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I have previously run into issues with homebrew items throwing off the balance of my game, and I'm trying to anticipate any issues I might run into by giving my players certain items. My players enjoy receiving items specifically designed for them, and I like to enhance their game beyond the items in the books. However, I would like to be aware in creating limits for these items. What I've noticed is that there are two main categories of such items.

Encouraging What They're Already Doing

For example, I have a ranger who switches between his bow and his greatsword, so I would design an item that encourages him to swap weapons, by giving him a bonus to him the turn that he switches from a ranged weapon to a melee weapon. This encourages him to do more of what he's already doing.

Encouraging New Options

This is the one I have more trouble with. For another example, I have a Spirit Shaman, adapted from D&D 3.5's Complete Divine sourcebook. To fuel her magical item crafting (using a homebrewed crafting system), she collects the essences of the dead that she sends to the Spirit Plane. I planned on giving this character a robe that would allow her to use these essences to enhance her magic, especially against a certain subset of creatures that are prominently featured in the game. In addition, this robe would allow her to use a part of her own spirit essence (cast from a percentage of hit points) to use this ability. It ties in with the character's self-destructive tendencies.) My problem with this is I don't know how using this would disrupt character balance. I would like to design items like this for all of my characters, as I feel it enhances options, but I would like to also keep tabs on them and design inherent limits to them.

How can I design items that either encourage new options, or further the options they already have, without either of these becoming the dominant strategy?

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5 Answers 5

I'm not quite sure your dilemma is being represented properly, but let me take a stab at it...

In my opinion one of the absolute biggest thing to watch out for is short-strawing the melee characters. Make sure you're not giving "lol +1" to the sword-guy while turning around and giving "MOAR WORLD ALTERING POWER!!11oneleven(tm)" to the caster-d00d.

That being said, I love magic items for a multitude of reasons, and I like your modest take on using them for that added "boost" to the characters.

Keeping that in mind, you should be running over a few basics in your head when making items.

  1. What am I trying to accomplish? : WHY is this item being handed out? Is your player under-performing in the role they are trying to play? Are you trying to expand their options? Are the other party members pulling ahead of this player?

  2. Does it fit my power tier? Meaning that you need to make sure it's not UNDER-powered (and therefore won't be used) just as much as you need to be wary of it being OVER-powered.

  3. Does it break the RNG? Does it boost their bonuses to the point where they can't fail? What kind of bonuses are enemies applying at this level?

  4. Does it scale? Do you want it to scale? Does it scale by accident? What happens next level when the player levels up? How quickly does the item become obsolete? OR how long until it becomes SUPER AWESOME (by accident of design)?

Don't be afraid of your players being awesome. Players acting like heroes is why people play DnD. The biggest danger is having a player feel useless. (Unfortunately that is baked into a few classes by default so it takes a little "extra" to help the character shine.)

I hope that helps a little. :)

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The single most important thing to know about making homebrew magic items is that you will get it wrong.

Item creation is part game balance, part making something cool for a player, and part art form. Sooner or later you're going to make an item that doesn't work out the way you intended. If it's too weak, you can buff it and you're okay. If it's too strong, you can nerf it, but players can sometimes resent something they like being nerfed. With that in mind, I'd suggest you do something like this:

Upgradable Items

Give the player an item that goes in a slot, that is a bit better than what they have now. Let them know when they identify the item that it has some "latent power that could be brought out through various crafting tasks". As they do them, add more powers to the item.

That'll let you gradually ramp the item power up, which greatly reduces the chances of overshooting and giving someone a god item by mistake. If it turns out to be weak, you can give it more juice in an upgrade, and if it's getting strong you can slow the power increases down or stop them entirely by requiring a component item they can't get yet.

Now, for your two specific item types.

Encouraging What They're Already Doing

This is in a lot of ways an easy one, because they're already doing it. So you don't need to go crazy with the power on an item that augments it, but you can give some extra boost when he does it.

For your Ranger, I'd suggest making the item one of the two weapons. He's using both anyway, and having the power there will mean it doesn't get swapped out. If you put it in another slot (like his gloves), he may just decide that he wants something else in that slot more (gloves of dexterity). If you wanted to, you could actually make a weapon that is both at once. Like a Longbow that with a swift action command word morphs into a Greatsword. That means he doesn't have to carry two weapons and swapping between them is basically instant.

Now that you have a power on the item that switches between them (which is what you wanted him to do), you can add effects to it. Here's a couple of ideas:

  1. If you shoot something with the bow part, the sword part gains the Bane property against the enemy type you shot.
  2. Killing an enemy with the sword part gives the bow part the Keen property until the end of your next turn. (Custom item, which means you can break the rule about Keen being melee only!)

There's a lot of options here, but you get the idea. Because the weapons are a single magic item, its easy to explain how one aspect of it can buff the other part, and it encourages your Ranger to swap around to get those powers.

