The Role of Magical Items in Your Game

Magical treasure is a big focus in fantasy games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons.  I often look at this systems style of magical items and dislike what I see there as it does not suit my concept of what a magical item should be.  I much prefer the ideas of a magical item being something that turns a story around.  I also prefer them to be sparse in my game.

I recently had one of my players from my Reign of Winter campaign send me an email that read:

“It has been nagging me over the last few weeks that your D&D game is not the same as I recall my D&D games…  You Sir! are a miserly GM!.. as they say… or more likely my GMs were uber loot whores… and ran with the motto that “If its in the list, its out there in the game, sooner the better… have this Mace of Cuthbert for free!”

In all but one other game I have a played 10th level characters would have a range of +3 item equivalents?   Is that a reflection of the Pathfinder module, is it a low loot module?  Are Pathfinder modules generally like this?
Just wonderin[g], and adjusting my expectation filters. 

This is completely fine thing to ask and I was not upset at the question.  I replied that the Pathfinder Adventure Path way is to base treasure awards on a steady progression based on level and expected wealth.  The game has considered this which is good however, it is not this that troubles me overly much, it is the nature of the magical equipment.

I have pretty well played in low magic games in the past.  To me some potions and occasionally a weapon or a piece of armor is what I expect to see in a game.  I did find though that as I made my way to the mid range of the levels (say 8 to 12) I would begin to see mid leveled weapons (around +3 bonus)  In Pathfinder though the pricing of such weapons pushes them outside the range of “likely” to find if you are playing by the rules.

Also, there is the nature of the weaponry in this style of game that allows you to simply pick it up and use it at its full ability.  If you find a version of Elric’s Stormbringer in Pathfinder then you can use it as though it had always been in your possession.  I do not like magical items like this and I much prefer the ideas contained in the Earthdawn role playing game where you must learn the story of a weapon to enhance its capabilities.

Earthdawn attaches key knowledge’s and sometimes even quests or deeds to your magical items, be they staff, sword, armor, spider made of butter in a box etc.  It incorporates the idea that you must find out the story behind the item to be able to power it yourself.  Once you have found out the details of these items you can then enhance its power by attaching it to your legend and thus furthering the item’s story.
Image by Ivan Koritarev under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial – No derivative works 3.0 licence
The majority of fantasy fiction that I have read in the past supports the Earthdawn style of approach though of course there are a lot of fantasy books out there that support the other style as well.  I see magical items as an opportunity to further a story or a narrative rather than a min maxing style of plug and play.  Of course there are other players that love sifting through my Ultimate Equipment guide for Pathfinder trying to warrant how many different bonuses they can layer onto specific attributes.

I like the idea, paradoxically, that magical equipment that relies on a specific number of uses (be it charges, doses or whatever) and then it becomes inert to stay in the format of the Pathfinder style game.  Why should the fighter of the party have to find the name of the individual who brewed the healing potion when in reality they are just going to drink it and hurl the vial away.

You must consider the way that you use your magical items in game.  The Pathfinder game has hundreds, if not thousands of individual items in their books.  Balancing everything on a formula for character level removes the likelihood of them ever obtaining things like the Staff of Power or the +5 Holy Avenger.  I generally follow the reflected ideals of character wealth but I will throw in mysterious items every now and again to allow the players some interesting role playing opportunities or just to familiarize them with an obscure item that is out of left field from their point of view.

Experienced players will also likely have a shopping list of items that they want for their character too and it is important to find out what this may be.  I have limited my magic item shops in game so that they do not sell off the shelf magical items that are not consumable, though they will take orders and have things made.  This generally means my players will not bother magical stores for anything in particular as they are more than likely on the move.  Knowing what they want though allows me to be able to suit “random” treasure in such a way to really have them find something they desperately want.

Whatever the game you play it is important to consider the nature of the treasure (or rewards) that you supply.  If you are playing a low magic game then a +5 Holy Avenger is too much.  If not then you may want to add it if there is a Paladin in the party as it is useful treasure.  If you want to use your treasure items like I would like to add stipulations to them getting the rewards.  Perhaps a cantankerous mage offers up a mystical headband of intelligence +5 for the first party that can bring him a Golden Dragon Dracolich scale because the person that ordered it got eaten!  There is always a story that can be had in the way treasure comes about.  Keep rolling!

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