I’ve seen some people in my various DnD Facebook groups confused about magic item distribution in 5e. And I realized that, although there is information in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) such as item rarity and function, and tables for randomly generating items found in loot hoards, the thinking behind item design and distribution isn’t very well explained.
And I have the sort of mentality that finds patterns in things like this, so I thought it might be useful to explain a few things I’ve picked out. It may help you understand what’s going on when using the loot tables in the DMG, or deciding for yourself what items to place where in your game.
(Later edit: I’ve just acquired Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, which covers some gaps in the 5e core rules, and that has some of the missing explanation. But I’m going to leave this up, and even finish the series with a follow-up post, because I feel it is worth going through the logic step by step.)
Item rarity and tiers of play
The first concept to get your head around is item rarity. This corresponds fairly closely with item power, so that the least rare items are the least powerful, and really powerful items are really rare. Mainly. The rarity tiers are presented on DMG p135 but for reference:
Common These items, with fairly minor powers, are in most worlds actually available for sale from specialist suppliers like alchemists, herbalists and spellcasters. They are typically priced at 50-100 gold pieces (gp).
Uncommon These somewhat more potent items are not routinely available for sale, but still are not that rare overall. If you do find one for sale, for example at a private auction or a spellcasters’ institution, it is likely to cost 100-500 gp.
Rare If ever sold, Rare (and generally powerful) items are likely to be priced at 500-5,000 gp.
Very Rare If ever sold, you can expect Very Rare (and usually very powerful) items to change hands for 5,000-50,000 gp.
Legendary If you ever cheapen your game so far as to make available one of these mighty and possibly unique items for mere cash, price it at over 50,000 gp
You also should be aware of character tiers. These have numbers rather than official descriptive names, and are described on p15 of the Player’s Handbook (PHB):
Tier 1 Levels 1-4 Described in the PHB as ‘effectively apprentices’, I’m not sure I want to think of them as quite that junior, but they are certainly of a grade that is scattered liberally across most fantasy adventure game worlds. They may lack some of the signature abilities of their classes, but they are able to take on local threats that ordinary civilians can’t cope with.
Tier 2 Levels 5-10 These are proper heroes, able to do fantastic things and face truly monstrous foes. They are important beyond the local level and may save the city or kingdom.
Tier 3 Levels 11-16 These exceptional superheroes can reach beyond the bounds of normal possibility and take on dangers great enough to threaten on a regional or continental scale.
Tier 4 Levels 17-20 At these top levels characters may transcend ordinary mortal limitations and a campaign that reaches this stage often escalates to save-the-world levels of threat. Possibly many worlds.
The upper tiers of magic items are reserved (as a guideline to the DM) for upper character tiers: Rare for Tier 2 and up; Very Rare for Tier 3 and up; Legendary for Tier 4.
Magic item tables
The tables (labelled A to I) for randomly determining magic items in treasure hoards (DMG p144-149) are arranged roughly by rarity category. The predominant category per table is:
|Very Rare||D, H|
Note that each category except Common has two tables. Tables F through I contain items that mostly have combat potential, and can mostly be used repeatedly, often unlimited times. Many also require attunement. In contrast tables A through E contain items that mostly are good for only a single use or a smallish number of uses, and/or are not combat-oriented (for instance items of movement, of carrying or of surviving environmental hazards). I do not think any of these items require attunement.
Without having made an exhaustive assessment of the power level of each item, just accepting the rulebook categorizations for now, I’m going to call the items from tables F through I ‘major’ items, and those from tables A through E ‘minor’ items. (Edit: the distinction is made explicit in Xanathar’s and major and minor are exactly the terms applied.)
Note that there are no Common major items. In fact in the DMG the only Common items are basic healing potions, potions of climbing, and scrolls of cantrips and level 1 spells. These are all single-use items. (There are many more Common minor items in Xanathar’s but still no Common major items.)
Magic items can be found in treasure hoards. Random generation does not use the hoard tables for the belongings of ordinary individual monsters, only the accumulated treasures of large groups of monsters, those of powerful hoarding monsters like dragons, or quest rewards offered by patrons. They’re basically end-of-adventure rewards or boss fight rewards.
