A common question is when to give magic items in D&D 5e. Most players want magic items as rewards all the time since it feels good to receive them but is that actually best?
You determine when to give magic items in D&D 5e based on what game you are running. High magic, low magic, etc, and if unsure less is >too much.
When to give magic items does depend on your setting and how you run your game, but you are here for a guide. Or at least, some help in figuring out when to do so. That is why we are going to cover how many magic items to give and when to give them in each setting.
The different settings
There are 3 different settings for a D&D campaign.
- High magic
- Low magic
When to give magic items in D&D 5e is different than other versions. D&D 5e was always meant to have less magic items for players. Possibly less than ANY other version! So the number of magic items will be less than a 3e, 4e, or any other edition. You can supplement this with ‘joke’ items that we will talk about.
Before we get into the guide for each section and then joke items, we need to talk about what each magical setting looks like.
A high magic setting is when players will be swarmed with magic items. These items are common in everyday life. They might be so common that the common person has a magic item, 2, or even 5. These settings have existed in D&D before and you can have these settings, but be cautious about what items you give.
When you give magic items it isn’t about that quantity of magic items that will break your game, but the quality and interactivity. If you for example give a person a magic bow that isn’t a problem. If the players are only fighting beasts on the ground and you give them boots of levitation, your game is broken.
So giving many magic items isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just be very VERY careful about what you give and how they can be used.
Normal settings are just that. Normal settings that the players are generally in. Not much to talk about, but there are some important tips that we will go over in that section.
Low magic settings are where magic might be banned or stigmatized. You might have made a new system or world where casting magic is much more difficult. Perhaps magic is just extremely rare and only the highest nobility or strongest adventurers have magic items.
Your setting will define how much your players should receive magic items, so let’s get into it!
High magic setting
These are the settings where floating cities are common and even the common person knows about magic items. Not that they just exist, but what some can do. In fact, you might even have 1 yourself at level 1!
This is a bit much, but you can still have a high magic setting without common knowledge. These settings are a bit of an in-between. You don’t have magic items be so common that they are almost daily appliances, but there are more magic items out there for adventurers and nobility. This may be due to nobility hording them, making laws, etc but creating magic items isn’t difficult or special.
If you are looking for the prices for magical items, then I would suggest looking at our article on shopping. It tells you how much a magic item should cost, and how many magical items should be available to your adventurers. There are also more magic shops in a high magic setting, so this will increase options and give your players the ability to shop around and even compare prices.
For the frequency of when to give magic items in 5e based on a party of 4 people here is a chart!
You may have noticed that this is the chart from Xanathar’s Guide to everything. It summarizes how many items a party should have for these level ranges.
This does not mean that you should average each item at every level!
For example, a character should not get 2 common items every level 5-10. They will probably get 4 at level 5 and 3 at level 6, and 3 at level 7. You can shake things up but making a level 10 get 2 common items is pretty underwhelming. As you level the characters your rewards should increase, so items by level isn’t the best way to go about it.
With that in mind, if you do not have a party of 4 here is a chart that depicts what each player should get.
This is a little bit more complicated, but it allows you to adjust based on party size. I wish it was a bit easier, but I believe that you understand and will make the best of this chart. For .25, and .5 rarities you might only want to consider giving them to the player at either the level before max level for that section, or at max level if at all. You may round as you see fit, just try to give every player the spotlight if you can.
This is a guide so you can add, subtract, or save an entire level to give a treasure horde of magical items. I do not recommend saving for a treasure horde in a high magic setting, but it is an option. Players should be gaining magic items without much thought and only the most powerful magical item needs to matter.
If you want to give even more magical items then I would suggest looking at our campaign add-on. The Cube is just a great way to add magic items to your game without you having to work extra hard. Your game will get crazy because of this add-on, but if you are playing high magic then this add-on might be really good for your game.
These are your typical games where magical items exist but are not very well understood by the masses. For example, a peasant might know that magical swords exist, but that is it. If they think all magic swords are the same, or just a few that are more powerful are the extent of a peasant’s knowledge.
These normal settings have your players still get a fair amount of magical items. For reference, here is our chart on when to give magic items in D&D 5e.
First we have consumables based on a 4 person party.
Next we have the chart for permanent items based on a 4 person party.
These charts were made with the math from an enworld post that is…. quite frankly confusing at first glance. That is why we have put it into a nice little chart here. If you want more detail about how the chart was made, then you can check out that link.
As for items per person, here are the charts for that.
