Mastering Magical Items

This guide was originally published in Treasures of the Spheres, the comprehensive magical item expansion for the spheres systems. The first section is a guide for new players, while the second section is for GMs and covers a variety of principles and concepts for creating and distributing items. These sections are intended mainly for new players, but experienced players and GMs may want to review them as a refresher.

Items are a fundamental part of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. That’s not just a viewpoint - the math the game is built on expects that players receive and use items as they rise up through the levels of play. This includes getting enchanted weapons to cut through the damage reduction of increasingly-tough foes, ability score increases, defensive boosts, and various tricks and tools that players can use to resolve situations. On this page, we’ll look at mastering magical items and how to give out, customize, and otherwise handle items in your game.

Player’s Guide

While the rest of this page is for game masters, this section focuses on some things that players should know when choosing items.

There are many different ways to approach getting items in Pathfinder. Some people buy exactly what they want, some people craft their own unique gear, and some people just loot whatever they find. Many people use a combination of these. All of these are perfectly valid approaches, but you may want to consider how you want to integrate items into your build.

Fundamentally, items fall into two categories: Things that make you better at something you are doing, and things that let you do new things. An increase to your relevant ability scores is an example of the first, while a healing potion for a character that cannot normally heal is an example of the second.

Most characters should have a balance of these two things. Focusing all of your wealth and gear into your main role in the game - however you define that - can be fun, but it can also limit your ability to act in situations outside of your specialty. To put it another way, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Consider getting at least one or two items that allow you to do something outside of your regular specialty. This way, if you cannot do what you normally want to do, you will not be limited to passing your turn and waiting in the hope that you can do something next time your turn comes up. Many of the marvelous items introduced on this wiki are affordable even at relatively low levels and can significantly diversify your options.

In particular, consider getting items that offer a different distance from what you usually do (self vs. melee vs. ranged) and can let you perform in different roles (such as buffing or debuffing instead of dealing damage). You may also want to target different defenses. For example, if you are a warrior who often targets a foe’s regular armor class, you may want to get an item that targets Will saves or touch armor class because those may be more likely to work on foes with high armor class.

Also, consider getting the Item MasteryUSoP feat. This feat significantly improves the saving throw DCs of many items, so if you want an item-heavy build, Item Mastery is invaluable.

Also, do not underestimate the value and utility of low-cost gear, such as magical toolkits (which are charms that improve skills) or a simple 10-foot pole. For example, scholars can get a significant boost to their medical training feature with a +5 magical toolkit (Heal). Low-cost and mundane gear are often some of the most useful items outside of combat, particularly if they are not consumable. Do not be afraid to ask your game master about how they plan to include certain types of items in the game. For example, if you know that you can expect to find ability score-boosting items as treasure, you do not need to worry about buying them yourself.

Finally, learn the rules for your items. Magical items can have unusual or specific effects, and as a player, it is your job to understand how your items work so you do not have to spend several minutes referencing things during your turn. Knowing how your things work is crucial to keeping a game moving and getting the most value from your magical gear.

The Party Pool

The party pool is a treasure distribution system where an agreed amount of funds goes into a separate account to pay for things that anyone in the party can use. Most groups that use a party pool set it up by dividing treasure by the number of player characters plus one. For example, if the party has four characters, then they split the treasure five ways and put the extra into their group account.

This technique helps spread costs around fairly and prevents any one player from being locked into spending their money on other people. For example, if someone is playing a healing-focused class like the Scholar, they may not like the idea of having to spend their gold on potions for everyone else just because they are the healer. Strategies like these are especially helpful in groups that buy and use a lot of consumables or reusable items. If characters are largely self-sufficient and do not need more items than they find, you may not need a treasure distribution plan.

Treasure Selection Strategies

Similarly, it can help to set up a treasure selection plan. Ideally, this plan will allow everyone to have a fair chance at selecting treasure after notable battles, rather than letting one or two characters always have the first pick of the loot.

If your group does not have another plan, consider rolling a d100 to determine your treasure selection order, rerolling matching numbers as needed. You can do this every time the group picks up loot, or you can create an order and rotate through it (so whoever picked loot first one time picks last the next time, and everyone else moves forward by one).

