Magic Items: role and drama - Part 1

Players love their magic items. I've been converting the magical equipment and weapons that a D&D party gained over the course of their career, into similar items for the game I'll be running - and it got me thinking about the topic in general terms.
This is a big topic! I started writing what I thought would be a short post about magic items and my concerns with the darned things - and found that I need to do this in two parts.
In this part, I'll ask what are "magic items", what role do they serve, and why do most fantasy games seem to fail at delivering the exciting and amazing magical things that fable and literature abound with?
In part two, I'll  stop complaining and talk about what might be done to solve the issue.

What are magic items?
Magic items are just that: items of some sort that have some magical property. The One Ring from Lord of the Rings, the Sivalinga in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the flying carpet in Arabian Nights - as well as lesser tools, such as the magical trickery of skiving lunch boxes in Harry Potter, or d'Artagnan's healing salve in The Three Musketeers - are all magic items.
In literature and myth, magical equipment, weapons, armour and jewellery are special things, maybe even central to the plot.
In RPGs, magic items tend to be routine - and that is what has been bugging me.

What's wrong with the way that RPGs deal with magic items?
For a start, the name isn't great."Magic items" is a deliberately bland term - making dull broth out of awesome sauce.
By being generic, they become a standard issue bit of equipment, losing that magical quality like a folding shovel: "You don't have a Bag of Holding? You call yourself an adventurer!"

Why is this a problem? A proliferation of magic items in your game makes it hard to use a magic item as a McGuffin - players are not interested unless the item is very powerful, and then unless you explain the dread significance of the One Ring, tend to be only covetously interested.
(Even knowing the "drawbacks" of the One Ring, many players would tend to think that being the Dark Lord of Middle Earth would be awesome, thank you very much. Clearly, that's not the drama that the Professor intended when he wrote Lord of the Rings.)

Also, we tend to end up with uninterested players if there are too many magic items in a game. I recall a joke in one player group about high level characters having golf caddies to carry their magic swords around for them. "Another magic sword? Yawn.... Put it with the others."

History of RPG items
It's worth looking at how the gaming industry has developed this modern relationship with magic items in the RPGs.
In early RPGs, magic items tended to be relatively rare - or at least the intent of the game-writers was that they should be relatively rare. Let's look at the chances of finding magic items in an early edition of D&D, and in a later edition.

In the Basic D&D, the chance of finding any magic item at all in a treasure horde is about 27.5% (there are ten treasure types, each with a variable percentage chance of having one or more magic items).
These chances remain fixed throughout the game, at all levels of play - however, at low level, the monsters you face tend to be the ones without magic items, whereas at high level the tend to be ones with more.

In 3.5 Edition D&D, the chance of a treasure containing magical items increases with level:

  • Low level: 5% to 50%
  • Mid level: 50% to 90%
  • High level: 75% (varies)

Strangely enough, the chance of a magic item being present in a treasure at high levels actually drops to around 75% or so (with some aberrations in the treasure table - 19th level, for example), but the power of those items is generally increased.

It's not a big increase to be honest - can it be responsible for the plethora of magic items in modern RPGs?
I doubt it.

Shopping is not heroic
Aside from the slightly increased frequency of finding magic items as part of a treasure, there is another significant change that has appeared since the early RPGs: the magic item market.
In the first D&D rules sets, magic items were listed in the Dungeon Masters Guide - that is, away from the players. There were no prices listed for magic items, either - the rules merely hinted that some non-player character might be found through advertising, and persuaded to buy unwanted magic items. Costs could be derived from the section about creating magic items - and even the least potion would be an investment of thousands of gold pieces.
Jump forward to the 21st Century, and in D&D 3.5 we've got magic items starting with values of 25 gold pieces, and a listed price for each, together with rules for how many magic items (based on cost) one is supposed to have at any given stage in one career.

So our heroes go shopping for magic items. There are so many trivial little magic trinkets to choose from too - stacking up all those tiny little bonuses to optimise your "hero"...

Now, I'm having great fun with Bethesda's Skyrim still - I tend to play games like this over and over - but I find that as much as I enjoy the adventure game, I get so annoyed with the damn shopping. I have trading fatigue. A hero's life shouldn't be bogged down with running around between traders haggling, or making potions to make her better at haggling. This is all stuff that won't make it into the epic tale of the Dragonborn when the bards tell it, right?
It's because there are so many tiny little footling bonuses that you desperately want to stack together - "Must buy more magic thingies!"

Did Frodo and Co go shopping in Rivendell? Did Conan spend all his money on necklaces of natural armour and belts of giant strength?
No, they went boozing and blew their loot on whores, and sang songs with the elves and ate big feasts.
(You can figure out which did which.)

Next: I solve everything
We know what's wrong (or what I think is wrong) - too many trinkets, not enough excitement, and far too much shopping - so what am I going to do about it?
See the next part, coming soon!

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