Save My Game 05/26/2006

Upgrading Magic Items, Part 2

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Upgrading Magic Items, Part 2

I'd love to see an article about magic items and the party's ability/likelihood to upgrade those magic items from a visit to town. The rules in the DMG are of considerable help when these shopping trips take place, but creating magic items seems as much of an art as it is a science. There seems to be a certain "fudge factor" that's important to magic item creation/upgrades, but doesn't really come across in the DMG.

-- sorites, Wizards message boards

To continue our last column on making and upgrading magic, consider that there are the official book rules and there are the … personal adjudications (i.e., fudges) that you might make in the way you apply and use the rules. If you want to make things easier on yourself, rule that PCs can only create (or upgrade to) items that already exist in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Sure it restricts creativity, but it also eliminates many of the problems that come with the fiendish levels of creativity that players delight in using to torment their poor DMs. If you want to get a little 'outside the box', here are some concepts to think about when creating, upgrading, and modifying magic items in your campaign.

1. Can Magic Items Be Recharged?

Technically, no, but there's no reason why you couldn't let someone use Craft Wand or Craft Staff to recharge an item rather than having to build it brand new, provided they meet all the prerequisites for making the item. If a PC wants to spend the time, money, and xp, let them. Wands and staves are meant to be disposables item, like long-lasting potions or multi-use scrolls, but if your sense of the game dictates that they should have more permanence, then let PCs recharge them (or pay to have them recharged).

2. Sweet Redemption

What can the party do with all those evil items the DM keeps dropping in there? It does make sense for evil enemies to have evil items, but it's an ongoing question in the campaign about what to actually do with them. For good-aligned parties, evil items are effectively valueless as treasure, even though they count against the total wealth of the bad guys you overcome. Evil items are a clear loser for the party. It's almost as if PCs are getting robbed of their 'fair share' of treasure when evil items come up. Wouldn't it be nice if there were some way to make something useful out of them?

The Book of Exalted Deeds introduces the idea of 'redeeming' evil items, effectively turning them from bad to good (pp. 119-120). This requires magic to suppress the item's powers temporarily (e.g., dispel magic, dispel evil) and then prayer, fasting, and an expenditure of xp by a character capable of creating a good, equivalent version of the evil item.

Sounds great, but the list of items is short, and it also presents several problems. For one, paladins are incapable of redeeming items because they usually lack the spellcasting and item creation feat prerequisites. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it may violate your preference for the character class apt to be most interested in item redemption and leave them unable to do it.

More importantly, is it really necessary to convert, say, a +3 flaming unholy mace into a +3 flaming holy mace; just getting rid of the unholy property is what is required, regardless of whether you change it into anything. If you decide you want to add holy to the weapon later, use the standard rules for item upgrades.

That doesn't work for all items. An evil darkskull radiates an unhallow effect -- that's it. If you get rid of its evil power, it has nothing left. For this kind of item, a full reversal is necessary because no half-step is possible.

When trying to convert intelligent evil items, you could use the alignment conversion rules suggested in the Book of Exalted Deeds for use with the Diplomacy skill (see Mercy, Prisoners, and Redemption on pp. 28-29), or perhaps using the atonement spell -- yes, it states that it works on "living creature touched," but you could stretch it a bit. At the very least, a sentient, evil item should have some ability to resist conversion, because it literally has a mind of its own and wants to stay evil. Probably only evil artifacts or relics of evil gods should be impossible to convert. Even for non-intelligent items, you might include atonement (or a limited wish to emulate it, for sorcerers and wizards) as part of the ritual of redemption.

As additional food for thought, you could require a monetary sacrifice to the powers of good (or whichever alignment) if you think the item redemption process is too easy or too cheap. Characters that accumulate 'faith points' (see Complete Divine) could use those in place of some of the normal experience point cost for redeeming items. Those with the True Believer (Complete Divine), Sacred Vow, or Servant of the Heavens feats (Book of Exalted Deeds), or similar feats dedicated to evil, law, or chaos, could redeem or convert items without some of the normal prerequisites. It all depends on how much you like the idea of things being able to be turned to (or from) the dark side, since whatever works for evil to good should be able to work from good to evil (and for law/chaos). If that's not a concept you think is really neat, then don't bother with it. If you do, think about some ways to do it.

3. Making a Change

While we're on the subject of changing items, there are few things more annoying for a DM than spending time creating cool magic items and then having the party chuck them into the grinder to watch the gold pieces pour out so they can get their own personalized upgrades. For that matter, it's frustrating for players when cool items come along but they can't use them because they don't fit their characters.

Shouldn't there be a way to convert items into a more usable shape or form so that they actually stay in the campaign? The most obvious candidate for a spell to do this is wish or miracle, but that seems like overkill -- is it really that hard to change a +4 cloak of resistance into a +4 shirt of resistance or a +2 vorpal shock longsword into a +2 vorpal shock bastard sword?

The next most obvious candidate would be polymorph any object, but it states right there in the spell description that it doesn't work on magic items. Well, you're the DM, and I don't think anyone is going to cry big tears if you decide to ignore that rule. The spell still has other limits -- you can't create special materials (though you could reshape an item if it's already made of gold, mithril, or whatever), and if you want the change to be permanent, the final item should be pretty similar to the one you started with.

Finally, you could develop a new spell. The 2nd Edition Tome of Magic contained the curiously named steal enchantment spell which was designed to do just this -- to take the enchantment from one item and put it in another. It had some goofy mechanics for dealing with it, but if you don't want to house-rule polymorph any object, then bring in a new spell for this specific application. It's certainly the kind of magical service that would be in high demand by wealthy PCs, so doesn't it make sense that some enterprising wizard would figure out how to do it?

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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