The treasure hoard tables (DMG p137-139) are organized by the Challenge rating of the monster guarding the hoard, which therefore roughly corresponds to the level of the party gaining the hoard. There is one table per character tier (that is, the tables are for Challenge 0-4, Challenge 5-10, Challenge 11-16 and Challenge 17+).
|% of Tier 1 hoards||Items present||Average items per hoard|
|24%||1d6 (average 3.5) from Table A||0.84 A|
|15%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table B||0.375 B|
|10%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table C||0.25 C|
|12%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table F||0.3 F|
|3%||1 from Table G||0.03 G|
|% of Tier 2 hoards||Items present||Average items per hoard|
|16%||1d6 (average 3.5) from Table A||0.56 A|
|19%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table B||0.475 B|
|11%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table C||0.275 C|
|6%||1 from Table D||0.06 D|
|14%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table F||0.35 F|
|4%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table G||0.1 G|
|2%||1 from Table H||0.02 H|
|% of Tier 3 hoards||Items present||Average items per hoard|
|14%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table A |
1d6 (average 3.5) from Table B
|21%||1d6 (average 3.5) from Table C||0.735 C|
|16%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table D||0.4 D|
|8%||1 from Table E||0.08 E|
|14%||1 from Table F AND|
1d4 (average 2.5) from Table G
|10%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table H||0.25 H|
|8%||1 from Table I||0.08 I|
|% of Tier 4 hoards||Items present||Average items per hoard|
|12%||1d8 (average 4.5) from Table C||0.54 C|
|32%||1d6 (average 3.5) from Table D||1.12 D|
|22%||1d6 (average 3.5) from Table E||0.77 E|
|4%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table G||0.1 G|
|8%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table H||0.2 H|
|20%||1d4 (average 2.5) from Table I||0.5 I|
Analyzing these distributions, we can find that there is always (below Tier 4, where it does not apply) a small chance of items of a rarity category not recommended for that tier of character. Personally, I would exercise caution here, and maybe reroll specific items that look likely to harm a lower-level game. Also (above Tier 1) a hoard is more likely to contain items of a rarity category below the maximum recommended for that tier of character than items at or above the maximum; Common and Uncommon items do not disappear until the Tier 4 hoards. With the large number and variety of items in the game, new items can be interesting for reasons other than raw power.
|% of Tier 1 hoards||Item power band|
|24%||Under max recommended rarity for Tier 1|
|27%||Max recommended rarity for Tier 1|
|13%||Over recommended rarity for Tier 1|
|% of Tier 2 hoards||Item power band|
|49%||Under max recommended rarity for Tier 2|
|15%||Max recommended rarity for Tier 2|
|8%||Over recommended rarity for Tier 2|
|% of Tier 3 hoards||Item power band|
|43%||Under max recommended rarity for Tier 3|
|26%||Max recommended rarity for Tier 3|
|16%||Over recommended rarity for Tier 3|
|% of Tier 4 hoards||Item power band|
|56%||Under max recommended rarity for Tier 4|
|42%||Max recommended rarity for Tier 4|
Another analysis shows that most items in hoards are minor items. The ratio between hoards of minor and hoards of major declines as you go up the tiers, but is still over 2:1 at Tier 4. The number of items per hoard is also (often, depending on rarity tier) higher for minor than major items.
|% of Tier 1 hoards||Item usability classification|
|% of Tier 2 hoards||Item usability classification|
|% of Tier 3 hoards||Item usability classification|
|% of Tier 4 hoards||Item usability classification|
Quirks in the items available in the specific tables.
Some of the rarity categories (Common and Legendary) have too few minor items to fill a table. So Table A has all four Common items (making up 90% of results), and four of the minor Uncommon items to bring it up to eight entries. And Table E has the four Legendary-tier minor items plus three of the Very Rare ones, bringing it up to seven entries. Most of these out-of-category filler items also appear in their proper tables.
The designers appear to have decided that some armor types (as in, what kind of armor it is before enchantment) are rarer than others with the same enchantment, and that armors of those types therefore appear in higher rarity tables than the base rarity for their enchantment. The armors that appear at their base rarity are chain mail, chain shirt, scale mail and leather. Those that are one table rarer are breastplate, splint mail and studded. Half plate and plate are two tables rarer. If the combination of powerful enchantment and armor type would take the item beyond Legendary, it is squeezed into a seldom-occurring sub-table of Table I.
My best reconstruction of the logic of this armor distribution is this: The cheapest armor type in each weight class (padded, hide, ring mail) is never enchanted. The next cheapest (leather, chain shirt, scale mail, chain mail) is enchanted at the base rarity for the enchantment. The next cheapest (studded leather, breastplate, splint) is enchanted one tier more rarely. And the least cheap (no light armor, half plate, plate) is enchanted two tiers more rarely. This strikes me as a questionable piece of game design that may not be perfect for game balance and, to my mind, gravely offends against in-world logic. I might do a stand-alone post about this.
Finally there are some minor wondrous items that appear in tables of a higher rarity than they have in their description. They are all permanent, unlimited-use utility items (Decanter of Endless Water, Eyes of Minute Seeing, Periapt of Health and Sending Stones are Uncommon items on the Rare table; Horseshoes of a Zephyr and Portable Hole are Rare items on the Very Rare table). My guess is that there was a review of item tiers late in the game design process and these items were revised to a lower tier in their descriptions but it was somehow too difficult to change the tables.
So that is it for my analysis purely of the magic item tables. I will next have a similar look at the level advancement tables, and then I can provide some pointers on questions people have asked about magic items for characters of different levels.