September 17, 2010

Who Owns Items?

I posted the below on the Wizards boards, and figured I could repost it here (since I meant to write it out a while ago). Note that this is in partial response to the collective hissy-fit the Internet (or CharOp specifically) is having to the new item rarity rules in D&D Essentials.

I actually the fundamental problem with magic items is that no one can answer the question of whether magic items are a player resource or a DM resource.

If they are a player resource, they they act like feats or powers, and you should just get what you want. This works nicely as providing another place for character customization and ways to get unique abilities (I have a "wizard" character who is actually a warlock but uses a pair of magic gloves to get cantrips to make him seem wizard-like). The original Dragon version of Wild Talents worked along these lines too--you can have a special ability that comes out of your "item" resource pool (as opposed to out of your feat or power resource pool).

If they are a DM resource, then items are like adventure-long (or campaign-long) terrain powers. They provide story elements, give the players something interesting and unique to do, and are basically an unusual or exotic effect. Artifacts are the quintessential DM resource item. The uniquely named Flaming Sword could be another.

The problem is, no one can agree on whether items should be a player or a DM resource. In previous editions (like AD&D, which is as far back as I conveniently remember) I'd argue that items were primarily DM resource. You could get cool items, but you never expected anything and if you did get neat stuff it was a reward. 3e started turning them more into a player resource, with wealth-by level guidelines (that were read as law) that basically explained what kinds of items you should have. But they still want to be a DM resource, as availability was nominally in the DM's hand (items were, afterall, in the DMG).

In 4e, items are pushed even more firmly into position as a player resource. They're listed in the PHB, and they provide a set of numerical bonuses that are required for the game math. But they still have the shadow of a DM resource--the DM is supposed to give out items (even if that is based on a wishlist), so players can't just treat them as an available resource like feats or powers. What's more, there aren't even clean "wealth-by-level" guidelines that would let them easily become a player resource (e.g., how the starting wealth guidelines don't match up with expected treasure gains from the parcel system, etc).

Essentials seems to be trying to move items back towards being a DM resource by restricting availability. It's like putting items back in the DMG: they become something to hand out (a DM resource), not something players expect to have. The mathematically-required items then become mostly a player resource (but not totally, as you don't automatically get/earn a higher level item. Note that this is why the inherent bonus system is so sexy--it helps solve items' split-personality issues), but Uncommon and Rare items can become primarily/solely a DM resource.

Of course, this doesn't totally solve the problem, because they still don't know if items are supposed to be a player or DM resource. And they've also split items pretty poorly, with no explanation why some items can be a player resource and some can be for the DM. I think if they can address that issue and be more explicit about how items can be either player or DM resources (but not both!), then maybe things will work out.

Also, blogging is harder than I expected: I don't seem to have the time or inclination to write regularly like I thought I might...