Booty Talk

Booty Beginnings

Treasure has been part of roleplaying games since the beginning. Loot or some sort of expendable resource appears in almost every game, analog or digital, in some form. In the early D&D game, the treasure distribution stems from a worthy desire to replicate the collection of powerful weapons the trolls had in The Hobbit or the huge hoard of Fafnir in the Volsunga Saga or the nameless dragon in Beowulf. It places mystic items in hard to reach places to simulate the objects of fantasy quests throughout the ages. What would Arthur be without Excalibur and the Holy Grail? What would Elric be without Stormbringer?

Trouble is, too many games handle loot poorly. This is something I realized painfully while playing Dragon Age: Origins. The game has a great story with a lot of depth, but little to none of this depth is contained within the items one finds. Treasure, money and otherwise, is given in a context that has little meaning to the player. Open a box, receive riches that might or might not be useful, go on. Accumulated wealth goes only to buy similar items in shops, and some of that equipment is way more interesting than anything one can find. I want to hear about fabulous items and seek them out, or to learn how to replicate a mythical device through my adventures.

One could argue, though, that the Dragon Age video game, having been produced for wide consumption, couldn’t be much better with regard to treasure. Treasure can’t be tailored to the player in a video game like Dragon Age, right? Wrong. Any game can be constructed to make you, the player, care about certain items so that you seek them out or gather the materials to create them. What’s required, then, is a purpose and a story behind the item, as well as hook leading you to desire the object or its creation.

Sure, it’s too much to ask that every bit of treasure be somehow unique. But crafted carefully, numerous objects of desire, with or without magical enhancement, can lead to a narrative that is more interesting and more about a player’s desires. Such items just need a purpose and a hook, and significant effort must be expended to acquire them. Rewards then become more personal. They evoke an emotional response or investment from the player, and they can drive further adventures.

Magic items, especially, need to stand out as exceptional. They need to be more than mundane gear, through exception-based mechanics and other neatness. But good story placement and cool powers aren’t always enough if the item is something a character needs to own to live up to a game’s expectations.

Pitiful Plunder

One of the problems with the usual take on treasure, especially magic items, is that most of them provide simple mechanical benefits without doing anything truly interesting. This isn’t a fault in and of itself, since magical trinkets need to affect the game in some way. The essence of the problem, in my mind, is when the game renders such mechanical bonuses mundane by assuming the characters have them. The developers increase the challenges in the game based on such assumptions, rendering the potentially fantastic merely necessary.

Unfortunately, then, acquisition of items then becomes an arms race, rather than an interesting series of narrative events that change the game and give it personality. It’s worse if the game’s math and methodologies requires nonplayer characters to keep up with the escalation. That’s how you end up with armies armed with magic items, and dime-a-dozen +1 swords. It’s also how come to all sorts of narrative shenanigans to deprive victors of spoils. Anyone who hauled a massive trove of drow items to the surface for the first time in older versions of D&D knows this pain.

Needing magic items simply to keep up with a game’s increasing challenge curve is counter to keeping magic items wondrous. That applies from the days of early D&D‘s “can only be hit by +1 or better weapons” monsters to 3e’s DR system, all the way to 4e D&D’s assumed +1 to +6 magic item enhancement bonus curve. It applies to target numbers that assume skill bonuses from magic items. A challenge curve like that makes me wonder why a game bothers to include “magic items” at all, because that sort of curve then relegates these objects to banality. This triviality of “magic items” is exacerbated when one must replace items casually to avoid being behind the curve statistically. (D&D includes planned obsolescence, because treasure has to be part of the game, and the default method of placing treasure is simpler than other alternatives.)

To be truly wondrous and avoid contrivances, mechanical or narrative, a magic item needs to affect the game in a manner that is outside the norm. A mere +1 sword becomes something extraordinary if the game system in which the sword appears ignores that +1 in the game’s attack roll resolution math. Then, a warrior with a magic sword is something to hold in awe and fear. Now imagine a +5 holy avenger in that context. Maybe it’s too good, but I’d rather that than the idea that Sting becomes obsolete when Frodo hits 16th level.

Satisfying Spoils

The alternative rewards systems, as presented in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 and expanded in Dark Sun Campaign Setting, goes a long way toward allowing the type of wondrous magic items I’m talking about. Fixed, or inherent as I call them, enhancement bonuses based on character level allow you and me, as DMs, to ignore a large portion of the statistics of the challenge curve. These alternative reward systems also imply, at least, a richer narrative environment for character wealth, mundane and magical.

