- Spending time with people you like.
- Story rewards, allowing me, the player, to tell about the cool things my characters have done
- Gaining XP, allowing your character to get new cool abilities
- Getting magic items, allowing your character to have new cool stuff
I have a hard time maintaining interest in a game if all four of these are not being met. I suck and maintaining commitment to Play-by-Post games because of a lack of #1. I have never had a game where I felt like #2 wasn't trying to be met by the DM, though I have had other players make telling the kind of story I wanted told difficult by going in a very different direction or bringing a very different tone to the table. Generally, I like #3 to move along quickly, but being able to build out my characters to future levels easily with the character builder satisfies much of that craving. That said, even in earlier editions, I had notebooks full of potential builds, feat selections, and skill allocations. That brings me to my love/hate experience with #4.
Magic items are neat, and some of the neatest magic items are too neat to put in the hands of players at a low level. Ancestral weapons or other career-defining items are cool for heroes to have, but characters can very easily outgrow them, leaving them in the awkward position of saying, "Yes, this is my ancestral blade, but that is a +3 flaming greatsword...I'll put my blade away somewhere safe now so it can be handed down to my son when he's a level 1 adventurer." Beyond that, the math that new magic items give a PC is important, and having bigger numbers is just plain FUN. Story purists might argue, but for me, as much as I like story, I want to play a bad-ass as well. Gear is a part of that.
My friend and first DM, Harbinger of Doom, tried to solve this problem in the first long term D&D campaign I ever played in. One of the characters was a blacksmith-turned-cleric who had crafted his very own greatsword. As he leveled up, HoD gave him some opportunities to test himself and strengthen the ties he had with his sword, causing his sword to gain magical properties. Eventually, the Cleric took "Craft Magic Arms and Armor." That helped. Later down the road, my PC, a Fighter/Wizard focused in counter-magic, found an intelligent magic falchion and I had some say in giving it magic capabilities when I performed a ceremony of naming, giving it a name.
In 4th edition, the Transfer Enchantment ritual from Adventurer's Vault solves some of this problem, letting you transfer away old enchantments from your blade, and transferring in new enchantments from other items. And while I love the original DMG principal that all magic items should be cool items that your party will want to use and approach my DMing with both wish lists and the parcel system in its entirety, I find giving the PC who is going to want the flaming greataxe +1-+6 a new slightly stronger flaming weapon, much less flaming greataxe, a little strange. The following is my partial solution to the matter of D&D and Magic Items:
At the end of my PC's first adventure, I gifted each of them with a medal called the "Order of the Prince's Shield." It takes up no item slot and can't reasonably be sold. In-game, the PCs were told that this medal collected ambient residuum given off from the magical nature of the cosmos, strongest where spell effects take place, and uses it to spontaneously strengthen existing magic item enchantments. AKA: it lets me increase the +2 greataxe into a +3 greataxe instead of giving out the upgrade as treasure. This means a PC who really likes the magic sword they found at level 3 can keep that sword his entire adventuring career. It will keep growing stronger. I account for these increases in power as a treasure parcel, and it encourages me to describe each and every magic item I hand out with interesting details, making magic items magical again and a true part of the characters,