Optionally, players may choose to move to the end of the turn order in exchange for some other favor, such as getting the first pick of treasure the next time around. This is useful when a particular pile of treasure has nothing they want (but some things that others do want) and stops them from “wasting” an early selection.

GM's Guide

Questing For Treasure

Buying, crafting, and looting are the most traditional ways of adding magical items to a game. The first two are largely player-driven, while the last is set by the GM or the adventure (and includes payment for adventurers). While these are the most popular ways of adding items, they are certainly not the only ways.

The fourth method of adding items is not used nearly as often as the others, but questing for an item can be anything from part of a character’s personal journey to the overall goal of your entire campaign. The difference between questing and looting is simple: with questing, acquiring the item is the predetermined goal, not an incidental bonus acquired as part of another goal.

For example, a cleric might quest for a holy relic of their church that gives great power to their followers, while a monk might quest through a series of trials to obtain an item that demonstrates their mastery of their abilities (perhaps a talent crystal?). Questing for items works particularly well when the items have some significance to a character or the plot. This is doubly true when the item is an artifact, but even when it is not, obtaining it after a quest can make an item feel more precious and personal than an identical item obtained from a store or pile of loot.

Questing is also useful for upgrading items. For example, perhaps you have a fabled item that only reveals its true power after the user undergoes specific quests, or the necessary flask shards for improving an item are only obtainable in a specific area.

While personalized quests can be thematic and exciting for a specific character, be sure to give the other players some opportunities to shine. After all, most players do not enjoy feeling like they are an audience member for someone else’s story! If the quest is limited to one character, consider running the quest as a one-on-one adventure for that character, rather than something for everyone else to sit through during your ‘main’ game.

Giving Magical Items As Loot

While quests as described above are fun, the truth is that most magical items players receive will come as loot. Whether they are taken from the hoards of slain dragons or collected off the bodies of their enemies, players tend to find items significantly more often than they buy them. This is where your judgment as a game master comes into play.

Items are your best way to affect player characters. For example, if you realize that one player’s damage is not keeping up with the rest of the party, you can add an item clearly designed for their build that helps them cover their gaps.

You can even give loot to help cover any party roles that your group is missing. For example, the flask of the dawn helps reduce the need for a healer, particularly early in the game when characters will not be taking as much damage. If players are comfortable with the idea that they have a certain number of potions left, and it is okay to use them because they refill each day, they may be more willing to stay in a dungeon instead of heading out for a rest every fifteen minutes.

Every group is different, so I’m not going to tell you that there’s only one way to give out loot. Instead, I recommend taking a close look at what would be the most fun for your players. Pay particularly close attention to any player who seems like they are not having fun and are not able to engage with the game in the way they want to. Sometimes, it only takes one item to turn things around and make them happy again.

The Wealth By Level guidelines are a good place to start estimating how much treasure your team should have, but in the end, these are only guidelines. Some tables want to have a lot more treasure, while some tables want to have less.

If you want to have fewer items in-game (but make each of those items more interesting), consider using rules like Automatic Bonus Progression from Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Pathfinder Unchained to ensure that player characters receive the ability score increases the game expects them to have. (Or don’t - for a dangerous, gritty adventure, fewer items and no automatic increases can help create the right feel.)

Be sure to have a plan for how you intend to distribute loot. Your players may ask about things like whether they should plan on buying or finding certain types of loot (particularly anything the game expects, like ability score improvements or enchanted weapons), and you should have an answer ready to give them. You do not need to tell them exactly where or when they’ll be finding things, but it is reasonable for players to ask what they should expect from your game so they can plan accordingly.

Finding vs. Buying vs. Gifting

Players often hesitate to spend money on items outside of anything they need for their core build. In most cases, this means that players often end up focusing on charms for stat increases, armor class bonuses, and saving throws, or on weapon and armor enhancements, while not looking too closely at any other expensive items. This is a shame because there are plenty of creative and fun items out there, but it is understandable that players want to focus on the basics so they do not get left behind.

