As a DM, assembling treasure parcels ranks pretty high on my feels-like-work list. Giving PCs treasure should be a fun experience. The players’ eyes should light up as I tell them about items I handpicked that are perfect for their characters and, heck, even match nicely with the rest of their gear. Yet, it never seems to go that way. I spend most of the week working out the story elements and building an exciting and dangerous, yet balanced, encounter or two. By the time I get to treasure allocation, I’ve spent my creative energy and it’s usually less than an hour to game time. What the heck do I give them? In my rush, I usually don’t have their character sheets in front of me and I end up providing rods to orb users and strength-based weapons to the dex-based classes.
Enter wish lists. They solve a number of problems for me. Believe it or not, mind reading is not my forte. Sure, if I look really hard at their character sheets and squint in just the right way, the perfect magic item may come to mind. This assumes that I have an idea of what magic items are available or have the time to research them. Since I do so little on the player side and monsters don’t really use magic weapons in 4e, I don’t have an incentive to keep up to date on the latest dwarven smithing processes or elven handiwork.
Yet, in 4e, magic items are important. Unless I use inherent bonuses, the system assumes players receive new magic items as they level. The whole system gets quite complex. Which weapon proficiencies does his class have again? How does this item interact with his other items? I don’t find this level of research fun and I’m not invested in determining which weapons or armor they carry. With the big list of other things I need to plan, why not offload this research to the players?
So I ask players for wish lists. I make it clear that they won’t necessarily get what is on the list. Also, I find it useful to ask it in terms of their characters. For instance, I sent an email to my group with the following scenario. “Your character is walking down the street and passes a pawn shop with three items in the window at an incredible discount. Which items would your character love to see there?” By framing it in terms of the story and what their characters might like, it opens the door for players to provide a deeper meaning for the items rather than just picking the ones most optimized for their character.
Using Wish Lists
Once I have them, I use the wish lists in a number of ways. The most common one is to choose treasure directly from the list. The player will be happy and work is kept to a minimum. However, since the players often choose items without regard to the plot or story, the items may seem out of place in the game. Fixing this isn’t insurmountable. If the story is flexible enough, choose monsters and NPCs that make sense given the magic item. Or litter the dungeon with the bodies of dead adventurers who came before.
Other times I create random roll tables from them. One way is to concatenate the lists and roll randomly each time a magic item is given out. However, unless multiple party members can benefit from the same item, it is more difficult to ensure an even treasure distribution. To get around that, if one player keeps getting her items, the group could ask her to choose and they can redistribute amongst themselves or barter or sell to get an item someone else can use. Another method is to add additional items to each player’s list. Since most of the basics should be covered, concentrate on items that add to the game’s story, perhaps a set of magic keys or a map of unseen lands. Then next time I need to choose a magic item, I pick a player first and then roll to see which item she gets.
If choosing items from a list the players provide cedes too much power or interferes with enjoyment of the story too much, use the wish lists as a starting point for coming up with a custom list. While the wish list isn’t a requirement for this process, it can provide an idea of which items are important to the player. Get a sense of what about the item appeals to the player and find another item that could fill that niche while still fitting the story. If all of the items provide a fire keyword, I have a pretty good idea of how the player envisions his character.
No Wish Lists?
Wish lists aren’t for everyone. In those cases, the DM can make his job easier by keeping track of some information. Have each player maintain a list of proficiencies and current gear in a common place such as a group wiki. Do a defense audit to see the players’ weaknesses and pick some magic items to address the problem areas. Ask for a character concept from the player and look at their character sheet for recurring keywords.
If fitting the items into the overall story is important, give players plenty of opportunities to trade some of the gear they don’t want for items they do. Any time the desire to force a particular item on the group comes up, ask if the scenario is fun for the group. If the answer is no, rethink the reasoning behind awarding a particular magic item.
Sometimes a player or two just won’t fill out a wish list. They may lack access to the books and DDI or they may just be lazy. For the former, ask group members to bring in their books and schedule some time before or after the game for research or look through DDI with them to see if there are any items they want. If they just can’t be bothered, don’t take it out on their character by always giving substandard items, but don’t feel pressured to spend a ton of time on it either. Feel free to create lists for them or give them plenty of opportunities to swap out the items they don’t like. In a pinch, feel free to go with an upgrade to a weapon they are using or a standard magic item for the level or category, such as a +1 short sword.
Now that I’ve detailed some ways I approach awarding magic items in my game, how do you approach it? Do you use wish lists? Something else?