Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On the Buying and Selling of Magic

(A small note: Apologies about my prolonged dearth of posts. I simply haven't had a mix of time and blog-worthy posts in a while. I'm gearing up for some things and hopefully that changes in the not too distant future.)

I wrote briefly in the past about dungeon markets. Erik Tenkar today asked about magic shops and I think that the question deserves a bit of exploration.

On a gut-check level, the idea of a magic item store is revolting to me. The thought that you can walk into a store, lay down gold, and buy a magical sword that fits exactly what you need goes against everything I actually like about fantasy gaming. Magic items ought to be rare, treasure, hoarded and not given up lightly. And that really governs the question for me. But the proliferation of items in D&D modules does raise a need for some economy of the things.

As I've mulled it over, I think my objection to magic item shops is really an objection to making procuring magic items something that is simple, safe and reliable. You should not be able to walk into a store, lay down your money, and walk out with a Sword +3, Frost Brand as easily as buying a pair of boots. I'd say at minimum, two of the three elements of safe, simple and reliable should be removed from the equation.

The Troll Market approach I outlined previously is a good way to take away the safe element. Magic items are not necessarily being bought and sold in the safe parts of a well-off town. They are being sold by disreputable humans, or even by monsters straight-up. (This is a good excuse for why so many monsters in modules have magic items that they're not actually using – can't damage the goods.) PCs are not necessarily safe, or require certain difficult conditions to avoid violence. This can also remove the simple element, since the market will not always be there at the PCs' leisure. It could move, and require new challenges to find again. I really like the idea of some of this taking on a sort of "black market" vibe.

Reliability is trivially easy to fix: with magic, there are no guarantees. Sure, the sword shows up as magical when you cast detect magic, but how do you know whether it has the purported properties? It could be cursed, or it could be substantially different. Unless you're willing to blow a charge, how are you certain that the item is a Wand of Fireballs? And it's a very dangerous proposition to test even if you are willing.

Simplicity can be adjusted by making it very difficult to find a specific type of item. Sure, you can grab a Potion of Healing from a high-end alchemist/wizard, and you might be able to track down Arrows +1 if you know where to look, but it should be a lot more of a pain to find a Sword +1, +3 against Dragons. Even if you buy into the magic item economy idea, that doesn't mean that absolutely anything is available easily. And like anything a PC is trying to find, specific items make for terrific adventure seeds.

Another factor to consider in all of this is how magic items react to each other. Having a lot of magic items in one place might not be a completely safe proposition. Too much magic could mean that a magic-item bazaar might create a wild magic area, where spell effects happen entirely at random, and it's dangerous to Detect Magic or Identify, causing havoc with reliability. A store that had every type of magical sword and potion available might run into reasons to roll, say, on the 1e DMG's potion miscibility table, or problems when two intelligent swords decide they don't like each other.

Of course, you can solve all of that by just saying "no" when players want to do buying and selling of magic items. But if you decide to run with it, I think all kinds of interesting problems can be created. Just don't make it simple, safe and reliable.


  1. I lean towards historical based fantasy. Not to Harn levels. but in my worlds, people are ignorant, diseased, struggling, trade, communication are local. There is no manufacturing, mass market or standards. If you aren't one of them, and esp if your wandering vagrant (aka adventurer), the locals will try to sell/"cheat" you out of any wealth you may have.

    Although, I hand wave many things for sake of gameplay/fun. Nothing is simple, safe and reliable. There are no stores, only craftsmen and markets. Even buying a pair of boots is not simple transaction.

    1. The point about markets versus shops is an interesting one. It'd be an interesting decision to replace the standard D&D equipment list with a chart of probability that a market will have the item and cost ranges. (I know Hargrave's Arduin had the latter but not the former.)

    2. Bushido has a nice simple chart that handles that. Each item is classed as E through A with E being simple farm goods (bulk food, straw hats, etc) and A is finely crafted items (katanas and samurai armor). The price and availability is based on the size of the settlement.

  2. I disagree with the notion that making magic items non-sellable somehow makes them more rare or valuable. An item's value is based on it's game effect and has nothing to do with rarity. A +1 dagger is worth what a +1 dagger is worth even if it is the only magic weapon in the entire game world. It's still statistically worse than a regular sword in most situations. Let's face it, magic items in D&D aren't mysterious or dangerous. Making them unsellable won't change this, you need to fundamentally alter the magic item table to achieve this effect. If players can buy a 60,000 gp war galley with no issues, then they should also be able to buy a 2,000 gp +1 sword without issues. There is no reason to treat those items differently.

    Despite it's reputation, 3e is actually much better in this regard. In AD&D a +1 sword is worth 2,000 gp while a +5 sword is worth 15,000 gp. Only 5 times as much. A +5 sword is way better than five +1 swords. In 3e, a +1 sword is also 2,000 gp but a +5 sword is 50,000 gp. 25 times as much. My experience with running 3e was that the PCs had significantly fewer magic items at high level.

    I know that Gary was a big fan of magic item shops (as well as easily identifiable magic items) but me, not so much. I'm in favor of treating magic items as any other valuable commodity. Players will need to make contact with a broker who deals in these types of thing. A slow and expensive proposition. Or they can take their chance and try to buy or sell their items at auction (assuming they can score an invite). Either way, the PCs will have to earn their way into that level of society, possibly making expensive mistake or gaining enemies in the process.

    1. I think my attitude toward magic shops was formed in part by the 2e DMG, which was explicitly against them. It wanted magic to be extremely rare and items exceedingly difficult to make.

      Anyway, I think the approach I outline above is as far as I'm interested in compromising on the point. Life is more interesting when getting magic items is difficult, complicated and dangerous.


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