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I'm starting a new 3.5 campaign, using only the 3 core books for character creation, and starting all my players off at level 1. One of my players has written a (rather good) backstory for his character, but it would require him to start with a Hat of Disguise. Since I am a fairly new DM, I have little experience balancing magical items, and I am unsure whether I should allow it. My questions:

  • Will a 1st-level player with a Hat of Disguise upset party balance? To what amount?
  • Will it help to give that player a related disadvantage/plot hook, eg. The player loaned the money for the hat from some dwarves, and it's time to collect?
  • Should I offer the other characters similar advantages?
  • Should I somehow nerf the hat? Eg. one use per day?
  • Is there a general rule of thumb for balancing magic items or other advantages like this? Based on gold cost or caster level, perhaps?

Some more information:

  • The character is a rogue.
  • The character will never sell the hat.
  • The Hat is a CL1 wondrous item that costs 1800. It allows the wearer to alter his appearance as per the first level disguise self spell.
  • I am aware of some advice on the subject, such as the half-wealth and 25% rules (see for instance this answer. However, these seem to be guidelines for letting characters buy items rather than granting items to enhance roleplay.

In short, I want to give him the hat because it'd make for some good roleplay, but I don't want to incite jealousy or greatly alter the balance of the game.


Originally this question included the backstory of the character but this was removed as it was confusing people. Unfortunately, many of the original answers rely on information from the backstory so I've added a summary here:

The character wants to use the hat of disguise to maintain a life-long disguise as an elf.

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There are many great answers here, but after a short discussion with the player we've decided to take the feat option. I'll let people know how it turns out. –  EagleV_Attnam May 27 at 9:12
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We recommend a self-answer exploring how your game ran things. Personal experience is always valuable. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 27 at 12:12

10 Answers 10

up vote 22 down vote accepted

I think the hat of disguise is a wonderful heirloom to start the game with. It promotes roleplaying and fascinating non-combat interactions. In my games I would expect characters to take one of five routes:

  1. All characters can get an equivalent non-combat magic item of about that cost given a backstory. Then, if they want an item, they can go to equivalent effort and their choice is respected.

  2. You may want to allow each player to nominate a book to involve in the game. In this player's choice, it should be the Tome of Magic. I've played a social binder (equivalent to a gent with a hat of disguise) at early levels for precisely this reason. The character may want to dip into Binder, because at level 1, he gets access to Naberius, which gives benefit to social skills as well as the ability to disguise self at will. It sounds like it fits his intentions perfectly, and there are a number of other capabilities that would benefit him neatly.

  3. House rule a feat (due to the paucity of sources. Otherwise I'd use one of the extant ones) to provide disguise self once or three times per day, as per a caster level of the character's level. There are plenty of better things to do with a feat, but disguise self could be worth it to a sufficiently motivated character.

  4. Invest heavily in the disguise skill, and some masterwork elves ears. While it's not as exciting as a full on disguise spell, bluff, forgery, and disguise do form the basis of the Rogue's repertoire for good reason. Disguising oneself as another race is a -2 on the check, which can be easily countered by the underwhelming deceitful feat.

  5. The character starts out as a sorcerer, knowing disguise self and silent image. Using the fluff that "the magic's in the blood" it's quite plausible that he was casting spells in the crib. The rest of his levels can be rogue, flavoured with just that hint of the "alien, uncontrolled magic that is his heritage"

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While the Binder looks interesting, I'm relatively inexperienced, and would like to keep the number of books involved as low as possible for now. The first option does sound good, thank you! –  EagleV_Attnam May 26 at 8:04
    
Those options are really good, and the first one is certainly my favored way to go. I was to answer the exact same thing as Brian's #1 topic, but since he put it here, +1. –  Thales Sarczuk May 26 at 13:38

Hat of Disguise

The Hat of Disguise is a very powerful item. It's low cost is misleading.

In my experience the disguise self spell is overpowered. It will give the players a very strong advantage in the game. When gained so early on, it will get them even more of an advantage since most of their opponents will not have a counter for this. And even more unbalanced is giving it as an at-will item.

