s we toil away on D&D Next, I thought it would be worth updating you on the state of magic items. We've talked about our general goals for magic items, and they shouldn't surprise anyone.
First, we don't assume magic items are part of a character's abilities. The math behind the system assumes that you receive only the specific abilities and bonuses granted by your character class and race. At this stage, we do assume that characters upgrade from one type of mundane armor to the next. For instance, a fighter might afford chainmail at 1st level. Later on, that fighter can afford banded armor and then plate. Other than armor, the game lacks any other equipment that we expect you to purchase as a strict upgrade. We feel that this is a sensible upgrade path that fits with D&D, but we'll rely on feedback to ensure that any sort of expected upgrade isn't irritating.
Second, we want magic items to be fun, mysterious, and interesting. Finding one should be a notable part of a session. Of course, the big question is how we can help make that happen.
To start with, many gamers point to items that give a static bonus to attacks or AC as dull. A suit of +1 chainmail is useful, but it doesn't exactly scream mysterious. The bulk of our attention will focus on other items, but we will include the vanilla bonus items in the game to fill that space for DMs who want them. It makes converting material from prior editions much easier, plus if a group wants to use them, who are we to say no?
One thing to keep in mind is that it is likely that our bonuses will top out at +3. Bonuses beyond that might become the domain of artifacts or unique, powerful weapons. We want magic items to make you strictly better, rather than allow you to keep pace with the game, but we need to determine how much better they can make you. If they are too good, they can overshadow the abilities you gain from your class and race. The real potential sore spot here is armor, since a runaway bonus there can make you invulnerable to attacks. We don't want that to become a default situation as characters find magic shields and armor.
The meat of the magic items focuses on shifting the design approach of wondrous items to the rest of the system. We're looking at moving away from a system that consists of a pool of abilities applied to a weapon by picking them off a list. For instance, 3E magic weapons were typically built from a list of qualities placed on a weapon along with a static bonus to attack and damage. We reversed this in 4E by starting with a quality and then giving a set of weapon types to which it could apply and a range of magic bonuses it covered.
For D&D Next, we're looking at designing wholly unique weapons, implements, and armor. A sunder rock mace might give you a +2 bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls, deal triple damage to inanimate objects, and allow you to smash a tunnel through natural rock once or twice per day. A wand of unquenchable fire could give you a bonus to spell attack rolls, augment fire spells with extra damage, and be commanded to shed light from a magical flame that can be doused only when you give another command. Gorgon armor might be heavy armor that makes you immune to petrification, allows you to breathe poisonous fumes like a gorgon once per day, and has a horned helmet you can use to gore opponents.
On top of that, we'd like to give DMs a set of options and tools to make magic items come alive in the world. I'd like to see us build a list of special abilities that can be applied to any weapon that speak to its creation, its history, and its place in the world, rather than its pure utility to an adventurer.
For example, a few rolls on a table might reveal that dwarves crafted this specific sunder rock mace for use against a demonic incursion. That might give the mace two more special abilities. Whenever the mace is below ground, it gives a slight, gentle tug in the direction of the path that leads back to the nearest dwarven stronghold. If a demon comes within 200 feet of the mace, the weapon grows slightly warmer in its wielder's hand.
Those little details are mysteries that the DM might never fully explain except through trial and error on the player's part. They don't speak to the game's balance or even its mechanics, so we can let DMs fit them in purely on a story or narrative level. Maybe the mace leads you to a forgotten dwarven fortress, whether because the DM planned on using that to move the plot forward or because the characters simply followed the mace when it led them to a random ruin on the DM's map.
Ideally, when your group looks back on the campaign, that mace is memorable because it led you to a forgotten, unguarded treasure, or it sent you into a red dragon's lair. In either case, the item is part of the story, not part of a math equation.
Of course, that same approach can apply to the "generic" +1 plate. If your DM wants to make magic items interesting, the game provides the resources to make that happen. Hopefully, it sparks some interesting events in your campaign.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.