One of the more common requests for 5e is that magic items need to be more flavorful. I can certainly sympathize with that feeling, having not so long ago “turned on” inherent bonuses in my Monday night game. It resulted in a dramatic decrease in attention to magic items. As in, suddenly no one was thinking about the enhancement bonuses. I wish I had done it months ago, if for no other reason than too much concern about mechanics is a distraction.
So, if we take away enhancement bonuses, that’s a good thing, right? Not so fast, there are a few complications.
- Conditionals and flat bonuses can be just as “anti-fun” as enhancement bonuses (a conditional is a circumstance-based bonus or effect, such as “+2 to-hit when fighting creatures larger than you”, a flat bonus would be something like “This weapon crits on a 19-20”). They have the potential to be even more so because you might have to remember when you get the bonus and it’s very possible that the bonus might not come up that often. We should probably avoid conditionals and flat bonuses too.
- If people are receiving fewer magic items because they’re more story driven and unique, this makes using them as rewards more granular. The current expectation is that each character, on average, gains a little less than one magic item per level. Fewer magic items means that every magic item becomes more important and players will feel more invested and connected to the magic items they receive (the subjective value of the item goes up, even if the intrinsic value does not). Getting a crappy magic item will feel worse than it does under the current system.
This also affects relative value. If Bob gets a strong item and Jill gets a sub-par item, Jill can’t tell herself “well, at least I have this other item that makes up for it.” (The current system, sterile as it is from a story perspective, actually helps minimize item disparity and the negative feelings associated with it.) This could lead to increased stress and friction between players.
- If there are fewer magic items, then the realistic need for marketplaces and exchanges goes down (as compared to the potential thematic and mechanical needs). That is, GMs will have a less valid story excuse to include ways to get players the magic items they want, but may feel pressure to include them to satisfy player desires.
- It the absence of “magic shops”, crafting rules will become more important. I don’t know about other people, but I did not care for the crafting rules in 3.5. They tended to create a distracting sub-game where EXP was exchanged for gold, which was used to buy magic items to make the character more powerful than its peers. Avoiding this required an exceptionally firm hand as a GM. I really don’t want to see crafting rules return in 5e, at least in a form even vaguely similar to that found in 3.5.
- Dropping the enhancement bonus effectively makes the item scale forever. That is, if you like the power or benefit that the dagger you found at third level gives you, you can keep it until you retire. This is more true of things that give a story benefit (“I glow in the presence of enemies”) versus things that give a mechanical benefit (“+1d6 damage with attacks until the end of the encounter”), but since the purpose of reforming magic items is to increase story value…
This also has the potential to contribute to power bloat and slower combats. If no item ever becomes obsolete, then there’s a strong incentive to gather as many magic items as possible and swap them out as needed in a fight. This means that the GM must not only consider the story implications of the item and the power of the item on its own, but also in the context of all the other magic items the player possesses. Yikes. Handing out magic items is already tricky.
So, what should we do? As always, I have some suggestions.
- I think that removing enhancement bonuses should be an easy to implement option (as in, a toggle on the character builder, just as it is now except with the special materials figured in).
- If magic items are going to have increased value and be more scarce, then we should probably find a way to give the player some control over the process. I think buying a magic item with a feat sounds about right, as long as the player always gets the benefit of the feat. This would mean that we didn’t need crafting rules.
- I don’t think crafting rules are a good idea, but if we have to have them, I would prefer that they be used as the mechanism by which the players turn unwanted magic items into slightly less powerful magic items that the characters want. Residuum could still be the coin of this mechanic.
- I think that powerful magic item effects could be powered by healing surges (assuming that healing surges still exist in 5e) and that this would actually go farther in preventing the “15-minute work day.”
- I think that “rare” magic items should not have a gold cost. If we can’t accomplish that, then “rare” items should cost multiples of a “common” item of the same level.
Time for some homework. Go read this book:
It’s not the most amazing story in the world, but it does have a magic system that I think every D&D developer and GM should be familiar with. If you want a synopsis, it can be found here. Basically, I think that common magic items and consumables should be made using something like what they have for alchemy, while rare items would use “magic”.
What do you think?