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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.