Part of the fun of Dungeons & Dragons comes from increasing your character’s power. Some of that added power comes from magic: spellcasters gain more and more powerful spells and everyone gains magic items.
From the beginning, the game’s designers struggled to grant players magical powers without making them so powerful that the game lost its challenge. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax mocked PCs who gained too much magic. “These god-like characters boast and strut about with retinues of ultra-powerful servants and scores of mighty magic items, artifacts, relics adorning them as if they were Christmas trees decked out with tinsel and ornaments.” Still today, gamers compare over-equipped characters to Christmas trees.
As a remedy, Dungeons & Dragons imposed a few limits on what magic items could combine effects. For example, rings of protection did not stack with magical armor. Mostly though, Gary asked dungeon masters to award fewer magic items. In practice, DMs rarely noticed that their players had gained too much magic until the game broke.
Even shrewd DMs might overlook problems caused by the right combination of items. In second edition, a girdle of giant strength could add its strength bonus to another bonus from gauntlets of ogre power. (Note to new players: A girdle is a belt, and 5E now includes a belt of giant strength, depriving new players of the obvious, juvenile gags that we old-timers relished.) The combination turned dart-throwing fighters into living Maxim guns. A dart just inflicted 1-3 damage, so even though characters could throw three darts in an attack, darts seemed weak. However, a fighter could use their multiple attacks to throw a lot of darts, and they added their strength bonus to each dart’s damage. If a fighter gained a few strength enhancements, every encounter became the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. The Dungeon Master’s Guide even hinted at the combo. “Gauntlets [of ogre power] are particularly desirable when combined with a girdle of giant strength and a hurled weapon.” The exploit just required DMs as careless as the game’s designers and fighters able to tolerate the embarrassment of relying on darts.
In third edition, the designers added a fix: they cut the rate of fire for darts. Plus, they worked for wider improvements.
Combinations like the girdle and gauntlets showed how stacking bonuses could break the game’s math. The old fix would add the girdle—now belt—and gauntlets to a list of items that did not combine, right after rings of protection. The designers recognized that such a case-by-case treatment would create problems as the game grew. Instead, third edition introduced a system of typed bonuses. Bonuses of the same type never added, so an enhancement bonus would add to a morale bonus, but not another enhancement bonus. Now the belt and gauntlets both added enhancement bonuses, which did not add.
Players needed vigilance to notice that, say, a bonus from a spell overlapped with a bonus from a magic item. Even well-meaning players occasionally made mistakes when they applied bonuses. Few players liked to keep track of it all.
In 3E, the scheme could have worked better if the designers had managed to settle on a small set of bonus types, and then stick to them. But as the game expanded, the number of bonus types grew too. Each new type opened another opportunity for min-maxers.
Despite the flaws of typed bonuses, the system worked well enough to reappear in the fourth edition. Presumably, the designers pledged to hold to a short list of types.
One limitation reduced the decorations on Christmas-tree PCs by limiting magic items to one per body part. This restriction relied on common sense until third edition’s Magic Item Compendium quantified body parts as item slots.
Fourth edition reduced the number of item slots and linked types of enhancements to specific slots. For example, any enhancement to armor class had to come from armor, while items in the neck slot improved other defenses. The ring of protection became the neck slot’s amulet of protection, but amulets could no longer enhance AC. The game added cloth armor so Wizards could gain an AC bonus.
Item slots worked perfectly, but once players added boons from powers and abilities, the game allowed extreme optimizations. I once ran a convention game for a paragon-tier table that included a defender optimized for maximum defense. Monsters could only hit him on a roll of 20. Even their lucky blows dealt negligible damage. The battles all started with the defender using a power to lock down all the monsters, forcing them to thrash uselessly at his invincible defenses. The rest of the party could attack with impunity. As the adventure continued, I added enemies to the battles, but utterly failed to challenge the party. Did anyone have fun? A few players enjoy D&D games that fail to challenge them. They relish the chance to step into a character able to steamroll any opposition. Certainly the defender’s player felt he had triumphed over D&D. I could only hope that the other players enjoyed a chance to romp through combat encounters, but I doubt they all did. Does a player deserve any blame for bringing a character that makes the game less fun for other party members?
