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In every game that I've played or run, the players have been able to easily buy or craft any magic item that they could pay for. What are the pitfalls of this kind of unlimited magic freedom system? How does restricting magic item purchase change the nature of the game, either mechanics-wise or game feel-wise? What kind of games benefit from unlimited or restricted magic item purchases?

I'm mainly looking for an answer that applies to high fantasy, high magic kind of games like Eberron, Faerun, or Golarion, though I'm not necessarily looking for something 3.5/Pathfinder specific.

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It depends on the kind of restriction and how easy it is to bypass. What exactly were you thinking of doing - banning magic item purchases and construction altogether in favour of pure random drops? Removing all magic items from the campaign? Declaring that certain categories of items are only rarely for sale? –  GMJoe May 17 '12 at 5:32

7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Pitfalls of unlimited magic item creation:

Well, under a system like Pathfinder that doesn't charge XP for magic item creation, unlimited creation coupled with a free magic item market where things can be sold for market value provides a very easy way to generate lots of cash. At the very least, it lets you increase party wealth massively over standard wealth by level. We tried removing XP costs from crafting in 3.5 once, and by about 9th level we had twice as much magic gear as we should've.

Then there's the verisimilitude issue. Who makes all this crap? Why did some wizard spend 200 days out of his life making just this perfect +4 keen vorpal kama, investing 100000 gp worth of materials into a product for which there is a terribly limited demand? Why didn't he hire a company of pikemen and set himself up as a wizard king of some significant region of countryside with that money instead? Effectively, as a player and a GM, unlimited magic item purchasing freedom breaks my suspension of disbelief unless some very fast talking is done on a very regular basis. Eberron is one place where I might buy it because of the volume of artificers and magewrights and whatnot; not familiar enough with the Realms or Golarion to pass judgment there.

Consequences of restriction

Really where restrictions hit hardest is saving throws. There are lots of buffs that boost to-hit and let you punch through DR as though your weapon were magical; the options for general saves are rather more limited. Coming out of a 13th-level campaign where there were no Cloaks of Resistance to be had, I can tell you that it's a sad day when the pitiful 0th-level Resistance is a staple buff of 13th level characters (that and Protection from Evil, if we knew what we were going up against). But it was absolutely clutch to have; we went up against a bodak around 9th level, and I was the only one who bothered putting up Resistance and drinking a potion of Bear's Endurance. I was also the only survivor. Bad saves scale much more slowly than monster save DCs, and Cloaks of Resistance save lives. So, by opting for non-purchasable magic items, you can increase campaign lethality significantly. This may be desirable.

Additionally, if you keep handing out gold, players will be at a loss for what to do with it all. Then they'll start bribing magistrates and hiring mercenaries and buying ships and building castles and otherwise using money to interact with the world in a manner other than "buy these things that make my numbers better". If these are behaviors you wish to encourage, then restricting magic item purchases will help you achieve this end.

Kinds of games which benefit from unlimited magic item availability

Arguably, adventure-path type games and similar plot-heavy railroads benefit from it. Games where you don't want PCs dying left and right, and where you don't really want PCs to go out of their way to interact with the world (because that would damage plot), and where you likewise don't particularly care about the economic ramifications of allowing infinite availability. Combat As Sport games, where you want their numbers to be juuust right for them to fight your lovingly crafted encounters and not die. If that's the type of game you play, then unlimited availability is a great idea. It keeps everybody happy, and you don't end up with that one guy with the +4 sword that you rolled on the treasure tables while everybody else has +1.

Despite this, I still prefer to play and run games with limited magic item availability. If someone wants a Holy Avenger, they better go find a library and figure out what dungeon they can find one in, because they don't just have a rack of 'em at the general store. This generates player-driven quests, which I find to be generally more fun than DM-driven quests (be it via NPCs or circumstances). Likewise, I like my games reasonably-lethal, sans fixed plot and with as much player involvement with the setting as I can muster. Making magic items freely available for purchase at market price stifles all of these things.

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"Why didn't he hire a company of pikemen and set himself up as a wizard king of some significant region of countryside with that money instead?" Well, the game rules do often make a handful of high-level characters with high-powered gear more effective than traditional armies. –  Alex P May 20 '12 at 23:13
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No, no, the pikemen are to hold the banners up. Traditional, you see. He's the army :P –  lorimer May 21 '12 at 0:32

The pitfalls are the obvious ones: Usually the people at my tables who play M-U classes have been doing it for years and know exploits galore on how to get what they want and make what they want with their only limit being how much gold you give them.

