Magic items in Pathfinder

Pathfinder developers have solicited gamer input on how to make some minor adjustments to the magic item system for an upcoming errata release. I have gotten engaged in the discussion, but I have mostly decided not to participate in the recommendations since I believe the existing magic item system is broken from concept through all errata, and that means broken since, oh, say, 1977.

Several people express considerable shock and consternation by my assertion that magic items are just a huge mess from start to finish, so I figured I would document why I think magic items are such a mess, and propose what I think should be done about it.

  1. The existing magic item system is focused on combat. The focus on combat is so ingrained and integral to the game that the actual challenge rating system for encounters actually assumes that characters have magic items in order to be competitive. So at level 12, for example, if your melee fighter does not have at least a +3 sword, they will not be able to keep up with combat assumptions.
  2. The magic item creation system is an absolute gold mine of exploits. It has been shown that using the existing rules and guidelines a player can construct a “ring of True Strike” for a few thousand gold, or a “staff of unlimited wishes” for a lot of gold, but what does the cost of such a staff matter when once it is created you can just wish for stuff worth more than what you paid? Perhaps the worst part of magic item crafting is making “wondrous items” because of rules exploits allowing crafters to create items capable of doing things the character themselves cannot do, simply by accepting a paltry +5 DC modification to the crafting check.
  3. Magic items have been introduced that are clearly designed to optimize specific builds or classes. For example, any barbarian who does not pursue a weapon with the “courageous” and “furious” enchantments simply isn’t reading the books since both of those are custom designed to optimize barbarian rage powers and end up providing insane melee combat bonuses when used. Similar items are bane weapons which exploit the “instant enemy” feat for rangers which essentially allow them to define any target they like as a target of a bane weapon. I could go on and on, the exploits are so numerous and so severe that entire builds are based on the acquisition of a few magic items.
  4. Way back in one of the earlier Dragon magazine articles Gary Gygax himself lamented what he christened the “Christmas Tree” effect which he used to describe otherwise nondescript characters who achieved great powers simply by dangling a lot of shiny magic items off their bodies. Most optimized builds that are created these days have almost the same items in the same slots for virtually every character. In fact if you don’t have certain items for your character many power gamers will literally scoff at your game skills. Items such as cloaks of resistance, rings of protection, amulets of natural armor, boots of speed, Ioun stones boosting key stats, belts of physical perfection and helms which boost stats are simply assumed to be in place, not only by power gamers, but by the game designers themselves when they create high level challenge ratings. A wizard who does not have an intelligence of near 30 by level 18 is not going to be able to depend on spells penetrating high level spell resistance, or overcome high level saving throws, and the only way to get an int that high is to have the int-boosting items that are provided as magic items.
  5. Characters who choose to craft items (particularly wizards who choose to craft wondrous items) can gain significant advantages over other party members in making their own magic items at half price, and by selling magic items to party members at a “discount”, which is essentially just a means of transferring wealth from non-crafting party members to crafting party members.

I could go on, but those are some of the major items.

My personal belief is that almost all of the major game issues caused by magic items are due to the fundamental design of magic items as an ever-escalating bonus to key abilities starting at +1 and going up from there as you level up. This ends up meaning that without magic items a character simply can’t compete, which I believe takes the spotlight off of the character and onto the magic items themselves (this is what Gygax was complaining about in his “Christmas Tree” complaint).

I believe magic items should primarily provide out of combat abilities and those that do contribute to combat should provide flavor and specific tactical options (like specific energy boosts) that require some planning to use to the party’s advantage. In my mind something like a +2 dragon bane sword ought to be a friggin’ artifact, not a hunk of magical trinketry that can be found at any magic shoppe and donut store.

My approach would be to completely remove the need for magic items to provide critical fundamental ability boosts. Magic weapons should do things like overcome certain resistances, target specific foes, defend against weapon-targeting tactics, improve certain tactics (tripping, disarming, etc.) and/or provide special attacks. Magic armor should provide special defenses (fire resistance, incorporeal effectiveness, boosts vs ranged attacks, etc.), useful abilities (healing, movement bonuses, special attacks, etc.

Almost all magic items should provide only temporary boosts. So a “helm of wisdom” would provide a +2 to wisdom for a certain number of rounds per day, no more. A ring of protection should protect against a certain amount of damage only.

The bottom line is that magic items should be de-emphasized so that the characters themselves can shine. A great warrior should be able to be effective with any sword, not just their uber-special 25,000 gold sword that if they lose means they are at an effective -5 to their attacks. A warrior should be a warrior, not a ramshackle collection of magical trinkets wandering around.

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14 thoughts on “Magic items in Pathfinder

  1. Are they thinking about this in D&D Next?

    I think a major problem with the issues you raise is the books from which the games were derived. The games always stated that my player character was a hero in one of these types of books. And the heros in the books always had some sort of magic item to defeat the enemy. So everyone wants Stormbringer, the One Ring and a magic wand.

  2. The powerful magic items you mention (the one ring and stormbringer) would be artifacts in my magic item system. I don’t like wands as they are defined in Pathfinder, I would prefer that a wand improve my magical abilties, not just be a bucket of low level spells. I actually prefer the 4e implementation of wands since that’s what they do in 4e.

