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I'm a noob DM. In previous campaigns, I've only given out magic items as rewards for completing quests, but players complained that they didn't have enough control over what items they wanted to use, and often threw away or sold the magic items I did give them.

So in this campaign, I've made it so that magic items can be bought and sold like any other item. I check to see how rare the item is, roll a dice to see if the magic shop at the local town has it (much higher DC for out-of-the-way towns), and tell the player they can buy it for X gold.

The problem is, this has made my players absurdly overpowered, because they check for magic items that minmax their characters beyond belief, and if they are persistent enough, can find the items they want. My players will do things such as backtrack many days away from the main quest just to get to a large town which might have the magic armor/weapon/item they want. Then they hoard gold until they can find that specific item. I don't find this fun.

My question is: how do I properly balance the doling out of magic items in 4e?

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Use wish lists.

Here's the thing, you've run into the bane of the 4e DM's existence. This is a problem I think everyone who has been a DM for 4e has run into, and there are precious few good solutions to it. Here's how I'd recommend doing it:

  1. Have every player create a wish list, have it include 10 common magic items, 4 uncommon magic items, and 1 rare item.

  2. Make a card for each one.

  3. If you want to award a specific item in a treasure parcel, great! if not, then draw them randomly from the deck you made for the given rarity of the parcel. Use the parcel generation system from the RC and award 10 per level.

  4. Stick to the item rarity rules for sales. They can only purchase common items except in certain instances (I know in our game, our DM allows us to purchase uncommon items, but they are often hard to find so there is a time constraint/delay).

  5. If they want specific items badly (especially rare items), make them side quests! Whether it's just the player in question or the whole party is after a specific set of items or whatever, these can be important character developments and make your whole table more invested in the items they are receiving.

The other option here is to scrap the item rarity update, make all magic items the same rarity and enforce the original 4e rules on daily item powers (those are found in the PHB, the long story short is that you can only use 1 item daily power per milestone period).

I'd definitely recommend you go to a wish list and treasure parcel system over returning to the pre-rarity era though.

This can be a bit of a maintenance nightmare for the players (though it sounds like your players are pretty on top of things as far as item selection goes). If they can't be bothered to keep up wish lists, then I'd award coupons for magic items for them to pick out. (a Level X rare item, a Level Y uncommon neckslot item, etc). Let your players decide who gets the item each time one is awarded.

As far as balance goes, make sure you aren't awarding or making available for sale items of too high a level (+4 I believe is what the treasure parcels use). This should keep the math good for your characters. And let's be honest here, 4e characters, especially paragon and epic tier characters are hugely powerful. They are going to chew through a lot of encounters fairly easily, though hopefully not too many of them. Item rarity enforcement should help a bit with keeping the most powerful combos at bay though.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not a real connaisseur of 4e, but wax is rubbing right on the spot. You need to ask your players "what would your character really want? (or the player want, sometimes)" and tend to give them stuff they'd want. Making sure you dont give too much to a particular character, and making sure the thingies you give out are not too strong. Giving a mage team +4 swords wont make them happy... even at level 1. "bad" magic items are better than "awesome, but i can't use". \$\endgroup\$ – Mouhgouda Dec 16 '14 at 20:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mouhgouda and that's extra important in 4e which has tight wealth by level standards that are dependent on your PCs using what they're given. \$\endgroup\$ – wax eagle Dec 16 '14 at 20:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ A wish list is a good idea. I think I will tell the players this is how things are going to work from now on. Also makes a great adventure hook to have a big bad wearing that awesome armor my player wants \$\endgroup\$ – dorfy Dec 17 '14 at 18:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd just add a few things to Wax Eagle's answer: 1) Original rules were 1 daily item power/milestone/tier 2) Another alternative is to do what Living Forgotten Realms did: they get 1 item of their choice each level. That item is an Uncommon of their level or Common of their level +3 (this was at level up, so maybe +1/+4 if you're giving out items mid-level). That way they're happy, but they don't have higher level items. 3) Part of the math assumes weapon/implement, armor, and neck level up every 5 levels. They need to get those, in particular, or they'll fall behind design specs. \$\endgroup\$ – JLan Dec 17 '14 at 22:23
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An indirect answer: If your players want to be overpowered, they will be. If you fight them on it, it will lead only to a war that will make no one happy.

More directly:

Item optimization is among the more engaging aspects of character building in 4e, and a fair number of really, really flavorful, interesting character builds only work with very specific item sets. Your players seem to enjoy it, and them knowing what they want saves you from having to sort through the multiple thousand terrible items to find decent ones to award them with.

As noted in many of the comments, 4e's math depends very heavily on every character's weapon(s) and/or implements, armor, and neck slot item being upgraded roughly every 5 levels.

On top of that, striker math more or less requires an item bonus to damage from specific weapon/implement enchants or from one of the armbands and an untyped bonus from a dragonshard, which in turn requires typed damage, which is itself most easily obtained for many builds via specific item enchants.

The difference between a naked cleric's healing word and one item-optimized for healing purposes is, at epic, 2d6+18. You may note that, at an average of 25 extra hit points gained, that's more than double the base 6d6.

There's dozens of ways you can solve the bookkeeping of allowing players to choose their own items. Wishlists are one, your current method another. A lot of DMs allow players to pick one item of level +2 upon leveling up, in addition to random, rarer item caches in the world abroad. Of those, I prefer the latter, with a fairly substantial number of the items you hand out as treasure being picked for flavor value, rather than optimization purposes.

Boots, Rings, Belts, Helmets, Gloves, Tattoos, and Alternate Rewards are less optimizable for many builds, but often have really cool effects, like walking on water, or a 1/day dominate attack, or permanent feather fall. They make fun treasure parcels, particularly if you pick something that will be useful in an upcoming challenge.

Per your concerns about the party being overpowered as a result -- that's a relatively simple thing to fix. Just increase the level of encounters you throw at them by 1 or 2, and make sure you're using updated (MM3) monster math.

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I'm a DM in a heavy magic-oriented campaign setting and had a very similar problem. My players had plenty of magic items and equipments at their disposal and the "combo potential" was rising everyday. Out of most things I devised to stop this, one came to work wonders.

I call it "Magic Jamming": Basically I made it so when a player has four or more pieces of magical equipment, any extra would have no power. E.g: Having a sword, necklace, boots and ring, then finding a helm. It would be useless to that player (The helm powers would still work and able to be identified). This could be roleplayed as: "The mystical powers that empower your items seem to interfere with each other, the helm feels common headwear in your hands."

As an add-on, any greater Artifact could be considered as two items when counting this limit.

With this, I've made the players feel more compromised with their current equipment. Some even living up for their weapons names (like "Kavator, the Volcano Hammer").

Hope this helps, sorry for my bad english.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think "give him a whole pile of magic item and then make half of them not work because reason" constitutes a really good answer at balancing the number of magic items. \$\endgroup\$ – Mouhgouda Dec 16 '14 at 20:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ This also really doesn't fit with 4e's typical magic item ethos which means it should be added to a game with incredibly great caution (since 4e's math is rather dependent on having those items available and working) \$\endgroup\$ – wax eagle Dec 16 '14 at 20:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ 4e's stock campaign settings, and thus 4e's mechanics are full to the seams with omnipresent magic. "Grittier" campaign settings don't work well with 4e's math, and tend to sacrifice player engagement for DM worldbuilding. It's not a good trade-off. \$\endgroup\$ – webbcode Dec 18 '14 at 6:16

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