Dark Sun Campaign Setting makes it clear that a character gains an extra +1 per point of fixed enhancement bonus to attack and damage rolls. That evokes a seeming of great, crushing skill in combat. I can easily imagine Conan’s Hyboria as a fixed-enhancement-bonus world, with Conan terribly wounding a dragon with a dagger tied to a pole, as he did in the “Red Nails” novella. Having this critical increase tied to an inherent character trait is another way the fixed-bonus system is good for wondrous magical treasure. A good magic weapon can change the die type of you extra critical damage, but it doesn’t give you that damage.

Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 and Dark Sun Campaign Setting tell you how to alter your treasure distribution if you use a fixed enhancement bonus. Personal belief and experimentation have shown me, however, that you can be even more casual about items and alternative rewards than these systems suggest. You can give far fewer magic items and boons, and far less monetary treasure, and still have a fun and rewarding games. Further, you needn’t have players provide wish lists at all—except as potential hooks for adventures all about acquiring a desired item. In a gaming environment enhanced with the alternative rewards rules, the characters can find what you, the DM, have time to select and impart. You can also take items away at dramatic moments, or encourage, with sufficient payoff, players to sacrifice items for cinematic reasons.

The new rarity rules in D&D Essentials enhance this flexibility. Using alternative reward rules, you can focus on the uncommon and, especially, the rare items. You can also throw in a few common items here and there as a substitute for monetary rewards. In my games, I’m aiming not only for fewer items, but also items  that add interest and wonder to the game. Sometimes the characters find these items, and other times they find such objects, much like the signature items you see in the hands of characters in fantasy literature.

Where Essentials loses me is with the suggestion that rare and uncommon items “are not normally created in the current age of the world” and “are now found only as part of treasure hoards.” (The emphasis is mine.) Both statements cleave to simplicity, for designers and players, at the expense of narrative richness. The latter quote is also needlessly absolute, closing design space that could be filled in later product for advanced players. As a DM, I’d assume such items were never “normally created” in any age, but are instead the results of unique processes that have to be relearned and duplicated. In other words,  a character can adventure to find such an item, or adventure to learn to create one. Often, the finding is much easier than the making, and the process might be so arduous that making more than one such item is impossible. In other words, the intrepid DM still has control.

If you’re a really bold DM, you can use magic items with enhancement bonuses that stack with fixed bonuses. Magic armor like this might live in the niche where masterwork armor exists now. You’d have to be a little more careful with weapons and defensive items, limiting them to about +1 per tier (with some wiggle room). Given the system math, not considering all possible alterations from existing game elements, such items should still be fine alongside fixed enhancement bonuses. This is especially true for weapons and implements if you favor higher player character accuracy than what the game assumes, as I do.

Looking at Loot

All this talk is philosophical, and I’m sorry if that’s less than satisfying, but this essay is more about the spirit of change than execution of that change. Implementation of the idea is something I’m still working out in my D&D game. I also know that some systems, such as GURPS, already allow what I’m talking about. When I reach a resolution, I’ll let you know.

Others among my gaming buddies have mentioned alternative solutions to the same problem in passing. I’d like to see what they think, even philosophically, in writing. I’d also enjoy reading your comments.

Comments

  1. Treasure and magic items is something that I’ve been trying to work on for awhile, so I’m interested in reading more of your posts on the topic.

    Thanks

  2. I agree completely. Last week I took a stab at some rules to support the idea of a Signature Item that grows with the character.

    the result is pretty long… the rule got away from me. Still looking for a way to do this that is simple & flavorful.

    http://www.rocket-ajax.com/2010/10/rough-draft-signature-items-4e-houserule/

  3. I had very similar thoughts about the campaign I’m about to start up. Magic items are far too common in standard D&D, which makes them unexciting when they do show up. I decided to use inherent bonuses in my campaign so I could place all the magic items manually and logically, flavoring every “drop” to the campaign. Having the freedom to do this without screwing up the game’s math is very liberating. :)

  4. Great article; I’ve been frustrated by the same issues through every edition of D&D. To me, the very idea of wish lists in 4E seem to be simply giving in to this issue. I don’t find wish lists fun either as a DM or as a player.

    My solution has been to simply cut way back on the treasure, and make the game about other things. In my current campaign, only one player has a magic weapon, and it’s part of his schtick. The magus has a couple of wondrous items–which, in this context, really seem wondrous–and that’s part of his schtick. No magic items are de rigeur.