As I mentioned earlier, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game fully expects that players will get the basic items (weapon enhancements, armor enhancements, resistance bonuses to saving throws, deflection bonuses to armor class, and ability score increases), and most experienced players know this.

For anything that a player might not buy normally, consider giving it as treasure instead of putting it in stores.

The flask shard items (described on the Marvelous Items page) are designed to be easy to add as loot, starting as early as the first dungeon-type area the players enter. This can be a lot of fun for players because they have an exciting new tool to creatively apply in their future sessions, and the fact that the items can scale upwards in power means they can stay relevant throughout the entire game.

Buying items is a good way to give players some input on the gear they get. Many people find the idea of a “magic mart” where everything is for sale a little difficult to explain in-universe, but try to stock at least a few items that your players might be interested in. Do not bother them with anything out of their price range unless they specifically ask about it, though. Going to a magic shop just to hear how everything costs far more gold than they even have will only encourage them to walk away and not bother checking things out.

Do not hesitate to ask your players about the types of items they’d like to find/buy and use. They may not be as familiar with items as game masters often are, but understanding what they want to get can help you understand which items they’ll be most excited about finding.

Similarly, you do not have to limit the distribution of items to killing monsters, getting paid for missions, or local shops. Players can also receive items from NPCs of various personalities, goals, and opinions. For example, a church might reward a paladin with a holy blade after they have made a name for themselves and earned a few levels, while a thieves’ guild might give a rogue a set of enchanted lockpicks as a commemorative present for pulling off a particularly impressive heist.

Players could even receive loot from fans or benefactors who want to support their efforts. There’s no end to the possibilities and - this is the important bit - how players can receive items can heavily influence their opinion of a group or location. Players tend to form positive opinions of any NPC or group that outright gives them gear, and this can get the players more invested in local plots. Similarly, this is a good way to sneak treasure into players’ pockets if they miss a pile of loot you planned for them to find earlier.

Be careful to avoid seeming like you are favoring one character too much when handing out items. In general, the same player should not be outright given an item more than once in a row, and preferably not again until everyone else has gotten one or some time has passed. You can waive this guideline with your group’s agreement - especially if everyone thinks one character is significantly underpowered and needs the extra gear - but you do not want to give your group the impression that you are playing favorites. Do not make a show of giving gear to NPCs that are traveling with the party unless it is crucial to the plot; just quietly add it to their sheet and have the NPC mention that they have gotten a few things they think will prove useful later.

You can give gifts of approximately the same value to all players at once (this works best if there’s some benefactor or fan supporting them), or you can rotate between players if you do not want to dump a ton of items on them at the same time. For example, you may give a holy blade to the group’s warrior in one session, then a metamagic apparatus to an incanter two sessions later.

When possible, try to tie gifts into the story somehow and make it feel like a natural extension of the players’ actions and decisions. It makes sense that a church would want to reward one of their members when that member does something particularly notable in the name of their deity; it makes less sense for them to just hand something over one day for no particular reason. Similarly, players should not expect to get special loot from NPCs every time they do something. Gifts should be relatively infrequent unless you want to shower players in magical items. Players can make surprising choices about who to give items to, so if something is meant for one character in particular, make it inconvenient for anyone else to have. Crafting traditions can help with this.

Regardless of how players get items, try to avoid invalidating their previous choices when passing out loot. It’s not very fun to save up for weeks or months real-time to buy a +3 sword, then get a slightly better weapon given to you for free one session later. That just makes players feel like they wasted a lot of time and money. You can replace (or upgrade) items after a few levels, but try to avoid encouraging anyone to toss away something that’s too new or that has become an important part of their build/story. Magical items should be exciting to get, not something that takes away from what characters already have.

Picking Magic Items For Players

There are countless builds within the game, and players often have different views about things, so no advice will be universal aside from “ask your players what kind of loot they enjoy”. However, there are other guidelines to consider:

If you are not boosting what they can already do, consider giving items that do something other than their main activity. If someone wants to play a martial warrior, most items that they could use instead of their attacks are interesting, but something they’ll hesitate to actually use unless there’s some other sort of value in their mental equation. For example, the vampiric maw deals damage in a fairly large area and also heals the user, which means it is a great emergency tool to try and turn things around with. Players are usually happier about getting items that do not conflict with their main role.

