The Magic of Items in D&D Next

Another Monday, another Legends & Lore. Go ahead and read this one. In it Mike Mearls addresses magic items in WotC’s upcoming 5th edition of D&D. I think we’ve heard about this stuff before, but this time we get more details. Here are the highlights:

  1. The game makes no assumption that you have magical enhancement bonuses on your weapons and armor.
  2. Enhancement bonuses will pretty much cap out at +3.
  3. Magic items do a lot of things, rather than one minor thing.
  4. That said, you can still find vanilla +1 chain mail if your DM is into that.
  5. Prebuilt items. Mearls talks about a sunder rock mace as an example. This item occupies a specific place in the world, and only comes in one form. There are no sunder rock swords, and sunder rock is not a generic weapon ability that can be applied to whatever base weapon floats your boat.

Now let’s dive into analyzing this.

No assumed magic? This is a complete win for me, and we’ve always expected it, since D&D Next is built with bound accuracy in mind. In past editions, you needed to continually acquire better gear as well as level-based increases to keep up with the climbing stats on your enemies. Now a magic enhancement bonus makes you strictly better. It also means that players can gain and lose magic items without the game running off the rails. Taking away magic items? That’ll make killer DMs very happy.

A cap on enhancement bonuses is a little unusual only because D&D players love getting epic loot and plusses tie into that reward system. Mearls says that a +5 or a +6 enhancement bonus might exist in the game, but as “the domain of artifacts or unique, powerful weapons.” Like most numbers changes in D&D Next, this one relates back to the much-talked-about bounded accuracy system. But I like this cap for three reasons:

  • Balance: Bounded accuracy means, overall, numbers don’t grow very quickly. It’s right there in the name: your attacks and defenses are bounded. Big, fat bonuses that push you outside of those boundaries obviously break the game. Adjust your expectations. +3 is a big deal for PCs of any level.
  • Fun: Again, numbers are smaller. That means the kinds of plusses to AC and attack rolls that you might be used to from 4th Edition could overshadow the bonuses that come from your character’s inherent abilities. Simply put, a character whose skills are 75% from his magic toys isn’t a hero. He’s a spoiled rich kid.
  • Verisimilitude: +5 and +6 are the domain of artifacts? That sounds about right. A sword that makes a peasant capable of slaying a dragon isn’t just loot, it’s a world-altering superweapon. It’s Excalibur.

However, simply moving the goalposts on accuracy may prove maddeningly difficult to control once this moves out of the theoretical stage. As we’ve seen in the back-and-forth Expertise calamity during 4th Edition, the devil’s in the details. Alphastream over on the Wizards forums points out that WotC has historically undervalued accuracy, while players try to optimize it at any cost. If the game treats mundane arms and armor as average, and +1 as special, then everyone will beg, borrow, or steal to get a +1. Once that happens, the math becomes unpredictable and we’ll all wish we could return to the safe days of 4e, where items had levels and their impact on the game was carefully regulated.

Magic items that have a laundry list of powers are fun, but only within reason. It makes them feel powerful, desirable, and mysterious. But there’s the problem of overdoing it. I don’t want every piece of treasure in the game to be a sunder rock mace that gets +2 to attack and damage, shatters inanimate objects, can plow holes in walls, detects demons, and is a dowsing rod for dwarf cities. Even a handful of such items on one character feels weird, and it teaches fickle players to expect all treasures to be Swiss Army loot that does it all. As I said, you can still give out +1 chain shirts, but Mearls nearly puts himself to sleep writing about following that route, he finds it so boring. If the lead designer of the game, this early in 5e’s lifespan, is already leading the cries of “Swiss Army items good; vanilla items bad,” imagine how quickly players will start to tire of loot that doesn’t have a host of fabulous powers.

Am I worrying too much about a problem that doesn’t yet exist?

For the most part, I can’t wait to see this magic system in action. Bounded accuracy and no assumed magic items are exactly what I want in my game. I don’t expect the stuff I gripe about to ruin my game, but I do wonder if this stuff is going to lead to some bitter complaints on the community level.