Ask Angry: Shops and Magic Items

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Stink-a-Lot Bear Asks:

As a fairly new DM I am really daunted by the prospect of creating shops in my adventures. The 5e guides are really vague about making shops and buying and selling magic items. I find this really frustrating – if I’m promising my players a raid on an unguarded dragon hoard, I want the wealth they plunder to actually make them able to buy stuff, and if I ever make an urban setting, I’d like there to be shops to populate my city. But equally, I don’t want to mess it up and make my players really overpowered too quickly.

So my question is this – how do you deal with shops in your adventures?

Well, you didn’t explicitly tell me how to credit you. So I fed your name from your e-mail address into a random Care Bear name generator. Thanks for the question Stink-a-Lot Bear. I s$%& you not. It seems so ridiculous that I actually screen capped it just to prove it. Here’s the screen cap.


Okay, Stink-a-Lot, let’s talk about this whole shopping business first and then we’ll talk about magical items. Because, from the way you are phrasing your question, I think you’re coming into this with a very video gamey sense of shopping in RPGs. And that’s probably causing you some problems.

Here’s the deal. Shops aren’t interesting. In general, if the players are in a town or city and they want to buy some s$&%, you just handwave that crap. “We need to buy some rope and rations.” Okay, cool, mark off the gold and you have rations and rope. Here’s the PHB equipment list. Done and done. The only time you actually need a shop is when the shop is worthy of a scene in your game. And generally, buying s$&% in the game? That isn’t worthy of a scene.

That said, it is also perfectly okay to assume that, in smaller settlements, it’s not possible for the players to just buy ANYTHING on the equipment list. But that doesn’t require you to come up with “shops” and lists of what’s for sale at each shop. You can just say, like, “while you’re in the Hamlet of Dirtburg, you can’t buy any weapons or armor or anything that costs more than 10 gp. The hamlet just doesn’t have that stuff for sale.” Stuff like that. If you want to. And generally, that’s a pretty good idea if you want to emphasize the players are out in the sticks and make them worry a little about resources. Otherwise, it’s not worth worrying about. Just assume anything for sale in the PHB is readily available and let people buy it.

Now, that said, Stink-O-Bear, I’ll also point out that shopping in D&D is kind of ridiculous and anachronistic anyway. Most of the equipment adventurers need is not “off the shelf” stuff. In fact, there wouldn’t be any armor or weapon shops because they wouldn’t do enough business to sustain them. That s$&% would be special made to order. And it would take days or weeks to be available. Armies and lords and kings kept blacksmiths in permanent employ to equip their men. Noble families would engage smiths. But there’s no Wal-Mart for even mundane equipment out there. And, if you did go to a dry goods store or a supply depot, generally, you gave the proprietor a list of what you wanted and he’d gather it up for you. Most of the stuff you bought, you bartered for in the marketplace. The idea of specialty shops with goods “off the rack” is a very modern idea.

That said, your cities are probably FILLED with shops. Various businesses, that is. And, at any given moment, your plot might call for the players to talk to a jeweler or an alchemist or a chiurgeon or a baker or a tailor or a tanner or a tinker or a hooper or a chandler or a whatever. And when that happens, you’re probably more interested in the interaction than you are in what’s for sale. Because there’s a plot reason. Right? And then, you’re making up an NPC, not a shopping list.

The point is: for normal shopping, just handwave it. You don’t have to mark every shop on your map. They are all there, somewhere. Just mark the interesting, plot-relevant ones.

Now for the buying and selling of magical items. Here’s the deal: this is a very complicated and contentious topic. In 3rd and 4th edition, the rules assumed there was a brisk trade in magical items. Magical items were either freely available or easy to make and therefore, players could buy and sell them. Hence, in the 3.5 DMG and in the 4E PHB, you had price lists of magical items. Simple as that. And, as long as the players had the right amount of wealth for their level, they couldn’t buy anything game breaking. A 2nd level character in 3E or 4E couldn’t afford a +5 battleaxe of berserking.

