posted Tuesday, March 23rd 2010 by
Dungeon Mastering Advice
I’m playing in a Legend of Zelda themed D&D game where the DM is having trouble deciding what magic items to give out. It’s got me thinking on methods of handing out treasure.
In D&D third edition, it’s not so important for the DM to get the items right. Players can sell unwanted magic items for half price and buy the ones they want, so two wrongs make a right. Not everyone likes this approach: it leads to magic supermarket syndrome, vendor trash hoarding and poor realism. There are solutions to these problems, though.
You can’t hand out magic items carelessly in D&D fourth edition, since items sell for 20% of their buy price. This discourages trash item hoarding, but it means players have to sell five wrong items to make the one they want. You absolutely cannot drop items a player can’t use, even if it’s unrealistic that every major villain wields the same obscure polearm as the party’s fighter. Powergamers will also hate you when they need a certain peculiar item for their build and you pick treasure at random, because unlike an MMO you can’t grind for the item.
One approach is to hand out whatever items the players ask for, but this doesn’t sit right with me. There’s no narrative to that. It’s like writing a list to Santa and then being surprised when you get everything on the list (or disappointed when they don’t). My DM’s compromise, which I somewhat like, is to ask the players for a wish-list of items, then pick from a table of these items when it comes to placing treasure. However, that still makes it hard for powergamers to intentionally get particular items.
An alternative approach is to give out extra gold and gems, and allow the players a method to buy items. If the “magic item supermarket” doesn’t sit well with you as a DM, get creative: players can hire a magic item artificer, have a temple bless the item, seek out someone who owns the item and buy it from them.
Yet another method is to let players declare a quest for the item they want. This is a useful synergy of player and character motivation and it’s easily solved by putting their item at the end of whatever dungeon you already had planned. It also creates a convenient adventure hook, secures player motivation and generates enthusiasm.
My favourite method, however, is to allow players to craft items themselves. Price the item at the usual cost, and allow any character of the appropriate spellcasting class and level to create items. For extra flavour, hand out magic item components as treasure. Magic item components count toward a certain value when crafting a magic item and can be almost anything, so long as they’re rare and valuable: a rare mineral, the horns of a powerful creature, old broken magic items, the relics of a saint, or anything else you can think up. Don’t make players craft all their own items, however, or the players who don’t know what they want will be left bemuddled.