When I first played Dungeons & Dragons, while AD&D 1st Edition was the main edition, I got very frustrated by the magic item creation rules. Too vague! The DM had to do too much work! Where do you get those ingredients anyway?
I understood that crafting magic items was an important part of the magic-user’s abilities – the book told me so! – and though I didn’t have the 12th level magic-user required to craft those items, it didn’t stop me thinking about how the rules worked.
I discovered I wasn’t alone in thinking that the crafting rules could be clearer because, with the release of D&D 3E in 2000, there was a new, simple-to-explain system for crafting magic items. All the wizard need was enough gold, access to the correct spells and to spend a little XP!
It turns out that allowing players to have exactly the items they want causes a few balance issues. If every fighter wears magical platemail, a magical shield and a cloak of displacement, then the mathematics on the system gets out of hand, fast. Yes, I could increase the attack bonuses of the monsters, but then I slaughtered every party member that couldn’t wield those items.
At least in 3E, there was that XP cost. It’s not that much, it did give the crafters some pause in just creating anything they wanted. Pathfinder got rid of that XP cost. The results, based on the two campaigns I ran of it, were not good.
I’ve somewhat cooled on crafting magic items due to my experiences in 3E and Pathfinder.
However, it’s still something I want to include in the game. This time, I wouldn’t abrogate the responsibility of the DM in keeping the game balanced! I scanned the 5E rules and then went back to the AD&D rules. How did they work again? Then I got distracted by the rules for creating a new spell. Why did I get distracted? Because those rules are better than those for crafting magic items. The basic method? Get a laboratory, spend time in research – with a chance of success each week. Repeat until the spell is researched. For a magic item, I see it as using the research method to determine how to create the item – special ingredients and spells needed, etc. – then use the other process to allow the crafting of the item.
The rules for crafting an item I can adapt from those given in the 5E rules and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. The idea of using bits of monsters in magic item creation – ghoulish though it might be – has the benefit of promoting adventure. Why does the wizard go out of the lab? To find components for magic items! This form of crafting does assume a different form of the game: one where the players drive adventures rather than adventure coming to them. (I feel early D&D was more aimed towards going in search of adventure, while later versions were based more on adventurers being swept up into a story, but that’s a generalisation that isn’t universally true).
The idea of the campaign where the players choose which adventure they wish to experience is one I repeatedly approach, with varying degrees of success.
The other aspect of this method of crafting items is the idea of time management. If the character is crafting items or researching spells, they’re not available for adventures. This brings up the potential for players creating multiple characters and choosing which one goes on an adventure depending on availability!
In a recent session of my Greyhawk game, the players discovered an old manuscript that described how to construct a couple of magic items, alleviating the need for research. The items still need special components to craft, as well as crafting time, but the research isn’t necessary.
If the campaign continues down the path of offering the players more freedom as to what they do – rather than saying “this is the adventure, go on that one – do I institute training times to gain levels? Perhaps not!
Incidentally, one of the items the ancient manuscript described was the staff of life. What’s a staff of life? Well, it wasn’t in AD&D or 5E! I thought it was, but it’s only a 3E item! It permits the casting of heal and raise dead. I’ll have to think about how I implement it in 5E – I may go back to a non-rechargeable staff in its case!
Addendum: I think the best form of crafting items is brand-new items from the minds of the players. “This sounds cool? Can I create it?” The research then becomes the way where they discover if it’s possible – with the DM working out how to implement it in the game without breaking the game!