Rewarding Players with Magic Items Without Breaking Your Game

Players love magic items and they can make for cool rewards and incentives. But, magic items are also much more powerful than ordinary items and have the potential to create an unbalanced game.

I have run into this problem before, and it isn’t easy to rebalance your game if you have given an overpowered magic item. If you simply have the item “break” or steal it one night while the party is carousing, your players will be in an uproar.

It is much better to consider the effects of such items before you give them out than try to fix the problems they create after. Before you start handing out magical weapons and armor, make sure you give this a read!

To keep the game balanced, you should follow these basic rules when rewarding players with magical items:

  • Give players magic items only after extremely difficult encounters, or when they are expl0ring challenging areas, such as lairs of high CR monsters or ancient temples or castles.
  • Uncommon-Lengendary magical items should not be available for purchase in common shops.
  • No magical items should be available for purchase outside of major cities.
  • Powerful magical items should always have some kind of disadvantage or drawback to make players think about when and how they use them.
  • Not all magical items have to be powerful, or even useful, to be fun!

The Value of Magic

Before you start handing out magic items like Oprah at Christmas, you need to understand the value of magic.

Yes, Dungeon & Dragons is founded on the fact that magic is real and present, but this does not mean that every one has the ability to use it. To use magic, a person must be chosen by the gods, chosen by fate, or spend years and years studying. This does not include most of the masses. 

Just because everyone in your adventuring party can use magic does not mean it is common. Your party is uncommon, that is why the story is about them.

This means that magic and items enchanted by those who can use it should be difficult to come by.

In most places even common magic items, like potions of healing, are not going to be readily available.

Your adventurers should not be able to find Potions of Superior Healing just sitting on the shelves of every shop they wander in to. These items are crafted by individuals who know at least a little magic, and it is likely they will cost more than gold.

Like we talked about in Building Realistic Villages and Cities, what is available in a village is far different from a city.

A village herbalist might be willing to craft some potions if the party completes a task for him in return and anything more than a common potion would be unheard of.

Magic is valuable. Even common magic items are valued between 50-100 gold pieces.

A simple potion of healing costs 50 gp, that is the same cost as a well made great sword and you can only use a potion once!

Too often we think that because magic is a part of the world that it should be readily available, but this is not the case. Magic and magic items are valuable and they should be treated as such. If you are looking to reward your party with magic items, be sure you are not devaluing magic by giving too many too often.

Unless you decide otherwise, most magic items cannot be bought or sold in ordinary shops. Even in large cities the dealing of magic items is likely to be more like the selling of fine art in today’s world. Something more for collectors than adventurers.

It is far more likely your party will find magic items in long forgotten and sealed tombs or in treasure hoards and dungeons than at the local shop.

Magic Items by Level

Magic items are categorized by the rarity of the item, ranging from Common to Legendary. Common items are the most plentiful while legendary items are one of a kind. An easy way to quickly determine what level of magic items to give your party members is by using players’ levels.

Rarity Character Level Value
Common 1st or higher 50-100 gp
Uncommon 1st or higher 101-500 gp
Rare 5th or higher 501-5,000 gp
Very Rare 11th or higher 5,001-50,000 gp
Legendary 17th or higher 50,001 + gp

Although you can choose to give a first level player access to a rare magic item, this should be for story purposes, not just because such items are “cool.”

Giving players too many magic items or items that are over powered will break your game! Your game will start to focus on the items, not the players and it will take away from your players’ story.

Preventing Magic Items from Breaking Your Game

How can you give magic items without breaking your game? Here are some tips to follow:

Limit Number of Items

There are several factors that limit the number of magic items individual players can use at one time, such as physically wielding a magic weapon, or using an action to activate a pendent or ring, and attunement.

However, some items give players bonuses just by wearing them and do not require attunement. You need to be careful when giving out such items.

Although a +2 to Armor Class may not seem like much, giving players multiple of such items can lead to a player having an AC of 25, making them basically impossible to hit outside of magical means. This can quickly become an irritation, to say the least. You need to keep track of the magical items each of your players has in order to avoid having an entire party with ridiculous ACs.

You also want to make sure players are not drowning in magic items that give them unfair advantages. You don’t want players relying on items and not on their own creativity or ideas.

If you give players a magic lock pick that can unlock any lock, or a staff of dispel magic that renders magically locked doors useless, then players will miss out on the tension of getting into locked rooms or having to find alternative routes when they fail to pick a lock.

These types of items can remove an important aspect of the game, and you should use caution when giving them out. However, there is a way to give such items and still maintain game balance.

Give Items Limitations or Consequences

Powerful items should have negative consequences. Just like powerful spells, such as Knock and Wish have drawbacks and consequences that make players think twice about using them, magic items should use the same mechanics.

If you are using magical items found in The Dungeon Master’s Guide (which you can pick up eat your local game store) such items will already come with drawbacks; however, if you are homebrewing your own magical items, consider adding one of the following:

  • A Curse: Power often comes with a price. A cursed weapon can give great boons but also have great consequences. Come up with a lore to surround the item, such as a mad mage, an evil king, or a commoner’s rage. Depending on the lore, the item should exact a price from the wielder in order to be used. Such as sacrificing health for a “blood price,” becoming exhausted after use, or having to roll against temporary madness after use.  
  • Activation: Before use, some items need to be activated by the wielder. This can be either a bonus action or action depending on the strength of the item. This can be a word that must be spoken or an action that must be performed. Requiring activation will limit when players can use items and how many they can use in a round of combat.
  • Charges: Another way to balance a magic item is to give it charges. This limits the number of times a player can use the item in one day and makes the players think twice before using it.
  • Requires Attunement: A player can only be attuned to three items at one time. Items that require attunement force the user to choose which items they want to use.

Not all Items Need to be “Useful”

Not all magical items need to be powerful weapons of lore. It can be just as fun and entertaining to give magical items that create minimal, useless or comical effects. Such as:

  • A magic sword that smells like farts when swung.
  • A necklace that glows when the wearer is embarrassed.
  • A belt of tickling.
  • A ring that gives the wearer +1 to AC, but smells strongly like rancid meat.
  • A wand of rainbows, when held up to the light it creates small rainbows

Or any number of comical effects. You can also pair such effects with stronger items to make them less appealing or to create fun encounters with NPCs.

Know What Magic Items Your Group Needs

If you are trying to decide which magic items to give your party, one method is to look at your party’s weaknesses and find items that will help mitigate them. Many DMs use this method and will even tailor items to fit their players. To choose items that your party will be excited to find, consider these factors:

  • Total party HP: Is your group light on Health? Then they might benefit from an item that increases their HP maximum, give them temporary Hit Points or keeps players from falling unconscious.
  • Total Party Skills: Is there a particular skill your party lacks? Such as Charisma or Wisdom? An item that increase these skills or gives advantage on them would be very useful for your party!
  • Story Based Items: Items that lead to side quests or main story options are a great way to keep your players engaged! That sword you guys found a month ago in a tomb, it starts glowing, revealing your position to your enemies. Using magic items in this way is both fun and useful. Give it a try!
  • Backstories: Another option for choosing items is to use the player’s backgrounds and backstories. Pick items that fit with what your players should be familiar with or would be interested in for more role play opportunities!

Magic Items and Your Campaign

Magical items can have a huge impact on the style, pace and balance of your game. Although you do need to be cautious and plan what items you give your players, you shouldn’t be terrified to give them anything at all. Magical items can create fun role play opportunities and help your players in difficult situations. If you follow this guide, you can give your player’s items without being afraid of breaking your game!

Until next time,

May your game have advantage, my friends!

-Halfling Hannah

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