Friday, May 14, 2010

Keep 'Em Hungry

Well, it is clear that we can talk on this subject for a long, long time. So let’s not stop now.

Here I quote from Jhandar again,

“The trafficking and sale of actual magical items within the realm of commerce ... this may be an easy opinion to suppose given the relative expenses of other luxury items within your world. Simply put, is it that they are rarely, if ever, available, and cost quite literally a king’s ransom to procure?”

However logical it may be that any produced commodity by a rare segment of the population ought to have a price attached to that commodity, I am forced to confess that in this case I adhere to the enormous elephant in the room: that this is a game. And being a game, there are limitations which I apply for the sake of playability. And for this particular circumstance, I believe that playability presumes that the game must have a certain level of challenge AND theatrics.

As such, I don’t allow players to buy magic items. I do allow them to SELL them ... but I’ve never had a player do so, not in 24 years of having economics incorporated in the game. Now and then, I’ve had a player barter an item in exchange for a resurrection, restoration, regeneration or raise dead spell - they’d rather have back their level, or their arm, or their life, than the magic item. But this is the only case where I’ve had a player agree to surrender a (non-cursed) magic item willingly. They will otherwise keep a weapon or other item they can’t personally use, in the hopes they might give it to someone else in the party (a henchman or another player). Most magic items, however, will be useful ... eventually.

For the record, I’ve had parties gain magic items through bartering, also ... almost always in exhange for some service they’ve performed. I see that as likely; a master of a realm is likely to have extra swords and things laying about, reserved for just such an occasion. Still, one must wonder why they don’t distribute them to their minions - unless it is that they don’t trust their minions. But then, why should they trust the party?

Only one reason I can think of. The game is more playable that way.

Let me give a universal example of how playability trumps possibility where it comes to games.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the game of monopoly, although I haven’t played in years. It is a clever game in concept, but I think that where the game falls down is where it depends upon the competance of the people you play with. Invariably, as you are fighting to win the game, Harold on your right does something unbelievably stupid, like trading away Marvin Gardens to Jeremy on your left for Mediterranean, giving the yellow properties wholly into the hands of your chief enemy while gaining the pathetic mauve properties in return. Result? You’re fucked, and you weren’t part of the deal. And you don’t have any right to be part of the deal.

Worse, if you’ve ever played with the sort of miserable people who decide that since you’re a problem, they can simply give their properties - lock, stock and barrel - to your primary competition just to see you lose, you’re well aware of the faults in the game. There are no rules that say they can’t do that. But there’s no point in playing once they have.

As a result, I spent many years seeking to play the game with alternate rules, which limited trading or simply removed trading altogether - such as allowing the building of houses on single properties, or limiting how many houses you can build a turn in order to even out the competition, and so on. And generally, rules like those made the game better for everyone.

Now I know that there are people out there who ADORE the property-trading aspects of monopoly, who swear vehemently that the game is ruined by limiting or otherwise eliminating that aspect. But I’ve never enjoyed playing with those people. Mostly because Jeremy, who is able to persuade the stupid ass Harold into thinking Mediterranean-Baltic is a winning strategy, is actually sort of an asshole.

On many levels, I feel that the DMs out there who have kiosks in their world selling the Ring of Gaxx or the Sphere of Annihilation (we’re overstocked this week, selling at half price!) are, again, a different sort of asshole. I want that very clear because when I get comments from DMs that tell me that THEY do allow players to buy magic items, I want it clear how I feel about them. I think they’re assholes.

There will always be a very special response from a magic-starved party when a particular enemy is using a wand of such-and-such against them. They may hate the damage, the saving throws and the general threat, but said party will be slavering to get their hands on that wand of ... whatever. This is what I meant earlier when I spoke of theatrics. It is a tremendously charged moment in the game - a magical moment, if you will - when you tell a successful party that there is magic within the treasure.

It takes a real asshole to reduce this part of the game in exchange for allowing other assholes the privilege of buying +1 daggers from the bargain bin down at ‘Enchantorama.’ I’ve had the opportunity, now and then, to watch such groups play, and it is a pretty pathetic collection of non-thinking boobs solving all their problems with whatever they’ve remembered to shop for - rather than with their brains.

So I don’t allow buying magic, and I keep my parties pretty magic scarce. For example, the online party has YET to see a magic item; I know they’d love for me to give them one. And I will. When the time is right.

See? Theatrics.


Anonymous said...

Any access to magical benefits should be balanced out by some contravening risk. Not just for "story" or "game" balance, but because that's how the universe tends to work.

Alexis said...

That was entirely implied. It's not like I leave vorpal blades lying around.

Anonymous said...

