DMG review: It’s (another) Kind of Magic

Magic items, love them or hate them, they’re an intrinsic part of the whole D&D experience, and always have been. Like Vancian magic, they are a big sacred cow, and probably one of those things that turn as many people off of D&D as much as turn people on. Certainly among my circles of non D&Ders, that’s the case. With items, they’ve had a storied history through the editions, which I won’t regurgitate here, except to say they’ve been in and out of the DMG and PHB like a fiddlers elbow in recent times.

Fifth ed puts them straight back into the hands of the DM. It’s not even optional. There’s no wish lists, there’s no price lists and the whole magic item economy question is brushed under the (flying) carpet. We get old fashioned tables to roll on, with categories that map to pocket change/lair hoard, seperated by chunks of levels. Loads of entries, and magic items crop up pretty regularly among them.

Items are categorised from common (healing potions are in the PHB equipment list remember) through uncommon, rare, very rare and legendary. Cursed items make a comeback too. The thing that’s really different is the idea that the categories are really only a tenuous guide (well, if you’re rolling on the tables you’ll get a kind of flattening of the power curve over time). I say that because the text comes right out and says, if you want a first level character to obtain a Ring of Invisibility, go right ahead, you’ll get a great story out of it. And this ring is proper Invisible too by the way, none of the riders and caveats and dampeners that 4e put on so many things. Similarly, there are no warnings about Monty Haul campaigns, or about breaking the game with too many +3 Holy Avengers. It’s all back in the DMs hands, and off you go, enjoy yourself.

I think that’s a fine notion. In fact I think it’s great. Fact is, I’ve been too concerned as a GM with balance and being conservative for too long. So what if the party get hold of the Eye of Vecna? The advice is right, how can we not get a great story out of that? It’s good to see the official books loosen up their approach I think. Where they do put a balancing element back in is with Attunement, a rule that says a Pc can only have a max of three items attuned to them at once. Seems simple enough, and avoids all discussion of slots. That said, not every item requires Attunement, far from it. I’d need to read the chapter more closely but I can see the PC Christmas Tree has not been chopped down entirely yet.

The reason I haven’t read the chapter too closely is that basically it’s a giant list, and my eyes always glaze over with those. Worse, WotC took a bland approach to the problem of how to write up items that have been through at least four editions already: they kept it dry and mechanical. The items have no colour text or history at all, they are described entirely in rules terms. What they get instead is a wide array of nicely done colour art pieces. Not everything gets a pic (potions don’t, yet they’re the only ones to get a description) and some of them are a bit cartoony or garish for my tastes, but they do break up the wall of rules.

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It’s a shame. I get why WotC did this. This is already the biggest chapter in the book by far and flavour text would only increase that (or reduce the munger of items). But I can’t help but regret that decision. Coming off the back of the wondrous Mordenkainens book for 4e, which is a list book designed to entertain and inspire, this is a step back to mere reference work.

Book ending those items are some inspirational entries though. There are tables to flavour up your items, with quirks and histories. Nice, but functional. Later, there’s the real good stuff, the sentient items and the artifacts. For me, D&D always gives these too short a shrift and they contain all the real magic and wonder. For sentient items, they’ve again kept it simple (they use the three mental stats) and provided some old school examples in Blackrazor, Wave and Whelm from the venerable module White Plume Mountain. And Moonblade too. Good to read these, lots of memories.

For artifacts, the list is short, but good (and evil too). We get full write up of the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, the Books of Exalted Deeds and Vile Darkness, the Eye and Hand of Vecna, the Orb of Dragonkind, the Sword of Kas and the Wand of Orcus. There are rules, and properties and all that, but basically all bets are off with artifacts. That’s why I like them, they scream story, and challenge, where let’s face it, the longsword +1 just doesn’t.

Wrapping up the chapter, some more lists of possible rewards from supernatural gifts, to medals, to titles, to epic boons. It’s a comprehensive resource of goodies, no doubt. I guess as DMs we will just have to sprinkle all this stuff into our campaigns and see what happens. I can see all kinds of consequences to all this kit and boon, and I think the players will lap it up, but overall?

I left this chapter not terribly inspired and a little weary. It’s the first chapter that is of absolutely no use to non D&D fans (until now this has been as good a GMs guide as a DMs one) and it seems like a bit of a burden for me rather than an assist. Where is the discussion on low or no magic? Or high? Not here. What happens to the rules when you hand out a +3 item with Bounded Accuracy? How do scrolls work exactly? What do PCs spend all their treasure on? None of these things are fatal, but I don’t want to break my campaign answering them after the fact. I think I need to be as. Brave as the author, just do it, and make it part of the tale.

Well, that’s part two done. Looking forward to the toolbox stuff still to come.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “DMG review: It’s (another) Kind of Magic

  1. good review here and i agree that the writing style (and not just in magic items section) is pretty dry. i didn’t like the conversational style of 13th age but dmg feels like an encyclopedia :D.

  2. Pingback: Dungeon Masters Guide: Chapter by Chapter | Treehouse:

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