For me, in my games, I have always made the effort to keep things that are magical, well... magical. As in not commonplace, not taken for granted. I like my fantasy Lord of the Rings-ish or Game of Thronesey. That's me, which is not to say that its the only way to look at things or even the 'right' way... but I do know that many people out there feel the same way.
However, there's this problem of game mechanics. You want to play in a low magic environment but the game presumes that you're much more of the decidedly monty-haul bent. So what to do...?
Well, some might simply suggest that you tweak your encounters and that's a good, legitimate option which I often use, but I wanted to explore some ideas that might still allow you to experience the wonder and variety of magic without making it something you buy and trade like baseball cards.
One option is to explore alternate options for the same item. For instance, instead of potions or scrolls in the Dwarven culture, we have small to medium clay tabs (the size of a box of matches) or seals (the size of your palm) inscribed in runes. You break the tablet and release the spell. Same mechanical effect, interesting new flavor.
Another option is to provide 'loners'. In our Rise of the Runelords campaign, the party was a little light on healing - fortunately Father Zantus had possession of a Wand of Healing which worked essentially like the Witch's Healing/Greater Healing Hexes. It only functioned once per day per person, casting a Cure spell based on the level of the recipient and only functioning for good aligned individuals (a common limitation on divine magic items in our campaigns). Its the sort of item which would have some limited utility to an adventuring party (as opposed to the ubiquitous mass-produced wands of cure light wounds) but is exactly the kind of thing a village or town priest would find invaluable. After the PC's valiant defense of Sandpoint against the goblin raids and their further actions on the town's behalf, he felt justified in 'loaning' it to the PC's when they made their expedition to Thistletop since they were endangering themselves in an effort to keep the town safe. The item was of course returned once the trek was completed.
A third option is to consider items I think I've seen described in the past as 'legacy items' (though I could be wrong on this). The point being to have magical weapons and magical items which grow with the PC rather than have them endlessly trading in their treasured artifacts for a newer model. A couple of examples from our campaigns:
Du'mel Dorn - A +1 Earthbreaker which the PC discovered at 3rd level. It gained an additional +1 to its enhancement bonus every four levels thereafter (7th, 11th, 15th, 19th). In addition, starting at 5th level, it granted a new feat every four levels as well - Improved Sunder at 5th, Greater Sunder at 9th, Sundering Strike at 13th and Spell Sunder (as the Rage Power) at 17th level.
The Great Horned Helm - A helm fashioned from a Wyvern's skull carved with fetishes and totems. The wearer gains the benefit of Light Fortification starting at 3rd level regardless of what type of armor he wears. That benefit improves to Moderate Fortification at 9th level and Heavy Fortification 15th level. Additionally, the Helm grants the feats Iron Will at 6th level and Improved Iron Will at 12th level.
Over time these items become meaningful, part of the character's identity and legend rather than just the generic item serving as a placeholder for the next generic item. It's a touch more work to customize the items for the players but in my experience the rewards are more than worth it. The items also tend to be a bit more powerful, but I find that keeps players from running around like a literal arsenal of magical gear to the point that instead of each item having a meaningful history or story behind it, they're just another generic but necessary bullet in the character's gun. Moreover, without the need to constantly buy magical items, characters don't have to be constantly showered with treasure in amounts that most kingdoms wouldn't have access to.
Just some thoughts from our campaigns that have worked well in the past. I'd be interested in hearing any others one might have to offer.
Hey Wiggz, great stuff. In my own experience I've done the re-flavored consumables thing - this was a great way to spice up these low level items. I think my players enjoyed the variety. Some examples:
- churches using holy wafers, incense or blessed water sprinkled from a censor to deliver potion effects
- Scrolls or scroll effects on: spinning cantor wheels (a rod with a spinning drum that the cantor reads from), a picture book, braided rope or hair unwound in a certain way to release the spell, quill pens that you scribe the spell in the air with
- Alternative "wands": preserved bones (I've used fingers and skulls), masterwork tools such as thieves picks, scarves
As far as the "magic mart" goes, I don't have one central place in my games for magic item acquisition. Instead I try to provide players contacts likely to have/craft items and make the search for items in a settlement a mini-adventure in itself. If a player says "I need a +1 shield" for example, he doesn't just pop off to the magic mart. Rather he begins by asking around; some of the 2k for the shield goes towards greasing some palms and such. Then he gets a bead on an old farmer out in the hinterlands of the town with such a shield. The reason the man and his family own their own stead outside the town in the first place is that an ancestor had been a prominent mercenary/adventurer/knight etc and returned home with cash and the shield, however the old farmer no longer has a need for such a trophy and so he sells it to the PC.
I've also tried to use Legacy Items. I must've done it wrong though. I thought the PCs had to awaken certain powers; they didn't just happen. I told the players this and added things in game to suggest greater powers lurking within their items, but they never actually did anything with them so the items never got any better. If I use this technique again, I'm just going to have the items awaken spontaneously and merely acquire power as they go.
Yet ANOTHER way to make items grow is to have additives. These are completely homebrewed ideas that I've thrown in from time to time. Got a +1 sword? Well if you grind up these rare fire opals from the Plane of Fire and embed the dust in the hilt it becomes a +1 Flaming sword.
You can do this with rare radiations, herbs or gems, the blood or breath of specific monsters, etc. I usually introduce the idea to the PCs through a source like finding an eldritch manuscript, speaking with some old sage, or something along these lines. These sources provide instructions for a one-time infusion of power to increase the potency of an item or add additional abilities to it. The reason these aren't world-known and used is because I usually also include a stipulation like it only works some of the time or in specific conditions, etc.
One thing to bear in mind, ‘Magic Marts’ are only supposed to exist in cities with populations of 5000 or greater. So long as the party is out in the field or going from hamlet to village there isn’t really a justification for finding a scroll & potion shop with everything you happen to want and need ready for purchase. At best, there’s a low level cleric NPC in the church who can scribe scrolls or a druid in the woods that brews potions. Maybe there’s a single wizard in the ‘tri-hamlet area’ that’s willing to scribe something low level, for a premium... when/if he has time, if the PCs run some errands for him...
So periodically, perhaps the PCs or their agents can return to a capitol city or such to make purchases.