    This works (with the occasional challenge adjustment) for a game that stays in mid to low levels, but as the levels increase the disparity between the assumed player power level and what they can actually do increases.

  5. Great article. I agree that magic items often become mundane pretty quickly. This was made even more so with the treasure parcel system in 4th Ed. In many respects, I like the parcel system as it makes things easier for the DM, but the problem is, as you state, that the +2 Battle Axe is no longer awesome so much as merely a required tool. Only artifacts get much in the way of special treatment and they almost always go away relatively quickly.

    I think the key is to try to find things that are not “normal” rewards to give to players, be they magic carpets, special mounts, or whatnot. In a game I played in recently, we (the players) thought it really cool when we picked up riding horses in our first session as part of a mission. Its not that they are all that special, but our groups rarely, if ever, actually spent the money on horses since it wasn’t terribly economical to do so given that too often they were rendered useless (hard to take the horse into the dungeon). Getting them for free though was pretty cool and my runepriest immediately thought about looking into mounted combat and possibly getting a warhorse later on. Suddenly a simple mundane mount is potentially going to alter my character noticeably.

  6. It’s no secret that I Hate Magic Items.

    In Epic tier, I’m experimenting with something along the lines of the following:

    • Inherent Bonuses for everybody.
    • Each PC can have 3 magic items “attuned.” That gives them access to all the benefits and powers of those items at all times.
    • Each PC also gets 1 floating magic item use per day for something they don’t have attuned.
    • Other items are given out by the DM, but at a significantly lower rate.
    • Alternative rewards, however, are much more common. Each PC is getting a custom alternative reward to start the tier.
    • Gold is pretty much worthless for purchasing where the party will be going. Astral Diamonds will be the defacto currency, and in very small numbers. Gold can still be used for building, bribing some creatures, etc.

    At the point where the party is, it makes sense for them to all own Dice of Auspicious Fortune and other similar staple items. That’s both boring and artificially inflates their power level. While I don’t mind them doing more damage and hitting more often, I still want to be able to reasonably throw challenges at the party. They’re going to be powerful enough without being able to choose their dice rolls.

    I haven’t seen many examples of Rare items, except for the Holy Avenger preview. I’m really hoping that they’re flavorful and interesting, because I’d be fine with just having to choose Rare items for the rest of my campaign. Unfortunately, I’m not hopeful.

  7. Chris: I’m right there with you through this entire post! This is exactly what I want from a D&D game and from the majority of my players I can tell it’s what they’d prefer also. I actually have one player who loves the troves of more common magic items and having a different use for each type of item his character is wearing, but I’m hoping to make him happy with this kind of solution because the magic items they do get should be much more special. My solution will probably be similar to what you suggest and what Dave mentioned, but I’m pretty sure the specifics are something every DM is going to have to fine tune for their own game in the end.

    I’m actually planning an in-game method of changing over from the base 4E system to the inherent bonuses and rare magic items that you talk about, and I’m very excited to see how it plays out!

  8. I’m of a few minds on this. I think when the items fit too closely with the growth of the character, they feel “on the rails”. It ceases to be a tangible reward and simply becomes part of linear character progression. It’s the reason I still give out experience points instead of just leveling at milestones even when I clearly know when the group will level. As a player, I like to track that sort of tangible thing.

    I think its sort of the difference between Fallout 3 and Borderlands. Fallout 3 had a lot of items but few really unique items. There were only a handfull of “named” weapons that were significantly better than the standard rifles you found. Borderlands, on the other hand, was like Diablo. You’d kill a guy and four unique weapons would spill out on the ground.

    Both games have their draws as far as loot as concerned. I haven’t yet run a game using the essentials rules. I’m not about to start limiting items with only 3 games left in my 101 session 1 to 30 campaign. However, when I do, I’ll probably totally randomize it using the Rules Compendium rules. Commons are plentiful if you have the cash. Uncommons and rares are random. When they find a magic vendor, that vendor might have a random item or two just to spice things up.

    I’ll probably be running Dark Sun next, though, in which loot is handled much differently. We’ll see how my players like it.

    Really good discussion!

