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The Evolution of Magic Items
Design & Development
by Andy Collins and Mike Mearls

Andy Collins: As with all elements of the new edition, magic items went through many iterations of design and development before seeing the light of day in the Player's Handbook. Even though we all agreed on the basic goal -- magic items should make up a less prominent segment of a character's array of powers and options than in 3rd Edition -- that proved to be the easy part.

Here's an excerpt from a magic item system design draft dated September 30, 2005 -- the earliest substantial treatment of magic items for 4th Edition (back when it was still known simply by its code-name, "Orcus").

Magic items are permanent items that occupy a place on a character's body and fulfill two distinct roles. First, every item grants a relatively small, usually static bonus to certain statistics -- attack rolls, defenses, speed, armor class, and the like. Second, if a character attunes a specific magic item to himself, it grants him the use of a power.

You can't have more than one item on the same body slot, even if you're not attuned. You can't wear magic bracers and a magic shield, for example.

The minimum level required to equip your character with a single magic item is 5th. For every 5 levels gained above 5th, you can equip your character with one more magic item.

Bonus: Depending on the body slot it occupies, a magic item grants a small, static bonus to a character's statistics.

  • Arms: +1 Reflex OR +1 damage/die with melee attacks. (Gauntlets, bracers, shield)
  • Head: +1 Will OR +1 damage/die with ranged attacks. (Helmet, circlet, goggles, mask)
  • Heart: +1 Fortitude OR +1 DR. (amulet, armor, vest, cloak, robe)
  • Legs: +5 ft. land speed OR +1 hp/level. (boots, belt)

Magic weapons (swords, axes, wands) don't occupy a body slot, though they must be held to be used. A magic weapon grants a +1 bonus on attack rolls made using it.

Rings are a special case -- every ring's powers are unique and are only gained by attunement (see below).

Attunement: In addition to the basic bonus granted by all magic items (other than rings), beginning at 10th level you can attune yourself to a magic item to unlock one of its special powers. In order to attune yourself to the power of a magic item, your level must be at least as great as that of the power (minimum 10th).

A ritual of attunement takes 1 hour of uninterrupted meditation. The first time you undergo a ritual of attunement for a specific magic item power, it also costs in special materials (unguents, oils, incense, and the like). After that, you don't need any special materials unless the item has been a) out of your presence for more than 30 days, or b) attuned to another character since it was last attuned to you.

You may only be attuned to a single magic item power at any given time. When you perform another attunement ritual, you lose your attunement to all previously attuned powers. At 15th level, you may be attuned to up to two powers (either within a single item or two different items), and at 25th level to up to three powers (among as many as three different items). A single ritual can attune you to as many items as are allowed.

This draft took a very hard-line, hard-coded approach to doling out magic item effects to characters, specifically limiting how many magic items you could effectively wear and/or use based on your level. It also drastically reduced the number of body slots available in the game to a mere four (not counting weapons and rings).

We hadn't yet ironed out the bonus system used for weapons and armor (I notice, for instance, that AC bonuses are nowhere to be found in this excerpt, but it must have made sense at the time). Note, however, the strong desire to codify which slots contained particular bonuses. All items with an enhancement bonus to Fortitude defense would appear in the Heart slot, for example. This remained essentially true throughout design and development.

This draft bears a lot of my personal design sensibilities, including a desire for a symmetrical approach to passing out different statistical bonuses. In reviewing this old draft now, there was no question in my mind that a) these were (mostly) my words staring up at me, and b) I was following a somewhat misguided path. It's a bit weird to read things that you've written and don't agree with anymore.

Mike: While this specific implementation of the rules circa 2005 didn't survive into the final product, its basic goal persisted throughout the design process: Keep magic items simple, make them a small proportion of a character's power, and make their expected progression utterly transparent. The details of the system changed dramatically, but the goals never shifted. In most instances, the changes we made took place because the rules didn't properly serve those foundational, guiding principles.

