Use inherent bonuses to make magic items feel special in your game.
Fantasy literature is rife with magical swords, amulets, cloaks, and many other enchanted items, but there is a unifying theme to most all of the magical objects in our favorite stories: they are special. Bilbo did not find his bravery fighting spiders with his +2 dagger of goblin slaying, he wielded Sting. Richard Cypher faces his foes with the Sword of Truth, not a Holy Avenger +5. Even the quasi-magical Valyrian steel blades from Game of Thrones bear unique names and storied histories.
Contrast this with the standard swords and sorcery fantasy game, where magic items are ubiquitous, mechanical tools for character progression. In both Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 4e, magic items are a necessity for a character to “keep up” with the monsters and bad guys as he or she levels up. In many ways, a 15th level warrior without his or her +3 magic sword is really a 9th level warrior with a couple more feats and hit points. The equipment makes the hero.
This progression-based necessity of magic items makes them feel much less special. Monte Cook wrote a great Legends and Lore article about this very topic (and the inspiration for this article), which I strong recommend you check out.
Keeping Up with the
By far, the best solution I have seen for this problem is through the use of inherent bonuses. Simply award your players with the proper bonuses to their attack rolls, defenses, and anything else necessary as part of the leveling-up process. For Dungeon Masters in 4e, this is an easy task. Pick up a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 – the math is all in there. You can also check a box in the character builder that does this automatically.
This may not be news to experienced 4e Dungeon Masters, my experience on Twitter tells me that those who joined the fold via Essentials never learned about this great feature.
Inherent bonuses can be done in Pathfinder and 3e, but it may require a bit more finessing on the part of the game master. Since each class progresses differently with regards to expected defense and attack bonus levels, you would need to do some simple math to get your numbers to add up in a way that works for the system. It is worth the twenty minutes it might take you to figure this out for your party.
Why Do This?
Congratulations! With this simple change to your campaign, you are now free to do whatever you would like with magic items. Do you want to run a low-magic game? Now you can do so without worrying about the character power level falling too far behind the monsters. Do you want to reward to reward the party with a hugely powerful sword? You can now give a very “powerful” weapon to them without them going, “Yeah, it’s cool and all, but its bonus is only a +2.” This lets you focus on the fun aspects of magic items – the unique powers and special attributes. This solution even lets you get rid of the magic item shops that seem to be a requirement in every major city.
Besides allowing me to run my game in a low-magic setting, my favorite part of inherent bonuses is that they have allowed me to completely ignore the magic item lists when delivering loot to the heroes. If I want them to get a fun item, I can just design one that is interesting, rather than worrying about the mechanical bonuses of the object.
Give this a try and be open with your players about why you are using this approach. Be clear that they will still be just as “powerful” as before, but now you can focus on giving them items that are interesting and carry more flavor. I have not yet encountered a player who got upset that I gave them their bonuses automatically, rather than attached to an item that will be useless in a few levels. You can even consider allowing the players to earn magic items far above their current level, since the bonus is no longer a factor. No matter what, separating magic items from the numbers treadmill is a choice for your game you are not likely to regret.
Do you use inherent bonuses in your game? How could they impact the feel of your campaign? Do you use a different method of making magic items feel special again?