How much knowledge do NPC sellers of magic items have about the magic items that exist in the world?

Let's make it more specific and talk only about wondrous items sellers.

More info:

Players creating a character are likely to look at the manuals available to find the "best items" for their character (I call it the PC gamer bias).

Now, I discussed this with one of my friends and his point was that, in spite of the limited number of items in a city or a metropolis, their character would know about the "best items" for themselves and would keep looking for them.

This is not considered metagaming by the player as he assumes that if their character were to ask to every seller the best item they would easily find the information about the existence (and location) of the item the player is looking for. Otherwise the seller could create one for the character. This assumption is supported by the existence of spells that allow communication in a way that was impossible in middle age.

My view is that in the medieval/fantasy setting of D&D it is very unlikely that the shops in a nation would know very much about other nations. Communication is considered a treasure to hide (like mathematicians did with their theorems). Shops in a city are likely to sell the same thing with variations (like the katana and wakizashi or 3-4 types of spears in Japan) and would not know much of other weapons (nor imagine to create one).

I understand my view may be wrong as it is influenced by historical knowledge.

Is there anywhere I can find more information and inspiration on how to handle this?

Reference How do I handle shops in Pathfinder?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this can be answered for 3.5 generally. A setting needs to be attached to this, even if it's your homebrew setting (in which case it needs to be described for advice to be offered). You may also be interested in this question and this question, both about magic item availability. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13, 2022 at 4:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan thanks for the point. The setting idea of population,economical, hierarchical, religious position is similar to Europe of 1300 - 1400. We wonder if this would realistic in a world where people can use teleport or open portals or send messages all around the world. \$\endgroup\$
    – Digius
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 10:58
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Saying that the setting is the Canterbury Tales but with magic is a good start, but that raises a number of other questions: How new is magic? How tightly is it controlled? Can anyone learn it? Even in the Wizarding World of Geoffrey Chaucer, if magic is old, uncontrolled, or universal, then that impact is vast and—obviously—unlike anything ever known IRL, and the setting's author determines how that plays out. D&D assumes magic's all three. so, seriously, this might be a better Worldbuilding SE question… or require switching systems to, like, Ars Magica to realize your fantasy vision. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13, 2022 at 13:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan thanks. Any manual of D&D or external that is good to help a DM choosing the structure of the words but, especially, understanding the implications of such choice? I remember reading various things in the DM and always wandered how nobles with a total of 10k Golds treasure are able to protect their treasures from creatures that can access magic and, let's say, are level 10 (or more). To answer your questions in our d&s setting magic is old, 30% of people at least will access it eventually and is not banned in most places. \$\endgroup\$
    – Digius
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 6:33

4 Answers 4


There is an easy answer to this, and that is skills such as Knowledge: Arcana. Assign scores to NPCs and roll for knowledge. Make the DC to know about something, perhaps 10 + (2 x caster level req).

You are the DM and there is no internet in the D&D world. People will only know about what influences their lives unless they have specifically studied. Furthermore, wizards historically value knowledge about all else and are loathe to share it. If they do not have something but know where/how to get it, they are likely to charge a not-insignificant fee or even a quest/task as the price to pay for their knowledge.

In fact, I would go a step further and say that players had to roll knowledge skills to have this information themselves, or else they would not even know what to ask for other than "do you have something that could keep me from being turned to stone" or something like that. And maybe the answer they received would be a resounding "yes," and it's just an oil or something that can cure petrification instead of a permanent wondrous item that stops gaze attacks.

It's your world. Also note that you can allow other skills like Gather Information to be used as well if you feel their use would be appropriate. Knowledge: arcana is just one obvious example. Other skills might afford the same or alternate information.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you used either of those proposed systems at your table? Did either work? Where there hiccups or issues with, say, the bard being able to know all the things (as is their wont)? \$\endgroup\$
    – minnmass
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 13:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @minnmass Bardic knowledge isn't free info. It's more like a knowledge skill that works for everything, and its results can be vague. Most importantly, you still set target DCs. There is a chart available with some suggested difficulties, but as the DM you can expand that however you wish. And to answer your question, my table allows no player knowledge. Anything an average npc wouldn't know and that the pcs hadn't been exposed to directly requires the relevant knowledge checks. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13, 2022 at 16:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ There are multiple potentially-relevant skills here; requiring precisely one skill is not a good approach. Gather Information, other Knowledge skills, potentially Spellcraft, I’d even put in Appraise, and there may well be more. Allowing multiple character types too participate in finding the right item is good for the game; preventing that is bad for it. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 17:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan good point, updated \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 13, 2022 at 18:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ In my experience Knowledge: Arcana is used much more often than Gather Information. Thus, I always used the later when opportunity arose. Knowledge check might tell you if you already know, but players who invented in Gather Information are salty (and rightly so!) if someone is using much more popular skill to effectively do just that, gather information, find out who knows etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 23:00

"I can get that for you"

Renaissance mathematicians did not keep their theorems secret because they were mysterious; they kept them secret to profit from them.

