Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Magic Item Distribution in BX/BECMI and expected progression of power

 I was musing on the fact that when we were young, playing D&D, some of the iconic magic items of the game seemed a lot more common than they do these days. Maybe it's because we were pre-teens/teens, fudging the treasure results to skew for more items. Maybe we were selecting the "cool" stuff instead of relying on random rolls when magic treasure popped up. But maybe it was an artifact of the way the game is structured in Basic-Expert-(Companion-Masters) play that is different from AD&D, RC, or any WotC edition. 

What am I talking about? Pull out your Basic Set book (Basic DM book if Mentzer) and open it to the magic item tables. What do you see? For each category of item, there are six to ten items that can result. And some, especially the Miscellaneous Items, are some nice finds: elven cloak and boots, bag of holding, gauntlets of ogre power, crystal ball, rope of climbing, helm of telepathy and medallion of ESP. Sure, there's also the bag of devouring. But a lot of those items are pretty nice finds, especially at low level. 

Similarly with rings, we get animal control, invisibility, protection +1, water walking, fire resistance, and the cursed ring of weakness. 

For Wands/Staves/Rods, we get wands of enemy detection (meh), magic detection (nice!), paralyzation (pretty good), staff of healing (YES!), snake staff (cool, but not so great in play), and rod of cancellation (really powerful). 

Potions and scrolls are consumables, but still, with only eight types of potion available, healing potions are a lot more common, in particular.

And then there are the magic weapons and armor, but that's not so different as you go up in power. Just the attendant special abilities can expand, and the plusses can go up. 

Anyway, rings, wand/staff/rod, and miscellaneous items are what got me thinking about this. When we were young, starting with only the Basic Set, this made these types of items much more common. There were multiple bags of holding, staves of healing, gauntlets of ogre power, rings of fire resistance and invisibility, etc. Going from 0 to 8000xp (more or less) with only these options meant lots of chances to find these particular magic items. And so these items were more common in the campaign. 

If you start with the expansive lists of AD&D or the RC, your chances of finding those gauntlets of ogre power to boost your Fighter's meager Strength, or the Elven Cloak to make your Thief sneak better, or the staff of healing to help the Cleric maintain everyone's hit points are a LOT lower. Even just the modest expansion of items from the Expert Set makes these items much less common. 

Of course, there's lots of other good stuff that can be found. Some better than the items here. But some not better (and I'm not talking about the cursed items even). 

You're not likely to roll up a Fighter with 18 Strength. If you're rolling down the line, no switches or point adjustments, you've got a 1 in 216 chance to get that +3 to hit/damage. Placing or switching scores, or dropping a score by 2 to increase PR by 1 obviously betters the odds. 

And the chance of rolling gauntlets of ogre power is 1 in 400. But, that's a 1 in 400 chance checked EVERY time there's a magic item in a treasure hoard. How many treasure hoards with magic items are there likely to be by the time a PC accumulates 8000xp? Quite a few. So maybe the odds aren't better than getting an 18 Str at char gen, but it seemed like good enough odds when we were young that you'd find a pair somewhere along the way. Again, my perception of this could be skewed because we were kids and didn't always follow the rules or stick to what was rolled. 

But I'd be interested to run a new campaign some time in the future, starting at 1st level, and only using the Basic tables for magic items until the party had at least two 4th level characters and see how it shakes out. I have a feeling at least one fighter will have the gauntlets, the thief will have elven boots or cloak or rope of climbing, the cleric will have a staff of healing, and the magic-user a wand of detect magic. The party will probably have a few nice rings as well. And that will make a difference in how encounters play out.


  1. Just reading the "example adventure" (p.B59) the PCs seem very aware of the short magic item list, as they are specifically looking for any "cloaks or boots" among the rags they find.

    One of my original (B/X) PCs found a pair of gauntlets of ogre power fairly early in her career. She was eventually "grandfathered in" to our AD&D campaign. It was the only such gauntlets ever seen in our years of playing AD&D, except for the pair worn by Obmi the dwarf in G3. In fact, the only other pair I've ever given out in near-40 years of play was to a pre-gen character for the White Plume Mountain one-off I ran back in 2012 or so.

    1. Three years of my West Marches campaign, and they finally received a pair of gauntlets of ogre power and a bag of holding a few sessions ago. They were rewards for a magical contest that the PCs won, and the prize was specifically a miscellaneous magic item to each surviving PC, rolled randomly on the spot. Most PCs are 5th or 6th level now.

      There definitely seems to be a difference (although correlation is not causation). Some of the perceived weaknesses of low level PCs might be addressed in this manner, though.