Keeping Magic Items Uncommon

It’s inevitable that as soon as players figure out that monster X routinely drops treasure type Y, they will all be gunning for monster type X.  If the system has loopholes, they will find a way to kill monster X at a minimum of risk and effort expended.  Pretty soon your world is filled to the brim with Broadswords of Nuclear Destruction.  The consequences of over-availability of magical items in a game world are pretty obvious, but in case they aren’t to you, they include (short list) power inflation, twinking, cash inflation (as the excess/lower tier items are sold off), elimination of the usefulness of player crafters, etc.  It also destroys any sense of wonder one might ascribe to these devices in any reasonable work of fantasy.  Elric:  "Stormbringer?  Bleah, it sucks; I give better stuff to newbie guildmates.  Mule it."

There are three passive ways to effectively limit an overabundance of magic items in your campaign world:

  • Just make less of them
  • Make them go away more often
  • Make most of them "limited use" items

Number one, making less of them in the first place, is obviously the most important step.  This is especially important if we assume from the start that closed economies just don’t work, ergo you can’t just say, "There are no more than 1000 enchanted cheese slicers in the world at any given time."  This is impossible for reasons outlined above, most importantly the fact that a small group of early players will hoard enchanted cheese slicers and hold a monopoly on them.  Consider the amount of work it probably takes to create even a minor enchanted item like a bow (finding just the right wood, commissioning the best bowyer in the land, many mages performing ceremonial magic for long periods of time, etc.) and you can reasonably see why these things wouldn’t appear on every other kobold your players run across.  Magic weapons will most likely be in the hands of appropriately tough monsters, who can and do use them against the players.  Even if a player manages to find Kutzulcrag the ogre lord who might provide them with the Flaming Warhammer of Giant Strength, Kutzulcrag is going to use it against them.  This only makes sense.

Making them go away is just as important for magic items as it is for standard stuff like suits of armor, gold, and shields.  If these items are unbreakable/non-droppable/unlosable, your world will fill up with them regardless of limitations you set on availability.  Wear and tear would certainly factor in to this, as does loss due to death, but other, more annoying devices can be used.  Magical devices are a favorite target for thieves, alone or hired for the job.  NPC nobles and collectors might pay high prices for them, which becomes important if your cash economy is functioning properly (i.e. the money really makes a difference).  If things get too ridiculous, black boxes from pen and paper games can be used, like the ethereal daemon who feeds on such items, and will certainly be attracted to a player decked out in them.  Attaching a sense of danger to the ownership of magic items also helps insure that they are being carried by characters of a power level appropriate to their possession, instead of the newbie decked out in twink gear.

Limited use items applies primarily to things like alchemical potions and the like.  In a standard pen and paper fantasy campaign, these are far and away the most common type of magical item.  Potions of healing, dust of disappearance, maybe a whistle that summons creatures to fight for you 3 times before it breaks… as long as these are the predominant forms of magical loot players can get, their built-in disposability takes care of item inflation by itself (although you still need to be careful, especially if players are fabricating these things).

Of course, in a world where magic items are rightfully limited in availability, you need to provide players with alternatives to beef up their arsenal to a reasonable degree.  This is done through other economic measures, primarily control of the cash economy to avoid hyperinflation (so a suit of plate is something special), and giving player crafters the ability to make top-quality gear… not supergear, just at the high end of the reality scale.

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