You do not have to focus on combat all the time. Items that solve other problems, or lend themselves to creative applications outside of combat, are perfectly valid choices.

You can give out some time-limited items, such as those that are only useful in a particular area due to geographic features or other challenges. However, do not present something as a big reward if it is not actually useful - that can make players feel like they are not being rewarded, and it is better to avoid that.

You should not give out items whose caster level is too far above the player’s level. There are exceptions to this rule, including some consumables and items that are not meaningfully affected by caster level, but caster level is a reasonably good guide for when most items should be available. If you want to give players a particularly nice item but it is too strong for them now, consider making a scaling item out of it using your choice of guidelines for that. How high is too high varies by table, but if uncertain, 4 caster levels above the players is about the highest items should be. As always, GMs should use discretion and good judgment when evaluating whether or not a given item is currently appropriate for any given group.

At 1st level, items up to caster level 3 are the most appropriate choices.

Combined Items

At times, you may want to create items that have multiple effects. In fact, this is one of the ideas behind fabled items, as well as options like magic items that raise multiple ability scores instead of just one.

Combining effects is a practical way to make an otherwise-boring item into something more interesting. For example, most charms are useful for characters because they help people stay in line with the game’s expected math, but they are not exciting because they are just numbers going up. However, if you mix that charm with a metamagic apparatus or a marvelous item, then it is suddenly more than just a boost and therefore inherently more interesting. This is particularly helpful when making items that are plot-relevant, because their more-complex powers are a good in-universe justification for why someone particularly values them.

You do not need to have all effects at the same power level when creating these types of combined items. For example, if your charm is caster level 12, you could have a marvelous item effect that is caster level 5. When creating combined items, think of them as wholly separate items that happen to share a physical form, rather than a single unified whole.

Similarly, you do not always need to raise the cost for combining items, especially items of different types. Slots are more flexible in Spheres than in the base rules, and increased costs for combined items are most appropriate when each slot has a limited focus. In Spheres, the cost can be rather discouraging when it comes to creative item combinations, so it is better to consider this an optional rule. In general, you can skip the cost increase for combining items when they are usually not competing for the character’s time to start. This is most common among items that are useful outside of combat with no time pressure and items that do not take up item slots (including being held) to begin with. To put it another way, if there’s usually not a limit on switching between the items, there’s no reason to increase the cost when combining them because characters are not getting much of an advantage from that (compared to just having two separate items).

However, any ‘major’ items - such as charms that boost multiple ability scores or provide other powerful, useful effects and would still need to compete for the same slot - should retain the price increase for combining them. These are supposed to be more expensive when people want more than one such effect, and you should be careful about waiving that fee. If you are not sure whether or not to waive the fee for combining items, leave it in.

Be careful when creating items that provide multiple activated effects at the same time. Action economy is the most valuable resource in the game and one of the primary limiting factors on abilities, so anything that allows characters to perform multiple actions at once is extremely powerful. In some cases, this can be built into an item with the talent-based crafting method.

For example, crafting the full healing scroll requires a talent that allows using a restore at the same time as a cure, which raises the Price of the item and therefore serves as its own Cost. On the other hand, an item that shapeshifts a target to make them bigger, enhances their power, gives them a haste, and tosses an aegis onto them all with one activation is a complex effect and should, at minimum, be very expensive.

In short, the GM should use good judgment when combining items or effects.

Worn, Held, And Equipped Items

Some effects mention that they work while an item is “held” or “worn”. Because Spheres of Power lets you craft most items in most slots, you can treat either of these phrases as meaning “when the item is equipped in its appropriate slot”. However, rare and useful effects (such as the circumstance bonus to armor class from the girdingUSoP implement special ability) sometimes specify that they should be held or worn in a specific slot, and GMs should review requests for changing their slot before allowing that. Those limitations are often meant to limit powerful combinations. If unsure, do not allow the item to be equipped in a way other than how it was originally described or impose additional limitations on its power to help prevent abuse.

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