So the class design essay is on a slight hiatus while I purge this cold from my system, but a recent discussion (and flame war that preceded it) has magic items on my mind (yet again).
I responded to the tutorial boss of internet shitlords, Kasimir Urbanski, who released a video on the commonality of magic items making them necessarily more boring. You can find the video here, but I’ll sum it up: “rarity makes magic interesting”. Why, you ask? Well it just does. If it’s rare, it’s therefore interesting. In our back and forth, Kas repeatedly went back to this point. He provided a few examples like “Well if you eat truffles every day, they cease to be interesting!”, which is A) wrong and B) a non-sequitor.
You see, if I eat crackers once per year, they don’t become interesting. Plain crackers are, by their nature, bland. They have a consistent texture, little in the way of taste, and do not change from cracker to cracker. If you’ve eaten one plain cracker, you’ve pretty much consumed them all. Now consider for the moment, a meal like steak. Steak (even on its own) is a more dynamic meal. The cut, the fat, whether you cooked it to rare (as you should have), medium (lol), or well done (remove yourself), provides a degree of inconsistency. Eating steak every day for a year might make the experience of eating steak less interesting, I’ll give you that. The experience is still leagues ahead of eating crackers every day for a year.
Inconsistency, I’ll then pose, is more reliably interesting than rarity.
But let’s takes a step back, for a moment. If we dig around in the foundations of the question, we may well answer it without the back and forth. Let’s start with the following; what is magic? Magic is the exertion of supernatural forces over nature, to produce supernatural effects. Magic is paracausal, in a word. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to then say, magic is most magical when it most diverts from the natural.
That’s lovely and abstract, but what does it mean when designing and running games? Well, let’s take a +0 magical sword. Theoretically speaking, it has a fairly substantial impact on play. You go from being incompetent against entities immune to non-magical damage to being competent against said entities. In practice, however? Practically nothing has changed. You’ve gone from swinging your sword to….swinging your sword.
Mostly. After the twitter back and forth, I had a conversation with two friends in our D&D group. Matt, one of the two DMs for our current campaign (as well as our group’s first DM), and Caleb (who’s DMed for us as well). Our discussion was funny in that Matt was the one who initially convinced me +X to hit and damage was boring, and magic items (weapons in particular) were most interesting when manipulating or providing abilities similar to core class features. He was largely the inspiration for a video I did on magic items ages ago. Caleb on the other hand ran for our highest level campaign yet (while broken into two campaigns our players went well past level 20), which featured a shameless plurality of magic item bloat. I think his was the only campaign in which I got a magic item before level 6 or 7, I damn near kissed the man.
Being delightfully intelligent as they are however, they took up the position of Devil’s advocate! I’ll pick out the highlights, partially because as I write this it’s been many days, and the highlights are all I have left at the forefront of my mind.
We started going over the various situations in which people had magic items, didn’t have magic items, gained additional magic items but decided not to use them, etc. There were instances (including in the current campaign) where the fact only one of us had a magic item while facing a creature with immunity to non-magical damage was important, notably because we were primarily a team of frontline fighters. In one of those instances, there were various items in the environment we had to seek out and utilize to damage and defeat the creature. This, Matt posed, was interesting! I’m inclined to agree, but it’s interesting in small doses. One of the measures of progression in a game is the kinds of challenges you face, and the challenges you used to face falling by the wayside as new situations present themselves. Clever sets of rewards tie into these shifting challenges or at least ride parallel to them.
Finding ways to damage a mundane-immune creature at level three is potentially interesting. Doing so at level 8 is boring, and runs contrary to the concept of playing a game. At that point, you’ve not only been doing the same thing over and over, but you start to become increasingly aware of what could be happening at the table instead. Inconsistency has a negative connotation, so I’ll switch to the word I posed to the aforementioned tutorial boss; dynamism. As mentioned, Caleb’s campaign was heavy on the magic items (to my joy). Matt brought up the point we received a number of items which piqued our interest, but he in particular didn’t use because the items were inferior to the maul he was using at the time (and essentially used through both campaigns; it kept getting more powerful as time went on). That’s a negative imposed by a plurality of magic items. But is it so bad? What’s worse; getting locked in an arranged marriage with someone you hate, or picking from 20 potential spouses and wondering on occasion if you should’ve enjoyed the variety. It’s something of an intentionally silly analogy but hell, given how infrequently 5e characters change and how short marriages are nowadays, the difference in commitment is closing the gap.
So magic items can get bloated and impose some negatives on your campaign, but they’re not as bad as a campaign with too few (again, evaluating the game as a game, here). So, we have some gradations in what makes magic (and magic items by extension) tickle our fancy. Makes sense to me, we don’t want to hand the players a staff that blows up continents at level 3. Funnily enough, that wouldn’t be fun for the same reason playing a martial character with no magic weapon at level 8 is boring! The player sits there and thinks “Well there’s fighting dragons, and building an army, and building a stronghold, and the epic defense on the bridge and making potions”, etc. The player is to some degree aware of the breadth of the fantasy adventure genre, and how much of it is being kept from them. That’s a nasty thought to creep into a players head, and it tends to zero in on whoever they think is responsible (whether they meant nothing by it or. We’re not responsible as designers or GMs for teaching people better social skills or insulating them from bitterness, that would be absurd. It’s good to know when you’re leaning into people’s vices, though.
Awful conundrum in front of us, isn’t it? Let’s back up again before I give you the solution, though. We need to run through some proofs of the more general, obvious experiences I mentioned.
Magic items are typically rare, and also interesting.
A mundane item can be rendered artificially rare without making them interesting.
Therefore, rarity is not the deciding trait in evaluating interest.
Basically what us sane folk already knew, rarity doesn’t turn something mundane interesting, only novel at best. I hate to leave you on a cliffhanger, but this article’s gonna need a part 2, or part 3, or just be a series. Next article will likely touch on how to find these different gradations of interest, more accurately map when a character should feasibly access more potent magic, what its scale should feasibly be, and the fun (and consequences) in breaking the mold. My buddy Mildra did a short video response as well, in a far more timely fashion than I did. You can find it here! I’m in his 4E Zeitgeist campaign on Wednesday nights, and the dude’s a monster when it comes to creating. Toss him a sub while you watch!