Towards better magic items
I have a few gripes with D&D’s magical gear. On one hand, 5E’s Dungeon Master’s Guide teaches us that magic items should feel special and unique, “turning a generic magic item […] into a more remarkable discovery”. On the other hand, Xanathar’s Guide To Everything implies that parties should be awarded around 44 magic items from levels 1 through 10. Even if a majority of these are potions and single-use gear, that still leaves us with a pretty big number of supposedly “remarkable” items.
So how can we hand out this many magic items and still have them all feel special? How are we supposed to cater to each character’s needs without simply letting the players choose what items the evil necromancer will drop?
One solution is to allow characters to upgrade their own mundane items, effectively creating pseudo-magic items. If the math works out just right, the DM won’t have to award as many magic items because the characters will be doing that by themselves, which makes each item feel much more personal and meaningful.
The Armorer’s Handbook (AHB) is a perfect example of one such attempt: the book describes a system of upgrades represented by tags which can be added to gear by regular blacksmiths. For example, a character can pay 100 gp to make their sword Keen, adding a +1 bonus to its damage rolls.
Even though this mechanic is pretty amazing, I find that it creates a few problems:
How do you stop players from creating broken builds? If, like in AHB, a character can pay 100 gp to double their chance of landing a crit, Rogues and Paladins will become much more effective earlier in the game. This has the unfortunate potential to throw game balance completely out of whack.
How do you charge for upgrades? When a character outgrows their starting gear, they might have to buy the same upgrades all over again, which can get expensive. In AHB’s case, this incentivizes players to hoard money until they can buy the best base gear possible.
Another solution is to allow magic items to display new properties over time. Since each item has multiple properties, this effectively removes the need for multiple magic items with one effect each; it also allows the DM to give more screen time to each piece of magical gear the characters acquire.
Both the Explorer’s Guide To Wildemount and The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying (LOTRRP) showcase this kind of system: magic items have dormant features, which only awaken once a specific condition is met. In the latter, for example, a weapon might reveal the Luminescence quality once a character reaches level 5.
This system, however, is also not without its flaws:
How do you give agency back to the players? In LOTRRP some rewards are chosen by the characters at certain levels, but, sadly, only a select few features can be made available in order not to break the game’s balance.
How do you transfer upgrades from one item to another? If you want to allow a piece of gear to transfer its dormant features to another, there must be a solid way in-universe for this happen. In the case of LOTRRP, this is simply not possible.
The best of both worlds
To me, the ideal solution lies somewhere between these two approaches. I love the idea of allowing characters to go nuts and choose the features that their items acquire, but I’m also a fan of limiting these choices such that broken combos aren’t so easy to make.
It’s also very important to me that players are able to transfer the upgrades from one item to another. This flexibility is important because it allows the gear to grow with the characters and it makes for a better return on investment.
My take on the perfect system is called GEM: Gear Enhancement Method