While I don't believe that player abilities should be stifled, I believe they should face resistance from time to time. Make certain magical components rare or indigenous to certain areas so that they might have to make the "dime a dozen" magic item if they are trying to sell (or even slant the prices to buy them). Therefore if you're the DM I recommend disallowing certain product availability if the players having certain items would unhinge the balance of the game.

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You punish the non-casters, widening the gap between what they can do and what casters can do.

A wizard without scrolls or a sorcerer without runestaff can still do most of the things they usually do, while fighters, monks and other melee characters will miss much more often and die much more often.

D&D 3.5 (and therefore Pathfinder) are designed with ubiquitous magic items in mind. Magic items are part of a character build, melee chars need to be christmas trees in order to adequately hit level-appropriate enemies.

So...Don't do that. Allow players to purchase what they need for the character.

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Agreed. For truly unusual items that are likely to stick around for many levels, say that Holy Avenger that lorimer mentioned, then it might be good to have a quest. For more generic ones, I tend to assume that if the players have the gold they can either buy it or at least commission it so it will be waiting for them after the next adventure. –  TimothyAWiseman Dec 9 '13 at 23:17

If you place severe restrictions on magic items, then one might say that you are no longer really playing a high fantasy setting.

I would echo Mala's comment that any severe restrictions of that sort could unbalance your game, frustrate your players, and ruin the fun. The comment "Don't do that. Allow players to purchase what they need for the character" is a valid solution. I offer another possible option as solution to your needs.

Instead of using a system that was predominately designed for use within a high fantasy setting, and then removing one of the hallmarks of that setting (common availability of magic); perhaps you should consider using a system designed for use with lower fantasy. Perhaps use a system designed specifically for a sword and sorcery setting.

Severe restrictions on the availability of magic is one of the hallmarks of a sword and sorcery campaign. It's expected. Such game systems are often balanced by the fact that magic for the PCs is rare, and magic for the antagonists often require either long ritualistic casting times, rare fragile items, or both.

My thought is that instead of forcing a low fantasy setting into a high fantasy system, why not use a system designed for low fantasy in the first place?

One of the campaigns I GM is sword and sorcery. I use a system specifically designed for it. We began the campaign on a whim in the interest of a temporary change of pace. We were to play it as a one-shot, only for a session or two. We would then return to our more traditional gaming. Instead I've now written over 20 adventures for the setting. It had become one of my group's dominate game of choice for many months thus far.

My personal recommendation is that if you are going to go low fantasy, go full out, all-the-way, and run an over-the-top sword and sorcery campaign. Base it on pulp stories like those of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Lieber. Howard invented sword and sorcery and Lieber named it. Also draw inspiration from the cheesy sword and sorcery films of the 1980s like the Conan, Beastmaster, and Deathstalker. Throw in a some of the Solomon Kane film from 2009 when you want things to get "Proper scary".

That is what our group did and it has been one of our most fun, exciting, and satisfying campaigns ever.

Best of luck to you in whatever you personally decide . :)

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What system do you use in that sword and sorcery campaign? –  DuckTapeAl May 18 '12 at 0:14
    
Broadsword. It uses an extremely rules-lite system called "1PG". –  spidey May 18 '12 at 3:25

We'll address this in general, by means of a thought experiment:

Alphaworld: A Land Untrodden

Alphaworld is a world in which all magic is rare and powerful (obviously it can't be both rare and weak or the world wouldn't be high fantasy any more). As a result there are no +1 swords, no potion of mildly effective glass cleaning, because minor magic items can't be worth crafting. Anything worth doing by magic must be impossible or at least very difficult to do otherwise, or you would just do it the other, less expensive, way. It's possible apprentice magic users might make a minor magic item or two as they learn the craft, but there can't be too many of them and they can't make that many items or the items wouldn't be rare anymore. In order for magic to be rare as well, Magic Users must also be rare, and they get capital letters in their class title as a result. Most people probably never see any magic during their lives, and the only magic they know of is from legends and stories. Magic items are the sort of thing kingdoms are founded on, and magic is not very well understood. Magic Users are people of renown, prestige, and immense importance simply because of their profession. Because magic plays such a large part in Alphaworld's cosmology, yet is largely untouchable and incomprehensible, Alphaworld has an air of exploration, wildness, and primal mystery. Le Morte d'Arthur and the Dominions video game series have settings like this. Magic Users are not appropriate character choices for low-powered campaigns set in worlds like this, and every magic item should be treated socially at least like a minor artifact is treated in standard 3.5.

