At one point my party cleric found a magic item that allowed him to pull anything smaller than the item out of it, like a Star Trek replicator. Now nothing is a challenge for him anymore. How would I make the item less powerful without just saying "your item is now less powerful" and breaking the immersion of the game by violating continuity?
The great part about magical items is that they can be damaged or weaken by quite a few factors.
Several things can be done in-story to weaken this item.
Add a slow, yet noticeable curse. For example, if he uses the bag too many times, the items that are pulled from there are red hot, burning his hand when he pulls them out. The more he uses it, the bigger the damage die. Or, you could start having him roll on random tables, and the more the bag is used the less likely it is that the desired item will be pulled out. If it acts slowly, it could explain why it has so far gone unnoticed.
Add some external, magic-disturbing force. If your characters enter an enter affected by Wild magic surges, who's to tell what can happen to spells or magical items. This could give context to why the item's power fades slightly. Also, entering an antimagic field can disrupt the power of some of the most legendary items, why not this bag?
Have someone steal the real bag and replace it with a fake, weaker version. Does he hold this bag close to him, but brags about it in crowded taverns? A thief with sticky hands might decide to trick him into thinking a false bag is the real thing, while stealing his actual bag.
Can the bag be slightly damaged? If the bag by some unfortunate accident is torn a bit or some water damages its lining, perhaps it only works on some attempts instead of every time he uses it. Maybe the selection of items is reduced, as the part of the bag which created those items has been damaged.
There are several other options, but at the end of the day if nothing seems to be satisfactory, simply talk to the player about this. He might be able to offer suggestions that will allow the preservation of his immersion, which is the point of all this.
You can play on the fact the Cleric don't already know everything about this item. Maybe it's simply weaker in a way not easily noticeable. For example there may be an invisible substance that is consumed as the bag is used which replenishes slowly or only when you put items back in the bag (making it have a limited number of charges). Alternatively there may be a small chance that each time it is used it just explodes (if you suddenly make the cleric roll he will have some doubts so you will have to find a better way). Maybe the bag only leads to a pocket dimension where there is all the item he needed so far, but as the owner of this dimension realized some where missing he started to clear the place.
A other solution is not to make it weaker but add a contextual reason why it shouldn't be used too much. Maybe it's a relic from an evil god who recover some power each time the item is used. Maybe a demon takes a bit of your soul worthing the value of the item each time you use it. Maybe the Cleric's god don't want him to use it for whatever reason.
With these two solutions the hardest part will be to make the PCs learn about the change. It could be a NPC who just tell them or the god of the Cleric.
You can also make the PC lose the item. Please don't make it just stolen: the PC will do everything to get it back and nothing good will ensue. The best is to make the PC choose to lose the item, for example because it's the key to Doom Vault where is the only way to save the world, or because a mighty creature offer them to solve a very big problem if they give him the item, or because the item becomes conscious and asks to leave... The key being that the player should not feel it like a loss.
As the cleric reaches to pull out the nth item, he finds nothing inside the item. Careful investigation (a relatively easy Intelligence or Wisdom check should do) reveals that the item operates on limited charges.
Charges that refresh by themselves
There are plenty of X uses/day abilities in D&D canon. There are X/week abilities, and even X/year abilities. Make X however many items the cleric has already created in the last day/week/whatever. If he creates a lot of items per day, make it a weekly power - he made 10 items today, 9 items yesterday...but there are 19 uses per week. If it's been longer than a week since he's started using it (he made 100 items last week, for example) make it a monthly or yearly power - there are 100 uses all year, you just used them all.
As soon as the necessary time is up, the charges come back, and the cleric is more careful in the future about when he wants to use them up.
Charges that don't refresh by themselves
The easiest thing to do would be to just make the item worthless once the charges are expended. But if you don't want to take away the item completely, allow the cleric to "recharge the batteries" somehow.
Gold is the obvious choice. Rare materials make this a quest hook. The blood of orc orphans puts the cleric in conflict with his god (probably) which could be a good source of conflict, depending on your table.
Charges that can only be refreshed every so often
You can combine the two ideas. Perhaps the item needs to be manually refueled, but you can't just do that any old day. Once a month, only on Tuesdays, only on a solstice, only on the holy days of a certain lost and ancient god, etc.
It's an out-of-character mistake you have made as DM (design of the item without limitations). I don't agree with solutions that unilaterally modify or remove the item. That is because they will have one major effect: To concentrate yet more play around the item - getting the item back, fixing it, etc.
First things first, you need to open a discussion out-of-character with your players, explaining the mistake as you have done in the question, and asking for their help as players to get the campaign back, and either remove the item from play or have it take a more minor role in the game.