  9. Good post. I more or less agree.
    This made me think of what may be the topic for another article, which is making loot necessary, that is, arranging backstory incentives for heroes to gather money. Obvious examples might include paying a ransom, buying back the family farm, and buying out an indentured servitude contract…

  10. The system I plan on using for the next game I run is based on discussion in the following thread:
    http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19939830/Two_birds_with_one_stone:_Magic_Items_and_Weapon_Expertise

    What I want to use is described in these two posts:
    http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19939830/Two_birds_with_one_stone:_Magic_Items_and_Weapon_Expertise&post_num=69#450796589
    http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19939830/Two_birds_with_one_stone:_Magic_Items_and_Weapon_Expertise&post_num=70#450797477

    Simple version is that instead of +1/2 level to all attacks and defenses, characters get +21 to attack and defense spread evenly over 30 levels, as well as +4 to damage. Magic weapons and armor now grant +1 every 10 levels instead of every 5 (+1 in heroic tier, +2 in paragon, +3 in epic).

    This makes magic weapons and armor more rare and more special. It also eliminates “math fix” feats like Weapon Expertise. Magic items besides weapons, implements, armor, and neck-slots are still as common as normal, unless you want to limit them or use boons instead.

  11. As has been stated by a few others here, great article! I have become exhausted with trying to keep up with 4e’s treasure parcels. I like the idea of grading the rarity of items in Essentials, but with a campaign that is 2 years old, I’m not sure how to go about doing that…

    The players in my game are 12th level and have so many powers that they rarely even consider using the powers associated with their magic items anyway. The Warlord uses his regularly, but he’s probably the most tactically minded player at the table. None of them want to make wish lists. I am trying to use a spreadsheet to track the treasure I’m supposed to distribute and I have a separate spread sheet to try to keep track of what everyone is currently using. It’s a mess, really….and I’m not sure how I got myself into this predicament.

    I’m not sure what direction I’m going to go with this, but I like the idea of an item that scales with the character. I love that I don’t have to deal with all the body looting, and characters dragging full suits of armor back to town (we’ve decided that any mundane equipment on a monster is basically useless after the fight), but it seems just as messy with the amount of treasure that is expected to be distributed in a single level.

  12. My thoughts exactly! Coming up with loot had become the most arduous task of encounter design by the time DMG2 came out and the inherent bonuses went in use immediately. I’m still not entirely happy – I’d like to see something along the lines of Conan stories, where items can be quite powerful, but they come and go and are sacrificed at a whim to solve a story goal.

    I have toyed with the idea of turning many permanent items to “consumables” – potions, oils, or powders that give mundane items one-shot “daily” powers. Magic arrows instead of bows and so on… That would allow me to give out quite powerful stuff, but not let items get out of hand. The players still do want to find cool loot after all.

  13. In an old campaign I let a paladin PC sacrifice evil captured items to enhance his own sword by an equivalent gold amount.

  14. sevenbastard says:

    when I started my most recent campaign I just told my players magic items would be rare, and then just played as is, no adjustments to the pc just slightly
    less chalanging encounters. Problem solved.

  15. A lot of the problem with 3rd edition d&d was not just the reliance on magic items for PC competence, but that invariably all your item ‘budget’ would be spent on several essential yet boring enhancements: Weapon and armor enhancement bonuses, Deflection bonus to AC, saving throw buffs, and skill buffs. This is boring, boring boring.

    For a Pathfinder game, we’re using points that PCs get starting at 2nd level that can be spent on enhancement bonuses, saving throws, and skill bonuses that explicitly don’t stack with any magic items, and are capped at a reasonable per-level limit.

    This serves to separate character competence from acquisition of gear and really adds a level of freedom to selecting equipment, especially for the martial classes. The result is that people actually go for flavorful equipment instead of whatever has the most plusses.

  16. Part of the problem, I think, is that finding a cool treasure is “fun” and so some players want and expect to be constantly finding that next point of enhancement bonus. It’s hard to reconcile that with the idea that magic items are only interesting if they are fairly significant.

    Maybe you could hand out a lot of powerful single-use items? So instead of opening a chest and saying, “Joy, I can replace my +3 dagger with a +4 version,” the power-player opens the chest and says, “Joy, it’s a blood rune +4, I can get +4 to attack and damage on one attack! I’ll save it for my Daily.” You still have the issue of the magical becoming the mundane, but at least the “must keep up my enhancement bonuses” problem goes away.

  17. Very good point, Will, but I think that only really only applies to a small percentage of players. For instance, I personally hate consumables or one use items, because I always want to save them for the “best opportunity” but that opportunity either never presents itself or when it does I hesitate to use the item and miss the opportunity. Either way, the item is wasted.

  18. Me, I like wishlists, the parcel system, and magic items the way they are. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like another system as much or more, just that I’ve gotten used to whatever quirks are in this one.

