Economics of Magic in 5e

Ok, this was going to start out as a short rant about another crazy bit of unthinking largess on the part of the writers of Lost Mines of Phandelver – who have obviously never played an edition of D&D where money equated to experience or played with folks who wanted to squeeze every last cent of loot and treasure from the adventure.

Let’s just say that my players lit up upon being told that there was an entire wizard’s workshop or alchemists laboratory “there for the taking” – and the idea that the “most valuable things in it” were three rare components worth 25 coin each is laughable in any logical sense. You are going to tell me all that glassware isn’t worth money? Even if we only roughly analogize this to a 1e workshop this room should have at least a couple of thousand coin worth of stuff in it. Even giving up on the idea that treasure = experience points, my players are used to conquistador-levels of pillaging. The arms and armor that the bandits or the goblins are wearing and carrying is almost always worth more than the coin in their pockets…

Ok, that little rant out of the way, now to a larger rant about how the magical economy makes no sense in 5e.

In 1e, magic was limited because you had to be a certain level of magic user or cleric to make magical items. Basically 7th level-ish for consumables like scrolls and potions, and 12th level for charged magical items (for the 6th level Enchant an Item), and then 16th level to make anything permanent (because you needed a Permanency spell).  It was relatively easy to see why magical items were rare-ish, so rare that many DM’s I knew came up with ways to explain some types of ostensibly permanent magical items were so darn common (surely not every +1 weapon needed a 16th-level Wizard involved did they?). In fact, in 1e magical items were actually pretty common depending upon the setting – in places like the Forgotten Realms they are positively commonplace! This was an inherent inconsistency of the rules as written (inherent setting assumptions) vs. the modules presented (actual setting presented). This inconsistency was also seen in the tables for generating magical items for PC and NPC groups given at the end of the 1e DMG – definitely “high magic” not the supposed “low magic” that was said to be the case.

Now, in 5e we have the exact opposite problem. Supposedly it is a “low magic” setting, and that is certainly the case if we look at the first modules presented. But when we look at the 5e DMG we find an utterly confusing and contradictory set of rules governing the economy of magical items. First they are supposed to be so rare that they are difficult to sell and basically impossible to buy – but making a +1 sword or a Wand of Magic Missiles only takes a 3rd level character who can cast the base spell, four days and 100 coin to make!

And the rules for selling it, if used as written, essentially guarantee at least a small loss (because you had living expenses during the Downtime spent looking for buyers) and probably a larger loss upon selling it (again, assuming a buyer can be found).


Even in a crazy-to-modern-sensibilities ancient/medieval economy this makes no sense.

I think that 5e tries to “fix” by introducing some “Attunement” rules that limit the number of powerful-ish magic items a character can use at one time – though that seems somewhat spotty in application in the DMG. Unfortunately, to these tired old 1e eyes this seems exceedingly awkward, much like the old rules that limited the number of magic rings you could wear at one time. Sort of. I like the idea for certain magic items – like only being able to have a certain number of intelligent magical items – but it seems otherwise arbitrary for no good reason other than “game balance” and that is rarely a good reason to set in a new limit of this sort.





Categories: Campaign Development, Game Design | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Economics of Magic in 5e

  1. Yeah, they tried to make it simple and
    logical and things get wonky.

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