Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Grumpy Looks at Mearls' Piece on Magic Items in D&D Next

Grumpy the Dwarf here. I've been lax in checking out Mage Mearls' latest magic tricks regarding D&D next. Last week he was discussing Magic Items. Let's look, shall we?

Our next playtest packet is ready to download. Head on over to download the pack and add a fleet of magic items to your game. This packet represents a more incremental approach that we'll use at times, where we add a specific element to the game rather than build out more character options. (Did I mention I'd given up on the playtest material for D&D Next? Come to think of it, I see less and less blog posts and G+ posts about D&D Next these days? Has the new car smell worn off while it's still in Beta?)

We've shown a few magic items in prior packets, such as the treasures available in The Caves of Chaos. Those items were placeholders (if I recall correctly, they were pretty much your usual D&D type "+ whatever types). This magic item packet represents our first attempt at creating a complete system for magic items. (sounds exciting. no, really.) It gives you an overview of how items work, our new rules that are specific to magic items, and a small catalog of sample items.

Our overall goal for magic items is to make finding them interesting and exciting (what, you mean make them unique and special? something that's been posted once a week, heck - earlier today even-  at this very blog since the summer. and other blogs. and other products, and so on). Magic tems—aside from simple items like potions—should make everyone at the table sit up and take notice. We do not want magic items to feel mundane or dull (that's good). So, what are we doing to make them exciting?

To make magic items more interesting, we've done a few things. To start with, we've removed any assumptions that the system math makes about magic items. In other words, we have created a system where magic items simply make you more powerful. A 9th-level fighter doesn't "need" a suit of +1 armor, a +2 weapon, and an item that grants +2 to Strength in order to match that class's expected power. (alright, lets stop right there. once magic items have "plusses", they become part of the power curve. It's inevitable. To claim otherwise is simple bullshit. You may strive to keep the bonuses smaller, but once you start increasing the "to hit", you wind up having to balance the "AC".  It's a  fucking viscouscycle, and to pretend your doing away with the cycle is a disservice to the players) 

That change means we can avoid items that simply give you a power-up to match the system's pace. Even better, we don't need to give nonplayer characters (NPCs) magic items (you don't, which is great. but then why will players have stuff that NPCs won't have?). All of our items can therefore afford to be a little more complex and nuanced, since we don't need to worry about adding a lot of complexity to every NPC or character in the game. Items that simply give +1 to attack rolls or Armor Class can fall by the wayside. (but wait for the examples that follow - they still have "plusses")

Even more importantly, we can afford to design more items that give flavorful benefits or interesting uses, comfortable in knowing that the DM isn't keeping the characters from hitting their expected power level. (flavorful magic items are great - I'm all for it. Keeping the power levels in check means more than just the plusses) The characters don't need to march through a proscribed arsenal to keep up with monsters and NPCs. Again, that introduces a world of flexibility in design.

Beyond those shifts in our approach to items, we've also introduced a new concept to the game that seeks to help DMs rein in items while also making items more flavorful: attunement.


The D&D Next magic item rules introduce the concept of attunement to the game. Attunement represents a magic item entangling its power with its wielder's essence, bonding to the wielder and allowing him or her to unlock the item's true potential (this has been done before). Until you attune to an item, you might get the sense that it has a secret lurking within it. It might flash with arcane power, or perhaps you hear a vague whispering in your mind each time you handle it.

Of course, attunement carries some risk. Perhaps the item is cursed to grant a terrible bloodlust to whoever wields it, which is a legacy of the berserk warrior who died wielding it. Maybe the item was crafted for an order of paladins, and straying from the path of justice causes it to compel you to undertake a quest of atonement. Perhaps the item has a slumbering purpose. It might allow you to call down gouts of flame to blast your enemies, but when you next battle a white dragon, the item roars to life with new powers and an insatiable desire to destroy the wyrm. Not every item that requires attunement has such wrinkles and hazards, but the chance that it might makes using any item a risk. (it sounds a bit like artifacts in AD&D)

If an item is well designed, it brings with it a sense of history and purpose combined with a unique identity.

On top of that, a character can attune only three items at once (holy crap - this is like binding items in an MMO). Although many items do not require attunement, the most powerful ones will need it to unlock their greatest benefits. With the limit on attunement, we can provide some limit on how much more powerful a character can grow through magic items.

Items as Treasure

As I mentioned above, we want to make items more interesting to discover. The following items are from a playtest adventure that we are slated to release in a few weeks. They do not use the rules for attunement—these items represent a mid-point step in our development of the rules. In other words, they show you the kinds of items you can expect to see in published adventures. Whenever possible, we'll err on the side of taking the time to design new, unique items for adventures, rather than give out treasure that you could simply pluck from another source.


This ornate short sword's blade appears to be made of solidified water.

Sea elves forged several blades like this, which were given as gifts to certain land-dwelling kings in return for various concessions long ago.

Effect: Pontus is a +1 short sword.

This blade grants the wielder the ability to breathe underwater, and moreover, descend to any depth without coming to harm.

Whenever an aquatic creature takes damage from an attack using Pontus, the creature takes an additional 1d8 damage. (so, this is a +1 sword with a snazzy description, a short history and a few rolls on the Sword Abilities and Powers Tables on page 167 of the AD&D DMG)


Although this longsword's blade is metallic, it is veined like marble. Dwarven runes lightly etched into the blade spell out the sword's name, Fimbric. It was forged for a prospector named Alrika of Stonehill, who made a minor name for herself a hundred years ago by locating several mines rich in gold, silver, and gems.

Effect: Fimbric is a +1 longsword.

If commanded to find precious raw mineral ore, the blade makes a sound like ringing steel if such ore is within 100 feet.

The wielder gains the benefit of the feather fall spell up to three times per day. If the wielder falls from a height of 10 feet or more without commanding the sword to suppress this effect, the sword automatically activates the spell. (yep, revise the tables in the old DMG with a few more spell like abilities, and you too can design D&D Next magic items. What's old is new again. But why does this feel like something I've already been doing?)

Watch for these items and more to hit your playtest packet soon! We're looking forward to hearing what you have to say about them.


  1. Let's make up our minds, should we criticize D&D Next because it isn't as much like OSR editions as was originally promised or because it is taking all its ideas from them?

  2. @graham - pointing out that WotC's latest innovation isn't an innovation isn't a criticism of the actual rules / table / whatnot.

    It's pointing out that the "innovation" has been around since the Original Boxed Set. I'm all for unique weapons with powers, but don't infer this is something new to D&D

  3. A 9th-level fighter doesn't "need" a suit of +1 armor, a +2 weapon, and an item that grants +2 to Strength in order to match that class's expected power.

    I simply took this to mean that encounter design, class balance, published adventures, and so forth, will not assume that a character of any level has any sort of magic item.


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