Article Header Image
Magic Item Rarity
Countdown to Essentials
By Mike Mearls, Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game R&D Group Manager

As the release of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products draws near, we’re showing off the rules updates and new options available in these products. This week, we look at magic items and how the new rarity system helps expand the items the game includes while giving Dungeon Masters more tools to tinker with in their campaigns.

One of the consistent pieces of feedback we’ve received about the Dungeons & Dragons game concerns magic items. Many players and DMs have told us that while plenty of the items in the game are treasures worth risking a character’s life and limb for, the most powerful items felt a little flat. On the other hand, we’ve also seen in playtests that magic items can sometimes crowd out a character’s other options. Particularly at high levels, a character’s boots, armor, gloves, belt, weapon, and other gear add quite a few powers and abilities that might overshadow other character aspects.

In looking over feedback and inspecting the game, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to add a broader variety of items to the game. A magical sword that unleashes bolts of lightning on command should be able to sit alongside a belt that increases your maximum hit points.

Rare Items

Rare items were the first piece of the puzzle. It’s simply the nature of game design that even after assigning levels to items, there will always be better and worse items within a specific level. Sometimes that difference comes down to a character’s needs. Other times, players simply value one type of item over another, like one that deals extra damage.

Rare items allow us to create a category of treasures that are clearly more powerful without simply forcing them to a higher level of play. For example, a flame-tongue longsword that can hurl bolts of fire at will is more powerful than a resounding weapon that dazes an enemy once per day. However, both weapons’ enhancement bonuses determine where they sit within the grand scheme of levels. A +1 flame-tongue longsword must sit somewhere between levels 1 and 5. Above that point, its enhancement bonus is too low to keep up with other weapons, even if it has a nifty activated ability.

By introducing rare items, we can allow those two weapons to sit near each other in terms of level.

So, what does mean if a magic item is rare?

First, the rules assume that the DM hands out one rare item per character per tier. Rare items are meant to be character-defining, powerful objects that help forge the character’s identity in the world. If you find a flame-tongue weapon, you’ve uncovered an important, powerful blade. Since the characters won’t have many of these items, they can be more complicated in terms of type and number of powers.

Second, characters cannot normally create or buy rare items. They are simply too hard to find to show up in the hands of a merchant or trader. You must find them or, at the DM’s option, track down the rare and wondrous reagents needed to create one. You can’t simply stock up on them or buy one for each item slot.

Third, rare items sell for 100% of their listed gold piece value. If you find one and want to sell it for cash, you have no trouble finding a buyer willing to pay an exorbitant price to take it off your hands.

Common Items

Common items are the exact opposite of rare items. They offer useful but limited abilities. The processes of their manufacture are well known, and anyone with the money can track one down for purchase.

Common items lack activated powers. They usually confer a simple bonus or a static effect that you note on your character sheet and forget about. For example, a pair of gloves that grants a +2 bonus to Thievery checks makes a fine common item. You note the modifier to your skill check, adjust the total bonus as necessary, and never think of the gloves again until you find new ones to replace them.

The intent behind common items is to keep the game’s complexity load manageable. Common items are useful, but they don’t create a distraction or an extra layer of choice within an encounter.

Common items sell for 20% of their listed gold piece value. They are valuable but relatively easy to find. About half the items you find on adventures are common items.

Uncommon Items

The rest of our magic items are now uncommon. They occupy the middle ground between rare and common items. They have powers, but these powers are typically daily abilities. They have static effects, but they are rarely character-defining or critical to a hero’s identity.

Like rare items, uncommon items must be found. They are seldomly up for sale and few people know how to craft them. Even those smiths who can make them require exotic, difficult-to-find materials to complete them. Uncommon items sell for 50% of their listed price. A little less than half of the items you find on adventures are uncommon.

The Net Result

As you can see, an items’ rarity has a big effect on how it interacts with the game. Characters can easily stock up on common items, but rare and uncommon items only enter the game at the Dungeon Master’s discretion. This approach seeks a middle ground between empowering characters to buy and sell items while giving the DM a useful tool for keeping the game manageable and exciting.

The best part of this system lies in its flexibility. A Dungeon Master can easily shift the tone of a campaign by adjusting how rarity functions. In a high magic campaign, the characters can buy and sell any items. In a world where magic is rare and wondrous, the characters can’t buy anything, while the only items they uncover are rare ones. Even then, a character can expect to find only two or three such items over the course of an entire campaign.

The default rules walk a line between empowering both Dungeon Masters and players. They seek to give DMs some control without taking all the fun out of spending the gold pieces that the characters earn on their adventures. If that default doesn’t work for you, changing how you treat magic items in the game is a snap.

Magic Item Usage

Before we bring this discussion to a close, it’s worth mentioning that the limits on using daily magic item powers are no longer part of the game. They existed to prevent the characters from stockpiling items that were far below their level but still had useful, daily powers. Under this scheme, such items are uncommon. Stockpiling a number of them is impossible without house rules or a Dungeon Master who willingly awards multiple copies of such items as treasure. With our new rarity scheme in place, we no longer need such rules.


About the Author

Mike Mearls is the Group Manager for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. His recent credits include Player’s Handbook 3, Hammerfast, and Monster Manual 3.