I've been doing some hard work on magic item design over in Tribality, and I've talked a bit about the two 5e campaigns I play in, so in this post I'm looking at different approaches to magic items in roleplaying games. I've identified six so far, which is my justification for the clickbait title (also, I want to see if it draws in readers); if you think of meaningfully different approaches, I want to hear about them.
I've written about magic items and magic item design before:
I think of this as the approach that D&D assumes you'll use. You go on adventures, you beat things up, you take their stuff.
You have some amount of control over whether you're facing the toughest challenges you can find. The hardest challenges have the best loot or loot odds.
You don't have any control over what their stuff was. Maybe it's directly useful, maybe not - but even things that aren't directly useful might get you to try something new, or might wind up as barter bait.
Nearly everything you find is useful and has no major drawbacks. Cursed items are rare or nonexistent. (This may be a deviation from a classic Gygaxian screwjob, but I think it's been the basic assumption going back at least as far as 2e.)
The selling point here is that you achieve something, and then you get a reward. This game loop is the core of making D&D addictive. Randomizing whether you get one of the things you want (a clear upgrade to an existing piece of gear) intensifies the drive to keep going and try for another randomized reward.
In my own game, "randomized" isn't exactly right. I rarely think about who in the party might use a piece of treasure before putting it in the game, though sometimes the story pre-determines the treasure, so the player did know what was coming. For example, the players heard about Master Sapphire's sword and Lady Sapphire's sword (including general descriptions) long before they encountered and defeated Master and Lady Sapphire. There was no bait-and-switch going on here - the PCs beat them up and took their famous stuff, which did what the PCs expected and some secret, strictly beneficial things.
This took place during the D&D Next playtest, when they experimented with magic items having Secrets to unlock over the course of play. That was one of my favorite of all the discarded ideas from the playtests, and I would love to see it come back as 5e's content cycle very slowly matures.
Also, every once in awhile, I create a magic item just to fix a problem with a player's power set. Specifically, I created a magic item so that Archfey warlocks have a workaround for undead, since so many undead are immune to the charmed and frightened conditions that the Archfey warlock relies upon. Once I created that magic item, I put it into the game just about as soon as possible, knowing that it would be useful only to that player. I regret nothing. (If a second Archfey warlock entered the game, I would either make up an alternate solution to the same problem, or introduce a copy of the original item.)
Anyway, while I'm reluctant to identify my way as the default, this mode is what's written into the 5e DMG. I create a huge number of homebrewed magic items, so even things that I've planned feel random to the PCs. In my current campaign, other than healing potions and spell scrolls, I think the PCs have received a grand total of one item found in the DMG.
Hard Work for Hand-Picked Pay
This variation on the first mode puts the player through the same content loop of effort, but the player has much greater control over what the treasure will be. The two places I've seen this approach used explicitly are D&D 4e and World of Warcraft, though in different ways. 4e encourages the player to write up a wishlist of magic items from the books and give it to the DM, while WoW hands out participation tokens from raiding so that you make progress toward getting a Thing even when you don't have the good luck to get an upgrade from randomized loot. (Probably a lot of MMOs have done this since - I got out of raiding in 2010, and out of MMOs entirely in '11 or '12.)
In my 4e gaming circle, only one player cared about specific loot enough to even mention that he wanted one particular thing. Other players found that this approach took all sense of surprise out of the reward, making success less interesting and joyful. Gear optimization was a significant part of 4e, though, and DDI only served to highlight that by making homebrewed magic items hard to implement.
I have no objection to WoW's token system, other than the dizzying variety of tokens they had implemented even by the time I got out. A sense of progress really helped mitigate the disappointment of bad loot-luck. Considering the large number of players in a raid team and item slots to upgrade, I think it was a reasonable solution to keep players engaged. So are DKP or Suicide Kings, which serve the same function - but no one has ever gotten a 50-raid-token minus for not knowing what the fuck to do.
There are, of course, character optimizers interested in the best items for each slot, and this is the only approach that grants the control they would enjoy. Re-creating the feel of an MMO in a tabletop environment is a goal for some players, and presumably some DMs. More power to them, but 5e doesn't work with this mode all that well.
To a much lesser degree, 3.x D&D is also designed for this mode of play. Magic item creation feats let spellcasters turn cash and XP into a magic item of their own choice. Cash - and any item you don't want and can therefore sell - is just progress toward your next magic item creation session. It totally changes one's outlook on magic items, because everything is a work in progress. Today's +1 keen longsword could be tomorrow's +5 keen shocking burst murdery death longsword of ultra killfulness. As long as the non-magical chassis is everything you want it to be, there might never be a reason to use a different sword. The downside of this is that the DM has to top that just to get you interested in the loot portion of the adventure.
