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My group recently finished playing through the Tomb of Annihilation published adventure. It was most of our players' first time with 5e (including mine), and one of the differences I noticed compared with previous editions was how limited the availability of magic items appears to be. In 4e, characters regularly collect powerful magic items as quest and combat rewards. They are expected to have, at minimum, a magic weapon, magic armor, and a magic neck slot item; and typically have many more (arms, feet, head, waist, etc). But by the end of ToA, we were level 9, yet not all characters even had a magic weapon, much less armor or protective items. We did pick up some items, but most were not broadly useful and would have been classified as "Wondrous Items" in 4e.

I'm not sure if this is a limit of the adventure, an accident of how my party approached the adventure, or an attribute of the 5e system itself. ToA doesn't provide much equipable treasure from encounters; most of its rewards are miscellaneous sellables. Additionally, my group accidentally took the most direct possible path through the adventure, bypassing almost all sidequests and spending little to no time in any location other than the Tomb. So we were never in a position to sell those various gems and artworks, either to buy gear or do anything else.

However, from what I've read of 5e overall, it's a much lower-magic system than previous editions. Magic items are considered rare and priceless, and there are few places to buy or sell them. On top of that, 5e's "bounded accuracy" model means the system doesn't expect players to stack up lots of small bonuses. This suggests 5e doesn't require players to wield powerful magic weapons to fight high-level mosters; or to wear powerful magic armor to defend against deadly attacks. But that raises the question of, what are all those sellables for, if not to buy magic items?

I'm considering running a game in a homebrew setting, and trying to decide whether 5e is the right system to use (versus attempting to run 4e without access to all those lovely but unfortunately Silverlight-based web tools). The setting is fairly high-magic but does not contain a lot of large cities where players could do anything useful with sellable treasure, or find those rare few places to buy magic gear or other items.

Is it expected in 5e that players mostly receive sellables as rewards? If so, are players expected to sell the sellables for cash and then buy magic items? (And if so to that, then where do players buy magic items?) Or are players expected to not ever need magic items, and any cash they can get from sellable rewards is just a nice retirement cushion?

On the other hand, is Tomb of Annihilation an outlier in treasure distribution and in a different setting, players could expect to receive more magic items directly?

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I can't speak for previous editions, having not played them myself, but based on yours and others descriptions and trying to read some questions 3.5 magic item pricing, I am confident in saying 5e generally expects fewer magic items.

Using the Awarding Magic Items section found in Xanathar's Guide to Everything (page 135) we can see that by 10th level a party is expected to have found 6 major magic items (which includes most magical weapons and armour) divided as 5 uncommon items and 1 rare. This matches quite well with not everyone have a magical weapon and some form of magical protection. I haven't played ToA myself, but this description does not appear to make it an outlier by the game's own recommendations.

The Random Treasure tables found in the Dungeon Master's Guide (starting at page 133) is supposed to generate the above magic item distribution (on average) and does generate a fair chunk of art items, gems, as well as hard currency. The former two has little provided use other than to be sold (Creative uses and use as spell components are relevant here, but not too much). Seeing as both sets of guidelines (DMG and Xanathar's) leave explicit magic item prices out (they are left to the DM's discresion) and the DMG rules include (p. 135; emphasis mine):

If your campaign allows for trade in magic items, rarity can also help you set prices for them.

Which leaves very clearly open the possibility that buying of magic items being impossible (for any amount of money) very clearly a DM's option, possibly even the default. Therefore the system does not fundamentally expect magic items to be present, and certainly you should be perfectly fine not to have magic item sale (widely) available in your world. If you do wonder what all those Art items and the gold from them is good for, I recommend this question, with the short answer that gold is useful for all the kinds of things you can by in our world (ignoring technological differences), such as people (both in the bribery and hire-y meanings), horses, etc.

What does the number of magic items do to your world/campaign?

This is maybe the most relevant question you didn't ask, and I think the part that will be the most useful. I'm in part translating "fairly high-magic [setting]" to mean; I want to have a lot of magic items about. To which my response is: Go for it, remembering a few things.

In my own homebrew campaign the players have decidedly more magic items than Xanathar's recommends.1 This has, in particular in terms of combat mean that the party can handle tougher combats than they should according to the DMG. Also, note that the same characters are fairly well optimized which has a similar effect. You will always have to adjust combat (and other) encounters to your PCs/players/playstyle, magic items (absence or excess) is no exception to that. I would recommend using (semi)empirical methods though, ie. start normal to low and scale up if thats too easy. (Much harder to scale down if you've accidentally TPK'd.) The non-combat challenges is harder to say, mine tend to solve it with their plethora of spells, and for homebrew campaigns difficulty will depend entirely on what kind of challenges you set them relative to the tools (spells, magic items, applicable art items), etc.) they have at their disposal. Available magic items will affect this, but hey, you are in control of what magic items they have.


1: The actual number isn't actually too far up, but the power level/rarity definitely is, which is mostly an artifact of me liking to write my own magic items.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The Starting at Higher Level section of the DMG is also a good reference for this, as it suggests that even a top-tier (17th-20th) character in a standard campaign should start with merely a couple of uncommon magic items and one rare (though a character actually played up to that level using random treasure distribution would probably be somewhat better equipped). \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Jul 18 at 7:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! I think your answer and the question you linked both indicate 5e isn't the right system for my game, but I'm glad to know that now rather than realizing it partway through the campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – thatgirldm Jul 19 at 17:52

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