One-Stop Shopping

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

Selling Opportunities

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

DESCRIPTION

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.

CONSTRUCTION REQUIREMENTS

Craft Rod, Craft Wondrous Item, levitate, rope trick; Cost 5,000 gp

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9 thoughts on “One-Stop Shopping

  1. You forgot to include the link to d20 on cities.

    Honestly, I don’t have that big of an issue with PCs purchasing items, because I *don’t* consider magic items to be super rare or mysterious, unless they deserve to be so. Frankly, I consider Pathfinder to a be a higher magic setting, so magical items are very common, but they may be kind of bland.

    Including the classes from the upcoming ACG, NPC classes and Alternate classes, there are 37 classes in the game. Out of those 37 classes, 22 have access to spells or extracts, and of those 22 only 4 of them don’t gain their spells at first level. Now, granted, most of the commoners, and civilians are going to be of the Commoner, Expert, Warrior or even Aristocrat class, with some being Adepts, but there are not as many NPC classes as one would think.

    If it were true that the vast majority of the NPCs in the game were of the NPC class, then it would be exceedingly rare to come across actual Rogues, Fighters, Wizards etc. with them, instead, all being Experts, Warriors and Adepts. So your PCs will have a very easy time of playing the game since you should go back and replace every common bandit with Expert/Warrior multiclasses, instead of Rogue/Fighter/Barbarian/Ranger etc. multiclasses.

    In such a world where 99% of all NPCs are of the NPC class, magic items *should* be rare and mysterious, but that’s not the case with Pathfinder. A great many of the common bandits and stuff are actually Fighters, or Wizards, or Clerics or Oracles, and the ratio of PC to NPC classes changes even further the farther you get away from civilization.

    So for me, I see a lot of the common magical items (anything roughly under the price of ~20,000 gp or so, depending on the item) is relatively easy to find; anything above that gets exceedingly harder to find. The only exception to this are some of the Big Six as the design of the game assumes the party has those items available to them.

    For the more expensive items, I tell my players that if they really want them, they must be special ordered. Just because the item falls within a cities price range, doesn’t mean it’s available, to me, it just means that someone there is capable of making it. For example, an item like Duelist’s Gloves are relatively cheap all things considered, but they aren’t always available; they’re made by a retired adventurer (like a Magus or something) at *insert appropriate place here* who uses his wealth of knowledge and experience to craft items for other adventurers or students.

    At the same time, there are some items that I, personally, think need to be fought for and earned by the party. Things like Rings of Invisibility or Rings of Freedom of Movement are never for sale. As for an ‘in world’ reason they don’t exist: criminals would literally kill others for such items, so they aren’t very common.

    Anyway, some thoughts on magic item shops. I know my own thoughts clashes with lots of other people, but sometimes I wonder if it isn’t because people are drawing on experiences from older games or something like that. I know that back in 1E/2E magic items were almost always found at loot; the concept of a magic item shop was almost unheard of (at least according to my older friends). So when they look at the magic item abundance of systems like Pathfinder, they tend to get a little frustrated.

  2. Its a very interesting take on magic items, I’ll grant you. You’ve clearly thought it out. However, the ‘magic item shop’ method does have some merit as well.

    PCs sell their items all the time. NPCs are often equipped with gear of their own, treasure rooms are found, and that sword they had the Wizard make for them just isn’t cutting it anymore.

    And the PCs aren’t the only ones out there. They may be the most powerful, they may be the focus, but the world has existed for a long time.

    You’re right that Magic Gear is probably the domain of the rich and powerful, as well. But well to do families often fall on hard times. Wealth has to be split among descendants, and when the crazy adventuring uncle gets eaten by the dragon, maybe the family doesn’t want his Unholy Scythe of Reaving laying around to remind them.

    This all means that there are magic items out there that need homes.

