Musings of The Bard: Why Crafting Magic Items SUCKS (And How To Fix It)

"Bruenor steadied himself again, then suddenly snapped the bag into the air, releasing its contents high into the night. He tossed the bag aside, grasped the warhammer in both hands, and raised it above his head. The dwarf felt his very strength being sucked from him as he uttered the words of power, but he would not truly know how well he had performed until his work was complete. The level of perfection of his carvings determined the success of his intonations, for as he had etched the runes onto the weapon, their strength had flowed into his heart. This power then drew the magical dust to the weapon and its power, in turn, could be measured by the amount of shimmering diamond dust it captured.

A fit of blackness fell over the dwarf. His head spun, and he did not understand what kept him from toppling. But the consuming power of the words had gone beyond him. Though he wasn't even conscious of them, the words continued to flow from his lips in an undeniable stream, sapping more and more of his strength. Then, mercifully, he was falling, though the void of unconsciousness took him long before his head hit the ground.
Drizzt turned away and slumped back against the rocky ridge; he, too, was exhausted from the spectacle.
He didn't know if his friend would survive this night's ordeal, yet he was thrilled for Bruenor. For he had witnessed the dwarf's most triumphant moment, even if Bruenor had not, as the hammer's mithril head flared with the life of magic and pulled in the shower of diamond.
And not a single speck of the glittering dust had escaped Bruenor's beckon." 
-R.A. Salvatore, The Crystal Shard 

 "The only way it could get more dwarven is if it grew a beard"

Magic Items. They are glorious, aren't they?

The first time a character holds one in their hand, it is something special. Memorable. That thrum of power, knowing that you hold in your hands is something that transcends mundane craftsmanship.Something utterly impossible, and yet, there it is, in your grasp. 

 "By the power of Grayskull--where are my pants?"

Such a thing of unparalleled beauty and splendor should be the topic of epic poems. Songs are to be sung of such magnificence, and the deeds it has wrought, be they for good or ill. This thing... this one of a kind thing, that cannot possible be measured in such simple terms as gold...

"We're running a 2-for-1 special on Cloaks of Resistance"

Except that is exactly how it is measured! Want a belt that imbues you with the strength of giant, so that you might perform feats of unprecedented athleticism and crush your enemies on the battlefield? 4,000gp nets you a Belt of Giant Strength +2. How about a pair of boots that grant you inhuman celerity? 12,000gp will net you some Boots of Speed.

Suddenly when you can just run down to your local corner magic shop and buy a Sword of Swordly Swording for a song, it becomes a whole lot less interesting, and not very special at all. It becomes even less special when you factor in the one thing about games like Pathfinder that I detest the most; crafting.

 Now, any mage with a couple of feats and a pile of gold can crank out magic items. And when you factor in feats that allow you to craft items at a fraction of the gold cost and reduce the time to make them, then you cease having unique items, and start having an assembly line of gear that is mechanically better than other gear.

That my friends is a sin.

"Just throw it on the pile with the others."

Call me crazy-lord knows everyone from my patents to the nice people at the asylum have-but in my radical, completely insane and illogical brain, I whole-heartedly believe magic items shouldn't have a gold cost.

"Oh Captain, my Captain."

When you put a gold cost on something like a magic item, you are telling the player and the GM this is a thing that can be achieved by normal means with some degree of ease, be it through feats or the accumulation of shiny, shiny gold. The materials are easily attainable, since they too have a gold cost attached.To be able too create and sell something like an enchanted shield or weapon cheapens it. Wouldn't you want something so precious for yourself?

Nah. I can just make another. And another, and another, and another...

I played in/ran a medium-to-high level Pathfinder game. We had ourselves a dedicated crafter, that could make things on the cheap in no time flat. He churned out magic items for all of us, and we were elated... at first. To be able to pick any item out of the book, and have it made for you sounded like a dream. What manner of juggernaut could I be if I ran around in head-to-toe magic gear?

I liken it to eating ice cream. You can pick up a container of Ben & Jerry's, stick your spoon in, and enjoy the hell out of it. You can savor that shit. But if you sit down with a gallon of ice cream, and eat your way to the bottom, two things are doing to happen. First, you are gonna hate yourself forever. Secondly, you are going to get sick, and may loose your taste for the frosty confection. It's too much of a good thing.

"Sorry, they were all out of Mind Flayer Fudge Ripple."

The point is, when it becomes an easily accessible resource, it isn't a very "magical" item. This is one of the things that made me fall in love with 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. They saw this conundrum, and said to themselves, "No sir, I don't like it".

There are no "Magic Shops", or mages' guild that churns out a small armory of enchanted munitions every week (you know... in case of spiders). Magic items are things found in forgotten crypts, or given as kingly gifts to stalwart heroes who have shown true mettle and have thwarted some grand scheme, or just something thrown at you by some watery tart laying in a pond.

In short, they are earned. It's a reward. It is as it should be.

Does this mean that crafting should be ignored for story elements? Hell no. In fact, I don't see why the two can't be one in the same. When dealing with crafting, I suggest throwing out the entire notion of a gold cost. Instead, break down an item into materials you think may be used to create it, then turn acquiring those materials into story elements.

Someone in your party wants a Flametongue.One of the materials could be the heart of an elder fire elemental. Perhaps it requires the use of a certain steel that can only be found in a lonely dwarven fortress in the icy north that is rumored to be overrun with goblins, or that it must be forged in the heart of a volcano when the moon is at its apex.

There are thousands of possible stories that can be told about gathering materials alone. Game Masters could, even should work it into their overreaching story. These things cease to be McGuffins when they all come together in a cohesive item of wondrous power. And one thing is absolutely certain; that magic item will mean more to them than some bargain-basement Girdle of Masculinity/Femininity.

"I mean, it's an elf. How could you tell the difference?"

Keep magic items magical. Keep them personal. Keep on keepin' on. Most importantly, keep the gold away from any of it. After all, money is the root of all evil.

Have a magical day,
+Ed The Bard 

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If you find yourself searching for a little something to run for your magic-hungry players, feel free to cruise on over to the Dungeon Master's Guild, and pick up my debut adventure, The Mines of Dhol Kuldhir, for the low-low price of $1.00! That's right, for the price of a crappy cheeseburger you could brave the lost dwarven mines of Dhol Kuldhir.

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