Prior to that, though, the game sort of assumed that magical items weren’t freely available. See, magical items are extremely expensive. As I already noted, a weaponsmith couldn’t make enough money trading with the average peasantry to support a specialized weapon shop. Now, imagine super-expensive luxury weapons. Because that’s what magical weapons are. The same can be said for armor and other bits of magical equipment.

But, beyond that, there’s this sort of change in mentality between 2nd and 3rd edition. In 2nd Edition (and early), magical items were prizes to be won. They were rare, special, and they broke the rules. There was no particular planned progression around magic items. They were just prizes to be won. And making them freely available to buy and sell would have ruined that. 2nd Edition and prior also included complex ideas about how magic items could be made or repaired. Creating a magic item was something that took time, effort, partnership between the player and the GM, and sometimes even a special quest to obtain ingredients like “the last thought of an honest king” or “the heart of a windstorm.” It was all very mythical.

3rd Edition and 4th Edition assumed that magical items were part of the progression of the game. And that’s not a bad assumption, even though a lot of GMs will disagree with me. And the main reason that GMs disagree with me is because they hated having to ensure they were rewarding the right amounts of treasure so that PCs could advance along the equipment progression track. Follow? Most GMs are actually lazy s$&%s and hate even bothering with experience points. But f$&% that attitude. It’s important.

5E dispensed with that idea. And I assume a lot of it had to do with the fact that WotC did a lot of surveys. And they were talking to a lot of people. And most of the people who were engaged enough to bother with these surveys were DMs, not players. I can’t prove that. It’s just conjecture. But the point is, all that crap about buying and selling magical items and magic item progressions were mechanics that a lot of DMs didn’t want to deal with. And so, because 5E was built on nostalgia and buy committee, we went back to the old way of doing things. You just can’t buy and sell magic items. The world doesn’t work that way.

Interestingly enough, though, 1st and 2nd Edition D&D included a lot of little subsystems. Especially 1st Edition and Basic D&D. You could buy land, build castles, hire retainers, raise armies, construct dungeons, and do all of this other expensive s$&%. That was in addition to buying ships and paying for expensive spells and material components and all sorts of other crap. Gradually, those things dropped out of D&D.

And so, now, we’re left with a very interesting problem in 5E: money has no value. You can’t buy and sell magical items and there really isn’t much else to spend money on. There’s no equipment advancement. There’s no monetary upgrade system. So, gold in 5E has become essentially worthless. It’s just something the players can horde and sleep on like dragons. There are OPTIONS for it, hidden away in the DMG, but I suspect those get overlooked or ignored.

That said, if you WANT to have a thriving trade in magic items, it’s easy enough to do. Check out DMG 135. It tells you how much magic items are generally worth by rarity. And with that in mind, you can allow your players to buy and sell magical items. But, if you do that, it’s important that also make sure you’re giving out about the right amount of treasure based on encounter challenge. Otherwise, you run the risk that the players will overload themselves with powerful items. D&D 5E isn’t as prone to being broken by powerful magical items as earlier editions, but it can still be done.

You can also set limits. You can decide, for example, only common and uncommon magical items can be bought and sold. And you can use the tables on DMG 142-143 to customize the items a bit. For example, if they commission a dwarf smith to make an item, it will be of Dwarvish make. You can decide what that means. And, in fact, you can invent your own quirks and minor properties based on the ones on the tables. Maybe all magic items made by dwarves have the loud property from the quirk table.

If you do decide to go this way, I recommend you either go with the hand waving route for buying magic items or you require all magical items to be commissioned. That is, the PCs have to go and have the item specially made by a mage-wright or artificer or something. In one of my campaign worlds, there was a guild of magical artisans and the PCs built a good reputation with them. And that eventually translated to small discounts and preferential treatment for commissions in return for doing the occasional job (“we need the heart of a fire elemental and some coral from the Death Sea, go get it”). The party could also turn over any magical items they found and didn’t want to the same guild for a price.

If you allow the PCs to SELL magic items, I’d suggest that you only allow them to recover about half the cost of magic items. I would also suggest that you make single use magic items (like potions) cheaper than permanent magic items (like bags of holding). The tables in the DMG give price ranges. So use the lower end for single use items and the higher end for permanent items. And also feel free to restrict what items are available. It’s easy enough to tell the players “sorry, no one has a staff of power they are willing to sell.”