    I guess part of what I like is the de-emphasis on loot, which was part of the promise of 4E. In the stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, they carried personal, named blades but those weapons were changed out frequently. The stories were more about the characters themselves.

    Sting /was/ obsolete, compared to the adventures Frodo wound up facing. His newer treasure, the Star-glass, was much more of a threat to Shelob than Sting, and I’d say it was more Sam’s bravery and rage that drove off Shelob than the wound Sting gave her. At the same time, Gimli’s used the same axe the entire time, which might not have even been “magical.”

    Don’t sweat treasure, is my advice.

  19. I’ve been using the inherent bonus system since I started up my 4e Dark Sun game. I have to say that we love it. I don’t think I’m ever going back. In addition to increasing the wonder, the players don’t have to be “married” to a particular set of gear for their build. They are now trying new things out for flavor or because it suits their fancy instead of “because it allows my guy to get a bonus to such and such.” The other day, they had a really tough fight and found a set of iron armbands of power (sufficiently reflavored and described to increase the wonder-factor)… they went crazy for it. In any other campaign we’ve done, that would have been sold off because everyone probably already had a set. It was a sight to see.

  20. It makes me wonder what we did back in AD&D.

  21. Dragon Age’s treasure method made character development much more important than gear or treasure. That seems proper. I just wanted to add that the nature of treasure in D&D can similarly allow a focus on characters and their abilities sans gear. It should, given class powers and such. The strangeness is that the system math forces you to care about gear—even with fixed bonuses, which are slightly worse than gear escalation should be.

    See Sly Flourish below for a little on Fallout 3. Borderlands is somewhere in the middle—it is about gear and about your character’s primary schtick.

    Two takes on this problem are useful. One is that gear is further regulated to a secondary or tertiary role, ala Conan. Another is that magic items become more powerful and rarer. Also, you can have both in a system that not only has interesting and strong rewards, but also a method of rewarding item sacrifice or dramatic loss, especially by player choice.

    I’m still plotting what to do in my future D&D games. Fair warning: I’m stealing from you guys.

    Ethan: I was going to post on your site, but for some reason, it won’t take. I recommend against at-will powers on items, and a stringent limit on encounter powers (one, or two at most). Since the current game can allow a daily power in up to eight slots, but usually around half of those if the DM is careful, I’d recommend more dailies. Maybe three.

    Cap’n Spud: That’s what I’m after, too. Seems like we’re on the same wavelength.

    Charles: Cutting back on treasure is what I’m about, too. My players seem only marginally interested in it anyway. The combination of fixed bonuses and rarity is just what I need to keep the math on track and accomplish my goal.

    Gargs: I agree. I wish it was easier to teach people to do that, and I wish D&D did more of that. I’m pleased with the alternative reward system’s attempt at this. It’s not easy.

    Dave: I like the attunement idea coupled with a floating magic item use. I wish there was a way to make nonmagical treasure cooler. I’d like to see more guidelines for DMs designing magic items, especially with the idea of combining common/uncommon items to get uncommon/rare items.

    Bartoneous: I too am still working it out. I’ve been unsatisfied with the default for a while.

    Sly Flourish: I’m not necessarily advocating straight leveling of one item or something like that. I’m thinking about items that change and evolve, or are unique, but a system that’s less complex and mundane than the existing one can become. I really like the random rules in Essentials, too, but that was a little off topic for this essay.

    One thing I liked about Fallout is that the items you made were often better than those you could find. Or they had unique effects that were just fun. That made seeking out schematics a must-do task for me. I soon figured out how easy it was to acquire parts, which made exploration a little easier on me, too.

    Erik: Yes, this sounds like what I’m after, too.

    Mike: You got yourself into the predicament innocently and gradually if you’re anything like me. I noticed similar problems when my Dark Sun PCs were about 6th or 7th level. What the default system doesn’t tell you is that you need to be careful about the number of item powers you give out. That’s another way rarity can help. I recommend just using rarity when you can.

    MAK: I love the Conan feel, too, which can be accomplished with the Dark Sun model if you’re careful. Having to be careful is the main obstacle to ease of use.

    I’m sure you could make an interesting game with consumables, but I’m there with others who say this changes the feel of the game’s magic. Of course, if impermanent magic is what you’re after, that’s cool. See also Will and Erik below.

    Sian. Cool. Flavorful is what I’m after in more ways than one.

