We all remember how much weaker Conan was as a warrior without his magic sword and enchanted armor and how he needed his elven cloak to make a living as a thief, right?
Well, how about the obvious magical properties of Greywand, Scalpel, and Cat's Claw, which made Fafrd and the Grey Mouser mourn their loss?
Whadd'ya mean they just picked up new swords and gave them the same name?
Pulp fantasy is replete with heroes who are on top of the world, loaded down with gold and the very best in equipment one day, and then are down to a loincloth and a sword stolen from the body of a foe the next. Granted there are exceptions: Some heroes, like Elric, have an iconic weapon (and a few other items, like the Ring of Kings, which appeared only to drive the plot). Likewise, King Arthur had Excalibur and Bilbo Baggins came home with his iconic mithril mail, magic ring, and sword Sting and passed them on to his heir. However, one of the flaws in 3rd+ editions D&D (a flaw which The Alexandrian points out is largely based on a misreading of guidelines as absolutes, admittedly) is the assumption that the PCs would have numerous magical items and trinkets augmenting not only their fighting and magical ability (weapons, armor, wands, etc.) but also their skills and even their very stats.
There is certainly precedent in fantasy literature for characters having magical items giving small protections (amulets of warding and the like) as well as giving them additional or augmented skills (the elven cloaks in LotR), but taken too far, not only does the magic go out of the magic items, reducing elven cloaks to the equivalent of army fatigues, but the player characters become dependent on their collections of magic items to such an extent that Elric himself would shake his head in disgust at their addiction.
The solution for my OD&D game is simple: I use new and/or improved skills as a reward as much as magic items, and while magic items are not typically for sale in my world, training is. So instead of presenting a party with magical bows and arrows, elven cloaks, or a chest of gold, the rangers of the Westwood might instead spend a summer teaching the party members any combination of survival skills (including tracking), stealth, herb lore, animal handling and empathy, etc. A grateful lord might not have a magic sword on hand to give away, but he might have the captain of his knights teach the PCs better horsemanship and a general knowledge of the gentry of the area. A party preparing for a spelunking expedition won't be able to buy boots of spider climbing, but they can spend the time and money to improve their climbing skills instead.
In fact, such training could extend to the gaining of levels as well, if the referee is using either the acquisition or the expenditure of gold as the primary source of experience points in a game. Those rangers of the Westwoods might be poor in cash, but able to train the PCs another 200o experience points towards their next level instead.
The downside to this system is that the referee has to be extra cautious about giving out rewards. Gold and magic items can be taxed or stolen from the PCs inventory if the referee gives too much away, but skills, once given, cannot be so easily taken back. However, since the skills system being used here employs only modest bonuses to checks as a rule, a moment of weakness should not unduly imbalance a campaign.
Next up, we'll look at the actual skills guidelines as well as a reworking of the thief class based on that system.