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July 23, 2018

Using Magical Items to Circumvent Tedious Mechanics in D&D 5e

Dungeons and Dragons

One of the reasons that D&D 5e is my favorite TTRPG system is because of all the rules and mechanics it has. I love having structure and finding ways to use these mechanics to create an interesting and engaging game session. Of course, having so many mechanics means that there are bound to be a few that tend to hinder my enjoyment of the game and can slow down the pace of the session and make players be less invested in the story. I call these problem mechanics tedious mechanics.

Tedious mechanics aren’t necessarily objectively bad. They just have to be a mechanic that hinders your group’s enjoyment of the game with no pay-off for doing so.

For example, conditions like Paralysis hinders someone’s enjoyment of playing their character, however there’s always a pay-off for doing so. This isn’t a tedious mechanic, it’s a temporary mechanic that makes combat more interesting.

On the other hand, calculating the exact weight of everything you’re carrying to ensure you’re not encumbered could be considered a tedious mechanic. Some groups love more realistic or survival-focused games so this is a useful mechanic. Others simply do not care and find it lessens their enjoyment of the game as a whole.

Why Not Simply Ignore the Mechanic?

You certainly can. I do exactly this with the eating and drinking mechanics of 5e. It simply happens everyday but the party does not keep track of it. However there are circumstances when I offer a scenario where they’ll need to stock up and keep track of their food and water supplies. For example, in a survival situation they’d need to forage and keep track of their supplies.

However, if we ignore too many of these basic mechanics we can diminish the value of some classes, spells, and features. I devalue part of the Ranger’s Natural Explorer feature which gives them the ability to forage 2x as much food while in their favored terrain when I ignore tracking food and water consumption.

This isn’t a huge issue as my players don’t mind and there are plenty of other – more useful – parts of that feature, but it can become a problem if you continue to ignore staple mechanics in the game.

There are tedious mechanics in the game that are meant to hinder the party and present obstacles for them to overcome. If we keep removing all of these mechanics entirely we begin to chip away at the game itself.

magical camping tedious mechanics

An alarm spell or a sentry-esque item eliminates the need for a character to keep watch at night. Art by blazi76.

Why Magical Items?

Instead of ignoring the mechanic outright, we use magical items which are part of the system to circumvent these tedious mechanics. This is a healthier way of dealing with the monotony of the mechanics as we have a solution in the system and it acts as a reward for the players to earn either as treasure or by spending their hard-earned coin.

It’s also sometimes important to have these tedious mechanics be a part of the game for a period of time. While they can be annoying to keep track of, they can help promote realism and show the party what it’s like to be an average person in the world. A lot of these mechanics revolve around showing the player that it’s pretty demanding to be an adventurer.

Many of these mechanics are essential in crafting the journey of the adventure. This is a great argument for why using magical items is a good solution to this issue. When the characters begin their adventure at level 1 they typically will not have access to magic items.

Earning items to grant comforts such as “no longer needing to scavenge for food” or “not having to worry about carrying capacity” is another form of them gaining more power. Magical items in this case serve as both a reward and a milestone for becoming more powerful as adventurers.

bag of holding circumvent tedious mechanic

The Bag of Holding is probably one of the most iconic utility-based magic items. Art by Wizards of the Coast.

Acquiring Magical Items

Finding more things to spend money on is a real issue for players in D&D 5e. Jon over at Run a Game has a great post about this issue in particular and how he solves it by presenting players with land and businesses to invest in. This is definitely a great way to counter this issue, and I use it in my own games.

He also mentions how 5th edition discourages the DM from creating a ton of magic shops that were pretty common in previous D&D editions. I do agree that having less access and reliance on magical items has made D&D 5e more enjoyable and easier to balance. That being said, I don’t see the harm in the rare magical item shop where players can spend coin. Just be sure to set the prices accordingly, magic items shouldn’t be cheap, especially the ones that help us circumvent tedious mechanics.

Should you decide to include some magical item shops be sure to look at my post on finding quality D&D homebrew!

What Are Some Tedious Mechanics?

Carrying Capacity

Carrying capacity is a simple rule. You can only carry a maximum of 15x your Strength score comfortably. Regardless, you’ll still have to keep track of the weight of your items and pack. Book keeping isn’t inherently fun and for some it can be an awful chore.