Balance

If you do intend to let the player have the hat anyway, because, let's face it - it is really cool - then you should give all the other players something as well.

Giving the players powerful magical items at character creation will lead to a high-powered game. If you intended your players to struggle through the game then you should reconsider.

Level 1 characters only have starting gold, and could never afford such an item. Only character starting at level 3 or above would have enough money to start with such an item. Click here for more information on Wealth By Level

Nerfing the item will only serve to reduce the overpowered nature of the item, but will still need counterbalancing.

Alternate Solutions

Since it is part of the back story, you could let the character have had the Hat of Disguise, but that it got taken from them or lost in some way since then. (That even gives you a nice plot hook for the player to seek out his lost item)

Or, based on the story you have included in your question, there is another mysterious solution you could use. The player has made it clear they are always in Elf form - perhaps one of the Elves cast a spell on him to make it so?

New DM

As a new DM, you should try new things, but you should try to keep them within the confines of the mechanics and balance of the game. When you learn how these things affect the game more - then you can do more intricate changes, and know how to balance them.

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+1 for the part about having lost/taken away the hat. Let your player have his backstory, not balance altering items! Recovering the hat could make a great quest if the party advances a few levels and the item is not that overpowered anymore. This is a nice opportunity for the "yes, but" DM answer. –  Mauricio Pasquier Juan May 26 at 8:28
    
Please do not argue in comments, nor insult each other. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 26 at 9:05
    
+1 for nerfing the hat. You could curse it somehow. Damage it. –  Preston Fitzgerald May 28 at 4:16
    
The hat of disguise is functionally identical to: A changeling's racial features, a 1st level binder of naberius, and a 1st level spell——but the racial feature is better. If anything, I would say the hat's pricing is a few hundred GP overpriced. –  Arkhaic Jul 21 at 9:10
    
@Arkhaic Please don't forget this is a 3.5e question, and no supplement material is assumed. –  Inbar Rose Jul 21 at 9:56

I had a very similar situation in one of my games... We solved it by making a custom version of the item, that only allowed for one specific disguise and it was a bucket she had to carry around with her.

It didn't unbalance the game in any way for us.

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This does sound like good middle ground. What kind of game did you run? Do you think the item could have had a number of disguises rather than one without getting too strong? –  EagleV_Attnam May 26 at 8:20
    
In terms of characters it was RAW everything that doesn't break the game is fair game, though I have very mature Players in that context :). It was Eberron and I ran the second adventure in the main Campaign. I'd say more then one could be problematic. One disguise meant the character couldn't abuse the disguise much, since she wanted to disguise her real identity and compromising the disguise would basically invalidate the advantage of the item. –  Andy May 26 at 8:30
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+1 for limiting it to hat of disguising as an elf. –  Thane Brimhall May 26 at 14:41

Hat of Disguise + Bluff = Awesome Good Times

Hat of Disguise can be powerful but rarely will break games. It's one of my favourite items, and a great way to improve and encourage imaginative solutions amongst your players.

It's clear, though, that your player isn't intending to use it that way. He has a character that is pretending to be a different race, through use of a found magic item. This is a really interesting character concept. He should be encouraged in this. Additionally, if he is intending to use the Hat of Disguise 'offensively' (disguising himself to defeat enemies) he'll have to hide that from the party, who think he is an Elf. This creates interesting roleplaying - well worth any encounters he manages to wipe out through this tactic. (not that your encounters should be that easy to defeat - intelligent enemies, passwords, scent, blindsense, all these things defeat a simple illusion like Disguise Self, and enemies without access to any of them are pushovers to any number of stealth- or ambush-based tactics)

But, perchance, has he considered a Changeling? The shady results of doppleganger liaisons with [strike]humans[/strike] mad scientists, Changelings are humanoids without stat adjustments or bonus feats, but they can change how they look, like a disguise self effect. They naturally try to blend in with whoever they are left with as children, and without their glamour on look like white blank stage masks with eyes and a mouth. Also 'abandoned as a baby'? 'Instinctively disguised himself as them'? That screams changeling.