Hope that helps, Stink-a-Lot Bear.

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14 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Shops and Magic Items

  1. I currently use the limits by rarity, with low level players only getting uncommon items, then advancing by level tier. As for pricing, I want to share this guy’s fantastic work:

    Everything in the DMG priced by power/usefulness, and cursed/game breaking items removed from the list. Plus, the downloadable PDF is very well put together. I was so impressed that I gave my PCs a copy. Now I can just say “this shop sells and commissions uncommon consumables” and they instantly have a price list. It’s great.

  2. I couldn’t be happier that gold is mostly worthless in 5e. My players (and I when I play) are almost never motivated by the idea of accruing wealth via treasure. We want magic items, yes, but because of the gameplay opportunities they represent, not as an IRA. We don’t adventure to get rich. There are many other ways to make money for someone who can cast fireballs, but they’re boring to play (“Hey guys, let’s play “Bozos & Bigtops”). We adventure to gain items, yes, but not to turn around and sell them. We want them because they make us more powerful and therefore make playing more fun.

    The only time any of us would ever go forth to seek treasure would be if the treasure itself served a plot purpose.

  3. I set up magic shopping through an excel spreedsheet. It has the magic item name, its price, and the town where it’s sold. If an item is for sale somewhere in that town (a market, a shop), I list it under that town. When the players go to that town, if they dedicate a certain amount of time for shopping, I sort the spreadsheet by town name and give them the shopping list and let them choose what they want to buy. I didn’t want this to take away from normal gaming time, so shopping can be done between sessions. If they’ve already departed a town by the time the next session starts, this gets handwaved by saying they bought the item while in the last town.

    To create the list, I went through the (pathfinder) magic item list, and selected ones that would be avaiable in each town. I kept this, in general, to items below 3,000 gold. Towns will have different equipment lists based on the characteristics of that town. Midway through the campaign, the players have had the opportunity to escort a caravan from the human lands to a sealed dwarven town. Depending on which of the caravan horses survived with their payload intact, new magic items will be sent to the human lands and available for sale (thus allowing a natural increase in the power of magic items). Any more specialized items would only be offered for sale by a specific tradesperson as part of a scene.

    This shopping does necessitate giving characters a level-appropriate amount of wealth, so when I am figuring out what treasure to put in my scenes, I add that to another spreadsheet which has a running tally of group wealth. Setting up the initial spreadsheet took a little time, but now it’s easy, and some of the players really enjoy looking at shopping lists and fantasizing about what to do with their treasure. Tracking overall party treasure takes almost no time, and it really helps keep a handle on the challenge level of encounters.

  4. Awesome article! Great topic! There’s another really fun way to make it somewhat difficult (or dangerous) for PCs to sell their magic items. I ask myself: who’s buying this stuff? Where is their gold coming from? And what will they do with the newfound power that the players were greedy enough give them? Not everyone out there is bad of course, but some are. And you would have to assume that anyone with the money to buy magic items is at least as powerful as some of the PCs; or maybe just got their hands on lots of coin by possibly nefarious means. Perhaps the next time they go to town, a past buyer has set themselves up as overlord with their newfound power. Lots of potential story can actually come out of a sale. Also, I tend to make it take at least a week or two just to find a buyer, so they can’t just pop into a town for a day and make a fortune. I find that makes it more of a in-between-quests type of thing.

    • I love this method! It fits very well into my DMing world-view that tries to have the world outside the players make logical sense (if that’s actually a thing in RPG). “Remember all those Figurines you sold? The Mindflayer you’re now fighting is a collector of them…”

      That said, I go with 5E guidance and don’t allow buying/selling magic items. My players are completely motivated by magical items and treasure though, so I’ve had to be creative in stocking dungeons. Interestingly, the cause of this “greed” seems to be twofold: a mix of 1E reminiscing for older players and for newer players a distinct desire to roleplay “properly” their 5E traits & background.

