GM Advice: Putting the Wonder Back into Wondrous Items

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.

By Matt Morrow


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?)

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

38 thoughts on “GM Advice: Putting the Wonder Back into Wondrous Items”

  1. No suggestions as to making items more wondrous but just a word of caution. Melee types *need* magic items en masse to sort of semi keep up with spellcasters. Make special materials rare – punish melders while spellcasters won’t notice. There a thread at Paizo right now about how a 20th lvl fighter without his equipment survives an attack by a 10th lvl party. It’s a pretty long thread. Point being, if it was about a wizard, there’d be one reply: timestop.

    The very foundation of 3.x/PF assumes the big six, it’s essential for fighters and other tier 3 classes. Not very old school at all.

      1. “Melee types *need* magic items en masse to sort of semi keep up with spellcasters…”

        This assumes that balance among PCs is useful, or even necessary. I think this is why, after three years of Pathfinder, and before that, 3.5 for five years, I finally threw in the towel and joined the Old School Revolution.

        By the way, I’ve especially enjoyed Creighton’s flirting with the OSR here on his blog lately.

        I got to the point where I couldn’t take the Paizo boards anymore, especially the advice boards. Every build involved not only tricking out or “optimizing” your PC so that he or she could carry their weight but, relating to the idea of Wondrous items, many were also expected to have a certain amount of magic items/special materials. Ugh.

        Anyway, end of rant.

        Wondrous items. They’re like cinnamon. A little bit makes an apple pie special. In fact, I can’t imagine one without cinnamon. But too much makes it inedible.

        1. Good point, James. As I’ve kind of discussed before, and really should again, balance in all things isn’t necessarily a good thing.

          I think it’s quite possible to create an old school feel to gaming using the Pathfinder ruleset–something I’m moving toward with my Gloamhold design. However, I think that requires a different set of basic assumptions to the game and even a different mindset for the players.

          I’m not sure melee types necessarily need magic items en mass to keep up with the wizards and other spellcasters. What needs to change is an end to the 15-minute adventuring day. If you retreat as soon as the wizard and cleric run out of spells you are pandering to their resource management. In this style of game the melee PCs will always run second fiddle to them as the spellcasters have no reason not to splurge on spell casting. However, if you played in a game (for example) where you had to clear a dungeon level in one go, suddenly the spellcasters are conserving resources and letting the warriors do more.

          (I also like your cinnamon analogy very much!)

          1. Excellent point about spellcasters conserving resources!

            I remember playing a 1st level Illusionist, back in the days of AD&D, and really having to watch myself. It was dicey anyway but man one or two spells a day is tough. Later on, five spells a day is still tough, when you could face combat in almost every room.

      2. I think that designing more options for fighters as they rise in level can accomplish this better than magic items from Bob’s Magic Mart.

  2. I agree with the other comments that getting rid of magic items basically hoses the non-casters.

    I have found, however, that simply ditching enhancement bonuses actually helped.

    Another thing that helped was to have magic items break the rules. Magic items that are simply containers for spells are, in a fashion, casters in jars. Magic items that let you do something you otherwise couldn’t, even with a spell, opens the door to some wonder.

    1. My point is not to get rid of magic items. Even Conan had magic items (occasionally). My point is that pretty much unrestricted access to magic reduces this wondrous thing to nothing more than a commodity. For me, that doesn’t work! might that mean other parts pf the game have to be tweaked? Quite possibly, but that’s a(n extensive) topic for another day!

      1. Right. I didn’t say I got rid of magic items, but that I got rid of enhancement bonuses.

        I’m not interested in magic items that just give you more of what you already have, or could get easily otherwise. I want magic items that let you do something you otherwise couldn’t.

        1. Ah! OK, I get you now. Sorry for the misunderstanding! I totally agree magic items should be wondrous. Without wonder, they are nothing more than equipment, which I think detracts from the game!

          1. I did, however, ramp up what was available. For example, instead of flaming being +1d6 fire damage, I let that increase in place of the enhancement bonus. Instead of a +3 weapon, you could have a +3d6 flaming weapon (and no “+1 enhancement bonus before special”). My players and I came to like the +0 ghost touch weapons (and similar) that were now available.

      2. Nobody has said word one about getting rid of magic items. Getting rid of Bob’s Magic Mart is what is being talked about here. Believe it or not, you actually CAN get magic items from adventuring. I think that was the point of magic items as rewards. The magic shop was introduced to reduce bickering during convention play. It wasn’t supposed to carry over into your home games. Seeing it as the expected means of getting just the right item really has taken the wonder out of actual play, as players have come to see magic items as simply more expensive tools for easier navigation of adventuring, not the really cool rewards for adventure they were meant to be.