I might. Without an operators' manual, without protective gear, and with all the warning labels and inscriptions worn down to illegibility.

Marcelo Paschoalin said...

To keep the magic items magical, you need to prevent them from become mundane. For me, even a Potion of Healing is a treasured item that is not found everywhere--there's a reason for the potion for exist (even if I just rolled it on a random table).
Mundane magic items are a bane--literature shows the heroes having just a few items, and literature is always my main source of inspiration.

Brian Lujan said...

I totally agree with you in principal. I would rather the party have Anduril and the One Ring than every character with a mundane +2 long sword and a bag of potions that they need to unload next time they're in town. Unfortunately, certain games almost REQUIRE you to have magic items just to survive encounters.

I'm playing a high level Pathfinder game and without a plethora of magic items and weapons, there would be very little hope of defeating creatures with DR, SR, Regen, Immunities etc etc. And that is really a shame. I does force the players to rely on their gear rather than themselves.

When my turn to DM comes around I'm thinking of getting rid of all of that and get back to the basics where a magic item is a rarity and something to be prized, not a temporary boost until something better comes along

Carl said...


Your policy of not selling magic items is interesting. I think I'm going to use it. I expect a great deal of weeping and gnashing of teeth from my players when I inform them that there is no "magick shoppe" from which they can obtain items of rare and wondrous power.

Maybe I've been playing D&D 3.x for too long, but it's hard for me to imagine playing without allowing the party at least a limited ability to purchase potions and scrolls. That particular edition of the game was founded on the principle that if a character had the money, he or she must be allowed to purchase any magic item he or she could afford. Further, restriction of the sale of magic items was presumed to put an unfair hardship on characters as monster difficulty was scaled on the assumption that players possessed magic items appropriate to their level.

This is going to be a hard paradigm to break, but I'm kind of a sadist, so I should enjoy the lamentation.


Original Carl

R said...

Agree on the no buying of magic items - and when the PCs have sold one or two, they have to treat it the way you would if you were selling anything else that's incredibly valuable - make sure you don't just get immediately mugged by whoever you sold the item to (and make sure nobody else is watching the transaction).

Ragnorakk said...

I burned down Ye Olde Magick Shoppe years ago, it's crap.

Tom said...

Really? I have 'Ye Olde Magick Kiosk' selling all manner of artifacts and potent magic items IMC.
After all, such places existed historically (and continue to exist today).

And y'know what? PT Barnum was right! Not only have Players bought from these kiosks (at horribly inflated prices) but they have returned and then been talked around (following the savage beating/stern talking-to/harshly worded letter being delivered to the shopkeep) and bought a "real" magic item (for an even higher price) from the super-secret hidden stash.

Funnily enough the Kiosk was gone the next time the party went looking for it, with Character body in tow, head bumping off the cobblestones.

Such magic shops should be a feature in most if not all major marketplaces, I should think.

Jhandar said...

I agree with Carl, I believe that 3.X has entrenched into the minds of players that anything can be had for the correct price, virtually anywhere. This is a constant bitch I hear from my players, often referencing a mythical table somewhere charting the amount and level of magical items the system recommends for the players to have by particular points in the game. They have yet to produce it, but if anyone knows what they are talking about I would be interested to see it.

I am on the fence personally about the presence of magic shops, personally and I love that this has sparked so much dialogue.

Although I would like to ask if anyone else has adapted the Earthdawn rules for magical items? Essentially that they can have only one owner at a time (thus no trading) and in Earthdawn the players must invest experience points into the items to unlock them. Combine that with the concept that each item has 'levels' that steadily get bigger and better, but which require specific knowledge to unlock before xp can be spent on them.

And example may be appropriate of an item I made for my old Earthdawn game:


This is a massive piece of stone roughly 3' wide by 4' tall and approximately 6" thick with a pair of chains bolted to the back side which are used to lash the stone to the character's forearm. The front is covered in rust covered spikes that are bolted into the stone standing roughly 2" from the front of the shield.

Required Strength Step: 19
Racial limitations: Troll or Obsidiman only (designed for the Troll Skyraider in the camp)
Physical Armor: 2
Mystical Armor: 1

Thread 1: The shield must be professionally cleaned by a weaponsmith, which reveals that the iron spikes are covered in engravings depicting a phalanx of soldiers from the front with spears and shields presented, with only a few empty spikes in the phalanx.
XP to unlock: 200
Bonus: +1 Physical Armor to the shield.

Thread 2: The player must have their likeness engraved onto one of the empty spikes.
XP to unlock: 300
Bonus: +1 step to Shield Charge ability

And so on and so forth, the specific details would be worthless to non-Earthdawn players. But different steps for weapons can include knowing the weapon's true name, going to the site where it was used in a great battle, killing , Being dipped in at the lost temple of or what ever.

