Tuesday, October 9, 2012

DnD magic items - going oldschool

I got the next package of the DnD Next playtest which included magic items.  This is something I was really excited about in their previews because they talked about getting away from magic items being part of an economy and moving towards magic items as unique, interesting pieces of equipment you find.  In both 3rd and 4th edition magic items were very strictly regulated in terms of slots and costs so every character needed to fill every slot with an appropriate item and continuously upgrade to remain competitive.  This always felt really strange, particularly the problem with reselling.  If adventurers are always loaded down with magic items and simply have to fill certain slots they always wanted to make fair trades with other people to make it work.  The books generally advised only giving adventurers a fraction of the value of their items though, which ended up feeling very bizarre.  If you let them trade freely then everybody has perfect gear and no drop is interesting beyond its gold piece value (boring) and if you restrict trade or force them to lose 50% or more of their item value when they trade then nothing makes sense.  Why is it that the player must always be on the losing end of any bargain?

I don't find it heroic at all to have to fill precisely twelve slots with appropriate level magic items.  My ideal is that if I find a magic sword that belonged to my great grandmother who was a psychic ninja when I am level five that I could reasonably use that sword at level twenty.  The idea that every item you find will inevitably be discarded for a numerically superior one flies in the face of every fantasy series ever written and also feels crappy.  The other big problem was that with linear progression of hit and AC bonuses a high level character was utterly helpless without their equipment.  Fourth edition was actually the worst for this since a high level character could lose twenty four from their AC just by taking off a single piece of equipment; going from invincible to pathetic on the back of a single item is a disaster.  The same is true of magic weapons, of course, because a character doing 25% of their normal damage because they lost their special sword really tells us that the character is just a vehicle for their magic equipment.

DnD Next addresses these problems in ways I really like.  First off, magic armour and weapons give +1 to hit, damage, or AC.  Really special weapons give higher bonuses in certain circumstances but they seem capped at +3, which is certainly low enough that nonmagical equipment will leave characters quite viable.  Magic items have all kinds of random properties and strange powers but they have a remarkably low impact on raw combat numbers, which is fantastic because it means that magic items don't have to be continuously replaced in a treadmill of adventurous consumption.  The strict adherence to slots is also gone, which is great because it means that everyone won't have to have the same set of items with the same bonuses and people can put on what seems cool rather than being forced to equip a cloak of protection, amulet of natural armour, or belt of strength.  There is also a system requiring attunement to an item to gain its full benefits, which limits how many powerful items a single character can use.  This is a nice way to avoid characters collecting items with single use or daily powers and trotting them all out to solve any given problem.

The goal seems to be to make items much less impactful on combat rolls, get away from a modern economics view of item acquisition, and more items more interesting and random.  All of these goals are good ones and they have accomplished them admirably I think.  I want to use the magic Frostbrand sword I found in the ogre king's secret chest, not just another +X sword I bought at the store, even if it has to mean that I end up using a totally ordinary sword I could buy at the store a little more of my adventuring career.

Initially I wasn't impressed by the idea of DnD Next but I must say that now that I have access to the playtest documents I am more and more pleased by what I see.  The game won't replace fourth edition as a tight, tactical battle game but it will certainly be the defining edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy roleplaying game, and in the end that is what I want.  I can play tight, tactical battle games on the computer but when I get together to roleplay with my friends I want to be lost in a world shrouded in mystery, not checking prices at the store.

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