Save My Game
Upgrading Magic Items, Part 3
By Jason Nelson-Brown

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 3

Realistically, there should be some way to make multiple effects work, since it's kind of mean to punish players for getting the most for their money. My policy is that players submit what they're thinking of adding as upgrades or how they're changing items in writing, at least a week in advance, to look over it and to set up prices/see if it's feasible. I'm personally of the belief that upgrading items makes sense, so long as the players aren't making some sort of profit off of what they do, as opposed to buying new items.

-- TheHappyToaster, Wizards message boards

Here we continue the discussion begun in the first and second parts of this topic.

The suggestion above is a good one. Whatever changes or items are to be made, especially if they vary from the standard items listed in the Dungeon Master's Guide, should always be written down. You should also require item-creating players to 'show their work' when figuring costs so that you can check their math and make sure they valued things according to the rules. You can also check to see if there is anything particularly cheater-ous or that you otherwise don't like about the item being created. You can use your line item veto on things that don't fit or require changes if appropriate.

Note also that the Dungeon Master's Guide points out that, because of their usefulness, some abilities are not priced strictly by the book. A ring of invisibility and ring of freedom of movement are two noteworthy examples. Also, oddball items that aren't directly tied to spell effects or that duplicate feats are very tricky to price, because there are many comparables you might choose (metamagic rods of various types, an ioun stone that grants Alertness, bracers of archery, etc.).

It is essentially impossible in D&D 3.5 to make a profit by making magic items. The item creation costs half the item's total value, and the sale price is half the total value. In fact, making items for sale is a net loss, because you are also expending xp to make those items. If some magic items are scarce and therefore more valuable or are sold by auction, there is the potential for profit. Because of the time, aggravation, and cost involved in making magic, you are unlikely to need to deal with PCs trying to make a profit from magic item manufacturing. What you need to look out for are sneaky game effects, especially stackable ones. To that end, we look at two last bits of interest when it comes to magic-item making.

1. All Bonuses are Not Created Equal

Why is it that some bonuses cost more than others? In part because they are better, and in part because they are rarer. But sometimes neither seems to apply. Take, for example, deflection bonus to AC vs. natural armor bonus to AC. These are priced the same in the DMG (bonus squared x 2,000), but why? Deflection is clearly superior to natural armor. It does everything natural armor does and more, because it applies to touch and incorporeal touch attacks. You might want to consider either increasing the price of deflection or decreasing the price of natural armor. Exotic bonuses to AC (insight, luck, profane, sacred) are priced 25% higher than deflection because of their relative rarity -- perhaps natural armor should be priced 25% lower.

Also, compare this to saving throw bonuses, where resistance is the norm but every other kind of bonus is twice that amount. Why are exotic saves worth so much more than exotic AC? Which is the better model to use? And why is 'morale' not listed as a type of unusual saving throw bonus. There certainly are a number of spells that grant morale bonuses to saves.

A final point on saving throws -- what should it cost to have an item that improves only one of your saving throw categories? For a wizard, an item to boost Fortitude saving throws might be highly desirable, while a barbarian might want to boost Will to avoid getting charmed or confused and turned against the party. Again, there are spells that grant benefits to only one type of saving throw (e.g., bless to Will saves), so there's precedent in the system for it. But how much cheaper should it be than an item that boosts all saves? A good rule of thumb could be that a single-save booster should cost half as much as an item that boosts all saves.

When dealing with mixing up types of bonuses, always be careful. The game is already stacked heavily in favor of saving throw bonuses vs. save DCs. Allowing PCs to create multi-type save adders can push their save bonuses into the stratosphere, which makes abilities like evasion and mettle that much more obnoxious. It can quickly get to a point where it's either a roll is either a natural 1 or a successful save (with total avoidance of damage) against all but the most super-vicious creatures.

2. Department of Redundancy Department

If you're looking for optional rules regarding the creation of magic items -- in terms of who gets to pay the XP bill -- you might consider our recent PHB II enhancement: Transferring XP Costs. Also be sure to check out the Rules of the Game column on this subject, starting with Making Magic Items Part 1.

Craft Arms and Armor, Craft Wand, Craft Staff, Scribe Scroll -- these item creation feats all make good sense and are pretty well-defined. The problematic feat is Craft Wondrous Item, because it basically lets you make everything else. Why take Brew Potion when you can create a single-use, use-activated item (Quaal's feather token, fire elemental gem, etc.) that does the same thing as a potion would but is not limited to 3rd level and below. What makes a ring any different from any other worn item, other than that it goes on your finger instead of another body slot? Why is there a specific item creation feat for that one body slot but no others? Why Craft Rod when a rod is just a wondrous item in stick form (sometimes combined with a magic weapon)?

What are item creation feats for? Are they organized by the effect of the item or the type of the item? If we're talking effect, potions are single-use items that anyone can use, scrolls are single-use spell-completion items, wands are single-spell trigger items with a 4th level maximum, staves (or staffs, if you prefer) are multiple-spell trigger items with no level limit, arms and armor are pretty self-explanatory. What about rings and rods -- what are they that makes them different in what they can do from any other kind of wondrous or multifunction item? If you can't think of a good explanation, you may revisit whether you want to have these as separate item creation feats.

If you're looking for a more thematic division of item creation feats, you could take a few things away from the overstuffed 'wondrous item' catch-all bag. Perhaps Craft Wondrous Item does not allow you to make single-use, throwaway items. All of those items, be they skull talismans, magical tattoos, potions, oils, dusts, elixirs, philters, enchanted fruit, or any other kind of anyone-can-use, one-shot items, all become part of the 'Craft Minor Magic' feat, inclusive of such ephemera. Wondrous Items have to be permanent items.

A second step could be to broaden Forge Ring to perhaps Craft Magical Jewelry. Then items that go on the ring slots but also items that go in the necklace/periapt/amulet slot, and maybe even items that go in the bracer/bracelet slot, would go in this department. Ioun stones and other sorts of magical rocks, jewels, stones, pearls, gems, crystals, and talismans would go here as well. Magical headgear such as a crown, circlet, or tiara? Hmmmm … that would probably go here as well, but things such as hats and helmets seem to fall outside the theme. Maybe the 'head' slot could be a crossover slot accessible through Craft Magical Jewelry and Craft Wondrous Item.

Rods are still a bit adrift. Perhaps you simply need Craft Arms and Armor and Craft Wondrous Item as prerequisites. Rods are a unique type of crossover item that has two feat prerequisites rather than having their own specific kind of item creation feat. Craft Rod may be a follow-up feat to Craft Arms and Armor, necessary to create magical weapons or armor that have spell powers or unusual qualities not on the regular armors and armor list (such as celestial armor or a holy avenger). Maybe any wondrous item that is carried rather than worn should be in the rod family. Perhaps the problem is that, like rings, there just aren't enough possible items in this category to warrant a separate item creation feat. These two feats get you 30-some item choices each, and very little that can't be duplicated with other feats.

So what still counts as a wondrous item? Anything you wear that's not jewelry, and any kind of household item (horseshoes, carpets, bowls, braziers, books, censers, decks of cards, etc.), which is a long list of stuff. There still some funny cases, such as figurines and statues and crystal balls. Are they a type of jewelry? You'll have to divide up those 'corner cases' for yourself.

Nothing says you have to change item creation or modification. The rules are pretty explicit and pretty clear. But these are two areas which might provoke you to think, "Hmm, this doesn't seem quite right," when it comes to making magic. You might want to consider shifting things around a bit to make a better fit.

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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