In 1979, Gary told dungeon masters to limit the magic items players gained, but he offered nothing more than tough love. The game needed a simple way for DMs to assess the power of the items they gained.
“Third Edition replaced loosey-goosey guidelines with very clear ones—clear almost to the point of being rules,” James Wyatt wrote. “There was an expected progression of treasure for characters, expressed as gold piece value but translating directly to magic item value.”
DMs tracked the cash value of the treasure they awarded. In principle, DMs never had to worry about which magic items players owned, just their total value.
Fourth edition was optimized for players who enjoyed customizing characters and then showing off their abilities on the battlefield. For maximum customization, players had to control every aspect of character building, including magical equipment. Magic items moved to the Player’s Handbook and became easy to buy and trade. The designers supposed that if players held to the item budgets, gameplay would remain balanced. Eventually, the burgeoning 4E game broke the budget system. As new magical catalogs reached stores, PCs gained options and access to more combinations. Soon, dungeon masters missed the days when they could limit characters by limiting the magic that entered their game.
D&D Essentials added a rarity system to 4E’s original scheme. Players still picked common items, but the DM controlled rare items. In organized play, the rarity system offered a simple way to limit the number of powerful, rare items owned by a single PC.
Fifth edition’s solutions
When fifth edition’s designers faced the old problem of saving the game from too much magic, they knew that earlier solutions had proven flawed. So they scrapped typed bonuses and item slots. Instead, they revisited item rarities and adopted an ingenious new fix: attunement.
Powerful magic items require characters to create a magical bond called attunement with the item. Without becoming attuned, characters only gain an item’s mundane benefits, so that ring of invisibility just dresses up your finger. A item can be attuned to only one character at a time and the character can be attuned to more than three magic items at once.
Attuning an item takes as long as a short rest, reducing any temptation to carry golf bags of magic swords or staffs.
The three-item limit deters combinations of magic items from breaking the game. For example, rings require attunement, so even if you dress all 10 fingers in Rings of Protection, you can only benefit from three, yielding a +3 bonus to armor class. Three items may allow some combinations, but the designers learned from past mistakes. You can attune both gauntlets of ogre power and a belt of giant strength, but each pegs your Strength at a fixed number. And darts no longer have a rate of fire.
The attunement system eliminates a need for strict item slots. Instead the Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “Use common sense to determine more than one of a given kind of magic item can be worn.” See page 141.
The attunement system prevents the game from breaking under the weight of too many magic items. As long as designers avoid putting game-breaking combinations of items into the game, it works.
In fifth edition, attunement limits the number of powerful magical items that benefit a character, but many items work without attunement. A player who stacks enough items can strain the game’s math. To help dungeon masters avoid problems, the game adopts a version of fourth edition’s rarity system. In a game with a typical amount of magic, the rules suggest that players not gain any very rare items until they reach level 11.
How does this work in play? With unlimited access to magic, and three items attuned, a character could gain a 29 armor class from equipment: +3 plate (very rare), +3 shield (very rare), +1 ring of protection (rare, attunement), +3 defender weapon (legendary, attunement), +1 ioun stone (rare, attunement).
The 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide never spells out how much magic characters should get, but on page 38, the Starting Equipment table offers a suggestion.
In a game with a standard amount of magic, a new, 17th-level PC will own one rare magic item. Even in a high-magic game, that PC gets two rare items and one very rare +3 item. The legendary defender weapon ranks above very rare—an extraordinary find in a high-level, high-magic game. If any DMs allow a player to gain the five items needed for a 29 AC, their game has mutated into the gonzo of Neutronium Golems and the Dread Vampusa. (Can I sit in on that game?)
The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides few guidelines for how much magic to award. On page 135, a table suggest the levels PCs should reach before they gain items of a particular rarity. The book never tells how many items PCs should be getting as they level. Perhaps the authors felt any suggestions would be received as rules, and preferred to leave quantities to a DM’s taste. Perhaps the authors just ran out of time. Either way, I hope the designers move to fill the gap.