It’s Got Electrolytes

One problem I keep running into with my campaign is that I have tunnel vision. I see the story, I see the characters, I see the players, and I have a tendency not to think about the existence of other things without some effort. One major side effect of this is that we’re 5 sessions in and nobody has received any loot. Well, aside from some weapons I gave them identical to their normally equipped one, except made of pure light and with a +1 bonus. I’d always planned to give the party some sort of specialized magical means of fighting The Evil Dark Things, but this wound up being a last-minute afterthought when one player asked about the lack of loot. I was astounded at how boring a weapon made of light turned out. It’s easy to see I got out of it what I put in.

Problem Solved. Problem Acquired.

I know at least part of the problem stems from me internally labeling the non-RP stuff “boring” or “banal”. I think about all the items from random treasure tables my D&D groups have received over the years, all the grey and white “sell to the vendor” items in WoW, all the time spent looking these things up and figuring out where to store them or selling them off, and it just seems like work for no reason. (The only exception to this I can think of is the one time our DM determined that we found a rare painting on an Ettin we killed, and we collectively determined he’d been storing it in his butt.)

I made a conscious decision at the start of my campaign to handwave a lot of things I’d experienced previously that I thought were too little payoff for too much effort. “Junk” loot was one of these. Encumbrance (at least, measuring items down to the ounce or gp) was another. We have a relatively standard marching order and everyone knows who has what watch when they’re at camp. I also decided not to use XP to determine when the PCs leveled, instead resorting to milestones or “whenever I tell them to”. All these save us a lot of time. They do that particular job very well. Problem is, I’ve come to realize I’m neglecting two very important reward systems for my players: loot and XP. Not everybody craves only to drink roleplay straight from the tap like I do; in fact, I’d say I’m in a pretty small minority in that respect.

Lifting The Unintentional Sanctions

I’m still not entirely convinced I need to change how our group does XP. While computing XP after each battle (or session) gives an immediate sense of reward, it has some drawbacks. One is that doing it during the session is just going to eat up time and pretty much buzzkill the session while we do the accounting. I could have the XP to add to the total for each monster ready beforehand, but then there’s the potential of wasted effort if they don’t kill everything. Do I give those I thought contributed to the battle more a greater share? If the party splits and I have non-participants, do they get left behind? I want the whole party at the same level so they aren’t frustrated and I’m not dealing with forces I understand even less than the regular forces that I barely understand.

The Loot Problem seems a little less hard to define, at least on its surface. One problem I’m running into is that giving them loot that isn’t immediately useful in some way may be useless to them. I know the dread wizard Wal-Mart’s influence is felt throughout the Forgotten Realms, but something tells me there isn’t one in a pocket-prison dimension in the Shadowfell. At the very least, not a 24-hour Supercenter. If I give them money, I don’t know where or how they are going to spend it. I’d rather not load them up on stuff that won’t be useful, although giving them items that could be used together (rope, a series of lead pipes, explosives, strawberry jam, etc) might work out for some puzzles or roleplaying challenges. One thing my previous DMs were very good at that I need to start emulating was to give each player an item or two that had enough flavor that you cared about it. It was simply unique in some way, it had its own backstory, or it tied into a PC’s backstory. I still remember my cleric carrying around an ancestral flail given to him by his tribesmen, and favoring its use even over more powerful weapons. Some of that was my DM, some of that was me giving it personal meaning. That’s what I want to engender with the items I give out. I realize they won’t read each individual caltrop and iron ration a story before tucking them into their backpack every night, but I can do a lot better than this.

Time To Go All Wonka On Their Asses

Whatever I do, I want to make sure that my players get rewarded for their actions, and I want them to feel like the time they invest at my table is well-spent. This and “make combat faster plz kthx” has been the topic of most of the player feedback I’ve received thus far. If I ever want to get our RPG team to the later stages of Orming, I would be wise to attend to these needs. I’ll just add another title to my ever-growing list: “Garlukk: Demigod of Fun”, “Chickenmaster”, “Concierge Of The Bloodthirsty And Materialistic”, and now “Lootmaster Electrolyte XP”.

I’ve got what players crave. Or something.



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  1. Yeah managing loot sucks for the DM. In some respects, the wish list system helps with this but it also departs more than just a tad from the realm of realism. Then it gets worse when your players don’t even give you much of a hint as to what they want. Its always a tad disheartening (to me at least) when I come up with what seems like a good, useful, and interesting piece of loot and everyone at the table looks around and says “Uh, does anyone actually want this?” In one of my current campaigns, everyone in the party was wearing Deathcut Armor +1 for instance (characters were created at level 4). Well, when I started trying to hand out +2 armor, nobody wanted it because it wasn’t deathcut. The parcel system of course, makes it a rather lengthy process to give everyone Deathcut Armor +2, yet the system still assumes that everyone will get +2 armor pretty quickly after hitting level 6.