Removing or ignoring this mechanic will devalue Strength as an attribute a bit. It can also make things less believable. The 90 lbs wizard shouldn’t be able to comfortably carry over 100 lbs on their back comfortably.

At this point I tend to throw in a Bag of Holding or a Heward’s Handy Haversack. They help remove the need to record the weight of every single item, but due to the size constraints they still present a need for characters to physically carry large items. They act as a crutch to the mechanic in that Strength still has a mechanical use, but the players don’t have to do the monotonous busy work of strictly keeping track of the weight of their items.

Encumbrance is actually a variant rule in D&D 5e so you’re not really ignoring anything if you simply don’t use this mechanic in your games. Often times I find myself using only the heavily encumbered portion of the rule anyways. It keeps a happy-medium of restricting the PC’s ability to carry too much while still giving them a bit of wiggle room.

Alchemy Jug Tedious Mechanics D&D

You don’t need to scrounge for food when you can create 2 gallons of mayo every day! Art by Wizards of the Coast.

Eating and Drinking

Eating and drinking rules are by far the most common example of rules that are technical rules, but groups tend to just ignore anyways. While the consequences of not eating and drinking are realistic and provide obstacles for the party to overcome they’re not very engaging.

Interacting with this mechanic successfully is to spend time making survival checks to forage for food, spend time in town purchasing rations, or cast a spell such as Create Food and Water. It’s good that these require resources to be used to combat exhaustion, but there’s a lot of real-time spent planning for this mechanic and it’s not terribly interesting.

Homebrewing an item that gives your party enough food and water every day is pretty easy. You can even make it so that the item only has a set number of charges so that they cannot abuse the item.

That being said, giving your party a magical item does remove the mechanic from the game when you want to run a survival-style session or two. If you want to run a survival-focused arc in your campaign you now need to have the narrative make sense in-game to the players and get rid of their magic item. It’s a bit of a mess.

Travelling

In my long-running campaign the party has become essentially heroes of the realm. It’s a big world and they’re generally some of the first people to respond to disasters, wide-scale conflicts, and other high-stakes situations. They’re also almost level 10 at this point.

They’ve done their fair share of week-long travelling from Point A to Point B. It’s not particularly interesting for them to travel through the forest they’ve been through 3 times already. It’s also a bit of a hassle for them to go back and forth between the major cities of the continent constantly as their quests usually demand.

magical item avoid tedious mechanics

It still requires steeds and will require 5 actions to use so this is not something they can drop in the middle of combat.

So instead I gave them a magical item as a reward for our annual Christmas One-Shot this past year. It’s basically a big bag of holding attached to a flying carpet. It’s a way for them to travel quickly between their destinations and ignore a lot of the monotony of travelling.

On the other hand, this has limited their ability to explore new places organically. You can’t find a hidden dungeon if you’re simply flying a few hundred feet over it. However, for the scale of the campaign that we’re playing it no longer makes sense to play out the travelling portions of the game. In a smaller-scale game I probably wouldn’t include this item again.

Keeping in Touch with Important NPCs

Some games may have the party work with some prominent NPCs to complete their quests or gain important information. This can be a fun way to spark character development as the party will regularly interact with this person and form a relationship with them.

However, it can also be a huge inconvenience if the party is on the other side of the world and needs to speak with them. Their options are to either begin the journey back to the NPC or to cast a spell like Sending.

Sending Stones and other items like it will allow the party to talk with the NPC without needing to use up a spell slot or travel all the way back to the NPC’s location.

This is probably the tedious mechanic with the least amount of blow-back for implementing a magical item to fix the problem. There’s very little downside to doing so. In fact there is plenty of room for plot hooks in the form of “what happens when your sending stone is intercepted?”.

Conclusions

Overall, I feel as though using magical items to solve the problem of dealing with tedious mechanics is a much more healthy and organic solution for D&D. It ensures that the solution to the problem stays within the system. This backed up by the fact that items like the bag of holding were designed with this purpose in mind.

However you deal with tedious mechanics should be done with the best interest of the group in mind. If the party loves earning and using magical items use this method. Find a way that works for your group!

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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