How much is a magic item worth? Well, there’s the book value, which can be obtained by cracking open the sourcebook to the relevant page. But that just gives its price – I want to talk about how much it is worth. What is it’s value to its owner? What’s it worth from a character point of view?
This is a much harder question to answer than it first appears, even taking the most general perspective and classification system possible. In fact, it is so difficult that I can’t even begin to answer it in any universal fashion; what I can do, and have done, is attempt to craft a classification scheme, assign an approximate order of values within that classification scheme, and focus the issue into some more specific questions of valuation that can then be discussed and considered.
A Classification Scheme
Number One: as will be discussed a little later in the article, when I look at the internal hierarchy of values within a category, each of these actually represents a range of possible values combining a number of different factors and considerations. An item that scores highly within that range in a less valuable category will almost certainly be of greater value – probably vastly greater value – than a low-level entry in an inherently more valuable category.
Number Two: there is a difference between perceived value and actual value. Some characters will want one magic item over another simply because it better fits their character or plans and ambitions or style.
Number Three: Item functions are often founded apon fuzzy, misunderstood, or imperfect game mechanics, and that vagueness translates into a difficulty in valuing a quantified improvement in capability within those game mechanics.
There are other reasons that could be mentioned, but those three are more than enough to illustrate the situation.
So, with those caveats understood, let’s look at the general classification scheme. It consist of 9 categories, ranging from the undesirable to the most desirable. Some of the categories will not be obvious in definition, but they will make sense once those definitions are understood. The nine categories are:
- Impairment Items
- Useless Items
- Abilities that grow
- Capped Abilities: Specific
- Capped Abilities: Universal
- New Options
- Tactical Boosts
- Foundation Shifts
- New Abilities
Let’s take a look at each one in detail:
1. Impairment Items
At the bottom of the valuation ladder are items that impair the character. That seems obvious, but there are some subtleties possible within this category; it contains everything from outright impairments, like cursed items, to mixed blessings, to items that offer a short-term gain for long-term penalties, to items that offer long-term gain for short-term penalties. What? You’ve never heard of those last two? Well, let’s deal with them in order:
Outright Impairment items are useless to the character unless he can get them into the hands of his enemies. Characters frequently have to pay to get rid of such items, their values lie in the negative, or at best are a token worth.
Mixed Blessings are items that have a positive effect on one factor or ability and a negative effect on another. I have these in my Fumanor campaign: Sigils and seals that can be bonded to weapons that grant -x on one ability (usually damage, but there are exceptions) and +(x+1) on another (usually to-hit, but again there are exceptions). A limit of one to a weapon, and the ability to move them from one weapon to another as a full-round action makes life interesting by opening up new tactical questions for the players to consider.
More subtle combinations are possible. Impairing reflex saves and boosting movement rates, impairing a characteristic bonus (and hence all skills and abilities based on it) for a boost in another characteristic bonus or a boost in a specific skill of value (or vice versa)… the limits are those of the imagination. Clearly, some of these will be desirable to some characters, while a different character could not get rid of the item quickly enough.
Short-term gain for long-term pain items offer a quick boost when the character needs it and a balancing detriment later. Consider, for example, the value of a potion that grants a character an extra X dice of hit points (NOT an extra X hit dice, which carries connotations of improvements to hit and so on) – but which remove, permanently, 2X dice of hit points when the potion wears off. This clearly has value when the character is in a tight spot, enabling him to survive fights he would otherwise be forced to flee – but the price is a long-term infirmity that will hinder and impair for a long time to come, and that price will certainly mitigate the value.
Long-term gain for short-term pain items are the other side of the coin. An item that permanently removes X dice of hit points, but that increases the number and/or size of the character’s hit dice for the next X+1 levels can be tempting. The smaller the hit dice size of the character, the more tempting it becomes, in one respect; a mage might certainly be tempted to give up 2d4 hit points in order to gain d8 or d10 hit points for his next three character levels. On the other hand, a character with a lot of hit points, like a higher-level fighter, might not miss 3 dice of them all that much, and would certainly consider such a Faustian bargain.
