Too much magic kept breaking Dungeons & Dragons—how fifth edition fixes it

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.

He's just my characters henchman

He is just my character’s henchman

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.

Typed bonuses

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.

Item slots

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.

Next: Another way magic breaks D&D

31 thoughts on “Too much magic kept breaking Dungeons & Dragons—how fifth edition fixes it

  1. Graham Robert Scott

    Another excellent look at the history of the game. I’m finding your articles very informative and enjoyable to read. I agree with you, completely, about the curious lack of guidance about magic item possession in 5e — sure, PCs starting at 17th level should only have 1 rare item, but in every previous edition I can think of, starting PCs don’t end up with the same magical assets as a fully played character who has actually made the long hike from 1st to 17th level. Because of that tradition and the lack of guidance, I am left following my own compass with regard to magic item distribution. I trust my compass; I’m old enough to remember the belts being called girdles, too, so I have some practice at keeping my game from breaking. But we have a lot of new folk entering the hobby now, and a bunch of them may end up learning some lessons by trial-and-error that might have been addressed explicitly. But I digress: When I started typing, all I really wanted to do is say I liked the article. So there you go: Loved the article. 🙂

    1. DM David Post author

      Thanks for all the kind words. Feedback like yours keeps me inspired and helps me choose topics for posts.

      I agree that a character leveled through play should expect to gain more magic than one starting at a high level.

      I think the 5E DMG easily ranks as the best yet, which makes the lack of guidance on awarding magic items—and treasure in general—all the more disappointing.


  2. Greg

    Dave – Love the blog. I’ve been getting back into DMing after a 10 year hiatus and your resources have been an invaluable aid to me.

    A quick question on this topic: In your experience, are the challenge ratings for various monsters balanced based on the magic item guidelines contained in the DMG? For example, an ancient red dragon’s CR of 24 is a tough fight for a high level group, even four level 20’s. I’m guessing that this assumes these characters are equipped with weapons “appropriate” to their level? If so, this is why I think the sparse guidelines regarding awarding magic items is frustrating, how do I know whether my party is over or undergeared for their level and will be able to handle specific CRs? If the CR for an adult blue dragon assumes the party has, for instance, a +3 weapon or +3 armor…

    I guess I wonder what kind of characters they used to playtest battles with these monsters and how well-equipped they were.

    Hopefully you can shed some light on this. I’m a little nervous about over/under-rewarding magic items for my group, especially with the difficulty in buying/selling them in 5e. We’re playing through Hoard of the Dragon Queen with the goal of taking it all the way to the end of Rise of Tiamat and I’ve noticed the magic items are a bit skimpy, at least in the first part, compared to 3e. I like it, but it also makes me realize that my prior understanding of magic item awarding might not be appropriate for this new edition and result in a significantly overpowered party if I’m not careful.

    Sorry for the long post. I have a tremendous amount of respect for you after reading this blog, and this question has been rolling around in my head for a while.

    1. Greg

      On an expanded note – I think the frustration is stemming from the decision to have such hard and fast rules for setting challenge ratings and encounter difficulty (which, don’t get me wrong, I love, because I can finally challenge my players instead of having them faceroll everything like they did at mid levels in 3/3.5) but lacking a similar amount of specificity in awarding magic items which, to me, have a direct bearing on how difficult encounters are. If a monster’s AC going up increases its challenge rating, wouldn’t you be able to use the same logic in saying that having a +1 weapon vs a +3 weapon influences how difficult a fight with that creature will be?

      1. DM David Post author

        Hi Greg,

        Thanks for your words of appreciation.

        Horde of the Dragon Queen is too stingy with magic items. I know the lack of loot is bothering my players. I suspect we can blame the missing magic on the challenges the module’s designers faced as they worked against a tight schedule and changing rules. Lost Mines of Phandelver awards more magic and probably offers a better baseline.

        During the 5E design process, James Wyatt provided some tentative guidelines for awarding magic:

        Our current guidelines suggest that, for a baseline, middle-of-the-road campaign, a party of any size will find about 23 items over the course of 20 levels. So the characters in a party of four will end up with about 6 permanent items each by the time they hit level 20.

