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That’ll Be 180,000 gp, Please

posted Tuesday, March 13th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignNone of the AboveThird Edition

It strikes me when reading through old Dungeons & Dragons manuals that back in 2nd edition AD&D, there was practically no such thing as buying and selling magic items. By contrast, in the current edition of the game you can travel to any city and expect to freely buy and sell any magic item save for the few most expensive things in the game. (Drop a comment even if you don’t read the entire entry, I’m interested in seeing what people think about this.)

The difference really changes how treasure works in the game. AD&D works like Diablo II, where huge amounts of gold are largely ineffectual for buying magic items because the kind of people who value magic items tend not to accept established amounts of currency for them. Magic items are so rare and difficult to create as to have no established price.

Come third edition, and any magic-using NPC or player character with the appropriate training can create magic items from scratch; similarly, by the rules at least, any magic item worth 100,000 or more can be commissioned or purchased reliably for gold, while players will find that they can consistently sell any such item for half market price.

The big difference is that unwanted or unnecessary magic items now suddenly gain special value, because you can reliably trade in stuff you don’t want for stuff you do. A spare +1 sword is no longer just a spare sword; it’s a convenient portable 1,000 gold piece ingot redeemable at any nearby town. Because they’re now tradeable for currency, anything that’s worthless to you in practice is still valuable, and anything you desire is attainable just by hoarding enough worthless junk and dropping it off at the city magic shop between adventures.

This can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Yes, it opens up new options for players, but I can’t help but feel that the game loses something by making magical equipment a commodity. It’s less heroic; I don’t remember the part where Frodo flicked through a magic item catalogue and got a trade-in on a bunch of enchanted amulets. It makes more work for the players; someone has to keep a list of the items nobody wanted, then add up the prices whenever they’re to be sold. It gives players a reason to look through the magic item list like a mail order catalogue, which makes items less mysterious. It makes magic feel more common, such that you can reliably stock up on consumables, base character builds around items, and remove the reliance on party spellcasters for buffs and cures. Finally, it removes the interesting hodgepodge element to the game, where an item is an item and you can take it for what it’s worth or leave it.

tl;dr: Do you think it’s better when you can’t buy and sell magic items? Discuss!

Comments

  1. Alex Schröder

    March 13th, 2007

    In my games, magic items are usually not for sale for gold only. Particular items are offered by NPC mages and priests as rewards or in order to help a good cause. There are no ordinary shopkeepers in the business of magic items.

  2. Michael Dingler

    March 13th, 2007

    Third edition PCs are a tough act to balance correctly. Giving them suboptimal items will have a huge impact on their relative power. Weapons, armor, attribute enhancers, items that provide mobility etc.
    If a PC doesn’t introduce means to re-equip players with equpiment besides what they tend to find (or doesn’t fill his dungeons with just the right items), he has to do a lot of work to keep some underequipped players happy with their characters.

    Having said that, I tend to regard the gp values rather abstract. No, you can’t walk in a Final Fantasy-like Item Shoppe. If the item costs 180000 gp, that’s the value of the service you have to do for the old Wizard/King.

    In addition, I kinda prefer D20 variants with less emphasis on items, but if you want to play straight-forward 3E, you have to make some changes from the olden days.
    (On the other hand: No stupid Str 9 fighters with belts of giant strength anymore)

  3. Branitar

    March 13th, 2007

    I think, it’s okay to buy and sell magic items. Think of Eberron: the world is full of magic by definition, so why shouldn’t there be a lots of magic items that you can buy and sell, too?
    There are millions of magic users in Eberron and it would be illogical if they didn’t make magic items for sale. Basic magic weapons are quite common, and they are cheap. That’s ok, because it follows the laws of economics.
    But when it comes to other magic items than armours or weapons (especially if you try to create them) it gets a bit ridiculous (to say the least),
    Consider the prices for simple wands. My artificer has the feat to make wands among other stuff (got it at level 4?), but can’t create even the most simple one because they usually cost at least 20000 GP. A simple wand, with few charges of a very simple spell. He’ll never see that much money until a very advanced level, where the type of adventures that he can survive warrant getting that much money, so he can create a simple wand (that can be bought for only a little bit more money anyway). So the really desirable stuff is still unreachable, not because its rare but because it’s expensive.

  4. deco

    March 14th, 2007

    I’ve found this to take a bit of the mystique in the games I run, so what I do is use both. There are conventional magical items that the party finds/purchases/trades just like any other loot, which works fine. But I also have a ton of unique, unknown magical items that the party keeps partially out of practicality, and partially because as players they are intrigued.

    They yawn at trading away a +2 longsword, but a little pouch that magically produces little balls that explode into a Web spell when thrown? They’d sooner surrender their own mother.

    As an added benefit, usually the players make extra effort to use these unique items or implement them into their plans, making them even more memorable.