Clearly, not all of these are worthless to the character – though they fact that they all come with a price-tag attached is enough to give characters pause.
2. Useless Items
Simply because some of the first category of items have values of less than zero, the second category has to be those with an inherent zero valuation – items that are by definition useless to the character.
Even these are not completely worthless, of course; the item will have value to someone else, and hence can be traded for material worth (at least in theory), or given away for influence and goodwill.
3. Abilities that grow
Advancing one rung higher on the valuation ladder, we come to items that grant a bonus to numbers that go up in time anyway. With each level (or every X levels, in the case of some character classes) saves and to-hit values go up. Items that boost these numbers have an obvious value to a character.
The shortcoming of such items is that they are very vanilla in flavor.
They also have markedly different valuations in epic vs. non-epic campaigns – simply by virtue of the fact that when you can no longer gain in levels, your ability to improve over time is also curbed. As characters approach the level cap for the campaign – whatever it might be – these items actually shift out of this category and into one of the two categories that follow.
4. Capped Abilities: Specific
The next highest valuation class belongs to items that improve an ability that is capped or maxed out, save for improvements in a base stat. This class has actually been split into two subclasses – Specific, which refers to a capped ability that only a specific type or group of character classes can access, and Universal, which anyone can access. An example might be increasing the number of fighter bonus feats that a character can achieve provided that the character can access fighter bonus feats in the first place. Or an increase in the number of Favored Enemies a Ranger could take. Or an increase in the number of extra dice of damage a rogue does on a backstab. Or an increase in the number of spells of a given spell level a wizard could cast, or something similar for a sorcerer. This class gives a character more of some ability that is unique to his class or to a group of classes which includes his character class.
The value comes in offering more of something the character can have no more of, a trait that makes these items quite desirable – and that increases that desirability as the character approaches those limits.
But the value is limited because not everyone can access the benefits – you have to meet the conditions, whether those be character class, or a characteristic minimum, or alignment, or whatever.
5. Capped Abilities: Universal
The Universal variety of boosts to capped abilities is slightly more valuable because of that universality. And, interestingly, this is where the damage bonus of magic weapons resides – anyone (whether they have or can access the proficiency requirements or not) can use any weapon, it’s only a question of how clumsily they will do so – and that means that anyone can access that bonus. But this also applies to other capped abilities such as initiative.
There is a further subcategory within this area that is very hard to pin down to a label. I call them Metagame Magic Items – but that term also comprises items that fall into some of the categories that are still to come, so it’s not a fully adequate term. These are magic items that permit a character a specified number of exceptions to a specific rule, and they are rare in any campaign. In the context of this category of magic items, they refer to the rules concerning stacking limits on numbers.
Consider an item whose only ability was to permit the change of definition of one bonus that must be inalterably chosen at the moment this item is activated from whatever type it already has to a Miscellaneous bonus.
The idea is both arcane (in a non-game sense) and abstruse, but once you get your head around it, the appeal to a creative player is obvious. These are potentially campaign-wrecking items, so they should be approached with caution – and always with the philosophy of ensuring parity of opportunity between PCs and their enemies (that’s the principle that says ‘if a PC can do it, so can an NPC, and vice versa’).
6. Mew Options
The next category in this journey of valuation are items that grant a character new options. That’s not to say new abilities – those come a little later; these items simply offer a character doors that he can choose to open.
In my Rings Of Time campaign, for example, there was a Belt of Dwarvenkind. It’s sole power was that it permitted the wearer to be considered a Dwarf in matters of racial heritage, access to feats, and access to character classes (there were a few such). The same privileges could be conferred by the Dwarvenking by naming characters citizens of his Kingdom, even if this was an honorary title.
