This is the first in a series of articles I am working on. The point is to trace the history of the Houserules we have used in the past and share what worked and what didn't. Along the way I'll speculate on why they didn't.
First on the list is magic items. The Internet is rife with suggestions on implementing magic item distribution. The DMG itself has plenty of alternate suggestions.
4e Standard Distribution
This is the system straight out of the core books. It awards four items to a five person party with gold value for a fifth each level. My party opted to split the gold equally between them leaving one player under powered for the level. In effect every five levels each player would receive four magic items and the gold for another. On the surface this system seems balanced and fair but their is a flaw. The DM spends a lot of time trying to provide items that the PC's want or can use and balancing that against the "fairness" of expected item level value. Secondly it provides roughly 30 items to each member of the party. My players weren't keen on shopping or utilizing rituals to change the items into something else. The sheer number items leads to longer turns and more ooh I forgot my weapon property when x = y. Enter the wish list system.
Again this system is presented in the core books. It demands the players generate a wish list of items for the next five levels. In theory the DM picks from this list to build a treasure package for a given level. Getting the first list isn't easy but ranks higher up on my list of pulling teeth then getting a detailed background does. The real difficulty came when I needed to get an updated list. Again searching thru thousands items to find 30 for their PC was a chore my group wasn't interested in. Enter the rune system.
Mr. Optimizer brought this system to the group, I can't give credit to whom ever the idea originated with and maybe the creator will be happy about that. I was trepidatious about using the system in part because of the source and in part because my player's were already disinclined to shop. The system uses blocks of residiium called runes. Connor McCloud's sword is fashioned from metal in Highlander from such a block. Each block represents a magic item level. A player takes the rune to a smith, weaver etc and thru ritual the base item is infused with magical powers. The player looks up an item and the rune + base item is the published magic item. If you later get a better rune simply yank the old one out of your sword and have some boots made. Then add the new one to your sword. This system gives players quite a bit of flexibility. Too much in fact, as it quickly resulted in surplus gold. We added a cost to this re-enchantment process. This system still does nothing to reduce the number of magic items carried nor the analysis paralysis having so many can cause in Epic Tiers. Not to mention some magic items are just plain better and there are of course combinations that impact game balance. Enter magic rarity.
This system was released with the Rules Compendium. It assigns a value to magic items rare, uncommon and common. I am glad this didn't come with a ccg which was my initial fear. My hope was that the simply better items would be classified as rare. Nope. The effort to categorize items struggles on over at WotC. Meanwhile, my own hopes were dashed. The unspoken promise that this would return some of the specialness of magic items to the system was broken. My other issue with this system is the additional complexity it added. Now not only did I have level, fairness and game balance to contend with but I had to worry about rarity. System bloating needs antacid.
As I was ending my second campaign and considering letting D&D go the way of the dodo I stumbled across something called the Inherrent Bonus system. Supposedly this system is in the DMG but to this day I haven't been able to find it. The closest is the sidebar in the DMG2 on page 138 entitled a reward based game. The theory is that instead of math based items you give players the bonuses to attack, damage and defenses that they would get from magic item enhancements as freebies. I like to think of this like the assassin that can pick up any weapon and make it "magic". I can hear it now, "but Axe what about those extra powers and properties?" To be honest I don't miss them. My players get story based items that grow in power as they level.
I discussed this with my players outlining my plan and the system. They agreed tentatively to the play test. I then worked into the end of the previous campaign that the spell plague they caused resulted in the destruction of all residiium. This fulfilled one players destiny and tied nicely into explaining the lack of magic items and the change I made to ritual magic.
For example my wife's paladin started in plate mail, she has a broadsword, and a holy symbol. She gets +1 to damage, attacks with both the broadsword and holy symbol. She also gets a +1 to AC, Fort, Reflex, and Will from armor and a non-existent neck slot item. This makes her a little more powerful then your standard first level character, sure, but it hasn't tipped the scales into ruining my fun as the DM.
Her story item is her broadsword. It was given to her by her uncle and that makes it special in character. Playing on that fact, it is the item I am focusing on improving during heroic tier. At first level she killed a Short-tailed Gar. A Gar is a pretty tough creature from Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. The creature's blood was infused into the blade. Now when she draws the blade it glows with the same sickly green glow as the Gar's eyes. This is the weapon's property and ties into the choice to kill the Gar. As she progresses in level and makes in character choices I add powers to the sword about every three levels. At 10th I may start in on her armor. At 20th her Holy Symbol.
Another player, the rogue, chose to save a prisoner from being whipped on a pillory. They crawled thru a privy hole to reach the river and then swam to shore braving the rapids and waterfall. I marked this character's choice by adding a property similar to slick armor to his now waterlogged and stained leather armor. The stains give a simple bonus to stealth.
We have only played nine sessions but the personal touch seems to be more rewarding then the constant flood of magic items. The slower accumulation of money and difficulty purchasing magic items has been refreshing as well. We spend less time on treasure and more on gaming. Our experimentation with Magic Items has brought frustration and boredom around to something personal and fun. Nuff said.