As you can tell going by the ‘item per player’ chart gives you a little bit fewer items to work with, but overall it isn’t too bad of a cut. You can use these charts as guides to help you give magic items to your players and adjust accordingly!
Low magic settings
In a low magic setting, there will be no chart! This is because when to give magic items in D&D 5e for a low magic setting is more subjective.
We will talk about when to give magic items after this section, but the amount of items given out in a low magic setting is completely dependent upon these situations.
Each magic item for a low magic setting isn’t just given. There isn’t always a treasure horde that will give players magical items. They might not get a single magical item all the way up until level 5 and the idea of them assuredly getting a legendary item by level 20 is unrealistic.
To give a chart for a low magic setting would make you feel obligated to give players an item, and in these settings there is no obligation. You might even go all the way from level 1-20 with only 2 magic items if that.
The setting determines how many magic items and it will vary wildly by setting. Instead, you should give magic items when it is story appropriate for each one. A wand of magic missiles might be worth an entire quest to get!
Gaining magic items should be a major part of story progression, and that is what we are going to talk about next.
When to give magic items
There are a few situations that warrant giving out magic items. There are 5 times when to give magic items in D&D 5e. They are as follows:
- Treasure hordes.
- Story quest.
- Important moments.
- As a favor.
These 5 different situations are not all universally applicable. Something that is appropriate in a high magic setting may not be appropriate in a low magic setting.
Giving out magic items has to be a reward. It can be a reward of the player’s hard work for treasure hordes, story quests, or important moments. Shopping is a reward for the players to spend their hard earned gold, and a favor for a magic item is like a story quest but it has some important differences.
Now we will go over each of these different situations. We will talk about when they are best to be done AND what settings are best for,
Treasure hordes are just what the players get for defeating monsters or some evil villain. These can be quite simple. A dragon is slain on top of it’s mound of magical items. Not very hard to find the items here, but it can get more complex.
After the players defeat a villain they might not find any loot initially. They strip the corpse of the villain for all it is worth, but that isn’t the treasure horde. The treasure horde is hidden, and the DM waits for the players to inspect, piece together clues, and find out where it is. After all, what adventurer turns down treasure?
The problem arises when players just loot the corpse and leave. They have no idea that there is a treasure horde and just move on. In these instances you can’t just tell the players that they didn’t know about the treasure horde. Why wouldn’t you have just told them about it earlier?
Don’t try to hide treasure hordes from your players. Let them know about it, where the treasure horde is, and let them look forward to getting it. Otherwise you might have a wizard at level 9 with 1 wand and nothing else. They didn’t even find any new spells for 9 levels! (Not speaking from personal experience of course).
Treasure hordes can be used in any setting, but they are best used in the normal setting. If you use it in high magic then the players are getting magic items for doing anything. Instead, give them gold and let them choose from a shop. It works out much better and makes more sense thematically.
For low magic settings almost never give magic items this way. Defeating a monster should have some other story purpose and shouldn’t just involve a free magic reward. You can use treasure hordes in a low magic setting a few times, but they should be rare. Maybe 1 magic item per 5 levels, but it should be extremely rare. Possibly once a campaign if ever.
You have completed the arduous task of slaying 3 rats! Here is a magical sword!
Story quests are the video game type of loot rewards. You do a quest and once you come back to the NPC you get a reward.
If you are going to give a magical item based on a story quest, it has be negotiated beforehand. If you do not negotiate it will seem like this is just a video game quest. Have dialogue, discussions, and make it a business transaction. It makes the story quest reward seem more real than just a simple turn in.
You can get a magic item this way in almost any setting. A low magic setting is a bit harder, but it can be a one time thing. For high magic settings the item needs to be extremely powerful or unique. You won’t do a story quest for something that you can just pick up at a store or buy with gold. If you are doing a high magic setting, you probably can buy a lot of magic items with gold.
For normal settings you can sprinkle in some moments where players negotiate for a magic item or do a quest for one, but it cannot be all the time. If it is all the time, players get bored of this method and your D&D game becomes a video game simulation. (This also was not learned from experience at all……)
These important moments are the hardest to define. Usually they are either an important moment in the story or in a player character’s development. They might gain an item to help save the world from an angle or have an item granted to them by their god.
In any case, important moments should be done once a campaign and never abused!
These moments are alright to have in your game, but they have to be natural in the story. These moments will have a big impact, and have to be done right. You can give everyone in the party an item like the whole fellowship received in Lord of The Rings (in Lothlorien). Just make sure everyone gets something and have a very good reason for doing so.
