Magic Economy in D&D
So, I put down the word mechanics, because, magic economy could also describe the level of magic in your world and how much of a vibrant magic trade set up there is. But in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, you have a magic economy of how much and when the player characters should get magic items.
The first thing that you need to know about magic items in 5th edition, they make it so that your magic items are limited. Now, this doesn’t count things like spell scrolls, potions, or other consumable magic items, but for things like magical swords, bows, armor, etc. 5th edition has brought in a thing called attunement. When an item has the attunement keyword, it means that you have to spend some time and get attuned to it. And as a character, you can only be attuned to so many items, that total being 3 items.
There are a couple of reasons that in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition that they have attunement to limit your items. The first, the 5th edition reason, is that they have a thing called bounded accuracy. This means that you are not likely to roll higher than a certain number or lower than a certain number when rolling for an attack or a check. And if you have more items that would give you a +1 to +4 to attack, you would now be rolling outside of the normal range and apt to hit more, or they would have to adjust their armor classes, which means that it could become impossible without getting a critical hit for low level players to hit mid level monsters. The other reason is that in previous editions you’ve been able to have a lot of items, and they didn’t have the bounded accuracy, but you had to do a whole lot more math. If you had four or five items that give you a plus to attack or damage, you are having to add those up for every attack that you do, which takes the game away from being as much of a role playing game.
But let’s get back to magic items, because we know that you have a limited number of attunement slots for a party, so how do you give them interesting items and give them magical items. And how quickly should you give them magical items?
I think that how many and how quickly you give them is really up to you in the game. It is possible that they are always swamped with them because your world has a higher amount of magic, it’s also very likely that you’ll only hand out a few items because you don’t want to add that power creep.
One good way to balance this out is with the consumable items. Especially since that can help your party of all martial characters stay alive without needing a healer. Let your party be able to find items like healing potions or be able to purchase more common items like that in town. Even something like a bead of force where it’s a more powerful item, but it has a limited number of uses it will be a way to give you more magical items in the game, without bumping up the players combat stats too much.
But maybe you want to reward them with more permanent items. There are plenty of items that are more utility items that you can give them. For example, the ring of water walking is very situationally useful, and it won’t affect combat much, if at all. But now it gives you a thematic item which you create traps or puzzles around that your group wouldn’t have been able to solve before. There are a lot of items like this in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) that you can use to add more magic to your games and to give the players something more than just gold off of the monsters that they kill.
Let’s quickly, though, talk about those items that do require attunement. How do you portion out those items so that you don’t end up with someone being too strong?
When I give out +1 magical items for either offense or defense or whatever, I like to hand out several of them in rapid succession. The reason for that is that you don’t want your party to go too far out of balance. If you have a fighter, a rogue, and a wizard, and you give the fighter a +1 sword, now the fighter is going to be better in combat than either of the other characters. So I try and hand out things in a few straight sessions until every character has that attuned item that improves them in a way that they want to be improved, whether it’s combat or not.
I also make the items specific for a character. If, for example, we have that party of a fighter, rogue, and a wizard, and the fighter uses a great sword, instead of giving him a short sword and thinking that they’ll want it and that the rogue won’t take it, I would give them that great sword with a plus one on it. Give the wizard robes that provide armor or a staff that does a plus one. Give the rogue a thieves kit that is magically enchanted to give them advantage on lock picking if that’s what they want. But a magical staff, great sword, and lock picking kit are clear as to whom they are going to go to, and you don’t end up with the party fighting over magical items.
Finally, with those attuned items, how often do you give them to the party? I think that many DM’s are going to give players a couple of these items per character by around level 5-7. I tend to give them out at a slower rate than that. But it really does depend on the game that you are running. If you have a higher level of magic and magic items in your world, your player characters will probably have more.
With whatever items you are giving out though, make sure it makes sense for the monster/shopkeeper to have them. A lot of people don’t let you buy magical items in their game, and unless it’s consumable, I tend not to have them in shops in my game. But let’s talk really quickly about if a monster drops it. Something like a ring of water walking, sure, the monster isn’t going to know much about it or probably can’t use it to their advantage. But if it’s a +1 great sword that the goblin boss is going to drop, the goblin boss should be using the weapon. So plan for your party when you are going to have the drop happen and let the goblin boss use that in the fight with the players. It’s little things like that which are going to make your game feel more immersive to the players.
How do you use magic items in your game? Do you let your players pick the magic items that they want throughout the game? Do you roll randomly for what is going to be dropped? Do you use a lot of them, or only a few of them?
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