91 DAYS: BEST KEPT SECRET OF MAFIA, MURDER, AND INTRIGUE
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Welcome back to another article on how to be a better Dungeon Master. I hope you’ve found my previous articles helpful. This article will cover giving too many powerful magical items to your party.
Sometimes, you give your party too much stuff. It’s fun making magical items, and it’s fun watching your players use those magical items. It’s fun watching your players feel unstoppable, but sometimes, every once in a while, you might find that your players actually ARE unstoppable. It happens to the best of us. But how do you handle it? There’s no easy solution. But I have a few options for you that have worked for me in the past.
First, introduce some curses. Cursed items are very common. Look at the Berserker Axe, for example. Extremely powerful effect on a fairly common item… but the downside is that you might just end up turning on your own party. Curses are also not always found by things like the spell Identify. If there is a singular magic item that is causing problems, introduce some subtle curse effects that grow over time. Curses have to balance out the ability of an item, though. A type of curse that I am a fan of is cumulative curses. The longer the party has a particularly broken item, the worse the curse gets, including things like interrupting long rests, progressively weighing more and more, cumulatively imposing negative modifiers to rolls, or even warping the party to a demi-plane owned by the magic item as a penalty for using it so much and giving it so much power. Turning the magic item itself into an enemy to be overcome can be a fun twist that rebalances the game.
Alternatively, have the item be sought by a powerful entity. Demon lords, high fae, any type of creature with endless amounts of resources to throw at recovering a magic item. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing for the item to be lost, either. If a high fae needs his vorpal sword back, the party becomes more and more “in the wrong” as the fighting goes on, and they keep killing otherwise innocent fae following orders. And the fae are not interested in killing the party… just recovering the sword. Making it morally wrong to keep a broken magical item is enough for some parties.
The more complicated answer is to enhance encounters to adapt for the magic items. The party is tougher now, because every time a magic item is introduced, the effect can be similar to level up. Treat the party as a couple levels higher than they are when designing encounters. This can be dangerous, though, because while they might have the firepower of a level 16 party, they might only have the hit points of a level 8 party. This is a tricky solution, and best served by using enemies that play to the weaknesses of the magic items, or using enemies strong enough to endure the magic item effects.
Finally, and possibly the best solution, is to make surrendering a broken item part of the plotline. If the good ending can only be unlocked by giving up the mystical gem that makes you proficient in everything, many players will do this.
But what if your party just doesn’t want to get rid of their broken items? Well, consider that for some people, the fun of DnD is making their character as strong as possible. Not everyone comes for the plot or the exploration. Some people play to kill big scary things, and that’s ok. Let them have their broken items, and throw harder and harder fights at them. Challenge them, make it adrenaline packed, and let them run wild with their magic stuff.
In short, it’s ok to let players have fun, and if the magic items are adding to the fun, then let them keep the magic items. Where you should be concerned is when the magic items are overshadowing the plot and ruining some of the fun by being too much of a crutch. In my experience, most players are fairly understanding too. They know when they’ve got something that’s making them much much stronger, and they’re also very aware when those magic items are overshadowing the rest of the group. In some cases, it might be worth having a discussion about it explicitly out of character. If the magic item is ruining some people’s fun, you might let them know you’re going to introduce mechanics to remove the item from the equation for the good of the story and the fun of the whole group instead of the one member who is having all the fun. Again, it’s a collaborative game, and everyone is playing it together. Most players will respect this discussion and understand why you as the DM have to backpedal a little bit on some of your decisions. I guarantee this has happened before to any experienced player, and they will be able to see things from your point of view if you approach it openly. Yes, you are the dungeon master, but the players know you’re here to play too and that you will make mistakes. Sometimes that mistake is a vorpal sword at 8th level. It happens.
Generally, the easiest solution is not to overpower your players in the first place, and make them earn their magic items slowly over time. It’s hard to take something away once its been given, and can lead to some tension at the table. But if it does happen, I hope some of these strategies help you to rebalance the game for your players, or adapt if they want the game to stay unbalanced. I will say though, getting a magic item should feel like a major victory, not a once-every-couple-sessions event, and the really good magic items should have entire plots built around them. After all, if there IS a vorpal sword bouncing around in your world, there are also going to be a lot of interested parties going after it.