I love D&D’s vast array of magical items. When I started gaming, this was the section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide in which I spent the most time, using different items to come up with character or adventure ideas. I designed items for several campaigns based on the rules in Weapons of Legacy. I’ve gotten more ideas for monster abilities out of the Adventurer’s Vaults than perhaps anywhere else. I unironically own the Arms and Equipment Guide. This is one of the reasons I have some problems with 5E’s focus on making magic items not just special, but special, because it means they have fewer opportunities to affect gameplay. If I know I’m going to go through an entire campaign and see only a few items, it doesn’t make me more excited about what those items might be in particular. It makes me less excited about the concept of items as a whole.
I realize this change was a reaction to issues with previous editions. 3E and Pathfinder have a real problem with the number of items it takes to make a character viable. Pathfinder especially expects that characters will use items to increase their AC, attack bonus, hit points, saving throws, damage, spell DCs, skill checks, and every other stat. A given item probably only increases one or two of those stats until you get to a reasonably high level, which means characters are loaded down with items that do nothing but increase numbers. That’s not fun, and it needed a solution. Returning to the days in which wars were fought over a +2 longsword isn’t the solution I would have picked, though I appreciate the attempt. I’m much happier with a different system, one that increases the opportunity for entertaining items instead of decreasing the opportunity for items as a whole.
There’s not an exact breakdown for what stats Pathfinder assumes a character will have at a given level. But there are monster creation rules, and we can use them to extrapolate something about the game’s expectations. An average CR 10 monster, chosen because ten is a nice round number, should have roughly an AC of 24, at least one saving throw of +13, and an attack bonus of +18 (and other stats; these are likely the most relevant to this topic). Monsters will vary, but this is our baseline. Let’s take those numbers individually:
Armor Class. To hit a monster with AC 24 half the time, a characters needs an attack bonus of +14. That’s fairly easy to manage; a fighter, with a full BAB progression, already has a +10 and is likely to have a +4 to +6 bonus from her ability score, +2 from class features, and +2 from magic for a total bonus around +19. She hits on a 5, and her secondary attack hits on a 10 (which is good—secondary attacks should be likely enough to hit that they’re not just fishing for criticals). But consider the amount she’s spent on that. She probably spent at least 4k gp on getting her ability score up to this level and 8k on her weapon, which represents about 20% of her character wealth. And 20% doesn’t seem so bad for a fighter, whose weapon is her main job, but consider other characters who don’t get the fighter’s +2 bonus from her class, or those who only have a BAB of +7. They need to spend more to stay competitive, not with the fighter but with the game’s rapid march upward, and they may want something besides an expensive weapon.
Saving Throw. A CR 10 monster is likely to pass a saving throw against DC 23 half the time. It’s almost impossible to get a DC that high at L10; with an 18 in the ability score, a race that increase it, both level upgrades, and both Spell Focus and Great Spell Focus, an L10 caster’s top-level spells only get to 23. It’s worse for anybody who’s not fully dedicated to their DCs, like a caster without full spell progression, and for the great majority of spells. That’s an issue for characters whose ability to affect combat is defined almost exclusively by the effectiveness of their spells. The only way to make those DCs higher is by spending money, a lot of it.
Attack Bonus. A CR 10 monster hits AC 29 half the time. Since it’s expected to deal 45 damage per turn and monsters often take few penalties for making multiple attacks, that’s a lot of damage it’s laying out. In a world where characters aren’t throwing save-or-die spells to stop the monster before it starts, a front-line character should have a decent AC, and a tank’s should be even higher. Our fighter can get full plate armor and a heavy shield for an AC of 22. Because of her class features, if she has a decent Dexterity she can get it up to 24. If she gets +2 armor, a +1 shield, a ring of protection +1, an amulet of natural armor +1, that’s the cheapest way I can think of to reach AC 29. It costs 15% of her character wealth. But costs 3k to raise AC by another point, then 5k (from a dusty rose ioun stone), then 6k, then 6k again, so if she spends more than 45% of her wealth on nothing but her AC, she can make it to the point where equivalent-level monsters merely hit her on a 15. She’ll still be taking some damage, and she remains exactly as vulnerable to non-attack sources of damage as before. If she wants better saving throws, that’s more money. And we haven’t touched on other characters who need decent AC but don’t use full plate, don’t wield a heavy shield, and/or don’t get the fighter’s power to relax restrictions on Dexterity while wearing armor. For those characters, survival is even more expensive.