Trade in the middle-ages was complex and widespread.

(c) Martin Mnsson https://imgur.com/MsXaOdV

Many German and French cities had annual trade fairs at which you could buy British wool, Chinese silk, African ivory, Indian spices, and Russian furs. Medeteraian, Black Sea and Baltic ports were all interconnected through Europe's rivers and the bodyguard of the Byzantine Emporer would contain Scandinavians, Italians, Spaniards and Germans. Arab traders would call at West African, Indian and Indonesian ports. Important cities were Constantinople, Baghdad, Samarkand, and Beijing; not tiny towns like London, Paris and Rome.

Since this is an English language site, our general knowledge of World history tends to have an English bias. We think of British and European history as world history - it isn't. In the middle-ages, Britain and, to a lesser extent, Europe was a backwater and it was only through the subsequent Age of Exploration and exploitation of the Americas that the centre of world power shifted. No doubt, in 1,000 years when Mandarin is the world's dominant language, people then will have a different bias about history now.

For the right price, the merchant could source the exact item the PC wants. Of course, there's no way the merchant will tell the PC how to get it themselves. There's no profit in that.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Love this answer, thank you. Any suggestions on guessing how much the seller would ask for an item they know is produced on the other side of the world? \$\endgroup\$
    – Digius
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 4:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Digius pinterest.com.au/pin/490188740674821926 \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 8:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ hahahhahahaha I like the concept of selling "feces for gold" \$\endgroup\$
    – Digius
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 11:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Reminds me of an article Dragon #337 p.78, detailing a magic item shop named Maldin and Elenderi's, which can acquire just about any item within a week, although at a steep 20% fee. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 15, 2022 at 15:39

Of course they would know.

Normally anyway. Obviously, you can set whatever bespoke rules or setting info you want as GM, but it doesn’t sound like your players would be into that.

When you go to a hardware store, do you go looking for specific items, or do you just browse around hoping to find something useful?

Of course there is space for something to catch your eye, or for you to discover that the store is out of wrenches. But it’s not at all weird to go to a store to buy a normal tool.

Likewise, it’s not weird for adventurers to know the tools of their trade; it’s what you would expect.

Now, would they know whether a sword is “+1”? Depends on your setting, but generally no. However, unless you’re all having a LOT of fun with haggling over items, you probably want to just let them use that as a shorthand.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Commented May 16, 2022 at 15:37

There are no rules here, and it’s best not to invent any

The official rules don’t describe this at all. There are references to the idea that you can (or perhaps even should) randomly generate what’s available in any given town, and that characters can and should be motivated to go on journeys and quests by the search for particularly desired magic items that don’t show up.

But how they know about such a magic item isn’t described at all. Nor, for that matter, is it explained how a wizard knows which spells are available for scribing, or a cleric knows what spells they can pray for, and so on. The rules don’t even bother to say that this is just common knowledge for members of the appropriate classes—instead, the rules are just silent about it. It’s just assumed that one way or another, quests to find the perfect magic item are a likely activity for a D&D character, and how they figured out they should go on that quest is left entirely undescribed—or, in other words, entirely up to the DM. The rules just kind of breeze right past this concern, and leave it up to players to decide items to pursue and the DM to decide how that pursuit happens in the world.

It is metagaming—and it’s a good thing

The usual route to handling equipment at most tables in my experience is, when the party reaches an appropriate bastion of civilization and has some downtime, the players—not the player characters, the players—decide what they want to sell and what they want to buy. There is a timeskip and at the end of it, the player characters have sold the things the players decided to sell, bought the things the players have decided to buy, and have the appropriate amount of gold left afterwards.

Who, when, where, and how are not addressed in any fashion. Asking “how did the character know about an item that wasn’t just on the shelves?” is nonsensical under this approach, because we never even bothered to determine what items were on the shelves, or that the characters bought these items off of a shelf in the first place. Someway, somehow, it happened, and that’s all that matters.

There are several very good reasons to play things this way:

  • It’s fast, and gets the adventurers back to the adventure quicker, which is what most people want.

