Magic Items in D&D Next
It’s funny, I’ve been doing companion posts to the Legends and Lore column for over a year now, and we’re finally getting to the point where some posts have the same name as earlier posts. This isn’t the first time Mike’s done a post called “Magic Items in D&D Next.” What this post does have is the clarity of coming at a time when a collection of magic items has actually been added to the playtest documents.
Just before Mike’s post went live I got email that there was a new version of the D&D Next playtest docs and I rabidly bit into them, anxious to see what’s new. The biggest addition is an entire doc on magic items which is why Mike chose that for his topic this week.
The interesting thing in the magic item rules is that there’s a real vision here, not just a “make it what you want” set of statements. Magic items as seen in D&D Next so far:
- Are not a required part of advancement
- Aim to be interesting and exciting
- Are the DM’s domain
That’s actually clear statement of what magic items are and considerably different than some versions of D&D. Unlike 3E and 4E, magic items aren’t a presumed part of advancement. Unlike 4E, magic items are the DM’s domain (as opposed to being in the PHB with a presumption of “ask for what you want”).
Interesting and exciting is tougher to nail down. Those terms vary quite a bit from person to person and game to game. If we’re playing Borderlands then getting a gun that does 10 more damage is exciting, even if nothing else changes.
I actually dig this. It’s clear what magic items are supposed to be in D&D Next and how we’re supposed to use them. So, with that in mind, let’s look at some specific items.
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.
This is straight from Mike’s article and it’s a decent introduction to the magic item format. We’ve got a name, a short description, and the effects.
I’m a little torn on the presentation of effects and description. The benefit of the way Pontus is presently presented is that the bits that physically change the world are separate from the bits that are less concrete.
I’m really going out of my way here to avoid using overused terms like “crunch” and “fluff” or even “description” and “mechanics” because it’s a more complex issue than that. The stuff that doesn’t physically effect the world, like appearing to be made of water or being made by sea elves ages ago, is just as important in a roleplaying game. Sure, an extra 1d8 damage and breathing underwater is useful, but so is making a scene in the bar by showing everyone your blade of water while your thief friend picks pockets, or using an ancient elf-sword as proof of being an ally of the elves and getting access to the elven king’s court.
That’s the potential upside of combining these parts into one unified description. It makes it clear that everything about the weapon is important. A presentation like this puts everything on equal footing:
The elves of the sea forged this blade of solid water to seal a treaty with the human kingdoms that encroached on their coast ages ago. The sword itself is magically formed from water, making it a +1 short sword. As an invitation for continued diplomacy, the blade allows the wielder to breathe and move underwater as a fish would, down to the darkest depths. As a sign of trust, Pontus is particularly potent against aquatic creatures, dealing an extra 1d8 damage to them.
Is this version better? Depends on the game. For a tactical combat-oriented game it’s a pain: the important stuff is all spread out, since only the mechanical bits are “important” in that case. On the other hand, for a game that’s focused on the fictional world the characters inhabit it might be better.
The magic items doc has a few other standout bits. It starts with some ground assumptions about how magic items fit into the game that are surprisingly solid. That said, they’re stated in the most bland way possible:
I don’t know why you’d write like this. The phrase “by and large” doesn’t really add anything to the sentence. On top of that, “unless you decide your campaign works otherwise” just states the obvious. This is just a text, of course I can do whatever I want. The text can only describe a thing that works a certain way, it has no control over me, so why add verbiage to remind me of the obvious? A cookbook doesn’t need to give me permission on every page to change the recipe. Presumably the way magic items work is there for a reason. Even if I decide otherwise that seems like it’ll have a lot of side effects. Making it such a casual statement gives the impression that magic items work this way for no particular reason.
Enough of me picking on that phrase. It’s everywhere, completely useless, and pointless. Once you get past that one reference the rest of the basic magic item concept is how Mike described it: magic items in the GM’s hands, not presumed, not generally for sale.