  3. Can you stop writing? This article is literally a lot of words about nothing. Hell you could have written the article title over and over again and got the same results. This is very similar to most of your other articles because they have very little of substance to them.

    Great, so you say that ‘wonderous items’ aren’t so ‘wonderous’. But really its not ‘magic items’ are wonderous, its wonderous items are wonderous, magic swords and armor are still magic items. That aside, give some concrete examples of who one might go about making things that don’t break the system, but give back some of that feeling of ‘holy crap I just found a vorporal sword’ (even if it is only +1)!

    If you are such the great design of award winning stuff (dunno, never seen or heard or your stuff) why not enlighten us small people. Some words of advice from the designer?!

    Should we get read of magic? How does that affect the game balance of a game built on magic items? Should we remove enhancements like Keith suggests? Again, what does that do to a game? I’m not sure I his argument that it doesn’t affect non-caster classes.

    And by game I mean the standard default game RAW. This is the same point I guess that Matrix made.

    No special materials and alchemical items, aren’t an answer to putting wonderous back in magic items. Rather they are their own special niche. Special materials isn’t as big of deal, because magic trumps (at certain enhancement levels) special materials anyways but that still can lead to oddball situations.

    So ok, you had one suggestion but that was just, go read another article.

    I can say, since I’m living through it, that reducing the amount of magic items in a 3.X game really makes it a lot harder. We are going through Night Below, but using Pathfinder rules and monsters, however the GM pretty much is only giving us the items that were in the module. Basically we have a barb (me), paladin, magic user, dwarven cleric, and a dwarven fighter – ugh, no rogues! Being that we started from 1st, and there wasn’t any magic shops to buy items, we are all quite light in the magic department. 1st through 5th there wasn’t a lot of change, as one might expect. But getting into the 6th/7th we are definitely seeing a change. The GM is having to change monsters, or scale them back, otherwise certain monsters can be a much bigger challenge than they otherwise might have been.

    That all being said, its been quite enjoyable. But I will admit to some ‘disappointment’ when the paladin got his bright new shiny +1 sword of slaying aboleths (um, what?!)… at least until he cast I aside his magic sword that my barb eagerly snatched up (sorry old pal masterwork, but its a MAGIC FREAKING sword).

    So perhaps the limit on magic works to some extent. But I imagine by 10-12 that it really starts to break down. If its PC vs NPC type world, probably not as big of deal. But the monsters is where you have trouble with because they were built based on characters having a certain amount of loot (see the tables) and therefore expected ‘magic’.

    1. Bob, you’re coming across as rude, IMO. No need to get personal in such an unpleasant way.

      1. Agreed… I, unlike Bob, enjoy what you have to say and love your game aides. Keep up the great work!

  4. had a PC who encountered a leprechaun who threatened the party with a spoon. The PC underestimated the threat, and picked it up. Unfortunately it was intelligent and told the PC “you don’t want to put me down. You don’t want to let me go”. The fighter was then forced to hold the spoon in her right hand for the next three levels. That made fighting, climbing ladders, and even diplomacy checks harder.

  5. yes, yes, yes, and more yes. I have ran a couple of “depressing” 3.5 campagns where magic was restricted and the players had to roll a D% to see if they were born with magic blessed with magic or, like the other 85% of the populous had no magic at all. This meant that the one cleric in my party (the guy who rolled over 90%) was one of 2 or 3 clerics on the continent and kingdoms warred over a +2 long-sword. Wizards were literally unheard of because there wasn’t enough magic to study. my players loved it. it gave the fantasy world a fantastic feel. Magical beasts were rare and other humanoid monsters there in game terms, fairy tail mullarky. Most of the PC’s didn’t even believe they saw a mermaid when they did, in fact, see a mermaid. Combat was more intense, since magical healing was not an option. The abundance of magic can simply get in the way and ruin the drama of a good fantasy story. yes the cleric was nearly a god among men, and the one sorcerer they fraught nearly wiped the party. That’s what made it magical!

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with your article. I run a game currently that does not have magic shops. Players who came into my game from Pathfinder Society expected magic shops. They started freaking out when they found out that they could not stop by the local magic shop and buy just the items they believe that they will need to navigate the middle levels of my campaign. They are 3rd level now. So, I asked them to draw up wishlists of items they think that their characters absolutely need at some point in the future. These items will make it into treasure hauls for particularly tough adventures as they progress, and they are certainly welcome to craft items as they have downtime. I have never agreed with the existence of magic shops. I play somewhat historically based settings with fantasy elements. Magic does not substitute for technology in my games. I will never have magic shops in any game I run. But I am discovering that gamers who were introduced to role-playing games in the fantasy genre through Pathfinder somehow think that there are supposed to be magic shops. When Living Greyhawk introduced magic shops for convention play (I understood to reduce the number of post-round scrums for rare magic item certificates), we all called the magic shop “Bob’s Magic Mart.” We weren’t keen on it back then, but it has become a staple of organized game play, and many players now appear to expect home games to run the same way. I am trying to prove to them that they don’t need trips to Bob’s Magic Mart to navigate my game world, but it is a slow-going process.