At that point, you could present ideas such as limitations on the item's power. For instance, I'd suggest just give it a limited number of charges - that the PCs can discover in character - and suggest it has just 5 left, something that will make them think about when they use it (I prefer this approach because it doesn't require any retcon, and it doesn't change focal point of the campaign). But more importantly, listen to your players and assess what they would accept.
It helps your negotiating position if you are prepared to shelve the campaign, if it turns out this item has made your job as DM not fun.
It is possible that the players are too focused on the power and utility of the item and cannot see why they would let it go even out of character. However, if you tell them your problem - presented as the group's problem "About this item, how can we keep the game fun?" - and get their input on possible solutions, then you have your best shot at resolving things in a way that the players find acceptable.
On not breaking immersion:
Have any meta conversation about the item separate from the game, before or after a session.
As part of discussion, agree how PCs find out in character about the device's limitations, when they have been using it without any so far. For example, given that it has taken such a central role in the characters' recent adventures, it is reasonable to suggest that the team member with best Arcana skill may have put in some research on how it works. They can then announce it in-character to the group.
Or . . . you can even agree that the PCs don't know the risks and have something bad happen when using the device - this shows advantage of discussing out of character, as this kind of DM invented surprise that affects PC possessions can be taken badly if it appears from nowhere. However, if players are in on it, even partially without exact details, then there is a higher chance of it going well during the game.
It does not appear like you have any limits in place with this item.
Some suggestions are:
- Created item value is worth no more than 10 gp.
- Created item disintegrates after X hours/next sunrise/etc.
- Only certain number of uses per day or other timegap.
However this item already exists and instead you might have to cause the situation to change. For example the next time the player uses it indicate that the item functions but it its starting to feel strained and the quality is starting to diminish. After another few uses indicate that it appears like it doesn't contain all the necessary materials and what was created was unusable.
If the players investigate / research the item they will determine that it needs resources in order to function and it is out of one or more of them. You can insert related printer jokes is desired : PC LOAD LETTER, REPLACE DRUM, CYAN LOW I'm unfamiliar with 5e so I am unsure if they allow recharging magic items, or magic items with consumables. But then again the GM can always introduce new mechanics.
Go back to the basics....
Sounds just like Presto's hat, from the original D&D cartoon.
Follow in their footsteps
All their magic items (not just Presto's) ran out of power, in Episode 3, "The Hall of Bones", so off the party went on a power recharge quest. I suggest that you have something similar happen to not only the magic item in question, but to multiple party members. This might help avoid the individual player feeling targeted specifically.
During the quest, have something, or someone, interfere with the power recharge McGuffin, and presto (pun intended) it gains a usage-disadvantage of some kind. Longer recharge time between uses is my first suggestion, maybe an ablative weight limit if you don't like the longer time idea... see below for more ideas.
Such an item is cool and fun, and lets the party come up with unconventional solutions. Taking it away or making it nearly unusable, would take away from the coolness and fun factor, but putting some creative limits on it challenges the players again.
- You could always dip comic books and borrow from the old Golden Age Green Lantern - items produced can't affect anything yellow or [some other color].
- Again, from the Lantern ideas, let the McGuffin be portable, and the item must be recharged after x number of uses, or every day, or something. (Just don't let it be stolen) ^^
- Maybe the created item can only exist within a specific small radius from the bag and/or for a specific amount of time.
- Each time an item is drawn, there is a chance it sucks in a random stuff as materials.
- It makes noise and lights every time it is used (no stealth mode).
- It gains sentience and must be persuaded every time. (comic relief, etc.)
- Regardless of any other effects it may produce, the energy will only last 'x' amount of time, after which another recharge quest will be required.
- use the old Wand of Wonder chart as side effects.
- If you want to be really challenging, throw in the occasional Deck of Many Things effect from the old charts.
- If you want to be mean, combine the old potion miscibility charts with the Wand or Deck ideas above for your random side effects.
- It must be fed every so often (feed me, Seymour), perhaps coins or materials (equal to the value of the resulting item?), perhaps magic items, perhaps essence off of your lifespan, lots of room for creativity here.
It summons a random creature (monster, npc, etc.,) which must be defeated before it will produce the item.
Or maybe on occasion something you don't want pops out instead...
Please note that although my suggestions draw from various editions of D&D, this is intentional, as such effects are simple enough to convert to 5e.
One possible way based specifically on this item would be to make the bag slightly smaller each time it is used. Once noticed, this will make the players think twice before using it - is this item worth the longer effects on the bag? Perhaps it would be possible to recharge it - by returning the items, or feeding it different items, or through a magical means.
Don't depower it. Create a situation where by the only solution is to leave this item behind.