Regardless of the woe-sayers and end-timers, Hat of Disguise breaks zero games that weren't already eggshell-fragile. It's thematic, fun, and useful, the very definition of 'horizontal power', 'extra ability not extra numbers', and in my mind the guideline for what magic items /should/ be.

One thing, though. If he was found as a baby, the Hat of Disguise is probably from his parent(s). It might be a scarf of disguise disguised as swaddling, or something. 'Abandoned as a baby' is SUPER changeling, but 'abandoned as a baby with a magic item by his parents to help him hide' is arguably more interesting and gives you all kinds of crazy plot hooks. Hell, that's the kind of backstory you can hang a campaign off, if you want to. But you definitely need to expand on that, whatever you do.

As far as overpowered races go, at low levels Orc is one of the most overpowered, and that's Core. An Orc Barbarian will wreck face from 1-5. Humans are second best, with their bonus feat. But if you're worried about the balance of something, ask on here! @BrianBallsun-Stanton is a good optimizer, as appears to be @KRyan - I am pretty good at a balancing things in general as well. When something is 'broken' it's pretty easy to tell - if the Wizard or Druid is running away with the show, the best way to rein it in is just talk to them and work out a way to do so - the 'game breaking minmaxer' is mostly a myth, and telling a good and interesting story is typically what makes people like and remember games - not sticking to the letter of the RAW and banning everything that moves.

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I know changeling would be a good fit, but I really, really want to avoid additional books... Sorry! –  EagleV_Attnam May 26 at 8:42
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The problem is, I told my players to stick to the core for now, if I let one get an out-of-core race, the rest will want to follow (and rightly so), and I don't think I'm ready to balance such a game yet. And yes, the other info is really helpful, should have mentioned that. I'll make sure to make the enemies smart enough, thanks! –  EagleV_Attnam May 26 at 8:50
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I was already mostly convinced, and you had me at "abandoned as a baby with a magic item by his parents to help him hide' is arguably more interesting and gives you all kinds of crazy plot hooks" –  Lohoris May 26 at 13:51

As I read the backstory, it doesn't actually explain how he got the Hat of Disguise, or even that he has one. The backstory could just as easily be about a natural shape changer (no idea if there is a playable shape changing race in D&D 3.5), and requires only minor modification for a half-elf. So I don't really see the Hat of Disguise as essential for this character concept.

Is it a good idea to let him start with a Hat of Disguise? There's a couple of things to consider:

  • Is the necessary? My impression is that it's not strictly necessary for the backstory. Even if it is necessary, you still don't have to feel pressured to allow it. If I write an awesome backstory explaining why I start with a +5 Holy Avenger, that doesn't mean I automatically get one. Also, note Inbar Rose's suggestion to let him have had it in the past and then lost it, and possibly leveraging that as a plot hook.

  • Is it powerful? Inbar Rose claims it is. I suspect it depends a lot on the style of your game. If it's mostly about combat, then a Hat of Disguise won't have that much impact. If there's intrigue, infiltration, investigation, and other social stuff, then a Hat of Disguise could be potentially game breaking. Who has it also matters. I'm playing a Wizard with no social skill whatsoever, who found a Hat of Disguise during play, and uses it primarily to not be recognized, since, according to his back story, he's an escaped slave and people are looking for him. I'm not going to use it to bluff my way into things, because I can't bluff. But a Rogue high on social skills might be able to do amazing things with it. (On the other hand, Rogue isn't exactly the most powerful class. Maybe an item that let's him Rogue better isn't such a bad idea after all.)

  • Is it fair? If its impact is non-trivial, then you'd have to give the others something too. If one PC gets a magic heirloom, I'm sure your Fighters and Wizards can also come up with some magic heirloom they'd like to start the game with. Or maybe some other bonus ability. In Pathfinder, PCs start with 2 traits each, which is fairly easy to include in 3.5. One of them is Rich Parents, which lets you start with 900 gp, which puts you already halfway there. You can't normally have the same trait twice (possibly exactly to prevent starting characters from starting with powerful magic items), but if you want to make an exception, you could give him Rich Parents twice to pay for the Hat of Disguise, and everybody else gets two traits of their choice (which could be Rich Parents or something with a more enduring impact on the game).