      One solution I’m using is creating my own items based on DMG but with quirky side-effects, limited uses, or narrowed scope. I also don’t tell them what they do, they have to figure that out. This often means that the item remains unused for a while until they experiment around with it. “Defocused” magic items helps them continue the thrill of acquisition while helping me manage the game power level. And on occasion I have had to resort to stealing some back within game terms (e.g. a lord of Shadowfell demanded some as payment for their safe passage back to Middle World).

  5. I ran Lost Mines of Phandelver for some new-to-RPGs players, and even within the short space of time that was the campaign, I had to field a lot of questions about what the point of accruing wealth was. I said some bullsh*t about building strongholds and raising armies, of course, forgetting that there are no rules given for that in 5e. I’ve toyed with the idea of allowing PCs to buy magic items, but also just reducing the amount of treasure given out.

  6. My only concern about the whole sane list, is that they totally ignore the rarity metter in the DMG and totally ignore random items saying “Lolrandom” as a reason, which further prooves that they did not make the list out of what the item is worth, but out of what power gaming gives the items. exemple… they did not price the potion of giant strenght saying that it breaks the boundaries of the game. as in give soff too much strenght. they also priced legendary items which by the DMG itself shouldn’T have been priced at all considering they are “UNIQUE” !!! so that list which i did take but had to readjust everything in it. including putting no price on legendary items to begin with. they are legendary and by DMG definition they are “UNIQUE” and shouldn’T be sold or traded at all.

    nah the sane list, is not sane at all. its been made by power gamers as seen by the fact that they dont calculate the dangers at all. exemple… “it can summon a treasure filled crypt, lol” but totally ignore the fact that its a pyramid and a fucking mummy lord and that in the end they consider their characters level 20 and thus easily capable of getting the treasure without worry. but at that point forget also that its a whole capable story to begin with.

    i can understand them not putting the wish item on the list, those are ridiculously superior. but in 5E a wish is just… do anything from level 1 to 8 spell wise which is much much much more conservative about game balance. so again… i dont see the point… they also seem to think the players will get tons of money off 5E. but money in 5E is scarce even for adventurers. meaning that by the time they get certain over 100k items, they will have sold over about every single items they have gotten since then. prooving even more that those prices were done by power gamer who thinks nothing else then upgrading their characters to the maximum.

    he even say it themselves in the PDF. they even count the items by attunements because the said item is not worth it compared to other said item. like exemple any shield that is not having any + bonus on it. cause “Lol bonus aren’t attunement required” which further prooves that this list is not even worth checking on.

    overall, this “sane list” is to me, not sane at all cause it seems to me like its taken 3.5 prices and just placed them on the 5E items. something that shouldn’T be done because 5E has a gold threshhold per level as said in the DMG and reaching 100k gold for a character from level 1 to 20 is a feat all by itself.

  7. Hi, Angry GM.

    I have a really simple solution that is book legal follows all the rules gives the players something to do with that Giganotosaurus sized pile of gold and doesn’t completely break the game. You simple use the hoard table and selling magic items rules…in reverse.

    The player decides he wants to trade in/sell his wind-fan and look for a +1 ANY THE F(*&ING THING ELSE. You simple ask the player how long he intends to be in town and ask for the list of items he is looking for..*Important note, players don’t know shizna, therefore they don’t know what’s in the book!!!!!* Without a super awesome and targeted divination or massive arcana and gather information check or a quest tip they will not know what they seek. They will say something like “I want an awesome weapon…. so I can kill that quest thing that doesn’t die, unless I have an awesome weapon…”. Then you being the lazy A$$ DM that you are don’t want to send them on another side quest to get the +1 sword of “goes through DR because that iron golem wrecks my world”. So your list will end up looking like

    Looking For
    Magic Sword
    Magic Shield
    Thing that makes my spells work better
    A way to come back from squishing.