        But we also want to include guidelines for DMs who want to vary that pace. In a low-magic campaign, we’d aim for about 14 items for the party, and in a high-magic campaign about 40 items. Of course, a no-magic campaign is also an option. Our hope is to discuss each of these options, giving the DM some guidance as to what each of those campaigns might look like.” For more, see

        In short, a party should get slightly more than 1 magic item per level. James mentions nothing about rarity, but I suggest keeping most of the awards at or below the rarity suggested in the table on p.135 of the DMG.

        A character’s power level in 5E depends far less on magical gear than in any past edition. James Wyatt said, “We’ve stressed the idea that D&D Next doesn’t assume any particular rate of treasure or magic item acquisition for characters. The math of the game makes no assumptions that characters will have such items.”

        In fourth edition, an epic character needed an implement or weapon with a +5 or +6 to have a shot at hitting. In fifth edition, no weapons go past +3, and spellcasters don’t get implements that improve their accuracy.

        Nevertheless, a heavily-equipped 5E party stands a better chance than a group that leveled through Horde of the Dragon Queen.

        I suspect that the designers tested challenge ratings using characters equipped based on something like the standard, starting equipment shown in the DMG. If you create your encounters based on the experience point budgets based on p.56 of the DM’s Basic Rules, and your party looks more like a high-magic group, you can probably nudge the budget up some.

        In practice, I find that the tactical skill of a group matters more than the level. I’m more likely to adjust encounter difficulty based on the players’ abilities than the characters.


        1. Greatzoopa

          I actually like that a lot, that the challenge ratings are independent of the magic items that the characters have. It means that if my fighter gets a +1 weapon, he’s going to be hitting 5% more often than normal. The AC of the monsters stays static, so it won’t feel like Pathfinder, where the physical fighters need as many +1s as they can get just to stay competitive.

        2. christophergandy1049

          That last paragraph in your reply is PURE GOLD (and not the kind that used to get you XP in previous editions. 🙂 ) Balancing encounters *can’t* come from a formula in a DMG, *because* of the intangible (and impossible to quantify or standardize for every party) variable that is *the players* abilities.

      2. christophergandy1049

        I think that the “hard and fast rules” for CR’s is also a “problem source” as much as it has made some DM’s more comfortable with encounter design. Why do I say that? I believe it has reinforced the idea that “every encounter must be an “even fight”, so the PC’s fight everything with the expectation of *always winning*”. In the “old days” encounters were put together to be an “interesting event” that *MIGHT* actually required the PCs to *run away*, or *not win by default*. Now do the CR “rules” (yes, they are guidelines, but as you posted they are *seen* as *HARD AND FAST RULES FOR SETTING CHALLENGE RATINGS*) make it so that a DM *cannot* set up a “they should run away” encounter? Of course not. But that “formulaic” set of “perceived rules” seem to have reduced that likelihood and may well have taken some of the “uncertainty of each battle” away. Just my $.02

  3. Al

    While attuning is a decent metagame rule to limit magic-item proliferation, it really isn’t a good rule, simply because it doesn’t explain itself. Or at least I haven’t seen it explained yet. Why do some items need attunement and some don’t, is it strictly on relative power or perceived power? What exactly is it attuning too? And why is the limit three?

    My attempt to strengthen the rule would be something like, there are three channels of magic for creatures in the world, the heart, the mind, and the spirit. Each channel accounts for a certain percentage of overall magical attunement, with most creatures divided fairly evenly 30%, 30%, 40% (or 3, 3,4) in one way or another. In some creatures, races, or perhaps classes those channels can become further out of balance, but all still total the same measure.

    Then all magic items do in fact require attunement and they take up volume given their relative power. All +1 and below valued items take up 1 point of attunement, +2 or so 2 points, +3 3 points, and perhaps artifacts or something similar 4 points. Creatures could then have a bunch of +1 items, a few powerful items, or something in between would be most likely.

    Given that though, we would have the chore of breaking all the items down into their groups. Perhaps weapons and armor would fall into the Body channel, perhaps not all though, maybe a holy sword would be a Spirit channel. Items without obvious power denotations would need to be categorized, maybe rarity would be something to base it on. Also, we would need to finalize how attunement is divided up. I wonder if it would be worth it.

    1. Al

      Ok, reply to my own comment faux pas.

