Last week, Logan Bonner posted an article over at Critical Hits, discussing the success or failure of 4e magic items. Logan was one of the designers on the Adventurer’s Vault project.

Successes

Here is an excerpt from Logan’s article describing what he considers successes in the 4e changes to magic items:

  • Bonus Modifications: 4e moved to a more predictable bonus structure by assigning attack and defense bonuses between three slots, and making a fairly predictable assortment of skill bonus items divided by tier. The sort-of-implied bonus expectations of 3e had become explicit in 4e, making them easier to figure out for the casual player. The new structure did the job of making it harder to accidentally make a bad character, and it removed the most egregious items that granted huge bonuses for relatively little investment.
  • Simplification: Items were made easier to use. The item slots were codified from the start, and decreased in number from the long list in Magic Item Compendium. The expectations on the DM, and the system for distributing treasure, also became clearer. The parcel system (since replaced with a more randomized system) held the DM’s hand through placing treasure. All this led to a system that needed less attention, which is probably best for a system that should take a back seat to the core parts of a character.
  • Iconic Class Items: With items of certain types (staffs, orbs, rods, totems) tied to classes, they gave a better visual hook for character using them. But see “Narrow Focus” below.

Failures

Here is the list of changes that Logan considers to be failures:

  • Outgrowth of 3e: The 4e item system is a reaction to the 3e system and what it had become. I think a lot more could have been learned by looking at other versions of the game, when items were more “special.” The 4e system works as an extension of what had happened in both the previous edition and in video game RPGs, but did it reflect the way items should feel in D&D? A rehaul of the mechanics should have been based on a closer examination of what type of experience the items were meant contribute to. 3e’s direction should have only informed 4e’s, rather than defining it.
  • Oversimplification: Items had been overcomplicated, and they needed to be stripped down, but the new system went too far. The game didn’t really need weapons stacked with four different enhancements, but too many items got reduced to just “+1 bonus to damage rolls” or a mediocre daily power.
  • Milestones and Daily Uses: And speaking of daily powers, the uses per day system was unwieldy and didn’t really carry its weight. Essentials removes it entirely, and I doubt anyone will miss it much.
  • Narrow Focus: A small number of items that work best for a particular class or race is fine, but the proliferation in 4e got out of hand. If I make an Invoker, how many of the 408 rods in the Compendium will even work for me, much less be something I want?
  • Quantity: Notice how I just said “408 rods?” You see the two books full of hundreds of magic items? Just filtering through them for a single character can be a nightmare. Some thematic organization can help though. Item sets and Insider articles written to a theme can both help narrow down items and give them a much better story hook than the couple lines of text.
  • Off-Slot Bonuses: There’s a strange phenomenon in Adventurer’s Vault where items that aren’t in the neck slot grant bonuses to non-AC defenses (like the belt of vim). This seems to have been short-lived, but usually such major deviations from a standard occur later in a game’s lifespan rather than in one of the very first supplements! It’s quite likely these were put in to make up math discrepancies; I just don’t think they were the right way to achieve that goal.

Miscellaneous

Finally, here are a few miscellaneous points Logan makes in his article:

  • Moved to Player Side: Items had become something PCs relied on and players expected to have as an integral part of their characters’ builds. There was a fork in the road: Go farther toward making them a player resource or turn back the clock an edition and put them more squarely in the DM’s hands. We went with the first option, and magic items appeared in the Player’s Handbook. The rules and responsibilities were still split, though, since PCs were still expected to find most of their treasure in hoards created by the DM. I’ve seen a number of people on each side of this argument: players who want the freedom to build their character how they like, and DMs who miss being able to surprise their players or place interesting—but non-optimal—items.
  • Essentials: We haven’t really seen where the current WotC team plans to go with the new item rarities. What I’ve seen so far isn’t particularly inspiring. If rare items end up being more powerful or rule-bending (by which I mean less tied to standardized game mechanics, not “game-breaking”), it could be very cool! So far, we haven’t seen enough to really tell where this system is headed.
  • Selling for Half: I’ve heard complaints about having to sell items for 20% (again, this changed somewhat with Essentials), but people also talk about selling and buying items less often. That means more time for actual adventuring, so I prefer it that way.

Overview

I don’t think much of the way magic items have been handled in 4e. Nor am I particularly impressed with Adventurer’s Vault or Adventurer’s Vault 2. However, magic items were lacking so severely in the PHB that AV and AV2 were certainly necessary to fill in the gaps. To be fair, there are a few cool things in both books making them worth buying. But overall the 4e treatment of magic items is quite upsetting.

I initially intended to approach his article with a point-by-point discussion. However, after struggling with it for a bit I realized It wasn’t the points he layed out that I had a problem with. It was the underlying assumptions behind those points and the overall mindset that was adopted in the handling and presentation of magic item in general.

What Have They Done?

Magic items, once strange and mysterious, have become mundane. They are now listed in the Player’s Handbook (with purchase prices and sale prices) and treated just like any other sort of adventuring equipment. Players are told exactly how much treasure and magic items they should get each level, so instead of a group of adventurers anxiously hoping for some good loot, you have a bunch of accountants making sure they are all getting their fair share. If a player doesn’t like a particular magic item she can now (using a famous WoW-ism) disenchant the item to get some magic dust that can be used to make a different item instead. Worst of all, the cookie-cutter formula for creating magic items has produced endless items with similar properties. Nothing is special anymore. Everything is now just more of the same. Add five levels to an item and it goes from +1 to +2. Add five more levels and it becomes +3. There’s no flair or flavor to anything anymore.

Item slots and bonus types (both pre-4e concepts but expanded here) focus the attention on the mechanics and the numbers of the game instead of the fantasy feel that made the game popular in the first place.

Throughout Logan’s article he says things like “[earlier] Items had been overcomplicated” and “easier to figure out for the casual player”. Player’s aren’t stupid. I’ve yet to meet a new player who couldn’t grasp the basic concepts in a matter of minutes and the complex aspects by the end of the first encounter. Items were never complicated, at least not before 4e got to them. What his comments really said were, “we are dumbing the game down in order to make it more accessible to non-gamers in order to widen the market”. Now that is understandable and reasonable (even if not desirable for the rest of us). I’d much rather be told a truth I didn’t like than some nonsensical rationale that has nothing to do with the facts.

Final Thoughts

From his article, I have the impression that Logan is a fine example of a developer who reads the forums and thinks they represent the user base. The vast majority of RPG gamers have never visited a forum or gone to a convention. If WotC insists on listening to that local minority, they are going to find themselves in real trouble down the road.