Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Gold Problem: Magic Item Shops in 5th Edition D&D

So what's the problem?
I wanted to take some time today and talk about magic items and gold in 5th Edition. I run a high-magic homebrewed world, where you're likely to see imps and levitating chariots strolling down the street, where there is an entire city built around magic schools, and the Mage's Guild stretches across the country.

In a setting like this, Players need to be able to buy magic items. You can't have everybody and their brother using sending stones and not offer them to the PCs. But I think this applies to other campaign worlds as well, for one big reason: gold.

Gold presents a weird problem in the D&D world. It seems self-evident that players expect to receive it. Nearly every monster has some sort of treasure or reward. And yet, what can the players spend their riches on? Living expenses and adventuring gear are laughably cheap. Even hirelings are insanely inexpensive in D&D. At 2 GP / day, a well-rewarded party could afford to bring a small militia with them into every dungeon.

So how can we make gold matter? My solution is to make sure the players know exactly what they can buy with their gold, and the benefits of that purchase. In particular, I use big ticket items to force the players to make a choice: do I restock my health potions, or do I keep saving up to buy my own +2 longsword? Can I donate that much to charity while I am looking at purchasing a castle?

You want to buy my enchanted stuffed bunny rabbit? It's a good deal...
This is going to be a two-part post (if you can't already tell, I love taking time to focus on certain parts of a larger idea), and today we'll be looking at Magic Item shops.

Establishing Magic Item Trade

Now, in a world where people can freely buy magic items, you'd think every bandit and thug would have a +1 dagger and a Cap of Water Breathing, right? I disagree.

Again, look at the cost of living per day (PHB pg. 157). Remember, that is also per person. That means each week a smith that makes and sells a set of scale mail (50GP), he is likely paying for the living expenses of his family, his apprentices, and covering the cost of running his shop (DMG pg. 127). For a week's worth of expenses, with a family of four and an apprentice, making the scale mail costs 49GP. I think you can see where I'm going with this.

The fact is, most people in the D&D economy deal in copper and silver, not gold. They don't have the money to afford magic items, except for perhaps a family heirloom scrupulously saved for or donated by a kind-hearted adventurer years ago. And that means most bandits won't have much to steal from their victims.

So then where do we find the pockets of high-rolling economy that can garner the cash to trade in magic items?

If you use magic items, you are the 1%
The answer, of course, is wizards. People who make magic items probably don't need such a large influx in capital to complete their process. People in guilds, nobility, rich merchants in cities, dragons, etc, all would have frequent enough customers (adventurers) that stocking magic items could be necessary. So it's not that magic items should be restricted by area, but rather by economy.

Now, this doesn't mean that a bandit captain couldn't have a +1 weapon or a ring of protection. But make sure you consider that it would be the result of years of banditry, hoarding gold away from the other members of his crew, and potentially making him a target for other bandits.

Setting Up Shop

Now, for pricing the items, I use Saidoro's excellent guide to Sane Magic Item Prices. This is more a post about the shops that sell the items, not what items cost, so please check out his link even if you decide to not use the method I've created here.

Next, we need to look at what sort of magic items players should have access to. I went with the Tiers of Play (DMG pg. 37) to determine this. Essentially, here's how it breaks down:
  • Level 1-4: Common Magic Items, few Uncommon Items
  • Level 5-10: Uncommon Magic Items, few Rare Items
  • Level 11-16: Rare Magic Items, few Very Rare Items
  • Level 17-20: Very Rare Magic Items, few Legendary Items
This helps us break things down nicely. We can also look at breaking down the various shops we want to create:
  • Shops based on Item type: Consumables, Combat Items, Noncombat Items, Summoning Items, Cursed Items, etc.
  • Shops based on Item rarity: common, uncommon, rare, very rare, and legendary
Could you make an entire shop of cursed items? Sure.
Would your players kill you in your sleep? Probably.
So, using that as a guide, here is how I break down my shops in a high-magic world:
  1. Common Magic Item shops: found in small towns and big cities. Usually serves as a general supply store with a few healing potions and scrolls they picked up from travelers. About 1 shop per 50 square miles, so at normal travel pace the PCs can expect to find one within a small town every 4-5 days of travel.
  2. Uncommon Magic Item Shops: found in big cities. These shops are owned by amateur wizards, strange item collectors, and rich merchants. They often specialize in selling items to adventurers, so they aren't terribly difficult to find. A PC could expect to find 1 shop per 500,000 people in a large, populated area.
  3. Rare Magic Item Shops: found in highly magical places. These shops are usually for established magic-users and scholars only, often they are cloistered or off-limits to the public. Sometimes they are used to house dangerous items for safekeeping, but threats to the realm may convince them to open their doors. Because of their secretive nature, a PC may have to spend time searching to even learn of their existence, but they might be able to find about 1 shop per major country or government.
  4. Very Rare Magic Item Shops: This is the stuff of legends. There may be one node of magical power on the entire planet, where scholarly monks and ancient wizards make pilgrimages to in order to unlock dark secret magics. This collection of magic would be located at that point. Like the Library of Alexandria, most people would have heard of such a place, but the journey to get there, the danger of the magic contained within, and the protections afforded such power all make this the purvey of only the planet's greatest heroes. A PC could easily find legends of this location, but there would only be one in the world.
  5. Legendary Magic Item Shops: Mammon's treasure keep. The troves of the Gold Dragons of Mount Celestia. These type of shops exist in very few places across the entire multiverse. Even then, those who guard them are so powerful (or so greedy) that even glimpsing such a location is tantamount to impossible. If the PCs wish to buy and sell legendary magic items, this is the only way to do so.
Now, for each level of shop, I usually divide the shops between the different treasure types. All common magic items are consumables, but I like the idea that a fighter's guild might sell uncommon combat magic items, or an conjurer's store might only deal in summoning items.

Another thing I always always include is big-ticket items. These can be limited in stock, but I could absolutely imagine a Fighter's Guild champion who is willing to part with his Weapon of Warning for 60kGP. Maybe the characters will pool their money, save up, and buy it at level 7. That's a good thing! It means gold mattered to your party in a tangible way: the group's fighter now has a cool weapon that directly benefits combat.

Also, never pass up an opportunity to use the property tables listed in the DMG (pg. 142-143). Making each item unique, with a minor trait, a description of history, or a quirk brings the item to life and helps define the character who uses it.

For Less Magical Worlds

Sometimes magic is just crazy people who believe in things really hard
Now, not every campaign should be as high-magic as this one. But even without these shops, players still need an imperative to spend their gold. I'd recommend one of two solutions:
  1. Scale down. Perhaps common magic shops are only found in big cities, and uncommon magic shops are the secret vaults of wizards. Maybe anything higher than a rare item can only ever be granted by gods or found in the deepest reaches of the multiverse.
  2. Make non-magic purchases more expensive and more appealing.
Next week, I'll be looking into non-magic options to incentivize your players to save their gold rather than spending it or hoarding it. And it's not just buying a castle for their own personal use. But that is definitely an option.

Thanks for Reading!

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