These ideas grew out of the conviction that the “flavor text” describing feats and classes were rules just as much as were the game mechanics of character advancement. If that flavor text said or implied that only Dwarves had access to the capacity in question, that was the rule concerning it. Coupling that with the concept that magic items existed to violate or distort specific game rules and mechanics in precise and defined ways made this new type of magic item inevitable. This had the effect of moving the qualification requirements for unusual feats and classes out of the realm of game mechanics and into the realm of roleplaying – where the overt approach might be blocked, a more circumspect approach might be available, should the right NPCs be approached in the right ways. A character could attempt to be anything he wanted; the only questions were how difficult it would be to achieve, and where the path to success would be found.
Quite obviously, these are Metagame Magic Items every bit as much as those discussed in the previous category.
7. Tactical Boosts
There are a number of categories at the high end of these valuations that are susceptible to one common, extremely broad, definition – that of permitting the character to do things he would not be permitted to do without the item. That such a broad definition is even possible indicates that, even more than at the lower levels, the valuations of these types of item overlap, and relative minutia of differentials are what decides whether one item is more valuable than another.
Occupying a section of middle ground in the heart of that broader spectrum are the magic items that grant characters a tactical boost.
- Items that mean the character is always considered to be flanking anyone with whom he is in combat – useful in the hands of any melee specialist, priceless to rogues or anyone with Backstab capabilities.
- Items that grant the character a free standard action if they perform a full-round action – either limited to a specific free action or a universal choice.
- Items that permit an extra attack in melee under certain circumstances.
- Items that permit a quick-change in choice of weapons or otherwise make a specific type of action a free action.
….the possibilities are endless, and often extremely subtle. The reason, of course, is because the game mechanics relating to combat are so detailed and well-developed that it is easy to craft an item making specific alterations to the game rules for a given individual.
Because such items grant an ability of some sort to the character using them immediately, they are inherently slightly more valuable than those which merely grant a character opportunities for development that they would otherwise not have; but the sheer variability of value in the tactical options opened means that the value of these items is also extremely variable.
8. Foundation Shifts
This category contains a few magic items of highly abstract conceptual natures. An extension of category 6, “new options”, this category contains items that recast abilities that the character already has. This not only opens new options in the same way as the examples within category 6, it provides a retroactive conceptual alteration to the character’s existing abilities. For example, the ability to cast clerical spells as though they were arcane spells, while prohibiting the casting of any spell castable only by sorcerers and wizards results in a very different character architecture, stripping the clerical spells so cast of any theological content.
In some of my campaigns, clerical spells have contained the ‘signature’ of the deity invoked, something that is invisible to non-clerics but instantly recognizable to other clerics. Some magic items (and some spells that could be cast in advance) would disguise or inhibit the perception of this signature, but by-and-large, as soon as a cleric let fly with a spell, you knew which God or Demon or whatever stood behind them.
These items require some original thought on the part of GMs and players in order to extract the value from them, because they are abstract in nature, and have to be perceived in relation to other concepts within the individual campaign while at the same time shaping those concepts. They can be extremely powerful weapons in the individualizing of campaigns while still retaining the absolute rules and game mechanics contained within the core sourcebooks, or they can achieve absolutely nothing.
Provided that the GM has thought the implications through with sufficient thoroughness, they can be wonderful tools for dealing with rules lawyers, taking their propensity for ‘the letter of the law’ and turning it both on its head and to the benefit of the campaign. I have seen one instance of such a player personality shocked into silence for the entirety of a game session while he tried to come to terms with the implications.
A similar, and related, type of magic item can shift the foundations of an ability. Consider the implications of a magic item that permits or forces characters to base their ability to backstab an opponent on their INT instead of their DEX or character level. Or a character’s Attack modifier on their Wisdom instead of their STR. There are precedents in the class abilities of Paladins.
This is a way of packaging house rules that keeps them neatly contained and accessible, and that is generally acceptable in any campaign for that very reason. It can be as blunt as a giant’s club or as precise as a scalpel; but ultimately they have the effect of transferring power out of the published rules and into the creativity of the GM while still retaining the structures and game mechanics of those rules.