      If indeed magic is a finite measure in all creatures, then perhaps spellcasters would have to give up some of their attunement just to cast their spells. Maybe they would have to give up 1 point to cast 1st through 3rd, another for 4th through 6th, and a third for 7th through 9th. I suppose it would depend on how much you would want to debilitate their magic item usage. Would then the points have to come from a specific channel, arcane casters from mind and divine from spirit? What about multiclasses? I dunno maybe its not worth it.

      1. DM David Post author

        Hi Al,

        You’re correct that attunement lacks a game-world explanation other than “it’s magic.” During the early years of the game, D&D’s Vancian casting system came under a lot of criticism for being unrealistic, which led to countless spell-point systems. Gary Gygax countered critics by asking, “How can you tell whether magic is realistic? It’s magic—and totally made up.” (He probably used much bigger words.)

        Of course the critics were not actually looking for realism, but a sense of verisimilitude, something that seemed real.

        I think an attunement system like yours can add to a game if it adds a sense of verisimilitude, and especially if it leads to adventure and story ideas. On the other hand, I haven’t met many players with the patience for such intricacies, so maybe it would work better in fiction or a computer game.

        Thanks for commenting!


    2. Lance Dyas

      Old-post but you inspired my thinking and I felt like getting it out there.Your idea of the 3 limit being Id, ego and superego to use the pseudoscientific translation is interesting. In the world of Stormbringer magic equipment was often sentient and sometimes very jealous… to give it a tacky analogy attuning many is a bit like trying to keep too many deep relationships, spouses and side chicks(boys) and best buds or perhaps more generally the wife won’t mind if you keep a butler unless you get too attached or she isn’t really attached and similar things. 5e during play test had a rule not really balanced at all but it allowed one to have cha mod attunements 😉 cleverness and convincing becoming the limit however that creates problems basically the problem is you get an over rewarding of classes who specialize in CHA due to how D&D works is not great though so serving the flavor defeats other elements – we might still serve that flavor an alternative way, what if speed of attunement was based on CHA? I like flexibility in D&D and the why of it could vary what if you had a choice and Wisdom allowed your discipline to keep magical forces under control. It could then be affected by either cha or wis. What if attunement number advanced as you level so your internal awesome took it from 1 during farmer levels, 2 during heroic, 3 during paragon and 4 during epic. In other words the ability to keep all those attuned things happy is a reflection of your characters awesome overall not specific trait in some ways over all awesome is the ultimate charisma you are arent using communication skills to impress the magic items heck it might be your incredible life force.

  4. DMoloth

    One of the things that always gets me about 1st Edition rarity is that the average amount of loot in a module way outpaced what was considered an appropriate amount. It was not uncommon back in the day to get 15-25 magic items for a party in a single module (unless it was a very low level module).

    The Isle of the Ape, in fact, had over 30 items at the final destination… and a few here and there along the way.

    Honestly, you had a pretty good shot at becoming over-geared off of random monster treasure alone (unless you had a particularly cruel DM).

    As a player back then, I never considered over-gearing as the problem… I considered under-powered enemies as the problem. Now, with 20+ years of being a DM, I still consider it the same. You can give players nearly anything if your monsters are designed with the ACTUAL power level of the players in mind (to me, it is the pitiful monster design that breaks the game).

    BTW, I discovered this site a few days ago and I love it.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi DMoloth,
      Thanks for the great observation about 1st edition modules and magic. Seems like if characters leveled through modules, they stood a real chance of gaining too much power to be challenged by higher level modules.

      Many DMs did as you suggest and notched up the power of the monsters, but some looked for ways to get rid of the gear.

      Back in the 70s, DM advice often suggested ways to take magic from your players. Beyond rust monsters, you had item saving throws, where if a dragon breathed on you, all your magic items needed to save vs. destruction. In my experience, no one used such rules. Players would revolt.

      I’m delighted that you like the site!