    Now, I don’t think that your average shop open to the public would have Celestial armor just sitting on the shelf. Like all high end merchandise in our world, that would the domain of elite specialty brokers. You need to know a guy who knows a guy and schedule an appointment just to get a look at their gallery. Maybe take a page from your article, and it is indeed the Duke’s Armor. But these brokers can arrange the sale.

    I feel that the game mechanics are there to let you know what items are available for sale, be it on a shelf, or through brokered terms. But that those are the ones that ARE available. Anything that exists in the town that ISN’T for sale wouldn’t be listed.

    Not the most elegant response, and my thoughts are a little jumbled. I think your idea has merit, for sure. But I don’t think the default way is really as unrealistic as some people think.

  3. Really enjoyed this article. I’ve played since 1st Edition, where yes, magic items were rarer. 3.5 and Pathfinder tend to have more. Personally, I always run half-wealth campaigns: PCs only get half the wealth for their level in gear, and the rest is property, etc. I like the idea that a lord, church, etc is the “magic shop” and the items are not for sale unless you put in some diplomacy. How do you see this impacting high level games where non spellcasters need magic items to stay on par? BTW, I run Radiance RPG games now; there, beyond potions and scrolls, magic items are both expensive and not very useful, so no Christmas tree heroes.

  4. This is a discussion near and dear to my heart. Why? Because one of my characters is an artificer. Better yet, it’s an artificer in the Kingmaker AP. We haven’t gotten to the point where he’ll be dealing with this issue (building and running a magic shop) yet – such is the issue with play by e-mail games is that they are very very slow.

    What I’m imagining at this point is that my character will build a magic shop ala the Downtime rules in Ultimate Campaign, hire on some lower-level mages/priests to create simpler magic items (i.e. scrolls and potions) and do more detailed items himself. Likely all will be special ordered. So any conversation about magic items and the buying and selling of the same is important to me, even if it will likely be years before any of it comes into play for me.

  5. I use this method in my games, as well. I love coming up with owners for the items. For example, in a medium-sized town, I rolled up a +1 ranseur and +2 half-plate. These were owned by a sad halfling rogue, whose adventuring companion (and lover) had been disintegrated, leaving only these two possessions behind. He wanted to sell them, get out of town and get away from the terrible memory, but no one in town could afford them. Every time adventurers come to town, he tried to get a buyer. If it has a story, even the most boring +2 half-plate becomes a treasures possession, as opposed to just another thing they bought at “Magic Mart.” In another town, there was a suit of +2 ghost-touch lamellar that was just sitting on the sidewalk. The samurai who wore it had died on that spot after defending the town from a wight. The town wanted to get rid of it, but his spirit wouldn’t let anyone put it on unless they proved their worth (by donating an amount of gold to the town coffers). Every time someone approached who wasn’t “worthy,” the armor animated and started swinging at them. (The players could have defeated the ghost, and instead of paying just won the armor in combat, but they let it be someone else’s problem and left the armor there.)

    There is a downside to this: if every item has a story like this, then players can have a hard time remembering all their items’ stories, and the stories can become less meaningful. I don’t really care, though. I’m in this game to make up stories, after all.

  6. This is fantastic. Playing item crafting wizards is pretty much my favorite class choice, and as a DM and player I definitely find that the ‘whole sale’ on magic items is a bit disastrous to my personal immersion. I like this idea so much I think I might make a java script for it (roll for item availability, roll for quest/story/broker/payment method).

  7. I do like magic item shops, but I like to make them rare and often very sepcialized. I’m talking one shop per city, and maybe the biggest ten cities in the entire world have two. Other magic items belong to people whose lives don’t revolve around selling magic items specifically. It’s also distinctly possible that in a small city, the magic item shop has nothing but a single kind of magic item (scrolls, potions, helmets, swords), or that one of the two such stores is specialized in such a way. But usually, it’s better for players to make their own magic items or fulfill tasks for magic item creators in order to get specific magic items they want.

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