I recently read the Paksennarion novels, on the recommendation of Jim Butcher when he was asked in a Q&A about good literary examples of non-abrasive paladins. One of the most interesting things to me about the series is that, even though it seems very inspired by AD&D, the protagonist acquires magical gear rarely and, when she does, she loses it within a few chapters. Sometimes she gets captured and stripped of all her gear, never to see much of it again. Sometimes she realizes the provenance of an item and returns it to its rightful owner. Sometimes she needs to turn over an item as proof of her good intentions. Either way, she uses an item for a few significant scenes, and then it’s gone.
This is very different than the standard D&D playstyle that I’m familiar with, particularly in 3.x-era games. Magical gear is integral to the game math, and it’s not fun for players to lose the mechanical advantage it represents. Players might sometimes give up a piece of incidental gear, and regularly try to trade in weaker gear plus cash for an upgrade, but if the GM engineered Paks-style situations to relieve the players of their gear and send them back to non-magical items, they’d riot. If they discovered an item actually belonged to someone else, they’d expect a reward in exchange for not just keeping it. If an NPC demanded one of their prized items as proof of their intentions, they’d also expect the payoff better well be worth it. Players hate the idea of being captured anyway, and would hate it more if they could never recover stripped gear.
And yet, some degree of regular item turnover would go a long way to fixing the Christmas Tree Effect (the tendency of PCs to become festooned with miscellaneous gear such that they glow like the holidays under Detect Magic). When players are constantly getting new gear and retaining it, it’s hard for any particular item to become interesting or significant the way they are in most fantasy literature. The newest edition of D&D has tried to counter the problem by just giving out much less magical treasure, and limiting how many significant items a single character can attune, but that has its own issues. Like it or not, the magical item cycle is deeply wrought into the flow of D&D: if players go whole adventures without getting new gear, it can feel like they’re not accomplishing much (particularly in a game where XP awards are also standardized).
However, actually losing items (while still gaining them regularly) could have a number of benefits. Firstly, players could prioritize which ones they refuse to give up (and ideally have plot protection against getting stolen): this immediately creates a more traditional fantasy feel where the character has items of significance that stay with her for long stretches. Secondly, items coming and going could slow the need to create an upgrade path: “These monsters were easier to fight when I had a magic sword, and hope to get a new one soon,” is more interesting than, “I’ve had this stupid +1 sword forever, and I need an upgrade.” Finally, it creates more room for experimenting with the varied options for items that are so dense in D&D: there are often items that are mechanically optimal for a particular body slot and character build, keeping players from bothering to try anything that’s more interesting but possibly less effective unless they’ve lost the optimal item.
You could handle this kind of thing with a simple inclusion in the play contract: “Listen, guys, I’m going to give out more magical gear than expected, but I’m also going to engineer a lot of situations to take it away.” But I think it might go down even easier with a carrot, and I’d use something like the following:
- Add in character bonuses similar to the backgrounds, merits, advantages, edges, etc. so common to skill-based systems. These include social bonuses (allies, contacts, mentors, retainers, and that kind of thing) and more esoteric bonuses (supernatural or at least unusual benefits not easily accessible through D&D character options).
- The GM can award these directly when desired (often as quest rewards, or natural outgrowths of actions within the world).
- They are primarily gained though item loss: the value of a piece of gear translates to points that can be spent on bonuses. This translation only happens when an item is disposed of through gifting (allowing the player to spend the points on a relevant social bonus) or through theft (allowing the player to spend the points on the more esoteric bonuses).
- Thus, as characters fluctuate in practical power as they have different amounts of items at different times, each piece of previous gear is reflected in increased character options. Since players tend to value NPCs more when they add them to their character sheets anyway, it’s a win-win.
Ultimately, the benefit given for a lost item doesn’t have to be directly balanced with the mechanical value of the item itself, as long as it’s something the player couldn’t have easily gotten while still keeping the item. It just needs to be enough of a transaction that the player doesn’t feel like a piece of the character was lost without benefit, but was instead exchanged for something else.