"Big Six" Magic Items: Big Folly

I just got around to reading Andy Collins’ Design & Development article on Magic Item Compendium from February, and it seems to tie in quite well to my previous entries on "Magic Shop" syndrome. The question is asked, why do players always purchase the “big six” magic items (weapon, armour/shield, ring of protection, cloak of resistance, amulet of natural armor and the six ability-score boosters) and never any of the unusual but cool stuff like the helm of underwater action or apparatus of Kwalish?

Collins’ rationale is that the main items are simply best because they’re cheap, upgradeable, always-on, easy to use, don’t compete for “slots”, and that your character is underpowered if he doesn’t use them. I can’t disagree, but this approach takes a very narrow view and belies the big picture. Why are the Big Six, along with boots of springing and striding and such, really so much more popular than any other set of items? There are several real reasons.

First up, the vast majority of magic items were imported from 2nd edition AD&D, which, as I mentioned in my previous entry, predates the phenomenon of magic items being tradeable for money. Originally in D&D, you could keep a helm of underwater action or leave it, and it became useful whenever it did. Now that you can sell it, nobody wants the helmet when they can trade it in to upgrade their +3 sword to +4.

Why are the Big Six so much more valuable? Forget minutiae like slotting and ease of use; the real reason is that these items provide direct, permanent, numerical bonuses to your character’s main rolls. Obtaining that +4 sword is just as significant to the character’s advancement as gaining a feat or bonus from levelling up. The Big Six are popular because they directly increase ability scores, to-hit and damage, saving throws, or armor class. Other ubiquitous items are similar - the bag of holding enhances carrying capacity, the boots of striding and springing increase base speed, and the wand of cure light wounds increases your cleric’s daily capacity to heal.

Obtaining the Big Six and other major items has become the purpose of the game, and every other magic item has been relegated to a stepping stone to this goal. Let me take the article’s “six reasons” from this perspective:

  • Cheap to buy: Not quite - rather, they’re powerful for their price. The reason they’re powerful is because they automatically work whenever you do whatever it is you would be doing anyway, so they’re essentially 100% effective. The other items don’t give you that sort of efficiency.
  • Room to grow: They’re just about the only items that can grow. The intent is that like with magic weapons, they can improve with your character. That’s not a major reason for their popularity; rather, it just makes them cheaper to replace with more poweful ones (see the first point).
  • No slot competition: Actually, these items do compete for slots. They just don’t tend to compete with each other. The only reason there’s no competition with other magic items is that they’re the best magic items in their slots.
  • Easy to understand: It’s rather than they’re simple in that they grant straightforward bonuses to existing abilities rather than granting complex new abilities.
  • No activation cost: Items with an activation cost tend to do something specific, such as cast a spell (wands) or deal damage (horn of blasting - otherwise, activation cost is simply a drawback. The benefit of the Big Six is that they’re always-on - see the first point.
  • Required to play: It’s rather that since these items enhance what your characters are meant to be doing, they become an integral part of developing characters to be better than that. However, it’s certainly expected of players that they will spend at least some of their treasure in enhancing their primary ability, so you’re definitely undercutting your character’s ability if you don’t invest in some items.

I’ll re-iterate: obtaining the so-called Big Six and other major items has become the purpose of the game, and every other magic item has been relegated to a stepping stone to this goal. It’s simply another part of the character optimization that seems to have characterised third edition D&D. Inferior items are not worth what they’re worth; they’re worth their trade-in value, and nothing will be worth as much to a powergamer as their own character progression.

Comments (10)

Jeroen (July 23rd, 2007)

Another reason might be the amount of use you get from these items. Better weapons, higher stats and higher saving throws are useful to almost everyone, because of the number of battles you face and other situations you find where they are useful.

On the other hand, a helm of underwater action is useful only when you need to go underwater - a rarer occasion in most campaigns.

Zaratustra (August 4th, 2007)

And when you -do- make the players go underwater they’ll whine that you didn’t warn them beforehand and you’re a bad GM.

mike (August 5th, 2007)

It’s not really a fair question…that would be like saying “would you rather have a car that uses no gas at all, but only on Sundays, or a car that uses 15% less gas every day?” Obviously, the no gas on Sundays car is a Helm of Underwater Action, and the 15% lesse gas car is something standard like Gloves of Dex.

I think you have to almost consider stat/save items as different than “other” magic items. Gloves of Dex are just like a feat…pure statistical benefits that will almost ALWAYS be used in a session. Sure, they’re always taken, but players also don’t care about them. They’re just tools. Where as a crazy helmet that can breathe underwater is not merely a tool, but becomes something unique and special on its own.

Tom (August 28th, 2007)

Has anyone run a game without having many of the Big Six? I prefer to give my players interesting items, as long with the staple +armors / weapons, but avoiding the Cloaks of Resistance, Rings of More Resistance, and Amulet of Extra Resistance.