This is usually done in more of an epic quest than any particular setting and does work in all three. You can use important moments in high, normal, or low magical settings. Just make sure the moment is done right!
Shopping is where your players spend their hard earned money on magical items. Is this a good idea? Well… it depends completely on your setting.
If you are in a low magical setting you should never have shopping be an option. The only exceptions are if you are going to get really creative and have a player sell part of themselves for an item or something.
For normal games only giant cities might have magical items and even then the options should be very limited.
For high magic settings shops will most likely be common place. Add more shops for more options and if a player cannot get something they want in a shop, they now have a reason to adventure or bargain in order to obtain it.
The last instance of when to give magic items in D&D 5e is by favors. Now favors are extremely interesting. They can be done at any level but become the easiest way to get a specific item when you are higher level.
A favor involves you doing a task for someone else, or giving them a future favor, for a magical item. Story quests are just part of the story and important moments are a careful 1 time scenario. Favors are generally instigated by players and cannot be forced. It has to be the player’s choice.
This is the most interesting, complex, and difficult way to give players magical items. The players have to negotiate and be willing to give up something (It can just be time to do a simple job) in order to get a magic item.
You cannot engineer this as part of the story and if you try it very quickly becomes railroading. No one wants to be railroaded, so you have to be willing to let it go. If the players need this item do not make them require a favor in order to attain it. Just give them an option to make their lives easier.
Favors are the only real way to get items at higher levels. Your players want a cool new item? Well, they can either kill someone or be granted a favor by a powerful being. At lower levels there are more options, but favors add an interesting new flavor to the game.
For settings, favors can be a way to gain magical items in any setting. The nature of using favors to grant magic items makes it not happen very often so you won’t have to worry about overstepping your bounds. Players also will have to seek out someone for a favor, so this is an extra option that helps your players run the story.
Favors are best utilized with creative players, so be cautious. Read the article on creative players before giving out magic items for favors or you will be tricked. Even then, the players might break the game so be cautious when you are allowing favors.
Generally I save this for more experienced DMs, but favors are by far the most fun I have ever had in granting magic items.
Not Breaking the Game
This extra section is to help you not break your game. We have tables and situations where to give magical items, but there is 1 last thing you need to keep in mind.
Don’t give items that will break the game!
The easiest way to not break the game with magical items is to give your players joke items>consumables>utility items>trigger items>stat boosting items.
Joke items are like the ‘wand of smiles’ in Xanathar’s. You just make someone smile. It is fun, a joke, and a party popper magic item isn’t harmful. You can throw these at your players if you are in a high or even normal magic setting like candy.
Consumables can break the game if you just give too many custom made ones and forget about them, but these are usually just 1 time instances that provide an awesome story for later.
Utility items allow the players to have options which isn’t a bad thing, but when they have 7 different ways per player to get on a flying dragons back your game probably isn’t going to go well.
Trigger items such as a ‘wand of fireballs’ recharge and have to be activated. They usually have powerful effects, so limit the amount of these items that the players get.
Lastly, permanent items are extremely dangerous! In 3rd edition players just wanted to stack permanent items so that they would become these stat monsters. 30+ AC Was not rare enough for a level 10 back then, and if you just throw permanent items at your players they will get close to this.
Permanent items are meant to be major rewards for story, important quests, or favors. Maybe treasure hordes, but even then permanent items shouldn’t be that common. They are major items and treat them as such.
If you have broken the game, then read our article on what to do if you gave an overpowered magical item.
I think the question of when to give magic items in D&D 5e has finally been answered. In order to answer it, you need to consider 3 things.
- When you are giving out items.
- What items you are giving out.
If you do not consider your setting then the players will feel under or overpowered very quickly.
When you give items it needs to be done appropriately. Each method varies on the setting, but each option is important to consider.
You also need to consider what items you give out. If you give your players a +2 shield, +2 sword, and +2 armor at level 7 from shopping then that takes a lot out of the game.
This has been a giant article, and I hope that it has helped you understand when to give magic items in D&D 5e.
Lastly, if you want to support the blog you can get stuff for it! We offer The Cube as a custom add on to your game and our affiliates. At Dice Envy they offer well made and cool looking dice and Dungeon Vault helps to help give you extra tools to make your campaign even better! I prefer to use my dice from Dice Evy since they are actually balanced and love to use the tools from Dungeon Vault.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!