Today I want to talk about magic items. In D&D-type games magic items can be broken down into three broad categories.
Expendables – Potions and scrolls probably immediately spring to mind, but this category also includes charged items like wands and rings of wishes. Some miscellaneous items, like Quaal's feather tokens and the various dusts of also count here. And stuff like laser pistols with a limited number of shots in their power pack. You might be able to get back to town and reload some of this stuff, but if you can run out of the magic in the middle of the adventure then it's an expendable.
Bonus Gear – This covers your basic sword +1 and the vast swath of other magic items with predictable and reliable effects like rings of invisibility and horns of blasting.
Artifacts – The weirdo unique crap like the stuff that originally appeared in Eldritch Wizardry: the Wand of Orcus, the Recorder of Ye'Cind, etc. and other magic items that are one-of-a-kind (or nearly so) and tricky to use.
A fairly common complaint among D&D veterans is that magic items can seem dull as dishwater instead of wondrously awesome. I think a lot of this problem can be laid at the feet of the Bonus Gear category. The combination of reliability, non-expendability, and ease of use results in magic items that are about as arcane as an electric can opener. I don’t have copies handy as I type this, but if you look at the fantasy adventure RPGs put out by TSR after OD&D, such as Empire of the Petal Throne and Gamma World, I think you’ll find a lot less Bonus Gear.
So if you’re building an old school campaign world from the ground up, here are some ideas on how to downplay the Bonus Gear:
Ban the Stuff Outright – This is harsh and if the players catch on they will probably cry like big ol’ crybabies. The smarter players will research spells and order custom potions from alchemists and stuff like that to work around the holes in the magic items charts. The result would be an awesome campaign where demons are banished with custom Demon-B-Gone spells rather beaten up by swords +2, silver weapons are in high demand, alchemists are even bigger pains in the ass and everybody carries way too many flasks of oil. That’s assuming your players don’t just kill you and sell your internals to Chinese organ-leggers.
Artificial Maximum Scarcity – Get out your musty old D&D rulebook or retro-clone of choice. Flip to the magic item charts. Now imagine for a moment that there’s exactly one example of each item in your campaign world. There’s only one shield +2, only one wand of fireballs, only one of everything. Simple supply and demand results in players suddenly treating every stupid little magic item as the coolest thing since sliced bread. Want a good time? Slip the poor bastards a rumor that the only mace of disruption in the whole dang campaign is in Dracula’s castle.
Add New Layers to Old Items – Basically this method takes Bonus Gear and turns each item into one of the other two categories. A simple example would be an expendable rope of climbing where each time it is used there’s a 1 in 6 chance it completely unravels. Or going the other way consider an already-awesome flametongue sword that has artifact-like bonus powers and secret curses. This creates a lot of extra work for the DM, but making crazy crap like this is supposed to be one of the fun parts of running the show. And not every Bonus Gear item need be customized.