    Will: See MAK above. I feel similarly about the quest for the next enhancement bonus. It can be tedious. I do like the idea of consumables that allow you to bring down the BOOM! sometimes, though. Such a system could exist within what I’m formulating or alongside other systems.

    Erik: I’ve seen similar situations among players and in my own play in D&D and video games that provide limited consumables. I think I’ll institute a policy of trust in my D&D game—use the consumable, and you can trust that you’ll have others to use in the future.

    pdunwin: I agree wholeheartedly with “don’t sweat the treasure.” That’s part of what I’m after. The thing is, the parcel system can make treasure a chore, especially if you don’t have a wish list to reference. (This is the genius of the wish list, by the way, for all you DMs who decry them. It puts the task of treasure selection mostly on the players. And you can still ignore it. Players doing some of the lifting is good.)

    Iserith: I’ve had similar experiences. I’ll probably never go back to running a game without fixed bonuses, although I am curious about using the Essentials random generator.

    Tourq: If you were like me, you rolled randomly and called it good. I’m happy to see the random brought back to D&D. Now all we need are actual random item tables to stock with items sans wish lists.

  22. maddogtime says:

    Damn. Late again. Hello?

    Anyways, if anyone reads this; how about treasure created specifically for the encounter or the session or indeed, a select part of an ongoing campaign?

    One-shot? item comes in just in the nick of time and helps (no deus ex of course) the adventurers achieve their goals. This could be used even out of combat, for example in skill check situations >
    Hello, miscellaneous magic item of wonder who just came in handy right now.

    Dragon slain? Lich turned to dust? Holy avenger goes: “Great working with you chaps, now if you will excuse me I am horribly late for another engagement” *POOF* Magic item goes away.

    Anyone still around to comment, please do.

  23. maddogtime says:

    or the item could lose some of it’s power but still remain in the adventurer’s possession..

  24. maddog: In general I like the idea of an item designed around a specific encounter (you’ll need this special oil of rustiness to slay the golem). The problem is that it can be difficult to do at times without it feeling all deus ex machina-ish. The example with the Holy Avenger for instance, I like the leaving part of it, but where, how and when did the party come into it? If it just *pops* in for the encounter, it’ll seem a bit off in my opinion.

    However, I really like the idea of the skill use. One of the things I’ve been trying to work on in my own games is a) giving the players options other than just attacking in combat and b) encouraging them to find/use those options. A recent example was my players had a fight in a room with some sort of magic circle in it. At the end of the fight, they finally got around to examining the circle and learned that they could spend an action to regain HP as if they had spent a surge. It was limited in the number of times it could do this of course, but the idea was for them to find it during combat since the party was without a healer. Although they didn’t find it until after, I’m hoping that this will encourage them to be more curious during the fight rather than just waiting until after.

    So getting back to your Holy Avenger example, perhaps the lich is fighting in a room with a bunch of suits of armor, etc. Maybe one of those suits of armor’s sword is actually the Holy Avenger which is supressing its aura from the lich so that it wasn’t detected. This essentially turns the Holy Avenger into a minor artifact while also helping to deal with some of the inherent grind in higher level combats.

  25. maddogtime: Your proposal is another part of a DM’s bag of tricks. It’s particularly effective in situations where the PCs need to defeat an enemy that might otherwise be undefeatable. I also really like the idea of the artifact-like item that becomes normal (less powerful) after its purpose is fulfilled.

    All sorts of narrative reasons can take place in the game to explain the change in the item. I imagine a holy avenger bound with the soul of a paladin who failed to slay the bad guy in the past. When the bad guy dies, the soul departs but the item stays.

  26. Although it’s a very CRGP-y concept, I’ve always thought that socketed items could work very well in D&D. An item is what it is, but if it has a socket (or maybe several) the PC can customize it to some extent. How exactly one could get whatever one puts in the socket, how long it lasts, whether it can be removed, etc. — those rules can be complex or simple, according to taste. It would be perfect material for an Unearthed Arcana-style options books.

  27. I completely agree. when i started playing d&d (only about half a year ago now) i sat down to DM my first session which i had tediously written out myself (tip #1: be prepared to fail at trying to write an adventure for the first time) i had a difficult time figuring out the treasure parcels. I took those parcels and realized that for the 2 levels my adventure planed to cover i would be giving out +1 items all over the place, which was really frustrating for me considering that the big climatic battle for the adventure was to obtain an awesome sword (never got far enough to figure out which sword i wanted it to be). I remember how frustrating it was trying to figure out how i was going to make this particular +1 goodie stand out from the rest. how can i make more awesome and worthwhile having if its the same as all the other weapons the parcels have had me give out are just as good in the numbers.

