Tenkar has a post asking about Magic Shops. My reply grew as I thought of things to add, so I had to write a post, as I needed one for today anyway.
Game balance and maintaining a challenge for players is the key here.
Magic shops are only places where one can acquire inks (from a magical or fantastic creature, like a giant squid’s ink, or the blood of a troll), quills (from a magic creature), paper/vellum/papyrus for scrolls, and some standard items/ingredients for spells. Any special/unique/plot hook worthy ingredients are not to be found.
There would be a market for wizards and others for body parts of various creatures for potions of control, strength, etc. How common is it for busy wizards to trade scrolls, potions, knowledge, etc. for a “favor“, choice of found magic items, body parts, and a lot of gold or gems/jewelry?
Any place with a lot of magic items/ingredients is either a wizard’s tower, occupied, or long “abandoned”, a temple or shrine, or a tomb or dungeon.
All the really good stuff, the players have to find, or find someone who has something they want/need and is willing to trade; or live long enough to have the party wizard make it.
In AD&D 7th level is awesome because scrolls can be made, with the proper materials. Also, potions can be made by wizards and illusionists with the help of an Alchemist. This makes potions, other than healing, hard to come by.
Even holy water in AD&D has rules for how much can be made and the minimum 5th level cleric needed for all the requisite spells. Holy water can be hard to come by if the cleric at the local village shrine is not high enough level or does not possess the appropriate font.
While magic was once common in the ancient world, and many of its marvels still exist and function. Knowledge of all its features and functions are lost to time, or rare manuscripts, or word of mouth teaching from one wizard to the next.
Thus adventurers have to go where they hope there are unexplored ancient ruins, in hopes of finding the things they need to reach a level where they can make their own items or easily make deals to get the good stuff from NPCs.
I have played in games where one could buy anything they wanted, and it overpowered the game and the DM ended up scrapping the campaign and launching a new one that was low magic.
I find it much more interesting to have to figure out how to survive in a low magic campaign where wizards are reluctant to share fireball and lightning bolt with up and coming wizards. What kind of favor is needed to get access to these items?
While magic wands,rods, and staves are fairly common in my brother’s game, finding one that is permanent is rare. If one makes a wand of fireballs, if the wand is not re-charged with at least one fireball within 24 hours, it ceases to be a magic wand. I have a character with a wand of ice that can only do wall of ice, because of this. It still has its uses, but is not the awesome instrument of icy death it once was. This forces much more judicious use of these items. One can blast the enemy into submission, but at what cost?
In my brother’s game, another player finally reached archmage, 18th level, via an ioun stone, and made a very complex staff, that my brother declared is an artifact, due to permanency and very good rolls by the player for the success of most of the spells. It took a lot of time in game, a lot of gold, and a lot of other ingredients and preparations. The accomplishments of this player are much more impressive than a magic rich environment where powerful things are easily required. Back in the early days, I knew players that had archmages, high priests, lords, etc. after a few sessions. Monty Haul syndrome isn’t prevalent among experienced DMs, but can suck a lot of fun out of it.
Even an alchemist making certain kinds of potions should be regulated so that players can’t just buy their way into everything. Even if there were such things, how long until the alchemist is out of ingredients to make more healing potions, or they become scarce and the price goes up?
Or as Gygax advises in the DMG, a huge influx of coin from the dungeons eventually inflates the cost of goods and services?
I am sure one can have a high magic campaign where there is balance, but for me, that would take a lot of thought and effort to plan and keep up with it all and assure a balance.
I do like a Dragon Magazine article that discussed a high level fighter going out to fight a dragon and limping back victorious, but his magic weapon and shield failed their saves, and are no more. I don’t recall which one it was as that was probably 30+ years ago that I read it, but the imagery stuck. That would bring balance with either a high or low magic campaign. One big, bad, nasty dragon gone, two or more permanent magic items destroyed in the fight, along with healing potions, henchmen and hirelings.
If magic is easily acquired, it should be easily lost. Even magic items that are acquired with great difficulty can be easily lost.
A halfling fighter/thief with a girdle of storm giant strength, gauntlets of ogre power, a ring of regeneration, and a +2 sword is nearly invincible in melee. The back stab from such a character is a death blow to the majority of creatures on the receiving end. Who needs to pick locks on doors when you can just run through them? It takes some of the challenge and fun out of it, unless the DM can present challenges, like an invasion of a lot of giants, or massive hordes of orc, or trolls, etc. The DM must give a challenge equal to the power available to the players, or it can become the same old boring slog. A magic shop where one can buy any item in the book, makes that challenge harder to maintain over time in my experience.