  5. MadMaxJr

    March 16th, 2007

    It depends entirely on the setting, as to how available magic is. Forgotten Realms has a high magic setting where I understand there is even the occasional magic item shop. In my games, they come across magic items.. But come time to sell them, the place they want to sell it better have an economy capable of paying the price. No 160,000 GP sale to the villagers please. It’s just another facet of how the DM wishes to control power/economics of the party. Use fair judgment and make sure the players are still having fun.

    Of course, most importantly, any sufficiently powerful magic item, will have other people looking for it, even in the hands of your players….

  6. Rick

    April 5th, 2007

    I’m all for the 2e approach. Minor items can be bought or sold, but usually at the local church/alchemist or other institution. “Ye old shop O’ magic” has no place in my campaign…save in the biggest, most wonderous city and even they would only handle low level items.
    Our party went back to the 2e rules for magical item creation (without the con price for perminancy) which makes searching for the components and constructing the item a memorable, personal experience. In our campaign it is not easy to commission an item unless the party turns up on the door with all components for the item ready and a sack of gold for his time.
    Minor items should be common enough to give the party a little help, but a character should be as uniquely recognizable by his items as by his name and deeds.

  7. Daniel

    January 12th, 2008

    I’ve seen both types of games (always using 3.5), and I really think it does come down to DM control. I have one regular DM who tends to make relatively low magic worlds, where a +1 weapon/armor or minor item can be found without too much difficulty, but others require the aid of powerful mages that request more than mere gold. On the other hand, I’m running a game where magic permeates the entire world. Although it’s not to the point of Final Fantasy’s magic shop in every tiny town, a larger city in any of the major nations will have shops that specifically sell a variety of minor and medium items and some mage’s consortiums even have a sort of mail-order catalogue from which one could potentially order a +1 sword and receive it in the mail a week or so later. The question for the DM is really how magic works in the world they’ve created (or are using). More magic will often translate into more magic items (I’d pay a fair amount of money for something to make me smarter). But if magic is a rare thing, then those few magic items that do exist will be treasured posessions not quickly surrendered. In terms of balance, I had one DM who ran a low magic campaign but made available non-magical weapons that gave bonuses equivalent to a +1 or +2 item.

  8. John

    March 31st, 2008

    While I think it should be somewhat difficult, I think it’s exceeding realistic to have items of fantastic value in any setting. I think the second temple in Jerusalem is the perfect example. Everything from the marble stones to the gold inlay to the very doors of an edifice that ultimately comprised a staggering portion of the entire walled city (the total area of the temple complex being larger than most of the neighborhoods in the city at the time) was crafted and imported. The Jews did not invent what must have been extremely uncommon commissions of hundreds of thousands of tons of finely dressed marble from other countries and moving carved wooden doors that according to legend could sink ships from Africa. Those economies and skills all existed already. So, just because 99.99999% of the population is completely incapable of accessing those markets, they clearly do exist and have existed throughout the world, for thousands of years.

  9. AWizardInDallas

    May 10th, 2008

    I think of it in terms of a story. How exciting would it be to read about a hero going to the store to buy his magic sword to slay the dragon with? I think the buying and selling of magic items is very unheroic and anti-climatic. Questing for or even commissioning a magic item from a myserious wizard or priest is far acceptable to me, especially if the characters have to go on quests to collect the items or spells necessary for the item. The play is the thing. The buying selling and trading of magic items sullies the story-telling spirit of the game.

  10. MrCompetition

    March 23rd, 2009

    My (regular) GM handles buying and magic items in a rather practical way. Low-level potions and scrolls can be obtained if there’s a church in the area (or practicing wizard/alchemist). The local smith has a 50% chance of being able to even make or obtain magical weapons and/or armor, with only a 25% chance of having any available and then only up to +2 in any situation other than large city’s. Prices for these fluctuate depending on the situation and how the town feels about the players. This is just the buying end of the equation.

    On the selling end, good luck unless your willing to slash your prices. The npcs almost never have enough coin to pay the usual prices up-front (Unless other players are buying from that source). Our usual route is to use our old +1 sword or amour in place of some coin in payment for a +2 sword or armour or for a better +1 sword or armour. Good luck on getting a +3 outside of a dungeon.

  11. Stone2065

    October 11th, 2009

    I warn you all… old fart rant coming…

    The first time I played AD&D was around 1982 or so, so I started on the concept that there was no such thing as “making” a magic item by anyone but a NPC, and even then, simply throwing money at said NPC didn’t get you anywhere. If you wanted a magic item, you adventured for it… after the adventure, if say you had an item that was class specific and your party didn’t have that class member, you either held onto it for trade barter or left it. (Remember, you got xp for finding the item, regardless if you kept it or not.)

    When 2nd ed came around, my big hosanna was for being able to have an elf ranger finally, and sort of fell into the concept of being able to actually purchase my new +2 longsword, etc. Third ed came along and now I could just make the stuff myself. Again, I just fell into the other aspects of the “improved” version, instead of the fact that you could make more money with the right character setup by making and selling magic items (and masterwork too, for that matter) than EVER setting foot in a dark, damp, dangerous dungeon. The market economy mindset had arrived at AD&D.