One option is a very powerful villain who once owned the bag comes for it. She is willing to let the party continue if they leave the bag... and half their gold behind. The bag is not lost, and it is not nerfed, it is just unattainable until much later. Make it clear this is a boss that is way out of their league. Depending on your story, the villain may opt to provide a trinket in return, or make an appearance later. Perhaps the cleric must pledge fealty to the villain for added character development. Perhaps use of the bag has already put the cleric in an indentured position.
Another, is a trap that must be continually fed for the group to escape. The bag is left open and upside down so that sand continuously falls from it to provide a counterbalance. Elude to the fact that the bag was made for a situation such as this and this is the cleric's ultimate sacrifice in a life sparing role. Its previous use was simply a bonus. They are indeed lucky to have had it or the campaign would have likely ended here.
Two ways I'd likely handle something like this, both involving a postulate that the items being "produced" are pulled from another place, through another matching item (possibly it's a linked pair, possibly there are many networked items).
- Instant Gratification: the cleric reaches in to retrieve the requested item, and the item's owner grabs and tries to pull back. Hilarity ensues. Maybe the cleric loses a hand for extra humor points.
- Slow Reveal: Items belonging to the party that might be useful to people possessing one of the matching items start disappearing. Wizard: "I pull out my Wand of Fireballs and--" DM: "What Wand of Fireballs?" Hilarity ensues. Eventually the party figures out what's going on, and realizes that the only way to protect themselves is to store the item in a pocket dimension, which limits the usability of the item in time-limited situations.
A magic item I created for a game a while back worked in a similar manner; a fancy bag that had one of everything in there. Always. Just reach in your hand and think of the item you want, and poof! There it is! Incredibly powerful in the right - or wrong - hands.
However, that isn't the only thing it did. You see, every time the player pulled something out, it added a little bit to a counter. As the counter grew, the amount of weight the character had to carry also grew. At first, it was unnoticeable, but after a few sessions, the character was forced to nearly overburden himself to pull out anything new.
Alternately, you could make the device requires a power source; until now, it's been slowly eating gold coins. However, as soon as the gold is depleted, it starts eating other stuff. Picture this: the players stand at the edge of a cliff, wondering how to climb down. The cleric shrugs and reaches into his bag for a rope. Suddenly... his robe vanishes! He's startled (and disrobed!), but continues on, wondering what in the world just happened. The next time he uses his bag, his shoes vanish! Next up: magic items! Once everything is gone, the bag eats itself, and is gone for good.
In fact, you could have the bag only eat what the cleric was wearing or carrying when he first discovered it; he simply hasn't realized that the bag was eating stuff because it was eating gold he spent or items he sold...
A very effective way of limiting the item (and at the same time still being plausible, without actually limiting it at all) is to have it work not as "replicator" but as "instant teleporter". It indeed worked that way all the time, only the player never knew!
That is, every item that you pull out of the magic bag disappears somewhere else at the same instant. While the bag has worked "perfectly well" so far, and is still working fine, eventually your player will run across someone who just discovered the thief who stole his family sword. That NPC may simply yell out "Thief!", or may engage the player in a fight, or he might hire assassins. Whatever you deem appropriate.
The player might pull something valueable out of the bag, and be arrested the next day only to find himself accused of theft and might have to defend himself in court to avoid getting his right hand cut off (be sure to be unspecific about the court's outcome for a while).
Note: This idea has been
shamelessly stolen from inspired by... I believe it was the Dungeon Master's guide in ancient D&D some 20 years ago. It suggested something like when you Wish for something too greedy, the Wish might make a huge pile of gold land right on your head or it might remove it from some ruler's treasure hoard leaving the ruler quite angry with you.
You can make the item to corrupt the owner slightly each time its used, without noticing to him.
This trope is commonly used in fantasy literature, and you can take the biggest two examples, the Lord of the Rings, the Ring that Frodo carries corrupts him during the adventure, and at the end, breaks him and then he betrays Sam. Or other example, Elric of Melnibone is corrupted when wielding the Stormbringer.
A few fun options:
- The bag starts working less and less reliably.
- The bag starts providing things Other people want instead (including the "enemy")
- The bag starts misunderstanding. You wanted a matchstick? You've got a matched pair of sticks instead!
Or answer the question "Where are the items coming from?"
Maybe they're being stolen from nearby locations -> angry neighbours. Maybe their being stolen from some other dimensional location -> SCARY angry beings. Maybe there's a power providing them, and it's going to want "repayment".
If anyone figured out what it did I bet they would really want it.
If a rumor got out about it and people were looking for such a powerful device I bet they wouldn't even have to see him use it to be convinced he had it, just seeing him come up with the perfect item a few times might be enough.
How would they react? They might send an army or hire some extremely powerful being to take it.
The party may be able to retain it through deception perhaps, but from them on they would know that any time they used it they risk detection and an even more powerful encounter.
Invisible burglars, scrying devices and simple logic would mean it could never be used without risk.