How to price / balance items with DCs that scale with your level?


Homebrew and House Rules

Sovereign Court

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It's a pretty common complaint that items with some effect with a save DC don't age well. The Frost weapon rune for example has a really cool (..) crit effect. At level 8, DC 24 looks pretty similar to a martial character's class DC, and slightly below a caster's spell DC. But that doesn't last very long; the DC doesn't go up so it quickly becomes trivial for enemies.

As a result, Flaming runes are much more popular in our group, because while the persistent fire damage isn't all that much, at least it keeps working. Now, at level 15 you could get a greater Frost rune with DC 34, but that one also only has so much shelf life. And all it does extra (for a significant chunk of money) is let the damage bypass frost resistance. It's not a choice that has my players shouting for joy.

Similar problems occur with items that make spell attacks, make skill checks, or summon pets.

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Now the simplest thing to do would be to just make the DC scale. Let the frost rune use DC 24 or your class DC, whichever is higher. Actually that'd be nice because it means fewer different DCs that you have to remember. But it also makes the item more powerful. Comparing to the flaming rune: the persistent damage doesn't get higher at higher level while the monsters get more HP so it gets relatively worse. While causing Slowed 1 stays great, if you can make it land.

So I guess it has to cost something. Not unlike how upgrading a Striking rune also costs something.

The question is, how do you do this in an elegant and systematic way? And how much should it cost?

Paizo Employee Designer

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TLDR You can do it with relatively few corner cases creating issues, but there's no simple price for scaling vs. non-scaling. You need to pay for the new level's effectiveness around the time you reach that level.

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The tricky thing is that there is no set price for something like that that would be universally fair and applicable. The problem with scaling DCs is that a cool effect balanced for low levels that scales into high levels quickly becomes an economic problem since you're better off buying lots of cheap low level items than purchasing higher level (and appropriately priced) gear.

So, what you'd really need to do is introduce a way to pay to upgrade the base e.g. level 5 item into a level 8, 11, 14, etc. item by paying / Crafting the appropriate price for an item of the new level to give it the adjusted DC. There will be some edge cases where this could end up introducing an unbalanced effect just because something was tailored for a particular set of circumstances or expectations (uncommon/rare items are the most likely vector for this kind of issue), but it's still a pretty effective solution that avoids the economic issues of scaling DC items that don't impose a scaling cost for the upgrade.

You can do the needed adjustments using the "Building Items" rules in the GMG pretty easily by referring to the charts on page 85.

For example, say we wanted to build a sleep arrow with a better DC that would work against higher level opponents. A sleep arrow is a 3rd level item that skews towards the higher end of cost for its level with a standard magic item DC of 17 for a 3rd level item. If we wanted to make a sleep arrow with a DC of 20, we'd be looking at a 6th level item with a cost of about 48 gp. For a home game, I'd let a player who started with a base sleep arrow subtract the initial price of 11gp from the adjusted price of 48gp, meaning they'd need to pay or Craft up the remaining 37gp to upgrade the arrow.

For something like a specific magic item it could get a bit trickier but for a quick and dirty I'd probably start by assuming that the DC-based special ability of the item is the highest level effect on it and that that is what we're scaling up via such a check, with runes and whatnot needing to be accounted for separately. Similarly, runes that have set DCs and checks need to fall within the boundaries of their initial framework.

So, if we take a dancing rune, it's a level 13 rune that gives a +24 (plus item bonuses from runes) to attack when using its special ability. If we subtract level from that, we'll see that equates to about a +11, which is a pretty high bonus for this kind of item since it's intended to last you for a couple levels from the time it becomes available (a wizard with an 18 Dex and a finesse weapon would only normally have a +8 to their attacks once level was removed from the calculation, couldn't get to +9 until 15th level at the very earliest, and would never hit +10 without nerfing itself in a more critical area; since you can safely assume that the base +11 here more than accounts for any potential stat increases, we're likely looking at just increasing the check by level.) So improving the dancing rune to be e.g. a 16th level item and increasing the check by +3 means we'd likely be looking at increasing the rune's price from 2,700 gp to about 8,950gp. In a home game, I'd let the player pay or Craft to the difference of 6,250gp.