  • Is it balanced? There's a reason why starting characters start poor. Allowing them to start with magic items will have an impact on how the game works during the first few levels.

Are you sure you still want to give him the item? Assuming you do, here are some ways to do it:

  • Just give it to him, and give everybody else something too. I'm sure they'd happily start life with a piece of magic armor or a Handy Haversack or something.

  • Use the aforementioned Pathfinder traits. There's some cool customization options in there. Effects are fairly minor, worth roughly half a trait. An extra class skill, +2 to initiative, a bonus to a single save, maybe something more unique. They may even inspire some more backstory detail for those players who don't have a cool backstory yet.

  • Take it away just before play starts, and let him find it back later. Maybe the bad guy of your starting adventure arc took it?

  • Give him a crippled version that can only disguise you as a single, specific Elf.

  • Give it to him but take something else away. If the Hat is worth about 2 Pathfinder traits, it should be worth roughly a single feat. Is he Human? Give it to him in exchange for his Human bonus feat.

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The story was originally intended for a changeling character, which is why it makes no mention of an item. The hat is a proposal for keeping the same theme while using core. I like the idea of giving everyone a one or two traits to balance the hat. –  EagleV_Attnam May 26 at 11:08
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Make it 2 traits. I failed to mention that in PF, every PC gets 2 of them. The Rich Parents trait seems worth exactly half of a Hat of Disguise. Make an exception to allow him to take it twice, and everybody else is free to choose two other traits. Alternatively, if the concept started out as a Changeling, if you think the story is cool enough to bend to rules, maybe it's easier to simply let him play a Changeling. No idea if a balanced changeling already exists for 3.5, but I'm sure others can help you there. –  mcv May 26 at 13:07

I'm briefly addressing the balance issues below, but before that - it seems that your player's rogue doesn't really need the shape changing ability at present. Assuming that the story isn't just some ploy to start play with an overpowered magic item, all the character really need is a reliable means to constantly look like an elf. This will have far less impact on the game, won't give your player powers he is not asking for as a by-product, and doesn't have to depend on a magic item which is overpowered for a starting character.

There are several ways to achieve this "human who looks like an elf" (even when asleep etc...) effect - one option is the druid spell Reincarnation - the rogue might have died as a baby / young child, and someone who cared about him (his real parents, the elves, a kind hearted durid, etc...) arranged for a Reincarnation spell - and he came back as an elf.

Balance Issues: For a new group, especially if you are sticking with "just the core" it's probably better not to allow the player to start with such an item - more so since it is rooted so deeply within the character's backstory that it will be difficult for you and upsetting for the player to nerf/remove later if the hat turns out as imbalanced/destructive. You simply don't know yet how having a shape-changer will affect your game... Moreover, consider that a first-level sorcerer can cast Disguise-Self 6 times per day at most, it is unfair and unbalanced to give a non-casting character (a rogue) unlimited and non-stop uses of this. This item costs 9 times more than the maximum starting wealth for a rogue, and, since it is very versatile, can be easily abused. In your shoes I'd look for a milder way to give the player what he wants.

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Here's another idea: Why not just build the character as an Elf (mechanically), and have the "not really an Elf" part be the fluff?

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Because the player would like to have at least some of his "mysterious past" reflected in the character mechanically, and I agree it would add to the game. Apart from adding an interesting skill to the character/party, it would also allow for some great roleplay (I think the second paragraph in Jack Lesnie's answer describes that well). –  EagleV_Attnam May 26 at 13:41
    
