If you’d like to pick a topic in D&D that has seen many varying viewpoints, try the awarding of magic items. How many? How powerful?
If you read the old magazines and rulebooks, you’ll find a lot of advice about not giving out too many magic items. There were horror tales of “Monty Haul” games where everyone had vorpal swords and were slaying gods. It’s something that horrified Gary Gygax and Tim Kask. They had a vision of how D&D had to be played, and it was the “right” way. Meanwhile, the groups with the vorpal swords were having a lot of fun! And it seemed that in the TSR offices, more magic items were being given out than you might have assumed from the articles.
Magic items have significant effects on the feel and play of the game. My general rule is this: If the players are enjoying the number of magic items you give out, then you’re doing it right. The challenge for the DM is to design adventures that account for the power of the characters with those items. This is much easier when you’re the DM giving out the magic items and writing the adventures.
When you consider Organised Play, the adventure designer has no idea what items are being used by the players. The designer hopes the DM can adjust things based on their knowledge of the characters. When the DM is seeing the players for the first time, which often happens in convention games, things get problematic.
In these cases, it’s nice to have a baseline of play.
In the four years of its existence, the D&D Adventurers League has had an erratic approach to magic items. If you play Hoard of the Dragon Queen or Curse of Strahd, you’ll hardly find a magic item in them – except for a couple of incredibly powerful ones. If you play Tales from the Yawning Portal, you’ll find lots and lots of items. Meanwhile, the one-session DDAL and CCC adventures typically offer one permanent magic item for each adventure played – whether two or four hours!
You occasionally sit down at a table to discover that another player has eight items compared to your one. And, though there are rules for distribution and trading, it’s not always easy for players to use those rules. The feeling a player has when someone rolls better than them and gets that +1 longsword which they can’t use but wants to trade for another item? That’s not a good feeling.
Another issue comes from the type of items discovered. You might play sequences of adventures where the fighters can’t find magic weapons and armour, but the spellcasters are finding it hard to carry all the wands and staves they’ve acquired. Or it can go the other way around. In a home game, you can adjust this easily. Not so easy in an Organised Play campaign.
So, there’s a new method coming for Season 8 to distribute magic items. For those who have played other Organised Play campaigns in the past, it may seem familiar. There are certainly similarities to how magic item acquisition worked in the old Living Greyhawk campaign – but it’s somewhat simpler.
As with the Advancement Checkpoints system, starting on August 30th, you get Treasure Checkpoints for playing sessions of the D&D Adventurers League. The rate you gain these checkpoints is not quite as straightforward as for advancement checkpoints. They boil down to:
- One treasure checkpoint for every two hours playing Tier 1 or Tier 2 adventures.
- One treasure checkpoint for every hour playing Tier 3 or Tier 4 adventures.
In hardcovers, it is the time played while moving towards your goals. In short-form adventures, it’s the expected time the adventure should run for.
These checkpoints can be redeemed for magic items (or valuable non-magical items). Some items are evergreen and can always be acquired. Others are available on a seasonal basis; Season 8 has a list of items you’ll only be able to get while that’s the current season. And other items you can only get if you encounter them in an adventure. There are other rules regarding to the tier of items you can spend your points on, but I urge you to read the full rules to get the details.
The checkpoint system addresses the problem of someone “stealing” an item you want. (You can both get it, if you like, and you don’t need to make the decision immediately – once it’s unlocked, it stays unlocked.). It flattens out the distribution of items, so players have similar numbers of items. And you can always get items that your character can use – weapons, armour, spellcasting focuses, or the like.
Special and unique items can still be found in adventures, but instead of instantly being able to use it, you will need to spend treasure checkpoints to get them.
I hope that with these changes, it’ll be a little easier to predict the power of adventurers, and easier for DMs to challenge them in play, while still allowing characters to have interesting items.
Wizards of the Coast and the DDAL administrators are also removing a few magic items from the Adventurers League that have proven to be problematic in play.
Some magic items are just too darn powerful. You’ll find some good examples in Curse of Strahd. These items were designed for a story reason – so the players could take down a vampire even when they weren’t high enough level. The entire structure of the adventure is built around that. When they’re in a normal adventure, they make the characters a lot more powerful than expected.
Is this a problem? It certainly can be! Consider one party with the Curse of Strahd items and another party without. Both parties are the same level. Now try to write an adventure with undead to challenge both! The gap gets too big to bridge easily. Now, DMs can adjust to some extent, but it’s work. When you get to the point when the amount of work to run the game isn’t fun, you lose DMs. And that’s not good – we already have trouble finding DMs.
The solution they’ve adopted for these story-based items is to turn them into special story awards. So, when you get the Icon of Ravenloft, you can use it – but only in Curse of Strahd. That preserves its importance to the adventure’s story, but it then doesn’t cause problems in other adventures.
There’s a few items – like the elemental weapons in Princes of the Apocalypse – that are meant to be destroyed as part of the conclusion to the adventure. If those weapons were still out in the world, then the Elemental Cults would be sending teams to recover the weapons – something that can’t be covered in DDAL play. So, into the story award pile for those weapons.
The mithral splintmail +1 has been removed because that it was a mistake – it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Some items, like the deck of many things, are great in a home campaign but are just too powerful and random for a campaign in which people from all around the world participate.
And then there are items like Hazirawn, which is an evil sword. A powerful evil sword that wants to kill spell-casters. Some DMs handle it well, many don’t. In a home campaign, you have techniques to deal with items that cause problems which aren’t available in Organised Play. The simplest solution is to get rid of these sort of items. Going forward, I hope to see more cool items that can be kept, but – certainly in the hardcover adventures – there are items that are fine for home games that present issues in Organised Play.
If you run Curse of Strahd or another hardcover adventure after August 30, you’ll find out how to handle these items in the Content Catalogue. I’m impatiently awaiting its release!
What if a character has one of these items? The proposed method of dealing with it is to replace the item with 12 treasure checkpoints, which you need to use immediately to purchase a legal item. Not surprisingly, people don’t like losing good items. Nor do they like it when the list of replacement items is relatively generic. The admins are still taking feedback about these changes, so the procedure might get more generous – perhaps a special list of replacement items, or one-off items you can spend the checkpoints on. There’s still a month until the rules go live, and the admins are gathering feedback on the changes – and some details can still change.
I wouldn’t expect the basics of the system to change, though. That problem of characters having wildly varying numbers and power of magic items? That’s a real problem. You might not see it if you always play with the same players, but it’s something I’ve noticed even amongst the players at my local store.
You lose the thrill of immediately getting an item, and that is a sad thing to lose.
One complication of the system is that the treasure checkpoints are linked to the tier at which you gain them, so points you earn at Tier 1 can only be spent on Tier 1 items. Points you earn at Tier 2 can only be spent on Tier 1 or 2 items. And so on. This is due to the abstraction of the points; in a regular game, you’d get them immediately, and wouldn’t get items “out of tier”. The original system proposed in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything had the points immediately being spent; this revised system allows you to bank them, but limits the tier of item you can spend them on. You get some inconvenience of tracking them, in exchange for more freedom on how they’re spent. I suspect the tracking won’t be too difficult, but it’ll take a little adjustment.
It should be noted that valuable non-magical items (such as platemail) are also available through this system – and they could then be sold for gold.
But gold is another story – and perhaps an even more controversial change. I’ll deal with it in my next article!