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I often read that magic item progression is built into the game's difficulty, and that it's important for PCs to keep up with the progression in order to not fall behind.

Exactly what progression is "built in" and "necessary" for a PC?

For example, I usually buy an anklet of translocation for most of my PCs around level 5, and I also usually buy a ability-boosting item around level 6. I imagine the game anticipates that ability boost, but it probably doesn't anticipate the anklet.

Similarly, most players I know like to buy a handy haversack at some point between levels 6 and 12. I don't imagine the game designers built that into the CR of the monsters.

The Book of Exalted Deeds, on pg 31, provides a chart of progression for characters who take a vow of poverty. Is this about what the game designers had in mind for magic item progression? (And if so, how do you account for the bonus feats?)

Another way of asking this same question is this: there is a published Wealth by Level chart. How much of that gold is sort-of allocated to necessary magic items (resistances, weapon enhancements, ability boosts, etc.) and how much of it is allocated to strange wondrous items don't directly influence the PC's numeric values? (like an anklet of translocation, a wand of silent image, a handy haversack, etc.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Wasn't The Book of Exalted Deeds originally intended for NPCs only? I think you might have a bad example. \$\endgroup\$ – J. Mini Dec 30 '19 at 21:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @J.Mini I see nothing in the book that suggests it is NPC-only. It does suggest, perhaps, a greater level of DM-oversight than other books when a player takes its options, but that certainly doesn’t suggest that Vow of Poverty was expected to never be taken by player characters. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 30 '19 at 21:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Since you bring up Vow of Poverty, note that we have a question on its power and utility—the overwhelming response is that it has none. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 30 '19 at 21:22
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Wizards of the Coast has never explicitly stated what they built into their designs for 3.5e; it’s only apparent from the progression of monster stats as one progresses from one CR to the next. And since CR is wildly inconsistent, that is not an easy thing to do.

That said, while Wizards of the Coast never delineated their process to the point that they said that they built in certain items, we do have some hints. Magic Item Compendium refers to “must-have” item effects, acknowledging that some items are not to be skipped.

One of the most frustrating roadblocks to using interesting, unusual magic items is that they take up body slots that you need for an ability-boosting item (such as gauntlets of ogre power), a ring of protection, or another must-have item. To address this issue, Magic Item Compendium presents official rules for adding common item effects to existing items.

(Magic Item Compendium, pg. 233)

If they know—or, at least, believe—that players will not skip these effects, it stands to reason that this influences their monster design.

The particular effects that they list in this section are as follows:

  • Deflection bonus to AC from body, ring, or shoulder slots
  • Armor bonus to AC from arm or body slots
  • Enhancement to natural armor bonus to AC from body or torso slots
  • Enhancement bonus to each ability score, from various body slots
  • Resistance to energy in body, ring, shoulder, or torso slots
  • Resistance bonus to all saving throws, in shoulder or torso slots

(from Table 6–11: Adding/Improving Common Item Effects, Magic Item Compendium pg. 234)

Moreover, it’s almost-certain that expectations regarding the magic on warriors’ weapons was also considered in the design of encounters. Certainly, the prevalence of damage reduction requiring particular weapons increases significantly with CR.

It may be worth noting at this point that Pathfinder has much the same concept, in the “Big 6” “mandatory” magic items, five of which provide bonuses from MIC’s list (energy resistance excepted), and the sixth of which is that magic weapon I mentioned. I don’t know if Paizo has ever commented on or codified the “Big 6” but that concept is certainly widely found in Pathfinder-playing circles.

Despite all this, however, there is also a question of how much Wizards of the Coast understood the nature of their own game, which leads to questions about how much of the things players talk about as mandatory were expected or intended to be so, and how much of it is emergent behavior reacting to the overall rules and players’ experiences. For example, there are all kinds of things that require magic to interact with, which for non-magic classes means magic items. Was Wizards of the Coast aware of the prevalence of these, and their impact on the game? It’s not entirely clear. If you want to interact with a lot of content, you are going to need answers to things like flight and teleportation, illusions, fear and mind-control, and so on. There exist answers to these in item form, in generally-increasing reliability as one pays more gold for them. Was it understood and expected for players to carefully purchase items to ensure “coverage” for these situations, or was it expected that there would be situations in which a player character simply had no answer and could not contribute directly in that instance—and that was OK? We don’t really know. Certainly, most players seem to prefer to avoid that, hence the various guides, handbooks, and questions here about how to get coverage and keep a character contributing.

