D&D Economics – Magic Items

With Essentials, D&D introduced the concept of item rarity.  Item rarity provides some interesting ways for DMs to create plot hooks.  Here’s some ideas to make item rarity matter in your game.

By default, uncommon and rare items cannot be easily created or bought by players; they need to be found.  Yet, someone had to make these magic items, and if not the players, then who?

One of the options presented is letting the players track down the rare and unusual reagents and the arcane knowledge required to create an uncommon item.  Let me say that this option is fantastic.  It won’t unbalance the game; after all, you can still require the gold and residuum to be spent to create the item.  It will allow you to hand your player a quest with a known reward.  He’s been eyeing that flaming mace?  Here’s the secret recipe, go find the regents!

As I imagine it, the best kind of regents come from living things.  For example, a goring weapon might require a clipping of horn from a minotaur, or a tooth of chaos might be made from an actual dragon’s tooth.  These items are added to the residuum, to bind the power to the weapon.  Unlike natural minerals, a living creature is not prone to parting with its body parts, and thus makes for an immediate monster-slaying quest.

Of course, players sell magic items almost as often as they acquire them.  The resale value of items is a tricky point.

D&D at one point held that magic items resale for about 20% of their value, but now holds that uncommon items sell at 50% of their value.  I’m not sure how accurate this should be.  There’s a big difference between selling to a vendor and selling to an interested party, and the vendor might be more attracted to common items than their uncommon counterparts.

My reasoning here is as follows.  Most of the common items are extraordinarily generic in their abilities, and thus have a greater potential to be resold.  Almost any class can use a +2 magic sword, but the primary benefit of, say, a +2 farbond weapon is limited to one class.  Likewise, a weapon of summer is only fully effective in the hands of melee users that don’t already have a large item bonus to damage.

When buying up the party’s magical items, a vendor is undoubtably going to ask himself, “what are the odds I can resell this weapon, and for what markup?”  Based on the resale potential, you’d expect a “commodity” item in good condition to sell very close to the manufacture price.

Conversely, from a buyer’s point of view, paying a high markup for a common magical item won’t make sense.  He can manufacture his own.  We can thus expect common magical items to sell very close to their manufacture value, with diminishing returns only if they degrade over time.

Meanwhile, an uncommon and thus more unusual item would be harder to resell at a profit, but if you can find someone who needs that one specific farbond weapon, he’ll have greater reason to pay through the nose for it.  An uncommon magic item has value aside from the manufacture cost; it also represents the difficulty of finding that particular item.

Naturally, the party is going to want to try to find interested buyers to purchase their more unusual equipment, and as a result you have more potential for roleplaying experiences, first in finding the item, and second in talking up its relative merits.

Finding a buyer can be set as a single check using history or streetwise.  In either case, the DC for finding a buyer for the weapon is based on the weapon level, common items are easy, uncommon items are medium, and rare ones are hard.  I would use the same DC for a diplomacy check, with a tie resulting in a 100% price sale, with 5% adjustment up or down per point that the roll beat or failed to beat the DC.

While getting players interacting with the local commerce to sell their magic items can open up some great potential role-play opportunities, a skeptical DM might notice that if players keep selling their magic items for a higher than manufacture value, they’ll have a lot of money left over.

This isn’t as big a deal as you might expect.  Gold only breaks the game when it gets spent on items and rituals; an extra “ale and whores” fund is not game breaking!   Even so, magic items rise so sharply in cost that it should keep the players in check.  For comparison sake, if you’re looking for a +3 viscous weapon, you need to sell five +2 viscous weapons at 100% to afford the higher level version.  Given that most players drop magic items with less frequency than they acquire them, this is not a devastating issue.

Conversely, if a player sells off a level appropriate item because he doesn’t like it, then giving him the equivalent gold piece value means he can turn that money around to acquire an item of equivalent level that makes him happy.  That’s not a bad thing.

Of course, if your players decide to start turning the game into a merchant adventure to accumulate profit, you might have a problem.  Make sure they get lots of requests to buy rare and unusual items that will require a lot of work to acquire.  That should get them back on track to do what D&D does best, killing things and taking their stuff.  Only now you’ve just upgraded “stuff” to “spleen.”

[tags]Dungeons and Dragons, D&D, 4e, economics, magic items, item rarity[/tags]

2 thoughts on “D&D Economics – Magic Items

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  1. Thanks for this – I thought the RAW in PH1 for making magic items was far too generic (the players in my first group didn’t even use it once in 1.5 years of playing) to be interesting. The new rarity rules plus the reagent suggestion make it actually interesting to get new items, as well as give me a new plot hook.


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