AC: Sometime during 2006, the array of body slots morphed to match what would eventually appear in the Player's Handbook, though we still retained the forced symmetry that required each slot to have its own default statistical bonus. Most of our advances during that year, however, were in understanding how classes and powers work, and magic items didn't see a lot of improvement.

MM: This is a common refrain of our work in 2006 -- Make the classes work, and then solve everything else. In designing 4th Edition, we established a clear hierarchy of importance. Class and race are key building blocks to a character, with skills, feats, and magic items serving to refine and tweak a character rather than define it. We realized that, until the classes were fully functional and their capabilities well defined, we couldn't truly understand where magic items sat in the system.

AC: By March of 2007, we'd settled on something very much like the current scaling bonus system (though +1 items appeared all the way through 10th level, and the bonus still topped out at +5 for level 26 to 30). Passive properties were common. Activated powers were present but rare and cost an action point to activate.

This draft also established the precedent of magic rings as appearing first in the paragon tier and posited that they should have dramatic and unusual powers, compared to other items.

MM: Rings were an interesting case. Initially, we wanted to make them higher level for two reasons. One, pushing rings back reduced the number of item slots a character had to worry about at high levels. Two, we wanted to reserve one slot for powerful, interesting, and story-rich items. We thought there would be something interesting about a class of items that, when found, immediately flagged themselves as important. In theory, a good idea. In practice, the playtesters found the divide artificial. After all, a rookie burglar found and used the most notable ring in fantasy literature. In the end, we decided to remove the limitations on rings. Instead, we use a more organic guideline that keeps rings as higher-level items. A low-level character who happens to find a ring can still use it, but using our standard treasure guidelines means that the PCs start to find rings at around 10th level.

AC: In the next significant iteration later that year, we'd removed the symmetrical list of statistical bonuses. Playtest feedback made it clear that forcing characters to use four different item slots to build up their defenses was too onerous and not fun, so we combined the Fort, Ref, and Will bonuses into one slot (neck). We also recognized that mandatory bonuses on damage and speed weren't necessary. They could be added to items as appropriate, rather than for every item in a slot.

MM: The removal of the mandatory damage bonus took place as part of what I think of as the Great Deflation, a fundamental shift in our system math that dropped damage and hit points by a significant percentage.

We had one more, important change to make in magic items. Take a look at the symbol of hope on page 237 of the Player's Handbook. It's a 3rd-level item that scales all the way up to 28th level. Yet, its daily power never changes. It provides a +5 bonus to a save, a benefit that doesn't need to scale since it is equally useful at all levels. The problem we ran into was that, at higher levels, characters could spend a small portion of their wealth on half a dozen to a dozen items like the symbol of hope , items with activated benefits that didn't scale. A 28th-level cleric might carry his +6 symbol of radiance to blast enemies but keep a satchel with a dozen items like +1 symbols of hope to help the party.

Since we wanted magic items to remain clearly subordinate to powers granted by classes, we needed to alter the system. At high levels, magic items became an easy, cheap way to buy dozens of free powers. The result of this discussion lies on page 226 of the Player's Handbook. We decided to place a cap on the number of daily items you can use per day, with additional uses accrued at each milestone, to ensure that magic items remained a useful but secondary set of tools. Tying into this change, we shifted items toward daily rather than encounter powers.

As mentioned above, while the rules that made it into the game bear only a passing resemblance to the original rules proposed over three years ago, the spirit and intent remained intact throughout the process. We wanted magic items to become secondary to a character's class and race. I think we accomplished that.

About the Authors

Andy Collins co-designed the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons game and works for Wizards of the Coast, Inc., as the Manager of Rules Design & Development for RPG R&D. His credits stretch back a decade and include Magic Item Compendium, Draconomicon, Unearthed Arcana, and the Epic Level Handbook.

Mike Mearls is the Lead Developer for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. His recent credits include the H-series of 4th Edition adventures and Player's Handbook II (v.3.5).

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