The Design & Development article series premiered on the D&D website back in September 2005, and has been a staple ever since. With the approach of 4th Edition, and our designers and developers focused on the new edition, this column will be the primary vehicle for 4th Edition coverage. We’ll not only give you peeks at what’s forthcoming, but also the “how” and “why.”
Keep in mind that the game is still in a state of flux, as refinements are made by our design and development staff. You’re getting a look behind the curtain at game design in progress, so enjoy, and feel free to send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Magic Item Compendium introduced the concept of levels for magic items. This primarily served to help DMs determine what magic items to place in a treasure hoard (or to give to his NPCs). Since we built that level system around the existing magic item prices, it was an imperfect solution (for instance, a few non-epic magic items exceeded the pricing scheme for level 1-20 items).
Fourth Edition D&D improves that useful tool by explicitly linking a magic item's level to its price. For example, all 9th-level magic items now cost the same number of gp to craft or to purchase. This makes it even easier to gauge a magic item's appropriateness for your game at a glance. Don't know if it's OK to drop a flying carpet into the hands of your 9th-level PCs? Well, the fact that the carpet's listed as an 18th-level item should clue you in that it'd have an enormous impact on your 9th-level game.
Does that mean that all magic items of the same level will be equal in power? Well, yes and no.
It's true that the designer of two different 9th-level magic items imagines that they'd have a roughly equivalent impact on gameplay. A +2 thundering mace and a +2 staff of the war mage, if designed and developed properly, should be equally useful in combat. That comparison generally isn't too hard, since the basic functions and utility of combat-based effects remain relative regardless of the weapon or implement. How much extra damage does the mace deal compared to the staff? If damage isn't involved, how useful and potent are the items' effects against foes? And so on.
However, that comparison quickly becomes more art than science when comparing magic items of different purposes. (This, by the way, is why relying on hard-and-fast pricing rules for magic items is troublesome at best, and actively bad for your game at worst.) After all, most magic items only "compete" with other items in a narrow category for a character's attention, so comparing their values can be quite tricky.
For example, if a rope of climbing and a +2 flaming longsword are both 10th-level magic items (and thus both cost the same number of gold pieces), that's not quite the same thing as saying that a rope of climbing is as powerful as that weapon. After all, it's unlikely that a character has to decide between those two items -- they serve fundamentally different purposes.
It's much more likely that a character interested in a rope of climbing will compare its price to other items that let him overcome similar obstacles (such as the 7th-level slippers of spider climbing or the 13th-level boots of levitation).
Alternatively, if he's in the market for a new weapon, he would compare the value of that +2 flaming sword with the more expensive +3 vicious sword (12th level), or the slightly cheaper +2 lightning sword (9th level).
What the designer is saying, rather, is that he imagines that the effect of both the rope of climbing and the +2 flaming sword are appropriate for characters around 10th level. A few levels before that, either item would have a much more significant impact on gameplay (possibly by making certain spells or powers of the characters obsolete). More than a few levels after that, either item will have lost a lot of its luster -- maybe because more characters have easy access to levitation, flight, or even short-range teleportation effects, in the case of the rope of climbing, or because they're all toting around +3 or better weapons, making the flaming sword seem underpowered.
Ultimately, assigning levels to magic items sends a message to players and DMs: Here's when this item is most appropriate for your game. Once that information is in your hands, of course, it's up to you to use it as best befits your game!