In 3rd edition, magic items got a new name. They were now called wondrous items. Ironically, with the name change they became anything but wondrous.
For me, the big problem with magic items in 3rd edition was that they became nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold at the PCs’ whim. Even with the move to Pathfinder, this state of affairs has essentially stayed the same. If a magic item’s price is equal or less than an settlement’s base value, there is a 75% chance the item is available to purchase.
Think about that for a minute.
This means in a village (base value 500 gp) of perhaps 200 people there is a 75% chance a scroll of pretty much any spell of 3rd-level or lower is available. Similarly, a PC in a small city has a 75% chance of finding exactly the kind of +1 weapon he needs (as long as it costs under 4,000 gp).
And, of course, PCs are free to sell magic items they don’t want—assuming the local settlement has a high enough purchase limit.
With this development, equipment lists begin to look more and more alike. The quirky, off the wall magic items all but disappear. (Or if they do turn up they are instantly sold). Because magic items can be bought and sold, everyone seems to gravitate to a certain group of items—the so called “Big Six”:
- Magic weapon
- Magic armour
- Ring of protection
- Cloak of protection
- Amulet of natural armour
- Stat boosting item
While I get wanting to be better protected and better at dealing damage I think we’ve lost sight of something. In the rush to optimise we forget that quirky, odd magic items can be fun, even (dare I say it) wondrous. Just as importantly they promote creative, innovative—and, above all, memorable—game play. For example, I remember when—in a panic—I tried to squashed Acererak the demilich from the Return to the Tomb of Horrors under an instant fortress. I don’t remember my character being slightly harder to hit or casting slightly better fireballs in the run up to fighting Acererak in his lair, but after ten years I still remember that encounter.
Down with Magic Shops!
The easy fix for this is to do away with the virtual magic shops that must exist in every community to support this flourishing trade. (The self-same magic item shops no one ever seems to burgle or otherwise attack). It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. Reducing the supply of magic items inevitably increases the wonder they evoke when they appear.
Several years ago, Raging Swan Press released a series of products called So What’s For Sale, Anyway? Broken down by settlement type—village, town, city and so on—they listed what was for sale (and even included the odd cursed item!) Using such lists gives the GM more control over the amount and type of magic available in his campaign world.
I was genuinely surprised at the popularity of these supplements. For a while, they were some of our fastest selling products. No mean feat for what essentially was a book of lists, and I think its popularity a symptom of the frustrations many GMs have with the magic shop concept.
No Special Materials Either
With their introduction in 3rd edition, adamantine, cold iron and mithral were described as fabulously rare materials much sought after for their quasi-magical properties. Of course these could be bought and sold just as easily—or even more easily —than magic items; 1st-level characters could conceivably afford adamantine or cold iron ammunition if they chose. And, of course, these fabulously rare mateials are available in any sizable settlement. To me, that doesn’t seem particularly special.
To recapture the wonder of these special materials, their availability must be limited so they once again become special. The commonplace is in no way wondrous, after all.
One of word of caution with limiting the supply of these metals: one knock-on effect of this is monsters with DR cold iron or adamantine become much harder to defeat, so a GM needs to look carefully at encounters featuring such creatures. However, limiting the supply of these items can also lead to new, exciting adventures as the PCs (for example) search for just the right kind of sword to slay the evil fey warlord. Simply popping down to the market to get a +2 fey bane battleaxe, is somewhat less memorable.
Or Alchemical Items
Free access to unlimited amounts of alchemical items, I believe, also erodes the wonder of magic. The idea that a PC can walk into a shop and just buy ten flasks of alchemist’s fire seems to be a bit silly. Why would a general provisioners in a village have that kind of dangerous stuff available? Who made it? How did it get here? If there is a proper alchemist in the village, why is he there? Deliberately placing such individuals can help grow the setting and even act as the catalyst for a new adventure!
I have no problem with the general concept of alchemical items, but I think they need to treated like very minor magic items. GM’s should place specific individuals in his campaign with the relevant skills to make such items. That way, when the PCs finally secure access to a supply of alchemist’s fire or acid it feels like an achievement and not the “climax” of a mundane shopping trip.
Design Unique Magic Items
I’ve discussed designing unique treasures before, but I think it bears repeating. Designing unique magic items is cool, and both makes the owner feel special and adds depth and verisimilitude to the campaign. If something is unique it is by default more special than something generic.
What Do You Think?
Are there other ways to put the wonder back into wondrous items? Tell me what they are in the comments below, and help me make my campaign more wonderful! (Do you see what I did there?)