These numbers seem high, and they are. But they also show the silent opportunity cost of playing a Pathfinder character. All the money spent on keeping up with the system is money that can’t be spent on getting new abilities or enhancing the character concept, especially in the body slots consumed by one of these as-good-as-required items. A ranger who fights constructs can have either an amulet of natural amor or a golembane scarab, not both. A half-elf masquerading as a full human can have a cloak of resistance or a cloak of human guise, not both. Pathfinder assumes they’ll take the former useful options, and the game’s hard math punishes them for taking the latter fun options. There’s essentially an item and monetary tax on characters just for existing at higher level.
The rules have gotten better about this over time. When I started DMing, a character could have the power of multiple items in a single slot by making a custom magic item. Combining items like this had a markup, so a golembane scarab of natural armor would cost 5500 gp (the cost of the scarab, 2500, plus the 150% the cost of the amulet because it was the less-expensive item at 2000). By taking the required item you weren’t locked out of the fun item, but you did have a significant, scaling penalty. Later parts of 3E allowed you to exempt certain bread-and-butter items from this markup, but you still had to buy them, so the monetary tax remained. These custom items never appeared as random treasure, and often they had to be made on-demand which meant they took additional time and resources. 4E hard-coded numerical advancements into certain item slots and put interesting powers on top, but it still expected you to upgrade those slots religiously. The system just didn’t understand characters who didn’t upgrade their numbers as much as possible, and it built itself around the assumption that everybody enjoyed it.
Faith didn’t like this. I can’t think of a single anime where a character goes shopping for low-level items that gives them a series of stacking modifiers to mundane tasks. That’s boring. Characters just get better over time as they train or make discoveries or find new mentors. It didn’t make sense for the PCs to deal with a dozen magic items like in normal Pathfinder. We needed a way for character bonuses to progress automatically.
Luckily, there is a thing named “automatic bonus progression“, from Pathfinder Unchained. At each level, players gain improvements to certain stats. That’s it. There’s no spending money or going on quests or dealing with which items conflict with which other items. It just happens. It lets everybody scale together, it covers all the bases for everyday items, and most importantly it lets the players get excited about something else.
One of the surprise heroes at the end of season one of Faith was the engineer’s workgloves, a pair of gloves we got from rolling treasure randomly. With them, Liam, the bard, found a hole in the defenses of the last arc villain and gave him a massive penalty to AC for the final battle. But consider what might have happened if the players couldn’t have used the gloves. Say they all had gauntlets of ogre power or gloves of Dexterity or something else they needed to play the game at the level it expects. The obvious answer is that it would have taken longer for Liam to take his gloves off and put the engineer’s workgloves on. But I think it’s more likely that the gloves wouldn’t have existed at all. The players would have seen them in random treasure, thought they were neat, realized nobody could wear them because everyone already had an item in that slot, and sold them. Every such item they found would go similarly unheralded if it conflicted with a “required” item. By getting rid of “required” items entirely, we gave ourselves a way to get all the fun items we could want without any changes to the game at large. It’s simple, it’s quick, and it gives us more interesting play. It’s perfect.
Not all games need or want the automatic bonus progression. Some benefit from letting players pick and choose every item so they can go full-bore into raising a particular stat. Some work better by abandoning bonuses and items entirely, limiting the characters’ options and power. But I have an inkling that this will make its way into any game I’m running, taking one bit of tedious bookkeeping off my mind and the players’ so we can use items the way they were intended: to make the game more fun.
At least until Pathfinder 2E comes along and screws it all up by forcing a runic system on us. Some of us don’t want Northern-European rubber stamps on everything, you guys.