    Personally, I now play 3.5 with some friends for fun, but I have recently been going over my old 1st ed stuff, and the more I re-read it, the more I like the original concepts put down there. I would love to either find a DM to run a 1st ed game, or find players without the Monty Haul mindset that want to play for the storyline aspects of the game as in 1st ed, and I will run the damn thing…

    …just my two cents worth…

    (rant done)

  12. Alex

    January 17th, 2010

    I would almost never let a party go shopping for high level items, but selling lower level items? That’s a different matter. If the party thief outgrows their old +1 magic dagger when they get a +3 short sword of level draining, I wouldn’t have a problem having them flog the old item – and higher levels offer role play material in that you could sell it to a fairly high ranking individual who could use it to reward a later group of adventurers (if you have a persistent campaign setting, even better – imagine a previous party selling a +2 staff of healing to the high priest of a town, only to later get it with a different character on a different campaign who completed a quest to investigate the evil cult outside of town). Mass selling should be infeasible, but unless the characters are avoiding civilisation entirely, I’m unlikely to ever make it so they have 15 swords, two enchanted bucklers and about 10 or so suits of magic armour spare in the cart that they want to sell.

    4e handles the matter much better; it’s entirely possible as a GM to say that you can’t sell the sword and if you want it you’ll have to disenchant it and find someone who’ll take the marginally more tradeable residuum.

  13. Omar

    March 14th, 2010

    The world determines whether or not you can do these things.

    D&D is high magic generally speaking. Eberron and Forgotten Realms are extremely magical. It makes perfect sense you would find/buy/make/sell items.

    There are already more powerful items that the party can only find, these are called artifacts.

    The one ring of Lord of the Rings fame, is not a “Ring of Invisibility”, it is a Cursed Artifact. You can’t make it or buy it.

    The swords that could kill the Ringwraiths?

    Crafted by mortal men of Numenor. Probably extremely rare, but buyable at one stage.

  14. DM’s Guide to Dealing With Treasure « Jonathan Drain’s D20 Source: Dungeons & Dragons Blog

    March 24th, 2010

    [...] buy the ones they want, so two wrongs make a right. Not everyone likes this approach: it leads to magic supermarket syndrome, vendor trash hoarding and poor realism. There are solutions to these problems, [...]

  15. Bongo Bill

    November 23rd, 2010

    Recently, I declared that +1 items, and possibly even +2, weren’t actually magic, just really well-made. A masterwork weapon is one that won’t break just because you used it carelessly; +1 means you’re starting to get somewhere. In short, it’s not so much the power of the item, but whether it’s something that you can use effectively.

    Doing it this way opens up other opportunities for slight mechanical alteration. Items that are “actually” +4 or whatever, but since you’re inadept with it, it starts at something and gains a plus every once in a while as you learn the way it’s balanced or some other fluffy reason. Low-magic or even just outright low settings needn’t be poor in loot.

    And then when I was feeling very clever for my fancy bit of flavor, they asked if they could use the Weapons of Legacy supplement. Well, maybe next time….

  16. AssHat

    April 9th, 2012

    Taking a page from pawn stars, you could have a family that buys magic items, low balling everyone that comes into their store, in hopes of turning a profit. I see a store that buy/sells magic items as a great story telling opportunity.

  17. Licorne Negro

    October 23rd, 2013

    Like Mr Competition, I reached the conclusion that the PCs would hoard their magical treasures and use those magical treasures as “currency” when buying magical items. Coins, gems, arts, and even the eventual trade goods and mundane items, would be change to complete the price when trading with a magic merchant.

    In my opinion, except for very cheap magic items (up to a maximum of 2,700 GP for non-consumables, double it for consumables), most magic items wouldn’t be mass-produced (as far as mass-production goes for a medieval setting). Many would be produced only by request of a (rich) buyer, and on an one-by-one basis. And some would even be produced by magic artificers who simply want to produce a “chef d’oeuvre”, who want to leave their mark in the world befor they die (I imagine most intelligent items would be from such origins).
    Most magic items, though, would be relics of the past (near or distant), created by whatever means, lost, and then retrieved by adventurers from dungeons and monsters and then put in the market by magic merchants. Considering that non-consumable magic items rarely break or are destroyed, a magic merchant can make a very good life for himself, even if only from the change (coins and so) for selling old (sometimes very old) magic items, after buying them by half-price.
    Hence, only consumable magic items would be produced in more quantity, and even then only on demand, except for the very cheap. Non-consumable items (even “ye olde +1 sworde”) would be mostly relics from the past, retrieved by adventurers in dark dungeons and then put on the market.
    This also explain why there aren’t a preposterous spending of XP to produce magic items. Only the consumables need a constant production, the non-consumables simply pile up as the ages go on.

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