If the character is amongst Elves (or people who are familiar with Elves), he's going to have a hard time fully faking it. Detect Magic will easily call out his hat, and all they have to do is cast a simple Sleep spell to show he's not an Elf. It depends on how hard he's really trying to fool people. –  Josh May 26 at 14:01
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I may be interpreting his story wrong, but I'd say the elves (or at least some of them) know he's not a real elf. He assumed their shape to fit in, and to avoid uncomfortable situations, not to fool them. That, he does with everyone else. As for people familiar with elves, or those who readily Detect Magic, well, we'll see how that turns out in-game ;) –  EagleV_Attnam May 26 at 14:10
    
Not sure why the downvote on my answer, though :( This is a legitimate thing I would consider suggesting to my player in this situation. –  Josh May 26 at 14:39
    
@Josh Maybe because it doesn't answer the actual question ? (I'm not the downvoter, but I can see that as a good reason) –  Nigralbus May 30 at 12:39

In my opinion, this depends on how much you trust the player. There are some players I know I would trust with this item, and many I would not.

  • Will a 1st-level player with a Hat of Disguise upset party balance? To what amount?

    A hat of disguise shouldn't upset the inherit party balance much, but the fact that one player is allowed a wondrous item (or at least 1800gp worth of additional equipment) might ruffle some feathers. Be prepared for the rest of the party to want wondrous items if this is public knowledge. It is probably best not to give him an actual hat of disguise.

  • Will it help to give that player a related disadvantage/plot hook, eg. The player loaned the money for the hat from some dwarves, and it's time to collect?

    This could help. Having the hat stolen on top of this would be interesting. There are a lot of plots that could be hatched from the hat that could drive the party through a few levels.

  • Should I offer the other characters similar advantages?

    DM's choice. I'd say they will probably want them.

  • Should I somehow nerf the hat? Eg. one use per day?

    Once per day would be a good nerf, and reduce the impact the hat has. If the background requires him to appear differently than he does, then you could limit the hat to only show that one particular appearance. This nerfs it significantly, but still serves the original purpose.

  • Is there a general rule of thumb for balancing magic items or other advantages like this? Based on gold cost or caster level, perhaps?

    The Wealth By Level chart is usually a good indicator (and puts everyone on an even keel). Sometimes DMs will also stipulate that a character can spend no more than 25-50% of their wealth on one item (largely dependent on level, since a lvl 3 or 4 character would have one magic item worth a lot of their wealth).

    I think balance is the most important thing to consider. I've run games where I've given each player a unique and interesting item that grew with them. In terms of raw balance, they were worth much more than they should have had, but the players felt balanced with one another and it made the game more fun.

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In short, the answer to the title question "Should I allow a Wondrous Item on level 1 character creation?" is "no" unless you nerf it. Cool magic items are okay early on if they are limited.

Powerful magic items will always have game balance issues, but more so at lower levels. Higher levels usually take in to account, on some level, the potential problems that can be created by these items.

As concise set of goals, your should nerf high-level items/powers to avoid:

  • Giving a player too much of the spotlight (thus minimizing problems between players and general boredom).

  • Introducing situations where you have to consistently scramble to make the game fun and playable (so you don't have consistently assert your powers as DM to change things).

As to the specific questions asked:

  • Q: Will a 1st-level player with a Hat of Disguise upset party balance? To what amount?

    A: Yes, it will. Any magic item worth its game-breaking salt will give the player a significant advantage in that it will allow the player to bypass many situations that might otherwise involve the other players. Degree of "lack of involvement" will vary from item to item, but if it happens more than a few times a session, that is usually too much. Why do you need a party of adventurers when all the other characters are simply twiddling their thumbs waiting for their disguised rogue to bypass the guards and steal the really useful item every time?

    Rogues are specialty situations as well in that much of their lives involves personal "enrichment". So an item that allows them to go unnoticed can gain them wealth much faster than they poor slobs they fight along side. And given half a chance, many rogues won't hesitate to rob an entire town if they can get away with it. Meanwhile, the rest of their compatriots are likely busy spending their money on grog at the local tavern, cursing their "never present" wealthy "friend".

  • Q: Will it help to give that player a related disadvantage/plot hook, eg. The player loaned the money for the hat from some dwarves, and it's time to collect?

    A: Yes, it will. It can be part of the nerfing if you wish.