  7. I tend to gm worlds where magic items are pretty rare, but what I really found to solve the problem you explained is to not just to make the items rare (although I think I’d like to get my hands on that supplement of yours), but to make gold itself more valuable. I make it clear that the average person doesn’t make more than 100 gold a year. So when adventurers are offered a job, they are offered rates that make sense to the world, and that is often paid in silvers and coppers. When the PCs are super excited about making 200 gold on a job, or finding a gem worth 20 gold, then when they find a +2 sword, they are beyond elated because it’s not something they ever think they can afford to buy.

  8. I guess you don’t know that “Wonderous Items” were a type of magical item back in 1st edition AD&D?

  9. I’m currently running The Dragon’s Demand by Mike Shel and he addresses this subject really well. The town in which the adventure takes place has been meticulously described…along with every magic item available for purchase (hint: there isn’t many). He further controlled the magic by writing a great hook where the characters can’t leave the immediate area and are also on a deadline. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a player say “If only we could travel to Absalom and buy a (blah blah blah)”. This adventure truly is a blast to GM.

    Sadly, this type of city (and magical) detail are rarely included in a module from Paizo. It really is up to the DM/GM to do their homework and fill every town, city, and metropolis with the items they want in their campaign. I’ll be picking up Creighton’s guide to help me do just that.

  10. Creighton.

    The link above is a table I created a while ago with random ways in which magic items are activated. The various methods range from absurdly simple to paranoid and convoluted with various boons and consequences of these methods. Since I created it, my friends and I have used it in every game, and it has helped add a lot of fun and depth to magic items.

    I hope you enjoy it.

  11. Perhaps this is a flavor fail. What if all the enhancement bonus were just levels of craftsmanship and not magic. My +2 sword isn’t magical, it’s just that much bettet made then a +1 sword.

  12. I once toyed with the idea of the “magic item market” not being shops and stuff in towns, but rather this secret demiplane the PCs could access with a simple ritual in the right places (circles of mushrooms, hollow trees, dead-end alleys where the breeze blows the wrong way, shadows cast on a wall forming a door, etc). The plane itself was just a small shop room with various oddities both magic and mundane on display, where an eccentric humanoid figure behind the counter could sell them whatever magic items they needed for the right price. Said price wasn’t always in the form of GP; if the PC wanted something particularly strange or powerful the shopkeeper could ask for more exotic or abstract things in addition to its stated gold cost, which the PC would have to roleplay with or else lose the item they bought (but get back what they traded in exchange- no refunds doesn’t mean no buybacks).

    1. I love this idea. It’s very flavoursome and while allowing the sale of magic items does so in a very flavoursome way! I also love the fact the PCs may have to do little tasks or suchlike to get the items–throwing money at the seller is not always the best solution!

      Thanks for posting!

  13. the only thing I will sell are potions…ie healing xtra healing and that’s it. I will but magic and a small price and when asked if you buy way can you sell, I tell them I have to turn in all magic items to the ruler of the town. just my 2 cents

  14. I have a regular player in my home group who is very active in PFS play; it drives the rest of us nuts. Shopping has become an expectation, to an extent, with the player in question routinely -aka always- playing some “optimized-but-useless” build from some forum or another that will only work if they are provided specific magic items.

    1. I hate magic item shopping and don’t do it in my normal campaign except for occasional items. Surprisingly, I use So What’s for Sale Anyway? in my normal games but when I run an AP I feel I should allow shopping as per the Core rules.

  15. I love this! I think the magic items and wealth by level in pathfinder is the single biggest thing hampering more gritty gameplay. Classes are already quite a bit more powerful than you’d see in OSR or 5th, so adding ubiquitous magic items is a bit overkill.

  16. Hi Creighten,

    Are you planning to re-release: So what’s for Sales, Anyway? – especially for System Neutral and D&D5 ? One way I’ve been able to restrict magic item availability in my campaign is to consider what materials would be required to produce them. It shouldnb’t take too much to find a Master Craftsman to make a +1 weapon (the bonus coming from its fine workmanship), but a Sword of Dragon Slaying would require Dragon’s-Blood to be quenched in – and that’s not so easily available in the marketplace …

    1. I wasn’t planning to, although if people *want* us to obviously I’d add them to the schedule. For my part, I wasn’t sure either system really encourages magic item sales in the same way Pathfinder does. What might be fun, though, is a short product presenting some special magic item auctions. I remember an old D&D article in Dungeon that had that very premise. I’ll ponder the idea. Thank you!

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