I love crafting in games, because of all the ways it lets players make decisions outside the DM's loot distribution. But, well, it can be complicated. I have been wrestling with crafting in tabletop games since this blog's fourth post, and I still don't have a perfect answer.
Spend XP for Upgrades
I'll start by saying that I just don't understand the appeal of this model. Maybe writing about it will help. The idea - as implemented in The One Ring, quasi-implemented in Earthdawn, and so forth - is that gear upgrades come out of the same advancement currency (let's call them XP) as any other kind of character improvement. Since any activity grants XP, any activity could improve your gear. It's kind of all stats going up and new options getting unlocked, right?
Here I'm casually ignoring the way spellcasters burn XP to create magic items in 3.x D&D, which straddles this approach and Hard Work for Hand-Picked Pay.
That's what I have a problem with, though. I like that treasure presents an unpredictable or less-predictable element of character growth. If I'm making all of the choices for myself, surprise (even of someone else making a choice) is out of the question. The sense of reward is muted into the decision fatigue of all the ways I could spend those points. When XP and gear upgrades are separate tracks, decision fatigue can still be a thing, but at least it's compartmentalized.
The goal, of course, is control, placed in the player's hands. The idea (I presume; I'm open to conversation on this) is this is the only way for the player to be certain that the character is what the player wants at every step (other than any consequences imposed upon them in the course of play). All of you adversarial GMs out there caused this, by ruining player trust.
The Earthdawn model is quite a bit different. Instead of XP, players earn Legend Points, which you either invest in yourself (to raise all kinds of different stats, learn spells, and so on) or invest in special gear. That gear is the result of standard-ish adventuring loot. The items have to have a Name and a Legend, because what you're doing is reawakening their dormant powers by building your own connection to the item's Legend. The problem with this is the sense of waste - if you find another weapon, later on in your career, that has much better powers, I'm pretty sure you don't get refunded any of those points. The points you spent leveling yourself up, however, are Just Fine - so it's sort of a sucker bet for a good bit of the campaign, unless everyone in the party is budgeting about the same way. Falling behind because of suboptimal spending sounds like nothing but a stressful choice. The best part of Earthdawn's model is that characters have to learn the lore of the item and perform heroic deeds in order to advance the weapon.
Earthdawn preserves the connection of great challenge for great reward, but my impression (which may be wrong) is that most games that use this model don't really have a concept of players choosing greater challenge to bring in greater XP reward.
Samhaine has done some great writing recently about how to get PCs to part ways with their gear, but gear you've spent XP on has a really strong promise that you won't ever take it away, not even as an organic part of the story.
There's also one quasi-D&D example, in 3.5e's Weapons of Legacy supplement. Instead of paying XP, you pay points of attack bonus, saving throw, and maximum hit points. I don't have any firsthand experience with this book, as I bought it but never found a place for its ideas in my campaign.
Everything Is a Little Bad (or at least Scary)
In the Reborn campaign, Louis has basically two loot channels - a fairly thin flow of standard adventuring loot (hard work for randomized pay), and a much richer patronage stream. We're working for the gods - none of whom are completely good, and some of whom might be completely bad. Powerful new items sometimes show up more or less on our doorstep, with only marginal correlation to our efforts in service to what the gods want us to do. I'm conscious, as I play, of the imbalance and implied debt.
For my character in particular, my newest item seems to involve feeding souls to my Dark and Terrifying Goddess, in exchange for refreshing a lot of spell slots. Just a few months ago, my character was a humble village physicker and herbalist - he's not yet accustomed to power, and killing things so I can feed souls to my goddess is still quite the moral hurdle. On the other hand, sometimes an enemy is just going to get back up and keep on murdering you until you do feed their soul to something, and... well, what's a trying-to-be-goodly cleric to do?
Moral tension is one of Louis's great creative hallmarks, and it's working great here. He's custom-creating just about all of our magic items, and certainly everything we get from our patrons. (In some cases, the item is explicitly two or more DMG magic items combined into one.) Accepting and using these granted items to their full extent is a tough question, and the more he hands out toweringly impressive items that we definitely haven't earned, the more discomfort I feel. It's a great emotional connection to my gameplay choices.
