Magic Item Wishlists and You

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?


  1. I think the new treasure rarity rules introduced with Essentials takes the pressure off DMs at least a little bit. In the new rules, about 50% of the treasure is “common” which is usually just a magic weapon or armor that has no powers, or a similar “generic” magic item. So half the time you can just pick a weapon or armor the PC already uses and give them a magic version of it (or upgrade the one they are carrying).

    As a DM, I always want my players to get cool magic items that work well with their abilities, something to reward their play and let them be more awesome. In the past, I’ve been hesitant to include simple magic items because I felt like that was somehow short-changing them. But the new rules take away some of that pressure–I don’t have to feel guilty for giving them a +1 weapon because that’s what they *should* be getting half the time.

  2. I’ve been using wishlists since we switched to 4th Edition. With the sheer quantity of items, powers, feats and class builds it’s the only way to make sure you give players the items that work best for their characters.

    I’d much rather give them items they want rather then going through the boring task of selling a bunch of items they don’t want to buy items they do want. It’s made my games run more smoothly.

  3. Unfortunately, most of my players don’t do wish lists even when I ask them about it. So, for the most part, I try to find something cool to give them, as well as something that I think they can use. The problem with this approach though is of course that it can become difficult to maintain an equal distribution of loot among the party. I do; however, agree with the audit suggestion and I use it myself to try to see which character needs a new item, etc. Of course it becomes more troublesome when multiple characters use staves for instance, but oh well, you do what you can.

  4. Sarah Darkmagic says:

    So some people have pointed out elsewhere that they want something more organic, meaning it pulls them out of immersion to have a coveted item just appear in the middle of a dungeon. My answer to that is the concern has very little to do with wish lists themselves and rather is part of a larger debate on what sort of story to tell through the D&D game.

    Let’s be honest for a moment. For most magic items, it would seem strange for them to just be available anywhere. The corner store really shouldn’t be selling vorpal weapons regardless of where it is. It just doesn’t make sense. Yet even without wish lists, we do this in our games all the time.

    With wish lists, we can plan the story around the items. True, a wish list isn’t necessary for this, but it would be a lot more work without it. You can pick the item the player wants the most and build the adventure around it. Or use the lists to come up with adventure ideas where the items are more likely to make sense. If you are willing to be flexible in your story a bit, it becomes much easier to accommodate the players’ characters and their stories. And given that you are getting your inspiration from items they’ve explicitly said they wanted, I think it’ll be much easier to obtain player buy-in into the game and adventure. At least, that’s what I think.

  5. Good point Sarah. I think the biggest issue with regard to “it doesn’t make sense for this item to just be lying around” comes as much from a “Magic should be rare” sentiment as anything. I’ve never done it before, but I’m strongly considering making magic really rare in my next campaign and simply using the inherent bonus system. As Chris Sims pointed out in his article last week, for too many, magic items are basically mundane as they are seen as necessary tools rather than something cool and worthy of cherishing. To me, I have to admit that its weird when the level 3 party finds a +2 axe and the fighter asks “Can anyone use this?”

  6. To my mind, though the Common/Uncommon/Rare rules make sense generally, they have the opposite effect of what they should: they make it so most characters end up with lots of vanilla items, as those are the ones they can purchase or make for themselves.

    One thing that I see in the campaigns in which I play is that we basically never undertake a quest where the goal is to recover an item and keep it for ourselves. We are treasure hunters and dungeon raiders incidentally, at most. Is it just us, or has that become common? Is it a side effect of the system as it existed before the new rules came out?

  7. I’ll take a request for a specific item if offered, but that tends to not happen as often. My treasure parcels rarely contain actual magic items, instead utilizing components or add-ons to customize current mundane equipment. For example, my PCs came across a bunch of material that was going to be used to stitch together undead. If applied to their own body, it worked like a healing potion, but if applied to a piece of nonmetal armor it turned the armor into Delver’s Armor. The material could also be applied to another nonmetal object and be used as a scroll of Make Whole. I like combining two or three vaguely similarly themed items into a single “what the heck is THAT?” item and let my players decide what they find most useful or interesting.

  8. @Kato I agree, the new magic item rules should take a lot of pressure off of DMs. They should also make wish lists a little easier for players. They could concentrate on just 3-4 items per tier that are their version of special.

