I just knew that having Monte Cook having any part of D&D development was a terrible idea. This was the guy who thought it was good to include bad powers and feats so that players with systems mastery would have an edge over those that lack it. While he’s since recanted that as a theory, his most recent Legends and Lore article shows that he really longs for the days when the GMs had more power than the players.
I take specific issue with the last two paragraphs of his article:
There’s another aspect to magic items that doesn’t get talked about much. Magic items also provide an interesting way for the DM to have a role in customizing characters. A good DM can subtly influence the way characters act and deal with challenges by what items he or she puts in the treasure hoards they uncover. For example, if the DM thinks it might be fun if the PC wizard summoned more monsters, he could place a brazier of fire elementals in the dungeon for her to find. If the DM would like to see more planar adventures in the campaign, the drow priestess the PCs defeat might possess a cubic gate. And so on. This means that the DM could place treasure (where appropriate) that he wants the characters to have rather than what the game system tells him they’re supposed to have. And certainly not what the players are saying they’re supposed to have.
Players can play a role in what items they acquire, but it’s a story-based role, not a mechanical one. If a wizard player wants to have a robe of the archmagi, she can research where one might be, learn what challenges must be overcome to obtain it, and undertake that quest, hopefully with the help of her friends. Thus, whether it’s a decision to go to the deeper level of the dungeon to get the better loot in general or a quest for a specific item, magic items could return to their original role, which is to be a driving force behind adventures.
There are a couple of fundamental problems with this perspective on magic items.
- 4e already allows GMs to choose this option by “turning on” inherent bonuses.
The math behind the combat system needs to be balanced in a way that allows for meaningful choices. 4e currently does an above average job of this. When I sit down to create a character that heals for a ton, I have to sacrifice something else. Sometimes I have to let a character be more squishy so that it does more damage. This type of balance is very good for the game, as it prevents a single character from overshadowing all the others.
In my Monday campaign, last night, the party was fighting an elder blizzard dragon and two earthquake dragons. The Half-Orc Fighter/Cleric pulled one of the earthquake dragons off to the side so that its aura wouldn’t get anyone else. He doesn’t do much damage, but he’s very sturdy. The Tiefling Paladin/Warlock tried to do the same with the blizzard dragon, but had the problem that her Fort defense is her weak spot. It was a rough fight, but everyone had a chance to shine. In my book, that’s great encounter design.
- Having to “fetch” needed magic items destroys story and creates friction.
In one of the comments below Monte’s post, someone waxes nostalgic over having to find a +2 weapon to go fight the barrow wight. What a load of manure. Let’s say that the party goes out and finds a +2 weapon, maybe even two of them. Grats. Now the other 2-4 people in the party get to be absolutely ineffective in the fight (unless, of course, you make “spells” be effective all the time, which opens up an entirely different set of problems). This is terrible storytelling and anyone who resorts to it is nothing more than a hack.
I’ve always found the “fetch” mechanic to be a particularly weak and ineffective plot. It’s basically the worst kind of MacGuffin. The characters either come across or hear about a monster they want to kill… but they can’t. And the reason they can’t isn’t because the monster is simply too big for them, it’s because the GM has placed an arbitrary cockblock in their way. To continue the example from above, there’s nothing about the wight that necessitates that sort of defense mechanic.
From the article:
The characters should know that there are easy challenges and hard challenges out there, and should have a choice of which to face. And, generally speaking, the harder the challenge, the greater the reward. One might think that a 4th-level character shouldn’t have a +3 sword, but if, through smart (and sure, probably lucky) play he legitimately overcame appropriate obstacles to get it, shouldn’t he get it? Likewise, if a 10th-level character is still fighting crippled kobolds and half-strength goblins, he should have very little in the way of treasure, right?
You have to love the false dilemma proposed here because it feels like it stems from the accusations that 4e is too much like a MMO. “Well, if Tommy is just going to go out and grind on low-level mobs, then he shouldn’t get the phat lewt!” Of course, if you were engaging Tommy with a story that made him do more than grind on low-level mobs…
- The players are allowed to want what they want.
“Magic items also provide an interesting way for the DM to have a role in customizing characters.” God, what an idiot. Guess what, jerkwad? It’s not your *^$%ing character! If I’m picking magic items as part of a build that’s too optimized for your game or creates an unfun corner case, then man up and come talk to me about it. We just got done with this in the Thursday game. Josh went to Dan and asked him to change up his character a bit. Dan said sure and we got back to the story, which might have been kind of the point.
Over the three years they’ve been playing in my campaign, the characters have received eleven magic items “over budget”that were all there for story purposes. It’s very possible to nudge the characters without resorting to “what I want is more important than what you want.” I guess the question that has to be asked is, in the absence of a mechanical reason, what is the purpose of saying no? Are my players suddenly going to go, “Thanks, Michael, I didn’t want that +2 sword”?
For those of you that are interested, here’s what I do:
- The players assemble an abbreviated “wish list” of three items (I tell them what item level) and we roll randomly between them.
- I try my best to match the magic item to the encounters I have planned, so that it feels more natural.
- I’ve always allowed them to buy and sell magic items, but only at large cities or magical/religious academies.
- I add in “bonus” magic items as part of the plot or as a reward.