  5. Agronas

    Dave – Very good article. I agree on most items, but vehemently disagree on the gauntlet and girdle of strength issue. I actually find the fixed stat bonus of the gauntlets and girdle (belt) of ogre and giant strength FAR more problematic than in previous versions of the game. Basically they punish a character for starting out with a high strength score. Instead of adding a fixed bonus, they take a character from 8 strength to 19 or 24 or higher — terrible game design in my eyes. A combined + 12 bonus from a +4 Gauntlets of Ogre Strength and + 8 Girdle of Giant Strength to that character would put them at 20, now one belt does it…

    Plus, what 8 strength character would waste their attunements on two strength items (the attunement system elegantly solves that problem)? The new fixed stat items (and strength only) basically tempt players to start out as dexterity based martial characters and rely on ONE item to boost strength. With the new dex based finesse rules there is no need for rogues or monks to obtain strength as in earlier versions of the game, so a fixed strength item is basically a huge tease to the poor barbarian with a 19 strength looking for a boost…

    Given that strength is capped at 30 (oddly the only skill that can exceed 20, perhaps a nod to boosting martial characters against epic spell casters, and a concern that dexterity based items of a similar nature would be game breaking?) – a fixed bonus would have made far more sense. Versus an item that can raise strength from nothing to 25 or higher? That seems to lead to very odd choices in the game.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Agronas,
      Thanks for weighing in! I share your distaste for magic that sets strength to a fixed value. Such items invalidate choices made to develop a character with high strength.


  6. Sylvain


    thanks for your blog. First apologize for any typo/syntax error on my english.
    I’m currently playing as DM a campaign (published) in another RPG and magic item inflation has come very quickly. At third level, there are full plate mithril armor, ring of protection+2, amulet of protection etc.. and the fighter tank already have an ac26… (we are beginner and by inexperience i didn’t notice there was too much magic reward. Hopefuly we play with friend for fun and story but that has worried me)
    I will switch to DD5 soon and even if the rules seems offer protection about inflation i will adopt an house rule to limit magic item use.

    First , to explain a certain form of magic limit i use in my campaign the word of “refraction” or “refactaire”. In english it will be “refraction” but the meaning should be like “refectory period” . It is the rp reason for example , that you can only cast a cantrip when you have cast a bonus spell. It is not because you haven’t the time it is because you suffer a sort of magic refractory period.

    I will use a similar limit for magic item potion and scroll. Actually depending of the type of campaign this limit could be never reach.

    This limit will be:

    level 1-4 you can only use one uncommon permanent magic item. If the item doesn’t need to be attenued you can use it immedialtly. However when you used the power of a permanent magic item you can not use the power of another one before a long rest.
    also in addition you can use one potion/scroll between two long rest

    level 5-10 you can use a second permanent item that can be rare or uncommon
    you can use 2 potions/scroll between long rest

    level 11-16 a third item, very rare, rare or uncommon
    a third potion/scroll

    level 17+ a fourth item legendary, artefact, very rare, rare or uncommon
    a fourth potion/scroll

    also, if it is possible, you can treat an item in a lesser category since the limitation is created for the “refractory trouble” (a sort of too much magic kill the magic) and not the item himself. Example to be more clear: the rare shield +2 could be treated as a +1 uncommon shield.
    so a at maximum you could use a legendary item, a very rare item, a rare item, and an uncommon item

    I think it will be close to no difference for an experience DM that know limit synergy between item and offer a elegant rp explain for inexperienced one (like me) that could be surprise by something they didn’t catch.

    Again, sorry for the syntax.


    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Sylvain,
      Thanks for sharing your proposed system! No need to worry about your syntax. I like that notion of a refractory period, although I suspect you will find that 5E doesn’t require such measures.


  7. Grant

    So now that 5e has been out a while, and especially now that future books and AL organized play modules are out, I think there’s perhaps a different opinion that can be reached.

    I see three problems:
    Rarity and usefulness have diverged. Rarity seems to have been a carryover from prior editions – ex: Ioun Stones. They used to be /amazing/ in 3.5 because they didn’t take a slot, and thus helped boost stats to very high levels – doubly so since you could do the math to purchase a +X Ioun stone of whatever type. Now, they take attunement. And so an Ioun Stone of Fortitude, which is Very Rare, provides less benefits than a Rare Belt of Dwarvenkind. This means that sometimes Very Rare items don’t feel very rare – doubly so for some legendaries, like the Sunsword in Curse of Strahd. It’s a duplicate of the Rare Sun Blade with some minor flavor. Now in all, this isn’t a huge problem, but for organized AL play, it means that trading items, which is only allowed within rarities gets a little weird when people try and organize trades to trade their bad-Legendary Sunblade and amazing Very Rare Tome of Understanding for someone else’s pretty-good Defender and terrible Conch of Teleportation. Rarities were just poorly selected for a number of items