  • It’s easy, and helps to mitigate some of the serious balance problems in the system. More on this in a bit.

  • It actually helps verisimilitude—because there are metagame needs being addressed here that don’t bear much scrutiny, it’s good to not focus on it.

Of course, you don’t have to do things this way. Not every group I’ve played with has. In fact, at most tables, this isn’t the initial approach to items—this is what evolves after trying to roleplay out the whole thing and finding that it just takes too much time and isn’t satisfying or interesting enough to be worth it. But your group can evaluate the most worthy ways to spend your game time for yourselves, and come to different conclusions.

But what you do “have to” do, at least for your own sanity running the game, is ensure that player characters wind up with the items that the players pick out. Magic items are absolutely crucial in D&D 3.5e—this is a system utterly dominated by magic, but in which not all characters actually get their own magic. Magic items are the only way to mitigate that fundamental problem—they aren’t generally enough, but their lack is often felt very quickly indeed. And I don’t just mean the lack of magic items at all—very often, even just the lack of the right magic items is game-crippling. There are must-have items for all but the most powerful characters—denying characters their preferred items means only those most powerful characters get what they need. And you, as DM, don’t need yet another huge responsibility on your plate, so figuring out what’s needed for each character is left up to that character’s player. If you don’t do this, you are punishing the least-powerful classes, which has the most must-have items, and over time your players are likely to respond by gravitating towards the most-powerful classes, for whom items are much more likely to be merely nice-to-have.

Anything else takes tons of time—and mostly just highlights the problem

One way or another, you have to come up with some solution that gets the players’ chosen items into the hands of their respective characters. Hand-waving is the quick, easy way to make that happen. You could play it out in a really basic way by just having the items the players chose happen to be the items on the shelves. You could introduce skill checks to find out about items’ existence or whereabouts. There could be whole quests involved. Player choices of items could be less “shopping list” and more “wish list,” that you use the populate future loot drops.

But in all cases, you still need to get the right items into the player characters’ hands. And the more elaborate you get, the greater the risk of the player characters failing—and then you need a back-up plan to handle that failure, but still get the item into the player character’s hands.

All of these things take a lot of effort from you, the DM, and also take a lot of time at the table. None of them produce particularly great results—so long as failure isn’t an option, and it’s not, they all strain verisimilitude. So the decision by most tables, in my experience, is that they just don’t, because it isn’t worth it to them. If you’re thinking differently, you have to be ready for the fact that trying to improve matters here comes at a big cost, which means that this better be “worth” a whole lot.

And even then, the most likely result is that you’ll be focusing on item-finding quite a lot, but it won’t actually look or feel all that realistic. So you’ll only succeed in drawing a lot of attention to the problem—which only hurts immersion.

Finally, you have to keep in mind that you have to game with a group. It kind of sounds like your group wants to pretty much just buy exactly what they want and then move on. They would seem to prefer, then, that all of the above get reduced to a simple montage that you narrate as a timeskip happens—if even that. Making them play through it every time might get old. They might not enjoy it. They might decide that there are other, more enjoyable ways to spend their time. So you should probably discuss it with them before you go too far down the road of implementing something more.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That right there is a great answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Commented May 15, 2022 at 16:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan wow, what an answer. Thank you I appreciate it. Trying to expand on this from a world building perspective. Would this mean that most NPCs in the world with the same class would have very similar items just because "everyone knows what are the best items for that class"? (When I say "best" I have in mind online guides to classes in which they give grades to races, items, feats etc.). I'm just trying to figure out how the world in my campaign would look like. \$\endgroup\$
    – Digius
    Commented May 16, 2022 at 7:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Digius No, almost none of this applies to anyone else in the world since (at least under the default rules) almost everyone else 1. has an NPC class and NPC wealth, and 2. isn’t an adventurer and has very few levels. This things mean their needs are extremely different, as are their means. A +2 longsword is worth roughly the same kind of money as a palatial estate, or a top-of-the-line trading vessel. It’s also nearly worthless to a farmer. Adventurers are preposterously wealthy—but staying alive as an adventurer is preposterously expensive. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented May 16, 2022 at 12:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Digius Beyond that, the rules assume the PCs are special, even compared to PC-classed adventuring NPCs. And in any event, different members of the same class may have different must-have items—but for low-power classes, we can be sure there will be some, because that class isn't providing everything they need out of the box (kind of by definition, if it did, it wouldn't be low-power). \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented May 16, 2022 at 12:33

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