Betaworld: A Triumph of Cottage Industry

Betaworld is a land where magic items are exceedingly rare or weak, and may not even exist, but magic is otherwise fairly common. Unlike Alphaworld, magic items don't have to be particularly powerful to achieve a High Fantasy setting in Betaworld, since the ubiquity of magic not divorced from its creator shapes the world sufficiently for that purpose. In Betaworld, mages are an important part of society, but individual mages aren't by simple virtue of their profession the kind of legendary figures mages in Alphaworld were. Because magic is an inherently personal, skill based task in Betaworld (i.e. it cannot be automated) the Industrial Revolution (i.e. the movement away from cottage industry to mass production/standardization) will never happen to Betaworld's magicians. Magicians on Betaworld are craftsmen and artisans, persons who work with style and skill, and the work of an Archmage is fundamentally better than the work of any number of Apprentices and not imitable by a practitioner of less skill. This is a world where the nature of magic itself rejects the quotidian laborer, the Factory, and the Industrial Oligarchy in favor of the skilled craftsman, the Guild, and the Jeffersonian Democratic Republic. Discworld, especially the stories involving the witches, has a setting like this, as does Pokemon (ignoring the Pokeballs themselves). Players can play magic users in Betaworld campaigns, and it is possible that these magic users are not inherently more powerful or respected than non-magic user players.

Gammaworld : The Megacorp

Gammaworld is a world where magic items are common, but other kinds of magic aren't and aren't very powerful. Gammaworld is very much the opposite of Betaworld, and magic is likely to all be Mass Produced via Assembly Lines with Replaceable Parts. Practically everyone is a mage in Gammaworld, simply by virtue of owning magic items, but not all of these items matter very much at all. Nothing magical is unique or special, just serviceable and functional. You can do a lot in Gammaworld, if you have the cash, but it's all easily replicated. Magicians struggle to be different and not just another faceless and nameless drop in the human ocean of people who own all the same items. I haven't seen a setting like this yet. Players playing non-item based magic users are likely to be very underpowered compared to the rest of the party, who should be using magic items.

Deltaworld : A Land of Giants

Deltaworld is a world where all magic is common, but not necessarily powerful. Practically everyone is a mage in Deltaworld, either by virtue of using magic items or by virtue of their own skills and abilities. True mages have certain advantages over those who just make use of magic items, but not so much that the Factory isn't a viable production model. Magic is an inherent part of almost everything that is done in Deltaworld and the players need to be very familiar with the magic system in order to play the game well and avoid confusion. The power level of such a setting precludes it really being medieval, though it may still have some medieval trappings. The Chronicles of Amber (except the part of the first book on Shadow Earth) take place in such a setting, as does every edition of Magic the Gathering. Players not using magic are doing it wrong.

Analysis

So what changed between the world? First of all, any time one half of the magic system was made rare/weak, the other side had to increase in number/power in order to maintain the High Fantasy genre and the high magic requirement. So making magic items less good makes mages more good, and vice versa. Furthermore, if something is rare, it is unlikely to have much of an effect on the world unless it is also powerful. Worlds that focus on magic items are more democratic (i.e. people are of much more equal value, everyone can make an impact on the world, but one person's impact is rarely world-changing) and industrial (i.e. masses of unskilled laborers use devices more valuable than they are to produce the world's goods) while worlds that focus on magery are more theocratic (i.e. the world is shaped by unique persons of great power) and artisan (i.e skilled craftsmen with years of training produce the world's goods). Also, the more magic is available and controllable overall, the less mystical and more scientific it is.