I have no sense for what the long-term repercussions of my actions might be. My vague expectation, based on... nothing really, is more in the way of increased challenge down the line, or a heaping helping of guilt, rather than something bad being imposed upon my character. We'll see.
In a different campaign, I saw a great variation on this: the DM gave our large party of 6th-level characters one million gold pieces, plus a variety of powerful magic items, in the opening scene. Our main problem in the campaign was figuring out how to hang onto it long enough to do something useful with it. He just wanted to see what we would do with way too much of a good thing. The campaign didn't run long enough to explore the effects of our early choices all that much, but I thought it was a cool idea anyway.
Is This Even Useful? Well...
Kainenchen uses this in her Liel 5e campaign. It is a half-step away from the Everything Is a Little Bad model, because instead of nebulous concerns of future punishment, we have items that are both really good and really bad at the same time. She also likes handing out lots of treasure, of her own design, considerably more than we have "conventionally earned" (whatever the heck that means - it's all in my head) because the items aren't clear upgrades to our power. Strong benefits combined with worrying drawbacks leads to a lot of consideration of how we can combine two or more items (but not more than our attunement limit) to mitigate one another's drawbacks or put together a benefit so great that the drawbacks almost don't matter.
These items feel like complicated puzzle pieces from a lot of unrelated puzzles, but if we keep searching (and it's a dungeon crawl campaign, so that's going to happen), we might find pieces that fit together into something really cool. Until then, we have some outright duds (in a way that makes sense in-play - a wizard did it, but not all experiments are great successes) and some highly situational things. It's a lot of intellectual engagement, and it could be trade-bait once we're out of the dungeon.
It's possible (but I wouldn't count on it) that Kainenchen will gradually segue into Hard Work for Randomized Pay as we gain levels. There probably are some unmitigated-good items scattered around the dungeon, granting modest bonuses - but the biggest bonuses will always come from using the weird toys that she has handed out in creative recombinations.
Q is for Quartermaster
I've only done this in limited ways in D&D, but PCs can also receive cool stuff at the start of the adventure, with the expectation that they'll use it creatively over the course of the adventure. Though not common in fantasy fiction or gaming (other than heirloom weapons), it's a central feature of Paranoia and James Bond flicks. In Paranoia, it's how Friend Computer shows its inescapable affection for you. In James Bond flicks, Q is just issuing 007 a bunch of different models of Chekov's Gun. It is the most extreme case of treasure you haven't worked to attain.
There's a variant on this that has become popular in heist and espionage roleplaying games (Leverage, Night's Black Agents, Blades in the Dark), and that's the flashback reveal to substitute for advance planning and the tradecraft expertise that the players and the GM don't have. The Venn diagram of espionage and settings with magic items is quite the thin sliver, though NPC espionage has been a seasoning in D&D's melange since its earliest days (as the 1e DMG has extensive rules on hiring spies). Anyway, the idea is that you had this thing in your pocket or pack, waiting for just such an emergency. Your gear becomes a function of your stats - for example, GUMSHOE's Preparedness.
In my campaign, my motivations were entirely quotidian. The roster for what I expected would be a lengthy and brutal adventure was a fighter, a monk, a wizard, and a sorcerer, and the monk was several levels shy of healing himself in combat. Therefore the mercenary company they work for issued them the emerald sash of Tura Keshik, which allowed an attuned user to spend an action and a charge from the sash to spend hit dice on himself or others. This got used early and often, and was collected again by the Company's quartermaster once they returned from their adventure. It wasn't as good as if they had had someone who could cast healing spells, but it was a lot better nothing.
I can also imagine all kinds of adventures around being assigned to figure out what a magic item does (presumably because identify spells are failing or delivering confusing answers). The obvious route is the Paranoia-style dark or slapstick comedy as the PCs get burned, frozen, electrocuted, defenestrated, or transubstantiated by the item. Alternately, if you've established a rich cosmology, there could also be a lot of engaging puzzle gameplay as the PCs use fantasy science to narrow down possibilities and draw conclusions.
These different approaches to putting better, more powerful tools in the characters' hands have their tradeoffs, and the psychology of reward undoubtedly has a lot to say about any of them. (The psychology of reward is a huge hot-button topic in game design, and especially video game design. We study addiction in its marginally-more-benign form.) These models aren't mutually exclusive in most cases, so if you haven't tried one of these in your game, consider how it might surprise and intrigue your players to be rewarded in a new way.
Have you got an approach to treasure that I haven't considered? Post it in the comments!