The rarity system that comes next is interesting. Something similar first appeared in 4E. The idea appears to be to provide some guidance on which items go with what levels. Oddly, after the introduction on the previous page that spends several paragraphs on how magic items can’t generally be bought or sold for gold, each rarity has a price range in gold. Oh well.
Attunement is the next topic. I’m not really sure what the point of attunement is. Items that require attunement are bonded to their user until they leave the user’s possession of the user severs the bond. Any character can only have so many attunements. The stated purpose is to make sure characters don’t get too many crazy items, but since items are already in the GM’s hands, that doesn’t seem like an issue.
Possibly the coolest part of the doc is the list of details. The details lists are randomly rolled characteristics of items that can be applied to any item. They fall into general categories (creator, nature, minor properties, minor quirks) and they’re actually more interesting than most of the magic items. Each detail has a description that touches on both what it fictionally is and what it can do, like the delver detail which gives the wielder a sense of where the nearest path up from underground is.
Each detail is cool on its own, but the random lists and the creativity they invite is the best part. Why is this item both abyssal and conscientious? That’s the great bit of random charts, the creativity they inspire.
The rest of the items list is pretty much what you’d expect from having read any three D&D magic item books. Most are alright if a little bland. A few do manage to be exciting. Some take great ideas and implement them badly.
On that note, let me pick on the arrow of dragon slaying a little. Here’s the relevant bit:
A dragon hit by this arrow must make a DC 17 Constitution saving throw. The dragon takes 6d10 extra damage on a failed saving throw, or half that extra damage on a successful saving throw.
We don’t actually have stats for a dragon yet, but let’s use the minotaur as a guideline, since it’s one of the more powerful monsters in the playtest so far. It’ll make that save about 1/4 of the time. If it fails the save it takes damage against it’s 52 HP which means against an unwounded target the arrow has only a 0.3% chance of slaying it outright if it fails the save. If it makes the save it can’t be slain in one hit.
So, basically, arrow of dragon slaying is what the slimy used magic item salesman calls it, right before he tells you that this magic carpet was only driven by an old granny to the her demonic church services every sunday.
What if it just said this?
Now the arrow actually does what it says on the tin.
This tendency to add as many numbers and caveats as possible runs through many of the items that have the most potential. Take this bit from the crystal ball description:
The sensor is invisible, starts hidden, and cannot move from its position, but you can see and hear in all directions from its position. The target can notice the sensor’s presence with a successful Wisdom check; the DC for that check is 15 + your Intelligence modifier. The target doesn’t know the sensor’s exact location unless it can see invisible objects. A creature that can see invisible objects perceives the sensor as a spectral projection of you.
Your sensor has an AC equal to 10 + your Intelligence modifier, makes saving throws using your ability scores, and has 1 hit point. It is immune to all damage except psychic damage. When the sensor drops to 0 hit points or fewer, it disappears, the scrying effect ends immediately, and you take 10d6 psychic damage.
You can dispel the scrying sensor at any time (no action required). As long as the sensor exists, you are restrained and cannot take actions.
Wow. There’s a definite tradeoff here: on the one hand all those details create all kinds of interesting situations, on the other the sheer wall of text effect makes it harder to just make use of an item that can be basically described as a TV you can tune to any place you know.
The kind of interactions that flow from all that detail are juicy morsels of interesting situations. Take the check to detect being scryed on: that means that you’re better of scrying on a dragon by scrying on their servants (so the dragon doesn’t get the check) so you might infiltrate their cult so you can scry on them better, etc. And the damage rules mean that there some risk to scrying.
Are those worth the sheer amount of text? Depends on the game, and the goals. It takes some load off the DM, but if the DM already has the tools to make interesting situations it may not be needed. Consider this alternative:
If we presume the DM has the tools to follow through on the fictional description then that’s all we need. Different game, different goals, different implementation.
Magic items are a key part of the traditional D&D model and the vision here seems clearer than in most parts of D&D Next. Hopefully they can follow that vision all the way through.