After slaying the beholder, the party journeyed deeper into the fallen creature’s lair, narrowly passing through numerous traps and hidden walls. Eventually, the group find the creature’s hoard, a collection of trinkets and items collected either from fallen adventurers or acquired by other nefarious means. The fighter picked up a blade that glistened in the darkness, runes written in an unknown language were etched along the blade. The wizard studied the item and deciphered the runes to be Ignan, and that the weapon could draw forth its magic with a simple command word in the elemental language. The fighter recited the word, a mixture of hisses and rasps, the blade was lit ablaze in bright flames. The wizard suspected the blade to be a flame tongued weapon, and remarked the good fortune that had befallen the warrior. 

Magic items have always been the highlight in terms of treasure found in a Dungeons and Dragons game. Magic items empower players in a way that expands options, abilities, and features for the player character. Dungeon Masters have used magic items as central plot devices for their campaigns, such as Sauron’s One Ring or Aladdin’s magic lamp. During the early days of D&D, essentially back in 1st Edition, magic items were rare and even the smallest benefit was quite powerful. Over the years, the various campaign settings have grown complex with high magic worlds like Eberron and the Forgotten Realms. Mountains of treasure hidden away from forgotten dynasties litter these worlds and therefore posed a greater variety and need for magic items. Especially in AD&D when creatures grew more complex and harder to hit, magic items were practically a godsend in some instances that turned the tide for an adventuring party being to able to handle themselves against a goblin horde. As the editions continued, the game needed more magic items to balance the severity and complexity of the monsters tossed in front of players. Unfortunately, it created an awkward atmosphere for players and DMs as the need to balance magic item distribution in order to give players adequate challenges and rewards while still steamrolling their way through encounters. This was especially difficult in 3.5 and 4th Edition of D&D, Pathfinder reduced this greater need of magic item balance by providing more class features to mitigate the problem. There was still a need for game balance, but it was controllable compared to 3.5 and definitely not as flippant as 4th Edition. While 4th Edition had strict tables and instructions about magic item rewards and their respective amounts, but the numbers became insignificant as the monsters’ stats exponentially rose.

In 5th Edition, Wizards of the Coast have tried to return to their roots with magic items by reducing their importance and quantity in order to hark back to simpler gameplay. There are guidelines littered throughout the Dungeon Master’s Guide expressing that the DM has the final authority when determining magic item distribution. But some DMs prefer a more concrete guideline or table instead of some vague approach. According to pg. 133 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, over a typical campaign a party can expect to find treasure hoards based on the table below. The Average Treasure column assumes a median curve based on possible outcomes from the Treasure Hoard tables presented, from there one outlier (in terms of rarity) from each end of the random table within the possible selections. Only 1 item was selected from each reward possibility, especially for reward choices which required multiple rolls from a table.

Challenge Rating # of Rolls Average Treasure
0 – 4 7 rolls 1 rare, 3 uncommons, 3 commons
5 – 10 18 rolls 1 very rare, 4 rares, 7 uncommons, 6 commons
11 – 16 12 rolls 1 legendary, 4 very rare, 7 rares
17+ 8 rolls 1 legendary, 3 very ares, 4 rares

Between the group, the party supposedly is expected to have at least 1 rare item during their 1st-level through 4th or 5th-level encounters. Again these are just normally distributed numbers across the supposed 7 rolls for treasure when dealing with a treasure hoard. The table also can serve as a useful portrayal on treasure distribution for a dungeon or module path that allows for level progression throughout its entirety. For example, if an adventure has the expectation of raising characters from 2nd-level to 4th-level from beginning to end, the DM can roll the treasure tables a number of times depending on the overall challenge rating of the hoard. Perhaps the adventure takes place in a cultist’s den and probably one of the rooms has a hoard of treasures from slain adventurers which would probably make sense to roll the treasure tables three to four times.

Again, it should be emphasized that these are simply guidelines and could be adjusted depending on the amount of magic items within the campaign and the DM. The current trend in 5th Edition is to go minimal on the magic items, keep them rare and distribute utility items as opposed to having a slew of magic weapons and armors like in previous editions. But let’s be honest with ourselves, dungeon crawling and finding magical items is the mainstay and drive for Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a cultural right of passage for a player to go through a dungeon crawl, find the treasure, and beat the creature guarding the hoard.

For more magic-heavy campaign settings like Eberron, it might be suggested that players have more opportunities to find magic items. Therefore it’ll be sensible that the DM might add 2 to 4 more treasure hoard rolls between each tier of play. Such an increase might up the number of highest rarity within that tier by 1 at most, and increase all subsequent treasure rarities by 1 or 2 respectively. For a low-magic campaign setting like the Dark Sun setting or Age of Mortals in the Dragonlance setting, a DM might reduce the amount of treasure hoard rolls by a factor of 3 or 5 depending on the tier. Meaning even at a CR 0 to 4 treasure hoard during that adventuring tier, the party may ever find uncommon magic items, and a rare item is even harder to acquire than normal.

