Thursday, March 11, 2010

I Miss 1st Edition Magic Items

My gaming group and I recently started a high level Pathfinder campaign (15th level) and we were given a large sum of money to buy magic items with. At first I thought that it would be fun to go on a little shopping spree, but after a short while I started to realize that a good 90% of the items were just spells in another form. Which in turn caused me to start thinking (that's never a good sign), didn't magic items used to be a lot cooler or am I just realizing that they aren't that great after all? You see, I'm playing a wizard in this game and nearly every item that I came across in the book was just another way for me to cast a spell that I probably already had, so what was the point of having all these magic items if I can already do that stuff? Granted, it allows me to do MORE, but it's essentially what I'm already doing. This prompted me to go back and see if my memory was fading with old age. Maybe magic items weren't all that cool and I was just fooling myself all these years. Maybe magic items were just spells for people that weren't cool enough to play wizards. 

So I broke out my trusty 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide to do a little research. 
The first thing I looked for were items that mimicked spells that a wizard could cast without needing the item.

I came across quite a few actually, and that disheartened me. Made me feel that I was wrong all these years. Most of the potions were just liquid spells really. But then I turned the page and lo' and behold, there were so many magic items that no wizard could easily mimic! Sure, they could cast similar spells, but the items here were so much more powerful and interesting. Just look at some of these things: Wand of Enemy Detection, Wand of Metal and Mineral Detection, Alchemy Jug, Bag of Beans, Broom of Animated Attack, Bucknard's Everful Purse, Candle of Invocation, Instrument of the Bards, Jewel of Flawlessness, etc etc etc.

These are examples of items that can do more than a wizard can. There are even more items to be discovered that are 10x more powerful than in the newer games. Even the wands that replicate wizard spells are more powerful than they are now! Now, you get a wand that basically casts a single spell up to 50 times. Now, that is nothing to sneeze at, but it's also not very interesting. Lets take a look and a few of the more interesting ones:

Wand of Fire
  • Burning Hands
  • Pyrotechnics
  • Fireball
  • Wall of Fire

Wand of Frost
  • Ice Storm
  • Wall of Ice
  • Cone of Cold

Wand of Illumination
  • Dancing Lights
  • Light
  • Continual Light
  • Sunburst

Wand of Polymorphing
  • Polymorph Other
  • Polymorph Self
You can kinda see a trend here. When they designed magic items in 1st Edition, they went with a theme. If you were going to make a wand of fire, you were going to give it several fire-like abilities. This is WAY more powerful that what you can get now. Now you need to have 2 or 3 or 4 wands to replicate that. AND, wands could be recharged!

Miscellaneous Magic Items were no slouches either. Sure, some only had one function, but they were still more interesting that what we have today. Even an Arrow of Direction could have some profound uses to a party with creative thinking. And I think that is the other theme in "old school" gaming. Creative thinking was more vital then. Everything wasn't spelled out for a player with a specific rule for every situation and scenario that a party could get into. You could take, what is essentially a worthless item now, and do something creative and useful and make something that sounds lame and make it something cool that you can tell stories about later. Magic items seemed to transform a character from a boring, generic character into something unique.

I can see that, specifically with Pathfinder, they tried to make a rule system so a spell caster can create any magic item in the books, but in doing so they have removed any uniqueness and flavor. It's been reduced to a simple, generic formula to create a spell multiplier.

This is just one more example of how RPG's are moving further away from creative gaming and towards static rule-based gaming.


  1. There is nothing keeping you from putting those kinds of items back into your campaign.

    Easiest way is that many items have uses, but drawbacks or limitations. They're unique, so rather than going around to Ye Olde Walley Martte's Magic Item section, you have to travel into the lost depths of the Cavern of Doom to recover Marjithax's Ivory Wand that rumor says was made of ivory and when blood was dripped on it, it would change the bearer into the creature who's blood had been dripped.

  2. Every GM should have all four volumes of the 2nd edition encyclopedia magica. Some really fantastic magic items in those books.

  3. Very interesting analysis. I've long posited that the more work you put into making your magic system "make sense," the more hobbles you put on what it can do. So yeah, crafting your magic-item creation rules around "bottled spells" is going to have the result you point out. But when the magic-item creation rules are "come up with a cool concept and your DM will give you a quest to make it happen" anything is possible.

  4. I think you're right @Chgowiz, I need to break the rules so I can make a more interesting setting. I'm just patiently awaiting my turn at the DM's side of the table. My group is already alternating between two campaigns, but when it's my turn, I think they'll be in for some interesting surprises.

  5. While I love bizarre magic items, I also like a system that lets me design and hammer out standardized "magic as technology" magic items. Mixing the two allows for useful magic items for the characters while having the occasion fun, powerful or just oddball item out there too.

  6. I've got an Orb of Dragonkind ready for insertion into my PFRPG campaign. I can't wait!

  7. @Jonas Totally agree, and to lessor degree the 4 vol MU Spells and 3 vol CL spells.

    This is something lost during rule systemization. Another is diminishing uniqueness and "value" of characters whose abilities can all be replaced with magic items. Even worse if those magic items can be purchased at ye old magic shoppe.

    Wand of knock + wand of trap detection = why do we have the thief again? Etc. Spells are similar but much more limited and I consider it caster's prerogative to be able to do anything (it's magic after all) but only a very limited number of times. Whereas the specialist can do it all day long.


    I don't see connection between "magic as technology" and system to design and hammer out. Unless you meant characters hammer out in game. Otherwise,

    pen -> quill that needs no ink
    fridge -> bag of holding that keeps held items cold
    Wikipeadia -> skull that answers factual knowledge type questions put to it.

    Another thing I've noticed is that spells and hence magic items are too often the solution to problems. Rather than players having to solve problems themselves perhaps using magic as part of the solution. Systemization demands there be a magical counter to every effect, resistance, defense, ability one might encounter. In my experience gameplay devolved into if you had right item/spell/feat "you win" otherwise "you whine how unfair DM is".