I really liked this system as it mage magical items very special and complex items that would generate hooks for the player if they wanted to make them more powerful. Of course there is a set cap on items, and they would return to being inert if ownership was transferred. Thus the Bandit Leader's sword, once looted, ceases to seep acid in the players hands, and now they must figure out how to unlock this treasure.

Mike(aka kaeosdad) said...

I've been running magic items as being hoarded completely by powerful organizations. to find a magical item is one thing. to keep it another. if an item is for sale, it's likely over priced and often nothing extraordinary. crafting becomes more important, as does collecting components/materials to do the job.

-Benjamin said...

"See? Theatrics."

No, I think that you're being an asshole. If you did this in D&D you'd unbalance the system by level 3.

There's enough magical items out there that I don't want to have to deal with them. PCs need magic items to do what they want and a good GM lets his players, mostly, do what they want.

The PCs know, much better than I, what items they need to do what they want. If I wanted to give them treasure like you do I'd have to know each of their builds intimately and it kinda ruins the suspension disbelief when every single magic item they find is perfectly suited to them.

Also, if PCs can sell magic items but not buy them what else can they do with their money? The level 25 character which sells a level appropriate item has more than a hundred thousand gold. What could he possibly buy with that? A keep or castle? A small town?

In Dungeons and Dragons PCs need to have the ability to buy magic items every so often, not all the time no, but every couple of levels when they come to a large town or city it makes sense.

Ryan said...

In my AD&D 1st edition campaign, you cannot but magical items. Spellcasters and magic items are just too rare to have an economy associated with them.

For the record, my players have never complained about this.

I think it's easier to get away with having no magical item economy in the older versions of the game. In 3.0 and beyond, the ability to purchase magical items is assumed to be part of the "default" style campaign, so I think that mucking around with it would cause problems.

Oddbit said...

"AWhat could he possibly buy with that? A keep or castle? A small town?"

I know I would.

Steve Lalanne said...

To have an absolute rule that magic items cannot be bought ignores human nature.

As for playability (which is your real reason), I confess I can't see the relevance of your Monopoly example, Alexis.

I do agree that excitement at the prospect of obtaining a foe's wand of whatever might be diminished by the availability of magic items through retail channels, but this seems to depend on the rarity of specific items or that players share the DM's view that magic items are invested with a certain aura or mystique (this may well be the case, if only for the most awesome items). Or, it could be quibbling.

In my view, a market for magic items is realistic provided that there is sufficient supply to meet the inevitable demand. It may operate through an informal network of dealers or ad hoc sellers and not as a physical shop; someone in need of funds may have acquired an item they don't really want--perhaps because of certain undesirable qualities or effects; perhaps a noble house in debt is liquidating its assets.

If rare, magic items would be expensive--causing would-be buyers to adventure to get the money, or to get the items directly. (Rarity also makes them harder to find in the market, too, and there wouldn't be much selection.) Similarly, PCs selling magic items might have difficulty locating a buyer.

Thus, the presence or absence of a market for magic items in the game would follow naturally from the way the DM regards magic items in general.

But buying magic items does seem to run counter to the romantic notions of myths and literature, where magic items are singular and earned through story and plot considerations. This is where pure storytelling and RPGing differ, in my opinion. It's not interesting to the reader if fictional characters purchase their magic (no one likes tagging along on a shopping trip, and literary characters are often equipped through the agency of fate or a powerful patron rather than through their own deliberate efforts), but when PCs are involved, the process of locating/haggling/buying/testing magic items is more involving. Besides, if the PCs buy mundane things (dramatically uninteresting), why not magic items, too? Further, it's not as though the PCs are getting something for nothing: they would have to obtain sufficient wealth to afford a magic item, presumably via adventuring.

The DM has full control over the situation, so it's easy to have such an establishment disappear, be low on inventory, charge exorbitant prices, or sell questionable merchandise.

In my setting, there's no magic item market per se; rather, there's only the possibility of one, given that almost everything has a price.

Alexis said...

Once again, Steve, you've ignored those parts of the argument that aren't made of straw and easily knocked down. You may remember that I made the point that human nature would create great piles of 'magic' items which would be false and useless ... because forgery is part of human nature too. If I introduced the buying of magic items, and filled the shelves with the forgeries that would have to be there, it would take exactly one running before none of my players ever bothered to buy a magic item again.

I made that point, but you ignored, choosing to put words in my mouth ("myths and literature") which I never invoked. Please include everything I say, and only what I say, in your arguments against me.