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In the Legend and Lore articles where Mike Mearls explains the design goals of D&D 5e, he mentions in one of them that there will be no assumption that character acquire magical weapons and armor.

First, we don't assume magic items are part of a character's abilities. The math behind the system assumes that you receive only the specific abilities and bonuses granted by your character class and race.

However, in the DMBasic rules there are a bunch of creatures that are immune (And many more that are resistant) to bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage from nonmagical weapons. Further more, the Basic rules make it very clear that Magic is a large and assumed part of D&D, having it's own Part 3, and having a strong introduction in the beginning. Was Mike Mearls mistaken in that article? Did the design goals change? What is going on?

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I may not have looked thoroughly enough, but I don't see very many that are immune to damage from all mundane weapons. Many have DR of some sort, but that is far from being immune. –  Red_Shadow Aug 20 at 13:36
@Red_Shadow Golems and werewolves mostly in the DM book. And the recently revealed Tarrasque –  GMNoob Aug 20 at 13:42

5 Answers 5

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Though at first glance it might appear, that if the DM does not give out magical weapons, then many monsters in the DM guide book will make half of the party irrelevant unless the DM gives out magical items and thus the game is dependent on magical items, unlike what the article states. However, a close look at the classes and character abilities reveals that this is not the case.

Firstly, there is the spell "Magic weapon", and "Elemental weapon", which will make any non magical weapon, into a magical weapon. Magic weapon however only works on one weapon as it is a concentration spell, and is not available until 3rd level as it's a level 2 spell available to Wizards, Paladins and War Domain Clerics.

At level 6, the Monk and Circle of the Moon Druids both get abilities which make their unarmed or natural attacks count as magical weapon attacks.

The Paladin and Warlock at third level gains an ability to have their weapon count as magical. The warlock through the Blade Pact boon, and the Paladin through the Sacred Weapon channel divinity.

Looking over the monsters in the DM Basic rules, no creature has immunities to nonmagical weapons below CR5 (Meaning these immunities should not be encountered until the party is a high enough level to deal with them) save the Werewolf, however the werewolf's immunities can by bypassed by magical weapons or silvered weapons. Silvered weapons can be obtained by spending 100 gold per weapon in just about any location that sells weapons.

So while the players handbook makes it very clear that magic is still a big part of D&D, and magic in general is assumed in the game, the delivery of special magic items from the DM to the players is not. Teamwork, and resourcefulness and character abilities, will allow you to overcome any challenge without requiring magic items, or making magic items part of the assumed progression of character development.

Ofcourse as a DM, one should make sure that the party has the necessary information to prepare for battles where immunities of any kind might completely shut down a player.

It is worth noting, that perhaps unlike in other versions of D&D, in 5e the math is used partially to enhance the story, and partially to "fade to the background" while playing the game.

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Additionally, being "Immune to non-magical weapons" does not make a monster immune to either burning or drowning. Even beginning low-level PCs should be able to figure out how to make that work for them. –  RBarryYoung Aug 20 at 16:48
You're looking at this from a mechanical perspective. I think their design is more story-driven. You aren't expected to have magic weapons, but you're expected to need them eventually, and that gives an obstacle to overcome. Whether your teammates "gotcha covered bro" or you retreat to better prepare yourselves, you're building story. –  AndrewK Aug 21 at 20:47
@AndrewK If you are expected to need magic weapons eventually, then you are expected to have magic weapons, and they should then become part of the calculations of expected progression. –  GMNoob Aug 22 at 11:29
I don't disagree with what you're saying. It seems like their math is designed to serve the storytelling aspect of the game - that WotC's decisions flowed from this, and it's the key point to be made in an answer. By contrast, in previous editions the math served other purposes and was frequently at odds with storytelling mechanics. –  AndrewK Aug 23 at 0:21

Accuracy Curve

The article talks about the issue of the math behind the attack/AC accuracy curve.

3rd Edition and 4th Edition both assumed you would have certain magical bonuses as weapons or armor at specific levels just to keep up with the math of the monsters at those levels as well. 5E ditches that so that you are no longer required to have those bonuses just to hit things or not get hit all the time.

Damage Immunity and Setting Scale

D&D in general assumes at least some magic, and some magical items. If you decide to go for a low magic setting, certain things change from "default" D&D play.