Encouraging New Options

You have an interesting idea here, but tread carefully. Buffing spells is risky because of how powerful spells already are. If you're going to buff spells, I'd suggest you limit it to things that there's some control over (like damage spells). The really dangerous thing to do is let an item increase save DCs, because that makes Save or Die spells more lethal than they already are.

An easy one is to let her use the spirit essence to apply metamagic feats to spells without the spell level adjustment. Costs of that have to be carefully managed because it's a powerful ability (particularly if it allows the use of feats she doesn't already have), but it's something that every spellcaster can get use from.

Magic is tricky to play with because it can get overpowered very easily. You can instead make items that grant limited daily use Supernatural or Spell Like Abilities, which you have somewhat more control over in terms of power.

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I'd just like to say that bane/keen command-worded polymorph weapon is an awesome idea! –  Squish Feb 21 at 5:04

When designing custom items, I find it essential to have a worked-out framework for judging the item's power level. Some systems are great and provide this for you, but most don't do a good job of this at all. In all likelihood you'll have to make it up yourself.

In order to make sure your framework is good, test it against a bunch of different items that are already built into the system. If you've done a good job, then the items should work out to a similar power level as the system sourcebooks say they are.

Once you're reasonably sure that your framework matches the system you play in, then you can be pretty comfortable building new items (or augmenting existing items) without destabilizing the game balance.

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When designing magic items, I agree completely with Tridus, When you first start making magic items, you will make mistakes.However, there are a few tricks you can use to make it easier.

As you begin, try looking at other magic items of the current level (or power tier). Then you can choose to mix and match the effects or, once you have a feel for how these effects and enhancements work for your players, you can make up your own effects.

You also want to look at what you are trying to accomplish. For an under powered player, it can sometimes be OK to give an over powered weapon.

You might also want the weapon to scale, that way it never becomes useless. This you can do either by a scaling range that has requirements to unlock powers (like in Zelda where you need to collect the three pennants to wield the master sword) or you can simply have the weapon "bind" to the player, and as they use it more, they just discover that it can gain a higher enhancement is held differently, or it can shoot flames if thrust in a certain way.

However, the most important part is in dealing with mistakes. Say you accidentally gave your level 5 rogue, a blade that can make him invisible at-will. You can easily counteract those bonuses, both in game, and out of game.

The easiest way to fix the issue is by giving magic weapons personalities. For example, you can make the blade turn the rogue invisible, only as long as the character helps the blade achieve its goal, of slaying the dragon that killed its previous master. Then, if the player becomes too powerful with that particular weapon, have them encounter the dragon, and force them to fight it, winning means losing the weapon (with a considerable reward for the loss of course), and losing usually means death.

The magic could also suddenly develop side effects. For example, becoming invisible could drop the player's accuracy both while invisible, and for a wile after. You could even demand a heavy HP drain while losing it, saying the weapon feeds off the life-force of its wielder, and all of the old charges have been used up by now. The weapon will still be very powerful, but like a nuclear weapon, only be a tool of last resort.

The third thing you can do is have the weapon stolen, either while they sleep, in a busy city, or even have them fight for it. My technique has always been to include weapon-hunters that are slightly stronger than the characters, and travel across planes, just to acquire powerful weapons. In a fight, they leave most of the party decapitated, or all of the just unconscious,and take the magic weapon(s) that you deemed too powerful, maybe even with a note thanking them for their contribution. Then, reacquiring those weapons would be a side quest, that would take them through enough levels to use them.

Your last resort will always be to talk to the players out of game. They will usually agree that the game is more fun when there is a challenge, a willingly give it up. However, I personally feel that this give the game a half-finished feel, and I never use it if I have a choice.

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There are two ways to talk about balance. One is whether or not a particular ability or item alters the relative weight of a single character's options such that one choice is now used to the exclusion of all else. The other is whether the character with the thing is able to marginalize other characters in the party.

In the former case, you can apply weaknesses or restrictions or penalties to the item - it can only be done once per day or once per encounter; it doesn't work by the light of the full moon; adversely affects attributes or other key abilities, etc. The latter case is trickier: you can try to provide bonuses to everyone else in the party, but then you need to make sure that that the bonuses are all roughly equal, or else you just propagate a vicious cycle of unbalanced play. You can also nerf the item or take it away, but it needs to be done subtly, so you can make it look like it was planned all along.

Since, as Tridus pointed out, you will get it wrong at some point, I find it best to have a few "exit options" planned out for a given item that can plausibly be introduced after some amount of play - limited number of charges or mandatory recharge time before it can be used again, slowly decreases in power, occasionally conjures up some kind of villain or monster, has a mind of its own and eventually decides to leave for someone more powerful, more pious, wiser, more charismatic, or that better fits its alignment. The king bans private possession of magic items. The sage-wizard of the frozen mountain demands it as a tribute before helping the PCs. Etc. You can possibly keep your options open on this by hinting darkly that there may be consequences or side effects of excessive use of this particular magic item.

Lastly, it's perfectly fine not to worry too much about balance unless it's affecting your players' ability to enjoy the game. Some items and spells are just plain better than the others.

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