Their abstract nature clearly means that the value of these items depends on how useful a given character will find the shift, which in turn bases the value of the items on the perceptiveness and creativity of player and GM. To those who are very literal-minded, they may have virtually no value; to those who are prepared to seek out the potentials, they may be exceptionally valuable.
This category is in eighth place within the rules because these items are clearly more valuable than the equivalent items of the sixth category, by virtue of the fact that they do everything those items do and something more. That something more can be either more or less valuable than the items of the seventh category, so they clearly belong above that group as well.
9. New Abilities
The final category of magic items are those that grant a new ability to the character who uses them. Often, these are class abilities extracted from other classes, and this can be an excellent way to bring some of the concepts of a class into a campaign where the class itself is too powerful, too weak, or simply unsuitable for some reason. Items that grant a Sorcerer the ability to Turn Undead as a cleric, perhaps of lesser level. Items that permit a cleric or Druid to lay on hands, as per a Paladin. Items that permit a wizard to use a longsword or plate mail without penalty.
These represent a selective blurring of the distinctions between classes when the abilities are those of a class already present within the campaign, and an expansion of capabilities when the powers of the magic item derive from some other source. Because they immediately grant a character an ability that they did not have before, and all the tactical and gaming options that go with it, these can be the most valuable class of items of all.
Questions Of Valuation
So, with the different categories of magic items defined, we next come to the different criteria that control absolute valuations within each of the category. Once again, I’m going to consider each, without regard for relative merit compared to each other.
This is quite straightforward: +2 is better than +1. More is better.
How much better? Is it a straight multiple? Is it the square of the improvement? Suddenly, it’s not so straightforward.
Some effects are more easily nullified or resisted than others. The more easily the effects can be overcome, the less valuable the item.
Potions are one-shot. Scrolls are usually one-shot. Wands have limited charges. Some items have limited uses per day, or per week, or per battle. And some work each and every time unless there is something unusual going on. The more limited the number of charges are, the less an item should be worth.
Some items are convenient to use, and some aren’t. This is more than just activation mechanisms; it’s about magic item slots and relative effectiveness of different items.
Difficulty Of Creation
Some items are more difficult to create than others, or at least, they should be. Caster level should be part of this factor.
Why does it matter?
So, who cares about understanding why items have a particular value? What’s the significance, why does it matter – especially given that the intent to create a universal master system of valuation didn’t survive the practicality test? There are some really good reasons…
The emplacement of loot of desire
The first is that by understanding the relative value of items, you can discern the relative value of items to your players and their characters – and that means that you can emplace loot that they will want. It also means that you can deliberately place loot that is valuable but that a character will not want if they are progressing too quickly. This can be a more subtle and less contentious way of adjusting the power balance within a game. (One reason why I have tackled this subject is because I haven’t done as well in that regard as I would like; this is an attempt to develop a system and perspective to improve that performance.)
A spur to originality
I’m quite sure that amongst the examples I’ve offered in the different categories, there are some that most GMs have never heard of. Any classification system, by its nature, reveals holes in the existing list of objects within that system, which spurs creativity to fill those holes. In other words, knowing what’s possible can be inspirational.
Making The Loot Part Of The Plot
And here’s the ultimate reason: by selectively enhancing character capabilities, the GM can make the loot part of the plot by making the characters part of the plot.
Sounds obvious, right? The best tricks always are.
Consider, for example, a clay tablet in which the characters can ask the Gods one question a day, with only a yes/no answer permitted. Any other response, or if the answer cannot be answered clearly with a yes or no, yields no answer. How could that be used to enhance the GM’s ability to bring the plot to the characters?
Or how about a book that reveals one random fact a day? Sometimes it would be trivial, sometimes it could give the players a clue or piece of background information, and sometimes, just sometimes, it could be used to lure them exactly where the GM wants them to go – because he controls what the ‘random fact’ is, and whether or not it is truly random.
A system of classification of magic items – which is what we’ve ended up with – offers a new way to make the loot part of the plot: by simply putting it in the game, and letting it simply be – the loot!