    In literature most magic items are of very limited, very specific use. Excalibur does not grant awesome fighting prowess, neither did Orcrist, Glamdring, Sting or Legalos’s bow. In many cases magic items are simply more rugged and dependable than actual weapons. A magic bow that does not require actual arrows is the sort of magic bow I would have. Or one that fired arrows of fire, not wood. Stuff like that.

    My complaint with Pathfinder (and most other RPG systems) implementation of magic items is that it cheapens magic and makes it mundane. When every minor NPC is walking around with +2 swords, what the heck is so great about a +2 sword?

    It’s like in World of Warcraft, when you get to certain levels the friggin ANIMALS THEMSELVES become uber-powerful just so you have something to kill. Why the heck would an elk be a level 82 creature? It’s purely because of power creep, and that’s what magic items do to Pathfinder.

    • Excalibur’s sheath renders the owner of Excalibur immune to bleeding out (wounds received while the scabbard is worn do not bleed); when drawn, the weapon was capable of producing a blinding flash like the light of thirty torches, In the ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ the chimerae on the hilt could breathe fire and terrify onlookers.

      In short, a lot more powerful than just making you a better fighter.

      • atypicaloracle, Excalibur’s sheath is not Excalibur. And making you bleed less does not make you a better fighter, although it might allow you to fight longer. I’ve not heard of Excalibur “breathing fire” before, so I looked it up. Apparently there are different swords or one sword with different names and the “breathing fire” seems to be the same effect as the flash of light, not two different things. Regardless, my point still stands, Excalibur might dazzle an opponent for a round, and the sheath might make Arthur bleed less, but neither will make him a more skilled swordsman.

  3. I neglected to answer your D&D Next question. The whole point of D&D Next is to make the rules modular, so in concept, yes, magic items can be done multiple ways. Whether there will be an official magic item system that works as I am describing isn’t yet determined as far as I know.

  4. I agree vehemently with everything you said, with one exception, and I may just be nitpicking or misunderstanding language on that point.
    “Almost all magic items should provide only temporary boosts. So a “helm of wisdom” would provide a +2 to wisdom for a certain number of rounds per day, no more. A ring of protection should protect against a certain amount of damage only.”

    I would rather say that very few magic items should give numeric bonuses to attributes or other values on a character sheet. (Should an item give such a bonus, I agree that making the bonus temporary rather than permanent is probably better.) If by “boosts” you meant to refer only to numeric bonuses, we’re in agreement once again.

    If you meant “boosts” to When talking about non-numeric boosts (aka “Interesting magic items” imho) I think many effects should be continuous, while others should be temporary, with the decision based on the type of advantage granted. I feel this way for two reasons. First, I dislike pushing characters toward a lengthy “power-up” phase at the beginning of combat – which having too many activated effects tends to do. An appropriate reaction to a lengthening power-up could be to make such items turn on as free actions, but that still increases the out of game power-up phase when players take five minutes to “prepare” for a fight after initiative is rolled.

    My second reason to argue for continuous effects rather than temporary (Actually, I’m arguing for a mix of perm & temp.) is that adding more temporary effects to the game could lend to the existing problem known as the 15 minute adventuring day. I’m hesitant to do anything that makes me hear the phrase, “I think we should stop for the night. I’ve already been strong twice today, and I don’t have any more strong-times left.”

  5. Blueluck, you make some good points. Having to add to the pre-combat time by triggering attribute boosts is a problem I hadn’t thought enough about.

    I think my initial response is that I’d make some of those free actions. However, you make a good case that some things should be permanent. I’m sure it would all fall out in the pre-release beta. 🙂

  6. Rpgobsessed: Have you tried to create your own RPG game that fixes this.

    Graht1: I am sure you had fun but it would be difficult to fight tougher and tougher monsters which are rated for players with magic.

  7. Mtnlurker, way, way back in the early 80s I created my own rules to “fix” magic items and magic in general. But I didn’t save those rules. It was a mana based system and magic items mostly provided additional mana or ways to manipulate mana. I don’t know how it would work today, creating spells was much more complex and tracking magical use was too.

  8. Interesting read. You and some of the commenters have made good points. I’m torn, because I agree in general, but I can’t deny an interest in cool gear, either. You’ve made me think, and I will be thinking about this some more…

    As an aside, in the games I ran or played in during grade school in the early eighties, buying or crafting items was almost nonexistent. We got what we won as loot, customarily, and there wasn’t really an option to go shopping for magic items.

    Another aside that is relevant: I was GMing a module (integrated into a long campaign) last weekend when one of the tougher, charge-into-melee front-line characters was given pause and hung back for the first time in a long time. What were they facing? Rust monsters.

  9. I also agree with the sentiments behind the original post. When magic becomes generic and legends are ubiquitous you stop playing a fantasy game and start playing a numbers game.

    What if enchanted items could only hold a certain enchantment for so long depending on how powerful the enchantment is- with truly legendary items being the only permanently enchanted items to be found? This idea could be roleplayed any number of ways- ghostly items that somehow manifested in your characters’ plane for a short time and gradually fade away, item summoners or enchanters, etc. Less pricey time-restricted enhancements could allow the players to vary the enchantments on their equipment, which I think would let the players explore their characters more fully, and make more tactical decisions for what new challenges they may face week to week.

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