The often-unspoken assumption that players make when they tell other players that certain items are “mandatory” is that their audience consists of players who want their characters to continue to be able to act and contribute to the challenges that they face—that this is, in effect, what it means to “play” the game, and that players want to play.

But there might be evidence that Wizards of the Coast didn’t get that. For example, nearly half of Table 6–11 referenced above refers to a way to get more AC, and indeed, you need all those things in order for your AC to stay at a point where monsters have a reasonable chance of missing you. The problem is, they cost a ton—all-but-ensuring you won’t have good “coverage” of all the special cases an adventurer needs to deal with. And that’s just to get “decent” AC. As a result, by mid levels, the overwhelming majority of characters wind up kind of just giving up on AC—it costs too much to get enough to matter, so characters often just focus on other defenses to protect them from attacks and more. So while these AC bonuses do very much seem to be “expected” by the game’s monster design, players’ responses seem to have not been. The quoted section of Magic Item Compendium refers to a ring of protection as “must-have,” but really a whole lot of characters will sell one if they find one, particularly for higher deflection bonuses, as they are quite expensive.

And since you bring it up in the question, it should be mentioned that Vow of Poverty is particularly strong evidence that Wizards of the Coast had no idea what items were most important, since that feat is 100% bad for a character, 100% of the time. It could be those particular authors—Book of Exalted Deeds is a particularly poor book overall, not just Vow of Poverty—but it might suggest some serious deficiencies in Wizards’ understanding of the game.

Nonetheless, the notion of “coverage”—which I haven’t seen in any Wizards of the Coast publication—is very common and very important. The necessity of magic—which, again, for mundane classes means magic items—is very much baked into the game, even if it sometimes it seems like Wizards of the Coast themselves weren’t aware they were doing it. It’s why wealth by level becomes so utterly crucial, and why substandard wealth hurts the weakest classes most.

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A lot depends on your character class.

Martial characters will need to spend increasingly large amounts of money on beating monster damage reduction. At first they will need silver weapons, then +1 weapons; they might need adamantium or cold iron too. Later they'll need aligned weapons as well.

As one example (from https://www.d20srd.org/srd/monsters/demon.htm), a CR2 Dretch has damage reduction "5/cold iron or good"; a CR9 Vrock has damage reduction "10/good"; a CR20 Balor has damage reduction "15/cold iron and good". If you're fighting devils, they have silver-based damage reduction and you'll need a separate weapon to handle that.

Anyone who wants to make melee attacks (or to avoid enemies that make melee attacks) will need to be able to fly. Anyone who makes any attacks will want a source of haste.

Most characters will want a bonus to saving throws (eg, a cloak of resistance). Most characters will eventually want protection from death effects. Most characters will eventually want freedom of movement. Some characters might want true sight or mind blank or similar protections. The magic items that provide these are quite expensive.

As KRyan correctly notes, you might think that AC boosts would be valuable (amulet of natural armor, ring of protection, bonuses to armor and shield), but in practice they're very expensive and the monsters will hit you anyway. (Of course, if you completely neglect AC, the monsters will power attack you.) Anyone who's planning to be in melee combat at high levels might want a cloak of displacement, or to consider a different line of work.

Of course you can solve a lot of this if you're a spellcaster, or if you're good friends with a spellcaster.


You've asked what fraction of wealth by level is allocated to "must-have" items, to keep up with the monster difficulty. Unfortunately I don't have a good answer for that.

Some of it will depend on the DM. I've known DMs that would keep track of what damage resistances the group can bypass, and deliberately choose monsters they can't deal with effectively. Other DMs might spend the whole campaign battling against humanoids with no special damage resistances.

Some of it will depend on your character class. Anyone that gets in melee combat with monsters will need to spend all their money and still won't keep up with monster damage output. Spellcasters can spend most of their money on weird optional stuff.

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