What would a fantasy game be without magical items? A magic wand, a cloak of invisibility, a flying carpet… these things are at the core of fantasy stories. But what is their place in a fantasy game?
Few and Far Between
Although magical items are at the core of many fantasy stories, these stories are almost always limited to only one or two such items which are usually in the hands of the main character or the villain. Scrolls and potions may not be quite as rare but even they are always far from common. Some DMs run extremely low-magic games where magical items are more like artifacts and a character is lucky to even see one in her lifetime. I’ve run into players who actually prefer this but for the most part, players want magic and lots of it.
Recent editions have reduced magical items to basic commodities. There is a magic shop on every corner and every item has a standard value. If you don’t like a particular item, you can disenchant it and use the dust thus created to have a vendor create a new item of your own choosing. Feats even allow characters to create magical items themselves. With known values for each item and a steady market, characters could even sit at home creating magical items and make a good living without setting foot out of their front door.
As with everything else, each group needs to work out a balance that is enjoyable for them. Some players are happiest when they can carry a fully stocked portable magic shop around with them and always be prepared for any eventuality that could possibly arise. Others feel that if you ever hand out more than a +1 weapon you are coddling the characters and making things too easy. The only right way is what works for you.
What I Do
That being said, here is what works for me.
Non-magical alchemical items, supplies, and common components are readily available in alchemy shops in all large cities. Uncommon components must be retrieved personally. Availability of everything naturally drops with the size of the community.
Magical potions and scrolls are fairly common but less available. Healing potions and raise dead scrolls can be found in most any community but many other potions and scrolls are made to order. Quantities may be limited and a waiting period may be required.
Other magical items frequently appear as treasure but are almost never seen for sale. They are rare and mysterious items and as such are coveted by their owners. If a character wishes to sell an item, it is up to her to locate an interested party and to set a price. The value of any given item is whatever the seller and buyer can agree upon. Since there is no standard accepted price list for magical items, buyers are often reluctant to pay exorbitant prices unless they have a pressing need for the particular item. Also, there is a very limited number of people within any community that would have substantial funds available to purchase valuable magic items. This being the case, it is often difficult to sell items for anything close to their perceived worth. With the option to sell items severely limited, other options become more appealing, such as trading items with other adventurers or giving unused items to hirelings, henchmen, or other npcs.
Wizards may scribe any scroll they know (limited only by time and resource requirements). Those with the necessary skills may brew any potion they have the recipe for. Rechargeable items may be recharged through the use of a ritual. That is the extent of a character’s ability to create magical items. All other items are created by magical guilds dedicated to the art of forging these items. The process is lengthy, expensive, and difficult requiring complex rituals involving numerous powerful wizards. These guilds are limited in the number of items they can create due to the time required and what items they do create are usually commissioned for local nobles. Convincing a guild to create a magical item for a character would be an extremely unusual event.
In my world, the sale of a magical item is an unusual event and the price involved is far less than those listed in the PHB. Therefore, there is little or no economic effect.
I’m well aware though that my game is very unusual in this regard. Most games treat magical items as commodities and the PHB lists astronomical prices for them. Because of the way magical items are presented, most groups assume that there is a ready market just waiting to pay top dollar for whatever the adventurers haul back to town. If items are handled in this fashion, the economy would be incredibly skewed (screwed may be a better word). I wouldn’t even attempt to define an economy around such a system. One possible solution would be to drastically reduce the value of all magical items (although I would suggest flattening the curve of the progression as well). Also, the book suggests a sale price that is one-fifth of the purchase price. I would half that, making it one-tenth instead.
The real problem in trying to reconcile valuable magic item sales with a stable economy is the fact that magic items (in most games) are not rare. The values listed in the PHB are perfectly reasonable if those magical items are extremely rare. The sale of one rare item makes one person rich and has very little impact on the economy. When every group of adventurers returns from every adventure with numerous “rare” items, it is ridiculous to continue to consider them rare and valuable. If the items are common (as is the case in most games), their value should plummet accordingly.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t fit well with the view that magical items are powerful, valuable and rare (even though most characters have armloads). Because of that, DMs are hesitant to reduce the values, and players wouldn’t understand or would be upset. Therefore, I don’t think it is possible to reconcile the two. That’s why I’ve taken the route I have and removed magical items from the marketplace.
Creating Magical Items
There are item creation feats that allow characters to create magical items. I was asked in another post what would keep a character from simply creating magical items and selling them for double what they cost to create? The answer is nothing. If you allow item creation feats, that is a very reasonable strategy for a player to adopt. Keep in mind though that just because a character has created an item doesn’t mean that there is someone willing to buy it. Many get rich quick schemes have been fouled by a non-existent market.