    For instance, perhaps the party is more likely to be found by the dwarves or their agents when it is in use. This could provide incentive not to use the item as frequently (and thus minimize its impact in-game).

  • Q: Should I offer the other characters similar advantages?

    A: Likely yes. The problem of favoritism (or perceived favoritism) is something a DM faces almost every session in various forms.

    Anecdotal experience has taught that "good" DMs (those that are perceived well by most players) minimize favoritism as much as possible. So while you can choose not to offer similar advantages to those who want them, be aware that some players may hold a grudge against you or the player you granted the item to. All players are happy to be powerful, good players will generally be happy with being equals, but only your best players (those dedicated to real role-playing) will be happy being "inferior" to their friends.

  • Q: Should I somehow nerf the hat? Eg. one use per day?

    A: Yes. See the suggestion regarding dwarves and their agents above. Once per day use is a good standard nerf for low-level characters as well. You can also allow the item increased power later if you wish (you are the DM after all -- you are only stuck with the rules you decide to have in your game).

    Perhaps it is not a Hat of Disguise but a Broken Hat of Disguise (something you made up for the nerf). Per the character's story arc, it's normal functioning is to make a character of a particular race (it's stuck magically somehow) and can only be used as a normal Hat of Disguise once per day. Later, as the story progresses and the party levels up, a way to "unbreak" the hat (so it can be used normally) can be discovered. Maybe the hat has even more powers -- with malfunctioning magic items, who knows?

  • Q: Is there a general rule of thumb for balancing magic items or other advantages like this? Based on gold cost or caster level, perhaps?

    A: Each situation is different. No mechanical (rule-based) means are likely to satisfy the requirements for game balance simply because every good magic item/power is different (monetary value, ability, possible creative uses of and combinations of player powers/items, etc.). Your best bet is to look at the item and try to imagine every possible scenario you can and whether it's a deal-breaker in allowing that item in your game at level X.

    • How will other players react to having this item in-game generally?
    • How will other players react to having this item specifically in the possession of this character/player?
    • How is this item likely to be used by the player(s) (via stated intentions or otherwise)? Peer pressure is something to consider.
    • What is the purpose of this item/power (e.g. what rules/situations is the item/power designed to circumvent)?
    • Why is the player asking for this item? Is it more for role-playing or the player's self-esteem?
    • Are there any (un)intended combination of player powers/item powers that will severely break the game? Even good players/DMs can be fall prey to oversight and unintended stacking ("Wow, every encounter is really easy! How did that happen?")
    • How wealthy will this item make my players? Even in the owner doesn't intend to sell it, will other unscrupulous players steal it and try to sell it?
    • How famous/infamous would this item be likely to make the characters in-game when the item is used by a character or otherwise discovered by a third party?
    • How will this item be used down the road? Will (un)intended stacking occur later when a character becomes more powerful and selects/develops abilities that complement the item?

Lastly, besides the negative aspects of perceived favoritism already mentioned earlier, powerful (non-nerf) items/powers can make your life as DM harder in other ways:

  • They can wreak havoc with events logically required by your carefully set-up plot and
  • Interfere with necessary player progression (primarily in the form of XP).

In regards to situation one, and using the scenario of the rogue breaking into somewhere, bypassing the guards while the players twiddle their thumbs elsewhere... what if you needed one of the guards killed? Say to perhaps allow the players to discover a second useful item, where the only logical sense for its discovery is having it relate to that particular guard/scenario?

Furthermore, in regards to situation two, what about all the XP that single player is earning and the other players aren't because of the aforementioned thumb-twiddling?

Theses are serious questions in terms of game mechanics, player jealousy/boredom, and your sanity (how many modifications do you want to do during a session and before the next one to account for unexpected problems, XP adjustments, etc.).

In summary, feel free to give players a small advantage to increase the fun factor of the normal low-level drudgery, but don't go overboard -- give them a Nerf Blaster, not a machine gun.

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well, you can always make it a cursed Hat of Disguise. It may eg. never be taken off, basically blocking your head slot for many magical items: (headband of intellect,...)

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