Consider the difference between a monster in an action movie vs. a monster in a horror movie - typically the monster in the horror movie is more dangerous just because no one has the knowledge or the tools to deal with it. In an action movie, 100s of werewolves might just be the 'average minion', but in a horror movie a single werewolf is an overwhelming threat.

If we look at fantasy, you can see in both Conan and Lord of the Rings several creatures are pretty nasty and the only answer is to run or find a rare magical way of defeating them.

If you decide to do low or no magic items, you either decide: a) those monsters don't really show up, b) those monsters are rare and a BIG deal, perhaps undefeatable in most circumstances, c) those monsters are frequent and humanity is living a scarce and marginal life trying avoid them.

Out the math, easy hacking

One thing that taking the math of the accuracy/AC curve out of magic weapons is that it becomes trivially easy to hack those damage immunity scales to your game. Instead of going "Ok, at level 3 it's a 1 AC I need to take off, but at level 22 it's 8 AC I need to cut down just to make this work..." you can just go, "Ok, it's damage resistant, rather than immune", "It takes only 1 point of damage per weapon die, that's it." etc.

You can scale it up or down or remove damage immunity altogether without having to do a lot of complicated math, especially with the diverging attack numbers of the different classes.

It'll be interesting to see how specifically they address this issue in the DMG, since it's been said that the goal of that book will be to give DM's the nitty gritty of design and options to modify their campaign.

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5th edition Dungeons & Dragons has "bounded accuracy", which means that the various numbers on your character sheet don't go up that fast with level than they did in previous editions. It is that what Mike Mearls refers to when he talks about "the math behind the system".

In systems where the numbers go up faster with level, it is often assumed that characters of a certain level have a certain degree of pluses in their weapon so that in an encounter designed by standard rules they have a suitable chance of actually hitting the monsters. Due to bounded accuracy in 5th edition, the math of the new edition still works if the players don't have those pluses.

The DM decision of whether and how many magical weapons to hand out relates to his choice of campaign world: Is it a world in which magic and magic items are very common? Or is it a low-magic world in which even a +1 longsword would be very rare? That choice of campaign world obviously will also influence the choice of monsters the players encounter. In a world with little or no magical weapons, you wouldn't use monsters that can only be hit by magical weapons very frequently.

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The concern (at least in my view) isn't so much the accuracy or damage, but the fact that numerous high level creatures resist or are immune to non-magic'd weapon damage. The idea that you simply "wouldn't use" the bulk of high level monsters seems...strange –  wax eagle Aug 20 at 12:52
If it seems less strange to you, how about just modifying those monsters? In a low magic campaign world, you could just make them not immune to non-magical weapons. –  Tobold Aug 20 at 13:10
@waxeagle It's no stranger than not having magic items in the campaign. If the DM's world doesn't include magic weapons, it's fitting to also not include monsters that are impervious to all but magic weapons… –  SevenSidedDie Aug 20 at 16:08

If everyone in the party had magic weapons it means that the party bypasses a lot of monster mechanics. You would no longer need silvered weapons against werewolves nor adamantite weapons against golems. Also, ignoring most damage resistances means that there are basically no longer any monsters resistant to normal weapon attacks. This takes away a lot from monster diversity.

Anyhow, all monsters can be overcome with mundane weapons. Just have some of the right material at hand when you expect to encounter them. Monsters that are just resistant can easily be overcome by just dealing twice the damage. If you think that this is unfair to weapon users then you haven't seen the plethora of resistances against magic, and magic users can't get any magic weapon that lets them magically ignore almost all resistances and immunities they will ever face.

So I'd say that this system expects your party to not have any magic weapons at all. Every magic weapon you give them trivializes a lot of things, so even the worst of the worst magic weapon will be useful to a level 20 character. A level 20 fighter would still use his +1 club from time to time if you haven't given him anything better simply because it can penetrate all of these damage resistances and immunities.

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I feel that the idea here is not that you don't need/won't have magic weapons at all, but rather to get rid of the 3rd/4th ed requirement that characters be loaded up like a christmas tree in order to be effective. In 3ed ed characters had to have pretty much every slot filled with performance-boosting items, and 4th ed at the very least required a level-appropriate weapon, armour and NAD-boosting item. I like the idea that 5th ed will feel more like older editions in that while magic items will exist, they will be relatively rarer and more special and thus valued by their owners. That flame tongue sword you get at your career mid-point may well be the one you still have at the big campaign finale.

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