    It got to the point where I just started saying “Okay, you find a level 7 item.” because a) I had no idea what they wanted other than their current gear with an extra enhancement and b) I just had lost interest in trying to find something interesting. Loot became a grind in some respects. A mandatory part of the game that just didn’t add much flavor to it. Fortunately, in my other game I am correcting this and some of my players are far more invested in learning the stories and histories of the world etc. This of course goes back to your point about not everyone being as RP-oriented as others.

    As to the XP system, I actually don’t have a problem with simply telling them when they level. So long as there’s some sort of rhyme or reason as to when the level ups occur it works very well in 4ed and can be a good way to keep the pace of your game where you want it. Just make sure that the level-ups don’t feel arbitrary.

  2. Junk loot leaves me cold too; in fact, the whole loot system since 3e. And I -love- 4e, just not loot; not thinking about it, or planning it out, or awarding/receiving it.

    That’s particularly tough to balance if you’ve got a party (or even just one player) who loves to itemize his stuff, receive more stuff, and pursue the acquisition of additional, currently unacquired stuff. The solution I’m trying to run with is to award players a handwavey sort of “currency” that they can cash in for stuff in a direct narrative fashion: so while everyone has 50 progress points, one play spends 5 to get a +1 longsword by finding it on the corpse of a defeated foe, and another spends 2 to get a bag of healing potions from a kindly apothecary they save. It lets each player pursue the treasure at their own rate and in their own style, avoids giving me too much book-keeping, and ensures that the stuff they -do- get is ultimately considered as part of the story.

    ‘Course, figuring out how to balance the amount of currency I’m giving the characters, and the rate, and how it’s exchanged…no system is perfect!

  3. I’m not a fan of XP or loot; however, I have made loot a lot more fun for me in my campaigns and as a result, the players really like it to. Here’s what I did:

    1. Use inherent bonus system. In doing so, nobody has to be married to a particular set of armor, weapon, or neck slot item. You don’t have to worry about seeding “strange” weapons just so someone can have a magic scourge. “Uh, yeah, of course the dark wizard had a magic scourge on him that is just right for Jim’s character. Why *wouldn’t* he?”

    2. Reduce the number of items you hand out accordingly by taking the highest and lowest item out of the treasure parcel. Cut the money down as well – they really won’t need it.

    3. Make alchemical items, consumables, and potions available for sale and cheaper. In doing so, my players have an arsenal of potions and the like to call upon and it’s really very fun when they open up combat by “throwing grenades” before charging in. Making them more available allows the PCs to feel like they have some say in their magic inventory even if you’re running a low-magic world.

    4. Look to give out wondrous items first; if nothing sticks out, then look to the other slots. Wondrous items are cool. They aren’t immediately obvious and can often have a great backstory attached to them. Also, they don’t take up slots so they can often be great utility items that enhance roleplay. You don’t “need” that magical flint to start up a campfire, but you have no other daily magic items, so you may as well use it and play it up…

    5. Activated items (non-property stuff) should be tied to a skill. Screaming armor requires a moderate Intimidate check to activate. That magic holy symbol from the last trove needs a Religion check to make it work in combat. I have found that players don’t roll skills and that’s it – they will usually attach some roleplaying to it. So effectively, I’ve tricked them into taking what might otherwise be a fairly mundane item/effect and making it interesting through roleplaying.

    6. Finally, change the names of all the items to make them fit the story you’re in right now. I modified some Dust of Appearance recently to Ilya’s Cosmetic Powder. It works the same, requires a Perception check to use now, and has a little story surrounding it based on how the PCs got it.

    Anyway, make the magic items fun for you and they’ll no doubt be fun for them. However, if you’re going to limit magic items in your campaign, your players need to be aware of this before going in. It’s important to set expectations up front.

  4. wishlists

  5. Chris Haddad says:

    I know its lame, but in my 4e game I just had my players come across a magically filling mountain of random magical items (the narrative being that the items are being broken down to fuel a magically-run factor).

    I combined this room with a wishlists concept, and roll a percentile whenever a player asks “can I find X?” I’ll adjust on the fly, but figure the default is a 70% chance that the item is somewhere in the pile. This percentage will be higher for items that are below their level, and lower for items that are above their level.

    As for XP, I’ve gone both ways. I want my players to all be at the same level, so I just track and give out with each session.

    I just wrapped up a 3.5e game where the DM would track XP for the party, and every few sessions would bump us a level (or two or three…).

  6. I like the arbitrary leveling system. It allows me to set the pace a bit better, and I can better gauge what content I should be planning for down the line. I do have at least one player who prefers to receive a quantifiable exp every session though, so I use arbitrary exp. Essentially, it’s the exact same, I just assign some preset exp value to the adventure and then break it down however I wish if he wants that much detail. What he doesn’t know doesn’t hurt him. >.<

    I've always used the fairly standard currency system in my games. Lately, however, I've been debating trying a medieval fantasy game using something like the d20 Modern wealth system. I think it has some good potential, and will give more a bartering feel to transactions. And it will also benefit me as I won't have to worry as much about the usual suspects looting loin cloths off dead kobolds at level 10, because every copper counts.