    They did not keep anywhere /near/ to their proposed item counts that they planned on, much less even to their high-to-start-with counts the used in the first book or two. By 17th level, a PC will not have the proposed ‘one rare’. I’ve yet to see someone in the mid-teens with less than about 8 permanent items. Level 1-4, using the Season 5 modules, gives out 7 uncommon items to the party. Assuming a group of 4-5, that’s 1.5 uncommons per PC. Then 5-10 takes about 17 tier-2 modules across seasons 3, 4 and 5. With 17 rare items. That’s now an average of 3.5 rares plus 1.5 uncommons. Now 11 to 16… that’s a little harder since there aren’t enough modules, but based on the xp/item ration in the ones so far, you can expect about 15 or so modules until you get to tier 4 and level 17 – and those will gives out about 15 very rares. So instead of a measly 1 rare item at level 17 for a ‘standard’ game, organized play has given out 1 or 2 uncommons, 3 or 4 rares, and about 3 or 4 very rares. This completely throws off balance. Modules still seem to be written assuming the ‘standard’ progression and that they can be completed with no magic items. And so when you have a party show up at 13th level decked out in +3 weapons, +2 shields, +2 armor, a cloak of displacement, and the creatures in the module can only hit them on a roll of 16 or better and the cloak essentially gives them permanent disadvantage to hit the PCs, combat often feels laughable.Strahd is supposed to be the big scary boss of his hardcover, but by 9th level when you’re supposed to fight him, parties steamroll him. I had my group fight him, Baba Lysaga and half a dozen vampire spawn at the same time and they were barely scratched, much less in fear for their life. They almost took him out at level 5 earlier in the book, much less 9 or 10.

    Now, you combine a ton of items, things not the rarity they should be combining to make encounters easier, and open trading in organized play, and a perverse incentive to skip items in organized play, and you can see things where someone brings along a level 7 to what’s supposed to be a level 10 or so fight, and because they took nothing yet, they snag the one legendary-that’s-really-a-rare like the Sunsword from Curse of Strahd. Then they have another character of theirs get the super-amazing-legendary at a high level and self-trade it down to the level 7. Now you’ve got a level 7 with a belt of Storm Giant Strength – and if they had the belt on their high-level in mind when they started all this, perhaps they gave it to their base-strength-8 previously-dex-based fighter, who now has the effect of 10 bonus ability score increases at level 7, when normally you get your 5th at level 19. They’re now almost stronger than any non-casting level 20 character at level 7. Congrats, you broke the game with one item that that character didn’t even earn. You now have 2 more attunement slots, and another who-knows-how many non-attunement items you’ll snag on your way to 17. Pair with a +3 weapon, +3 shield, +2 plate, cloak of displacement. Ancient dragons only have a 1 in 4 shot of hitting you… but you’re up over 85% in some cases.

    Most of the worst offenses are in hardcovers in terms of items given out – to my knowledge the hardcover writers don’t keep organized play in mind at all for those, and it shows. For one, they explicitly stated the adventures in TFtYP they just converted over without really changing the loot in any major way – so the complaints about 1e adventures which award gobs of magic items? Tomb of Horrors is still there, and gives out 17 magic items. The XP in the module? Barely half a level worth. Enjoy 3-4 items in one level. Against the Giants? There’s 55 permanent magic items (Granted, there’s like 6 levels of XP in there, but still). One hardcover chapter has more magic items than an entire group of 20th level PCs should have in a high-magic campaign according to their own math. That just flat-out-destroys their system, especially when it’s based on bounded accuracy, namely that PCs should never get attacks too high so they’re always hitting, nor AC so high they’re always getting missed by attacks at them.

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Grant,
      I’ve played and DMed a fair amount of organized play, to level 17 and beyond. So far, the game holds up. That said, you make good points.

      I don’t think the designers ever intended for magic item rarity to measure power, just how often an item will appear in a D&D world. For lack of a better measure, the Adventurers League uses rarity when a measure of power would work better.