    @Michelle Yeah, I wish they didn’t call everything that wasn’t mundane, “magic.” On one hand, I understand how it streamlines things a bit to just have two general classes of items. But people get tripped up by the term and put a lot of emphasis on it. If we just called some of the more “vanilla” items master crafted or something, things would be a lot easier. The superior balance of the blade gives you an advantage when attacking making you both more likely to hit and to strike your mark well.

    @Ryven I’m a huge fan of just playing with stuff and inventing story for the mechanical elements in 4e. Not every group is going to love that, I realize, but I provide a lot of enjoyment from it. I haven’t used the potions idea but I may steal that for my game. 🙂

  9. Rare magic items should never be wishlisted, that’s stuff the GM should give out to fit the story. And honestly, some rares just scream obvious wishlist anyway. Paladins and Holy Avengers, for example.

    Common magic items would be, of course, common. Roaming caravan of traders may have a few. Your mage guild or alchemist businesses may have a few stock things. I mean, we got pharmacies IRL, and IRL we’ve had herbalists and apothecaries for centuries, so a Potion of Healing would be the D&D version of Pennicilin+Advil or something.

    How can one do Uncommons and wishlists? That’s easy. Instead of giving the wishlisted item all the time, like the dungeon was a shopping mall, give ‘some magic item that you can not use’ and when the PCs go back to town, have them trade theirs with another group of adventurers.

    Think about it. Your group of PCs can’t be the only adventurers in the world. And a group may not have use for their magic sword that your fighter would love, but they’d love the magic spear no one in your group can use. Bam, your two groups do a few trades, you chill out with people that can be your rivals, allies, enemies, people you heard rumors about, or people you’ll never see again. Either way, people get their wishlisted items and you get a lot of good RP done.

  10. Great post. I have mixed feelings about wishlists though as I have one player who gives me his and then expects these items in the next adventure. I think I need to explain treasure distribution to him 😉

    overall, though, it’s a good thing for the PCs to get magic items they’ll want to keep.

  11. I had some similar thoughts in my blog, “Can we get The Libram of Unambiguous Design… please?!” – I finally ended up asking my players this past week to create a list of top three personal/professional “goals” for their characters. For instance, a Cleric might state – “I want to be able to heal really well, smite demons as well as undead, and be able to find those demon worshiping slavers who killed my village when I was a boy.” So as a DM, you can start tailoring magic items to toss in that would meet those criteria – so for instance, I could decide that the character is doing ok at the moment in the healing department, but drop a “symbol of foe turning” to help him be more effective against demons, and a “crystal ball of spying” and a “consult mystic sages” ritual to assist the Cleric in finding clues to catch those evil slavers.

    So rather than being bound by a wish list, I have some latitude to decide what items I want in my campaign, while still fulfilling the desires of my Player Characters. I think that’s beats a wish list, and is a win-win for both the player and the DM.

  12. Dixon Trimline says:

    I adore the line at the very beginning, “feels-like-work list.” It sure does. So my solution, to the players’ frequent dismay / disgust, is to just about do away with magic items altogether. I hate the idea of my character being defined by his items, almost as much as I’d hate the idea as my own self being defined by the car I drove or house I lived in.

    If I could love up on Gamma World some more, I prefer its approach to Omega Tech, where you use it until it burns out and then toss it away. “Now, it’s garbage!”

  13. @Neuroglyph I read that article and I have the same reaction now that I did then. The only person who binds you to a wish list is yourself. Your solution, while great for some groups, does nothing to solve the problems I have. Truth is with all the other things I have to learn and plan, the task of researching which magic items are great for x or y scenario is pretty low on my priority list.

  14. Magic item allocation is one of the areas of the game I still think of in very anti-4e ways. I’m very much of the mindset:

    “That orc chieftan fights with a spear. So you find a +1 magic spear, not the +1 kukri you wanted.”

    Fortunately, this works for my player’s as well, and they seem to enjoy the world existing like that.


  1. […] | Subscribe Number of Views :1Tracy, or Sarah Darkmagic as she’s known, recently wrote an article for Critical Hits, in which she postulates giving players magical items based on a wishlist they compile. Now, […]

  2. […] Number of Views :2Yesterday, I posted up a response to Tracy’s post at Critical Hits about Magic Item Wishlists, and here was her response: “Well, one trick is to have that item be the reason why they go […]