Magic Items in D&D Next
I’m trying (again, post-honeymoon) to catch up on Mike Mearls’ Legends and Lore posts, continuing my parallel Indies & More series. I’m still way back at the beginning of July, taking a look at magic items.
The most interesting bit to me about Mike’s explanation of the D&D Next approach is the way he treats mechanics and story as distinct aspects. There’s plenty of discussion of what the system assumes, but no carryover into what that says about the world. Let’s start with a few bullets that summarize Mike’s post (in my words):
- Improved mundane items are presumed
- Access to magic items is not presumed
- Magic items are secondary to class and race (and level, I’d guess)
- A given magic item may be one-of-a-kind or generic
Mike phrases those all in terms of what the mechanics require with balance as the key goal, but each of those statements is also saying something about the world of D&D. In the D&D World:
- The blacksmith in your town might not be able to make a suit of armor as effective as that worn by a knight.
- You start with a clear knowledge that you’re not as prepared as you could be, if only you had more money.
- There are many magic items out there, probably, but you don’t know if you’ll ever get one.
The “generic” nature of magic items is an interesting thing: if magic items are there primarily to be used by the players (which was definitely the assumption in 4E and to a lesser extent in 3E) then none of them is really generic. The whole idea of a +1 chainmail shirt assumes that there are lots of other suits of chainmail and lots of other enhancement bonuses. If a +1 chainmail shirt is all my character ever gets then it’s certainly not generic.
That’s kind of what Mike’s getting at: how can the game make magic items matter fictionally as well as mechanically? With D&D Next’s emphasis on GM judgement, one way to do that (which Mike mentions to some degree) is to just say what the magic item does and leave it to the GM to adjudicate.
Take our shirt of +1 chainmail for example. When described that way it’s mechanically useful but flavorless. The possible D&D Next solution Mike mentions is to have adaptable ways of tying a generic item to a part of the world. It’s a wonderful idea and I dig the sample dwarven abilities, but it creates kind of an odd dichotomy: there’s the base weapon, which in important mechanically-balanced element of gameplay, and there’s the dwarven abilities that “don’t speak to the game’s balance or even its mechanics.”
It’s an odd assumption to make in a game that’s putting so much on GM judgement and rulings, not rules. It seems to me that the sample dwarven item abilities are actually more useful (depending on the type of game) than a bonus to damage and the ability to make a tunnel.
I’m not sure I’d call it a mistake, but it’s an odd emphasis that runs through much of modern D&D: information is not mechanically important, but damage and armor is. For a boardgame-style D&D that’s completely true and it makes for a fun game. It’s a completely valid design choice. But in a GM-adjudicated game that emphasizes creativity it’s an odd assumption to make. To an adventurer trying to make their way underground a way to find the nearest dwarven hold, presumably a safe place, seems just as important as being able to smash the goblins who might block your way. After all, there’s limitless ways to deal with goblins, but only one way to fix the fact that you don’t know where to find a safe place.
Reading Mike’s article and thinking on it made me think back to magic items and balance in a different way. There’s all these anecdotal stories of GM’s complaining because they gave the players a vorpal sword and it unbalanced the game, which now that I think about it a bit differently is an odd thing to say. Taking away any game thinking about balance or whatever and just stripping it down to the fictional action: “This guy has a sword that, with a single swing, can remove your head. It turns out he’s pretty powerful because of it!” Thinking about magic items as fictional items of power instead of blocks of mechanics makes a huge difference, and it seems like D&D Next is headed that way. Maybe once we all think about a vorpal sword as a weapon that can cut through anything instead of a collection of stats we can put balance on the back burner and play a game.