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Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

I am unreasonably pleased that Michael Sayre came up with the same solution (and basically the same math) for this that I did in my home games.

I have also, for specific items, just handed out items that scale automatically as part of their effects. I typically refer to them as bonded artifacts, and they operate on the rule that any DCs associated with them use the class DC (or spell DC) of the wielder. This is a nice way to give unique items that stay relevant, and my PCs seem to appreciate it. Usually the trade off I make with these is that you can't further modify them with crafting, and their sale value is a matter of roleplay rather than having a number attached.

Sovereign Court

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@Michael thanks for that detailed reply! I'll be sure to study those sections :)

@MaxAstro: that seems like a reasonable limitation, and even then I think the auto-scaling that keeps the item relevant would set it apart from your average magic item. Which is fine for items with outsized narrative impact ("artifact"). You aren't going to buy a bunch of low level ones as a cheap run around the wealth system because you can't buy cheap artifacts.

For specific items more generally, I wonder if the "can't get property runes" bit couldn't be altered to be more like "the special abilities count like 1/2 property runes" so that at much later level, you can still add something to it.


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Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Typically what I will do is at a certain point - especially for magic weapons - I will scale the abilities of the item as well. Weapons in particular I always give automatic scaling of fundamental runes in addition to DCs, and I'll try to pick a dramatically appropriate time to reveal a new power or property of the item every few levels, as long as the PC is still using it regularly.

The nice thing about this is that you can scale your caring to the PC's level of caring - if they love the item and use it constantly, do more with it. If they don't engage with it as much, you don't have to engage with it as much.

And of course talk to your players. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the magic weapon suddenly happening to develop exactly the power that fits perfectly into the PC's planned build. :)


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Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

I wonder if there's a way to slap a big ole bandaid on the problem that's easy to use or not use on the fly.

Like Potion of Imbuement (Lesser/Standard/Greater)-> Drink this potion and all your items DCs use your class or spell DC until your next daily preparations. Only effective up to level X (depending on potion rank)

How much would something like that reasonably cost?

Paizo Employee Designer

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WatersLethe wrote:

I wonder if there's a way to slap a big ole bandaid on the problem that's easy to use or not use on the fly.

Like Potion of Imbuement (Lesser/Standard/Greater)-> Drink this potion and all your items DCs use your class or spell DC until your next daily preparations. Only effective up to level X (depending on potion rank)

How much would something like that reasonably cost?

There is no reasonable cost for a consumable like that, it's just too strong. You'd instantly break spellcasters, allowing them to have full martial proficiency with dancing weapons and full casting progression, and you'd be functionally quadrupling (or more) your effective WBL for that entire day (allowing you to go out and grind up more wealth than you could have accumulated normally, come back, buy another potion, and do it again).

Probably the closest you could get to making a balanced version of something like that would be something like-
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Smith's Gauntlet Item 10
Price 150 gp
Usage Worn on one hand; Bulk L
Activate [one-action] (interact) Choose one permanent item you are currently holding or wielding, and then sacrifice 100 gp in money or possessions, plus an additional 100 gp for each level you have above the chosen item's level, up to your current level (for example, a 15th level bard with a 10th-levelmoderate maestro's instrument would pay 600 gp.) The chosen item uses your class DC or spell DC, whichever is higher, for all DCs and checks related to its abilities for 10 minutes.

***

The more specific the affected item is, the cheaper and more long-lasting that effect can be, but even at that price the effect still has areas where things could really implode.

The trick is that some of the biggest factors to items not using class or spell DC currently are economics, complexity, class identity, and leaving the door open to make cool items at lower levels that are very much not supposed to scale.