    You take that list and you set up a table based on the party’s CR hoard table.
    for example say this is a 5-10 CR party and you are on the 5 to 10 CR table. You make a table with 5 columns. Common >29, Uncommon>64, Rare>81, Very Rare>94, Legendary>98. Your player’s list is the rows. To fill this table you I.D the percentages where each type of item becomes available based on the Hoard table as shown above. Finally, You roll d100 on each item. If you roll above the rarity type needed they can get the item or even one that does the job better. Then you go through and come up with the items of the rolled rarity that can get the job done and randomly roll which one they find. So d12 determines which of the 12 possible uncommon items they could get to help spells hit harder etc. If the rarity they roll is too low, they can’t find it. Next you roll on the selling items table how long it takes to connect with a seller same as connecting with a buyer so 1d6 days for uncommon. If the PC doesn’t wait around that long they can’t get an in with the local lord who is strapped for cash, cause women + booze = poor, and has the item. Then the Seller (NPC aka you the dm) rolls to see what kind of offer he thinks he can get. Your PC is effectively the Buyer on the selling a magic item table. You apply mods as normal and roll to give them a price adjusted from the base price listed in Salable magic items.* important note 5e keeps things rather obvious, pattern-wise, so 500 gp uncommon, 5000gp rare, 50000, gp very rare… which means…. you guessed it 500000, for legendary, and should you be so inclined 5000000gp for an artifact*. Then DM up a reason why the offered price tag is so wonky.” Why this +1 blowgun is obviously worth 750gp because that’s how much my bar tab is.” Suddenly all that coin is actually useful. At the same time items are still rare, expensive and difficult to find.

    I also like to ensure there is some kind of framing event and opposing villain trying to scheme that item away from you but that is just me.

    -GameT1me GM

    • Our half orc was almost in tears when a goblin monk disarmed his +1 sword on a bridge. He ignored the fight and dove into the river immediately (fair enough bonus action IMHO). the wizard who was behind him followed suit (after noticing that his defender had just exited stage right).

      this wouldn’t have happened in 4e – the +1 stuff wasn’t even noteworthy.

  8. Well, I’m from a thriving gaming community in Argentina (over 1800 members), with a lot of DMs that play almost every version of D&D, and after a couple surveys I must say that, although followed by 3.5 players, 5e is on top of the games. One of the main reasons is because the magic items are magic. We actually have a lot of projects (like [ Fralia]) and we are not at all lazy to calculate level progressions, custom beasts and whole motherfucking worlds (I have one myself, Pantos, and upload a lot of crappy articles to Fralia). And yes, magic items do exist in most of our games.
    But almost none of us are fond of magic shops. Maybe because many of us used to play AD&D (even as we are not old people, I have 31 years myself), and we tend to think of magic items as, well, magical rewards. But we aren’t a nostalgic lot: it’s simply a world building choice, and gameplay choice too.
    5e has a nice math. It just doesn’t asume any magical items given at any time. I’ve done the math: a lvl 20 champion can kill a balor (CR 19) in two/three rounds with a silvered weapon. No need of magical weapons, at all. Also, wealth isn’t given by level but by many complex circumstances, between them the background (a noble is more akin to be wealthy than a peasant), crime, loot or plenty circunstances. A +1 weapon, because BA, is pretty neat. A +1 sword is going to be a useful item at any level. +2 or +3 are, of course, better, but not necesary, and potentially require more dangerous adventures to challenge the players.
    There is plenty of reasons to limit (or avail) the purchasing of magic items, but I think that you are reducing all of it a purely nostalgia/lazyness on the DM. Most of us don’t want magic to be a commodity, and that’s it: magic items are more valuable than a grocery list. We actually like the way in which every magic item has a history, minor properties and quirks, and some of us even made whole new lists of minor properties and quirks, carefully accounting the level of brokenness they would provide.
    Magic has a lot of problems, world-wise. An overproliferation of it just change the logic of the world. With a few low level druids, you never has to worry about famine (goodberry) in a small town, or injury, or illness. Magic items are part of the problem, of course. We actually are working on ways to compensate or modify this spells without actually reduce power or awesomeness of characters, and it is a complex, long task.
    Angry, I mostly agree with you on many, many things. I’ve learned a lot in your blog. This post is just… dissapointing, as it is just a fallacy.

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