    Look at the Zelda games, like does not defeat the water temple only to find out he needs a new master sword, the master sword is special but not from any differences in the game mechanics, but the story behind it.

  28. @Michelle
    3.5 kind of stepped into this with weapon and armor crystals, that added minor abilities to said weapons and armor. It would be pretty trivial to standardize this, and let enhanced items carry more of these crystals than standard (though to be fair, swapping crystals was an easy task anyway)

  29. Yes, yes yes. I’ve long had problems with the moribundity of magic items in D&D and the arms race you describe.

    For a start it tries to make all D&D campaigns more similar. Give us a options, a sliding scale dammit!

    My campaign is low-to-medium magic and low-metal (not quite as much as Dark Sun or in the same ways). Heavy armour in particular is a bad idea when all travel is by sea. I’m perfectly happy to heavily restrict magic items and other equipment in order to reinforce the flavour and themes of the setting. I have to take this into account when designing encounters, but that’s a lot more fun than trawling magic item lists anyway.

    Various blogs around frequently write much more interesting magic items than appear in official books. A magic item entry should be like reading some cool new race or quest idea. Never should a player be able to keep using a magic item while simultaneously forgetting that they have it. If it’s just an update to their character sheet and nothing else, then I don’t want it in my game.

  30. I appreciate the post, and the spirit behind it.

    Treasure and magic items vs the power growth curve has actually been an issue from the beginning, tied to the larger issue of the cognitive dissonance most settings have with the existence of said magic not changing the setting they it should have.

    I remember a spirited analysis over a medievalesque setting. We looked at the amount of casting clerics and the spells per day and totally created heals per day, and realized that the squalor and disease he was trying to convey would never happen based on the abilities to purify the water, stop diseases before they got going, etc. And this was just one of quite a few dimensions we found gross dissonance.
    There is also the problem of the focus of the game. You speak of making the items more interesting; but every example given in the comments is defined by combat bonuses. When the game is shut down to 1 dimension, this causes more problems, both proximate and large-scale. There are a number of comments about describing and individualizing the items, but the need to do this is enhanced when they are all doing the same type of thing.
    Bigger picture, when the power growth furve is steep, and the mechanics are mainly combat based; the PCs need to have balancing NPCs, normally in a single-tailed bell curve distribution. However, the existencve of these NPCs, who also must have adventured (logically) to have gained these levels and their own magic items stretches the uniqueness and specialness ideals beyond breaking.

    However, I find the idea of needing to literally screw with the internal physics and make static itmes change based on who is using it a complete cop-out, and enough of a dissociative mechanic that it would seriously impede immersion. No insult meant, but I try to look at possible mechanical fixes in terms of how it affects the players ability to ignore disbelief anbd stay with the game-internal narrative.

    As I mentioned in the beginning, magic item placement has always been an issue in many games. The more encounters and parcels are biased on the fluid data point of the character’s level, as opposed to internal logic of the setting, these problems will exist.

  31. In my campaign, the second magic item to be handed out was a Lifedrinker sword (From the Kobold Hall adventure at the back of DMG1 I believe?); I had already given out a +1 longsword that was rather underwhelming as part of the starter-set adventure (Trouble Under Harken?), so I didn’t want to double up on two very similar swords, especially as our Barbarian had decided to go for Executioner’s Axe proficiency as a feat right off the bat. My solution was to remove the Lifedrinker sword from the treasure parcel, and whoever dealt the death-blow to the dragon would find the dragon’s blood granting their current weapon the life drinker’s stats.

    It worked rather well, to the point where the Barbarian decided to keep the dragon’s head as a victory trophy having dealt the deathblow. And now, 6 levels later, he was gutted when a rust-monster ate it.

    This is pretty much using just the 4E DMG reward guidelines; but I *have* been very stingy on giving out magic items, AND I’ve caused them to spend a lot of cash (buying a raise-dead ritual; I’ve been forcing them to keep very careful track of provisions, food in inns, sun rods, etc etc) on sundries which has curtailed their ability to buy powerful items.

    What I’d like to see is a simple algorithm (maybe a java based web-applet?) that uses the Rules Compendium guide to auto-parcel loot for you; giving players totally random and unexpected loot without me having to plough through the PHB, Adventurer’s Vault 1&2, and other source books for items, making a comprehensive list, then trying to randomise it myself.

