Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: Boring Magic Items #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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Introduction to Each Post in This Series

On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes be me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.

Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |

Boring Magic Items

I’ve already discussed this but am going to repeat the argument here: You should never have a +X amulet, shield, suit of armor, weapon, etc. It’s boring, and the bonus is illusory anyway.

DMs balance encounters to suit the game they want to run. Maybe they want the encounters to be average, harder than average, or easier than average, but whatever the balance they want, that’s what they want. Let’s say a game is designed such that we can assume our characters will get a +1 weapon by 3rd level. If that happens, are all the encounters suddenly too easy for the party? Of course not. When I say that a “game is designed such that we can assume our characters will get a +1 weapon by 3rd level,” what I’m also effectively saying is that the monsters the characters will face at 3rd level also receive that same bump. That maintains the balance the DM seeks without having to mess with the level of the monsters. In other words, the bonus is illusory because it must be met, bonus for bonus, by the monsters. 1e makes things a bit more interesting using tables to determine randomly the precise magic item you find (as well as some other things like level drain and ability score drain being assumed), but even those items are balanced for a range of levels. I’m not satisfied by that, but at least there’s something interesting going on, so I can understand why someone else may be. But getting just a +2 weapon? C’mon, people.

Here’s a better solution, and one that all games use in part anyway: Be creative. Create interesting magic items, such as 1e‘s scimitar of speed, or 4e‘s frostbrand weapon. Sure, these weapons also give you an illusory combat power that must be balanced by increasing the threat of monsters, but the point is that they make things interesting. The 1e scimitar of speed is fun because you can attack even while the rest of your side is surprised. With a frostbrand weapon, the Fighter can use tactics to line up the enemies in such a way as to hit multiple targets with a blast. Without stealing the Wizard’s thunder, for just a fleeting moment, the frostbrand weapon let’s the Fighter act as a Wizard using a blast power, and it feels like an accomplishment with respect to tactics. If the enemies are vulnerable to cold, that’s gravy. Even 3e armor of acid resistance, which is a passive effect, would give a character their chance to shine. The fighter wearing that could run headlong into a fight against a black dragon and nearly single-handedly save the day. Maybe. Dragons are tough. In any case, those are interesting magic items.

Well, not all dragons are tough.

On the other hand, who actually thinks it’s fun to add 6 to your attack rolls rather than adding 5? There’s nothing fun or interesting about that, and that’s the primary mechanical difference between a +X weapon and a nonmagical one. The only other one I can think of is that some creatures can’t be hit by nonmagical weapons, but not having magical weapons in those scenarios just means every encounter is a TPK. That means the boon of finding a +X magic item is, in all meaningful ways, illusory. It adds nothing to the mechanics or fun of the game. But here’s the other thing. Even if you think getting a +X weapon is fun (in which case you’re weird), would you miss it if it were gone? Wouldn’t you be just as happy with a scimitar of speed as you would a +X weapon? If so, then eliminating +X magic items from the game keeps everyone happy. Accordingly, 1e has a lot of cool magic items, and those are the only ones I’ll ever hand out.

You may be fooled by illusory bonuses, but I’m not.

Follow me on Twitter @gsllc

Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)

15 thoughts on “Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: Boring Magic Items #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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