also helps make magic items feel more magical. Part of this is that no one component of the game can be *that* complex and still hope to be both communicable and balanced. By removing the plus-side, you free up more complexity to do other interesting things. Magic items ought to be interesting.