The Dangers of Magic Items

Magic items have been an integral part of Dungeons & Dragons since the earliest days, finding a +1 longsword in 1st Edition was like finding the clearest diamond in real life. Overtime, the idea of more magic items began to flourish and influence the way we perceive the game, especially during the years of AD&D with the many compendiums on magic items and monsters. 3.5 and 4th Edition reinforced that magic item rich heritage, especially in 4th Edition, where it was practically common place. 3.5 and 4th Edition had designated means for characters to craft magic items for themselves, which reduced effort on the DM’s part for selecting appropriate magic items for their party members. Instead, the party had the ability and leeway to dictate what magic items they wanted or needed, and spend the requisite gold and downtime to craft the items. In 5th Edition, crafting rules were largely left vague and ambiguous, with a rough table presented in pg. 129 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It further suggests to divide the monetary cost of the magic item by 25 gp to acquire the amount of work days needed to create the item. There is also a minimum character level before an item can be crafted, but the DMG also suggests that DM can change the arbitrary values of the magic items and crafting times to suit their campaign.

The issues in previous editions resulted in magic items becoming a commodity where players could insert and revert magic items into components to be used for other magic items, which took away the intrinsic value of the magic item when the player found it. Granted, this method of play also served to reduce redundant magic item acquisitions and equally give players the ability to curtail their rewards to better suit their characters and playstyle. It’s a difficult region to moderate without exceeding the DM’s ability to control the table and resulting in overpowered characters that can breeze through encounters. Which leads to another point further down this article about magic-item escalation. 5th Edition has tried to leave the magic-item distribution to the Dungeon Masters more than ever, but novice DMs may often times find it difficult without any point of reference which I personally felt should have been included even in the DMG. Like a suggested retail value for magic items in the DMG, at least so the DMs can decide to up or lower the value. Veteran DMs have the experience and cost tables from previous editions to give a rough guideline but that again devalues the ability for new DMs to enter into the game and confidently create their own worlds and dungeons.

Magic Item Escalation

Anyone has Dungeon Mastered a game or session or encounter may have noticed (especially at higher level encounters) that the more magic items accessible to players, the easier the encounters become for them. Easier being either their damage output far exceeds what they should be capable of dealing at their level versus the creatures they fight. In some previous conversations with various people on Twitter and posts on Reddit, the higher tiered monsters have difficulty with a fully equipped party. Granted it’s often times 4 vs. 1 scenarios, which leave little opportunities for the main monster to effectively deal with the party. You may also notice monsters within their statblocks with resistances to “nonmagical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage” at higher levels. Assuming that at least most players at these higher levels have 2 to 3 magic items, they effective ignore this restriction, which honestly reduces the effective Challenge Rating of the monster against the party. In older editions, only the most powerful of magic items can pierce these almighty and powerful creatures. Granted those systems were often convoluted or complicated at best, and confusing at worse. There is no real clear solution to avoid adding more monsters or increasing the overall Challenge Rating of the encounter in order to not result in a 2 round encounter set at hard difficulty.

Though it’s understandable when a party is well equipped that they should be able to wipe the floor with any foe that happens to walk in their path. But it does lessen the tension and discounts the sense of a challenge, which often results in the Dungeon Master making the enemies harder, or equipping them with magic items to offset the party’s own magic items. Now granted, in a heavy magic setting, everyone having access to magic items would indeed be feasible and make sense, but it does put a larger strain on the DM to keep track of things. There is a danger with this form of escalation, wherein the enemies becoming increasingly more powerful than the party to a point where the balance goes down the drain. If balance is a concern, it’s better in the long run to allow the encounters to be filled with more enemies, the general rule of thumb would be to increase the overall challenge rating of the encounter by 2 levels by the deadliest difficulty. For example, if a group consisted of four 10th-level characters decked out with magic items, the encounter math for deadly for a standard 10th-level party would be an adjusted 11,200 XP threshold for a deadly encounter. Normally such an encounter would be difficult for such a party, but let’s say that the party have attack bonuses and damage outputs that rival monsters at higher challenge ratings, the suggestion would be to increase the overall challenge to the equivalent deadly encounter for a 12th-level party, which would be 18,000 XP as an adjusted threshold value. This opens up a variety of setups and enemy choices for the DM while still finding a middle ground to have the average DPS of the enemies be within a manageable level.

We can go into encounter design another time, but these are the sort of adjustments that should be considered for DMs that seem to have overwhelmingly given too many magic items. Remember, while it’s fun for the characters to win their bouts, it’s necessary to provide a challenge as well. That does not mean focusing on killing the players, though once players reach higher tiers, the stakes rise and subsequently the likelihood of death or going to 0 hit points should come with no surprise.

Final Impressions

Ultimately, it is up to the individual Dungeon Master to make the call about crafting magic items, along with their distribution as rewards in game. It should also be mentioned that the monsters and enemies within the Monster Manual (and across various supplements) are under the impression that the party only has a few magic items verses a plethora of them. In such a scenario, their impact is lessened as the saturation of magic items increases, which often results in escalation on difficulty by the DM as they set up encounters. Rewards should never considered a negative impact, yet it often feels that in 5th Edition, giving too many magic items hinders the DM’s ability to properly balance the game for their players. In respect to that thought, in previous editions, there were problems inherently present as well, which only infers that the game will always have a delicate balancing act to perform. The Dungeon Master is the final authority and should consider means and methods to moderate such instances. What about instances where the mystique of magical items have already become saturated? Well, there are ways around that, some that may result in the players feeling penalized for their rewards and others wherein their significance and usefulness may be mitigated. Always consider how often you wish to distribute magic items at the very beginning when tailoring your campaigns and sessions. Too many and there may result in need for escalation, but erring on the side of less is more, it will prompt the party to quest for powerful items (which is the entire point in the first place!). Just be mindful, even in magic rich settings.

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