Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about magic item shops.
Magic items are a huge part of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. They are the metaphorical carrot dangling at the end of every adventure and the extra juice that every character needs to fight onward towards her end objective. But for how important magic items are to our players, the art of figuring out the mundane places that these objects come from can be frustratingly difficult for many GMs because some believe that immersion is broken when sprawling markets chock-full of magic items exist.
Today we’re going to talk about the concept of the magic item shop with the specific goal of making magic items make sense in your campaign world.
Acquisition of Magic Items
Before we get too deep into this topic, let’s talk about the primary ways that players acquire magic items in the game, because when you get right down to it there are only three real ways. One: magic items are earned as rewards for interacting with the campaign setting. Two: magic items are crafted using item creation feats. Three: magic items are purchased from their owners. When you get right down to it, there aren’t any other ways to acquire these treasures.
The Problem with Magic Item Shops
Of the three acquisition methods mentioned above, why is it that GMs (and sometimes players) dislike magic item shops the most? Here are the big reasons:
- Cool Factor: It is always going to be cooler to win a sword for vanquishing a powerful foe or personally craft a sword for use against a great threat then to go to the local magic item shop and buy one at market price. Buying magic items in a store setting often takes away the mystique of the item itself.
- Unrealistic: A set of celestial armor is sitting in a shop in the local city. Why hasn’t that item been bought by A) a haughty nobleman, B) the local lord, or C) the city’s ruler? More importantly, how did that suit of armor get to that exact location anyway? Is the storeowner powerful enough to have earned it through adventuring or to craft it himself? Why would he invest so much money into crafting an item that nobody could afford?
- For Window Shopping Only: Half the time, powerful items just sit in the local shop anyway and do nothing. Think about your own GMing style: are you more likely to fill your dungeons with gold or with magical treasures? Probably magical treasures, right? Well, then your players aren’t going to have the money to buy the big-ticket items from the magic shops anyway, meaning that crafting those items was an even bigger waste of the shop owner’s time.
In a nutshell, magic item shops tend to be no fun for the GMs because there’s no good reason that shops should be carrying big-ticket magic items and even if there was a good reason those items seldom get bought by the PCs anyway, who often have very specific ideas of what they want to spend their money on. This problem is exponentially larger in the wake of Ultimate Campaign because now the PCs have an array of awesome things to spend their gp on that isn’t simple magic items: do you really want a dagger of venom as a backup weapon or are you going to invest that nearly 10,000 gp into a sweet crib for your PC? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to pick the building every time.
Big ‘Ole Bull’s-Eye
And then we come to the biggest problem of all: thieves. This is less of an issue if your players are heroes, but when you’re playing in a villain campaign you better watch out! I’m not sure why, but to date I haven’t seen any designer create an item that actually protects magical merchandise from theft. (Don’t worry, I got your back; read onward for a new magic item to help with that.) If magic items were worth crafting, they’d be worth stealing and so the iconic image of the merchant sitting in a dusty old shop doesn’t really work unless that wizard has enough power to defend his item. But if he does, what is he doing in a musty old shop in the first place? In short, magic item shops need a LOT of background to make sense.
Making Magic Item Wholesale Make Sense
So, now that we’ve identified some rather large flaws with the magic item shop model, let’s talk about some quick fixes that you can implement today that make magic item shops make sense in your world. Before we get started, though, we need to talk about how magic item wholesale is categorized.
In the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, whether or not you can find a particular magic item in a given settlement is based upon the gp value of that settlement. Settlmenets have a base value and a spending limit that depends upon how large the settlement is. These values can be modified by settlement qualities but we won’t go into the specifics about settlement building in this article. (But I will jot that idea down for a future GM’s guide ….) Here’s a quick link to that page on the d20pfsrd.com website so I don’t have to type it up here because frankly it’s a big table and I don’t want to spend too much time reprinting Core Rules.
The big thing to remember when using this table is that a settlement’s “base value” notes that the settlement has a 75% chance to automatically have an item of that value or lower in-stock with the PCs arrive without needing to roll. This is actually somewhat generous considering that a thorp’s base value is 50 gp and while a 1st level potion’s cost is 25 gp (a 1st level potion, on the other hand, is 12.5 gp). This means that in low-level settlements you have a pretty good chance of finding these low-level items. Why? Virtually anyone can make them. For example, you only need a 1st level alchemist to have a potential source of potions of cure light wounds or a 1st level wizard to have a source of scrolls of shocking grasp. In reality, these are the items that are commonly being sold in magic item shops: items that the settlement’s inhabitants can readily craft.
So what about the other items, the ones that are randomly rolled by the settlement? Well, one reason that those items are randomly rolled is that they are guaranteed to be there. Why? They’re not for sale. Before you raise your pitchforks, here me out. As we noted before, in a major city who is more likely to own a suit of celestial armor: a mercantile shopkeep trying to pay the bills or the city’s ruler/lord/resident with tons of gp to blow on something silly like a suit of celestial armor? Crazy lavish magic items will always be the toys of the wealthy just like crazy pieces of technology are the toys of the wealthy in the real world. So sure, there’s a suit of celestial armor available in the city. Only problem is that it belongs to someday important enough to afford it, and therefore acquiring it isn’t going to be as easy as walking into a shop and demanding it from the shop keep.
This, of course, is a huge mechanical departure from what the rules state but it’s also the option that makes the most sense logically. This can also help to explain why, in Ultimate Campaign’s kingdom building rules, buildings other than magic item shops offer magic item shops: for example, building a cathedral attracts powerful religious leaders who have magic items at their disposal that you can buy from. And when you choose to “sell that magic item off and empty the item slot,” what’s really happening is that the item (and possibly its wearer) have moved on and the item isn’t within your ability to purchase anymore. Again, it’s a slight tweak of the rules but saying that you purchased your magical shield from a famous cavalier is MUCH cooler than saying that you bought it in a magic item shop. And for GMs, your player can’t expect to even gain the right to talk to said cavalier, let alone make an offer on his shield, without a few RP encounters to warm him up to you.
And that’s my thought on magic item purchases in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. What do you think? Is it all right for insanely powerful magic items to exist in common shops or do you think that powerful items should belong to powerful people? Is purchasing your magic items from powerful folk cool, or does it open a new can of worms? How do you handle magic item shops in your campaigns? Leave your comments and answers below!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune merchant, and he’s too tired to be silly right now. Sorry.
Here are some suggestions to use in place of magic item shops for a settlement’s guaranteed magic items:
- An influential member of the community has decided to auction off some of his treasures to the highest bidder.
- A notable public figure has died and his heirs have put many of his possessions, including several esoteric treasures, up for sale.
- A local champion has been granted lands and a position of power and has placed up his old equipment for sale in favor of new equipment with updated heraldry.
- A disgruntled king places a handful of newly crafted treasures up for sale when the craftsmanship fails to meet his expectations.
New Magic Item
Holster of Holding
Aura moderate transmutation; CL 10th; Slot none
Price 10,000 gp; Weight 5 lbs
At first glance this flat, iron bar appears identical to an immovable rod. In addition to possessing all of the normal abilities of an immovable rod, a holster of holding secrets a 10 ft. cube of extradimensional storage space. This space can be opened using one command word or closed with a second. With a third command word, the holster of holding projects an illusory image of the item stored within it, functioning as silent image.
Craft Rod, Craft Wondrous Item, levitate, rope trick; Cost 5,000 gp