Jeff (September 26th, 2007)

In all the game I have played we are always short of cash ( like in the real world) so when we discover a magical item we use it or if it has charges we horde it for an emergency. While stat increases are always useful they are not nessecary if the player thinks about the situation properly. You could alway talk your way out of a fight, hide from and encounter or lay the perfect ambush ( it is hard to dodge a mountain slide). Weapons and armour will always be the big one though because you cannot alway avoid conflict. So i would say that the sword has two edges and they both cut as well as the other. you just need to know when and how to use them. Thinking outside the box can and will save your life.

darkelement (October 12th, 2007)

Besides the many other good points, running a more open-ended campaign where the characters decide their goals, at the least their immediate goals. Instead of an unusual magic item like the Helm of Underwater Action being useful only on a rare occasion when the DM deigns to lead them by the nose to a water-based ‘adventure’ (usually a site-based dungeon), and will be left in the cold if the plot wagon takes them to whatever terrain the DM prefers.

However, if the characters don’t have the DM jerking them around on a short leash (sadly, this is more often the case than not), they can get a lot of mileage out of specialized items. If they find a pair of Apparati of Kwalish, instead of cursing their luck for not finding a statboost item, they can start exploring shipwrecks for sunken treasure (maybe a statboost item or two), search for treasure or plot-relevant items in sunken ruins, or find all kinds of adventure on their own there.

It’s funny; the comic “Knights of the Dinner Table” is a lampoon of roleplaying games, but I always genuinely admired the style of the DM character; he generally let the players do as they please, parlaying the consequences of their actions into adventure rather than simply slapping them down and shoving them down a linear path. An excellent example is one storyline where, after hunting down a monk to interrogate and rob him, they found a minor artifact with the power to repair ships, sails and rigging. The player who ended up with it planned to sell it, but with some nudging by the DM upon reaching a port town, he realized he could parlay the artifact into a profitable enterprise.

eruditus (November 8th, 2007)

darkmantle reveals a lot of great ideas here. I don’t hand out magic items as treasure as much as plot hooks and things that drive story. And they almost always have some sort of curse, cost or drawback. The more powerful the item the more the players question whether they should use it and when they do it ALWYAS drives their own personal stories forward.

epharian (May 22nd, 2008)

I’m currently running an odd mixed-magic game. Magical weaponry and armor are considered common, but everything else is considered contraband. As a result, the players are really short on everything else and have to take pains to hide anything else (and they are a bit under the average for their level). Even more importantly, the wizards guild has been collecting magical items (and not releasing them back out) for thousands of years, meaning that while they will find an occasional item, generally what they do find will be weaker than what they’ve already managed to acquire.

The net effect is to encourage them to hang on to ANY and ALL magical items—even the unusual ones—that they find. Of course, the paladin in the group is going to be more inclined to obey the legal requirements of turning things over to the guild (and pay taxes) and the like. The rest of the party—not so much.

The point is that I think randomly found magical items are a silly way to go, and I’ve decided that it’s a bad idea to place random stuff on monsters after a fight. In fact, I’m leaning further and further away from random encounters altogether, as it takes too much work.

KasraKhan (July 19th, 2008)

I only use random encounters and treasures when my players want to play and I’m not done with material. The adventures usually is a stand alone dungeon, kind of like an anime filler.

I did once run a campaign with no magic items other than weapons and armor and a few minor rings, but I gave the PCs ECLs to balance it out. I might try curbing the stat boosters to a max of +2, for example.

Additionally, I have found something out vitally important by playing various campaigns of various economic well-being. Poor characters are not as affected in attack as in AC. Rich characters have untouchable AC, especially at higher levels, but that too tremendous a difference in attack. I find that higher AC battles are actually more enjoyable than damage-fests, as the outcome is easily determined for the damage-fests, but the luck of the roll matters more when AC rules supreme.

Cloak of Charisma does compete for Cloak of Resistance, but usually only for Paladins and Sorcerors. For Paladins, the Cha boost goes to saves anyway, so its only a real decision for a Sorc.

Also, Nat Armor, Wisdom, and Con all take the same spot, as do some other useful necklaces, such as Immunity to disease and poison items.

One solution I found to this ‘dilemma’ is to add random skill boosts to the items. It makes the characters think a little more, although they usually choose the stat-boosters anyway.

alaskan tarrasque (November 18th, 2009)

I play for most of the time and my GM isn’t to generous with magic items i mean my characters at like 8 level(rogue) and her armor is mwk studded leather and her best weapon is either a +1 or mwk rapier so any magic weapon that i get is awsome to me. I do GM and when i do the players get equal amounts of weird and regular magic stuff because they can’t usually go buy stuff unless they’re in certain places so i usually handout the magic stuff to satisfy them.

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