  7. Because DDI and the online Character Builder allows for it, I wish Dragon would do a lot more “Bazaar of the Bizzare” and help us DMs out, by creating named items now and then, with a backstory, a picture of the item, and then install it in the Builder, where the player could get his cool new item click-installed on his character sheet. Install-able custom magic items.

    Btw – I have to ask…do any of you use many of the artifacts 4e in your games?

  8. Gargs454 says:

    @Greek George: In my homebrew campaign I have created an artifact that is based off of the Rod of Seven Parts, and the PCs have been looking for the missing shards of the artifacts. Its worked fairly well so far. In my SOW game, I just handed out the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd. Unfortunately, I’m sensing that the campaign may soon die out due to lack of interest, just one of those things that has happened, not really tied to any one thing in particular.

    Additionally for my homebrew game I am starting to work on a cross of standard magic items and artifacts. That is, creating items that improve as the game progresses. This is designed to a) provide more story for some of the items in the game and b) allow a player/PC to become attached to an item without having to let it go 5 levels later because it is no longer powerful enough. I’m using these items to help detail some of the world’s history to the players in a more flavorful way.

  9. It sounds like your DM approach (for rewards anyway) is similar to mine. Here’s what I’ve done to eliminate time wasting with XP rewards, but still keep the sense of a tangible benefit. I maintain a regular online campaign log, which I update with a summary of important story elements in the session. At the end of it, I list the XP rewarded, and each thing they did to earn it, which takes me four minutes tops with the handy use of a calculator. Then the players level up outside of play before they arrive on the day of the game, whether with the online CB or by hand.

    Here’s a link to an example log entry:

    The cool thing about listing why the PCs gained XP is that they get a sense of what sort of actions will be rewarded. This encourages roleplay, or whatever specific elements you’re looking to play up in your game. All of our discussions about leveling and out-of-story accounting happen through email chains and message boards.

    I keep a running XP total that applies to each member in the party, and they all split experience earned evenly, even the ones not present. That way everyone’s at the same level, even if something comes up and they can’t be there one week.

    I only give magic items that fit into the story, but I make sure that I find a way to fit some sort of magic item in every three or four sessions. It can be hard, but it’s really important to some players to have belongings in the story. If they sell it, I just choose not to be offended. Here’s a resource that’s saved my life for treasure parceling:

    I just reroll items on the quartermaster until it makes sense with the story or NPC that had it. You can always reskin stuff to have more story-appropriate loot too. Most of the time I keep my generated list around the table until they reach a place where there would be valuables, and I pick some things off the list. Works great.

  10. I actually have been using the normal XP rules in my 4e game, but I think I’m going to stop that when our game picks up again. I like the idea of being able to level at the end of the adventure, no matter how many battles and skill challenges it consisted of. It lets the DM plan encounters because they’re meaningful instead of filling the XP budget.

    Of course, using this loose leveling rule make 4e loot much harder to give out appropriately. Sticking to the original treasure parcels is much easier than the new treasure tables; just make sure you hand out all the remaining treasure parcels at the end of the adventure and then let the players level up.

    Determining the loot is still a problem for my group though. I don’t have your problem of wizard Wal-Mart; I actually like the idea of a high magic world, and in my campaigns you can find magic items in nearly every settlement unless there’s some story reason for there not to be. However, my players aren’t the kind who will search through the Adventurer’s Vaults looking for the perfect items for their build; they just take what I give them, occasionally saying something like “I think a fire sword would be cool for my character.” Even things like that I wish they’d do more often. Wishlists are not going to happen, so I have to go through the books and find items that would be interesting and useful myself.

  11. The wish list system is new to 4e, and it definitely creates this good yet also strange or bad collaborative + less realistic treasure system. It’s sort of a compromise in order for players to really enjoy finding certain magic items and creating less work for the DM. Like I said, it’s both good and bad.

    I find in general that we sacrifice too much realism in D&D 4e in the name of “fun” – and I’m no longer convinced that is indeed fun. Maybe some designers feel it is, but surely some don’t. To suggest we throw everything out and define fun where we expect the PCs to win and live through every situation like the contrived stories and challenges of WWE wrestlers, using kid gloves and pulling punches, and then win the lottery every time and get exactly what they want for treasure… at some point, it’s silly, not fun. And silly quickly turns to boring – for DMs and players.

    I’m also greatly disappointed with magic items in general – like powers, until very recently – they lack almost completely in flavor, description, backstory, history and lore. It’s hard to get excited by something that only reads “This weapon is feared by monsters for its sharp edge.” Are you freaking kidding me? Put the magic back in magic items!

  12. @Kilsek: I think you make some great points. I agree, although it’s worth bringing up that not every gaming group has story as the number one priority. Don’t get me wrong, I’m with you 100%. But I do have some friends who tend to enjoy the game as a mechanics system and strategic thinking outlet more than a narrative outlet, like I presume you and I do. People will use RPGs for whatever purpose they need, but it does seem that lately designers are leaning towards making a unified mechanics system over realism and narrative focus.