    But, someone would first have to go through those source books and allocate “Common, Uncommon, and Rare” values to each one – not an impossible task given the general outlines for the items.

  32. Lovely article!

    The way I’ve handled it in my current 4e campaign is a combination of inherent bonuses and item breakage, the setting being close to the ‘default’ 4e D&D world with the idea that magic is quite common. Items break due to chance and circumstance, usually initiated with a natural one attack or a monster scoring a critical hit on them. Weapons break, staffs explode, and armor shreds, depending on the situation and using a heavy dose of DM control with an eye on narrative. Something like a saving throw to save the item gives enough player control to prevent “oh, your stuff breaks, too bad” feelings, while keeping things moving.

    Player response has generally been good, most of them willing to pick up other items that would otherwise be ignored, because they aren’t worried about the item’s plus value and more about what it does. 4e items tend to vary in property, daily/encounter power, and level. With inherent bonuses replacing item level, the only things to worry about in handing out loot is the item property and powers. By limiting item powers to uncommon or rare items, that leaves item property, something I find easy to add to an item for a minor mechanical bonus, and tons of story. For example, the soft leather gloves the rogue found in the lair of the necromancer has a +2 bonus to Thievery checks, but happens to also be the key to unlocking sealed chambers within the necromancer’s tomb. After the tomb, they just provide a small mechanical bonus, but the player enjoys them much more because of what he accomplished with them in the past. If the gloves happen to be melted in the final encounter with the death wizard or later, it’s not as big a loss because it was only a Thievery bonus mechanically, leaving room for more loot.

    At some point, I ran across my players who found something that they really wanted to hang on to, primarily for story reasons. The rune priest landed the killing blow on a massive earth elemental and decided he would like to carve its heart into a hammer. No problem. Later on, when it nearly shattered on the face of a mighty dragon as the entire party was hugging their last hit points, he made a skill check to unlock the latent power of the earth elemental inside his hammer, and land a second, killing, blow. Now he has what the players admit is a rare item complete with awesome daily power, and gradually unlocking more properties, such as a perception bonus in areas that are primarily stone. Although the item is still breakable, as a DM I won’t permanently destroy it unless it is eventually overshadowed by something else the player finds too cool to pass up. Of course, that’s a shrinking possibility as its powers and legend grow, directly influenced by player actions.

    My last point was item creation. I totally agree with you Chris, in that “a character can adventure to find such an item, or adventure to learn to create one”. One of my players like to play support-focused characters such as a gnomish tinkerer or dwarven engineer and blacksmith. As such, I often let him craft items such as platemail from kruthik armor, with a acid resist property or red dragonscale mail with fire resist. The idea is if a player wants to become a legendary item creator and imitate Elrond in reforging the sword that was broken, why not? Mechanically handled as a skill check with varying degrees of success and the dwarf is almost happier with the dragon corpse than the fair maiden that they rescued, knowing that the paladin could use some fire resist because of a careless wizard. As a limiter to prevent excess item crafting, I add component or monetary requirements for items of uncommon or rare status. The only thing I’ve found is that players can become too focused on looting, a problem that can be helped by not destroying items too quickly (thankfully my players are forgiving).

    All of this is ‘mileage may vary’ of course, but I hope it helps someone else. Great discussion in the comments!

    @Gargs I love the idea of skill use in battle! Though I tend to focus on items more myself, I do try to find ways to make the environment magical in both good and bad ways, mechanics being the easiest way to get that idea across to the players. Hope you don’t mind if I steal that circle of healing from you.

  33. This is certainly a flavor issue that has existed with particularly D&D since day one. Personally I don’t think inherent bonuses really solves it. It makes it so you can just do away with magic almost entirely, sure, but items will still be generally a pretty minor part of most characters mechanically.

    You just really have to make the items sexy from a story perspective. Weave legends around it, make it hard to get, make it an heirloom, weave plot hooks around it, etc. Upgrading items is a nice technique that I’ve used pretty effectively. Unlocking new powers, allowing ritual magic to boost the enchantment on an item instead of just giving out a new one, etc.

    Properly done this kind of stuff can let the PCs weave the item into the story of the character.

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  1. [...] Chris over at Critical Hits wrote a fantastic article about the philosophy of loot.  Or, in his words, “booty.”  Booty.  Hee [...]

  2. [...] your game, or looking for a way to better control them, I suggest you read the articles written by Chris Simms at Critical Hits and Sarah Darkmagic (check the comments for a post by Steve on this one:). To be [...]