So, one of the first things the proposed potion would do is largely invalidate something like the magus; sure spellstrike is great and all, but how about being a fighter with a couple key skill and skill feat choices who gets Legendary proficiency in weapons and Master proficiency with scrolls, staves, spellhearts, and every other item they can get their hands on? And how good does it even feel to play a fighter if I can just be a wizard and get Legendary scaling with weapons, spells, and all of my consumables?

Part of the issue with identifying an easy "solution" is that there isn't a balance issue, there's a character identity issue. It's not that the economics are broken or the numbers pegged at the wrong place, it's that the game isn't designed for you to have a key item that's as much part of your identity as your class outside of something like the relic system. Other than intentional upgradeables like base weapons and armor where you can just keep applying runes as you go (and even then you're likely missing out on chances to upgrade to something made from stronger materials), most items and specific variants of weapons and armor assume that you're going to grow out of them every three to five levels, the same way the game's flavor evolves to be a bit higher fantasy at about the same pace.

So a "band-aid" here is more like a full set of hockey gear; you're not covering up a wound because there is no wound, so anything you do outside of working from within the system to extraploate upwards and "color between the lines" is strictly additive in a way that opens a lot of doors intentionally left closed. A consumable that made all your stuff scale to your class or spell DC would be like dual classing with a daily gp cost, except better because you could also dual class on top of it and raise the power level of an option that already raises the power level even higher. Even Crafting guidelines for improving items aren't a completely safe alternative, since one thing they can't account for is items designed or allowed into the game under the specific premise that there is no scaling to their effect, but those at least have the potential to work and retain balance more often than not (even with that, if we were to print such crafting expansions in a future book, it would very likely have a robust sidebar recommending the GM be very careful about allowing the rules to apply to higher rarity items or maybe even entire classes of items.)

Sovereign Court

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What I'm hearing here between the lines is that maybe getting scaling on an item would have to be paid either with money appropriate to the scaling ("I'm not buying a new item, but I'm spending a similar amount of money to keep my old item relevant"), or that it would have to be paid from out of the class feat budget.

Paizo Employee Designer

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Ascalaphus wrote:
What I'm hearing here between the lines is that maybe getting scaling on an item would have to be paid either with money appropriate to the scaling ("I'm not buying a new item, but I'm spending a similar amount of money to keep my old item relevant"), or that it would have to be paid from out of the class feat budget.

Mostly the former, yeah. Paying out of the class feat/feature budget is an option, but the balance is sturdier and more reliable if you're paying to upgrade e.g. a level 10 item to a level 14 item so that your end wealth is roughly the same as if you'd upgraded from your level 10 item to a new level 14 item.


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Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

There is a "problem" in my eyes that something like the potion idea or that gauntlet solves. It's the point where the party is facing an enemy or challenge and searching through their inventory for something, anything, to solve the problem and find something they got 10 levels ago that would be absolutely *perfect*... except it's DC is too low now and they've unknowingly been carrying around useless dross for ~8 levels.

That moment when someone pulls out an item that brings back all the memories from that session from long ago is a real treat.

I think it's way cooler to have a means of utilizing that specific item at that moment rather than saying "welp, should have sold it when you had the chance"

The reason the potion suggestion was a day was so someone could use it on something like a magical invisible hut that had a set DC to see through. I see how it applying to everything would be nuts even at a ridiculous price, so something like the gauntlet imbuing one item at a time is way better.

Maybe an alchemical creation like a philosopher's stone that sits well in the gold conversion theme but is used up and takes a long time to make....

Sovereign Court

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Oh yeah what WatersLethe says, definitely - an old but perfectly appropriate item or consumable that just doesn't have the DC to work anymore. Thing is, you weren't planning to update it during the last shopping expedition, you need it Now.

I wonder if using a hero point to make an item "burn bright" for a short time might work? I think I'd be okay with that for random forgotten items; I wouldn't want people to start buying tons of cheap items from five levels ago to take advantage of it though.


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Prescient Planner and retcon that you did in fact upgrade the item the last time you were in town.

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