      The designers of the hardcovers clearly don’t weigh the influence of their books on organized play. I wish they did, but I wouldn’t want a book like Tales from the Yawning Portal to be excluded from AL. At least AL characters can’t keep the legendary weapons in White Plume.

      Thanks for commenting!


    1. Ash

      Yeah, that kept bugging me enough to check my 2E DMG and confirm that both items set your strength to a fixed value. The only way they actually combined in a special way was if the character also had the hammer of thunderbolts (the “turn into Thor”-effect from the G-series modules).

      It’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of the assumed metagame in TSR rule books up to the early parts of 2E was built on Gygax’s preferred playstyle of characters who score big loot AND lose it frequently. People playing without item destruction from monsters (rust monsters, disenchanters, oozes, caryatid columns, etc.) and item saving throws were playing a fundamentally different game than what the rules were made for, much the same as how not using random encounter checks or tracking time/movement/light/encumbrance turned tense dungeon crawls into tedious chores.

      That’s not to say that the pre-1985 rules/modules/etc. didn’t have problems (L2 always sticks out in my mind as having way too many magic items for a module about investigating a mostly-mundane assassination). The “game” side of the RPG is improved by having clearer rules about how magic item effects can combine. It’s just that this article went with poor examples of what was wrong with the old rules.

  8. Jon

    The excess of magic is the main reason my group abandoned D&D entirely once we started to lose interest in a game style based purely on tactical combat, and began to yearn for a more immersive, character-based experience. Things like bags of holding, or resurrection, or teleportation, largely ruin D&D for anything except a video-game-like tactical experience. I don’t think 5e fixes that, because it seems to be precisely that kind of thing that D&D players still want.

    I guess I’m of the opinion that how magic items stack or combine should never be a problem, because nobody should ever have that many magic items in the first place. The trouble with D&D is that excess of magic has been built into the game for so long, that you pretty much need it to defeat certain enemies or survive what is considered a balanced encounter. From a narrative perspective, getting any magic item at all should be a big moment in a character’s career, but in D&D they’re so common as to be almost mundane.

  9. required

    “…character can be attuned to more than three magic items at once…
    The three-item limit deters combinations of magic items from breaking the game.”

    In 5E, a character could attune at least 3 items, or at most 3 items?

    Should be
    “…character cannot be attuned to more than three magic items at once…
    The three-item limit deters combinations of magic items from breaking the game.”

  10. Steel Beard

    Very nice article. I am new to 5e, so this may have changed since you wrote your article, but in the DMG I have it notes that a character cannot attune to more than one copy of an item at a time. So, although there is a limit to being attuned to no more than three items at a time, those three could not be three rings of protection, so there is even more of a limit placed on items worn than what your article mentioned.

  11. Lance Dyas

    Too much magic was rather fixed in 4e via the Inherent bonuses option. And rarity wasn’t about power seriously look at the items who the designers called rare ( it was support DM control mongering as far as I can tell)

  12. Marvin

    Lol it’s impossible to turn around in 5e without bumping into a magic item or spellcaster. “Fixed too much magic” lol too funny man

  13. Kenny Snoggins

    The 8th season AL rules really blew this out of proportion and overall it shows that even since the beginning there has been an overall struggle to make the game work at higher (12+) PC levels.

    I’ve got a level 14 AL legal bard/warlock multiclass that cashed in on the season 8 bonanza. So he has
    Instrument of the Bards, attunement
    Gauntlets of Ogre Strength, attunement
    +1 magic shield, no attunement
    Staff of the Magi, attunement
    Saddle of the Cavalier, no attunement

    The obscene thing is that in our party of 8, all four spellcasters have a Staff of the Magi. And by AL rules they start every session fully charged. So most door-kicks are followed by three or four level seven blasting spells just nuking whatever is in the room.

    Personally I find it more fun to kill the baddies in interesting or humorous ways, so it doesn’t effect me that much, but it takes away the DM’s ability to threaten my PC with death aside from a gimmicky orb of annihilation trap or something. Which is a loss overall, and even more so for players that really enjoy the nitty gritty of combat (IE not the bard). I don’t even know why those guys show up anymore. And the poor fighters! Geeze.

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