With regards to the 3.X systems, they generally code for a Deltaworld-like scenario. Removing magic items entirely will lead the system towards Beta world. Removing the purchasing of magic items but allowing their creation through crafting feats and such will lead to an Alphaworld scenario (since you will have to make NPC mages nonexistent or the players would just buy their items from them), except with some of your players playing mages and no reason for the world not to be Deltaworld-like (and your players will probably move things in that direction rapidly). The first of these options would be fine, if spellcasting wasn't so much more powerful than non-spellcasting abilities anyways. If you nerf the magic system as well (maybe requiring two levels per level in a primary spellcasting class) it might be alright. The latter option is just a bad idea. If you are just limiting the availability of some subset of magic items, that should work fine even if you let casters craft them provided the item set isn't something that would make the default power gap between classes even worse, like 'all magic arms and armor'.

As for what games benefit from magic item limitation or availability, games benefit from their setting matching the setting you want them to have. If you want the world to be Alphaworld-like unlimited magic items is a bad idea. If you want the world to be Deltaworld-like limited magic items is a bad idea. Basically, once you understand the consequences of the worldbuilding choices you are making (and whether or not magic items are common is a worldbuilding choice), you will also know what decision to make, based off of what you want in your game. In other words, this part of the question should answer itself.

Definition of Terms:

Magic Item:

Any magic that is divorced from a person's conscious work. A stream with magic healing properties, a -2 cursed vorpal dancing flaming falchion, a potion of eased childbirth, and a sentient wax golem are all magic items for the purpose of this answer. An easy guideline to see if something probably counts as an item or not is to think about whether it stops working when its creator dies. If it doesn't, it's probably an item. This doesn't always work, but can be helpful.

Mage or Magic User:

These terms refer to anyone who uses magic, whether that magic is from items or otherwise.

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Eberron might make a decent D&D example of Deltaworld. –  KRyan Nov 19 at 6:15

To put it simply, the use of magic items is a boon to say the least. You could have a world where magic is so sparce that it's virtually legendary in and of itself, so having a Wizard, Sorcerer, or anyone that can use magic would be someone to be awe-inspiring or feard.

Mechanically magic makes everything easier for the players, and their opponents alike. If you cut the magic down, then you will probably want to cut down the enemies magic as well. Drastically increase the value of magical items, but at the same time make Feats more worth taking. Weapon Focus grants an aditional +1 to attack on top of its base +1 to make up for the lack of magic item enhancements. You could have an entire campaign where there are no magic items at all with the exception of healing potions that are fluffed to be alchemical healing potions and technically not magical, but that's for you to decide.

The overall feel could be more steam-punk in the way of Eberron, or it could be high sorcery where almost literally everyone knows a little magic... The true feal is how you describe the world. The more magic the easier it is to put your players against harder challanges...

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TL;DR - if a set of game mechanics is balanced, then any large changes will break the balance and require either accepting that the balance is broken (either ignoring it or patching with liberal DM-ex-machina) or rebalancing the whole system.

Balance changes

Availability of items changes the power level of characters - that's rather obvious.

What is not so obvious is that it changes the power in unequal and unexpected ways that may destroy expectations of game mechanics balance.

For example, if monster A and monster B are both designed as appropriate opponents to a common party of lvl 6 adventuters, then if magic items are significantly restricted, then monsters would become harder. But it's likely that you can't simply adjust it with "oh, I'll then give level N-1 monsters". It may easily be that after your change monster A is slightly harder and becomes a hard opponent for lvl 6 adventurers and an appropriate one for lvl 7; but monster B becomes very dangerous in this situation and would be unfun "I win" monster for anyone below level 7.

Similarly, if the game is balanced that if two classes are similar in power/fun/ability/etc, then restricting magic items will likely affect them unequally, where a 3rd level X will be equal in power to 5th level Y; or if there are multiple character specialization options, then some of them will become impractically weak if the appropriate magic items aren't available, thus reducing variety and choices at character specialization.

Change one thing - rebalance everything

If you want a setting with a significant large change (such as much less magical items), you have to make compensating changes in pretty much everything else if you want the total system to make sense. For example, if you'd suddenly decide that D&D characters would have half as much HP, then that's a simple change to make individually, but you'd need a LOT of small changes to rebalance the whole system.

You'd need to not only change the setting flavor, but also the mechanical parts of the setting - non-magical item availability and prices; NPC stats and inventory; acquisition of loot. You'd also need mechanical changes to the system - character and class abilities likely need to be readjusted and rebalanced (something that involves a thousand of tiny but important tweaks).

The changes are extensive enough to make it a different RPG system, so why not pick an appropriate system in the first place, one that has been written with such a setting in mind?

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